Diversify, DIY, or die

Pub date January 14, 2009
WriterKatie Baker

› culture@sfbg.com

You never thought your innate talent for margarita mixing or jewelry design would get you very far, so you went to business school, or got into publishing. Soon, you were working your way up in a dependable industry, the sort guaranteed to provide you with a secure income.

Then the financial crisis hit.

This November alone, in the biggest one-month drop in US payrolls since 1974, employers cut 533,000 jobs. Seemingly invincible corporations like AT&T and Citigroup have laid off thousands of employees, and many jobs once coveted for the security they provided are now as unpredictable as Bay Bridge traffic.

It’s time to look up your secret margarita mix recipe. In order to survive the recession, Bay Area residents are rediscovering their old talents and secret passions. Got an eye for detail? Help people perfect their résumés. Speak three languages? Tutor someone preparing to study abroad. Whether you’re recently laid off or simply nervous about the prospect, this type of diversification can provide relief in a time when reliable jobs are scarce.

If you’re unsure how to market your skills, take some advice from Allan Brown, who may be the poster boy for career diversification.

Brown, a "senior level marketing guy by trade," is currently the director of marketing for a publishing services company. In addition, he runs a résumé and cover-letter business out of his home, as well as a private bartending service.

After being let go from a publishing company a few years ago, Brown searched for a way to make some extra income while looking for a new job. He remembered how his father used to help the neighborhood kids write résumés, and thought he might have a knack for it, so he posted some ads online. "I thought, maybe I’ll make a few bucks," Brown told the Guardian. "Instead, I made a lifestyle change without even realizing it."

His customers were so impressed by this work that they referred him to their friends, and it wasn’t long until his endeavor developed into a rather lucrative enterprise, one he doesn’t even feel comfortable calling a "side business" since it brings in so much income. Once his résumé-writing business took off, he started a private bartending service, which he does "for a little extra money" as well as for fun.

"All you have to do is think outside the box," Brown told the Guardian. "In hard times like these, people don’t want to — or can’t — work in an office. So what if the industry is dried up? Think of what else you have to offer."

Brown believes that by taking in internal revenue that has nothing to do with the corporate office, people can develop their own kind of job security, even in times like these.

He’s one of the few people who are currently optimistic about their own financial state. "I feel I’m diversified enough to withstand the tide," he says. He admits holding three jobs is "a juggling act, to say the least" — still, in this economy, it’s better to have too many jobs than none at all.

The crucial tip for diversification, Brown says, is Craigslist.org, the online listings community to which he says he is "forever indebted."

"Twenty years ago, people with my type of skills found it very hard to make a living because it was hard to let people know about them. The only thing we had were classified ads. Now, we have Craigslist, and it’s a wonderful tool."

Peruse Craigslist.org and it’s clear that many others are following in Brown’s footsteps. "Need a Latin quote or love poem deciphered? Possum te adjuvare [I can help]," writes John Sullivan. "I got my BA in English literature by writing papers on books and plays I’d never read while paying my rent on papers that I was writing on subjects about which I knew little to nothing," boasts John Dillion.

"No matter if you want to sell stained glass sculptures or quilts, there’s someone out there on Craigslist who’s interested," Brown adds. "If you know how to market and make a good product, it will sell."

Lysa Aurora knows what Brown says is true from firsthand experience.

Aurora also juggles jobs: she works part-time for a nonprofit and as a marine biologist lab manager. While she enjoys her work at both places, her true passion lies in hat design.

"There’s a buyer for everything — even for my hats!" Aurora says.

Aurora, who calls herself "a Renaissance woman … the kind who only needs a glass of water and a broom to work my way to the top," decided to try her hand at hat design because she wasn’t working full time and wanted some extra money. Now, she’s the founder of De La Lucha Designs and sells her hats at stores around the Bay Area. Her side business helps her make rent, but it’s also her dream — and something she may not have pursued if she had a more stable job: "These are hard times and [my hat company] directly translates from the struggle. Through the ugliest of situations, we find ourselves."

It’s not only current members of the work force who are diversifying. Soon-to-be college graduates, like Connie Wang, are frightened by the state of the economy and taking precautions to make sure they’ll be able to get by until the market gets better. Wang has always longed to be a fashion journalist, but admits that in times like these, "knowing about the latest runway trends and what the editor-in-chief of Vogue is doing is kind of nonessential. I’m still trying to build up my résumé with internships before I graduate in May, but print clips don’t exactly pay the bills."

In order to make money while still doing what she loves, Connie started her own fashion blog, www.prettylegit.blogspot.com, where she posts about trends and writes product reviews. As her site gained more popularity, companies began sending her free products in exchange for write-ups.

"Unfortunately, what interests me more than honest-to-blog fashion reporting is not starving, so there have been a couple times where I’ve found myself reviewing products that didn’t exactly fit in with my readers for a little extra cash," she says. For example, she was just sent a new Google phone — trendy, but not exactly wearable. Wang does have limits — once, she was sent a set of "fancy douches," which she chose to disregard. "If I get sent something that is completely irrelevant and/or offensive, I won’t write about it. I’m not evil, I’m just poor."

Wang says she feels more confident graduating this spring with a steady, albeit small, stream of income — as well as an online portfolio and an abundance of free goods.

If you can’t find your inner blogger or designer, you could always try growing out your hair. "The economic situation has resulted in a substantial increase of users on our site," says Jacalyn Elise, the executive partner of www.hairtrader.com, which is essentially a hair-specific version of eBay.com. "Predominately, the people who visit our site seem to be those who were going to donate their hair to groups like Locks of Love, but now they’re in a financial bind, lost their job, need money to help pay the rent … selling hair helps."

Elise started the Web site a few years ago to help a friend who needed some extra money and had 12 inches of hair to spare. Soon, more and more people were contacting her to ask if they could participate. The site allows people to sell straight to buyers rather than going through a salon. Interested parties — whether wig makers or, yes, hair fetishists — browse through ads with frequently laughable sexual connotations, such as "20+ inches virgin uncut Asian hair: asking for at least $1,000." Jaclyn says site traffic has increased 40 percent since the Dow first plummeted in September 2008.

An Oakland resident and www.hairtrader.com user who prefers to remain anonymous says she is slightly embarrassed that she sold her hair instead of donating it. "But, I have to pay my bills — and I got over $500 for the hair I’ve had on my head for years."

It’s hard to keep a positive financial outlook these days. But sometimes — as these Bay Area residents discovered — it takes a layoff or a similar struggle to get out of one’s comfort zone and take a chance on change.