In 2013, it was measured* that there were 152 million blogs on the Internet. Google tells me there are 248 million results for the search term “portrait photographer.” A quick search on Amazon, and there are 50 million published books for sale.
What do any of those numbers mean to you? Your immediate reaction might be, Whoa, how would I ever have a blog, photography business, or book that gets noticed?
Every day, someone starts a blog and writes something interesting that gets spread around the internet like wildfire. Every day, another author shoots up the rankings on Amazon to become a bestseller, seemingly out of nowhere. Every day, someone shares a photo on Instagram that gets 100x the exposure of any other photo that photographer has ever posted.
And why do these things happen? Why are some people able to break through the noise and make an impact? Because they do it differently.
94% of first-time authors don’t make money with their first book
When I set out to write my book, Creativity For Sale, I first emailed and called multiple friends who were accomplished (most were best-selling) authors. I wanted to know how to do what they’d done, but to my surprise and disappointment, they all told me I wouldn’t directly make money from my first book. They told me that I should instead use it as a marketing vehicle for something I could make money from, like teaching people how to get sponsorships or promoting myself as a marketing consultant.
The more I heard that answer, the more I could feel my stomach turn, and the more I wanted to prove them wrong.
I wanted to buck the system and prove that a first-time author could make great money from their first book without a publisher, an agent, or even a platform like Kickstarter.
In October 2013, I embarked on a journey through uncharted first-time-author waters. With my previous experience in getting sponsors for IWearYourShirt, I knew what my angle would be: to have the first-ever fully sponsored book.
My first step was to create a new Google Spreadsheet, open my email inbox, and to scour my contacts for people I had an existing relationship with. I found 50 people I felt confident would support my new idea, pasted their info into my spreadsheet, and wrote a quick email explaining how I wanted to fill the pages of my book with sponsors in an unobtrusive way (footnotes at the bottom of each page). I told these folks they were the first to hear about this project and that they could adorn (read: sponsor) the first handful of pages in the book for $500 each.
Copy email. Customize email to each person. Hit send. I did this 50 times, making a note in my spreadsheet each time I hit send. A few minutes passed, and I received the first reply:
“I don’t get it.”
Then another reply:
“I’ll pass on this. Thanks, though.”
Immediately, my heart sunk, and I started to question the idea altogether. More time passed, and no replies came in.
This was the worst idea ever. Everyone was right. I was going to be one of the 94%.
Then, right before I went to sleep that night, my first win. My friend James from J William Culinary (a gourmet packaged meal company) wrote back and said: “I’m in!” Faster than you can say dinner, I whisked a Paypal invoice his way, and a few moments later, the money was in my account. Huzzah! I had sold the first sponsorship for a project that would change my career and life forever.
Quick aside: Often, when you’re doing something differently, you’ll be met with resistance. Resistance can derail momentum faster than you can say dinner (again). In these moments of resistance, you have to remember that you want the outcome more than you will let rejection affect you. It will affect you. It affects me all the time. But I don’t let it stop me and you shouldn’t let it stop you.
Now, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows from there for my sponsored book project. If you’re keeping track at home, out of the 50 emails I sent, only 6 people ended up buying. While that ~10% conversion percentage is decent by “industry standards,” I still had quite an uphill battle on my hands (204 total sponsors to fill in my book). That first sale was the momentum boost I needed. It was the win that filled my entrepreneurial gas tank with fuel. That one “yes” catapulted me forward into creating the SponsorMyBook website, sending over 2,000 emails (back and forth with people), and after five and half months, ending up with $75,000 in total revenue before a single word of my book had been written.
You read that correctly: I made over $75,000 selling sponsorships for a book that didn’t exist yet and hadn’t sold a single copy. No publisher. No agent. Just hard work and not being afraid to try something new.
Why do I tell you this story? If you remember earlier, I mentioned that there are about 50 million books on Amazon.com. Well, 94% of first-time authors don’t make a single dollar on their first book. Many of them actually lose money. I was able to make really good money with my first book because I did it differently. I flipped the process on its head and wasn’t afraid to put in some hard work to prove the statistics wrong.
The statistics, pundits, and people who’ve been in your industry will all tell you it’s too crowded or that there’s a way things have to be done
There are too many blogs on the Internet—you could never start a popular one now.
There are too many portrait photographers—you couldn’t possibly make a good living doing photography full-time.
There are authors with much bigger platforms and more marketing savvy than you—you shouldn’t even try.
Yet, here were are. Popular blogs are popping up every day. Instagram has created a stage for photographers to shine. And self-publishing has made it possible to do anything you can think of to make your book successful—including having every single page sponsored.
All of the data and “experienced” people will tell you that a space is too crowded or that you’re too late (the dreaded bubbles).
Spaces and crowds should only scare you if you plan on fitting in and doing things the same way as everyone else.
Sometimes an industry, and the people in it, won’t even have to tell you how things are supposed to be done—you will just see it everywhere. A few years ago when my girlfriend, Caroline, wanted to start her own creative branding and design business (Made Vibrant), she kept seeing websites in her space that were minimal, white, and full of very styled photography (read: OCD organized). But that’s not who Caroline is. She’s a creative person who needs some disarray. She finds creativity in the chaos of a messy desk, messy art studio, and piles of bright journals and markers.
I remember Caroline not wanting to neatly arrange her desk to share a perfectly styled photo on social media. She wanted to show what it actually looked like for her to be creative, and she believed that there were other people out there like her. Low and behold, she was correct.
Caroline has built a thriving business that went from scraping by in the first year to generating a very comfortable 6-figure income. And more than the financial success, she has a community of thousands of people who subscribe to her “life made vibrant” philosophy where not everything has to be perfectly organized. I love that Caroline continues to operate her business differently by using bright colors and designs that stand out from the crowd, and that she embraces her chaotic creativity (even if the chaos is the opposite of my neat-and-tidy tendencies and can cause my OCD-ness to be driven wild from time to time).
A few ways to come up with your own different ideas
No-bad-ideas brainstorming: This simple exercise has been crucial for me over the years. I use it on a weekly basis, and it always brings me some idea, thought, or new perspective.
Just start executing: I love this short article from Derek Sivers. And it’s totally true. The more you just start doing something, anything, the more will happen. If you can stop sitting by waiting for an idea to hit you and start executing on anything, ideas will come to you.
Get outside: Never once have I had a big idea while scrolling through my email inbox or social media feeds. Even reading articles online can feel like you’re searching for motivation/inspiration, but it rarely works (has never worked for me). Go on a hike. Go sit by the ocean. Just be in nature and let your brain wander. You’ll be shocked by what you come up with if you do this often.
Go outside your bubble: So often, people want to get inspiration from their competition/industry. I’ve never thought this way. Instead, I’ll go way outside my comfort zone and look for inspiration in unfamiliar places. I watch documentaries on Netflix I’d never normally watch (I recently watched Birth of Sake, which was super interesting). I’ll read a fiction book that’s way outside my normal reading list. I’ll hop in the car and just drive in different directions than I normally would (sounds weird, but it really helps clear your head).
Take a break: It sounds so counterintuitive, but I’ve come up with some of my best (and most obscure) ideas while taking a break from technology. The most recent example is BuyMyFuture, which has generated over $173,000 in revenue so far.
The way things have always been done is not the way things have to be done
People always want to know how to stand out. How to get noticed. How to get more sales, more press, more everything. And the one way I’ve learned to do that over the years is by doing things differently.
Being different is uncomfortable. It’s ingrained in us that we should fit in with the herd or we’ll be cast out. That way of thinking mattered when we were fighting off saber tooth tigers and living in caves. In modern society, the people who stand out (the outcasts) are the same people that experience success.
You are in complete control of your life and your decisions. It’s easy to copy someone else or to follow the paths that people have carved out before. But copying people and following existing paths rarely leads to fulfilling results.
Think about this for your next idea or project: challenge yourself to avoid being one of the 94%. How can you do it differently?