Do what you love (and pay the bills)

On growing a passion project into a passion business without taking investment.

This time last year my wife, Emily and I were kicking off an experiment to answer a fairly big question:

Could we combine both of our creative energies to find a way to make a living that lines up with family life, working on what we both enjoy and are passionate about?

That experiment, to build an online learning site and a suite of useful tools for primarily creative, female entrepreneurs, Instagrammers and bloggers has changed both of our lives in a very short space of time!

We’ve learnt a lot, grown an awesome (tiny) team and gathered an inspiring, supportive community together (thank you, you wonderful people!). I’m now working with Emily full time and our only source of income is our fledgling business, Makelight. Which is extra intense, given we have four kids.

We’ve now managed to turn what started as a side project based around Emily’s passion for photography, into a bootstrapped business, turning over $300k and growing.

Whilst nobody’s retiring for a life of leisure any time soon, I thought I’d take a moment to write about these last few months.

But first, a thought about passion projects.

The problem with “Do what you love”

This isn’t another article about why you should do what you love. The phrase “Do what you love”, at its best, is a tired cliché.

At its worst, it’s a motivating call to a lifestyle to which only a privileged few can aspire. For most people, work is…work. It’s not a creative pursuit.

I worry that by continually repeating the “do what you love” phrase in motivational Instagram posts, Pinterest boards or all over the walls of coworking spaces, that we’re devaluing a perfectly valid idea.

Work is most often something you do in order to pay for other opportunities to do the things that you love.

Trying to turn the thing that you love into something that you rely on for your income, to pay the bills and to live your life, can quickly result in the Thing You Love turning into the Thing You Have To Do To Make Ends Meet.

It’s very hard to retain a love for something when you’re busy worrying about cash flow, orders getting lost in the post, credit card chargebacks, or upset customers. Sometimes, it might be best to enjoy a pursuit and leave it at that.

Not everything you enjoy doing should be the basis for a new business venture. Maybe, you can risk losing the love for something that didn’t ever need to be something that made you money.

The dream of work that you love

Yet there are a great many people who dream of being able to make a living doing what they enjoy doing. Me included!

Some seem to achieve it — I think of the artists and inventors that inspire me, and I know that the narrative of their success isn’t true, but it doesn’t deter me from trying. It shouldn’t deter you either.

We live in exciting times and there are some trends that I think could have a big impact on people finding a way to make a living doing work that we find fulfilling, rewarding and that brings us income from our creative endeavours.

I’m particularly fascinated by side projects and the opportunities we now have to reach a huge audience with a small budget. Here are some trends that I’ve looked at that convinced us to create Makelight.

Flexible work is on the rise

Because more and more people have access to decent internet connections, and we’re able to work online instead of face-to-face, work can increasingly fit around life. This has some big implications for those of us with children, and I think particularly for women, who largely take on a greater responsibility for childcare. Remote jobs that fit into the after-school-drop-off, before-school-pick-up could be a growth area. We have four kids, so we both feel this pain acutely.

Access is improving

It’s increasingly easy to have an idea for a side project, to get set up with a website that accepts payments, and to start generating some income. And increasingly, people are willing to buy online. A lot of the fear from recent years is passing, and late adopters are getting more comfortable paying online for almost anything. That’s great for people with a creative side project or small business.

Learning is changing

Not so long ago the way you’d learn about starting a business would be to take a course or two, probably face-to-face at an evening class, or on a multi-year university course. That’s changing rapidly, and there’s a growing market for people wanting to learn in a more snackable way — taking online learning classes and fitting self-improvement into their week in a more flexible way. So it’s possible to learn how to get a business idea off the ground in your own time, often for free, but you can short-cut that if you’re willing to pay a relatively small amount of money.

There’s still a knowledge gap

However, it can still be a little daunting, even taking the first step with an idea. Turning something you love doing into a business venture, however small, brings up a lot of things to consider. Branding, social media, the tech that you need, legalities, customer support, fulfilment, accounting… for every “do what you love” idea, there’s a myriad of “but you do realise you’ll need to also…” hurdles to overcome.

An experiment in doing what we love, and helping others do the same

Looking at all of those trends, the thing that jumped out for Emily and me was that we know lots about taking an idea and turning it into a business. I’ve done it a few times now in a variety of ways, and Emily built and ran a successful wedding photography micro-business before it became incompatible with family life.

So we chatted a lot about what we love doing:

Emily: photography, teaching, inspiring people, building community, the chance to be creative every day.

Me: making useful things, speaking, writing, designing, building digital products that solve people’s problems.

We also talked a lot about the idea of having a way to make a living in a way that would allow us to see our kids (we’re a family of six), possibly living anywhere in the world.

Start where you are

I’ve spent the last few years in the world of “companies that build companies” — looking at the process of studios and corporations creating startups. Not at the conceptual level, I mean by writing lots of code and designing useful things. The code equivalent of the “wax on, wax off” scene from Karate Kid (I’m showing my age).

Emily, meanwhile, had been quietly building up a sizeable social media following across Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter. She’d become known for her face-to-face photography workshops so going online seemed sensible.

So we applied all the theory that I’d been teaching and following in my work to what Emily had been doing as her passion, and set up a very simple page to offer:

An online course that helps you improve your photography to promote what you do via Instagram, Pinterest and your blog.

We set the course up in a really basic way, just using Squarespace, Mailchimp and Stripe for payments. Which was a new thing for me, because I’m used to writing code for such experiments, yet for this, I didn’t write a single line. Then we used Instagram and Facebook to promote it.

People bought the course! It wasn’t “quit your day-job” territory, but for a few months, Emily’s online courses were bringing in a decent amount of income, and it was growing.

Emily’s blog she’d been running for a while was called Makelight — a play on words: making light work of getting your business idea off the ground, and making things that you communicate through light — photographs. The name stuck, and we started thinking that this had some legs.

Gather your advisors

We’re both extremely lucky to have supportive and knowledgeable friends, yet sometimes it can be hard to ask for advice — it can feel a little needy to be constantly asking people what they think if they’ve not really offered to help.

Whenever I’m working on something brand new, I try to have a healthy balance between being excited and being a little incredulous of my own idea. Having some outside advice can be really helpful so that you don’t end up putting your life savings into a fool’s errand, or worse, not following through on something that could be an amazing business because you haven’t committed to it.

We applied to Techstars’s Startup Next “pre-accelerator” programme, not so much because we needed the advice on how to do a perfect investor pitch, but mainly to surround ourselves with people (actually several people who were already friends) who’d be willing to give us their guidance.

Their advice resoundingly was…

You don’t have to take the VC path

It’s almost taken as read that if you’re a “startup” you’re looking to follow the well-trodden equity-based fundraising path. Raise some money from friends and family in return for a small stake in the business to get the first version of your business idea out into the world. Maybe apply to one of the many “accelerators”, followed by an angel investor or a group of them backing you to get to the point where you’re making some money.

Then shoot for the stars with the pitch that you’re going to build a billion-dollar business and raise several million from a venture capital firm to aggressively scale up. Then onwards to that billion-dollar end-point, where everyone along the way wins big when there’s an exit.

It’s a high-risk game, and I’ve been through it before. With Makelight, though, our motivations weren’t about “build a billion dollar business”, but more about “help lots and lots of people make a living in a new way”. Looking at the numbers, yep, there’s a billion dollar opportunity in the markets we’re looking at, for sure. But if we didn’t get to that scale within five years, that would count as a failure. We’re confident we can make something awesome, but that didn’t feel like the right pitch to make.

With Makelight we’re interested in building something for the long-term, with a happy, supportive community being a huge part of what we’re growing every day. I’m not sure that VC funding and the inevitable exit always works out too well for businesses with that community-centric approach. Looking back at some big-name communities from recent years, there are a few biggies that didn’t quite survive the transition after selling. Flickr, Tumblr, Upcoming… there are a few that do continue to thrive, like Minecraft, but it’s something to consider when choosing your path.

We kept coming back to a question: how can you set out to build a community, but avoid potential risks to that very community as you build it?

Bootstrap as far as possible

If you self-fund as far as you can, you’ll retain optionality about your future decisions. That was our reasoning, so we decided to “bootstrap” as far as possible. No pitches to investors, no “coffees to pick your brain”, just long hours turning our little idea into something that made money so we could grow it.

That really changes what you build, and how you conduct yourself. Cash flow becomes super important, so where possible we’d announce a new course, and ask our community to pre-order it, so we could afford to live while we wrote lessons and shot videos.

I started writing code, but not “make a fancy website to impress the startup community” code. It was all about finding things that were taking us time and writing tools that automated our processes. We couldn’t hire anyone — it was Emily full-time (childcare allowing), me doing consultancy during the day to pay the bills and then writing code in the evenings into the night.

Bootstrapping is super hard. There’s no safety net of a pot of investor cash to fall back on. In our case, not even any savings to throw at it. Just what we could sell on our website and what I could bill out doing the “startup studio” work. In-flipping-tense. And it’s been that way all year.

When the centre holds

We were working all hours of the day, and a lot of our outgoings were on ads, some amazing freelancer friends who jumped in to help and various things we needed for our makeshift video and photo studio we set up.

And then we had a decision to make. The contract I was working on came to an end, and we had a choice — should I look around for another project, or do what the Hassle.com founders did (I love their story!) and go all-in?

We went all-in.

A couple of months after taking that decision we hit our first $30,000 month. Since then, Emily and I have been able to make a living solely from what was a side project just a few months before.

We now have 500k social media followers, 20k people in the community, 2k paying customers and now several hundred subscribers paying monthly as part of our new membership. We’re growing, we’re giving and getting so much love back from the community! We occasionally ask “How likely are you to recommend us to a friend?” And we have a Net Promoter Score that seems to be holding at 80 — I’m aware it’s not a perfect measure, but it’s motivating to hear how people are feeling.

The excitement of finding an area with so many unsolved problems

I’ve been absolutely amazed by how many opportunities there are to solve problems for the folks in our community. They’re mainly female, mainly existing or aspiring creative small-business-owners, smart, ambitious and eager to be part of a supportive community. Every day I find myself wishing for more time (and more team) so I can fix the problems they tell us about.

Our Instagram Analytics tool, Makelight Insights, works out your monthly colour palette

My background is in computer science and AI, I ran a design agency, and I’m mostly known for making lots of tiny experimental prototypes.

What’s been fascinating building Makelight so far is that I spend most of my days talking to our customers and users. In fact, offering online courses, we’re in listening mode all the time, finding problems that we could help with, then making a course to help them. And repeat.

But on top of the community and courses we offer, we’re going down the Moz.com path of building useful tools too. The AI + design + prototyping is proving super useful, and our Instagram colour analytics and hashtag research tools aren’t just there for show — they’re really helping us be useful and grow.

I’ve got a pretty long list of potentially valuable tools, and because we have a membership revenue model, we can keep making and releasing them and know that they’re helping us and the community at the same time. In particular, applying AI / Machine Vision / API-wrangling to problems that people have in our community seems like something that has huge potential.

Getting to the next level

So, we’re excited and have big plans! Yet, here’s the big question on our minds…

How to best fund your growth once you’ve proven your bootstrapped project has some legs?

Right now, it feels like we’ve got the beginnings of an awesome community, a tiny, passionate team and a business that’s growing, with some strong metrics. We can see so many areas that we can build on, but I have to be honest here, I’m feeling a little frustrated that our bootstrapping cash flow is holding us back!

Angel investment? Crowdfunding? A loan? There are so many options to consider for funding nowadays, all with positives and negatives, yet we’ve all heard how hard it is for early stage businesses to get access to funding.

We’ve spent the last little while checking and double-checking our data, writing a wiki about our plan, looking at all the options and preparing. Right now, it’s time to work out how to grow this thing!

I’m writing this because I know that a lot of people write about what they’re working on before this point (here’s what we’re planning, it’ll be great!), or after this point (here’s what we did, check it out!). Maybe we’re overlooking some of the more interesting points about startup life…

If you have thoughts to share or know of stories of people taking a similar bootstrapped, family-centric path, I’d love to hear from you.

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