Sunday, May 28, 2017

How I Work Full Time and Run a (Mostly) Passive-Income Business on the Side

Spoiler Alert: I am not going to tell you a secret that requires no work and makes you millions, because those kinds of things just aren't real. 

It didn't take me long to learn that there are two ways to increase your wealth: cut your expenses and increase your income. Usually, becoming wealthy takes a lot of both. So while some people spend time "saving" money with coupons and scouring the earth for the best deal which may or may not be for something they actually need, or buying in bulk and having to store their goods for months on end, I focus on increasing my income so that I don't have to be a penny-pincher. And truthfully, a lot of my energy goes towards my day job, because I know if I kick butt there, I will be eligible for raises, promotions and bonuses, and I also regularly look at external jobs that I could interview for. All that being said, if you're still with me, I'm more than happy to share with you what I do as a sort of hobby that also earns me a little bit of "fun money," that also serves as a creative outlet for me.

I've found a little corner of the interwebs where I can design patterns, primarily for fabrics, but also for wallpaper, wrapping paper and decals. I create the designs in the

crude but effective PowerPoint, upload them, proof them (this costs a little bit of money) and then mark them for sale and earn commissions. When a customer orders one of my patterns, they select what fabric or format they want it on, then the website handles the order processing, printing the pattern onto the selected fabric to the specified size the customer ordered, and shipping it. And even before the product is shipped, the commission has dropped into my account, where it accumulates until I either spend it (usually on more proofs) or it gets paid out on a bi-weekly basis into my PayPal account. What's nice is that by using the site I use, my job is "mostly" done once a pattern is for sale. So essentially, there is some basic setup, and then money starts trickling in.
The caveat is that the infamous myth of "if you build it, they will come," is rarely true in our hyperconnected, attention-sucking world. I find there is a strong correlation between "driving traffic" through the use of social media posts and word of mouth, and my commissions. In other words, I make more money when I actively drive traffic to my designs, rather than relying on people to seek my designs out. So again, I could call it quits when I complete a design and get it up for sale. But I choose to take a more active approach to drive sales. The good news is that this also requires just a little bit of setup, and then is super simple and quick after that. So let's talk about the actual mechanics and routine of my little fabric design business.

Friday evenings I often have down time, and am exhausted from my work week. If I have noted some ideas for designs, I usually turn on the TV mostly for background noise and start idly playing with the shapes and colors of my design ideas. If I don't have any ideas queued up, I might seek out inspiration via TV, movies, YouTube, design sites and/or by reaching out. Inspiration can come from anywhere! I will often collect several ideas on a Pinterest board before getting started. The creative juices start flowing, and I often feel the sensation of getting a second wind despite being mentally tired from the workweek.

I put all my new designs in a collection, and unless I have an urgent request or feel the need to get out on the market within a week or two, I usually wait until I have at least 12 designs to proof, to reduce the cost of each proof. I usually have some recent income in my account, so the cost of proofing comes out of my income, which I don't consider in my personal budgeting anyways so it's like it's free. Once I receive my proofs, barring any issues with the way they look printed, I put them up for sale and move them into their permanent collections (just a few clicks).
Then I arrange the physical fabrics and take a few pictures, crop the pictures and create social media posts with the pictures and links to the designs. I also add the pictures to the design pages. These social media posts then become part of my rotation of posts. Most weekends, usually on Sunday, while watching TV or riding as a passenger somewhere, getting a pedicure, etc, I will use Hootsuite to schedule posts for the next week or two, to continue driving traffic. The big secret here is that I scroll through my previous posts, select the retweet option, and then remove the part in the message that makes it a retweet, so then it looks like a fresh, new tweet even if I haven't changed up the wording at all. I use the Autoschedule function which makes it super quick to schedule many posts in one sitting. I can do it in bed, while in the bathroom, while waiting for someone, while riding as a passenger, whenever I have internet and a few idle moments. About a week's worth of messages can be scheduled in about 20 or 30 minutes, and then I'm done for the week!

About once a month or so, usually on the weekends, I will respond to customer purchases (I usually wait at least two weeks to give the customer time to receive the fabric and start their project so I'm top of mind when they're working on it, not when they're waiting for it to arrive) and any messages from customers. Every time I get a purchase from a user, (there are guest purchases whom I can't contact) I make sure to do four things: (1) Thank the customer for their purchase, (2) Invite her to share a picture of the finished product with me so I can show off her work, (3) Provide a link to designs they may also be interested in (within my portfolio) based on what they've bought, and (4) Ask the customer to reach out to me if they have requests for similar designs with different colors, or any other ideas we can work on together. When customers send me pictures of their creations (which are way better than what I could make on my own), I get great free marketing material!  Of course, I only share with permission, but using my customers' feedback and pictures is much more fruitful and easier than coming up with my own graphics and content. 

That's it. That's all I do, and it's not really every weekend that I attend to my business other than scheduling social media posts from Hootsuite. It may be once a month, or maybe six weeks go by before I return to design work or responding to customers. I primarily make sure to have social media messages scheduled, and I make money daily. Again, it's not a lot of money, but it's real money I can use for charity or travel, and the little bit of effort it takes is also relaxing, fun and inspiring, so it's good for my soul!

The site I use is called Spoonflower, but before you jump immediately to that site and create your profile, keeping reading, because fabric patterns are not the only way to do this, and there is also a little bit more to think about. 

Find something you enjoy doing and happen to be good at. This may be easier said than done (trust me, I have a ton of passions and have been called unfocused more than once), but it's generally free or cheap to experiment, and failure can teach us as much as success. If you can't think of anything interesting and extraordinary to do, consider (1) taking a class at your local community college, library or arts center, (2) browsing Twitter for trends/topics that interest you, and then do more research to become an expert, (3) perusing for examples of things people do and get inspired, and/or (4) practicing a variety of arts and skills until you find a niche that stands out to you.

Don't quit your dayjob, or endanger it. Seriously, this is not a blog about how to start a business that will make you millions. But just as important, don't start a side business that competes, or can be perceived as competing, with your dayjob. Conflict of interest is a serious issue that can lead to getting a person fired, or at least in trouble, and isn't worth it. Besides, who wants to do more of the same? Variety is the spice of life; I find my work on the side liberates different parts of my brain and personality. My dayjob is somewhat analytical, so my side business is creative, fun and relaxing. Also, it's important not to use company resources, work time or work connections for your side business, to avoid conflict of interest issues again.

List your wares. We live in a global marketplace where the most niche products can find customers and novel ideas and content can go viral with millions of viewers. The first step to getting out there is finding your corner of this marketplace. Etsy is perhaps one of the most well-known marketplaces for crafts and art forms, but there are many other platforms on which you can express yourself. CafePress is another one that comes to mind, but do a Google search for "personalized gifts" and you'll find sites where you can upload designs and sell them pretty readily. I like the Spoonflower model because there's no fee for uploading or listing them for sale. Again, Spoonflower handles the order processing, production and shipment, so for that they get the bulk of the revenue, but I get a little percentage-based commission for every purchase of my fabric.

Promote and drive traffic. Coming back to perhaps the biggest myth of entrepreneurship, the, "If you build it, they will come," mantra. If you make a great product people are looking for, and you do your SEO (keywords & tags) right, you will get some traffic and maybe some sales that way. But for the most part, your work has only begun when you've posted your design. In many ways, people need to know a product is out there before they know they want it. I try to inspire the crafty-minded people with my messaging, and also use hash tags that help non-followers find my posts. I usually post new designs to facebook only once, but I will repeat posts on Twitter.

Here I would advise you to be sensitive to your social networks - many people are turned of by soliciting on facebook, and you may find yourself unfriended if you persist. So for facebook, I tend to make it more about, "Look at this cool thing I did," and less about, "Buy my new design." Customer pictures are a great example of something I feel I can share on facebook, because I give them a shoutout instead of making it about selling my product. Save the hard sales for Twitter, where you can post regularly and many of your posts will get lost in the shuffle until the right people come across the right ones.
Hootsuite is an invaluable tool for scheduling posts across multiple social media platforms and accounts, and it's free for a limited number of accounts, but well worth the upgraded account. At a minimum, try the free version when you are working on starting your business.  I won't get into keywords and SEO here, because that's a huge topic, but if you are unfamiliar with these topics, Google them to understand a little bit better about how to use the right language to get picked up in search in the best way possible. 

One other point on promoting through social media: make sure it's "social" and not just free advertising. Think about trying to inspire people, including creating content such as a how-to or a catalog of inspiration. A good rule of thumb is that you should have at least 3 "soft sell" or helpful content posts for every "hard sell" post (i.e. "Buy my product"). 

Use pictures. This is a no-brainer in social media these days, but for the novice, it must be said. Posts with graphics get way better visibility than plain text or text with links. Make great graphics, drive more traffic. I like to use pictures my customers send me (more on this later) to help inspire new customers and show my admiration of my customers' skill.

Make what customers want. This is another point that may seem easier said than done, but I think you'll find its actually easier than you think. Anyone familiar with the lean startup methodology understands that asking customers upfront can save you time and effort down the road. The trick, I've found, is asking the right questions. If you ask questions that are too generic, you're putting the burden of the creative process on the customer, and I think you'll find, as I have, that most people are not all that creative. If, on the other hand, you ask questions that are too specific, you'll get false positives - that is, you'll get reassurances like "yeah, that's a great idea," but the income won't follow because it's not necessarily what people want. Here's an example from my business: I have found that recreating fabric patterns from popular characters has been profitable, so I will ask facebook friends, fellow nerds, and previous customers, "What is your favorite cartoon character?" Or, "What movie are you looking forward to most this year?" Not all characters have a distinctive fabric pattern associated with them, but the answers to these questions can at least give me leads to look into and get inspired.

Engage your customers. It may be obvious to some people, but it was a major revelation for me when I realized that people who have bought my fabric are the people most likely to buy my fabric in the future. My customers (a) either have some disposable income to spend on fabrics or are using the fabrics for their own business, (b) are obviously interested in fabric crafts, and (c) have access to my fabric store. From a target market perspective it doesn't get much more targeted than that! While some of my best-selling designs were original ideas, many of my top sellers originated with a request from a customer that had bought something else first. Probably my biggest success story was a request from a previous customer that, once completed and listed for sale, she shared with all her friends, and within a week, I had about 5x my normal income, and it quickly became popular among strangers too. When you do something your customer wants and loves, the reciprocity of word of mouth is powerful!

Make a routine. What I've tried to describe here so far are some general guidelines and specific examples of getting your (mostly) passive income business set up. Once you have found something you either have confidence in or are committed to experimenting with, get a routine down. As alluded to before, there may be some truly passive income of people searching for your exact product, but I consider my business less passive than that. 

It's not a lot of work, but with a steady routine of just a little bit of effort, I keep a steady stream of extra "fun money" coming in.  And who doesn't want a little more money every two weeks? 

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