After almost two years of trying, I'm sharing my failed attempt at making a living being a full-time creator and the five lessons I've learned.
Before we begin, I want to make clear I recognize, and am grateful for, my place of privilege in this journey. I hope that someday every human is afforded equal opportunity but fully recognize that day might never come.
Any non-traditional job that requires working for yourself is hard, really, really hard. I went into this ride in December 2019 fully aware of that, or so I thought. I mean hey, I took entrepreneurship when I got my MBA, I felt ready. I'll give you a minute to compose yourself from your laughter. I am also acutely aware I took the most difficult path. I left my full-time role with no idea what I was going to do, no network, no audience, no clients, no products, no community, no therapist, but with a solid financial runway, the most supportive partner I could ever ask for and blind faith that it would all just work out somehow.
Now that we've set the stage, you can see I like to make things hard on myself. The good news; my spectacular failure on this venture led to even better lessons learned. I hope these help save you some headache but remember, context is everything. My journey isn't and won't be yours.
Lesson 1: Must love Marketing
If you're new around here, first let me start by saying I'm not a marketer, at all. In fact, I really hate marketing and I don't use that word lightly. I've taken courses, workshops, listened to endless podcasts, read newsletters, interviewed experts and nothing has ever made me feel comfortable about marketing. Part of that has to do with the fact that I am more comfortable behind the scenes, don't like to self promote, and have trouble asking for money (more on that later); the other part, I hear the word marketing and think "selling the best case scenario". Nothing could be further from the truth. Done well, or rather correctly, you as the customer have no idea it was "marketing material". This isn't a knock on marketers, I'm actually insanely jealous of their talents. It's an important personal observation and was the cause of my overall failure. I love creating content, but have never been able to find my rhythm when it comes to marketing.
My first failed attempt was long before I left my corporate gig. I had just started a podcast, Can I Tell You Something Funny, and thought all I had to do was upload it, tell my friends and it would suddenly take off. I had done no research into podcasting, had no idea how hard it was, how much work it takes to record, produce, edit and promote a show. Sponsorships, ads, marketing, all felt overwhelming, so I just didn't do any of it. I love the creation and that was enough for me. As you might guess the show wasn't a viral sensation, but because I loved the creation aspect, I overlooked the role marketing could play in helping to grow. Fast forward to when I left my full-time role and this trend continued. I loved making, learned about marketing, and swiftly ignored it when the time came. Another podcast launched, Talks With SaraNoSocks, no marketing outside a sound bite, a product launch, Podcast Ops, marketed with a few twitter threads that got minimal traction but lead to my first dollar on the internet, success! The trend continued as I moved into building a newsletter, freelancing and consulting first with a failed attempt in design and currently as a community operations consultant. Each time marketing would have brought me far more success, but my lack of understanding, overall dislike and financial inability to hire help set me up for failure from the start.
The lesson: To become a successful full-time creator, you also need to be an amazing marketer or have the financial means to hire it out. You have to understand marketing to get your content out into the world and in front of others.
Lesson 2: Three faces of Isolation
The draw of going out on your own is also a drawback as you get deeper in. Being your own boss also means that you are everything else. Customer support, social media, marketing, accounting, account management, sales, product, and everything else in between. A team of one sounds great and is initially, but if you've come from a traditional background and been fortunate enough to work on a high performing team, it starts to get lonely. You're isolated physically, working from home or even at a shared space, but yet it's just you. Mentally isolated as you're going through all the emotions with no team to help or bounce ideas off of. Finally financially isolated because if you're not working, or haven't created a product that is sold while you're sleeping, there isn't any money coming in.
As the isolation starts to build, it takes people in three directions. Of course there are nuanced cases, but overall, these seem to be the three main groups of folks I have encountered.
- One group embraces the isolation and feels the stress of it slip away (if it was every an issue to begin with). This is by far the smallest percentage, anecdotally speaking. Humans after all are generally social and want to connect with others on some level.
- Another group finds community or partners with other freelancers to form referrals and work collectively. I find the majority of successful solopreneurs in this group. There are countless thriving communities in this space around the globe sharing and supporting each other.
- The third group, recognize that working alone just isn't for them, even with a community and or co-founder. Eventually they seek out a new full-time role. I think this is a far larger group than we're aware of but society has taught us that we shouldn't share our failure and so these folks are harder to find. Brave and courageous are those who openly share how hard it was and that it wasn't for them.
As you might have guessed, for me the isolation only intensified. Physically, I was working remote before long before it was cool, and I'm in a lot of communities online and locally so I didn't feel physically isolated. Mentally, however, was brutal. I'm a collaborative person. I thrive working on small teams and love having people to bounce ideas around and share feedback. The idea that I am part of a team working towards a collective goal has always been something I find rewarding. That's lost in the solo world. I was on an island, working only for myself, helping a few along the way, it was a huge disconnect. That disconnect fueled much deeper mental health issues and a very unhealthy pattern began to emerge for much of 2021. The final staw was the financial isolation of feeling like I can never truly take a day off. A lifelong over-worker, being my own boss hasn't done me any favors in terms of resting. I find that no matter where I am I can't mentally disconnect from my job and that is not healthy.
The lesson: Success as a solo anything requires you to be okay with knowing that it's a team of one, always. Support is out there, from friends, family, peers, community, but at the end of the day, it's just you. Understanding who you are and how you work before entering the space as well as having a mental health professional to assist is vital.
Lesson 3: A captive audience
As you might recall I mentioned I started this journey with no idea what I was going to do, no network and no audience.
Did I listen, read and watch all the things on why this was not the way to do it? Yes.
Did I think it wouldn't be a big deal? Also yes.
Was I completely burnt out and not thinking clearly? More than I knew at the time.
Every creator needs an audience. I'm no expert on audience building, niching down or distribution and we already covered marketing so you can imagine why this was such a big factor in my lack of success. I had a goal to document every step as I transitioned from corporate to creator. Vlogging my life on YouTube, sharing what I was learning, what I was making and what I failed at along the way. After a month of recordings that were never published I realized I was terrified to actually share that with the world. A real problem when it comes to audience building. Call it impostor syndrome, call it fear of failure, for me it was and still is fear of being seen. As much as we all want success, not everyone wants the spotlight and sharing anything on the vastness that is the internet can be extremely intimidating. So I was back to square one, no plan, but a love for creating and blind faith it would eventually all work out. I started to experiment with no code tools, tutorials, graphic design, design, podcasting, newsletters, community, changing social media platforms and everything in between. The problem, I was never clear on who it was for or why anyone would be interested. The irony, I do finally feel like I am starting to build an audience, THANK YOU to each and every one of you.
The lesson: Creators are creating for themselves first, but need an audience if they are meaning to make a living from what they are doing. Experimentation is part of the process but can be done while you're still working your 9-5.
Lesson 4: Money
The draw of the creator economy is that "you can make money doing literally anything". The reality is that statement is half true. You can make money, it's whether or not you can make a living that becomes the sticking point. I've made money and I couldn't be prouder that strangers on the internet paid me for something I created, but I haven't been able to make a living. I learned very quickly that not making consistent income was the norm, and I was financially prepared with a solid runway. That hasn't been my main issue around money.
I have trouble asking for money for my goods and services and I have trouble spending money on myself. There have been many times I knew if I hired someone or spent money on a product that could help with areas I was lacking, it would move the needle. There's a much deeper discussion here we won't dive into today, but combined with the lack of marketing, limited to no audience, and isolation, this became a perfect storm that has never cleared.
The lesson: Having a financial runway is essential but understanding your relationship with money, including how you feel about spending it on yourself and asking for it from others before you enter the solo journey are musts.
Lesson 5: Ideas aren't enough
Ideas are these amazing little rays of sunshine that break through the clouds. They come at the strangest times, when you're taking a shower to trying to go to sleep. They always seem like the next big thing and make us feel like we will finally have it all. They aren't enough. I, like countless other creators, have had hundreds of ideas, and many of them I rolled with, because why not? The great thing about having no plan was it allowed me the excuse to experiment with these ideas. This month I'll build this web app, next month I'll learn to YouTube, ohh, now I know I'll start that planner I always wanted. The problem is, these experiments didn't have an underlying theme. I had no connector other than I was trying to figure out what I liked enough to continue learning. Ideas need to solve a problem, they need to be a solution or they need to entertain and not just for you, but for an audience and customer that are willing to actually spend money on them.
Rather than ideas you should be looking for problems you might be able to solve. When I entered into this journey I had countless problems in my everyday work that I knew I could build better solutions to. As I moved further from my exit, the problems shifted to ideas and eventually just words on paper. There is so much a 9-5 can do for us, but one of the most often overlooked benefits is the real world insight into actual customer problems. How many successful stories have we heard of founders who worked in a traditional role and left to build a solution to a problem they discovered while working.
The lesson: Ideas are great, but success comes from solutions to problems. Problems arise in all areas of life, but you increase exposure when you have a 9-5.
I've learned more about myself over the last 22 months than I could have ever thought possible. I have gone through every emotion, seen the highest of highs and lowest of lows. I've embraced how to learn, try, fail and teach.
Here's the highlights of what I have done over the past 22 months:
- Set up an LLC, business contracts and business finances
- Filed a trademark, SaraNoSocks®
- Learned video editing, how to make tutorials and advanced podcast editing
- Learned Adobe Software (Premier Pro, Rush, Audition, Illustrator, Photoshop)
- Learned how to use Figma, Miro, Webflow, Squarespace, Wix, Airtable, Zapier, Integromat, Notion, Convertkit, Mailchimp, Descript, Circle, to name a few
- Built and revised Helping Creatives and Community Findr
- Created templates for and tutorials about Webflow
- Volunteered with Nelson (ThePixelGeek) in the PixelGeek Community
- Launched Talks With SaraNoSocks (June 2020) where I recorded, edited and produced 94 episodes to date with many more to come
- Launched a YouTube Channel
- Took on clients to help them with LMS setup, Webflow, tutorials & community ops.
- Became the first Creator In Residence for Makerpad
- Built and sold copies of a podcasting operating system
- Taken 14 design classes/courses/programs including mentorship with Dann Petty, Dan Mall's Make Design Systems People Want to Use and Devon Ko's 3D for Designers
- Helped Dann Petty build and manage the Design Full-time Community
- Taken creator courses such as: Supercharge Your Productivity Cohort 7, Rosieland Adventure, T-30 Makerpad Challenge
- Learned how to transfer my past skills to community operations
- Presented on Community for Makerpad, Orbit, and Community Conference 2021
- Joined and participate in 10 communities for creators, designers & community builders
- Met the most amazing people, many of whom I am fortunate enough to call friends
The time has come for me to close the chapter on making a living as a full-time creator. I'll never stop creating, but this journey has taught me that sometimes a hobby is just a hobby and that's more than okay. I'm on to the next adventure searching for my full-time first community ops or product manager role at a community first remote startup. Don't be shy, send those opportunities my way😁