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Geekpreneur’s Complete Guide to Following Your Passion

That old saying about finding a job you love so that you’ll never have to work another day in your life just isn’t true. You will have to work even when you’re doing something you love, and the work you do will be hard and the hours will be long. But for the most part, when you’re following your passion, those hours will be far more enjoyable, far more rewarding and much more satisfying than the sort of labor you do for someone else’s firm or when you’re completing projects that don’t make you excited.

And it’s possible.

Internet marketing, supportive online communities, fundraising ventures and long-distance payment systems now mean that anyone with a creative spirit, a sense of entrepreneurialism, a willingness to learn, the determination to succeed and an activity they love doing can turn their passion into a business.

Clearly, every one of those businesses will have its own challenges. But as they grow, they all pass through the same two stages and there are lessons and challenges that are universal for all of them.

In this guide, we’re going to look at those stages. We’ll explain the preparation you’ll need to do as you begin thinking about building your own passion-based business; and we’ll look at the different processes you can use to bring your goods and your talent to market — and make sales.

Let’s start with the groundwork, the plans you have to make before you can start turning a passion into a profit stream.


Stage 1: Preparation

Starting a home-based business out of your passion and in your spare time  isn’t like creating a company from scratch. Nor should it be. The risks of failure should be much lower. The start-up costs should be much smaller (although you will still have those costs.) You’ll already have premises and you won’t need employees, at least not initially.

So while a new business will need a business plan, that isn’t necessarily true for a business based on a passion. If you’re not looking to invest giant sums, raise loans or investment funds or take risks that could cost you a home or a career opportunity — if you’re just planning to continue to do what you do anyway (but try to sell the results) — you can begin by taking things easy.

Time will be a valuable resource though, so before you can start production, you will need to figure out a schedule that you can maintain. You’ll need to know what you can do, identify the special advantages that you can bring to your business and which will help you to compete, and you’ll need to know where you can find the money you’ll need to get started.


  1. Create a Schedule and Fill It with Time

As a general rule, you can expect to give around half the time spent on your passion to creating the products and half to marketing and promoting them.

If you were working full-time, that would translate into about 20 hours of production each week and the same number of hours spent updating your website, writing blog posts and contributing to forums.

But initially at least, few people are able to work all day every day on their passion so time is going to be your most valuable resource. While you might begin by producing at the weekends and managing your online store in the evenings, ideally, you then want to move to the kinds of flexible hours that will let you give more time to the work you enjoy the most.

Ann Nguyen, for example, makes miniature furniture for doll houses which she sells through her website AmazingMiniatures.com as well as through her store on Etsy. She started her business about three years ago and it grew quickly to the point that she considered running it full time.

“I was very close to taking the jump two years ago,” she said, “but after doing the math, I realized that I would not be able to afford health insurance on my projected income.”

Instead, she did the next best thing: she landed a job at a non-profit that lets her work four days a week. From Monday to Thursday, she does fundraising, quality assurance and data analysis for the non-profit and from Friday to Sunday she creates and markets her miniatures.

And she also works in the evenings, taking on freelance graphic design, web design or online marketing consultation projects. Importantly, however, when she’s not in the office she makes her own creative work a priority. For now she’s able to divide her time between a flexible job that pays the bills and satisfying work that makes her really happy.

Before you start building your business, build a schedule. Know how you can manage your time, and how you can find more of it.

  1. Be Good at What You Do

When you bring your products to the market, you’re going to be selling it to people who owe you nothing. Unlike your friends and family, they won’t buy your goods because they want to support you — not at first. They’ll buy because they value the product and want to own it. They’ll buy because what you’ve produced appeals to them more than the items produced by other people.

That only happens when your products are competitive, look professional and fit a niche.

Ann Nguyen’s toy furniture looks at least as well made as anything you can find in a toy store. It’s also beautifully photographed and it’s unique. Ann prefers modern designs so she’s able to offer dolls house furniture that’s different to the usual beds and chairs sold in toy stores. The market might be small, but she’s found a niche and filled it with high quality goods.

That isn’t true of every passionista trying to bring their goods to market.

On Ebay, for example, buyers looking to purchase art directly from artists have to wade through pages and pages of mediocre works before they can find something worth buying. But the site was Heather Galler’s first stop as an art enthusiast, and now as a professional artist, it’s still the place that she relies on most to deliver sales.

“That website has all the reach a person could need to be successful if they have the right product to sell,” she says.

Shortly after her first sale on Ebay, in 2007, Galler’s business went bankrupt and she turned to painting full time. Her colorful, modern interpretations of dogs and cats, flowers and angels aren’t the sort of artworks you’re likely to find in museums and galleries. But they are better than most of the work you’ll find on Ebay. They’re competitive and professional, and they sell. Galler now has an agent, more demand than she can meet and her work is available in retail stores around the world.

Comparing the quality of your work to that of others isn’t easy. Friends are more likely to provide support than an honest opinion, and even the market isn’t a great judge if your product isn’t backed by a smart marketing campaign.

Once you’ve uploaded your products, join forums, Etsy teams and discussions and get feedback from peers. They’re the best judges of the quality of your skills and your readiness for the market.


  1. Use What You Already Know

So if you’re not going to go through the whole palaver of writing a complete business plan, you’ll need to know your schedule — and how you can free up more time in it; and you’ll need to know how to create items that are at least as good as anything you can already find in stores.

You should also know what knowledge and assets you already possess that can help in your marketing.

If you have experience building websites, as Ann Nguyen does, you’re going to be able to make your own sales site quickly, and give it the kind of search engine optimization that will make it easy to find. That will save you a lot of time and money.

If  you’re an administrative assistant hoping to make some additional money selling quilts at the weekend (with an eye, perhaps, to quitting the desk and running your own firm) then you’ll be organized and you’ll understand the value of outsourcing help — because people outsource their tasks to you. That will keep you efficient.

Everyone with any kind of experience has knowledge that can help them in their new business, however different that business may be. When Jamie Kutch threw in his day job as a Wall Street trader to set himself as a California winemaker, for example, he couldn’t have made a bigger leap. He’d drunk lots of wine and spent plenty of time at tastings and on wine enthusiast forums. But there’s a big difference between understanding wine and making and selling it. According to Entrepreneur magazine, when he arrived in California people in the wine industry saw him as someone with no knowledge and no experience. They wouldn’t even sell him their grapes.

That was back in 2005. Now his brand of Kutch Wines is making a profit. The 1,000 cases of 2009 vintage he produced recently earned him $360,000 and he’s had interest from buyers for his company — even though he owns none of the wine-making equipment he uses, or even a vineyard.

But as Jamie Kutch was building his business and waiting for his wines to mature, he used the skills that he’d picked up on Wall Street. The winery was funded in part by buying cases of expensive imported wines and selling them at a profit to buyers in Asia. That’s something that few other new winemakers would have been able to do. It was a skill that came from his experience with arbitrage and it gave him an edge over other struggling winemakers.

Even when you move from one field to a completely different one, you bring knowledge that can help you make the transition and give you an advantage. Identify that advantage and know how to use it.

  1. Get the Money

In a survey that we ran recently the most commonly cited reason for not following a passion, particularly among women, was a lack of funds. The amount of money that you’ll need will vary from pastime to pastime but every new business will require an investment even if it’s only in paints, canvases or eBay and Etsy listing payments.

The most common way for passionistas — or any entrepreneur — to get their businesses off the ground is to dip into their own funds. Jamie Kutch started his winery with savings of $100,000 but within two years and despite help from his wife’s new PR business, they were down to $10,000. Friends and family can help too. They’ll either make up your first customers, giving you the early profits you need to continue buying supplies, or they’ll be more willing than a bank to lend you the money you need to expand.

Those two options are fairly traditional. New options though include Kickstarter which has already grown into a way to do more than help entrepreneurs raise money for new businesses. Horticulturalist Jennifer Lee Segale used the site to raise money for a trip to Belize to research local plants. Designer and musician Justin Page Wood used it as a way of setting goals and collecting money from friends and family to produce an album. Outdoors enthusiast Josh Sprague used IndieGogo, another crowdfunding site, when he was looking for funds to create a new kind of backpack for water bottles. The site, he said, allowed him both to reach customers and impress stores who might have been willing to sell his product.

“The intent here was twofold,” he explained. “First was to obviously generate sales while we were finalizing our product; second was to document in full disclosure a successful campaign so that retailers can see we are a real brand and have a solid product.”

Using crowdfunding isn’t simple. Videos are important for persuading supporters (half of projects that include videos succeed as opposed to 30 percent of those that lack videos) and successful Kickstarters tend to use social media to spread the word and bring in funds. Kickstarter provides the platform but leaves it to the project owners to raise the money. Much of that will come from friends and relations but pitches with price options at $20 and below, and limited to a month or less, tend to do best.

While bootstrapping is likely to be your default option, when it comes to large projects or works that will take time, crowdfunding can both bring in funds and deliver marketing and publicity.

Stage 2. Make and Sell

Once you’ve organized your time, figured out how good your products need to be, identified the unique advantages you can bring to the market and raided your bank account, you’ll be ready to start making inventory — and begin making sales.

That’s got easier recently too. Crafters with an armload of homemade teddy bears or boxes of beaded jewelry no longer need to drag them from store to store in the hope of finding a retailer. We’ve already seen that Ebay is one way of reaching buyers, but for most sellers, it’s highly competitive, low-priced and not particularly reliable. Heather Galler is relatively exceptional for having made it work. For today’s crafter, the entrance to the marketplace more usually comes in three ways: through craft site Etsy; through the seller’s own website; and through art fairs.

  1. Etsy is the World’s Biggest Craft Fair

With over 20 million members, 800,000 shops, 17 million items and sales approaching a billion dollars in 2012, Etsy is the most popular place for crafters to sell their goods and their designs.

The site’s most obvious advantages are its ease of use, its low cost and its familiarity to buyers of unique handmade items. A store can be built, designed and stocked within just a few hours and without any knowledge of coding or Web design. The fees are just 20 cents per item and a 3.5 percent commission on the sale. And with 40 million monthly visitors, Etsy is to crafts what Amazon is to books.

Not surprisingly though, it’s also very competitive with no shortage of other people offering their own jewelry ideas to the same mass of buyers. But in practice those competitors also become valuable advisors. The site’s “Teams” function brings together people working in the same field so that they can compare works and offer advice. They’ll tell you whether your prices are too high or too low (both will reduce your sales), explain how to take better pictures and offer tips on promotion.

So once you have your store built, you’ll need to take good photos of your products to pull in buyers, and mingle in the teams to gain suggestions.

And you’ll then need to do some marketing. Etsy is known to buyers; your Etsy store is not. It will be up to you to reach out, find buyers and give them a reason to visit your store rather than anyone else’s.

Olga Zamyatina, who has been selling her handmade stuffed animals on Etsy for about a year, uses her blog and her Facebook page to promote her works. She also offers giveaways on other people’s blogs to bring in new people. In her first twelve months on the site, she made around 100 sales.

Etsy is likely to be your first move. Build the store, talk to other sellers then look for ways to reach your market.

  1. Build Your Own Website

Etsy is a good place to begin but it shouldn’t be the only place you sell your products to buyers. Although the service isn’t expensive, sales that you make from your own site won’t take a 3.5 percent commission. Your own site will also allow you to talk more freely about your goods, make special offers, and produce dynamic content — blog posts — that search engines love. That will help you to bring in people searching the Web for the sorts of products you sell.

Once you’ve created a website to support your Etsy store, you’ll find that your store becomes an outlet, one that you can even embed into your site, while the site itself becomes a hub where you can brand your goods and attract buyers directly.

And while Etsy has just one kind of store, you’ll have a much broader choice when it comes to building your own site. You could, for example, buy a unique domain name, rent space on a server such as GoDaddy’s and hire a Web developer or use a template system like MoonFruit to create your site. Or you can use something as simple as a blog.

Olga Ivanova uses Blogger, a blogging service run by Google. Her site, wassupbrothers.blogspot.com, incorporates the name of her store, allows her to add dynamic content that both sells her designs and attracts searchers — and it includes links to her store on Etsy courtesy of apps created by Etsy developers. Had Olga created her blog with WordPress, she would have needed a host and a domain name, but she could also have easily used any one of a number of store plugins to sell directly from her site without sending buyers to Etsy.

It’s the marketing that’s going to be the biggest headache for online sellers both on Etsy and through your own site. You will need to think about search engine optimization. You’ll need to create a Facebook page, post updates and encourage your followers to share pictures of your products. And you’ll need to contact sellers of related goods to form joint promotion opportunities. Capture emails (in return for a short guide that teaches others how to create their own works) and you’ll have a new channel for pushing special offers.

Use your website to attract buyers, offer bargains and talk directly to customers. WordPress gives you the greatest flexibility with minimum cost and fuss. But be prepared to become an expert in online marketing.

  1. Art Fairs Make You a Real Life Seller

Both Etsy and your own website have the advantage of selling online, from home. You won’t meet your customers, and while you will have to spend time boxing and mailing inventory, the entire business is run at a distance.

An art fair gives you an opportunity to meet your buyers. You’ll be able to see how they interact with your products, listen to their praise directly and make more sales in a typical day than you’re likely to make in a month online.

And if the fair is juried — and you win — you can start to build the kind of history that can even open gallery doors.

Jewelry maker Anita Summers chose to sell exclusively at art fairs when she saw the level of competition from other jewelry products on Etsy. She does around four sales a year, all in her local area, and says that she makes more in a weekend than many Etsy sellers make in a year.

Although art fairs can be particularly rewarding, their biggest challenge is the up-front costs. A tent and display materials will cost several hundred dollars and you’ll have to add booth fees and insurance too. ArtFairInsiders.com often lists used display materials for sale and some sellers are willing to share a booth. For Anita Summers, those costs were frightening but the investment turned out to be a good one.

“That was definitely a scary cart-before-the-horse feeling for me: you have to shell out the money to buy all that equipment in advance, without knowing how you’re going to do at the fairs,” she said. “[But] I made booth fee and recouped almost all my initial investment in equipment for fairs at my first one.”

Art fairs will also require a bit of research. Visit the fairs before you apply for a booth. Talk to sellers about the market and any special considerations that the place might impose on your display or your choice of inventory, and take note of the sorts of prices other sellers are asking for similar goods.

Selling at art fairs requires a higher level of commitment than selling online, including the purchase of display materials, but the rewards both in terms of profits and the opportunity to meet buyers and other sellers can be enormous.

Selling products that you’ve created is always going to be hugely rewarding. That’s true whether you’re selling online through Etsy or your own website or offline at art fairs or even in galleries. It’s also work. Some of that work — such as the boxing and mailing, writing blog posts that target important search terms, dealing with problems at payment firms like Paypal or Square or handling customer complaints (because even the best sellers get customer complaints) — are going to contain all of the headaches of real work.

But mostly it will be work you love doing something for which you feel a genuine passion.

Correction: In the original version of this post, we used Olga Zamyatina’s maiden name. Sorry.

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