THE BLOG
11/12/2010 04:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Get Paid for What You Love

I'm no consultant, but from time to time (as in, several times a day) people ask for my opinion about building some kind of online business. I'm happy to give $0.02 for whatever it's worth, and I'm sure there are times when it's not worth more than that.

How can you do something you love and make a good living from it? Much of my Unconventional Guides business is devoted to answering this question in one way or another. And as discussed before, often when we ask for advice, we don't really want advice -- we want someone to say "That's great! Go for it!"

But when people really want advice about building a business out of something they love, there are a few principles that are fairly universal. Starting with...

Not everything you love makes a good business.

In fact, most things you love don't really make a good business. This is probably the most common misconception of the entire "follow your passion" concept: you love watersports, or crafting, or traveling, for example. So why not build a business around it and do what you love all the time?

There are actually several reasons why this isn't always a good idea, one of which is that you might not like everything that goes along with running a business as much as you like the actual activity. Sure, you like traveling... but how much do you want to work while you're traveling? Do you like the business of crafting or just the crafting itself?

Second, not everything you do is commercially viable. Chances are, no one will pay money to watch you go surfing, and this brings us to the next point...

What you love must be relevant to other people.

Whoever your prospects, customers, or clients are, they have to identify with what you do and believe it can be possible for them as well. That's why you work to find the magic convergence between your passions and what customers will pay for. (I go on and on about this in my business work -- if you have the Empire Building Kit, I'm sorry for repeating myself. But, I repeat myself: you have to meet a clear need or solve a real problem for the people who pay you. This is critical!)

In fact, the more you can focus on other people's needs and understand how they overlap with a skill you enjoy sharing, that's where the real follow-your-passion model gains potential.

Often you won't get paid for the obvious thing, but something related.

To get paid for what you love, you must inspire, educate, or entertain -- preferably at least two of the three. But one way or another, you'll get paid for helping people, not just being awesome. As much fun as it is, I don't get paid to travel. I get paid because of a business I've built that helps other people; it has very little to do with my actual travel.

Sometimes it helps to separate the business model from your passions, even if the two are ultimately correlated. The main question you have to answer for the business model is: "What will customers actually pay me for?" It probably isn't surfing or travel, unless you're teaching people to go surfing or travel.

Instead of "breaking in" somewhere, create your own market.

Freelance writing is a good example. As far as I can tell, supporting yourself as a freelance writer under the traditional system is effectively dead. Business Week, CNN, Psychology Today, and the Huffington Post all pay me a grand total of $0 for the articles they post with my byline. It's worth it to me because I've built my own platform at AONC and UnconventionalGuides.com. Without that platform, I'd literally be working for free.

So don't worry about breaking in -- figure out what you can do that no one else is doing, or at least how you can do it in a different way than everyone else is doing. You can waste a lot of time trying to get into an existing system, or you can put the time to good use and build your own system. (Ironically, when you do the latter, it becomes easier to break in to the original system as you go along.)

Keep startup costs very low.

Someone asked me the other day, "If you had $1,000 to start over with my business, how would you spend it?" I said I would get a $10 domain name, a free Wordpress installation, and a PayPal account. Then I would set up a one-page site and see what I could do with it. If it looked promising, there are plenty of things I could spend the remaining $990 on (I'd probably start with design). But the point is, I would first make sure I had some kind of viable idea.

If you can start something without spending a lot of money, that's best. If you have to invest some amount of money, that's OK too. But the worst thing you can do is spend a lot of money and do nothing. Don't do that!

Find a way to make it work just a little.

In Louisville, Kentucky I talked with Nick, who told me about a small photography business he wanted to start. A few weeks later, I saw him again in Charleston, West Virginia, and this time he had an update: "I sold a print for $50!" he said with great enthusiasm. And I knew exactly why Nick was so excited--he wasn't going to cash it in and retire on one $50 sale, but it was very empowering to get paid for something he loved to do.

When it comes to a lifestyle business, a little momentum goes a long way. The sooner you can get paid, even a small amount or a one-time sale, the better.

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The greatest benefit of a lifestyle business is freedom. But usually we find that freedom does not just appear out of nowhere; it requires a shift in mindset and the corresponding action. It also sometimes requires a surprising amount of work to maintain. (If you love something, you have to protect it.)

These disclaimers are not meant to dissuade anyone. Overall, I think this is a fantastic time to start a business and find a way to get paid for what you love to do. Don't hold back! Just make sure you head off in the right direction. As I see it, the right direction begins with taking action, like Nick did with his $50 print sale.

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Image: The Wolf