Thursday, April 9, 2015

Is it Wrong to Profit From Your Hobby?

Back in February, Andrew Skurka published a post titled “Is it wrong to “profit” from your passion? Not at all.” I stumbled across the article a few days ago, and wanted to address the topic as I find it interesting, particularly when it comes to outdoor pursuits, i.e. backpacking, hunting, bushcraft, etc.

show-me-the-money

For me this is a tricky subject. On one hand, the answer is clearly “Not at all”. Why shouldn’t someone make a living doing what they love?! Isn’t that what we all strive to do? On the other hand however, many of us, me included, have a negative gut reaction when we see someone whose posts we have been reading for years, start to sell gear or push certain items.

I personally think that this discomfort with people profiting from their hobby occurs only in a certain context, particularly when we feel that something has been taken from us. What has been taken from us? Well, in certain cases, it’s the objectivity and independent advise of someone who we respect and whose opinion we value. That is why we see this negative feeling show itself when someone who for years has been providing free information and advice all of a sudden starts being paid for the same thing.

No one seems to get upset when people run a business that is clearly a business, even if it is based on their hobby. Look at companies like Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Stone Glacier, etc. The negative feeling about people profiting from their hobby usually comes when we look at enterprises that operate more in a gray area. Often it relates to people who have been bloggers or independent writers, who then start receiving compensation from companies for what they do, or start to sell gear.

Why is that? As I mentioned before, I believe the difference is that in one case we simply see a regular business where the owner likes his job, while in the other case we see a business diminishing the objectivity of someone whose independent opinion we have valued over the years.

When we look at Hyperlite Mountain Gear for example, we have no doubt in our mind that it is a business and that what we see on the company’s page is there for promotional purposes so they can sell gear. It is a good company, run by great guys, who love what they do and make good gear. But that’s all there is to it. We know what to expect, and we expect a business.

In other situations however, it is unclear if what we are seeing is a product of a business decision or simply valuable advice given by an individual who used to give advice objectively, without compensation. The typical example is someone who has been running a personal blog or YouTube channel for a while, where they give advise, review gear, etc. All of a sudden, they start selling gear, or start receiving sponsorships from certain companies. It is in these situations that I believe people may rightly dislike that someone has started making money from their hobby. The reason being the loss of objectivity which we have come to expect and value from that person. Is the item he is selling the best one available, or is it the one on which he has the highest profit margin? Is the kit the person promoting in his review what he really thinks is the best option, or is it just done to boost sales? Did the item get a positive review because it is good, or was it because the reviewer is now being paid by the company, or hoping to receive more free merchandise?  

The answers of course will to some degree depend on the individual in question. Some are more honorable than others. However, money has a way of corrupting no matter how much we fight it. Would you bite the hand that feeds you? Would you honestly give a negative review of the merchandise of one of your major sponsors? Would you do it if your next mortgage payment depended on the paycheck they give you? I bet that the more we need that money, the more of a gray area will develop when it comes to what items we are wiling to endorse.

Again, that is not much of an issue when it comes to businesses that are clearly nothing more than businesses. I don’t expect a spokesman for MSR to speak poorly of MSR gear. We know what we are seeing and we know how to filter it. The issue arises with people who we have been following for years, who have been giving honest and valued advice. When such people start making money from the same thing, we feel uneasy about it because we don’t know if we can trust what they say any longer, and more importantly we feel the loss of a valued advisor.  

That is why we usually see this dissatisfaction when it comes to people who transition from doing something as a hobby to doing it as a business. We see it much more rarely, if ever, when it comes to people who have been doing something as a business from the start, no matter if they enjoy the job.

From a personal stand point, as someone who has been approached to promote gear and enter into paid arrangements with companies, I can tell you, you immediately have to start compromising your objectivity if you want to keep getting paid. People will make that absolutely clear to you. A cheap piece of garbage quickly becomes a “great value based option”; a useless gimmick becomes “the perfect tool for specific tasks”; a subpar tool becomes “a greatly improved offering from a growing company”. I’ve seen this directly, and I’ve been given advise by people who run such sites and channels that this is what I should do. There is no way around it if you want to stay in the game, not to mention if you want to make a living from it.

So, is it wrong to profit from your hobby? In many ways “no”. There are plenty of ways to do it where no one will object or have any negative feelings about what is being done. There are however certain instances where people will rightfully feel uneasy about the transition. It is not necessarily a moral judgment. After all, none of us would be upset if that same person became a telemarketer and started selling blenders. It is more of a negative feeling stemming from the trust that we have lost in an individual because of what they now have to do in order to get that paycheck.

Anyway, that is just my view on the subject. My goal here was not to answer the question from a metaphysical standpoint, but rather to offer a possible explanation why we so often see a negative reaction when people turn a hobby into a business. 

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