I Turned My Side Hustle Into A $360K/Year Business Designing Augmented Reality Experiences

Mike LaTour
Founder, Soundwave Art
$30K
revenue/mo
2
Founders
1
Employees
Soundwave Art
from Saint Louis, MO, USA
started June 2012
$30,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
1
Employees
111K
alexa rank
8.31K
followers
1.06K
followers
853
subs
market size
$4.03B
starting costs
$19.4K
gross margin
83%
time to build
300 days
growth channels
Organic social media
best tools
Pinterest, Verifigator, Twitter
time investment
Full time
pros & cons
34 Pros & Cons
tips
1 Tips
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platform
customer service
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi, I’m Mike LaTour, I’m the co-founder and CEO of Soundwave Art. We offer our customers a way to turn their voice or any sound into an augmented reality experience. A piece of art that is playable with our mobile app. We also create personalized jewelry by engraving your voice pattern onto rings and pendants.

Five years after we launched we developed an augmented reality app that changed our business forever. This expanded our customer base significantly. We went from creating memorable gifts for people of all walks of life to breaking into the marketing world.

Businesses started reaching out to us requesting access to our app for promotional purposes, marketing, art shows, and giveaways. One of our latest projects was a piece of art for James Murray from the Impractical Jokers. He commissioned us to create a playable piece of art promoting his book Don’t Move.

my-side-hustle-turned-into-my-360k-year-full-time-job-designing-augmented-reality-experiences

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

In the summer of 2012, I had some friends over for dinner. We were sitting around a table on my deck, enjoying the weather and having a good conversation.

One of my friends mentioned that he was looking at a sound wave pattern on his computer and thought it might be interesting if there was a way to create a piece of art from it. We kicked around some ideas and moved on to another topic.

At this point in my life, I was 17 years deep into a career in the music industry. I spent many years managing a chain of independent record stores, booked concerts and managed a few indie rock bands, and spent some time programming a radio station. The industry had changed so much over the years and I was already kicking around the idea of a change myself.

At 37 years of age, it’s a scary thought, I was making a good living but I couldn’t get this idea out of my head and wanted to pursue it. I went back to my friend and said let’s do it. I’ll find a way to make it happen. I’ll start working on it in my spare time while still holding my full-time gig.

The next thing I knew I was developing a website, I had an idea of what I wanted it to look like and the products that we could offer but I had no idea how to accomplish the most important part - capturing the audio and converting it into a sound wave pattern that customers could design themselves.

my-side-hustle-turned-into-my-360k-year-full-time-job-designing-augmented-reality-experiences
Soundwave Art Co-founder & CEO - Mike LaTour

This wasn’t my first go-around with starting a business. What I learned from my past experiences was to just go for it. Don’t fear failure, learn from it, and move on.

So, that’s what I did. I jumped in headfirst on the development of our website and started searching for developers to do what I was not skilled enough to handle on my own.

I focused on the basic concept knowing that just getting it off the ground was the first step. Roughly two months later we launched the first version of Soundwave Art.

We knew we were on to something when sales started coming in and they were not from family and friends. It didn’t happen overnight by any means but it wasn’t long before we had orders coming in from all over the world. It was time for the hard work to begin.

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

With our website underway, we needed to start focusing on the products that we were going to offer. My business partner wanted to purchase an industrial printer and just offer photographic prints. I felt strongly that the best way to get off the ground was to use a production partner. This would not only free up important time for us to focus on other aspects of the business but it would also mean we were offering quality products right out of the gate.

You need to decide what your time is worth and what is better outsourced to someone else.

This was the first time that my partner and I realized that we had different ideas on how this was going to work. Seeing eye to eye with your business partner can sometimes be the most difficult part of starting a business.

Since I was taking the lead role we started testing local print shops. I saw this as a new art form, a way for people to create something special from memory so I wanted options.

I wanted canvas, wood, and metal. I wanted to move into jewelry and slowly grow our product offerings. My business partner realized that it was the best decision for us.

Working with a production partner gave us the freedom to focus on the development of our company, knowing that our products were being handled by professionals.

my-side-hustle-turned-into-my-360k-year-full-time-job-designing-augmented-reality-experiences
Product development

Early on I had a vision of our customers listening to their art. However, it was not so easy to accomplish. The simple solution would have been QR codes but that was the last thing I wanted to use. I couldn’t see asking people to place an ugly QR code on top of their art.

Our customers create memorable pieces of art from voicemails left by a loved one, their baby’s heartbeat, wedding vows, and so many other memories. We had to find a solution to make the art playable and QR codes were not the answer.

It took quite a bit of time, but the answer was augmented reality. Combining image recognition and AR allowed us to turn our customer’s art into something scannable.

The art itself was the code, our app can read the art by simply scanning it. It overlays a video on top of the art through your mobile device. Our augmented reality mobile app changed our business forever.

Describe the process of launching the business.

The launch of our business was more of a soft launch. We didn’t try to build up hype or set up a countdown clock for the day we were going live.

I’ve always felt that it was important to just get out there, I believe people spend too much time trying to perfect everything before the launch date.

This may not be the best idea for everyone but we were creating something new and I felt that we needed to start accepting orders and learn what our customers wanted, how the process was going to work in real-time. Fake it till you make it as the saying goes.

We were lucky enough to launch with very little startup money. We each put up $1,000 which was enough to cover the cost of the small amount of work that we needed to outsource including the cost to register our business.

I was able to handle everything else myself, saving us quite a bit of money. A few months later as we started to see some revenue come in we trademarked our name and logo. This was a fairly simple process, I went directly to the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO). They have a lot of great information and you can accomplish this on your own by following their guidance. It did take about 10 months to receive our trademark but overall the process was straightforward.

In the early days, we put everything back into the business, upgrading our website, buying ads on social media and Google, testing new product ideas. We didn’t start paying ourselves until two years in.

my-side-hustle-turned-into-my-360k-year-full-time-job-designing-augmented-reality-experiences
The early days

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

In the beginning, we started running ads on Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. It was difficult getting started as there was nothing like what we were doing.

Putting together a game plan for advertising a product that nobody had ever heard of was not easy. We printed a bunch of swag, stickers, shirts with just a sound wave pattern on the back and our name on the front.

We went to various events and passed them out, we tried anything and everything to get our name out there.

my-side-hustle-turned-into-my-360k-year-full-time-job-designing-augmented-reality-experiences
Giving out free merch

I spent time building relationships with companies that offered services that I knew I wanted to use.

The first piece of software I integrated into our website was Ecwid. Ecwid was fairly new at the time but I loved what they were building. They are an e-commerce solution and I already had some experience with them.

By choosing a quality shopping cart system that continues to innovate we were able to work with them to automate our ads by using their built-in services. Building relationships with developers can lead to other things such as a case study showcasing your business, which leads to more exposure.

my-side-hustle-turned-into-my-360k-year-full-time-job-designing-augmented-reality-experiences
Google Shopping Case Study

As we started generating sales we reached out to customers requesting feedback, specifically videos showing off their artwork. Getting customers to leave reviews is not easy, very few do it but we stuck with it.

We eventually started working with a new company called HelpfulCrowd. They integrated into our shopping cart system and automatically sent out review requests to our customers. We’ve been using their service ever since.

We quickly realized that word of mouth was our best form of advertising. We slowly cut back on the ads we had running on Google and other platforms.

This is not necessarily the way to go for all businesses but by this time we had built a name for ourselves and had a fairly large following. We were lucky enough to have a few celebrities post about us on their social media platforms. Howie Mandel was the first.

Good content is important, we hired a writer to start a company blog. When looking for a writer a great place to start is a company called Crowdcontent. The majority of our articles focus on home decor, art, jewelry design, weddings, travel, music, etc. This was a very important part of the business model. Building a large blog with good content draws a lot of readers.

From time to time we would write guest articles for other websites and bring guest writers in for ours as well. It’s a great way to build relationships and followers.

We’ve experimented with other sales channels including Amazon and Wayfair but the reality is there is no better sales channel than our own website.

This may not be the norm but it works best for us. We spent so many years developing our software that trying to do what we do on other platforms just doesn’t work. Our software is integrated into our website and shopping cart system. It allows our customers to record and design in real-time and easily complete their orders in one single flow.

This just isn’t possible with other platforms, it’s not that it can’t happen, it’s just that most platforms don’t allow this type of integration.

my-side-hustle-turned-into-my-360k-year-full-time-job-designing-augmented-reality-experiences
Soundwave Art design software

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

It’s hard to believe that it all started with a simple conversation between two friends. We are now heading into our 10th year! A great milestone for any business and I’m thankful every day for this opportunity.

We’ve had continued growth over the years and expanded our product offerings. We ventured into new territory with our mobile app which opened an entirely new revenue stream by allowing us to offer augmented reality marketing to businesses, photographers, artists & musicians. You never know where an idea will lead.

my-side-hustle-turned-into-my-360k-year-full-time-job-designing-augmented-reality-experiences
Raise Your Hand Texas Leadership Symposium

We’ve had great success on social media with roughly 85,000 followers, we average nearly 100,000 website visitors a year with an average time on site of 2:06.

Every day brings something new and exciting. Helping our customers create unique pieces of art that are playable and offer a memorable experience never gets old.

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

One of the most difficult things to learn is when to let go of an idea or when you should outsource or hire for something that is taking you too much time to do on your own.

In the beginning, I felt that most of what needed to be done by me. Much of this was caused by a lack of funds and the fear of putting my business in the hands of someone else.

Working with a production partner was an easy decision, I knew that was a good move because we would only pay for what we sold and it freed up time for other things. You need to decide what your time is worth and what is better outsourced to someone else.

For me, spending too much time learning about PPC, SEO, and Marketing was a mistake. Though it’s important to understand these things there is only so much you can do on your own.

These are areas that you can hire a company to help with, maybe use a service like Wordstream. Wordstream helps speed up the process when it comes to running ads on Google, Bing, Facebook, and Instagram.

You are still doing the work but they have built a pretty great platform that allows you to optimize your ads by using what they call the 20-minute work week. It was a game-changer, cost-effective, and even increased our conversion rate.

my-side-hustle-turned-into-my-360k-year-full-time-job-designing-augmented-reality-experiences

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I knew right out of the gate what shopping cart system I was going to Use. I had some experience with a company called Ecwid which offered an easy solution for integrating their software into any website.

They also offer custom work which is perfect for making the process of using our software and purchasing the item seamless for our customers.

A company that every entrepreneur should check out is AppSumo. They’ve helped launch hundreds of startups and offer lifetime deals to cutting-edge businesses to help grow your business.

I highly recommend subscribing to their newsletter and searching through their offers. It is truly a remarkable resource for business owners.

Another service we use is Buffer which will post articles to all of our social media platforms on a scheduled basis. This frees up a lot of time as you only need to post once to hit all of your accounts.

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

I honestly don’t have one particular book or podcast that I can recommend. From time to time I do deep dives into various topics but I don’t have one thing that I always go back to.

The majority of my experience came from past businesses and relationships with other business owners. The main resource I refer to is AppSumo.

I’ve discovered so many companies doing great things that have helped me expand and grow my business. They not only save you money with the lifetime deals they secure but they provide a great deal of information on growing your business, building a subscriber base for your newsletter, as well as marketing.

One thing I will say that some may think is a bit strange is that I communicate with some of my competitors. The growth and success we experienced brought on a lot of competition.

This was expected and is something that I never feared, competition is a good thing and it has forced me to grow as a business owner. I’ve actually built some good relationships along the way, we help each other out when it makes sense to do so and from time to time we pass along information to customers if we know someone else can create a specific item that one or the other does not offer.

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

One of the first things I believe every entrepreneur needs to do is determine if they should move forward with a business partner. Being on the same page with your partner is so important.

Whether it’s because you bump heads every step of the way or one does more than the other - not being on the same page can be devastating to your business and lead to failure.

I’ve been through it in previous business ventures, I’ve had friends go through it. At times it can be the most difficult part of running a company. A few years into our journey together my business partner and I split ways. In our case, it was a mutual decision.

my-side-hustle-turned-into-my-360k-year-full-time-job-designing-augmented-reality-experiences
Soundwave Art Co-founders

As I mentioned previously, my philosophy on launching is to just go for it. Learn as you go, make adjustments on the fly. I believe too many people try to perfect something which most of the time changes once they go live.

You can’t always predict how it will go or what your customer's needs will be. You can prepare as much as possible but there is nothing like learning in the real world. If you can pivot and grow as things change you will succeed.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are not currently hiring for any positions at this time but something we do offer is a Soundwave Art Partner Program. We’ve created partnerships with nearly a hundred entrepreneurs from around the world interested in starting their own business creating and selling Soundwave Art. We’ve also opened up our augmented reality mobile app to photographers, artists, and musicians so they can add augmented reality to the products that they offer their clients, customers, and fans.

Where can we go to learn more?

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

-  
Mike LaTour   Founder of Soundwave Art
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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