Thursday, July 9, 2009


My story on Funemployment appears in this week's WE

Faces of funemployment: Graphic designer Carlos Hernandez Fisher (left)  recently celebrated his last day of employment with a global telecommunications giant. Meanwhile, Astrid Elston and Brian Robinson are well on the path to entrepreneurial success thanks to the economic meltdown.

Faces of funemployment: Graphic designer Carlos Hernandez Fisher (left) recently celebrated his last day of employment with a global telecommunications giant. Meanwhile, Astrid Elston and Brian Robinson are well on the path to entrepreneurial success thanks to the economic meltdown.

Credit: Andrea Warner and Doug Shanks

By Andrea Warner

For plenty of people, the twaining of work and fun is merely a fantasy; something to daydream about to help whittle away the hours between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Work has always been just that: work, a guaranteed daily negotiation between your interests, aptitude, and the economy. And then a not-so-funny thing happened about a year ago: The bottom dropped out of the stock market, and a global reckoning saw big businesses crumble, banks collapse, and previously wealthy countries, like ours, face weakened job markets.

But out of the smoldering ashes of lost jobs, a burgeoning scene of independent, arts-loving entrepreneurs are turning unemployment on its head and ushering in a new era of “funemployment.” The term became an overnight viral sensation thanks to a widely-circulated June 3 article in San Francisco’s SF Weekly, chronicling the experiences of recently laid-off people who were collecting unemployment benefits and using their newfound time to reassess their career goals, and then launch their own creative businesses.

With the proverbial pink slips piling up and EI lines wrapping around city blocks, more and more Vancouverites are facing similar challenges, leading to our very own funemployment phenomenon.


Carlos Hernandez Fisher, fresh off his last day of work for a global telecommunications giant, is now entering his second week of funemployment. He spent three years clocking in, learning the corporate jargon, but his first love, graphic design, continued to occupy his leisure time. Like many people, he kept imagining a day when he could pursue his passion for potential profit, but he wasn’t sure how to make the dream a reality — until the layoff.

“I was given a lot of notice, so I was ready for the news, but there was still a period of shock and adjustment,” Hernandez Fisher says. “It wasn’t until a few weeks after finding out that I started making peace with the situation and started seeing it as an opportunity rather than a crisis.”

He credits close friends with encouraging him to try to create a career out of his graphic design interests. But the big push was seeing a Venn diagram on how to be happy in business, created by professional strategist, Bud Caddell.

“In it, happiness is the intersection of what we do well, what we want to do, and what we can be paid to do,” Hernandez Fisher says. “Design makes me happy and I’d like to think I do it well, so now it’s just a matter of finding a way to make it pay the bills.”


It’s a story that’s familiar to Astrid Elston, owner and designer of Fire & Ice Creations. Elston was a sales manager for a tourism trade show when she was laid off in January.

“You have that sense of, ‘Oh my god, what am I gonna do?’” Elston recalls. “It’s hard to say the layoff was a relief, but, I also had the sense that it might be a blessing in disguise.”

Elston had spent several years crafting recycled glass into jewelry and home decor pieces as a hobby while she worked in tourism, an industry that’s recently shouldered the brunt of the economic meltdown.

“I was tired of being at the whim of other people’s hiring and firing patterns so, after being laid off for the last time, I decided, ‘That’s enough’,” Elston says. “I wanted to put my entrepreneurial spirit to work, take all my business experience, and make my own money, have my own hours and work really hard to build something for myself.”

Elston signed up for Douglas College’s self-employment program to help provide a better foundation on which to build her business. Now, seven months later, her website,, is fully functional, her jewelry is available at a variety of retailers, and she plans to set up residence at several craft and design shows by the end of the year. But Elston admits that she still occasionally doubts herself.

“You are everything in the company,” Elston explains. “I am the ad person, the sales and marketing, the accountant, the production person, and you’re the person who makes or breaks it. It’s can be extremely overwhelming. You’re the person who needs to make all those calls or no one’s going to call you.”


Brian Robinson is four months into his funemployment foray. Like Hernandez Fisher and Elston, he was initially dismayed when informed of his layoff from managing an ESL school in downtown Vancouver.

“My first response was, ‘What am I gonna do now?’” Robinson says. “I was depressed. I wanted to change direction. I wanted a job that would give me a bit more of a future, more satisfaction, and better rewards, financially and everything.”

Putting his love of food, cooking, and baking front and centre has helped Robinson re-prioritize his career goals. He launched Robinson Fine Foods (, and currently has a table at the monthly Blim Art Market where he hawks gourmet foccaccia breads, Italian pies, and a variety of sweet and savoury goods.

“When I was first laid off, the potential of being on EI for all of those months was kind of scary,” Robinson says. “I joined EMBERS, a part-time self-employment program. It’s really useful. They’re making me think about what I really want to do, and they’re getting me to do market research and the feasibility of how it works. So my idea has really taken shape since those classes.”

Robinson intends to set up a bakery and delivery service catering to workplaces or areas with fewer options for interesting food choices. The layoff has helped him focus on what’s important to him in a career, but he admits that he’s still a ways off from meeting his financial goals through self-employment.

“I’m very motivated to see this happen, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of working on it and seeing the pieces in place,” Robinson says. “But at the back of my mind, I’ve still got that thing that I need to find some sort of job, get a decent income coming in, and that will provide a stable grounding to kick this off. To feed the real love and build contacts in the industry, I’m only looking in the food world now for additional work.”


Making a living from one’s art may still be a challenge, but thanks to a confluence of events — the recession, social networking web sites, and a huge momentum in DIY culture — Vancouver-based indie artists have more avenues than ever to launch their businesses.

Yuriko Iga is the owner of Blim, a Main Street arts-based store and studio that offers workshops in a variety of disciplines that’s a sort of ground zero for DIY enthusiasts. She’s recently launched the monthly Blim Art Market, and sees the recession as a huge opportunity for a new culture of craft.

“Depression is one of the best things that can happen,” Iga says. “It’s a shame we have to force ourselves into these situations, but if that’s what it takes to get back to grassroots styles of business. That’s what meant to be. Often in First World countries, there’s this inflated sense of mega business, and we just all think it’s normal. I think the economy being up and down is natural, and I think it’s good when it’s down because people rely less on spending and are forced to become more creative with their time and money. Sometimes having stuff taken away is a good thing.”

For his part, Hernandez Fisher agrees.

“I think the recession is an opportunity for a lot of people to step away from working just to pay bills and look at what they can do that is going to make them happier on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “I think the boom in things like [online craft market and hub] Etsy, Blim, and [online craft market] Threadless, and the removal of barriers to entry means that it’s now possible to work for yourself without having to put out a huge initial investment first. The web, blogs, and social networks can open avenues that previously didn’t exist. Before, if you left a job and really wanted to spend your time cooking, say, that had to be what you did in between earning a living. Now, there’s any number of people who have turned that kind of passion into blogs, book deals, and storefronts, like and”

To that end, Hernandez Fisher has already launched his own web site,, and plans to use it as a combination portfolio/storefront for his designs. He’s also planning on making use of local markets like Blim, Portobello West, Spend on Trend, and Got Craft? as he creates more art and merchandise.

For those seeking advice on how to make the most out of craft and fashion markets like the ones mentioned above, Blim’s Market Vendor workshop this Saturday, July 11, from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. might be just the answer. For a $5-$10 sliding scale fee, Iga and her friend Lisa Prentice, a veteran jewelry designer, will offer their combined 15-plus years of advice.

“We have all this information, and you see people and what they sell, and they have all this potential but they’re just not doing certain things,” Iga explains. “We’re both big fans of [celebrity chef and star of television’s Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares] Gordon Ramsay. I love how he goes in there and helps people get back their self-esteem. So we just thought we’d do a session and help people like Gordon Ramsey, but not swearing or making people cry.” She laughs. “You know, the softer approach.”


Meghan Spong, publisher and founder of the Vancouver-based start-up Benjamin Brown Books, found herself at the forefront of the funemployment trend. Laid off when Raincoast Books shuttered its publishing program, Spong found herself looking for work in a small market saturated with talent. So, after crossing paths with an aspiring author of childrens books, she decided it was time to start her own publishing company. Two books later (Wenda the Wacky Wiggler, Lily and Lucy’s Shadow), and with a third on the way in the fall, Spong isn’t quite ready to be held up as the poster woman for funemployment, but she does had some advice for those braving the unknown.

“There are a lot of naysayers around all the time who are like, ‘Oh, you can’t do that, the economy’s bad’,” Spong says. “But, particularly in a recession, that’s when people are really responsive to inspiring ideas. So if you’re passionate about something, figure out a way outside of the box that you can make it work. Keep open to the possibilities. It’s not going to necessarily look like how you envisioned it, but for me, the essence is making books. I don’t care where the funding comes from, and I don’t really care if I’m rich and super profitable, but I’m getting to make books, which is my passion, so I would say stay focused on what you love to do.” 

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