the lifestyle business: part 1

I am a fan of the concept of the “lifestyle business”. Years ago, I borrowed “The 4-Hour Work Week” from the library. It put into words what I’d been feeling for a while: life’s too short, and it would be bad to spend too much of it doing work that has no meaning, and is sometimes even unpleasant. Since then, I’ve tinkered with building a few of my own lifestyle businesses. But the bulk of my money was made in full-time employment, working for companies. I’ve come to wonder if the “lifestyle business” is a dream that only works for a lucky few.

Recently, I came across a blog post by Nat Eliason on his own (apparently successful) attempt at building a lifestyle business. He says he was inspired by the “The 4-Hour Work Week”. Hey, so was I! So I decided to study his post carefully. Here are my thoughts as I read it – not exactly a review, just my response.

He writes the post as a list of steps to build a lifestyle business. Great, he hooked me! I love recipes. I can follow a recipe. 🙂

“Step 0: Having useful skills”

Let me run a quick inventory: I know several different programming languages. I’m a full-stack web developer, although I don’t have all the latest and greatest mad skillz. I am fluent in English. I am good at sticking to goals, and persistent to the point of stupidity. Sometimes, though, persistence is not an asset. It can be very tough to know when to stick with something, and when to quit!

“If you don’t have some relevant, valuable skills, or the ability to teach yourself new things, you’re not going to have a good time. You’ll be more likely to waste years on something going nowhere…”

I can totally teach myself new things! Examples: I taught myself to program, and to use relational and noSQL databases. On the other hand, I’ve tried to learn a language (French) and haven’t had huge success with it. So yeah I can teach myself things, but there are limits.

The key skills he mentions are: “website creation [check], marketing [not sure], copywriting [not sure], and self-direction [check]”. Here’s the thing: successful marketing and copywriting are both somewhat ambiguous. I think I could do these things – I mean, here I am blogging! – but how would I know for sure? I can write a bunch of stuff, but is that really marketing and copywriting? Hm?

Then Nat says: “Now, don’t worry. If you read this section and got freaked out about ‘not being ready,’ you should still go for it”. OK. Let’s keep reading.

“Step 1: Finding the idea”

Read the article for details, but his advice is “solve your own problem” and “share your skills”. Oooookay…. I’ve heard this before. There seem to be two opinions on this. One is to scratch your own itch when coming up with the idea. The other is, do market research, find a pain point that people will pay you to solve, and proceed from there. So I’m a little skeptical that his Step 1 will pay off, in general. I mean, I’ve done a number of projects that never paid off, and I doubt I’m the only one with that problem.

For his business, he teamed up with a friend, and they chose “programming for marketers”. This was a little funny, because it’s difficult to imagine marketing pros being interested in programming (although he says it was a problem that he had when doing his own marketing, so I’ll just believe him). I think of marketers as people who pay programmers to do technical grunt work. So I’m super surprised at the idea that marketers want anything to do with programming. If they do, it makes me wonder just what other ideas I’m holding onto that are wrong.

“Step 2: Determining How to Validate the Idea”

Good, he didn’t just build it and expect people to pay. Validating the idea is standard operating procedure. He and his friend decided to validate by making an email course…

“Step 3: Making the Email Course”

But they didn’t really make it. They hung up a web shingle (aka landing page) and advertised the existence of the course.

This content is starting to sound more and more like the standard script that I’ve read in a number of places, one of them probably being “The 4-Hour Work Week”. Which I strongly recommend you check out from your local library, if you are interested in lifestyle businesses. I don’t begrudge Timothy Ferriss his income from the book, but if you’re looking at “lifestyle”, you can probably use the money that you save on other things that can’t be gotten free of charge.

There’s a bunch of stuff mentioned in Step 3 which sounds like advertising for other services. I don’t know if this is affiliate marketing, but it looks suspicious. Clearly you don’t need those to set up your landing page. It may be worth investigating, but personally I wouldn’t throw money at a landing page before I’ve validated my idea.

“Step 4: Promoting the Email Course”

They posted their course to Product Hunt, GrowthHackers, Hacker News, Reddit Marketing, and Inbound. And “we asked some of our friends to help us by upvoting our submission. Yeah, you’re not supposed to do that, but everyone else is…”. Oops. This is a problem. I’ve got no friends who will give my posts an upvote. And it’s kiiind of unethical?

They got 2800 sign-ups almost immediately! At this point in the article, I’m still mystified as to why marketers are interested in the technical details of programming. Who are these people?

The team had set an arbitrary goal of 1K sign-ups. I think the arbitrariness of this goal is lame. Why not 500 or 5000? I didn’t think the advice in this step was practical or truly actionable. It made me think that this “recipe” had more fairy dust in it than I’d like to see.

“Step 5: Writing the Email Course”

So yeah, the idea was validated by virtue of the fact that they got far more than their arbitrarily picked target number of sign-ups.

Then voilĂ  they wrote the email course real fast and people loved it. They gave people bonus content for sharing on twitter or whatever (which seems sleazy, but whatever works, I guess).

“Step 6: Proving People Would Pay”

I just want to point out here that some people roll the “Proving People Would Pay” part into the “Validating the Idea” part by making a landing page that sells a product for a price. You won’t get as many sign-ups this way, but I would think your email list would consist of more committed subscribers.

Anyways, they threw together a paid product (a video course) and a paid service (a “mastermind group” which kind of screams scam), and made an offer to their email list: “The paid course pre-order was for $500, the mastermind group was for $50 a month. And… no one bought either”. Ha, that was not a surprise!

Then they sent a new email out to their list, offering the pre-order for half the original cost. And apparently they got 40 people to pay for that. Mysterious! The course content sounds like the kind of stuff you could do for yourself with a little searching around on the internet, although I admit that I haven’t looked at it yet. I’m very very curious to know why people are willing to pay $250 for something like this. I wonder if it’s because the people paying this money think of $250 as a trivial amount of money. Food for thought. On the other side of things, we’re talking about $250 for a video course. A video course seems like a lot of work, and I wonder just how much time and money it would cost to make one.

He admits that the the $500 offering price for the video course was arbitrary, and that he’d do it differently now. And in “Step 7” he says “Making the video lessons, between planning, recording, and editing, took 3-10x longer than we’d anticipated.” It took them a week to create two modules. He doesn’t say how many hours of video are in each module, but I’m guessing it’s less than 1 hour each. That is fine, because no one really wants to look at a video for an hour. But still. A week for about 2 hours of video, eh? From what he says, they wanted to produced 8 modules, so that means you’re looking at a total of 4 weeks of work… for $10K. However, you’re not making $10K*12/year. You’re making $10K once (with some long tail fall-off of subscribers), and you still have to pay for hosting on Teachable ($40/mo, at the moment, which is really much better than I expected!). And I don’t know what other services, Mailchimp and maybe some other stuff. I’m just ballparking the numbers as I go along… he does not give all the details, so I’m making some guesses.

“Step 8: Launching the Course”

Here, he talks about how they built the new landing page for their product. There’s a screenshot of the headline, which says “Become a Technical Marketer”. Huh. What the heck is a technical marketer, anyway?

They launched, and over the course of the next few days they made $48K or so in orders. I gotta say, this must have felt fantastic!

He claims they are still getting about $3K per month. However, there is no date on his blog post (part of the “evergreen content” craze, I guess). So I wonder just how long the $3K per month continued. And I repeat: who are these old school marketers who don’t understand how to do web-y things, and think that throwing $250 at a video course is worth the cost to help them learn it?

There are a couple of other steps in his process, but I feel like I can stop here. Go read the article, as it’s definitely worth a look.

There are two takeaways that I have from reading this article.

First, when choosing a lifestyle business, you need a target market that can shell out a few hundred dollars for your product without too many qualms. That could mean selling content that helps them generate more money, which I suspect is the case here. This is something that Nat never addresses. I mean, suppose he’d decided to teach moms to make sock puppets for their kids. I do not see that idea generating any kind of income, even if it did produce a nice email list filled with craft-y moms!

Second, it won’t be easy doing this kind of thing unless you really like your audience. Patio11 eventually got tired of promoting his product to teachers. Now I feel like I’m stuck back at Step 1, and I’ll have to keep searching for “The Idea”.

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