Laid-Off Man Offers Nickel's Worth Of Fix-It Advice

Correction March 26, 2009

Audio versions and earlier Web versions of this story referred to John Morefield as an architect, including a reference in an earlier headline. Though he has a degree in architecture from the University of Arizona, he is not a licensed architect in the state of Washington.

Somewhere beneath the rubble of the housing market collapse, there's a man trying to dig out and build a clientele. And he's doing it one question at a time.

After getting laid off from an architecture firm for the second time last year, John Morefield had a choice to make: either scratch around for one of the few architecture jobs available in Seattle or do something to control his destiny.

Then he decided: "Now's the time to do the booth."

It's an odd way to grow a business. Every Sunday, Morefield sets up shop at the Ballard Farmers Market. But it isn't anything tangible that Morefield is slinging from behind his small plywood booth; he's selling advice.

For 5 cents, Morefield offers pointers on home improvement projects. He got the idea from the Peanuts cartoon — you remember Lucy and her questionable nuggets of psychiatric help.

More Than A Gimmick

On a recent day, Morefield's booth is located between a guy selling freshly caught fish and another selling locally produced honey.

"If you've got any questions about your home — your kitchen's too small, your bathroom doesn't work, you want an extra story — drop a nickel, fire away," he says.

The booth is more than a cute gimmick. Occasionally, Morefield has been able to turn these 5 cent questions into better paying jobs.

"I could come over and talk to you about it," he tells someone who's stopped by to ask about a kitchen remodel. "And then, if you would like to proceed with a feasibility study ... then, you know, I'd give you a proposal for those kinds of hours and we'd go from there."

Sometimes this approach works; sometimes it doesn't. If a client doesn't bite, Morefield is usually able to add the person to his ever-expanding e-mail list. He's also set up his own Web site. People go to the site, drop a virtual nickel into his tin can and type away.

Trying To Land Clients

He's gotten a lot of clients this way. Like John and Kathy Edwards, who have hired Morefield to draw up plans for a remodel of their home and invited him to their house. He's showing them his final drawings for the project.

His hope is that he'll sell the couple on his vision and then see it through to the end.

Sitting in their kitchen, sipping on a glass of wine, he seems cool and confident. But on the drive over, Morefield laid out the meeting's stakes.

"If they like my design, we're going to move forward; and if they don't, I guess we won't," he said. "It's kind of like a really drawn-out interview process."

And it's an interview he needs to nail.

Optimistic Outlook

Back in the couple's kitchen, Morefield takes them through the drawings. Both Kathy and John look pleased. But when the time comes to firm up plans for the next phase of the project, the Edwardses remain vague about their commitment.

"We'll sit on it for a week or two, or I don't know how long," Kathy Edwards says.

It's not the answer he was hoping for, but Morefield continues undaunted. He hugs them goodbye and heads back to his truck.

"I think that went really well," he says. "They liked my work ... They liked what I did. I accomplished all the goals they wanted and didn't kind of force my agenda on them."

And that's the kind of guy Morefield is: confident, brightly optimistic, unfazed by the Edwardses' hesitation.

"I'm throwing everything I got into this in the worst possible time, so when things do pick up and the economy gets better, I'm ready for it," he says.

But that's all down the road. In the meantime, Morefield will keep collecting e-mail addresses and answering questions one nickel at a time.

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