How to Lead a Fascinating Life but Make No Money: My Year in Writing

Lawless poster with Tom HardyThe more interesting the work, the less it pays – that’s the rule I uncovered in 2012. It’s the reason why technical writers are paid well (you want to write a help guide for Sharepoint?) while film reviewers are paid poorly (you get to see movies!).

However, it was a great learning experience to meet so many creative folks. Truly inspiring to meet people who had written books, made movies and created web sites.

The highlight of the year was the work I did for On Tap, the free monthly entertainment magazine in DC. There’s still a special thrill to see your name in print that no digital facsimile can replace. I wrote about Lawless, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Dark Knight Rises, V/H/S, Mansome and The Sessions. Continue reading “How to Lead a Fascinating Life but Make No Money: My Year in Writing”

The $100 Startup – Chapter Three: Follow Your Passion… Maybe

screenplay

Some books deserve a closer read. One of these is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau. Follow along as I delve into the book, chapter by chapter. I’ll breakdown each chapter, providing a sort of Cliff Notes summary. And I’ll include what you can’t find in the book, such as links to the businesses he discusses, ideas for additional reading and my own thoughts.

I’ll post my breakdown of each chapter every couple days. Get the book and follow me on Twitter at @joeflood as we read The $100 Startup.

I’m a writer. I’ve written screenplays, short stories and even two novels. Writing and (more recently) photography are my passions. I’ve followed my muse, as much as I could afford to.

But make a living at my passions? I had the dream of being a Hollywood screenwriter until I actually visited LA. And I’d love a book deal but the publishing world is in disarray these days. And the dream of being a professional photographer is undermined by countless photographers (including, at times, me) willing to work for free.

Besides, I really do like working on web sites. I love the immediacy and creativity of web publishing.

The idea that there must be some way to combine my writing, photography and web skills into some sort of coherent business is why I bought The $100 Startup.

In chapter three, Guillebeau addresses the artist within all of us, the countless people who have wanted to turn their hobbies into money-making operations.

$100 Dollar StartupThe key is to find the overlap between your passion and the what people will pay for. He puts it in this somewhat clunky formula:

(Passion + skill) -> (problem + marketplace) = opportunity.

The best example comes from Guillebeau’s own life. I first started reading his blog during his quest to visit every country in the world. Did he get paid for this? No. He gets paid through related services, like his books and guides. As Guillebeau expains:

…you don’t get paid for your hobby itself; you get paid for helping other people pursue the hobby or something indirectly related to it.

Another example is Benny Lewis. He loved learning new languages and discovered that total immersion was key to picking up a new tongue. He learned seven languages in just two years. Pushed by his friends, he developed Speak from Day One (check out the insane video).

But how do you determine what the market will pay for? A tough question, but Guillebeau offers a checklist. You need a hobby that you’re passionate about. And have other people asked you for help with this hobby? Are they willing to pay for your expertise? These questions will be explored in greater detail in chapter six.

Remember, too, the admonition from chapter two that business success comes from helping people. So, how do you use your skills in a way that helps people?

art jamzThis chapter has a lot of relevance for artists and other creative types. Not everyone wants to turn their art into a business, however. It’s one thing to take photos that you enjoy; quite another to try to sell them at a farmer’s market. Guillebeau underestimates the difficulties people may have in exposing their art to the cruelties of the marketplace.

If you decide to turn your passion into a business, choose wisely and have a thick skin.

Local Examples

I have a couple of inspiring examples of my own, people I know in Washington who have turned their passion into businesses.

  • Jon Gann created the DC Shorts Film Festival, with a desire to put on a show. Now in its ninth year, it was named as “one of 25 festivals worth an entry fee” by Moviemaker Magazine. Jon created DC Shorts because he believed that filmmakers deserved to be treated better.
  • Everyone loves stories about ex-lawyers doing something other than law, like Philippa Hughes of the Pink Line Project, a local web site covering the arts.
  • Julianne Brienza has the occasionally impossible task of running the Capital Fringe Festival every year. This Montanan has successfully brought oddball theater to serious Washington.

Full disclosure: I’ve worked with all of these people and they’re all awesome.

Bonus

Artists are at war with themselves. Creating art is making something imperfect, that’s not going to match the perfect vision in your head. On Writer’s Block is an excellent little book on overcoming this hurdle as is Do The Work.

Reading this chapter, I was reminded of Do What You Love and The Money Will Follow. Sounds like flippant advice in these dour economic times but the book’s message is that what you’re passionate about, you will do better than anyone else.

A nice companion to this chapter would be The Art of Possibility. It’s a beautiful little book about envisioning your future.

Next: Chapter Four – The Rise of the Roaming Entrepreneur

The $100 Startup – Chapter Two: Give Them the Fish

fish tank

Some books deserve a closer read. One of these is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau. Follow along as I delve into the book, chapter by chapter. I’ll breakdown each chapter, providing a sort of Cliff Notes summary. And I’ll include what you can’t find in the book, such as links to the businesses he discusses, ideas for additional reading and my own thoughts.

I’ll post my breakdown of each chapter every couple days. Get the book and follow me on Twitter at @joeflood as we read The $100 Startup.

In the first chapter, Guillebeau set the stage, like a good novelist would. He brought out his main characters (unexpected entrepreneurs) and introduced his theme: building a microbusiness.

Now, in this second chapter, we get into the work of figuring out what kind of business is best for you.

But, first, a parable, one we’re all familiar with.

Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.

$100 Dollar StartupYes, but when you go out to eat you don’t want to catch, clean and cook your own fish. You just want the fish. Give the customer what they want, instead of what you think they need.

This point is illustrated by the story of the V6 Ranch, which looks like loads of fun. This dude ranch offers more than just horse rides, they give their stressed Californian guests the chance to “escape and be someone else.”

Across the country, Kelly Newsome brings serenity to uptight Washingtonians through her yoga practice. As an ex-lawyer, she understands the pressure of the rat race better than anyone.

These two businesses understand that value means helping people. It is not about a long list of features – horse rides, yoga classes – but instead the value of the business comes from benefits. A meal by campfire is a feature; the feeling of relaxation you get is a benefit. Customers want benefits not features.

Focus on benefits when considering ideas for your own $100 startup.

Guillebeau illustrates this further with an example from his own business. He developed a product called Travel Ninja, based upon his round-the-world adventures. It was a detailed explanation of how to earn frequent flyer miles and book your own travel. It flopped. Customers were overwhelmed by the complexities of the offer. They didn’t want to know how the airline mileage system worked; they just wanted to be told what to do to get the best deals. He refined his product and developed the Travel Hacking Cartel, a simple guide to rapidly earning frequent flyer miles.

Honing in on what people actually want is key. Customers didn’t want to learn the ins and outs of the airline biz, like Guillebeau had. Instead, they wanted to travel to the places of their dreams. People aren’t attracted by features (detailed knowledge of airline programs) they just want the benefit (a memorable week in Bali).

The chapter closes with the story of Brooke Snow, a lifestyle photographer in Utah. I know a lot of talented photographers. With everyone a photographer these days, it’s a brutal business but Snow has differentiated herself by teaching classes online. This “professor of meaningful creativity” teaches courses on technique and storytelling, all of which are sold out. She shares her trade secrets, overcoming the fear that she was training the competition.

In the words of Guillebeau:

When all else fails, ask how you can help people more.

Give people what they want. Give them the fish!

For More Information

Have the dream of being a wedding photographer? My friend Mary Kate McKenna offers a reality check.

Are there too many yoga studios?

Another way to look at features vs benefits is in the recent Mad Men episode on Jaguar. Rather than pitching features in their ad (leather seats, British engineering), the team comes up a persuasive line that is all benefits, “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” It’s about the emotional experience of owning a Jaguar.

Next: Follow Your Passion… Maybe.

The $100 Startup – Chapter One: Unexpected Entrepreneurs

Some books deserve a closer read. One of these is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau. Follow along as I delve into the book, chapter by chapter. I’ll breakdown each chapter, providing a sort of Cliff Notes summary. And I’ll include what you can’t find in the book, such as links to the businesses he discusses, ideas for additional reading and my own thoughts.

I’ll post my breakdown of each chapter every couple days. Get the book and follow me on Twitter at @joeflood as we read The $100 Startup.$100 Dollar Startup

I’ve been a fan of Chris for years, being an avid reader of his popular blog and his earlier book, The Art of Noncomformity. He writes about escaping from cubicle nation and leading the kind of life that you want – a heady dream in this time of chronic recession.

What makes him different from a hundred other authors selling this idea?

Practical – He is one of the best writers on the practical details of being a freelancer or running a small business. In his books and blogs, he writes about the sometimes painful aspects of running a business, from getting publicity to organizing a product launch.

Realistic – Chris does not promise to make you rich. His work is filled with examples of everyday folks who have managed to improve their lives. The $100 Startup includes stories of real businesses, with dollar figures attached to them. Some are impressive, but others are quite modest.

Honest – I distrust books which only talk about success. Chris is honest about what’s worked and not worked in his entrepreneurial journey. The $100 Startup contains stories of disaster, as well as triumph.

But enough about Chris. What does his book say?

Chapter One: Renaissance

This first chapter sets the stage. It begins with a sadly typical story – a veteran sales professional gets unexpectedly laid off. What happens next is like a quirky episode of Portlandia. This salesman goes into the bedding business, and pioneers the industry’s first-ever mattress delivery by bicycle.

This story (and related case studies) introduce the idea of micro-entrepreneurship, an idea which has been around for centuries. These are one-person businesses. And they can be setup for less than $100. (The $100 figure is a bit arbitrary. Some of the businesses discussed in the book cost more, some less, but the point is that you can set up a business no matter how little money you have.)

The best part of The $100 Startup is that it is grounded in real stories. These case studies come from Guillebeau’s study of “unconventional, accidental entrepreneurs.” His subjects were interviewed and required to submit financial data. For the book, he profiles a wide range of “microbusinesses” that are successful and low-cost.

They were also created by people who decided to follow their passion. But they did more than just that – they found the sweet spot between what they were interested in and what the market will pay for. These businesses build upon skills that people already have. This is illustrated by the wonderful example of Scott Adams. He took his modest art skills, sense of humor and business experience to create Dilbert.

The basics of business are very simple, according to Guillebeau:

  1. Product or service: what you sell.
  2. People willing to pay for it: your customers.
  3. A way to get paid: how you’ll exchange a product or service for money.

This, of course, is the hard part and where most business books falter. They say “you can change the world!” but skip over the bothersome details.  The rest of The $100 Startup will closely examine these three concepts, down to the dollar figures of other microbusinesses.

The chapter ends with a touch of the quaint – James Kirk (really?) leaving his IT job and crossing the country to start Jamestown Coffee in South Carolina. His quote makes a nice coda to the chapter:

There was one moment very early when I realized, this is what I want to do, and this is what I am going to do. And that was that. Decision made. I’ll figure the rest out.

This theme of action bias is a constant one in Chris’s writing, the idea that it’s better to take action today rather than defer your dreams endlessly.

Summary

In this first chapter, Chris has explained the idea of microbusiness, teasing the case studies of ordinary people that he’ll examine in greater detail in the rest of the book. These inspiring tales of doing what you love are grounded in the reality of finding something fun that people will actually pay for. And owning a quaint coffee shop is the perfect story to close with, since it personifies the American Dream, 2012 edition.

Check out the video trailer for the book for more inspiration and to see what a yarn entrepreneur looks like.

Next Up: Chapter Two – Give Them The Fish, or the surprisingly uncommon idea that business should meet the needs of consumers.

Execution Trumps Strategy at What's Next DC

Execution trumps strategy, according to Rachel Tipograph, social media director for the Gap. She was a very wise speaker on the “how” of actually getting things done in large organizations. Creating meaningful experiences online is more important than endless rounds of strategy and planning. As I listened to her speak at What’s Next DC, I watched heads bobbing in agreement around the room.

Execution > Strategy. Which is how I feel about conferences devoted to social media. How can you develop the perfect social media strategy in an ever-changing environment, especially when success is determined by the audience? It’s better to dive in, create something, and see what works.

I was at What’s Next DC thanks to my own bit of execution – I made a pithy comment on the importance of storytelling on GovLoop and won a free ticket to this conference on digital marketing. Continue reading “Execution Trumps Strategy at What's Next DC”

DC Shorts – It's Back!

DC Shorts Film Festival

The DC Shorts Film Festival has returned! It’s my favorite time of year, when filmmakers from around the world come to Washington to share their cinematic visions.

This year, the festival features 145 films from 23 nations. The short films are organized into different screenings and shown at E Street Cinema, the Artisphere, the Atlas Performing Arts Center and the US Navy Memorial. The festival runs from September 8-18.

I’ve been a part of the festival for more than five years, as a judge, screenplay competition manager, photographer, volunteer wrangler and, this year, as a blogger-in-chief. What I like most about DC Shorts is that it’s a festival for filmmakers. They’re front and center, with the opportunity to receive recognition for their work. Lots of small touches make them feel welcome, like vouchers for food and a special filmmakers-only party.

This is not Hollywood. The films in the festival come from people doing it themselves. They’re not trying to win the attention of some fickle producer; instead, they go out and film the story they want to tell. This year’s DC Shorts features a slew of local films, including a film that cost only $500 to make. This is not atypical – you can do a lot with a camera and volunteer labor.

As someone who has written screenplays and self-published a novel, I identify with this DIY philosophy. It’s what makes our age so wonderful, that advances in technology allow anyone to communicate their vision with the world.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Mac users at SXSW

Everyone writes. In this digital age, we’re creating more words than ever. Whether it’s an email to a client, a persuasive blog post or the Great American E-Book, the ability to explain yourself in writing is the critical skill of the Internet era.

Despite this profusion of words, people often encounter writer’s block when attempting large or significant projects. They can fire off tweets and snarky Facebook comments all day long but their fingers stall when it comes to crafting something that really matters.

After I wrote my novel Murder in Ocean Hall, the question I got most was, “How?”

How did I muster up the patience to devote so much time to a single idea? How did I keep at it? How did I overcome the inertia of writer’s block to get started?

Writer’s block happens to everyone. But it can be overcome. Continue reading “Overcoming Writer’s Block”

The Two-Step Plan to Write a Screenplay

My conclusion...

I had a chance to speak at a DC Film Salon panel on screenwriting. It was a really interesting session, with lots of great questions from the audience. This is the advice I provided.

I won the Film DC Screenwriting Competition in 2006 for my feature-length screenplay, Mount Pleasant. Since then, people have asked me about screenwriting, what software I use, if I took classes, etc… How’d I do it?

It’s simple, really. Just two steps:

  1. Read
  2. Write

 

Continue reading “The Two-Step Plan to Write a Screenplay”

2010: My Year in the Arts

Several years ago, I was sitting in a bar with a bunch of coworkers. We went out a couple times a week for beer, always to the same place. They were fine people but, good lord, how many times can you hear the same old stories?

While we were rehashing the same old petty little workplace dramas, a group of staffers from the Portrait Gallery came in. They had more interesting things to say than me and my coworkers, for they were talking about art.

It was then that I vowed to get more involved in the creative scene in DC.

In 2010, I was fortunate to not only sample a lot of what the city has to offer, but also participate in it. Continue reading “2010: My Year in the Arts”

Writing and Taking Pictures at the Capital Fringe Festival

I’ve been busy for the past couple weeks as an official photographer for the Capital Fringe Festival. It’s been a great experience, giving me the chance to use my new camera, the Canon Rebel T2i, and the opportunity to take pictures of performers, which I really enjoy.

And I’ve gotten to see a lot of theater in tiny spaces, where you’re inches away from the actors – that’s part of what makes Fringe so special. From women in passionate embrace to remixed Shakespeare, it’s an intimate experience that can be uncomfortable, strange or delightful, depending on the performance. Sometimes you just can’t look away, try as you might.

But Fringe is more than just theater. It aims to create community in DC, striving to be a citywide celebration of the arts. Fringe wants everyone to be involved.

For people interested in creativity, it’s hard not to be drawn into the Fringe orbit. For example, I attended a discussion on Does Art Matter as a photographer but ended up writing about the workshop for the Pink Line Project.

The Capital Fringe Festival runs until July 25 in Washington, DC.