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Business of being a yo-yo man

February 25, 2015

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Mark Hayward is a professional performer and keynote speaker who lives in Pittsburgh. Hayward took his passion for yo-yos and juggling and turned it into a successful career. Photo via Mark Hayward

Following your passions can be an up-and-down business. But as a professional yo-yo performer, Mark Hayward has mastered the trick.

Since his start with two shows in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, Hayward created a business out of an unusual passion. His act has taken him across the country, from college campuses out West to the bright lights of the Late Show with David Letterman in New York City. He lives the dream of so many young people starting their own careers today.

So what does it take to be a successful yo-yo man? I talked to Hayward, who recently performed at Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me host Peter Sagal’s birthday party.

Q: Were yo-yos and juggling something you were drawn to as a career early on?

MH: It took me a long time to really realize that I wanted to be a professional entertainer and that I could be one. Those are two really different steps. I did my first show and I came off stage and the short story I tell people is that I was hooked. But really, what I was hooked on was performing. I wasn’t necessarily hooked on that being my way to make a living. It took me a number of years after that and I did performance basically as a sort of like a part time job through college. I would do some shows here and there. It wasn’t until grad school that I realized not only could I make a career out of it, but that I wanted to.

I was kind of having a tough time with (grad school) and out of the blue I got a couple of really good yo-yo gigs. I realized I had this choice: I could either continue with my art degree and be by myself in my basement making stuff and trying to get people to buy it, or I could become a professional juggler and be on stage and make people laugh and live the somewhat glamorous life of the juggler and, honestly, make an easier living at it. I know… the irony that it’s easier to be a professional juggler and yo-yo man than it is to be a professional artist…oof!

Q: That was your “Hey, this could work!” moment?

MH: Yeah, exactly. I got those two gigs and didn’t really want to be in school anymore. A lot of people have that moment where it’s all or nothing. I was very fortunate I was able to move back to my hometown and go back to the part time job that I had in college because they liked me and were very generous. They allowed me to have my weird time off for gigs and I slowly transitioned from that job in to full-time performing.

Q: How many times did someone tell you, “That’s not going to work?”

MH: Endless. Countless times. Especially from my own father. (Laughs) But, I have to admit, I knew I could make a living from it and those two gigs made it easier for me to believe. Yeah, it was clear to me that it was just going to be a gradual, a long path in making performing income be the majority and then all of my income.

Q: What would you say to a millennial who is turning his or her passion into a career?

MH: It seems you can make a living doing anything, it’s just a matter figuring out how to do it. That, of course, is a big challenge. But, you know, I know a guy who is a professional jump roper. I mean, I’m a yo-yo man, who am I to cast aspersions on anyone? When I learned he was a professional jump roper, I was like, “How does that work?”

So, that being said, the more obscure it is the harder you’re going to have to work. I assume there is a lot of demand for something like a lawyer or a doctor, so it’s probably a little easier to find opportunity. But if you’re a professional yo-yo man or a professional jump roper you have to either create your opportunity or convince people you’re the right thing for a pre-existing opportunity.

There is a tendency to romanticize unusual careers like mine. When it really comes down to it, you have to work. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours of practice it takes before you get to mastery. I don’t have a clue how many hours I’ve put in, but if you consider the different disciplines of skills I definitely have the 10,000 of all those things by themselves. Yeah, I get to be on stage and I get to do tricks and there is glory and it’s fantastic, but my average day is what I’m doing right now: sitting at my desk, working on promotional materials, answering emails and drawing up contracts.

Q: Is that business side difficult?

MH: Great entertainers are very rarely able to do the business side at all. It’s a very narrow slice of the population that is both able to do the entertainment side and the business side. You don’t have to be a great businessman to be an entertainer, you only have to just squeak by in some cases. But if you can’t do the business side at all, you’re done.

Q: When does an entrepreneur in a career like yours know they’ve “made it?”

MH: I think it’s really important to set specific goals and have an idea of what you want. But those goals always change. Our culture is so driven with competitiveness and the pursuit of money and things.  You have to decide what you want — if you want to have a family, if you want to have a specific car, if you want to not have a mortgage, whatever it is, really give it some good thought. If you don’t define your success, you can’t celebrate and enjoy it when you get there.

Q: We’re coming out of a really hard time economically, so failure really makes people nervous, especially when it involves their career. So how do you overcome that fear of failure when you’re putting your career on the line?

MH: People have different approaches to this. I personally am fairly risk-adverse. I definitely admire people who are willing to risk it all on the moonshot idea, but I’m not that guy. If you are that person, that’s great, go for it. But for me, the reality of how I’ve lived my life and managed my business is to be sure that I diversify enough to keep all my bases covered.

For example, ten years ago the market of doing shows at school was pretty good. They wanted to some educational content, but it wasn’t a really big deal. That all changed with the testing we have everywhere and that market has fallen out. So the people I knew who only did school shows, some of them had to get regular jobs.

I try to make sure I have as many different things going on that are still related as possible. The other thing to is that I’m really careful about saving. I put away 30 percent of every paycheck just to make sure I have enough money when tax times comes around at the end of the year and also so I’ve got a big cushion. When the economy tanked, it hurt me as much as anybody, but I had a little bit of a cushion in the bank and my wife has a job, so between those two things I was able to continue with what I do and now it’s coming back again.

Q: How does technology make your career possible and how has it evolved since you first started?

MH: The technology of communication is fantastic, but what has helped me more than anything else is the ability to have a website. When I first started off, I would get a call from the corporation who was considering hiring me and they’d needed me to FedEx my brochure and my VHS cassette and a business card to them. So every time I had a potential client, it would cost me 25-30 bucks just to get my materials to them. But now they can just look at the website. It’s fantastic.

Q: What do you love the most about what you do?

A: I think I have to have two answers for that. Without any doubt, the absolute best part is being on stage. There’s no greater feeling in the world than being in front of a crowd of 1,000 or 2,000 people and making all those people laugh or smile, improve their day or blow their minds, whatever it is, the give and take between me and a live audience, it’s the best thing I’ve experience ever in my entire life. Most people don’t get to experience that.

The other part of my answer is the freedom of being my own boss is so fantastic. The fact that, obviously I have to work, but I get to decide exactly when and where that work happens.


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