I’ve recently finished up a bunch of public speaking engagements and the most recurring question I was asked was, “how do you build a business out of storytelling?”
Some asked in less than respectful ways, like, “you can’t really be making any money off of that”.
In past posts, I’ve reflected on what I’ve learned each passing year in business but I’ve never disclosed the details of creating a business and job description out of nothing.
So, I proudly present the no-holds-barred look into how I built this thing to be what it is today…
I’d like to start by saying that this is not and has never been an easy, smooth ride. I have enjoyed epic successes and a number of devastating roadblocks.
In my second year of business I made LESS than my first. Yep, nothing but the truth here.
Founding Year | 2017
I had the idea for Tell Your Damn Story one night almost by mistake. The name came to me and I was like holy crap I have to run with this before I lose my nerve. And boy did I run with it.
I had no business plan or actual idea of what the business would really be. I just trusted my gut and built an MVP website in 6 hours. I did that thing that people sometimes do when they start a blog or build a website, I sat there and waited for the people to arrive. Shockingly, no one came. Here’s what v1 of the website looked like…
Not too bad, right? After a few days I mustered up the strength to post about my pseudo-new-business on Facebook. This was terrifying. Here’s the post from that day:
To my grateful surprise, people seemed to resonate with the post! I got numerous messages and sold 5 Core Story Sessions (an offering I still have to this day). This kickstarted my business and I spent the rest of the year honing my storytelling chops, taking odd jobs/gigs, and saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity that came my way.
By the end of 2017, my income looked like this:
2017 Tell Your Damn Story Income: $15,000
2017 Other Income: $31,000
What I wish someone had told me: You’re not crazy, you can do this.
Year #2 | 2018
2018 was a weird one. I made some huge professional strides but my personal life completely fell apart which took away from the rest. I applied to speak at Boulder Startup Week and ended up having the 5th most popular talk of the whole event (over 275 sessions). That was a BIG confidence boost at a much needed time.
I secured my biggest client to date from that talk, a tech company looking for storytelling help. I was excited about the contract but also knew that I was charging WAY under what I was promising. I was essentially promising to do a full brand audit AND write the website copy AND design the marketing. I learned a lot from that experience because I knew when I signed on that I wouldn’t love the work but I was afraid of walking away from an opportunity so I said yes and ended up with something I didn’t feel my best about.
During this year, I also had multiple side gigs to support. I was an executive assistant, an event manager, a catering assistant, a website designer, an Airbnb host, and I’m pretty sure there were a few others.
Nearly all of the speaking I did in 2018 was completely free. Oftentimes I would travel to speak on my own dime. I was also on a few podcasts. None of these things brought me much business but my reputation and word-of-mouth recognition grew tenfold.
2018 Tell Your Damn Story Income: $10,000
2018 Other Income: $30,000
What I wish someone had told me: If something feels off, it usually is. Trust your gut and say ‘no’.
Year #3 | 2019
I’m not going to say things popped off this year but they definitely got WAY better. First of all, I booked 22 speaking engagements (all of which were paid). This is kind of unheard of and I’m proud of it. Of course, some of the speaking work was paid by participant (~$250-$500/event) and some by a day rate ($1,500/day) but, either way, I was so happy to be feeling confident in my ability to provide value and make money teaching and speaking.
From those speaking engagements, cool opportunities began to spring up. I was hired to design a storytelling curriculum for the Aurora Public School System, teach at General Assembly, be an advisor for Women’s Startup Lab, facilitate multiple workshops at a women’s empowerment retreat with 109 World, be a guest on the Mind of a Mentor podcast, and be a core speaker for all of the 2019 StartingBloc Institutes.
I think the biggest thing this year has given me so far is clarity. Clarity on my strengths and weaknesses, clarity on my vision and mission, and clarity around the people I most want to serve.
This photo by Rebecca Slaughter really sums that clarity up nicely…
Even though I’m making more money this year, I haven’t stopped taking side work. Storytelling is my life work and my vocation, and I want to make sure I can do it freely and forever. I got a little too confident earlier this year and ended up with $1.75 in my bank account due to poor cash-flow planning. I’ll be spending the rest of 2019 working a side job while I write my book.
Here’s what my financials look like this year (so far):
2019 Tell Your Damn Story Income: $45,000
2019 Other Income: $15,000
What I wish someone had told me earlier this year: As a contractor, companies pay you when they remember or feel like it. Plan accordingly.
To sum it up, the path is not linear. When you’re doing something meaningful it will likely be HARD. Stick with it, keep your day job if it means you can keep going. The world needs what makes you come alive. I’m here if you need a reminder :)