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State Of The Union 2016 for Made Vibrant

Wandering Aimfully Through Creative Business

State Of The Union 2016 for Made Vibrant

Here's what went well in 2015, plus how I want to steer my business, Made Vibrant, in 2016.
Caroline ZookCaroline Zook Caroline ZookCaroline Zook

Written by

Caroline Zook

As of writing this post, this officially marks the 100th week of Made Vibrant’s newsletter to Self-Made Society!

I honestly can’t even believe I’ve hit send on 100 of those babies, but as I’ve said many times, starting a weekly newsletter was the best decision I made when I started my business.

It’s been such a gift to not only document my personal and professional growth week after week, but it’s provided me with a weekly opportunity to interact with all of you — to hear your stories, your struggles and your triumphs. So a huge thank you to those of you that have been reading for months and months, and a huge welcome to all of you that are new to the club!

For this week’s letter, I actually decided to steal an idea from a friend of mine, Paul Jarvis. Paul also has a weekly newsletter and yesterday (in his 175th newsletter – he’s got us beat!), he sent out an email called “State Of The Union, 2016.” I thought it was so interesting that I asked him if I could rip off the idea and use it here, to which he kindly obliged.

The idea is simply to take stock of how things went in 2015 and to give you all an idea of where things might be going in 2016. I hope the recap is valuable in illustrating some big lessons I’ve learned, and I hope it gets you excited for what’s in store in the coming months! Let’s get to it…

What went well

1. Self-Made Society newsletter.

As I mentioned above, I wrote a Monday letter to you guys every single week of 2015. I didn’t even take a break in December when I was on hiatus (like I had originally planned) because it truly continues to be the highlight of my week.

I still maintain that the two most crucial elements in growing a sustainable, profitable solo business are consistency and authenticity. (You can read more about my feelings on this in a post I wrote for Elle & Company’s blog, The Collaborative.)

The Self-Made Society newsletter is the fundamental way I consistently share my authentic self with you guys, and it has paid off by continuing to grow this community of passionate, positive soulful creatives. My core list grew from 1,400 subscribers to 3,400 last year, and I’m really looking forward to continuing that same trend in 2016.

2. Hiring Laura!

By far the most game-changing decision I made in 2015 was hiring my assistant, Laura. I fought the idea of bringing on help for a long time, mostly because I had no idea how to grow a team and that fear of the unknown held me back. But I finally hit a point back in the fall where all the little things on my to-do lists really started to add up and the notion of trying to keep everything organized was overwhelming. I could feel my anxiety coming into the foreground (something I desperately wanted to avoid), and that’s when I realized that even though I didn’t know “how” to hire someone, there was nothing that said I had to do it anyone else’s way but my own.

I found some amazing applicants through the blog, but ultimately Laura felt like the best fit and we’ve been jamming together ever since! Not only has it been immensely helpful to have her get processes in place and organize the various projects Made Vibrant has going on, but the best unforeseen benefit has been having a fellow soulful creative in my corner supporting me and cheering me on with each step in the evolution of Made Vibrant. She reminds me of the WHY behind the brand on a regular basis and that has been the greatest gift.

3. Hand-lettering challenges.

Back in February of last year, the hand-lettering course was selling pretty well and was bringing in a steady monthly income, but I kept thinking there was untapped potential there. I was getting emails from students saying the course had reignited their creative fire again, and I wanted more people to experience that benefit.

Meanwhile I was starting to see some real traction with my semi-regular lettering posts on Instagram, which is when it hit me to start a monthly lettering challenge to encourage people to join the course. In the months following the challenge debut, monthly course sales more than doubled, making it one of the most directly impactful marketing moves I’ve ever made.

To date, there have been over 18,000 posts with the #BetterLetteringCourse tag. Even cooler than that, though, is the interesting intersection between lettering and self-reflection that has emerged. The daily prompts we share each month now act as a kind of daily journal prompt, and reading the captions and stories from students as they post is so incredibly rewarding for me. Instagram has turned out to be such a rich and thriving place for this community, which was another big learning that came out of 2015.

4. Transitioning to products (and doing it my way.)

This is what made the biggest change in my daily life and the business model last year. Late in 2014 I made the tough decision to stop taking on branding clients and to move exclusively to a products-based business. As much as I loved (and still love) freelance design, I had to admit to myself that not only was managing client expectations hard for a highly sensitive and dangerously over-achieving person like myself, but the economics of running a service business (trading time for money) just wasn’t that desirable.

I finished up my final design project in the spring of 2015, and this year I launched two new e-courses, with the most successful by far being the Better Branding Course, which took my business revenue total to over six figures — 3xing the revenue of my first year in business as a freelance designer (2014).

Now, I’m not telling you guys that to toot my own horn or to brag about how much money is in the bank (most of it went to paying down debt and buying out the lease on our car!), but I’m sharing it with you as an illustration that it’s possible to build a highly profitable business without e-courses that cost $999 and weekly sales webinars and crazy complicated email funnels and free opt-ins on every blog post.

All those things can be effective tools at the appropriate times, but more often than not they can leaving you feeling overwhelmed and icky and chained to your laptop managing it all. Instead of going that route, I simply created affordable, valuable courses that I was proud of, products that I genuinely knew would help people, and then I promoted them when and how I wanted to in a way that felt natural. Could I have probably made more money? Maybe. But I was still able to triple my previous year’s revenue with a list well under 5,000 subscribers and while actually working less hours, traveling more and staying healthier. That is a win in my book. (If you have any specific questions about how I made that happen, feel free to reply back and let me know. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned!)

What didn’t go so well

1. The MV Slack community.

This was a sort of experiment I started on a whim after I saw such fantastic engagement from the Better Branding Course Slack group. However, what I learned from the experiment was that without a regular content schedule or reason for people to show up and chat about a certain topic, there’s no real reason for anyone to pop in.

To give the Slack community idea the chance it deserved, I should have asked you guys how that group could be most valuable and planned more consistent content based on that. Moving forward my goal is to either come up with a structure and plan for it (like weekly Slack chats around a specific topic for example) OR to potentially close the community so it’s not hanging over my head and taking up mental space.

Again, Slack works phenomenally for a specific topic or community interest, but as a general group without structure, the activity there becomes sparse. (If you want the Slack group to stick around and have ideas for what would make it valuable, please reply back with feedback! I’d love to hear it!)

2. Resource Shop.

In August I decided I really wanted a more formal, easy to navigate place for all my e-guides, worksheets and e-courses on the website. I envisioned it as a helpful place for soulful creatives to go and find resources to push their businesses or lives further. What I found out instead was that most people don’t buy resources directly from that page — they buy them from the various content marketing posts or from this email newsletter.

Since most of the non-course resources don’t have a specific traffic source driving to them, the sales were pretty low compared to my other revenue sources. Just to give you an idea, the non-course products in the shop (guides, e-books, and worksheets) accounted for less than 1% of my total revenue in 2015 (only about $800 total.) I didn’t realize this until I did my end of year financials, but it was definitely an eye-opener to see that as a business opportunity, I’d probably be better off creating free resources and using those to add new soulful creatives to this community. You’ll likely see a shift in that direction this year, as well as more courses since that seems to be the preferred way that people like to consume their helpful content!

3. Completion.

When it comes down to it, this is what I feel like I struggled with the most in 2015. While it feels like I planted A LOT of seeds, I wasn’t able to properly harvest the fruits of all that planting because I had trouble seeing things through to completion. For example, I’d create something like the Better Branding Course, but then when it came to that last 10% of coming up with a well-thought out promotion plan, I’d just move on to the next shiny object project.

The result at the end of the year was this overwhelming feeling like I had a lot of projects out in the ether, but none of them fully baked to completion. My goal in 2016 is to instead curate my list of projects, really commit to one thing at a time, and make sure that I fully see each project to completion. I still have plenty of ideas for what I want to accomplish this year, but in order to do each of them well, I need to let my brain narrow in on one at a time and push myself to fully realize the potential of each idea by completing its intended vision.

What’s ahead for 2016

Now that brings us to this year! What do I have in store for you guys and where do I see the future of Made Vibrant headed?

1. Throttling up the intersection between creativity and personal growth.

I started Made Vibrant with the intention of exploring the interesting intersection between life, creativity and business. While the focus skewed a bit more toward business last year (with resources like the Better Branding Course and Your First E-Course), my deep love affair with acrylic art that started back in August feels like it’s leading me to swing more toward the creative side this year.

I get such immense joy out of commenting on the beautiful relationship between creating things and getting to know yourself deeper — as evidenced by the Better Lettering challenges — but I want to explore that even more this year. The most magical revelations have come to me as I engage in my various creative pursuits, and I want to continue to find ways to share those insights in a way that encourages people to shed their expectations of what art is and simply make what their heart is leading them to make.

I’d love to make more creative e-courses (similar to the lettering course), and I have at least two solid concepts I’ll start working on soon. I still intend on “reporting back” on the business side of things, as it’s still my personal mission to help as many creatives as possible make a living with their art, but I want creativity to be at the forefront again. My 2016 daily project, Abstract Affirmations, plus the addition of a print shop coming soon will be the first manifestation of that. Color Your Soul, my vision for a digital mindfulness subscription, is also still on the docket, and I can’t wait to see how my art finds its way into that endeavor.

Given the major uptick in products-based businesses and business resource blogs out there, I also feel that doubling down on the creativity aspect of what I do is my way of tapping deeper into what makes Made Vibrant unique and carving out an authentic niche for my skill set and offerings.

2. Staying connected with you guys!

Other than that, I want to continue to grow the business in a slow and steady way so that I still have the bandwidth to answer your emails and connect with you on social media. I’m not always able to get to everyone’s comments or emails, though I promise I try, but I want to continue to make that a priority since I wouldn’t be able to make a living without this amazing group of people. And I’ll keep sending out these weekly letters if you guys promise to keep reading them! 🙂

So that’s the plan, guys! I just want to keep moving forward, learning everything I can, and reporting back to you all in a way that you hopefully find uplifting and inspiring.

As I’ve said since the beginning, Made Vibrant is simply my personal exploration to discover my best and brightest self, and I’m just grateful that I get to share that process with people that are as generous, caring, creative and insightful as you guys.

If I could issue you just one challenge this week it’s this: create your own State Of The Union.

It could be for your business or your life, but write down what worked last year, what didn’t, and where you want things to go in 2016. The very exercise of writing this down will help you bring forth intentions that you might not have recognized before.

Again, thanks for sticking with me on this crazy ride. Talking to you is the best part of my week.

State Of The Union 2016 for Made Vibrant

(Big Fat Takeaway)

Running an authentic creative business is about asking yourself what you want more and less of in your life, and steering your business to fit your evolving personal values.


This article written by

Caroline Zook

She/Her | Artist, designer + writer passionate about helping soulful creatives grow into their brightest selves. Lover of bright colors + even brighter people! One half of the crazy duo running these parts!

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