How Writing About My Passion Turned Into A Successful Business

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The Girl with the...
from Orange County, CA
started March 2015
$1,000
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi everyone! My name is Katie, but many know me better as The Girl with the Tree Tattoo. I’m an amateur ballroom dancer and writer with a day job and two fur babies (it’s as fulfilling as it is exhausting).

The Girl with the Tree Tattoo started out as a simple blog, used as a personal creative outlet and a way to process my experiences as a ballroom dancer. It has become a source of inspiration and guidance for ballroom dancers, both amateur and professional, around the world. In case you’re wondering, the name was inspired by my full-back tree tattoo, which I proudly display at ballroom competitions, despite it being taboo.

Beyond the blog, I’ve authored three books. The first two are digital, short reads: Dance Diaries: Learning Ballroom Dance and Dance Diaries: Ballroom Budgeting. My third and signature offer is The Solo Practice Guide for Ballroom Dancers, a guide to help ballroom dance students build an effective routine for practicing on their own that fits their life. Adult ballroom dance students are my primary audience, and my writing always aims to shine a light on the challenges we all face but are rarely discussed openly.

how-writing-about-my-passion-turned-into-a-successful-business

I always dreamt about being a paid author (or more secretly, a dancer). While my day jobs have always been set in the environmental science field, The Girl with the Tree Tattoo brand has given me the opportunity to incorporate both my passions, make a difference in the lives of others and get paid to be who I truly am.

how-writing-about-my-passion-turned-into-a-successful-business

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

When I was 6 and 7 years old, I took jazz, tap and ballet classes and even performed on stage. My roles included a sailor on the good ship Lollipop, a California Raisin, and Flounder in the Little Mermaid. I was extremely shy, but I loved dancing with all my being. Then when I was 8, my family moved across the country. When asked, I told my mother I didn’t want to keep dancing. The truth was I was too scared to start at a new studio. The next dance studio I would walk into would be a ballroom studio, two decades later.

Your mindset is going to play such a huge role in growing your business, so much more than your systems or aesthetics. Your brain wants to keep you safe, so it will try to trick you into not taking action because entrepreneurship is a risky thing!

It didn’t take long for me to get hooked on ballroom dancing. A former colleague introduced me to the ballroom studio I still train at today. I started by going to their monthly practice parties and attending group classes, while I devised a plan to fit the pricey private lessons into my paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle.

I started regular lessons in December 2012. In 2014, I entered my first ballroom competition as a pro-am student, meaning I danced with my teacher as my partner. I did well from the beginning, always placing in the top 3 and most often winning 1st or 2nd place.

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The journey wasn’t easy, however. It was difficult to feel like I belonged in the ballroom world when I could barely afford one to two lessons a week and others were taking five or six. I rented a used dress for competitions while others appeared in new, custom designs at every event. My financial challenges ate into my self-confidence about becoming the dancer I dreamt of being.

how-writing-about-my-passion-turned-into-a-successful-business

I used The Girl with the Tree Tattoo blog to express and process my inner struggles with this passion. Other dancers began to comment on posts or email me directly to thank me for being so open and honest. They thought they were the only ones struggling with the issues I discussed.

I realized there was a gap in our ballroom training. Our teachers couldn’t really understand what we were going through because most of them had been dancing their entire lives. Learning ballroom dance as an adult was a completely different experience with its own set of challenges, but no one was talking about them.

This realization eventually led to the publication of my first book, Dance Diaries: Learning Ballroom Dance - What I Wish I Had Known in 2016. It was quickly followed by Dance Diaries: Ballroom Budgeting - How I Afford to Dance, since the dance budget was a particularly hot topic among my followers.

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At this point, I was serious about my dancing but not yet fully committed to building a brand and business around my writing about dancing. The two Dance Diaries ebooks were priced extremely low at $5 and $6. It wasn’t until 2017 that the catalyst for my third book and signature offer would appear.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

My third and final competition of 2017 was the Embassy Ballroom Championships, host of the World Championships. I was feeling good and when it came time for the event that would determine the World Champion of my division, I was positive I danced my absolute best.

The most important thing I’ve done is recognize what works for my audience in particular instead of looking at broader marketing strategies or jumping on the new hot thing to attract customers.

I ended up placing 5th out of 7 couples, my lowest placement ever. I was crushed. How could I have danced my best and placed my worst? My ego took a major blow, and I questioned whether I was even a good dancer or just got lucky all these years. While I was throwing a mini tantrum during a dance lesson post-Embassy, another teacher made a harsh but valid observation. He asked if I knew all of my routines to the point I could dance them on my own. No, not 100%, I replied. He responded that if I had known them 100%, maybe I would have placed better.

Ballroom dancing involves a lot of nonverbal partner communication, known as lead and follow. One person cues the other person what step they’re going to do next in a specific direction and specific timing. For competition, even though you don’t know what music will be played, it’s common to choreograph a specific routine for each dance (i.e. Waltz, Tango, Cha Cha, etc.) because the timing of the dance is always the same. I play the follow role in the partnership and while I need to wait for my lead’s cue when dancing, knowing what’s coming takes some of the stress out of the equation and allows us to perform more fully.

So yes, knowing my routines 100% would have helped me at Embassy. I was still living on a strict budget in order to train as a dancer though, so I couldn’t afford to take additional lessons to practice with my teacher. Practicing on my own was the only part of my training where I could add more time without adding more expense. I had been practicing up to this point, but it was disorganized. I became obsessed with building a framework around my solo practice that wouldn’t require me to move into the dance studio to train hours every day but would still be highly effective.

The result of that work was a vast improvement in my dancing over a very short time period. Not only did I know my routines better, my technique improved, but my connection with my teacher was also stronger, and I had more confidence in myself. I felt like I had unlocked the secret to succeeding as a competitive dancer who still had a full life outside of ballroom.

I knew my solo practice framework was the next thing to share with my audience. They were dedicated dancers on limited budgets, so they would appreciate being shown how to effectively take ownership of their dance training. I worked with a graphic designer to create a free, downloadable Solo Practice worksheet, asking only for email addresses in exchange so I could start building an interest list for the full Solo Practice Guide for Ballroom Dancing.

Describe the process of launching the business.

After releasing the Solo Practice Worksheet, I got to work on the full guide. I was in a group coaching container for entrepreneurs at this point, and my launch coach pointed out that I didn’t need to work for free while I developed this offer. I could utilize a paid beta group. They would get early access to the content at a discounted price, while I would get feedback before officially releasing my product. I invited my email list of just over 100 people to join the beta group, and the 10 available spots sold out in a week.

The beta group proved useful in keeping me accountable as well. Over six weeks, I wrote six chapters and released them one per week to the group. I had to sit my butt down after the day job or a dance lesson and get the writing done because people were expecting to receive what they had paid for! It eliminated the temptation to procrastinate or overthink what I wanted to write.

Once the beta review was done and I had an outside editor review the entire final text, I was ready to officially release The Solo Practice Guide for Ballroom Dancing! I formed a launch team, again inviting people from my email list to join. They would get early access to the finished book and the opportunity to earn commissions as an affiliate. I had 9 people join, in addition to those who opted in from the beta group.

The actual launch went “ok.” I did a preorder launch, hoping to sell enough to cover the cost of printing the first batch of 100 hard copies. I sold 11 books, about half of my minimum goal. Looking back, I see what I could have done differently. Working with such a small list, I exhausted my potential buyers before the Guide was even available for preorder with filling the beta group, creating a launch team waiting list, and then inviting people to buy into the actual launch team. Nearly everyone who was going to buy on the list had already bought by the time The Solo Practice Guide officially “launched.” Focusing on just a beta group and then preorders would have yielded better results with fewer resources. If I look at the broader view however, from beta group to preorder launch, the sales conversion rate was excellent - 30 sales from a list that was between 100 and 120 people.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Being in such a niche market, the most important thing I’ve done is recognize what works for my audience in particular instead of looking at broader marketing strategies or jumping on the new hot thing to attract customers.

My audience first encounters me either through reading stories on my blog or my social media. They relate to my personal experiences, so focusing my marketing on The Solo Practice Guide itself proved less effective than stories of how The Solo Practice Guide has helped me personally. If you look at my social media, images of just The Solo Practice Guide are rare. What you’ll find instead are images or videos of my dance training or performances, with stories of how I incorporate the strategies in The Solo Practice Guide.

After the initial launch in June 2018, I returned to the Embassy Ballroom Championships in August 2018 to take another shot at the World Title. This time, with a year of structured solo practice under my belt, I took 1st place out of 11 couples and officially earned the right to call myself a World Champion. In the two days following the competition, I had 8 new orders. They continued for a total of 17 sales in the month of September, making it the biggest month of the year. I didn’t need to “launch,” I just needed to share what a difference this book made in my own life as a dancer.

how-writing-about-my-passion-turned-into-a-successful-business

I’ve never spent a lot of money on social media ads. Organic and partnership traffic have proven more effective for my audience. For partnership traffic, I’ve done guest posts on other ballroom websites about solo practice, sometimes with promotional discount codes for their readers. I’ve also sent complimentary copies of The Solo Practice Guide for other dancers to review on their blogs.

The storytelling and personal relatability are key to communicating the value of this book to my audience. They’re sold to so frequently on their dance journeys that it can make them weary of “one more thing.” This is where being in the same position as my potential clients really helps my business. I understand them because I am them! It helps me communicate more effectively, and it helps set me apart from others selling expert advice on ballroom dancing.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

This year, I began selling The Solo Practice Guide on Amazon in addition to my own online store. After a few sales in the first month, it hasn’t yielded much and since paid advertising hasn’t worked on social media, I haven’t upgraded my Amazon seller’s account yet to advertise there. My business mentor always says double down on what’s working, and for my brand, it’s the organic and partnership traffic that drives the most sales.

I’ve focused on gaining additional visibility by partnering with dance shops and dance camps where The Solo Practice Guide is a complementary product to their main offers. Again, the personal connection proves valuable. The most successful partnership has been with a dance camp run by the owners of my dance studio. They sold all 6 books that they took with them and received additional requests after the copies were gone. I will also “brand jack” events I attend. For example, I attended a dance camp held by a competition that is very active on social media and always reshare posts they’re tagged in. So I posted on my own social media about attending the camp with The Solo Practice Guide and tagged the host competition on every post. They reshared almost everything.

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The Girl with the Tree Tattoo brand has evolved like an underground movement. It’s not super flashy or visible in the forefront of the ballroom industry, but at every event I attend, someone I’ve never met recognizes me or my tattoo. I believe it’s developed this way because I’m down in the trenches with my audience. I’m one of the crowd, not the one up on stage.

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This side business has yet to be profitable, but that isn’t surprising considering the business is also covering dance training expenses. The Solo Practice Guide at $67 retail wouldn’t cover the cost of one private dance lesson. Just like the business is a mix of my passions, to be profitable, it will need to be a mix of revenue. In addition to selling my published works, revenue is generated through paid writing assignments for other dance sites and organizations. This year, I’m also exploring sponsorship opportunities. It’s essential that I maintain the integrity and authenticity of The Girl with the Tree Tattoo brand, so those opportunities will be carefully screened.

Through a mix of book sales and paid writing assignments, The Girl with the Tree Tattoo is averaging nearly $1,000 per month this year, about a 30% increase from 2018. Book sales make up about 45% of revenue. The next book is in the works, so I anticipate the revenue from book sales to increase when that one is ready for the next beta group.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

It’s amazing how similar the journeys of entrepreneurship and dance are. To succeed at both, I’ve had to develop discipline around my desires and be comfortable taking action even when I’m scared. I’ve had to learn how to put my ego aside and ask others for help, as well as trust myself to be strong enough to move forward on my own when necessary. I learned that preparing for and executing a launch required very similar mental preparations as a ballroom competition.

Gaining clarity around who I am as a dancer and who I am as a brand has proven invaluable. That knowledge allows me to gather information and advice from the “experts” and assess how to best apply it to my personal situation. I don’t just plug and play or change what I’m doing to fit someone else’s strategy, no matter how solid it is. I look at if and how that strategy aligns with me and my brand.

This hasn’t come without some trial and error of course. For many, writing a book about solo practice would naturally lead to creating a course or a paid coaching program. I was pointed in that direction a few times and even started down that path until I finally listened to the anxious pit in my stomach telling me this isn’t the right path for me. I’m a writer and a dancer, and owning that identity has led to more success on both fronts.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

My blog was born and still lives on Wordpress.com at thegirlwiththetreetattoo.com. My online shop (practiceballroomdance.com) is also based in Wordpress but is hosted by Namecheap. Honestly, looking back, I’m not sure why I was so convinced I needed a separate website for my shop. I could have just as easily upgraded my wordpress.com account and added it to the blog website. Now that it’s built, I’m not stressing over it. The two sites are linked and people are able to place orders without a hitch, so I’m leaving it alone! The ecommerce components on practiceballroomdance.com come from Woocommerce, which I chose after a Woocommerce shopping experience on another entrepreneur’s website. I went with Mailchimp as my CRM simply because it was free and I had heard of it before (sometimes that’s enough).

My main social media platforms are Instagram and Facebook. I’m also on Twitter, and I love that I can instantly share my Instagram posts to the other two platforms. I’ve been told this hurts me in the algorithms, but frankly, I don’t have the time to organically create the same post on three platforms! I fit the strategy to me, not myself to the strategy. My blog posts are also automatically shared to Facebook, Twitter, and more recently, LinkedIn.

My two cents on platforms: if you’re trying to decide which one to use, just pick two or three, compare briefly, and then sign up for one of them. Don’t get caught up in trying to find the absolute best one because you’ll end up never taking action, which means you’re not growing your business. Am I happy with the platforms I use? More or less. They don’t need to be perfect; they just need to do what I want them to do so I can focus on more important things like writing, dancing, and serving my audience.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

More than books or podcasts, my business and dance coaches have been the biggest influences in the evolution of the Girl with the Tree Tattoo. They saw me for who I was, guided me when I was lost, and stepped back when I needed to stand on my own two feet. The support system I have around me has been a key factor in my success to date.

I do listen to a few business and dance-related podcasts when work at the day job is really dragging, including Lewis Howes’ School of Greatness, Jennifer Kem’s Femmefluence Radio, and Galit Friedlander’s DanceSpeak Podcast. When I want more straight-up business talk, I will also binge-listen to Barbara Corcoran’s Business Unusual. This collection may seem a bit eclectic, but they all inspire me in different ways, which all support my growth as a dancer, writer and entrepreneur.

As far as books go, I have more entrepreneurial or personal development books waiting to be read than have actually been read. I’m a storyteller and therefore, love reading stories. I like to be transported to another world when I read a book, so I really prefer to read fiction. I am currently rereading The Lord of the Rings series while my entrepreneur books sit patiently off to the side.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Do it scared.

That mantra has gotten me through so many moments of panic, overthinking, overanalyzing, self-doubt, etc. Your mindset is going to play such a huge role in growing your business, so much more than your systems or aesthetics. Your brain wants to keep you safe, so it will try to trick you into not taking action because entrepreneurship is a risky thing! It’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever do and one of the most rewarding.

Also, accept that you’re going to fail before you succeed. And probably after you succeed. If you never fail, you’re not pushing hard enough. It’s ok though, it’s part of the journey! Just dust yourself off and keep going.

Final piece of advice that may sound a little weird:

Hustle at your own pace. I’ll explain what I mean with some examples from my own journey. I’m generally very introverted and I deal with anxiety. New social situations and meeting new people take a LOT of energy. Even reaching out to people I don’t know online is draining. So while someone else may successfully increase their social media following by direct messaging 20 people who fit their ideal audience every day, I’m lucky if I message two or three before I’m throwing my phone across the room because I can’t stand to look at it anymore. Someone else may have no problem walking up to vendors at a ballroom competition and introducing themselves as a new prospective partner. Just the thought of that gives me chest pains.

I’ve learned my lesson over and over again that I cannot hustle at the same pace as others, either online or in person. Did I mention I came down with the flu for a week during the preorder launch of The Solo Practice Guide? I pushed myself so hard to launch the way others launched that I became physically ill. I’ve learned to protect my energy like the precious resource it is and not feel guilty about moving forward at a slower, more steady pace.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Katie Flashner,   Founder of The Girl with the Tree Tattoo

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