My Secrets to Turning My Hobby Job into a Success

The first year I went into business I got a good bit of negative feedback. People would say, “Good luck with that” or “Good luck with your business” and “People actually pay you to make clothing?” My favorite though, “If there’s ever a zombie apocalypse your skills will be valuable” Yep, someone said that in 2012!

This didn’t help my inner critic. Now, almost 10 years in as a small business owner, I wake up happy and motivated to start my day. I get to work and my first thoughts are how much I love my job, studio and customers. Nowadays people say, “You are so lucky you get to do what you love.” The sad news is it has very little to do with luck.

Tracy McElfresh-14

Admit Failure and Start Over

I know that for every goal I’ve made I’ve also had plenty of failures before finding that success. Have you heard of the iceberg analogy? People tend to only see the tip of the iceberg poking out of the water. That tip is your success. There is still an entire mountain of ice under the water that no one sees. This is the work it took to get to that success. Staying positive, not blaming others, calling the failures learning experiences and having a hardcore determination is key to my grit.

I always ask myself with every learning experience, “What did I do right?” and “How can I do this better?”

Tips that have Contributed to my Success

Under promise a due by date to customers and always strive to over deliver. One happy person can bring 12 more.

Being honest and doing the best job I can. I admit I do not know everything. If I am practicing on someone I let them know.

Constantly continue to educate in your field. Business audio books while working, crafting, driving and waiting are an easy way to learn about everything. Most are free at your library! (I have a list for you in my closure.)

Have deadlines and goals while providing a valuable service and a great product.

Answering my phone, emails and treating every person as if they are a gift. You would be surprised how many people say they chose my business because I was the first polite person to pick up my phone!

I get plenty of sleep. The more sleep I get, the better I feel, the more work I get done and the more money I make.

Knowing exactly what top priority level project I need to do the day before I do it. I go into work early with a list and a timeline that projects will be finished by. I do this by avoiding chit chat, staying off my phone and giving myself a finish line reward. Sometimes, the reward is coffee, food or for every five custom garments I make the public, I make one for myself.

Find your people, it’s the best feeling in the world to feel like you belong. This can be done by getting out, meeting new people, going to events of interest, social media, starting or joining a group, starting to blog and sharing things you love. Put yourself and your smile out there! A lot of people I know are from 10 years of doing art shows, craft events, working at Hancock Fabric for 8 years, teaching, volunteering and providing alterations. For every twenty things I post on social media I might have one that gets attention and it’s usually something I lovingly made. People just happened to see that one post through the algorithms and feel my love. (iceberg effect again)

Stay connected, try to get email contacts for a monthly news letter. Not everyone is on social media. Almost every time I have been asked to go on TV it was from someone who receives my newsletter.

Ask people how they found you to know what’s working and thank people when they have referred your services.

Have a lot of cheerleaders!

Ask customers, friends and family for honest feedback. “Did you see anything on my site, contract or page I was missing?” This is huge. Never be afraid to solicit free advice. I was told I had no page about alterations when that was my primary income and then when I got one it looked like I only did high-end dress alterations. These things were all easily fixed within minutes and I was thankful to know about it.

Having great communication skills leads to having a solid contract in writing for any services. It keeps both you and your customer on the same page on expectations, deadlines and fees.

Know that running a small business is like having an infant that constantly needs fed and nurtured. It can be stressful, hard work and problems popping up are a constant. Most problems cost you money, deal and move on.

Update all of your social media, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yelp, Google, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, Etsy and your website at least quarterly. You would be surprised how much change can happen in your business in that short amount of time.



A goal is just a wish if you have no strategy to get there. Start with writing a clear and concise goals list. Concise means writing down exactly what you want to accomplish. Have a date to hold yourself accountable and the steps you need to take to get you to the goal. It helps to make your goals list visible so you see them everyday.

My Goal Formula

1. I create a concise, realistic and positive goal.

2. Strategize on how I will obtain it.

3. List the steps to get me there. Break it down and make it simple.

4. Date I wish to reach each goal.

Here’s an example I wrote.

Instead of writing down that you want to learn to sew and become a famous designer when you have never sewn (unrealistic) consider writing that you will learn to sew this year. Strategies include starting to understand how your sewing machine works and practicing stitching. Make a list of classes, online video producers and local groups and match the list to your calendar. Don’t over commit in the beginning and you’ll be thankful later when you don’t get burnout. Create a realistic date for making your first simple project with the new skills acquired.

What a goal could have looked like when I first started my business,

I would like to make at least $100 a week sewing for people and by the end of 2009 be making $200 a week. I will do this by continuing to work my current full-time job and in my spare time I will work on my side hustle to turn it into a dream job. I will start getting to know my community, building my sewing community and start social networking with a page. To make money, I will hem pants for people, sell dresses I have made through online and local shops and sell vintage patterns. I will also start the process of learning to teach by taking classes and studying other teachers methods of sharing information. Grit side note, it took me until 2011 to sell my first dress, teach my first class and get my first dresses into a local shop.

Here is one of my goals now,

I do not write, “I want to make more money.” I would like to make the same amount of money in 2019 but not work as hard as I did in 2018. This will help me spend more time with my friends and family. I will do this by taking more formal high end projects and in turn take something that is not working for me off of my plate. I will advertise photos of high end alterations I have done in professional photos each month. I will study tailoring techniques by reading and/or watching videos about my profession. I will practice my skills everyday. I will look for a mentor that can guide me and answer my questions. I will add to my job description before wedding season of March 2019.

The Take Away

Remember, when you add a goal it takes time. You will often have to take something out of your schedule also because there are only so many hours in the day. Every year I quit something that doesn’t work for me.

Just a few of mine,

2007 I left 3 part time jobs for 1 day job. The job wasn’t great but it gave me more time to pursue the arts and family. The skills I took with me from all those jobs included knowing all about how a library works as well as knowing how a gift card rep orders and makes a planogram. I kept my seasonal job at Hancock Fabric to keep my discount, only working a few weekends during the holidays.

2009 I quit fine arts painting and sold all of my oil painting supplies to streamline my sewing skills. I took my love of color, composition and compassion with me.

2013 I gave up thrift store shopping and my vintage Etsy shop. I took all the knowledge I acquired from time period dresses, sizing, cuts, styles of garments, styles of glass and everything odd and old I learned with me. Now I had more time and less junk.

2014 I gave up sewing most big box and vintage patterns. Sew Dayton was selling tons of Indie patterns and an entire new set of rules applied to them. I took my knowledge of the new rules and applied them to teaching. I took my skills to a new level that year.

2015 I gave up sewing on printed clothes and materials. I called this the “solids challenge.” It was a way to focus on clean stitching lines in my garments. Solid cloth shows every mistake and imperfection. Prints that are heavy will hide your mistakes.

2016 I gave up what I originally thought was my dream of co-owning a shop and set off on my own adventure. Having a brick and mortar retail shop sounded glamorous and closing was one of the hardest things I’ve done. The future was uncertain. I replaced the retail effect of hours of sitting in that shop just waiting for customers with learning to write, making newsletters, showcasing my skills in more places and advertising my new business.

2017 I gave up half of my belongings. Carloads of books I read long ago, things that weren’t bringing me joy, things that cost a lot of money or were gifts that had no use. Shoes that didn’t fit. Garments I made that weren’t a good fit or color. Fabrics that were given to me and more. I took away the ability to say no, not to impulse buy and the wasted time of finding the free stuff I had taken a new home.

I gave up doing private sewing lessons to pursue classes in photography. I learned how to make my garments more dramatic for photographs.

2018, I gave up making things just to make them. I’m following my heart here. If it doesn’t feel right I am not making it. I’m not always successful at this.

I gave up feeling like my self-worth was somehow tied into how busy I was and quit making weekly events to feel important. I invested that time into four awesome quarterly classes that usually sell out because I am not spread as thin.


Tracy McElfresh

The year I learned heirloom sewing. Wouldn’t these hemstitches and pintucks look better on a solid material?


When I was a child, being impatient, my Grandma Norty used to say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” She’s right. I can’t possibly learn everything about a culture, a certain topic or technique in a week just by making a goals lists. I practiced swimwear and active wear for almost the entire year and I have not progressed to underwire or hardware yet. The more I learn, I realize, the less I know. It takes years of learning experiences to grow your skills and business. The best I can do is keep trying.

Here are some of my favorite business and motivational writers that I have listened to:

Anything by Brian Tracy, Carrie Kerpen in Work it Girl, anything Zig Ziggler, anything Napoleon Hill, The Best of Les Brown Audios Books, Attracting Terrific People By Lillian Glass, How to Listen so People Talk by Becky Harling, Sailing from Burnout to Bounty by Eileen Mcdargh, The Zen of Social Media Marketing by Shama Hyder, Starting the Writing Process by James Hayes, How to Talk to Anyone by Neil Lowndes, anything by Sam Bennet, Finding Your North Star by Martha Beck, anything by Dale Carnegie, Excuses be Gone by Dr. Wayne Dyer, The Year of Less by Cait Flanders, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Feriss, Smart Talk by Lisa B. Marshall, Lighten Up by Peter Walsh, The Cowards Guide to Conflict by Timothy Usiny and You are a Baddass by Jen Sincero.

Can you add to my list?

Professional photos by Robert Parkey III and the model is the lovely Gwen Vo

Thank you for reading,

Tracy McElfresh

Dream it! Sew it!


Tracy McElfresh
Latest posts by Tracy McElfresh (see all)