Furlough Job #2: Etsy Shop Owner

I’m getting closer to the day when I find out what I’ll be flying after Coronavirus displaces me from my cushy A220 Captain seat. In hopes of helping keep us all sane, I’m continuing my series on options for jobs most or all of us could do if we end up furloughed in the relatively near future. If you haven’t already, go check out Job #1: FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE).

Today, we’re going to look at becoming an Etsy Shop Owner. More generally though this means: are you capable of cheaply making something for which other people will pay a lot of money?

This post is inspired by my old flying buddy Jeff, aka: Half Pint. I first wrote about his exploits as a bespoke manufacturing guru in my article about side hustles. He started making speaker boxes for wakeboarding boats, cars, and other vehicles. He put out better quality than big-name companies, yet charged much less while still making money. He started selling his wares on eBay and was bombarded with so much demand that he ended up stepping away to keep it from taking over his life.

Then, a few weeks ago, a friend of his bought something like this on eBay for a similar price:

This may be the upper end of the target price range. However, you can make a big profit even if your sale price falls well short.

Half Pint thought it was awesome and peeked inside to see how it was made. It turns out that the whole thing is run with a $45 computer not much bigger than a credit card called a Raspberry Pi.

Half Pint thought to himself, “I bet I could build one of these for just a couple hundred bucks.”

He’d somehow managed to complete his honey-do list, and was getting bored not flying while locked in his house. He did his research, did some shopping, and got to work.

Not only is the Raspberry Pi a cheap and capable computer, the internet has provided a solution for this gaming cabinet that requires no programming know-how on your part. A free project called RetroPie lets you download the code for hundreds of games for free.

(If you need more help than you can find on the RetroPie website, YouTube is chocked full of installation how-to videos like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrliYAyL8Ts.)

With the computer and software solved in about 15 minutes, it was time to get a TV or computer monitor. Half Pint happened to have an old one lying around not being used. However, a quick search of eBay showed me hundreds of options under $50. I imagine a local thrift or pawn shop would provide similar results. My neighborhood Facebook page often has monitors available for free.

Use a regular monitor or TV from eBay, Craigslist, a thrift shop, or your local Facebook Marketplace. Just plug all the plugs in where they fit. Yes, it’s that easy.

Half Pint bought a fancy set of buttons and joysticks for a whopping $35, some plexiglass to go in front of the TV screen, some cheap computer speakers (another good thrift shop option,) and two sheets of 1/2” MDF.

Fancy controls are just plug-and-play. Not bad for $35!

With all his materials procured, all it took was a little work in the shop and he was set. Modern technology has made this so simple that anyone smart enough to be a pilot is capable of doing this. It’s a matter of downloading a file onto an SD card, plugging that into the Raspberry PI computer, plugging in a bunch of other power/monitor/USB cables, and assembling a wooden box.

Yes, that’s a $45 computer running everything.

(Admit it, you’d love an excuse to go build something in your garage instead of knocking out another task on the honey-do list!) If you don’t feel confident in your ability to complete the fabrication and assembly of this task, YouTube is full of videos that walk you through every step.

I don’t know about you, but I think the finished product is pretty impressive:

The finished product. Hundreds of games and hours of quality family time.

Here’s the summary of materials for this project:

  • 1/2″ MDF 4’x8′ 2 sheets – $50
  • Acrylic plexiglass – $30
  • RaspberryPi computer – $45
  • Buttons/joystick – $35
  • 24″ wide TV or monitor – $20 (thrift store)
  • Desktop computer speakers – $15

Total cost: $195.

Half Pint’s friend had paid more than $1000 for an equivalent console. Even if you could only sell one of these for $800, with a little practice that could pay you an effective wage of $100/hr. That’s better than first year pay at most major airlines.

Half Pint admits that his project isn’t as polished as something you’d get in a store. However, with a little practice and a little extra attention paid to a consumer-focused project, he could definitely get the quality where it needs to be without much extra effort or cost.

I say that a furloughed pilot could make this into a serious business by taking the time to build some templates for the major pieces. This would allow you to make the same cuts of your wood without having to measure every time. It would also make low-rate mass production very easy. You could do the same cuts over and over again for 5 or 10 cabinets at a time. This both speeds up the process and improves quality.

You have time to set all that up later though. At first, all you need is one completed cabinet. Take some pictures. Hire some attractive friends to let you take pictures/videos while they enjoy playing it, and you can start advertising. I’d set up an account to offer these on eBay, and start listing them for sale on my local Craigslist and Facebook marketplace.

I’d also set up a shop for these on Etsy. A quick search of that marketplace shows some competition already in place. However, it also shows a market price of about $995 for one of these cabinets. That’s a lot of potential profit!

Setting up an Etsy shop is only slightly more involved than setting up an account on any other website these days. You’ll need to put (real) contact information, some bank information so they can pay you, and some tax information because Uncle Sam has to take his cut. Once your account is up, you can start posting items and selling. There are lots of blogs and podcasts about how to make your shop more stand out and attract customers, but just having some items there to sell is the most important part.

Beyond Arcade Cabinets

Etsy (and these other marketplaces) exist to allow individuals like you and me to reach a wide customer pool to sell things we’re uniquely capable of making. If nothing else, take 30 minutes to browse around the website and look at the projects there. I guarantee you’ll see things you’re capable of making at home and selling for a profit.

I once asked my wife about potential birthday presents for her, and she replied that she wanted some hexagonal shelves like these:

Yours on Etsy for just $50.

This set of 3 shelves with almost no finishing starts at $50 on Etsy. I went out to the garage, set my saw to cut at a 60 degree angle, grabbed some scrap wood, and made a shelf in about 20 minutes. If I developed some templates and a system, I’m sure I could get that down to about 5 minutes per shelf.

There’s no shortage of suppliers for these items on Etsy, but that also means there’s significant demand for such things. I wouldn’t choose to compete with this specific product, but what variation could you do on that theme to easily make some money?

I believe there is no shortage of demand in our world for creative items. Case in point? An enterprising individual once sold a suit of guinea pig armor for $24,300 on eBay:

Your first reaction is that someone had a lot of time on his or her hands. If you get furloughed, will you have less time?

You Are More Than a Pilot

I love to this joke:

What’s the difference between a pilot and God?

God doesn’t think he’s a pilot.

We get very wrapped up in our identities as aviators. We tend to look down upon most other professions because they don’t fly. Knowing how much money we can make flying for a major airline, we’re tempted to scoff at any job that pays less. Since those other jobs don’t pay as much as major airline pilot, we tend to think that anything less than flying a big jet is a bad/useless job.

Somehow, we end up thinking that we’re incapable of doing those jobs. This is a mistake though. It’s not that we lack the skills, it’s that we lack the desire to work for less money. In an ideal world, we get to choose. However, in the market downturns that happen every 5-7 years on average, we don’t always have that luxury.

I think the best thing a pilot facing furlough can do is to get over himself or herself.

Unless you’re the most boring person in the world, you have lots of valuable skills that could be put to work supporting your family. Instead of spending time worrying about your future, or debating your future in comment threads on Facebook, go think about some skills you could put to use.

These don’t have to be forever jobs, and the pay doesn’t have to equate to major airline pay to make them worthwhile. They’re just side-hustles you can use to keep some money coming in while times are tough.

However, if you’re smart about how you set things up, you might eventually be able to expand. You’ll be able to hire and train people to do the hard work, leaving you to manage and advertise your wares. I know many very happy airline pilots who did just fine through past furloughs, and now have thriving businesses as side-hustles because they spent their time finding ways to be productive.

Don’t be afraid to look beyond the familiar and mundane (driving a glorified bus around the sky) to consider some ways you can support your family if your primary job gets put on hold for a while.

If you can make something for which other people will pay good money, places like Etsy, eBay and Craigslist give you access to thousands of customers for almost no cost. I think Half Pint and I may both narrowly avoid any potential furloughs. However, if either of us gets tagged, I know we’ll both be okay. We are both capable of making things others want to buy. Give yourself some peace of mind and ask whether you have the skills to do something like this too.

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