Connecting the Dots With Your Side Hustle

This article first appeared on Seniors Ignite last summer. It traces our journey from where we started to how we ultimately became Makers Collaborative (the company behind be.mydo).

Breadcrumbs is a user experience term used to describe a website navigation ‘breadcrumb trail.’ It’s a feature that gives users a way to establish where they are and trace their path back to their original starting point.

Many artists and entrepreneurs have stumbled on new business ideas and successes from personal projects in ways they never could have foreseen.

And while you don’t realize it when you’re in the midst of pursuing those things, side projects are the breadcrumbs that can often lead to new opportunities.

Here's the story of what led to the launch of  BE MYDO, and some things we've learned along the journey.

Click here if you want to skip ahead to a summary.

Here > Photography Studio

In late 2010 after 12 years in business, I closed my photography studio to start HiFi Social Web. Burnout from running a home business had finally taken a toll, and I was ready for a new challenge.

I had been dabbling in web design since the early days in my business when I built my first website from scratch using Macromedia Flash & Dreamweaver.

I had to create my own site because back then there weren’t templates or web services that I could use to build one with. Hiring an agency was too expensive, so I jumped right in and learned how to do it myself.

It was something I really enjoyed. I was enamored with the possibilities and opportunities of the web. As a business owner I became obsessed with finding a better way of creating an online presence.

That obsession led to my love affair with WordPress and e-commerce, and in 2008 I moved my blog from Typepad to WordPress. The blog was getting 10x the traffic of my main site that was built with flash. So I moved my web information pages to the blog, and also added a contact form there. I had to redirect visitors there from the splash page on my main site, while I wrestled control of my site away from the shady web service I had used at the time.

The only thing left on my sites using flash were image galleries, and in 2009 I ditched all the soon-to-be outdated flash on my sites and moved everything to the WordPress platform.

I was finally able to get my domain back under my control, and move to a more reputable solution where I had full control of my websites.

I also dabbled in creating cloud-based CRM (customer relationship management) software, because I was growing increasingly frustrated with my current software that ran on a desktop computer rather than in the cloud.

I wanted people to be able to fill out a form on my website and have that added to my studio management database. And I wanted it to integrate with all of my marketing services and social media. Automatically.

I spent some time creating my own customized CRM using Zoho. While I would eventually settle on Tave, it seemed like having everything under ‘one-roof’ wasn’t quite there at the time.

I would come back to this again later with both Hifi Social Web and Seniors Ignite.

Around 2007 I began a side business selling downloadable design templates online.

Here > Photography Studio > Nardi Designs

I created my online stores with various software platforms like E-junkie, Zen Cart, Yahoo stores, and in 2008 with WP eCommerce, the first e-commerce plugin for WordPress. It was a pretty primitive tool when it first came out but I had to try it. Having my own e-commerce site that didn’t exist on a third party service was very appealing.

In the process I learned a lot about PCI-compliance and payment gateways. This is definitely not for the faint of heart.

At the time WordPress was still considered to be blogging software (rather than a website platform), and it wasn’t as robust as it is now. Being the first e-commerce plugin out there meant WP eCommerce had some kinks, but it also paved the way for the e-commerce plugins we use now, like WooCommerce.

Even though WordPress was rough around the edges back then, it put a lot of power and freedom into the hands of avid DIYer’s.

It really gave people access to features that, until then, were only available with enterprise-level software that was out of the reach of most small businesses. With a very active open source community in WordPress adding free plugins, this gave many people access to cutting-edge technology and features they otherwise wouldn't have had.

Ever since I can remember, I have always had some type of side project going.

The projects were never anything that I had really planned; I started most of them because I needed a solution to a problem in my own business that didn't exist. But I also started them just for fun sometimes.

Some of them didn't lead anywhere. But others did.

Even photography started as a hobby for me that turned into a business.

Oftentimes people avoid personal or side projects because they don’t have time, or they feel like they have to focus all their energy on their main business or career.

We often think we’ll be able do fun, personal, creative stuff once we are successful. But what if works the other way around?

What if the personal projects are what actually leads to your next big win?

Google’s famous '20% Time' philosophy is centered around that very idea. Google’s policy encourages employees to spend 20% of their time working on a passion project.

"This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner."  Wired 

There’s more freedom with personal projects. Since they aren’t the thing that's paying the bills - and are in most cases born out of something you love - you experiment and take chances that you might not have otherwise.

Tina Roth Eisenberg is well known for her side-hustle success with Tattly and Creative mornings just to name a few. Crew's business took off after starting Unsplash, and giving away 10 free high resolution images each week on Tumblr.

Here > Photography Studio > Nardi Designs > HiFi Social Web

I launched HiFi Social Web in 2011. At the time I was frustrated with the lack of available WordPress Themes for photographers, and I wanted to create a series of WordPress Themes designs that were more user friendly for non-technical people.

At the time, gallery and image features still had a ways to go, and I couldn't find any that would do what I wanted them to do.

I had also created a membership site with marketing tutorials for photographers to help them learn more about online marketing and how to use their website to get more business.

Coding a WordPress theme was more time-consuming than I had anticipated. And coding was the easy part; ongoing support was by far the biggest challenge. Most of the issues were web hosting related, and I was spending a lot of time supporting things I had little control over.

Completing the themes was taking forever, and in the meantime many new themes were coming out, some of which were really good.

The other problem was that I over-estimated the average business owner's ability to create their own WordPress site and manage everything that went along with it.

Simply put, creating my own line of WordPress themes wasn’t going quite like I’d expected.

I decided to change course and ditch the themes. By now there were some really great theme frameworks to build on, and if I couldn't create a better version of the ones coming out then it didn't make sense for me to continue on that path.

It made more sense to create something where there was demand. More on this in a bit.

Then about a year after launching HiFi Social, I got involved in another side project.

Seniors Ignite

Since 2004 I had been involved with a pro photographers group called Senior Portrait Artists (SPA). SPA consisted of an online membership forum for educating and helping high school senior portrait photographers with their businesses, as well as an annual in-person event.

The annual event and the people who were a part of SPA were the best in the industry, both in photography and business.

SPA was THE standard for High School Senior Photography. They changed an industry that was mired in mediocrity, raised the bar in the game by moving away from the crowd, and started doing stuff that no one else was doing.

They were true pioneers in the high school senior photography industry.

All the Senior Style Guides you see now started with Kia Bondurant and Sana Antisdel. Photographing models at dream locations at events was unheard of until they started it.

These are all things they’ve been given very little credit for.

At the time, the industry was going through a major change with the introductions of digital cameras, and the only photography organizations at the time were the 'basics' run by the good ol' boys.

Most were behind the times, very rule oriented, and overly focused on maintaining the status quo. And much of the photography was very uninspiring.

Finding SPA was a much needed breath of fresh air.

Even more important was that it was way more than just a business tool. SPA members were family.

I believe very much that you are who you surround yourself with.

Everything about my business became better after joining SPA.

Being surrounded by people at the top of their game pushes you to be better in every way. It felt good to be challenged. I liked being there with people who were serious about their business. Even when I was sitting next to a guy who had only been in business for a year, he didn't feel like a soccer dad. He was serious, too, and that was inspiring.

That was the atmosphere that SPA created.

Running an organization like SPA takes a crazy amount of time, work and money. In a way that most people will never understand or comprehend - and very few people have any idea how insane it can truly be. And trying to balance that with an extremely busy full-time studio, family and everything else takes its toll.

In 2011 Sana, Kia, Todd and Andy had decided to move on.

By this time there were plenty of education choices in the photography industry, however none were at the level of SPA. Towards the end of 2010 - shortly before making their decision - they reached out to Jen Basford to see if she wanted to take over managing the next chapter.

She agreed.

With SPA going away it was going to leave behind a big gap. Many SPA members wanted and needed a group like that both personally and professionally. Something that would keep everyone at the top of their game.

And the industry needed a group like this to continue to raise the level of both photography and business.

Here > Photography Studio > Nardi Designs > HiFi Social Web > Seniors Ignite

So Jen and I - along with Nick Sharples - started talking about ideas for this new chapter, which would become Seniors Ignite. We definitely wanted an in-person event, as did many of the photographers who would later help lead it. We also knew that we wanted an online component as well, with video education being a key part of it.

When we started, we didn’t really have a plan; we just jumped in and made it happen.

With my experience and expertise in building websites, online presence and e-commerce, I took the lead in this area.

Jen's expertise in marketing, branding and business gave us what we needed for her to lead up those segments.

At that time, Nick was the media manager at 3 girls photography (Jen's photography studio). He had moved to Oklahoma from California to work with Jen to develop her studio's video line. We had met him at the previous SPA event and had an instant connection.

In addition to his video skills, Nick also had experience with managing events. Jen had been in charge of running the fashion show at SPA each year in addition to the ones she did for her studio, and she also had a lot of experience in running events by then. This allowed Nick to take on both the media and event management at the time.

[easy-tweet tweet="You don’t need a plan. Imperfect action beats perfect inaction every time." user="@BEMYDO"]

Seniors Ignite took off pretty quickly. 

We were fortunate that all 3 of us had past experience that was needed for the key parts of Seniors Ignite.

However, the most important thing that allowed us to grow quickly were Jen's and Nick’s relationship-building skills.

Jen had been in the photography industry for years - getting involved wherever she could, helping others in groups she was involved in, mentoring photographers, sharing with other photographers, writing articles, speaking and educating at national events and most importantly - building friendships.

Those relationships she had established and built over the years were a natural by-product of getting involved and giving back.

When Seniors Ignite launched, Jen had friendships and relationships that had already been cultivated long ago.

Those friendships were critical in helping Seniors Ignite get off the ground quickly.

At the time, Nick was only 21 years old. He didn’t have the background in the photography industry, nor did he have an industry network to reach out to.

However, he did know how to build relationships with people by giving before asking, and he would also be instrumental in bringing on key partners in the early days, before we had an audience.

It’s easy to overlook that part.

Seniors Ignite's quick success was the result of something that had taken much longer to build.

The amount of time you’ve invested in building and nurturing relationships will determine how quickly you have success.

In the beginning, I thought Seniors Ignite would just be a small website project I’d do alongside of the web design work for HiFi.

I assumed my experience with e-commerce would make it simple to setup, and we would be off and running.

However, what we thought was merely a side project quickly started to consume the majority of our time. We had grossly under-estimated how much time would be involved as well as all the work it takes to run a successful e-commerce business and an annual in-person event.

Jen still had a full-time studio to run - a studio that was also footing the bill for Seniors Ignite. I was trying to grow HiFi and keep up with client work.

We were drowning.

Nick put his work with 3 girls aside so he could work in Seniors Ignite full time to run the event, the video production, shooting for workshops, and customer service. He also worked with many of our partners.

The first year we released about 10 products in order to help cover expenses for the event, and also to try and compensate the photographers who were volunteering their time for Seniors Ignite.

The products didn't end up selling as well as we’d hoped. The products that Jen had created did ok, but the rest were flops.

Anyone who tells you that running an online business and selling to photographers is an easy way to make passive income is completely clueless.

It takes a lot of work. And a lot of time and dedication.

We needed to generate revenue from products in order to cover the event and other expenses, or the event would not happen.

We ended up hiring Sarah Petty and Erin Verbeck to help us. They were the trailblazers in the online photography education business with the Joy of Marketing. Long before Creative Live was even a thing, they were educating photographers in a live online format that you see many people in the industry doing now.

They’ve been incredibly successful at it, and Sarah also owns a successful top-performing photography studio like Jen does. It was a no-brainer for us. To get Seniors Ignite to the next level we wanted to work with people who were at the top of their game, and had both experience and success at what we were doing.

So 3 girls photography put up the financial investment. It was a steep investment, but worth every penny.

We worked directly with Sarah and Erin for a full year. Had we not, Seniors Ignite would probably not be around today.

Content (video, images, blog articles, etc.) - and our email newsletter - grew Seniors Ignite into a business.

Whether it’s creating sales pages, setting up membership sites, affiliate programs, landing pages, customer service or payment gateways, there are a lot of moving parts to running an e-commerce site and marketing a business.

Much of the work involved content creation, writing email newsletters and copy, conversion optimization, and making our systems work together.

One of the best things we did in the beginning when we created the Seniors Ignite site, was that we created it to scale as the business grew.

We built it using WordPress and WooCommerce, and used MailChimp as our email service. They worked well together, and allowed us to start fairly inexpensively without sacrificing the features we needed.

The only thing we were missing was a CRM. We had these great tools, but they weren’t working together as seamlessly as we wanted. Many in the online realm were talking about how they were ditching MailChimp and moving to services like Infusionsoft and Ontraport for their CRM.

I was back to contemplating CRM solutions again. I had looked at both Infusionsoft and Ontraport, and they are solid services. But both were missing some key things that we needed in our business. Not to mention that moving a product catalog and site of our size could take months.

When I started comparing features, I realized we already had everything we needed. We simply weren't using those tools to their fullest capacity.

This was an important lesson for us. I love to chase shiny new things, and in the past I've been guilty of jumping on anything new before assessing whether or not it will fit my needs.

Know what your business needs are, and learn how to use the tools you have, before you go looking for something new.

I often see 'experts' claiming that MailChimp isn’t as robust as other services, or that WooCommerce can’t be used as a CRM or with marketing automation.

None of which is true.

It's more accurate to say that many of them aren't aware of the full capabilities of these tools.

Seniors Ignite went from a website with an online shopping cart to a fully integrated e-commerce, CRM and marketing automation platform using WordPress, WooCommerce and MailChimp.

It is a very well-oiled machine.

In the meantime, I was getting a lot of requests for custom website work. Custom websites are incredibly time-intensive for both clients and myself, and more often than not they aren’t what small creative entrepreneurs need.

Small business owners don’t have time to get bogged down in a six month custom project.

I was starting to really see how hard it is for many people to setup a WordPress or e-commerce site.

There are so many parts and components to getting your website running and working together with key services and platforms. And it's incredibly time-consuming.

While this comes easily for us here with Seniors Ignite and our other sites, more and more I was noticing the frustration of many who spent more time tinkering with their site than they did in working their business.

Too many business owners spend all their time working on their websites instead of their business.

With the popularity of WordPress growing like crazy, many began touting how easy it was to create your own website or online store. And many business owners were lured by the fact that both WordPress and WooCommerce are free.

I can tell you that while they do not cost anything financially, they are anything but free.

For inexperienced users there are numerous land mines to navigate. Which means that for a novice user it can be a maddening and frustrating experience.

Poor web hosting, broken plugins, hacked sites and troubleshooting site issues are a nightmare for the average business owner.

What happened is that many business owners were choosing cheap and quick website services.

The problem with this is that it locked them into something they didn’t own, and that wouldn’t grow with their business or perform as they needed.

As a result, in February of 2013 I ditched all the DIY Themes and launched HiFi Ready Made Sites and the Website-In-A-Week Service.

It was a fully managed website solution built on WordPress. In a nutshell, it removed all the technical and management tasks for setting up and managing a WordPress website.

Rather than leave it up to clients to choose theme designs and plugins, I created a website for them with a carefully curated selection of plugins and theme designs based on features they wanted.

The websites were hosted on a managed web host where we could easily keep the sites updated and running.

Working with the same pre-selected themes and plugins allowed us to quickly create websites and control the quality of plugins.

This was the same setup we’d been using on all of our Seniors Ignite sites.

The focus with the service was less on using WordPress for their site, and more on making it a turn-key solution.

This gave people the freedom of a customizable and scalable solution that grew with them, without the high price tag of a custom site. And more importantly, it removed the hassles of managing their site themselves so they instead could focus on running their businesses.

Shortly after starting it, however, I had to put the service on hold. Seniors Ignite was consuming a lot of time, and I could no longer take on new clients with Hi-Fi Social Web until I could hire additional people.

Seniors Ignite was having growing pains, and in early 2014 we started to talk about where we were headed next.

Rep programs have been around the photography industry for years as a way to market professional portraits to high school seniors. Seniors Ignite had its own version of that, Seniors Ignite Models, that was a key part of the annual event. Many of our photographers used this along with their own model and rep programs as well.

Jen also had her own senior model marketing program that she used to grow her own studio. Rather than follow the traditional rep program everyone in the industry was doing, she pioneered her own model concept that was different from what others were doing.

Most photographers have been using rep programs for years, but many of those tactics were now completely ineffective and had failed to change with the times. As a result, many photographers began struggling with rep programs and losing business.

Jen kept hers fresh by evolving and retooling it every year to connect with each new generation of high school seniors. That's how she stayed ahead and led the way.

The model marketing system that she was using in her studio is our best selling and most popular product to date.

With good reason. It works really well, and helps people make money and book clients year after year.

Looking ahead, however, she saw that things were changing quickly. High school seniors are a tricky group to keep up with, and the newest generation coming up was going to be a big shift for how professional photographers operated in their businesses. So Jen, along with Renee Bowen, Nick Alexander, and myself, started researching and testing a new concept for much of 2014.

The result was the We Are The SEEN program that was introduced in early 2015. It's a relevant experiential marketing campaign that leverages the collective power of a very forward-thinking group of photographers who are part of We Are The SEEN.

There’s a lot of power in a group of people who are working to change something, and who spend each day challenging themselves and cheering others on who are going through those same challenges. Nobody gets there alone.

Being open and collaborative makes everyone better; it’s what makes an industry thrive. And that’s good for everybody.

Being on the ground level at the beginning of something like this has brought a lot of excitement back to Seniors Ignite. The collaborative group atmosphere is something that we miss from the early days of Seniors Ignite, and was a big part of why we started.

One of the things that we have always felt was most important is that we never wanted to be an organization that revolved around one personality. Where one person dictates the direction of everything and members just follow along.

That’s not a recipe for growth.

Seeing some of our We Are The SEEN tribe stepping up and leading the way, hosting meet-ups and helping others has been a welcome change.

They jumped in, saw a spark of something special and didn’t wait to see what others in the industry were doing.

Those are the kinds of people you want to surround yourself with. They’re the ones who have your back when others are tearing down anything that threatens the status quo.

We also launched another project.

Here > Photography Studio > Nardi Designs > HiFi Social Web > SEEN Magazine

Content, media, storytelling and branding are the key to standing out in today’s world no matter what it is that you do.

The work we had been doing with the models from past Seniors Ignite Events has always left us wanting to do more with those stories.

The SEEN founders (Jen Basford, Renee Bowen, Batman (Nick Alexander), and myself) also wanted something that was separate from the senior portrait and photography industry.

Something that allowed us to explore and to push ourselves, and where we had the freedom to experiment separate from the daily grind.

We have always been inspired by the idea that paving your own path opens up possibilities, and we believe originality and adventure should be celebrated.

SEEN Magazine is our outlet for that.

Even though it's a labor of love, SEEN is more than just a side-project.

At the time we didn't realize how much we needed a fresh perspective outside of our regular work. Our work with SEEN would help us find our 'Why' and help clarify our business focus.

Content, commerce and collaboration have been central to everything we’ve been doing at Seniors Ignite, and also with SEEN Magazine.

The web has leveled the playing field for everyone, and there has never been more opportunity for small businesses than there is today.

I talked about this in 2012 at a Seniors Ignite Workshop.

Things are changing very rapidly, and businesses that succeed today will do that by taking advantage of mobile, social and web technologies to create more personalized marketing and experiences both online and offline.

To leverage those things, however, requires more than just a website.

While many photographers have websites, many are missing key opportunities.

Many photographers and small businesses are woefully behind, and it’s not entirely their fault. Many are following industry leaders who, despite good intentions, are misinformed as to what businesses need to be doing when it comes to digital marketing in today’s market.

One thing I can tell you is that many of the successful photographers and gurus you see on the stage are having success despite their website, not because of it.

Most sites I come across are nothing more than Brochureware, and oftentimes businesses treat their website as if it's this thing that exists separately from everything else in their business. Mobile sites are an afterthought; an add-on feature just in case people happen to be on their phone when visiting their site.

But the reality is that there are no longer mobile sites and desktop sites. Everything is just mobile.

This isn’t some type of edgy technology that is just coming out, this is how the world lives right now.

Which is why Google is penalizing sites that aren't mobile friendly.

Online marketing is just marketing. Mobile has blurred the lines between online and offline.

Businesses who cater to Millenials and Gen Z need to realize this kind of world is all that your clients have ever known.

People no longer sit at a desk and log on to their computer to browse online.

They whip out their phone because they are always connected.

Everyone - all businesses right now - are struggling with this, and those that can leverage the tools to do all these things will win.

The others will be left behind.

Late last year we revisited this again when Jen wanted to update her website. She wanted to be able take advantage of the things we were using with Seniors Ignite for 3 girls photography.

She also wanted to move on from Successware, the CRM they use at her studio.

Almost all of the marketing she does for her studio is word of mouth or email marketing.

She wanted more than a website. She needed a business and marketing platform that works with all of these things that she does in her business.

Like we have for Seniors Ignite. But easier.

More and more everyday we are seeing many people and businesses struggling with their web presence, and as a result their businesses are struggling as well.

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