Yesterday, August 1st, 2012, marked the 3 year anniversary of when StevieSnacks became my full-time job. Since October of 2007 it had been a hobby that grew into a business, consuming nearly all my spare time.
On July 31st, 2009, I left my job as a software engineer, a job that I loved, because StevieSnacks was a better choice. I'm not living on my own island, flying my own plane, or even driving a new car. But I'm making a living, a good living, creating something I enjoy for people who love it.
I am not a businessman, or a self-appointed career expert who can tell you how to follow your dreams and make money doing whatever your heart desires. But I've thought a lot about why StevieSnacks works. Maybe something I've learned will help someone else, so here's a list of 10 reflections on the past 5 years.
Reflection 1: Learning
In college, I studied blues guitar, and spent hours online learning about tube amps, and guitar effects. In my spare time I went to class and got a degree in Electrical Engineering. For the next decade, I worked for an engineering software company where I learned programming, graphic design, web design, and a host of other nerdy computer skills.
In my time outside of work, I tried fruitlessly to make a dent in the music world, but along the way I learned how to shoot and edit videos, make DVDs, record, edit and master audio.
For the past 15 years, I have been on a continuous journey of learning new skills, and those skills allowed me to start StevieSnacks with very little friction.
Reflection 2: Testing The Waters
When I uploaded my first video in Oct. of 2007, there was no way to know if anyone would like it, or even watch it. If the response had been overly negative, or if there had been no response, that would have told me that this was a waste of time. Thankfully, for whatever reason, the response was positive right from the start, overwhelmingly positive in fact.
When putting yourself in front of an audience, you don't get to choose if they'll like you. The audience chooses. I could have invested a lot of time and money, only to find out that people can't stand to watch me on video. I tested the waters without spending much money, and the results came back positive.
Reflection 3: Product Sense
The 5 Essential Blues Boxes was my first premium lesson series. It is, in many respects, my lowest quality production. It is also my second best selling series out of my entire catalog.
Teaching ability is a valuable asset, but great teaching has to be channeled into great products. A great guitar lesson product is one that takes a limited number of concepts from the world of guitar knowledge, combines them in a logical way that is easy to digest, packaged in a way that communicates the benefits within.
The ability to know what information can be packaged in a certain way to make a great product is very important. It may be a learnable skill, but for me, it has always been mostly instinct refined by experience.
Reflection 4: Focus
In 2008, nearly every spare minute of my time was spent making lessons. My wife and I were expecting our first child in January of 2009, and I knew things would change drastically. So I buckled down, quit everything except my day job, and focused on making lessons.
I paid a price for that focus, but the sacrifice paid off. As summer turned into fall, I was desperately trying to finish my first huge lesson series called 5 Boxes Essential Licks. It was extremely stressful because I just didn't have enough spare time to make significant progress.
Eventually I realized that StevieSnacks was no longer just a hobby and I needed to start treating it with more respect. Rather than giving the lessons my leftover energy, I started using my accumulated vacation days to pound away at that lesson series. This focus allowed me to finish, without losing my mind.
When it was released, exactly one year after I uploaded my first video, it sold very well, and for the first time, I realized that this would eventually become my full-time job.
Reflection 5: Specialty
Being a multi-talented guitarist presents a unique problem. What should you teach? I never had this problem. I only do one thing really well so I just taught the only thing I knew how to do. That was the only thing I was passionate about, so teaching it didn't seem like work, and I loved every minute of it.
When someone arrives at StevieSnacks for the first time, they will know within a few minutes whether there's anything here for them. My lessons have a very narrow focus that only applies to a certain kind of guitarist, so it's not hard to figure out if this is a site you'll love or hate.
If something appeals to everyone, the risk is that it won't appeal to anyone very deeply. People's interests may be wide, but their passions are narrow and deep. If you make a more general interest product, you'll need to market to far more people, but if you make a product that appeals to a specific group of people, you can be very successful with fewer customers.
Reflection 6: Something For Everyone
Despite the specialized nature of the lessons here, there are plenty of lessons to choose from. If someone likes the style I teach, there is probably at least one lesson series that will meet their needs.
Some authors produce one set of lessons, and spend their time marketing that one product to everyone. If you're someone who prefers marketing to lesson production, that's probably a better approach.
But I have little patience and interest in marketing. What I enjoy doing is making lesson. So rather than make one series and try to sell it to everyone, I chose to be prolific. After five years of regularly producing great premium lessons, I now have a sizable collection for people to choose from. The larger that catalog grows, the greater chance that someone will find one or more products they like.
Reflection 7: Balance Quality And Efficiency
The problem with being prolific is maintaining a high level of quality. Sure, I could pump out quickly planned, poorly produced lessons at a high rate, filling up my store with crap, and hoping people buy them anyway. But that's a terrible way to build loyalty. I don't want customers to take a chance on a single series, find out that it's crap and never buy anything again.
A large catalog of crappy products might sell well for a while, but a large catalog of great products will sell itself for a long time.
That's why I take my time, finding a balance between production quality and efficiency. It doesn't take me a year to make a 3 hour lesson series, but it takes more than two weeks. Finding that balance has been crucial for maintaining the passion for this business. At times, I got bogged down, over-planning tiny, insignificant details, and feeling very, very stuck.
The key has been learning to identify which details will matter the most and not wasting time on stuff that doesn't matter to anyone. The progression counter in my latest lessons is one example of something that took a while to conceptualize, and implement, but has been extremely well received. That's a detail that matters. The font used in my videos, on the other hand, is not worth agonizing over.
Reflection 8: It's Not About Me
As I sat down to shoot my first video, I felt a voice inside say 'Let's not make a big deal about this'?ù. At that moment, I realized that if there was anything inside of me that wanted to show off my guitar skills, it would alienate the people trying to learn.
So I taught the lessons in a very matter-of-fact way. I didn't make a big deal about the fact that I could play this stuff. I didn't hide the fact that I'm (often) a sloppy player. I make mistakes, and sometimes leave them in the videos.
I have had to remind myself of this many times over the past 5 years. The level of interest in me, as a guitar player and person, has been unexpectedly high, despite the fact that my main form of communication is lessons. That interest can fool a person into thinking this is really about them and not about the students.
Time and time again, I have had to go back to that first video, remember that voice, and tell myself not to get caught up in the feedback, this is about the student, not the teacher.
Reflection 9: No Hype
I don't often criticize other guitar lesson sites, but I will say this. Some of them make false promises about crappy products. It makes my skin crawl to read those long, scrolling sales pages, full of blinking text and every sleazy sales technique you can imagine.
It is a struggle for me to promote my products because I am terrified of being lumped in with some of those trashy sites that I despise. Thankfully, word-of-mouth advertising, and incredible loyalty from my customers has allowed me to run this business without much marketing at all, and with very little hype.
If a product is great, the marketing only has to tell the truth. If the product is crap, you have to lie about it, and promise the impossible.
Reflection 10: Customer Service
Taking money is sacred. People work hard for their money and when they choose to buy my lessons, I am conscious of the sacrifice they are making. When purchasing online for the first time, some people are terrified of getting ripped off.
With very few exceptions, my customers give me the benefit of the doubt when they experience problems. They trust that I'll take care of them, and I do. I don't chase pennies and ruin the customer experience in the process. Providing a great experience for customers when they have a problem costs more money, but their loyalty is worth far more.
This is probably boring to most of you. But if you're someone who's thought about starting a business, maybe there's something in here that will help shape your approach to business. There are other successful approaches, and I'm no expert, but this is what has worked for me, and allows me to sleep at night.