Dusty: Tapping into personal resources to create her business



Dusty, who stands in front of a colorful makeshift barrier, wearing a puppet on each hand, is watched by a group of children.Dusty is a 33-year-old woman living in northern California who has been a professional puppeteer for nearly three years. She currently lives with a roommate and has her own business, Dusty’s Puppets, which she started in 2006. Dusty entertains young children, aged 1 to 4 years, with puppet shows at birthday parties, local farmers’ markets, daycare centers, and schools. Dusty also sells puppets at fairs and goes to conferences and self-advocacy groups to teach people about setting up a business. She spends most of her time as a puppeteer but spends some hours each week at a day program and also works part-time folding towels at hotels. When she isn’t working, Dusty likes to do fun things such as going to concerts and movies.

One day, at a party where some children were getting restless and needed to be entertained, she performed a puppet show that she remembered from her childhood. She performed so well that she and her parents began to seriously consider a career for Dusty as a self-employed puppeteer.

What’s important

Dusty took the first steps toward starting her own puppeteer business by deciding what her business would focus on and then figuring out where she could get the money to start and maintain the business. A career planning process helped establish a focus on Dusty’s strong interest in performing on stage and her enjoyment of musical performances, puppetry, and making people laugh. Dusty took fine arts and theatre classes near her home to enhance her skills. Dusty did several things in order to understand if starting a business was possible. She took a business course at the College of Marin to learn how to start a business and develop a business plan. She also began volunteering puppet performances at a local YMCA daycare center to get some experience as a professional puppeteer. Dusty also met with a benefits counselor at a local center for independent living to learn about how her Social Security, Medicaid, and housing benefits would be affected by self-employment. It was important for Dusty to know that she could keep those benefits since she did not expect to earn enough money from her business to live entirely without them. Dusty and her mother gathered information about what it might be like to go into business as a puppeteer including how much of a demand there was for the business, how much money Dusty might be able to make, what her schedule might be like and whether she would need help with some aspects of running the business, such as scheduling performances and transportation. She and her mother developed a business plan, which is an outline of all the things she would need to make her business successful. Besides outlining the services Dusty’s Puppets would provide, the business plan outlined Dusty’s need for support staff and funding for start-up expenses. Once the business plan for Dusty’s Puppets was complete, Dusty and her family used it as a guide and turned to their personal resources to look for staff and funding.

Dusty did not have much money to spend on staffing, but her business was able to hire a bookkeeper. Dusty’s mom found a talented accounting student at the college who agreed to accept Dusty’s business as one of her first clients and manage its finances for a small fee. Funding for a part time business manager and a direct support staff person was worked out through her day services provider. Her roommate was hired as the business manager of Dusty’s Puppets; the business manager is responsible for booking performances and keeping track of Dusty’s schedule. Dusty’s employment support staff person is responsible for transporting Dusty to and from her performances and helping with the equipment. Her parents occasionally serve as extra support.

Dusty also submitted her business plan to another funding source, Social Security, with a Plan for Achieving Self-Support (PASS), a work incentive program for SSI recipients. Dusty was able to secure enough money through the PASS to purchase the inventory, equipment, and car she needed to run her business.

What happened

With help from her dedicated parents and business supports, Dusty was able to develop the plan, get the money, hire the staff, and purchase the equipment she needed to officially start Dusty’s Puppets. She has sustained the business for two years, performing several puppet shows each week. Children are always excited to watch Dusty’s performances and parents are enthusiastic about how well Dusty entertains their children. She still works with the same accountant and business manager. Since becoming a business owner and professional puppeteer, Dusty has been happier and more confident around others. She is also very happy about earning money doing what she loves. She likes to spend her money on social activities, like eating out at a nice restaurant or going to the movies.

Lessons Learned

  • With the support of a career planning process and her family and friends, Dusty was able to identify a career path that addressed her interests and priorities.
  • Dusty followed her dream by taking concrete first steps toward making her business a reality. She enrolled in a theater class, took a business course at a local college, got experience as a puppeteer, and made innovative use of funds to develop her own business.
  • Leveraging the support of friends and family, Dusty established a team of people to support her business.
  • With limited funds, Dusty and her parents got creative—they hired a finance student as her accountant, and her roommate as the business manager.
  • Dusty worked to understand Social Security work incentives and how they might help her achieve her self-employment goals
  • Dusty and her parents were able to negotiate with her provider to get support to run her own business.

For more information contact:

Donna Dutton
Larkspur, California