$50,000 in 5 months: 3 essential steps to turn a passion project into a business

Three years ago I got serious about turning my passion project of Tudor history into a business, and now I see regular five figure monthly revenues with an average profit of 50%.

If you would have told me then that selling physical products would be the way I make a full time income, I would have laughed. I’ve only been studying eCommerce for the past six months, hardly an expert!

Still, over the past 5 months, I’ve sold nearly $50,000 in products related to my niche, and I’d like to share the three steps I took to turn my passion project into a full time business:

  • Build a passion project platform
  • Develop a proof of concept
  • Give your audience more

Build a passion project platform

In 1998 I started writing about history online. In 2009 I started podcasting about Tudor England. My dream when starting was to be surrounded by history, to write and be creative, and to be able to work anywhere I could find a wi-fi signal.

There’s a quote I keep on my wall that says:

“Never compromise on a dream. Always compromise on how it will come true.”

This is what my platform looked like when I started:

  • Podcast
  • Blog

I was on a call with a business mentor who noticed that, while I had a great site filled with lots of useful information, I wasn’t actually making it very easy for people to give me money. “Well, I have Patreon,” I responded.

She pointed out that there are only a handful of profitable organizations that rely solely on asking readers to pay directly for your content. Even National Public Radio has to sweeten your pledge by offering swag.

The lightbulb turned on. What if I tried selling things to people? Real physical, tangible things that they could own? Things that would also remind them how much they love my show, and give them an easy way to share my show with people?

I didn’t know anything about shopping cart software or sourcing products, but three years ago I got serious about making a business out of this passion project. Being an introverted writer type, the idea of customer service made me queasy.

Develop a proof of concept

After brainstorming for a month, I came up with the idea of doing a planner/diary filled with Tudor history:

  • Monthly calendar with a quote from a famous Tudor
  • Weekly pages with ‘This Week in Tudor History’
  • Renaissance music listening lists and Spotify playlists
  • Gorgeous cover inspired by an illuminated manuscript

With a company like Blurb you can print books on demand, so the only out of pocket costs are a designer for the cover, a subscription to InDesign, and the time spent learning how to create a planner. All told, it cost me less than $200. 

I spent the month of October, 2016 designing the planner, gathering the dates and information, and putting it all together. In early November I put up some Facebook ads and got my first sale!

I had no idea how many would sell. I was hoping for 50. Before Christmas I had sold over 300! It took me two months and less than $200 to develop a proof of concept.

Now that I had proof, I knew people would pay for physical products in my niche. I also noticed customers who found me through the Facebook ad had never heard of me before. They liked my Facebook page and started listening to my show.

That made my download numbers go up, which meant that more people could find me through the podcast charts. Many of those people signed up for my mailing list, because I offered a discount on the planner in exchange for the email address.

“In six weeks, I added four times as many email subscribers as I had the entire year before.” — Heather Teysko

This is what I have termed the Abundance Whoosh, because it was a whoosh of new email subscribers, new listeners, and sales, in one big spiral.

Give your audience more

I spent early 2017 trying to replicate this success. I only knew about print on demand books, so I stuck with that strategy for the first few months of the year, creating journals that were historic.

For example, I created a journal with a cover based on a 15th century French book of hours. It was shaped like a heart and filled with quotes from Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne Boleyn.

I also started working with a printer to create a 2018 planner with customizations you can’t get with Print on Demand, like a pocket in the back and a ribbon marker. But I really wanted to add more products like:

  • clever mugs
  • t-shirts
  • creative leggings

Sites like CafePress and Zazzle had margins so small you aren’t left with any money to pay for the ads you run on Facebook. I knew ads were a big part of my success with the planner, and I wanted to duplicate the Abundant Whoosh- growing my audience and not just selling things to my existing one.

Then I found out about Shopify and print on demand services. What’s the difference between using Shopify and going the CafePress route to give your audience more ways to support you? Ownership of the sales process.

The CafePress compromise

When you use CafePress, or similar merch sites, you hand your customer over to that company. They take care of the entire transaction from start to finish, sending you a commission once a month. All you have to do is:

  • Upload your artwork
  • Share your shop address

This is easy for brands with limited time but want to offer something for their audience to buy. But handing your customer over to another company mean you are losing touch points with them.

Most of these march sites won’t give you the email address of the people who bought your products. They add your customer to their own email list, where they will then send marketing campaigns featuring other creators.

You can’t set up discount codes as an incentive to sign up for your mailing list, and when the customer receives their purchase, the branding isn’t yours. You have, in effect, created a customer for another company instead of your own.

The Shopify difference

Shopify is a web host, shopping cart, and payment processor all in one. When integrated with a print on demand company that only prints and fulfills your orders, you’ve got the perfect recipe for success.

Shopify handles the payments and Gooten or Printful handle the fulfillment automatically, from my shop, TudorFair.com, with simple integrations. No more directing customers to a different company. 

I tell my podcast listeners they can support the show and buy cool stuff. Here is the flow after that:

  • Customer buys from my site
  • I collect the money via PayPal or Shopify Payments
  • The fulfillment company charges me and fulfills the order
  • The fulfillment company ships the product, with my branding, to my customer
  • The next day, an automated app sends a personalized thank you note to my customer
  • The fulfillment company updates the tracking information

I don’t pay the fulfillment company anything until I already have a sale. There are no fees to get started, or to import your products to Shopify. The only fee is from Shopify, where the basic plan after free trial starts at $29.99/month.

The margins are larger because I’m doing more of the work. If creating a full time income from a passion project is your goal, you have to work.

“If creating a full time income from a passion project is your goal, you have to work.” — Heather Teysko

The downside is when a customer hasn’t received their order, or wants to return something: you’re the one handling that. The percentage of people doing that is so small, the extra bit of work is a tiny price to pay for ownership of the process.

You have more options for products

With Shopify you can sell a huge variety of products through various fulfillment companies:

  • AliExpress imports goods from China
  • Printful offers clothes and posters
  • Gooten has tote bags and phone cases
  • ArtsAdd offers everything from clothes to home decor
  • Art of Where does some very cool clothing
  • Galloree even offers custom printed skateboards
  • Beeoux offers laser-cut sterling silver jewelry in designs you provide

You can put your designs on nearly anything you can think of! Many of these fulfillment companies have cross-over in their product offerings.

Some products may not be a perfect fit, but they can be on theme with your niche enough to make sense. I’ve sold Tudor-themed jewelry that was not an exact English history match.

You have more places to sell

Shopify will integrate with Facebook so you can have your store on your Facebook page, and in many countries people can check out within the Facebook environment directly, never having to leave the app.

As you get more experience, you can explore the dozens of apps in Shopify that will help grow your customer base, and provide subscription options, affiliate selling, reviews, and social proof.

Your steps to success

If this is something that appeals to you, here are the steps you can take to start off:

  1. Sign up for a free trial of Shopify. (Use my affiliate link to get a two week trial, and I’ll get a small commission.)
  2. Investigate the various print on demand companies you can work with to get your products into your shop.
  3. Ask your audience what they want from you and what they’ll pay for.
  4. Design your products, hiring freelancers from Fiverr or using PicMonkey.
  5. Link your fulfillment provider to your Shopify store.
  6. Make sales.
  7. Send personalized thank you notes with links to your content.
  8. Use the Abundance Whoosh to spiral your success.

Since October I sold nearly 1000 2018 Tudor Planners, and hundreds of items ranging from leggings that have portraits of Henry VIII’s wives, to combat boots with portraits of Elizabeth I.

I also started a subscription box service where each month I send a box of curated treats related to Tudor history. All of this has equaled nearly $50,000 since my shop launched.

“Running an eCommerce site isn’t for everyone, but I have more blog traffic, more podcast listeners, and more interest in my work overall, simply by integrating product sales into my portfolio.” — Heather Teysko

Once we purchase something from someone, we become more invested in their success, so now I have a growing number of supporters who are personally interested in helping me grow my work and spread our shared love of history.

I have become a huge believer in product sales as a way to grow, serve, and deeply connect with an audience, especially for creative passion-based businesses.

I believe in it so much that I’ve started teaching other creatives how to build their own shops. You can learn more when you get my free Getting Started on Shopify Guide and join my Facebook group where we share our experiences growing stores based on creative passion businesses.

Here’s to lots of new paths for creating income and spreading our messages!

Heather Teysko is a storyteller, writer, and podcaster, and mom who has been writing about history online since building her first website on Colonial American history in 1998. But even more than that, she is a creative entrepreneur. You can find Heather on Twitter and her amazing Renaissance English History Podcast.

This article first appeared on Goins, Writer.