Furlough Job #3: Niche Automotive Customizations

I’ll admit I’m disappointed. I’d hoped that we’d have word of some more promising therapies for COVID-19 by now. I’d hoped that cases would have decreased significantly because people chose to wear masks and/or just stay home (not because the government had to mandate it, but out of genuine concern for their fellow human beings. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these” and all….)

Instead, my home state of Florida is leading the charge in a resurgence of Coronavirus cases, and financial analysts are back to bearish on the airline industry. Go us!

In the meantime, I’ve been told that I’m getting displaced to our 7ER (combined 757/767) category starting in November. I’m actually very happy about the opportunity and expect I’ll get back to my cushy A220 Captain seat relatively quickly. Plus, I’m a lucky one…a couple thousand of the pilots at my company are now officially unassigned. They’re not part of any aircraft category and they can’t be used to fly. For now, this is a decent deal. They get 75-ish hours of B717 FO pay per month to grow beards and play golf without obligation to so much as answer their phones. Unfortunately, if things don’t look up by 1 October, they’re staring down the barrel of furloughs.

I still have some hope. Our company just announced an early retirement option for which nearly 8000 pilots are eligible. I think we’ll see a pretty decent number of takers, and that will wreak havoc on the displacement bid that just happened. I think the company may have to rethink things entirely. There’s a good chance that most of our pilots on unassigned status won’t get furloughed after the voluntary retirement stuff shakes out. (Fingers crossed.)

In the meantime, whether you’re unassigned, or just worried about furlough in general, there’s no time like now to start thinking about jobs you can do to support your family if your airline benches you. Thus far I’ve written about:

  1. Becoming a Designated Pilot Examiner for the FAA, and
  2. Starting an Etsy shop.

The job we’re looking at today, powder coating automotive parts like brake calipers, has similarities to running an Etsy shop. (In fact, Etsy might be a good place to advertise.) Customer interaction is 100% remote, it’s something you can get into with minimal expense and equipment, it’s something you absolutely have the capacity to learn, and you can fit the work in around time with your family and/or other jobs. However, the way I heard about it and the income potential made it stick out in my mind.

It’s time for: Story Time With Uncle Emet. Yay!

History

When my airline declared bankruptcy more than a decade ago, the top executives all had to testify in bankruptcy court. At the time, those execs had already slashed pilot pay by roughly 50%. They were also either taking or planning to take away the pilots’ pension.

During his testimony, one of the execs made a comment to the effect of, “I lose sleep at night worrying that I haven’t taken enough from our pilots.”

As you may expect, this exec’s comment did not go over well with the pilots. You may even take exception to such comments, over a decade later, even if you work somewhere else. (Let’s also take note that this exec is now one of the people described in an excellent post on Epsilon Theory as cashing in more than $75,000,000 in stock options in the years since he made that comment.)

I was under the impression that every pilot at my company was aware of that history. Even those of us who didn’t join the company until years later heard about it from our Captains within a few hours of our first flight on the line after OE. Discussing history like this is just part of working at any airline.

Now, in that context, I saw a surprising post on a Facebook group for our pilots the other day. A pilot named Mike Golding essentially asked, “I keep hearing about some quote attributed to [that exec]. I guess I was out of the loop at the time. What’s the quote?”

First off, how could any pilot at my company not know about this quote? Second, Mike is not some green new-hire FO. He was around during our last bankruptcy. The drama of pay cuts, a lost pension, and potential furloughs must have been weighing heavily on him right?

I wondered: what about Mike’s life at that time was so fulfilling or consuming that he didn’t feel the need to hang on every word of that era’s social media equivalent. I wondered what about his financial situation kept his family safe enough that he doesn’t rant and whine about it every chance he gets on our pilot group’s Facebook pages. So, I called him.

Controlling What You Can

It turns out that Mike was concerned about finances and furloughs when our company went bankrupt. However, instead of ignoring reality and continuing to spend like a moron, or crying about how unfair the world is, he decided to control what he could.

Mike has always been a “car guy” and owned a Corvette at the time. Corvette had started offering brake calipers in two colors: black and red. However, he figured that some owners might be interested in having calipers painted in custom colors. He knew the principles behind powder coating components, so he figured he’d try it out as a side-hustle.

This would look great with a Corvette. Now I just need to go buy one.

Mike figured if he could earn $1000 per month from this side-hustle, it’d go a long way toward keeping his family afloat. He nearly doubled that goal, bringing in $40,000 his first year. He recently closed his business to get more time for other things. That’s an impressive move considering he’d grown his business to a $140,000 per year enterprise! (Note that he made almost as much from his side-hustle as I made from my primary airline job that year.)

Mike got lucky. He ended up not getting furloughed. However, this side-hustle was a great offset to his 50% pay cut during the bad years. Once things picked back up, this income was just more Treasure for his Bathtub. As we’ll see, this business ended up being quite a bit of work, but it also gave Mike an excuse to spend time in the garage working on cars. He would have wanted to spend his free time doing that anyway. The fact that it was a business benefiting the family meant that it helped protect him from the honey-do list that has a way of eating up all of your free time anyway, if you let it.

With that, let’s look a bit more about the specifics of Mike’s powder coating business.

Business Model

In case you aren’t familiar, powder coating is a method of painting that makes it relatively easy to get a gorgeous, glossy, uniform coat of paint on a metal object of any shape. Unlike a regular paint sprayer, it even gets the paint uniformly into corners, holes, and other small features. You use a special gun to simultaneously impart an electrical charge on dry powdered paint while using compressed air to spray that charged powder onto a metal object.

Once the object is coated in powder, you place it in an oven and, for lack of a better word, cook it until the powder melts and cures. There’s a learning curve, as with all things, but it wouldn’t take a novice too long to produce gorgeous parts like this Ferrari brake caliper:

Here’s a good YouTube video explaining the process and equipment:

Powder Coating 101

Equipment Investment

Mike didn’t want to invest a ton of money into his business without knowing for sure that he could make a profit from it. He spent a couple hundred dollars on a spray gun, and he already had an air compressor to go with it.

He doesn’t have that gun anymore, but here’s a much fancier and more expensive model for context:

While plenty of companies will sell you a fancy oven for powder coating, Mike noted that a used household oven is more than enough to get started. If you want to get slightly fancier, there are plenty of YouTube videos showing how to build your own oven for less than $1,000. He eventually bought a professional 3’x3’x3’ oven for about $5,000, using profits from earlier sales.

Mike’s “fancy” oven.

Mike noted that you’ll need some kind of blasting cabinet…a box to put the part in while you spray it, unless you want powder all over your garage or shop. This is something you could make yourself at first, and upgrade as time goes on. That’s pretty much it. He says you can absolutely get into it for less than $3000.

Other than eventually taking a $20,000 loan to build a nice workshop in his backyard, his business was completely bootstrapped. He ended up with nice equipment, but always used profits from past sales to buy new toys. You don’t need to spend a fortune to get into a business like this.

Workflow

Mike said that one set of calipers takes about eight hours to complete, though not all of that is active work. You have to start by scrubbing the calipers clean. Then comes three coats of paint: a base coat, a candy color coat, adding any logos, and then a final clear coat. Each coat requires an hour in the oven, followed by some more time to cool-down, before moving to the next step.

Although eight hours sounds like a long time, he notes that he was able to do up to six sets of calipers at a time, which is actually pretty efficient. As long as you’re disciplined about setting alarms and staying on schedule, you could fit in plenty of other work or recreation between powder coating events.

He said there was a bit of a learning curve, and that after about a year he had a good system in place and a lot fewer do-overs. However, he was continuing to refine his process up to the very last day. (Sounds like landing most airplanes to me. It’s pretty easy to go from a controlled crash to something passable, but you could spend years perfecting your technique.)

Advertising

Mike was already a member of some Corvette enthusiast forums online. He paid to advertise on two of them, and orders started rolling in right away. All it took was a few happy customers and word started spreading like wildfire.

Although he started specifically with Corvettes, he started getting requests to paint brake calipers and components for other types of cars. He found out that sometimes a customer would sell his or her Corvette and buy a Subaru…or move up to a Lamborghini. That customer would naturally join forums for the new type of car, and there would invariably be posts asking for recommendations on getting brake calipers coated. Mike’s name immediately came up, and he acquired more customers with zero advertising.

I’ve always believed there’s a lot to be said for finding a need and putting out a great product, at the right price, with top-notch customer service.

Quality Control/Branding

Being familiar with car fanatics, Mike knew that his business would live or die based on personal recommendations. As such, he made sure his work was always top quality.

He made sure to turn around parts as fast as he could, while maintaining quality. Every once in a while, a small piece of paint would fail when a customer went to install the part. He’d fix the issue for free, knowing that his customer’s good will was far more important than the cost of fixing one part.

Mike shut down his business in part because it was just taking too much of his time. I asked if he’d considered hiring other people. He said that he tried it out once, but noticed that his employee’s quality just wasn’t up to his standards and decided to remain a one-man show. I think for him this was the right decision.

Have you ever noticed that when you do well at your job, you end up with increasing amounts of work? It’s both a blessing and a curse. That’s what happened here. Mike’s name became so well-known that he had a constant stream of work. Between his airline job and his side hustle, he ended up working 28-30 days per month. In 15 years of running his business, he estimates that there were only about 20 days where he didn’t have any work to do.

I’m not emphasizing those statistics to scare you off. I hope you’ll see how much opportunity there is for side-hustles like this. Furlough does not need to be the end of the world for any airline pilot. Mike’s income could support the average American family very well. If you add a military retirement, military reserve job, or flight instructing job to this side-hustle, you’d be even better off.

Practical Application

I’m not writing this to say that we should all try and replicate Mike’s business. (Although, there is now $140,000+ per year of demand not being met….) I want each member of The Pilot Network to realize that there are an endless number of ways to help support your family if you have to take an involuntary break from your airline pilot career. (And even if you don’t get furloughed, having a side-hustle like this can provide fun, security, and big financial benefits.)

What do you already enjoy that you could turn into a business? If you can’t come up with something, maybe you ought to think about learning to powder coat, or weld, or do woodworking, or something similar.

You can get into most of these types of businesses for a very small investment. A quick search of my local Craigslist revealed dozens of used ovens starting at $100. Harbor Freight has a starter-level powder-coating gun for $69, and a good-sized air compressor for $149. I’m sure I could find both of those components used on Craigslist, eBay, or similar websites for even less. Or, I could buy much nicer versions of each and still be well under Mike’s estimated $3,000 for startup costs.

Air compressor

Mike limited his advertising and chose to not hire other people in order to maintain quality standards. However, what if you decided to build a similar business into something bigger? It would take extra effort to find the right people and train them to work the way you want to. However, adding employees could allow you to fill orders without spending as much time in the shop yourself.

Mike would frequently get home from an airline trip to find six sets of calipers waiting for him. It was definitely taxing to be tired from your trip, yet feel a need to go right into the shop and start scrubbing with a toothbrush and Simple Green the moment you get home.

If I wanted to make a business like this capable of expanding, my first step would be hiring someone to open packages and clean the parts for me. It’s tough to mess up a part during this portion of the process, and it’s easy to ensure quality work.

Eventually, I’d want to hire someone capable of doing the powder coating process. Personally, I’d be every bit as worried about quality as Mike was. I’d hire, train, and fire as many people as it took to find the right one willing to do the work the way I wanted it. Once I’d found that person, I’d treat him or her like gold.

At that point, my main focus with the parts themselves would be quality assurance. I could package and ship the parts to the customers myself, or use my receiving and cleaning technician for that job as well.

How long would it take to package yesterday’s parts, unpack and clean today’s parts, and go online to tell the shipping company you have a pickup for them? An hour or two? I’m pretty sure I could find a local high school kid to do a great job at this for $25-50 per day.

Freed from the need to personally complete the work on each brake caliper, I’d focus some effort on advertising. I’d look for more groups of car nuts on Facebook and dedicated forum sites. I’d consider opening an Etsy store. I’d definitely hit car shows in my area with a stack of business cards and some samples of my work. If I’m a car fanatic, I’d probably love an excuse to attend these shows anyway. (I’d bring my kids because they love these types of things.) I’d at least search for car shows on airline layovers.

We could go on with advertising ideas all day. Marketing is an art unto itself, but it’d be fun to learn that art while moving parts in a business like this.

As long as I was able to maintain quality standards with these employees, I don’t see why I couldn’t increase the volume of my business through increased marketing efforts and word of mouth. If my current employees started getting overwhelmed, I’d find and train more people to help meet demand.

One of the great things about side-hustles is you can scale them as much or as little as you feel like. If you enjoy doing the work yourself and only want as much as you can fit in around another job, that’s fine. If you want to make it bigger, you’re free to pursue that as well. If you still have a regular flying job, there’s no need to feel forced to scale. However, if you can get good systems and processes in place, it may be doable.

Although you may elect to not scale your side-hustle right now, it’s a great hedge against furlough. If you suddenly find yourself without an excuse to go flying every day, you automatically have a bunch of free time you can put into your business. The key here is having the side-hustle in the first place. You don’t get to choose whether to scale or not if you haven’t even started the business.

Wrap-Up

I hope this post has given you some ideas. When I asked Mike if he had any parting shots for those worried about furlough he said, “Find something that interests you, then find a way to make money off it.” The process of making that happen won’t be entirely simple, but the concept is.

You don’t need to spend a fortune to get started in something like this. Mike suggested that you could absolutely get started in powder coating for under $3,000. Based on my searching so far, I absolutely agree.

Mike’s other big pieces of parting wisdom were to take any kind of work you can, and start that new job before you actually get furloughed, if possible. Some people might say that using a toothbrush to scrub dust and grime off brake components in your driveway is “beneath” a Captain at a legacy airline. I say that attitude is one of lazy entitlement that will doom you to a life of stress and regret.

Our industry is facing tough times for the next couple years, but there’s no reason for you to sweat your ability to take care of your family during that time. I sincerely hope that you don’t end up losing pay or getting furloughed. However, in case you do, go find a business like Mike’s and get started now. Find something you enjoy anyway, and find someone willing to pay you to do it. I promise those people are out there!

Good luck starting your side-hustles and furlough jobs. Let us know what you come up with. We’re looking forward to becoming your customers and helping you spread the word. If you’re lucky, you’ll be having so much fun running your own show that you won’t even notice the next time one of our execs catches a case of foot in mouth disease.

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