It's hard to believe that I run a successful business.
If you had told me a couple years ago that all of the twists and turns, false starts, bizarre and hair-brained business ideas would eventually lead me here, I would not have believed you.
If you've ever wondered what it took for me to get to where I am now, running this online educational business, you're in for a treat today!
Just know, I started from REALLY humble beginnings, I did not ever set out to achieve something amazing, I just stumbled through all sorts of weird opportunities until I found the one that stuck!
Unemployed to Self Employed:
One thing you’ll notice is that I didn’t have a day-job I was working around. Basically I’m completely unemployable and always have been.
I’m not saying that to be cute. I am so fiercely independent and so hateful towards authority (I started a punk band with VERY adult lyrics at age 13) that I was unable to get a job and have a job. The minute someone would tell me what to do I would just shut down or freak out. That’s just the way I’m wired.
In some ways I had an advantage - I didn’t have a 9-5 day job that took up my time I had to work around or get exhausted by.
I had TIME and lots of it.
In some ways, it was a big disadvantage: I had no money coming in from a day job to support my new businesses. I had zero capital and no savings. I was renting a closet in a punk house.
You’ll also notice a lot of overlap between the years I was doing these different things.
A lot of times I’d be searching for the next thing to hold my attention. I would really easily get bored or reach my “limit” with these first few businesses. I would think of another “amazing-can’t fail-must do this” idea every few months.
Can you relate?
I was in a Punk Band
My first attempt at learning how to market something was being in a touring punk band. At the time I wasn’t thinking about it as marketing obviously - it was just survival.
If you’ve ever been in a small band trying to make it, you know what I mean.
You are 1000% committed to doing whatever the hell it takes to make your music your life and be able to do it all the time - without the day job - that you will do whatever it takes to make it work.
To make it work, I lived in a “punk house” with 14 other people - sharing expenses, chores, and a recording and music space. My expenses were $300/month. Everything else was included in the “commune” I lived in and I dumpster dived for food. Yep. We all start from the bottom.
I set up a US tour for our band through my connections with other bands (I would get their phone numbers from someone who knew someone who knew a friend) and I would message them on Myspace on the public computers at my house.
We made a tiny bit of money by selling records, t-shirts, posters, and our other “merch” - including asking people to please just donate money if they liked our performance, so we could eat and keep on the road :)
When I think about this “business” model and my current business - it’s freakishly similar.
- Every week we would do a show usually at home or in a nearby state - that’s how we made our weekly money. It’s the same principle as a webinar - you give value in your show, and then ask people to buy your stuff after your set. That was our “evergreen” revenue stream.
- A few times a year, we’d go on a big US tour - which is a lot more intense and hard to plan, but makes you more money since you’re playing every single night bringing in revenue (can you imagine doing a webinar every single night for a few months?) - and those tours are like my big “launch seasons” now.
Selling Vintage Online
Touring band life is hard. It’s awesomely difficult. I loved it and I hated it.
I didn’t want to keep going broke in between tours - so I started flipping vintage clothing to bring in some money selling off the clothes I already had.
At one point, I actually even moved into the “closet under the stairs” (YES like Harry Potter) in my punk house in order to save money. My monthly expenses went down to $150/month - which allowed me to try to build my tiny business.
I finally got my first laptop in late 2010 and was determined to MAKE THE MOST OF IT!
(If you have a laptop or computer, don’t take it for granted!! It is an amazing tool! Seriously you have an amazing tool that can be used for so much - to make things, to publish, to edit photos - don’t ever forget it and get sucked into using it for consumption. You’re so fortunate to have that at your disposal, so make the most of it!).
My first photoshoot was me and my clothes in front of an ugly old sheet out in the driveway. My boyfriend took all the photos. Luckily, he also knew how to use Photoshop and made me a banner for my shop.
I listed the stuff online and was freaking SHOCKED when I made sales. What?! I was amazed. I think I made like $200 and was just...I couldn’t believe I made my closet room rent so fast. It used to take me a month of hustling at my shows to make that.
It was the motivation I needed to keep going.
I ran it in a really “passive” way because I had lots of other stuff to do (like tour and live and try to go to school and then drop out), so I would batch EVERYTHING and then just ship things twice a week as orders came in.
HITTING A WALL
I ran this business for a few years, making just enough to get by and pay my expenses.
One month (the "last straw" month) I made a few thousand dollars, which was huge for me. But that was the result of hustling my ass off with no days off, going to weekend "rock and roll flea markets" to sell my clothes, selling bulk orders, and completely burning myself out.
I became overwhelmed with all the work and orders and shipping, and instead of feeling excited by the orders streaming in it started to give me MAJOR anxiety.
So I had to decide if I wanted to:
- hire people to help me list, pack, and ship vintage clothes and “scale” my flipping clothes, or
- kill the shop which was my #1 main source of income and try to start a blog and make money without physical inventory, so I could travel more - which had become my #1 non-negotiable.
Vintage Camper Renovation
While I was flipping clothes, I came across vintage campers (I think I was searching for pictures of girls in cute vintage clothes for shop styling inspo and some photos came up about the campers and I was like…”wow, I must have one of those little spaceships”).
So I took my entire savings account and bought one.
This is hilarious to me now, but in my mind I really did think that camper would make me rich. Like I thought I would renovate it and “flip” it (like how people flip houses?) and then sell it for $10k and be SET FOR LIFE.
The reality is that I had ZERO renovation skills and no idea how freaking expensive projects like that are. SO EXPENSIVE.
Do you know how much a vintage door handle for those costs? $400. The window parts? $100. The birch wood? I don’t even want to tell you.
Luckily, my partner DID have lots of hands on skills and he taught me everything. He actually taught me so much I ended up building houses later on when I decided to study architecture and design/build.
I spent so much money on these projects, I literally used every penny, all with the idea that I would “make it back” when we sold the camper for a profit.
Guess what? I still have that camper. It’s still half-done.
And in case that isn’t funny enough to you, I bought ANOTHER one in the middle of that one because it was “too cute not to”. Did I mention I used to have a serious problem buying vintage clothes and campers?
Throughout this whole time I’m running my vintage clothing shop, making enough to cover my expenses with that, and putting all the profit into other projects and buying more inventory.
It’s funny because I was weirdly NOT scared of investing in physical stuff like inventory, equipment, campers, and building materials.
It was like I KNEW FOR ABSOLUTE positive that if I bought a pair of 50’s sunglasses for $5, I could sell them for $50. It was just math, no questions asked.
But if you had asked me to buy some software to manage my inventory? I would have told you to shove it and I would hack it with my terrible spreadsheet.
It’s crazy to me NOW, but at the time spending money on digital stuff seemed weird.
Ironic? You bet.
Then people started asking us for advice about their own camper projects - and they wanted us to help them scout out their own potential renovation projects on craigslist, and consult with them on their stuff.
A year after we started renovating our first vintage camper, we started a blog about our projects because we got so many questions about it in real life (people literally pulling over on the street to ask us about the weird shit in the driveway).
At the time I had no freaking clue what I was doing. I set up a free Wordpress site with a terrible free theme and did not even know how to buy a domain so I didn’t. (Please tell me this is funny to you ha!)
I started posting blog posts about our renovations. I would describe our process. I posted pictures of my inspiration.
We finally got our shit together and moved to Squarespace, bought a real domain, and made some graphics.
Can you just tell how I literally started out with NO clue what I was doing? like I was a trainwreck. It’s hilarious. For years I was just AWFUL at technology and everything online.
Like think about that for a second. I had no domain, no MailChimp, no money to invest.
I literally went to conferences and events with a lined notepad and asked people to write down their emails knowing that one day I would finally be smart enough to figure out the tech side and plug their names in when I figured that out.
Like you, I was nervous about spending money on my business before it had made a dollar. I wasn’t sure it would work, so how could I “waste” money on something that I wasn’t positive would actually become successful?
Keep in mind, at this point I’m doing a lot:
- selling vintage clothes,
- renovating the camper,
- and running the blog about the camper projects and how they’re slowly coming along.
Over time, I started learning more about blogging. I started understanding what I was doing and that I needed a direction and a purpose.
I had a great NICHE - I was SUPER specific about that and I knew I was ahead in that respect - but I wasn’t sure how I would make money with this blog. Originally that wasn’t my intention - I was just trying to document my project.
Now I was being asked to speak at events and be the “guest of honor” at the BIGGEST and most famous Vintage Camper Rallies in the country. I was a weird mini-celebrity in this world because I was 20 years old and doing something that is 99% of the time a hobby for 65 year old retired men.
We would show up to these rallies for campers and 500 people would line up to meet us. It was nuts. We were the youngest people at the rallies by like 50 years.
People started asking to hire us to renovate their camper or just consult on their designs and vintage systems and parts. They wanted me to give keynote talks at different events. I took these opportunities not knowing exactly where they would lead.
I was cobbling together an income from all these different things - but they were all inconsistent and relatively small amounts of money.
I loved writing the most - I would ALWAYS find that I would rather be WRITING about my projects than outside swinging a hammer. I enjoyed both, but ultimately I loved writing and sharing with blog posts. So I would have written for free, but I was getting paid to do it.
The writing opportunities coincided with the speaking offers and the teaching offers.
People started asking us to come to their high schools, colleges, or universities and give talks about our projects.
I created a curriculum and we kind of “toured” it around the country during this time.
I was so excited to be traveling and getting paid to travel! This was a dream come true! We met tons of new people and and it was 100% awesome.
I would leave my inventory and put my shop on “vacation mode” and we’d go out on the road - to rallies, to schools, to conferences. We had tons of stuff going on.
Freelance Whatever The Fuck I Was Doing
Some really unique opportunities started to come up too.
I was asked by a famous architect and someone I admired to curate an exhibit at his museum about vintage campers, cars, boats, furniture and clothing. Basically it would be an “inside of Mariah’s crazy brain” exhibit.
This was so cool and weird and fun.
I think when you just put yourself out there in this really enthusiastic and genuine way - people will respond to just your attitude.
I had a very “Mariah” style and look - space age, retro, vintage, surfboards and sunglasses - and people responded to that and wanted me to design things for them, do interior design work, curate exhibits, and all sorts of weird stuff.
Someone with the means and the desire for a “Retro renovation” of their home hired my partner and I to re-do their house back to it’s original, authentic 1950's style.
I have this intense knowledge about the materials, forms, and designers from that period - and it’s just ME - so we got recognized for that and it got us a bunch of weird gigs like that over the years.
The Cross Roads:
When everything started coming to a head, I knew I needed to do something different.
I needed to simplify.
At this point I felt like I was running 10 projects - running our curriculum and speaking all over the country, writing freelance for big blogs and magazines, doing these one-off projects for big clients, running the blog (we even had some sponsorships now) and everything else. It was nuts!!
But I had to make some big decisions.
I couldn’t keep going in 100 directions. And I wanted to be more in control of my life - I wanted to travel on my schedule, not my speaking/teaching schedule.
I wanted to sell my own products. I needed to put on my big girl pants - instead of just cobbling together 10 things and making some money, but feeling VERY scattered and like everything was suffering a little bit because of that.
Up until this point I had never read a book about business, especially online business. I didn’t know our wonderful wild world existed. I had built this brand and multiple income streams on just pure gut and instinct.
Then I read two books that changed how I ran my businesses:
- The $100 Startup: This book showed my the possibilities of a different business model than my current one. One where I didn’t have to travel and teach the same content to a different room of 30 people every week or month, I could record it once and sell it to thousands of people. I didn’t have to pack and ship vintage anymore - I could sell my knowledge in an eBook or my art in a print-on-demand service instead. I saw how people were turning their blogs and writing (my special thing!) into money.
- The 4 Hour Workweek: I had no intention of working less (omg I’d be so bored), I just wanted to learn about how to have a business that was more leveraged and more passive and didn’t require the inventory and all that.
At this point I had an audience and authority in my camper niche.
Come to think of it, I had a brand! I had no idea but over time my personality, voice, visual style, and blog posts had all added up very slowly and cumulatively into a brand! Woohoo!
I had no idea what that meant, but it had happened whether I liked it and knew it or not.
I had essentially figured out how to get paid to be ME. People hired me just because of MY unique style, voice, perspective, and speaking and teaching style and MY personal experiences.
This was amazing!
I had figured out how to bring in plenty of income for my lifestyle, and how to get paid for my passions.
It was literally my job to shop for cute vintage, curate amazing museums or homes filled with retro furniture, and talk about my obsessions every day to captive audiences around the country and on my blog. Woo!
Most people would be happy to get there - and believe me, I was too.
But, I had to make a decision. I had way too much going on. I wasn’t happy - and I was burning out fast. I had too many people I was dealing with and too many people asking me for things that I couldn’t handle all the requests. I started feeling trapped.
And I became obsessed with figuring out how to create a DIFFERENT business model - one where I could:
Help more people than the 40 people in each classroom I spoke to
Travel freely anytime - and on MY schedule, not my speaking and event/rally circuit
Have less people asking me for things on their deadlines
Leverage my time more
I suddenly became obsessed with optimizing and streamlining my business.
I was always obsessed with efficiency - but now I was beginning to see how my architecture training* applied to my life and business.
If I could design a house to use net zero energy and re-purpose it’s grey-water, how could I use those same principles in my life and business to make my income an efficient, sustainable little machine? One that required less input and had increased output?
I knew how these things worked in the real world - I had a degree in Design/Build and I could design and build you an amazingly streamlined residential home with fierce focus.
I just needed to translate that into a business and life that was more efficient, more leveraged, and honestly just simpler!
Focus on Digital Products
At the end of 2013 I had a meltdown. Yep, I was having a legit freakout.
I had busted my ass to write articles all month and when I got paid, I felt a sinking feeling that I could be doing SO MUCH better.
And everything I was doing felt half-finished, pushed to the backburner, and just kinda shitty.
I made a promise to myself that I would change things. That I would actually figure out a way to reach more people with less work and less driving around the country like a crazy person.
I wanted to help millions of people, and I realized finally that I couldn’t literally drive around the country and meet each and every one of them, so I had to find another way.
I had to make some really hard decisions.
Saying “no” to all the in-person teaching, rallying, and conference requests we were getting was not easy.
Turning away consulting opportunities and other weird stuff that came my way (I’m not joking - the MoMA in NYC asked me to live in my camper inside the museum as “art” for 3 months - crazy stuff was happening!) was not easy.
But I just knew that if I wanted to do things more on my terms, I had to do the scary shit. And I did.
Luckily I had some savings saved up from my weird adventures (like $1,000 tops) to help me get through the transition.
I put a stop to everything I was doing currently, and got to work creating my first course. It was based on a study and paper I had previously written for school, so I had 30 pages of content already from my essay to start on.
I had no idea how to make an e-course so I googled things but still had to figure things out really backwards.
- I created a new page on my little website as a sales page.
- I put a banner at the top and wrote some sales copy (which I thought was SO GOOD at the time)
- I sent an email to a bunch of people I had met at actual in-person conferences and asked them if they’d help me announce this new crazy idea on their blogs. I asked the blogs and websites I had been freelancing for to help me out too.
- A few of them said yes.
- I wrote lesson 1 and assumed no one would sign up so that was that.
And despite me doing everything wrong with no idea what was happening - people signed up for my course. And my whole life changed.
So I had to figure out how to use MailChimp to send out email lessons. Yep I didn’t have Mailchimp figured out yet.
After the success of my first accidental “launch”, I had the motivation to actually dive into the online world and learn more about making the course better, making my marketing better, and selling more.
We started launching this little product every other month. And every other month I would try to improve my last one and do better, make a little more, and try new things. It was exhausting but it was all I knew how to do at that point, and I also liked being able to test out one new strategy each month to see how it worked.
Some did and some didn’t, and I always measured and documented everything and the results.
This one single course took over everything. It was generating more income than any of my previous businesses combined, and growing each month.
We soon had thousands of students and a huge community.
And we 100% focused on that single course. It was our main source of income now, having replaced everything else.
And you know what? I never thought about adding “more products” in that first year of the course running. It didn’t even really occur to me. I knew that we had this amazing thing that hundreds of thousands of people could benefit from, and I just wanted to help all the people out there that needed this. So our work there was about helping more people, not selling our people more stuff.
Soon, we were traveling the country freely, ON OUR TIME AND SCHEDULE, writing blog posts from the road, launching “on autopilot” while we explored the country, and just generally living the dream.
Seriously, it was as awesome as it sounds. I couldn’t believe it!
Clients and Consulting
The course attracted people who wanted more than just the course, they wanted more one-on-one help. For a while, I offered one on one consulting in the camper space. But to be honest, I didn’t like it. People seemed to not like my answers because usually I would tell them their ideas were going to be harder to achieve than they were planning for.
People would send me photos of their “potential vintage project campers” that they wanted to buy (total fixer uppers) and we’d hop on Skype and I’d walk them through the pictures explaining all the issues I saw, the good things I saw, and the red flags (like the signs of termites or major water damage).
This type of consulting wasn’t that fun, so I stopped doing it to focus only on the course.
But then people in the camper niche started asking to hire me for business advice. They saw what we were doing (which was just totally unheard of in that niche) and asked me how I did it, what our strategies were, and basically just wanted to know all the details.
Turns out I REALLY liked talking about that stuff.
I loved hopping on skype to talk about our latest sales page A/B test or the new launch sequence we were testing out. I loved hashing out the details of the tech, how we handled our massive affiliate program, and how we managed to do it all.
So after consulting with lots of people in construction, architecture, camper, and those types of niches about their businesses for a while, and after having made six figures with my own B2C course and B2C online business, I decided to start writing about this stuff on it’s own over on this blog.
I had actually tried to put this type of entrepreneurial content on my other blog, and it was a disaster! My audience wasn’t into it. Message received - I would need to talk about this part of my life somewhere else.
The thing that really made me decide to put up Femtrepreneur was a post I saw online.
There was a thread and a bunch of girls were saying how they liked the idea of people like Tim Ferriss and his other traveling/nomadic/entrepreneurial counterparts, but that what they really wanted to see was some women doing it and talking about it.
And this entire thread was all about how they wished there was a cool girl who was traveling while running an online business from her laptop, instead of all the dudes and bros.
And I was like...hey that’s me!
And so I knew I had to start writing about this stuff for the ladies in that thread. In order to make it “real”, they wanted to see someone like them doing it. And I could be that person to show them!
*Things I left out because I didn’t know how to fit them in here:
*I was in school some of this time too, but I was in a very non-traditional college and program that allowed me to study while traveling full-time and create my own curriculum around my current experiences and adventures.
If you're very self-motivated I recommend this model! It allowed me to build my businesses and travel while earning my degree in architecture, design/build and sustainable design. So on top of everything else I was also writing a book for my thesis, while traveling the country :) Oh and I made a documentary too. Side notes!
Where we’re at now:
Now, I run an actual company. We actually run multiple sites in my business. It’s pretty exciting. The best thing is that I have an amazing team and actual help!
I now know that there’s no limit to what we can accomplish. Nothing will work out as we think it will - and I’m good with that! I know that I’m in this for the long haul - the VERY long haul. I hope to be creating new businesses until I’m 80. Or 150. I’m never gonna stop.
I never in my life would have thought I would have a team, and advisors, and lawyers and all that stuff. It’s awesome though. I still wear the same thrift store clothes I was wearing when I was in a touring punk band. In some ways, I haven’t changed at all. In other ways, I feel like I don’t even recognize myself!
I’d also like to answer some questions I’ve been getting from you guys over the past few months.
Why did you quit the other businesses that you've started?
All of my previous business models either turned into something I didn’t want to pursue (as in, the reality of the business wasn’t really what I wanted in my life) or I hit a ceiling in time or income.
- Physical products turned into an endless cycle of packing and shipping - and scaling that business just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I felt physically trapped by the inventory and that I had to stay in one place.
- Freelancing allowed me to make great connections with bloggers and publications that would later help me promote my courses. But getting paid $40 for an article one time? I hit a ceiling on how much I could make real fast. And I KNEW that my writing was more valuable in a product of my own than on someone else’s site or magazine.
- Teaching in person classes was fun, but I could only teach about 20-40 people at a time in a room. I want to change the world - and I couldn’t do it 20 people at a time. I needed to be able to share my ideas about camper life with thousands of people at a time.
Your journey will look very different from mine even if you try to do everything I did in the same order.
So whether I took 4 years or 1 year to do something has nothing to do with how fast or slow you will be able to do it.
Depending on your time, money, family life, writing skills - your path will be uniquely yours.
How do you come up with the concepts in your courses? Like, where did you learn all of this stuff?
Guess what? Good old fashioned trial and error.
I’ve never taken a business course, a marketing course, or anything like that from someone else. For better or for worse! This has just been MY personal path.
Everything I know I tested, tried out, optimized, sent through the ringer with my clients and students, and measured and tested again.
I didn't learn it from a course or a program - I just spent 8 years figuring it out.