The media is full of inspiring stories of people turning their passions and hobbies into businesses, but is it always the key to happiness?
Huddled in the shelter on top of Mt Bartle Frere eating a meagre lunch with two of my favourite clients, I was cold, wet, hungry, and aching. Our adventure was truncated there, instead of at the peak of the mountain, and my team was gracious about our apparent defeat. They were there for the mountain – the entirety of it, not just the summit – and were beaming with the exertion and joy that a messy adventure in the rainforest brings.
We sat amongst the cloud as it rolled up like a misty wave, endlessly breaking over the small peak where the hut sat. I was so happy to be spending this moment with them, talking about the incredible beauty and depth of the forest we’d climbed through.
This hike was my riskiest venture so far, and it had been the peak literally and figuratively of my little venture. And yet, halfway up the mountain, I had decided to wind up my business.
Part 1: Lessons Learned
After working ten years in a job that burned me out, I’d decided to make a career change and dive into my love of hiking. I’d focussed on health and fitness for years and was an avid gym-goer who enjoyed helping people. I studied while I was working full time and planned my leap. Before I knew it, I was a personal trainer running a hike-fit business.
The bush was more than a place to exercise for me, it was the remedy for life’s stresses, one that happened to come with exercise benefits. I loved poking around on bushwalks, noticing new tree species, stalking birds, and following animal tracks. There was so much to learn and to love about it. That was the key I had discovered for myself, and I was keen to pass it on to others: find an activity that makes you feel good and suddenly it’s not a chore.
My idea came prior to the boom in outdoor and adventure fitness and the stage was set for my business to flourish. And yet, it didn’t.
After three years of trying, and with many mixed feelings, I closed my little venture. I’ve thought a lot about why it didn’t work and there are some lessons I’ve taken away that can help anyone looking to turn a passion into a business.
Get the business bit right
It’s obvious, but it’s not the exciting part, so it’s easy to push aside and assume you’ll work it out as you go. The truth is, though, I didn’t know how to price myself, how to make the most of time, how to build capacity in my tiny business of one, nor even how to negotiate. As a result, I priced myself too low and set an expectation with clients that that’s where I’d stay. It wasn’t realistic, and it was a big problem for my business. In hindsight, I should have done some solid business planning or got some experience working for someone else to fill in these gaps.
There’s lots of help out there for small businesses, take advantage of it. If you aren’t making money, it stops being fun very quickly.
Understand your motivations
I must be honest with this one. I had a foot out the door the whole time I was in business. There was always something about being locked into things so far ahead of time that gave me the panics, so I never quite fully committed mentally. That meant I didn’t spend enough time improving the business, because I always had a roving eye for other opportunities. I know now that I hadn’t thought properly about what I wanted from it. I knew I wanted to be the decision maker, have the variety of small business, and be in a positive environment, but I realised too late that I also wanted more control of my life, not less. Setting up weekend and after-hours work for months on end really didn’t fit that bill.
There’s going to be a period of hard work that you can expect with any business, but you do need to work towards a business model that’s sustainable for you. It would have saved me a lot of angst if I had.
Find your community
I love helping people, and personal training focusses on improving people’s lives, so it seemed like a perfect fit. At that time, though, the fitness industry didn’t feel like that at all to me, all the good will went to clients, the rest was hypercompetitive and critical. Because of that, I was on my own. I didn’t thrive in that isolation.
If you’re going into business, particularly as a sole trader, surround yourself with people who can relate, give tips from their own experience, and give you a morale boost when you need it. There are so many different networking groups that connect business people, you’ll be sure to find one that you can fit into. If I’d found that for myself, perhaps things might have been different.
Have strategies for Imposter Syndrome
Oh, this is a biggie, and it was exacerbated by the previous issue of feeling isolated. I mean, we’ve all experienced the insidious little voice whispering in our ear about how crap we are at our work. Pop it into the fitness industry context where you also have body shame to deal with, and it was paralysing. I knew there were plenty of others out there with the same experience and qualifications as me, but still, I felt I didn’t belong.
Imposter syndrome will happen regardless of how good you are at your work, so fact-check yourself regularly to separate your genuine development areas from the ones in your head. Tackle those weaknesses head-on with some learning. Remind yourself of your strengths and let go of perfectionism. See a counsellor if you need a hand to put it in perspective, and if you get a compliment – accept it!
Be prepared to find another hobby
I stopped enjoying hiking. That was the final straw. Organising walks for others took away the peace and quiet and focus on nature that I love about bushwalking. My positioning in the fitness industry made it all about going hard and burning calories instead of soaking up the landscape and the mental health benefits that flowed from that. It made me feel somewhere between a fraud and a babysitting killjoy a lot of the time, and quite frankly, I got tired of it. I didn’t want to bust my arse in the heat for the shallow pursuit of weight loss and get paid peanuts for the pleasure. I was experiencing a values conflict on an operational level, even though the principles of the business matched.
If I’d been honest and thought about what I loved about bushwalking I could have asked myself a tough question – does that translate in a commercial context? It’s good to be clear on whether your hobby is an escape, or whether you’re ready to take it into that different environment where it’s not necessarily about you anymore. In addition, I’d suggest getting your marketing messages on point to attract clients who are a good fit for you. A values-based business will have a much greater chance of providing job satisfaction and motivating you through the tough times.
In the end, it wasn’t any one thing on this list that made my business fail. It was all of them combined. With some additional support to sort through the issues and a bit more honesty to myself, I probably could have worked through it.
Many people successfully turn their passions and hobbies into businesses; it absolutely can be done. Turn it into a business, though, and it comes with a lot of other pressures, and what you love about it could evaporate. So too then does your best and most-loved way to de-stress. With this in mind, I urge you to plan, assess, and strategise thoroughly when you’re considering it.
A well-balanced life should have pastimes; they are a valid and beneficial part of your life, regardless of whether you earn money from them. It’s this that I can’t stress strongly enough: if you enjoy doing something, that’s enough. You don’t always have to take it to the next level.
Next time: Part 2: the good stuff