How it all started: the origin story of starting my business
Some people always dream of running their own business. I was not one of them. I was one part naive and another part tenacious, and practical at the heart. I often get asked about how I got into doing what it is I do, so I thought I’d take the time to share the story as I start this new business blog.
It breaks down into three chapters: France, my blog, and necessity. In each chapter you can find what I like to call “creative constraints” that continue to inform so much of the work I do.
CHAPTER ONE: FRENCH TWIST
I had lived in Paris twice before. In 2001 I studied abroad, arriving two days before 9/11. It was a semester that continues to inform the work I do, as my classes would meet in my professors home before going to see the real deal (impressionism, gardens, photography) out in the world. It showed me that the city was my classroom. I also had a class that met in the Louvre every Wednesday evening, but I still didn’t manage to see it all.
In 2003-04 I returned to work as an English teaching assistant through the French cultural ministry. I worked in the suburbs of Paris, and what that year taught me was that I didn’t want to be a teacher (cue: irony for future)—at least not in that capacity. Working twelve hours a week with two weeks of vacation every six weeks meant that I didn’t make a lot of money that year, but I did appreciate the importance of vacation, holidays, and breaks. It was a start contrast to the 10 vacation days a year I received in the U.S. (the French still think this is crazy when I tell them!).
Drawn to Paris, I was looking for jobs, unaware of how hard it is for someone who is not an EU citizen, or high level employee. Luckily for me, the home page of The American University of Paris (where I was looking for jobs) had a feature for their Masters in Global Communications. I read the description, and say myself in it, and it read like a perfect fit. (As an aside AUP would never considered me—or anyone—without working papers for a job, so it was good that the program had my name on it.)
My Masters in Paris allowed a few things to happen:
Got me back to France. (I never came with the intention of staying forever.)
Re-wired my priorities. For my program I had the option between a thesis or internship. I came with the later in mind. Later I realized that internships in France pay ~500€ month (even when you're in your 30s) and now that I was completing my 2nd Masters I felt like I owed it to myself to be open to the option (and the challenge) of writing a thesis. For me, it was ultimately the more rewarding track. I never saw that coming.
Going back to school gave me a reason to pull my main interests back into focus (anthropology, travel, and the work I was exploring through my blog). I angled my projects towards my interests, and I would do so even more if I were to go back today. One of my projects in my branding course was to rebrand my blog.
Made me realize I really enjoyed the freedom of being a student and setting my own hours, and take advantage of different opportunities.
Context: I already had 5 years of professional experience under my belt, and this was my 2nd Masters degree (ironic, given I never even planned to get one!). I also only took loans to pay for tuition. My cost of living was covered by various freelance work (namely my work as a contributing editor for Design*Sponge). I also lived in the smallest apartment ever to ensure I still had money to travel, and do other things in life.
Challenges: When you move to Paris EVERYONE comes to visit. Visitors are awesome, but also exhausting. They tend to be in "we're on vacation, let's splurge mode". Which is stressful when you're a poor student and live on a 100€/week cash diet. But those 40 friends + family that came that first year would help inspire future offerings...
Lesson: Be open to what scares you, even if it's not the intention you came into the project with.
CHAPTER TWO: THE BLOG AS BIZ CARD
I remember the first time I learned about blogs. It was after a softball game for the architecture firm I worked for played. One of my colleague’s wives mentioned the word “blog” when we were walking to the car. She told me to check out one called Design*Sponge, and another called Print & Pattern. Not loving the day to day of my job and always being behind a desk, I constantly found myself refreshing these sites looking for the latest update. While it seems so normal these days, it was the most amazing thing back in the day.
I started my blog on Bastille Day 2007 as a way to explore the intersection of travel and design (and a side of Paris). Coming up with the name was the hardest, but I settled on Prêt à Voyager. Translation: ready to travel. The more I explored ideas, projects, and things that interested me, I can see in hindsight how I was planting seeds for myself to get back to Paris.
My blog allowed me to:
Connect with people out side my immediate bubble. Not only was I able to celebrate different creatives around the world, I've connected with many readers over the years as well.
Develop good habits for writing. (In the beginning I was blogging daily. Granted blogs were very different and less time intensive than they are today.)
Grow a following of people who were familiar with the work I do, and way I see the world.
Build an archive and reference library to remind me what inspires me.
Context: Blogs were new and imperfect when I started my blog. I was drawn to the community that surrounded them. Everything wasn’t perfect, and “influencers” didn’t exist. Blogs were penned by authors and you felt like you knew them, and their voice. At the time you really felt like you were getting a taste of them and their style. Over time advertising joined the ranks and banner ads, but still blogs felt genuine and inspiring. The design and layout of them was much simpler too.
Challenge: It ironically was easier for me to blog daily when I had the structure of a full time job. As a student, with more freedom, I found it more challenging to get to it. Perhaps too there were more topics that I could write about, which added an underlying sense of overwhelm.
My own struggle was finding my voice and not wanting to feel like I was copying what other people were doing. Over time, more people were writing about travel, and making mini guides. I felt like I was copying if I was doing one too, not fully realizing that we all put our own spin on things. Eventually Instagram took over. It became my microblog. But I still wish I had [blog] posts I could refer back to. I stopped doing what I was doing due to lack of time, but also feeling like I couldn’t compete, and was such a small voice in a big sea. (The irony is now, years later, people will tell me how helpful my blog was for them on their journey, but I had no idea at the time!)
Lesson: You never know who is reading (same is true for social media). What you do now can pay off 5 years from now. It's about planting seeds for the kind of work you want to get known for. On multiple occasions my blog has been the reason I've been hired for jobs (like really awesome opportunities!). Despite what the headlines and click bait around us may say, it's not about huge traffic, or growing your audience to 100k followers. To this day, my blog is my best business card.
CHAPTER THREE: DIVE INTO BUSINESS
When it came to actually starting my business, it helped that I already had a handful of professional experience under my belt. I also had been writing for Design*Sponge for several years at this point. I had the [graphic] design skills before I moved to France, and built my communication skills while in school. By the end of my studies several small businesses in Paris had reached out to me about doing some small projects for them. To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about what was after school (I wish I had a mentor at that time). Fortunately, I had a good head on my shoulders, and enough naivety to think I was going to be a freelancer in France.
Working in France has it’s own constraints. In the simplest form, everyone doing contract work must have a freelancer’s number (SIRET) in order to work. All French workers have a “status” as well. My initial freelance status allowed me to work (except for full time positions), but the real hell came from the fact thatI had to renew my paperwork every three months to keep my residency. That’s a whole other story (which is touched on here and here).
In addition to navigating French bureaucracy, I also had to learn how to run a business, create proposals, invoice clients, manage accounting, and pay taxes. These are what I like to call #thingsiwishilearnedinschool.
Despite the uphill battle, diving into business allowed me to:
Try out a bunch of different projects and see what energized me, and what drained me.
Realize that my initial business idea (helping expats moving to France) was in fact the worst fit ever for me. (I'm a huge proponent of "prototyping" and testing ideas. I tried it out and came to the conclusion I’m of much better use by writing funny stories about bureaucracy.)
Come to the conclusion that my best work was not coming from hiding behind a computer all day. In my adventures visiting all the swimming pools of Paris, I also realized that many of my best ideas came underwater.
Look for untraditional ways of monetizing my work. I started offering tours after the CEO of Vayable reached out to me. The timing was perfect because as a blogger people came to expect things for free. My blog became my free model, and tours a paid model. (I now only offer them through my own NavigateParis.com platform.). To this day about 1/3 come from my online presence, 1/3 from word of mouth, and 1/3 random searches. Similarly, someone from Skillshare reached out to me after I started following many of their team members on Twitter to do a "travel" course. My first course was on "map making". It was what paid all my bills my first years in business, and to this day 5+ years later, I'm still making money from that work.
Context: 5 years of professional experience, my blog, and having lived in France multiple times (three) made it "easier" to make the leap. I was already known as a graphic designer amongst expat circles, and word of mouth spread.
Challenge: Over time I came to realize that just because I was "good" at something it didn't mean it's what I wanted to do. Early in my career I was very reactive, rather than pro-active accepting anything that came my way. I also burned myself taking on lots of little projects to make ends meet. As exhausting as this was, it was a good way to test the waters and make see what really fit with me. Sometimes you just have to do the work, and pay the bills.
Lesson: Creative constraints make you stronger. Getting creative makes you think differently about your approach. Ultimately, this lead to more rewarding work for me. It's also important to consider what "work" is and alternative ways to earn income.
During this time I also had several friends who were also running their own business. It helped that I had French friends who were also freelancers, so it was a good model for me to see. With my expat friends (many who I had met at a blogging conference), we’d hop on Skype calls for hours in sessions that we’d dub “freelance therapy”. It helps to have someone to vent to about clients, or debate about which direction to take. When it’s someone at a similar phase in business as you, it’s less intimidating to ask questions of each other. You have a mutual trust.
So what’s next? I'm no longer considering myself a freelancer, but a small business owner. I'm being more intentional about the work and projects I take on. I've been working hard on my mission, manifesto, and values that drive my business. I'm not sure that I could have done this seven years ago. Looking back on all my experiences, I’m glad I had them, and they were good for learning. Every step of the journey I feel like I’ve grown, which is half the battle.
I recently met a designer who I connected with on LinkedIn. When I asked her what kind of work she takes on, she said “I don’t care what I do, as long as I’m learning.” I loved that response. It’s the work that scares and challenges you where you grow the most.
So that's my backstory of how I started my business that I never expected to have. There are many more stories to come, which I hope to share on this blog to help people out at various stages of their business. I always am inspired hearing and learning from the stories of others, so I hope my story can help some of you too!
This website needs a major overhaul and update, but rather than waiting until it’s perfect, I wanted to start sharing more of my writing now. When you wait until things are perfect it a) always takes longer than you think or b) may never happen. You can read this post for more on the different kinds of projects I’m working on today.
photo credit: Ashley Ludaescher
What other questions/comments do you have? Don't be shy! I want my experience to be able to help others. Leave them in the comments below so others can learn from them too.
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