2018-01-14 / Insight

Imlay City woodworker epitomizes ‘side hustle’

BY ANDREW DIETDERICH
810-452-2609 • adietderich@mihomepaper.com


Rick Thompson, owner of Thompson Heritage Woodworking, highlights the raised lettering on the base of a table a customer ordered through his Etsy shop. 
Photos by Andrew Dietderich Rick Thompson, owner of Thompson Heritage Woodworking, highlights the raised lettering on the base of a table a customer ordered through his Etsy shop. Photos by Andrew Dietderich IMLAY CITY — When Rick Thompson built a wooden cradle nine years ago, he sought to make something special for his newborn nephew.

It ended up being special in more than one way.

For Thompson, 37, of Imlay City, it served as a reminder of just how much he loved woodworking — how rewarding it was for him.

He started doing it more around the house. Then he branched out to projects for family and friends. Today, he runs a successful part-time business — aka “side hustle” — called Thompson Heritage Woodworking.

He is one of an estimated 44 million Americans who now have a side hustle.

“Any small business owner probably dreams of (doing it full-time) as a possibility,” said Thompson, whose full-time day job is working as a propane service technician at Al Parsch Oil & Propane Co.


A finished vintage Singer sewing machine treadle table with oak hardwood top made by Imlay City’s Thompson Heritage Woodworking. 
Submitted photo A finished vintage Singer sewing machine treadle table with oak hardwood top made by Imlay City’s Thompson Heritage Woodworking. Submitted photo In the last two years, Thompson has sold more than 70 custom tables made from cast-iron bases originally on Singer brand treadle sewing machines with wooden tops milled in his shop. At press time, he has three of the tables listed on Etsy, ranging from $360 to $400.

“It’s relaxing and it allows you to structure a lifestyle that’s conducive to a family,” he said. “That was real important to my wife and I and that was one of the real driving forces behind starting the business…being able to supplement my income and use my gifts to help my family.”

Back in the olden days — like in 2014 — ventures like Thompson’s were deemed a part of the so-called “on-demand economy.” Within the last three years, the technical (i.e. boring) name fell a bit out of favor, replaced with the more flashy “side hustle” nomenclature.


Rick Thompson said that attention to detail is key to a successful “side hustle.” 
Photo by Andrew Dietderich Rick Thompson said that attention to detail is key to a successful “side hustle.” Photo by Andrew Dietderich Side Hustle Nation (sidehustlenation.com) defines a “side hustle” as “something you do to earn money outside a traditional job.” It clarifies that “hustle” is used in its positive connotation, as in, “He’s not the biggest guy on the (basketball) court, but he sure shows a lot of hustle.”

According to a mid-2017 study by Bankrate.com, 44 million Americans report having a side hustle.

Of those, 86 percent do it at least monthly and 36 percent of those earn more than an additional $500 a month via side hustle. Other findings from the survey include:

• Millennials, as a whole (ages 18-36), typically earn less from their secondary source of income than older generations; only 19 percent with a monthly side hustle earn more than $500 per month, compared to 50 percent of those who are older.

• Younger Baby Boomers (ages 53-62) are the most likely age group to pull in at least an extra $1,000 per month.

Of those who earn money on the side, the majority (54 percent) use the extra cash to help pay for expenses, rather than as disposable income for other things.

• About 7 in 10 women (69 percent) say they use the extra money from a side hustle to help pay expenses, compared to less than half of men who do the same (42 percent).

• Democrats and Independents are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to use the additional cash to pay for expenses (60 percent to 32 percent).

“A side hustle can be a great way to help pay the bills or pad your savings account on your own schedule,” said Sarah Berger, The Cashlorette at Bankrate.com. “It’s important to be smart about any extra income you earn. Pay down debt and take care of your monthly expenses first before adding anything to your shopping cart.”

Technology has cleared the way for the industry to grow.

People can sign-up to provide services like dog-walking and lawn mowing through websites like moonlighting.com. Of course, there are ride-share businesses like Uber and Lyft (where available) that largely rely on apps and smartphones.

Further, there are a growing number of app-based options like Poshmark (the largest online fashion marketplace), VarageSale, OfferUp, LetGo, and Shpock that make it easy to sell just about anything online — kind of like having a perpetual garage/estate sale. Or craft show. Or farmers market.

Of course, there are the classics: eBay and Etsy, an e-commerce website focused on handmade or vintage items and supplies. People can make online “stores” like that of Thompson Heritage Woodworking at tinyurl.com/thompsonww.

Whatever the marketing channel, or channels, a common thread exists for many: a side hustle offers a way to turn a passion into a profit.

Thompson, for example, recalled his father “built furniture and did small woodworking projects around the house.”

“It was something I was always interested in and somewhat involved in,” Thompson said, noting that he always found woodworking fulfilling and relaxing.

However, as baseball media relations manager with the Detroit Tigers for 13 years, he didn’t have a lot of time to do woodworking.

“It was a wonderful job — a dream job — but it was also one where I worked 80 hours a week and travelled a lot,” Thompson said. “So the woodworking just kind of fit in some during the wintertime and that was about it.”

Thompson and his wife, Michon, eventually relocated to Imlay City. For several years, he commuted to Detroit regularly.

They had two children, Claribel, who is now 6, and Will, 4.

“After the kids were born, I wanted to have the opportunity to stay home more, be around while they are growing up and participate in their events,” he said. “Take time off to go to the dance recitals and all of the other things the kids have.”

In 2013, Thompson traded his job with the Tigers for what he calls a “normal 40 to 50-hour-aweek job.” With his own shop just a few footsteps away, he could also work on building his woodworking business in the evenings — or go to events like those dance recitals.

He admits it took some time for Thomas Heritage Woodworking to gain traction.

He launched on Etsy around Christmas 2013, but it wasn’t until early 2016 when what has become his niche — the custom-built tables — started selling.

“Our most successful years on there have been the last two,” he said, noting a small amount of business has been generated via the Thompson Heritage Woodworking Facebook page.

Today, Thompson proudly talks about how his tables have been sent to 41 states. He says they seem to be especially popular in places like New York and California.

He is constantly on the lookout for the Singer sewing tables to strip down and rebuild (they date back to the late 1800s). He has “buyers” who know he’s the one that will pay them a set price for the tables.

His shop has a room of neatly stacked cast iron bases awaiting prep for future orders.

Thompson said they recently even had to scale back his Etsy shop “because it was getting harder to keep up.”

“I left a job where I was working 80 hours a week so I could spent time with my family,” he said. “If I have to be out here every night that’s probably not going to work.”

So why not give it a go fulltime?

Largely, he says, there remains more security in his day job.

“Especially selling furniture and items like that…custom items like that can be viewed as luxury items, and therefore are tied closely to the health of the economy,” he said. “So lately it’s been pretty good and hopefully it continues that way.

“We’re just going to have to play it by ear, keep working hard, putting out good pieces, and keeping customers happy,” he said. “We’ll see where it goes from there.”

Tips for a side hustle

Imlay City resident Rick Thompson works full-time during the day at Al Parsch Oil & Propane Co. He also runs a successful “side hustle” called Thompson Heritage Woodworking. He offers the following tips for those considering their own “side hustle:”

• Be unique: Thompson suggests coming up “with an angle maybe somebody else isn’t doing.”

• Use your talents: Thompson, for example, said he enjoys woodworking and is “mechanically minded”

• Presentation is everything: Thompson said taking good pictures of what you’re trying to sell online can make all the difference for potential buyers

• Don’t limit your sales channel: Use tools such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, to cast the biggest possible net

• Customer service: Communication is key, Thompson said, especially when selling custom items and people are used to dealing with large companies like Amazon. That means making sure they know when to expect items and how securely they will be packed and shipped.

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