This guest post is by Chris Guillebeau of ChrisGuillebeau.com.
More than a decade ago, I began a lifelong journey of self-employment “by any means necessary.”
I never planned to be an entrepreneur—I just didn’t want to work for someone else. From a cheap apartment, I watched what other people had done and tried to reverse-engineer their success. I started by importing coffee from Jamaica and sold it online because I saw other people making money from it; I didn’t have any special skills in importing, roasting, or selling.
Since then, I’ve never looked back, always working for myself and making a good living entirely through online ventures. And I’m no longer alone: in different ways, thousands of people from all over the world have also taken matters into their own hands. They are rewriting the rules of work, becoming their own boss, and creating a new future.
It all sounds so simple: pick something you love and build a business around it. Start an online storefront, become a problogger, and strike it rich. Cha-ching! But is it really that easy? As you might expect—or as you might have experienced in your own efforts—the real answer is more complex.
That’s why I dived into the real story.
Over the past three years I’ve been working with a group of 1,500 “unexpected entrepreneurs.” Most of these people had never gone to business school, didn’t have a lot of money, and in some cases, never intended to work for themselves. They simply found a way to make something interesting and share it with the world—and along the way, they ended up creating a serious income of at least $50,000 a year.
I learned a few surprising lessons from this group.
First, not all hobbies or passions are created equal
You can’t just pursue any passion—there are plenty of things you may be passionate about, but no one will pay you for them. I like to eat pizza, but not matter how passionate I am, its doubtful I could craft a career around my love for mushrooms and black olives. Instead, I had to find something more interesting to the rest of the world.
Whatever your situation is, you must continually focus on how your project can help other people, and why they’ll care about what you’re offering in the first place.
Next, most people don’t make money directly from their hobby or passion, but from something related
Nev Lapwood was a snowboarding instructor in British Columbia, Canada. He got by and paid the bills on the slopes, but competition was tough—and besides, the work was seasonal. Then Nev created a series of snowboarding DVDs and found his real calling. The business now earns a multi-six figure annual income.
In my case, I began a writing career several years ago by sharing stories about a quest to visit every country in the world, but I don’t get paid for that. I have to create value in my business like anyone else does. Without real value, I wouldn’t get paid, and the travel would be just a hobby (albeit a passionate one).
To be successful, find the magic formula between passion and usefulness
To understand how passion can sometimes translate into a profitable business, you must develop a skill that provides a solution to a problem. Only when passion merges with a skill that other people value can you truly “follow your passion to the bank.”
Another way to think about it is:
(Passion + Skill) → (Problem + Marketplace) = Opportunity
In Reno, Nevada, Mignon Fogarty created the QD Network, best known for her signature show Grammar Girl. The show was a huge hit almost from the beginning, spawning a line of books, related programs, and non-stop media attention. But before she was Grammar Girl, Mignon pursued a similar idea in an unsuccessful attempt to build popularity through podcasting. Here’s how she tells the story:
“Before I launched the successful Grammar Girl podcast, I was the host of a science podcast called Absolute Science. I loved doing that show and I was passionate about it. I actually put more effort into promoting that show than I did for the Grammar Girl podcast, and although Absolute Science was well-received, after doing it for nearly a year it was clear that the show was never going to make enough money to make it worth the time required to produce it.”
Mignon changed course, trading science for grammar. The answer wasn’t to abandon her passion altogether, but rather to make sure she connected the right passion with the right audience.
- “Absolute Science”: Passion… but not enough audience.
- “Grammar Girl”: Passion… and a substantial audience.
What goes up, goes up further
It’s easy and fun to grow your business or blog once it’s up and running.
That’s why the first sale, the first client, or the first source of income is so important. Many business owners I talked with earned hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and several earned more than one million dollars a year. In every case, they got to that point by starting small and making continuous improvements along the way.
Once you’ve found a winning formula, that’s when you spend your time on tweaks, the small-and-regular changes that will continue to increase income and influence.
When I asked our group of unexpected entrepreneurs about the follow-your-passion model, I frequently heard a nuanced answer. Almost no one said, “Yes! You should always follow your passion wherever it leads.” Similarly, almost no one dismissed the idea offhand. The nuance comes from the idea that passion plus good business sense creates an actual business.
Can you transition to a meaningful life oriented around something you love to do? Yes. Can you make money doing it? Yes, and you have plenty of examples to learn from—I talked with 1,500 people for the study that led to The $100 Startup, and all of them provided detailed financial information on how much money they made and how much it cost to start their business.
Is there a path you can follow for your own plan to follow your passion to the bank? Indeed, yes. Just make sure you create something that changes people’s lives. That’s where you’ll ultimately find your freedom.
Chris Guillebeau’s new book, The $100 Startup, provides a blueprint for creating freedom by building a business with no special skills and a small amount of money. Chris also writes for a small army of remarkable people at ChrisGuillebeau.com.