I’ve had a few entrepreneur adventures over the years, and they’ve all been successful failures. I’ve built up tiny businesses and then shut them down as lost causes. I’ve made some money, I’ve been broke, and I’ve learned some things along the way. It all started back in 1994, around the time I was graduating from high school.
Since that time, I’ve have done the following things as an entrepreneur: Personal fitness trainer, freelance web developer, writer and publisher, and outdoor and survival gear online store. The following is an overview of those ventures. Stick around until the end for lessons learned.
Being a Personal Trainer
I’ve always loved fitness — lifting weights and bodybuilding — so when I decided to take a gap year between high school and college, I took a personal trainer certification course. This was when such things were new, so it was a local organization. I wish I had been smarter about the certification, because having a nationally recognized organization certify me would have been wise.
At the beginning, however, no one cared. All that mattered was that I knew what I was doing. I aced the course and then tried to figure out how to drum up some clients. There were two main obstacles I had to overcome. First of all, I was a small (but fit) 18 year old kid. Even if I was a total genius about everything, I would still have a credibility barrier to overcome. Anyone who is older than 18 knows that 18 year olds don’t know anything. Only 18 year olds don’t know this. The second obstacle was that I had no clue how to conduct business.
My dad knew a little about running a business, so he gave me some tips. One of which was extraordinarily not helpful. I guess he thought I knew more than I did, because he basically just told me that since I wasn’t in college yet, drumming up business was my full time job and I had to work 8-5 at it every day. That’s all fine and dandy, but…how?
We didn’t cover that at all, so most of my days were spent sitting in my “office” (which was a desk in my bedroom) thinking of ways to get business. Which means I spent nearly all day staring at the wall thinking about anything but getting clients. I had no idea where to even start. I started a business with a technical skillset, but I had no idea how to run a business.
Eventually, it all worked out and I got some regular clients and made their muscles burn. I did this work for several years, either in part-time or full-time status, while I went to college and a little bit after I completed my degree. However, I never made the kind of money the certification advertisements said I could make. I guess that was my first real lesson in marketing — hype and results are two different things.
Writing and Publishing
As you can see, my writing and publishing business is actually still active. I make some money, but not a lot. My lofty aspirations fell flat after dreaming too big and executing too small.
It all started on one cold, stormy night…
Once upon a time, I decided I should write novels. I liked reading them, so why not write them? Interestingly enough, about the same time, I started a business blog called Cube Escape. This was back in about 2005, and the blog had the subtitle, “Business by the seat of my pants.” It was about me not having any idea what I was doing. I was off to a bold start, looking at learning how to write both fiction and non-fiction at the same time.
I was blogging about what I didn’t know, and writing short stories to learn how to tell a story.
Then I got an interesting packet in the mail — a sales letter about copywriting. I had no idea what that was (remember, I was writing about business and had no clue about Internet marketing…oddly enough, even though I was in MBA school at the time), but I was intrigued. I took the course, offered by AWAI, and learned about persuasive writing with the intent to sell. That’s when things got interesting.
I used those skills to write and sell my first ebook, initially through Clickbank, then later Amazon KDP. I applied those skills to what I was learning about Internet marketing and later grew my web development and survival gear store ventures. More on those below.
Since starting, I’ve consolidated most of my writing and publishing to this site — which has been torn apart, taken down, and completely re-done about four times now — and publishing books on Amazon.
I’m making a little bit of money every month, and have plans to make a lot more in the future. Here is one of my fiction books, Sepulcher Unbound #1, and the non-fiction book that started my for-profit publishing venture, The Bug Out Bag Book.
Online Survival and Outdoor Gear Store
I had been trying to figure out Internet marketing and online business for a while, so I decided to apply what I’d been learning to a store. My first ebook and this store venture worked well together, with one feeding the sales of the other. My online store drop-shipped survival, outdoor, and military-style gear to customers.
Things started off at a crawl, and I tried using a couple of different shopping cart solutions until I settled on Zen Cart, an open source shopping cart solution. Eventually, I was able to get up to several sales per week. I didn’t pay for any marketing, because I was broke and bootstrapping this venture. I did all of the work myself, including site design and setting up our email pop-up form that immediately increased conversions. I offered a 10% off coupon in exchange for an email address, and I got a few hundred in the first couple of months.
The main problem with this store was lack of substantial profit. Because of how much I had to pay for each item and how cheaply other stores were selling the same things, I had to keep my profits low. I only made a few dollars on each sale. I once sold a couple of pallets of MRE cases to a city in Kentucky, and my profit off that sale was only about $300.
With profits so low, I really need to be a low-cost, high-volume operation for survival and outdoor enthusiasts. While I did have a good focus on my target customer, I had no idea how to drive substantial traffic to the site. I also didn’t have the budget to pay someone to drive traffic for me, or to buy ads.
After a couple of years, I closed up shop and moved on. I learned a lot, however, so it was a great experience.
Freelance Web Developer Business
When I started my freelance web development business, I had been working as a regular employee of cheap and/or poor companies in a poor area of the country. Naturally, I thought I could do better on my own. By chance, I got a lot of work from a local advertising agency, learned a lot, and worked on-site most of the time.
Looking back, maybe they were taking advantage of my relaxed nature and didn’t pay me much at all. I guess I would do something similar in their position. I was happy to have work, however, so I didn’t pay much attention to how little my hourly rate really was. To make more money (I really, really needed it), I took on more work outside of this full-time service agreement I already had.
I also dabbled in mobile app development, writing and publishing a few unsuccessful but still downloaded Android applications.
The end result was that I worked almost all the time, and didn’t make a whole lot of money. What I did get, however, was a lot of valuable experience. And I was successful enough to keep it going for two years before throwing in the towel and getting a job.
During this time, I learned how to pitch my services, write effective bids, and market myself as a consultant. I also learned that freelance web development can quickly become a race to the bottom. Who can offer the most services for the least amount of money? It was hard competing with developers from India and Pakistan who could charge $250 for about $2000 worth of work.
More work for less money eventually led to my exit.
How Does All This Apply to You?
Thanks for indulging me on this little walk down memory lane. I’m sure you’re wondering how these little business snippets apply to you…
Each of these businesses ended in some kind failure or didn’t meet my expectations, but each was laced with success along the way. Here are some lessons I learned, and I hope you can just read them and apply the concepts instead of having to live through them yourself.
- Business is a set of skills you learn and become more effective at over time. Don’t worry so much if you don’t get something right away. Keep at it, keep learning, and things will start to fall into place.
- You don’t have to be born for entrepreneurship. Dreaming big, setting goals, creating systems, and taking action on those dreams are not something you either have or don’t. You can develop those skills. If you can see a business, move towards creating it, and then start working, guess what…you’re an entrepreneur (but can you be a successful, self-sustaining one?).
- Small, incremental changes make a big difference over time. I get that we all want a whole lot of success right friggin’ now. Unfortunately, that’s rare. What isn’t so rare, however, is a steady march toward improvement. When my online gear store wasn’t getting sales, I made a little change to capture leads and encourage buying — the coupon in exchange for an email. It worked. That small change led to more sales. When I was freelancing, each bid I wrote was a little better than the last one. I learned how to land jobs, and kept the work coming in.
- Systems are effective, so use them. Instead of just sitting down at your desk each day and doing whatever, learn to be more effective by utilizing systems. For example, Tim Ferriss recommends dealing with email in batches. Systematic approaches take the guesswork out of performing a task, and they introduce consistency into your actions. If you find a system that consistently produces results, use it.
- Productivity is about removing the unnecessary. It’s not about cramming more tasks into every hour. For each activity you do, examine it and find things you can cut out of the process. Some steps can be removed, and others can be consolidated. For everything that you do, have a good reason. If you can’t think of a good reason to do something, just stop. When you remove the useless or repetitive, you leave more time and energy to focus on what’s really important.
Being an entrepreneur is hard work, but it’s work that anyone can do. All you need to start is an idea and the tenacity to chase it down, flesh it out, and build it into something awesome.