Do you want start freelancing so that you can make more money? Do you want to do whatever you want with your time? Are you fed up with your miserable life because you’re stuck at a crappy job?
I spoke to a reader many years ago about freelancing. This young man was excited to start his blog. He wasn’t satisfied with college and wanted to drop out. He was planning on blogging. The blog never worked out, but Matt didn’t give up. He went in another direction.
Matt now makes dining room tables full-time!
UPDATE ON MATT’S BUSINESS: Read the update on the good and bad of starting your own table making business.
The thing is that there’s no roadmap or direct framework. I can only guide you guys in the right direction. Nobody will ever be able to tell you exactly what to do.
I suggest that you pick up all the advice that you possibly can from those that have paved the road before you so that you can create your own way.
Matt and I spoke on Skype. There was no followup. I was worried that he gave up like many others have. He emailed me with an update recently.
Please welcome Matt of Back Burner Designs…
Matt’s first email in years.
I don’t know if you’ll remember me or not. We talked probably about 4 years ago on Skype; I was just starting my blog “NeverBlackAndWhite” that was going to be about being successful without a college degree and blah blah blah.
It failed for a few reasons but the biggest being that my life experiments were not making me more successful which meant I had nothing to bring to the table.
Well a lot has changed since then and you actually did give me some good advice and motivation back during our talk that I still think of.
After I shut down the blog I messed around with a few different ideas:
- A outdoor gear company.
- A nutrition bar company
- …And more.
I never got one that I was ready to pull the trigger on. Then a couple of years ago, I built a dining room table out of old pallets for myself. It took me forever and it was a huge pain, but I needed a damn table. When it was done I said I’d never do it again, but all my friends and family loved the table and said I should do more. It did look pretty cool. I messed around with building some more things (I had no woodworking background whatsoever) and next thing I knew I was launching a website and had people requesting custom items! I was just going to use it as a side line of income, an extra $1k a year, maybe even $5k…
In the beginning, I literally bullshitted my way through each item, learning as I went, messing things up, but it just kept working and even started to get out of hand. Back in March, I quit my full-time job and took it full-time – exactly 1 year after launch.
I’m no longer bullshitting and have actually gotten the hang of this whole thing and spent a lot of time learning the trade, but I never would have thought this would end up here. I didn’t even like woodworking! haha
Now I’m 25 years old, running my own company, working whatever days and times I want, making speeches, getting interviewed, doing computer work in coffeeshops all over the region, and realizing that this is the dream that we had alluded to a few years ago.
I could talk about this all day, but I don’t want this email to go on forever.
So was Matt some dude who got bailed out by his family? Did Matt get “lucky?”
I’m a college dropout. I don’t think there is anything wrong with going to college, but it wasn’t for me.
I don’t have some fancy entrepreneurial degree or business background, in fact, I did two years of engineering and math. I took one intro to economics class as a Gen Ed during which I played games on my laptop instead of paying attention.
I’m 25 now and I was broke at age 20.
I literally had negative money in my bank account in September 2010 and nobody bailed me out. I just worked hard and smiled at a job I didn’t like to get out of my bad financial situation.
I didn’t have any woodworking background when I started my woodworking company. My family didn’t do it for generations, I didn’t grow up in Amish country, my dad didn’t teach me when I was growing up. I just learned the very basics and taught myself the rest as I went.
I started this with very little money and no outside funding. I was literally getting deposits for orders and running to the store to buy the tools I needed to make the product. I spent all of the money I made on more tools for probably the first 6 months. When I quit my full-time job, I had been running the business for a full year and I had no business debt.
Most importantly, I was always the guy (you remember) that said “I don’t know what my passion is” and “I don’t have a passion.” I never once thought woodworking was my passion. Turns out, the only way to find your passion is to try a ton of new things and experience new things and it will just show up. You won’t find it by being boring.
When did you first start making money on your own?
I officially opened for business on April 10th of 2014 and I made my first real sale on May 31st, so about 7 weeks after putting myself out there.
Sales were random for the first few months, but it was a good amount. When I first launched Back Burner Designs, my boss heard about it and asked if I was looking to turn it into a career. I laughed at him and said I was just doing it on the side and that I could never do it full-time.
I was telling him the truth, I didn’t think I could ever live off it, but about 10 months later I gave him my notice.
The change happened when I experienced what it was like to be an entrepreneur and I decided that I was going to do anything to live that life all the time.
I was meeting great people, making money, going on trips, and I wasn’t reporting to anyone – until I went to work the next Monday.
I also found that the amount of money I made was proportional to the amount of work I put in – I didn’t have to work my butt off for a year and a half to get a 2.5% raise like when I had a job.
Making money became addicting. I found opportunities to make money all over the place.
In addition to Back Burner Designs, I sold things on eBay, shoveled snow, and did odd jobs. With everything together, I was making more money than I was at my job in just a few hours a week!
What held you back for a long time?
Honestly? The name.
I made my first table a year before I started the business. I kept talking about turning it into something but I just couldn’t come up with the perfect name so I didn’t officially launch it. Part of that was that I was nervous to pull the trigger on it so I was dwelling on the name for a while. I could have easily launched it sooner, but luckily I kept working towards the goal and I eventually did get the name figured out.
[Side note from Martin: The name also held me back for the first few months.]
Do you have any advice for those looking to make money on their own?
I have a lot of things I’d do differently and a lot of things I’d do the same. I could list them, but the answers wouldn’t be the same for every person or business. The truth is, you aren’t going to do everything right and if you try to, then you’ll never get anywhere. You just need to guess and check.
If something works, keep doing it; if it doesn’t, try something else.
I’ve spent money and time on ideas for a product that never sold, and I’ve had items I wasn’t happy with that became great sellers. I’m always experimenting with different marketing techniques and designs to find what works best.
Some things you should definitely be doing are:
- Following several people in your field and seeing what makes them successful and identify what they’re doing wrong. You’re not there to steal ideas, but to analyze their successes and failures and use them as guidance for your decisions. I found a mid-sized company based in Australia that I think of as “the future of Back Burner Designs.” Find that company and use them as your guide.
- Continuously learn about marketing and social media strategy. Social media especially is always changing and evolving. Follow some marketing experts, take a class, go to a webinar, read an ebook, and experiment. It’s so easy to waste time on strategies that don’t work so it’s worth your time to learn. If it’s really not your cup of tea then I’d recommend hiring a college student or recent grad (just part-time) to help develop your strategy, brand, and advertisements.
- If you don’t do anything else, network. Get good at telling your story and tell everyone.
Here’s a quick example…
More people knowing about you equals more sales, and the more people you know equals more opportunities. I broke my windshield earlier in the year and took my car down to a local glass dealer. I got talking with the owner and told him about my business. He started his company 28 years ago and shared his whole story. We laughed about all the struggles of starting out and I ended up mentioning that I was in desperate need of a bigger workshop but I hadn’t had any luck finding a space. He pulled out his cellphone and dialed up his friend who was the president of a real estate company and handed me the phone. Two hours later, he was walking me through what would become my new shop space. Networking at its finest!
How did you feel after you quit on your initial blog? Did you want to give up on your entrepreneurial journey?
It’s funny. I almost felt relief when I canceled the domain, like I knew I was going to be able to put my energy into something better, but at the same time I had no idea what was next and that was really empty feeling.
It was kind of like moving out of a place and you took all the furniture out and are left looking at the empty rooms with the dust on the floors. That’s honestly what it felt like.
I don’t think I ever wanted to give up, but I felt more cautious about what I was going to do next, and the thought of failing again made me a little hesitant to jump on another idea right away.
To be real, I didn’t have a college degree so my options were really limited to going back to school for a couple years while working full-time and hope for the best or to do whatever it took to find that startup business idea that was going to work.
I didn’t like college so I opted for the latter. I was certain that my next company, like the blog, was going to have a low start up cost so I wouldn’t have too much to lose. In the end, I knew I was learning more than I learned at college for a hell of a lot less money. Even if I had to fail a few times, I knew that something would eventually catch on.
How did you find clients for your business? How is this always changing?
Buyers are everywhere, but if they haven’t heard of my business then there’s a zero percent chance they’ll buy anything.
This is where branding and getting exposure was so important. I wanted people to know about me and I wanted people to love my brand and what I was doing.
I started on Etsy, which was a perfect fit because it already had an audience of people browsing for things like I was making. I think I initially invested about $1.00 to get it up. This became my biggest platform until recently, and is still generating plenty of inquiries and orders. This was important because it gave people a way to pay me but I didn’t have to invest a ton of time and money building an online store on my website and then promoting it on search engines. Eventually I will change over to that type of online store, but not yet.
For marketing, I do a little bit of everything. I use Instagram, Facebook, and an email list to interact with my audience. I do local print ads, go to trade shows, donate to local organizations and charity auctions, I drop business cards every place I go, and I tell everyone about what I’m doing.
In the near future, I’ll be testing out Google’s ad services, trying direct mailers, and going to more trade shows. Everything is an opportunity to grow. Sometimes I get sales, sometimes I get a tip on where to find some reclaimed wood, sometimes I don’t see any effect. There’s a delayed effect with everything you do for marketing, so it takes a while to find out what works and what doesn’t. I say try everything that you can do for relatively low cost and little time and eventually, you can cut it down to what works best for your business.
What an amazing story! Sure, I could tell you about how I wrote a whole guide to launching and how I covered everything about financial freedom in your 20s, but for now, I want you to share this article with two friends. This might just be the wake up call that you need.