Make no mistake, Matt Rider is a tree hugger. But he’s channeled that love into a business.
“One of my first memories is my mother saying, ‘That’s great, now get down, come down, come down,’ ” he said.
“I must have been climbing them when I was about 3 or 4. I probably built my first tree fort when I was about 9 or so. It’s graduated to where I’m building really cool, big platforms.”
Over the years, the Scottsdale resident who is a self-employed “tree worker” has built about 50 treehouses, mostly for friends, family or his own amusement. More than a year ago, he decided to expand his lifelong love and hobby into a business. But moving from pruning trees to building in them has been a challenge.
“It’s not an easy transition,” the 44-year-old said. “There’s a certain little niche there, and it’s been kind of hard to keep the momentum going, to tell you the truth. I’ve done a handful of them in the last couple months. Hopefully, I can just reach the people who have a need.”
Turning a hobby into a full-time job is very common, said Janet Drez, owner of A Perfect Solution, a Chandler marketing and consulting firm for small businesses.
Tough economic times that can result in layoffs often force people to consider making a living doing what they enjoy in their spare time, she said. And while business owners are often passionate and excited about the new-found venture, there can be difficulties.
“The tricky part is ‘If I turn my favorite hobby into a business, am I going to lose the fun of it?’ ” she said. “Some people can get beyond that and some people can’t.”
Marcia Cole-Yocom was a chemical engineer for 15 years before a corporate takeover in 1997 allowed her to follow a dream and go to culinary school. A director for a small company with a business executive husband, the two spent weekends doing what Cole-Yocom loved most: Entertaining.
“I’m originally from the South and us Southerners were just kind of brought up, you entertain,” she said. “That’s the way it is. So we always have had people over . . . and enjoyed feeding people for lack of a better way of saying it.”
The couple moved to the Valley in 2000 and started Thymless Cuisine, a private chef service. Last year, it was expanded to a cafe and wine bar on Fifth Avenue in Old Town Scottsdale.
While the business has been easy to run using her skills, achieving financial and marketing success is more of a challenge, Cole-Yocom said.
“It’s hard, and, of course, I’ve done all the wrong things,” she said. “Just like all good business people, I started off undercapitalized and all those fun things. Just when I get one piece of the business really going good and profitable, I sink it down with a cafe, by expanding probably before I should have, but you make the best of it.”
Rider is trying to increase business by selling view decks in tops of Aleppo pines on Camelback Mountain.
“People have these incredible views and they’re paying $500,000 for some of those lots,” he said. “These people around town don’t realize they’ve got the view. Generally, it’s (the tree view) better because it’s almost 360 degrees. You can carve out the view space. It’s amazing. I was up in a tree yesterday trimming it out and the guy had a view of downtown and Bank One Ballpark and didn’t even know it. And his kids were huge baseball fans and wanted to climb up there.”
A third-generation Arizonan with roots in Flagstaff, Clarkdale and Cottonwood, Rider said his view decks run anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. A typical treehouse is much less.
“I can do charming little things with a pitched roof and they start out at about $2,500,” he said. Some of his creations include secret hatch doors, pulleys to haul up snacks and supplies, swings and ladder systems.
“I haven’t been able to do a lot of the things I really want to do because it’s kind of new to people here,” Rider said. “I think people think of treehouses as something for kids. But I would love to do a full-on little condo-style thing. You’d probably start getting up into $20,000 or $30,000 for something like that.”
Rider has built houses 300 feet above Seattle’s Green Lake and, while camping, constructed one in a ponderosa pine forest near Blue Ridge Reservoir.
“It’s on a steep hill so when you get up to the 100-foot point, you have this nice comfortable bench and it’s pretty accessible because . . . it’s like climbing a ladder basically,” he said. “I’ve taken people up there and they will sit for like 20 minutes without saying a word because it’s just so stunning.”
Another of his houses was built on a fir tree on the Mogollon Rim.
“We were kind of having a picnic on the top of the tree and I looked over and there was one of the fire towers and we’re sitting right level with him and the guy is looking at us with a pair of binoculars. We got a little visit from him later,” Rider said.
To drum up business, Rider’s wife created a press release for the media and an advertising flier at Christmas. “We got one from that one (the flier) and then that turned into another one,” Rider said, adding he’s building houses in Maryland and California, too. “The more time you put into it, it’s bound to grow. I love doing these things and when I sell one it’s not like work, but it is tough to do.”
Drez said hobbyists-turned-business-owners must not only be good at their craft or service, but also learn customer relations, billing and and other skills.
“That’s why the failure rate of small business is so high because people go into it without doing some of the research and homework upfront,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Cole-Yocom said she loves what she does.
“It’s taking control of what you want to do,” she said. “The corporate environment . . . can become a little bit boring almost at times. I think part of it is if I’m going to put so much of myself into something and if I’m going to work that hard and be that dedicated to it and spend that many hours, kind of the blood, sweat and tears of it, I want it to be something that I can kind of feel is mine, something I really can put my pride into and I control.”