Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet
By Mike Gould
If you let your mind drift back a year or so, you may recall my announcement that I was retiring from the University of Michigan after 20 years service as a Mac consultant (URL below).
"So how is that working out?", I hear you ask with mild yet welcome interest. Well, not so bad. Long story short: not getting rich but paying the bills.
Short story long
When I wrote of my plans last year, I mentioned ramping up my other businesses to compensate for the loss of the monthly paycheck. Well, half a paycheck, as I was put on half-time several years ago, which prompted me to start getting serious about turning my hobbies into businesses. In retrospect, that ½-time thing was crucial in getting me to the point where I could "retire" completely. Sorta.
The ramping has happened, if not to the degree I would like. I continue to run my photography business, shooting events for the Ross School of Business Erb Institute and School of Education, with occasional shoots for websites, CD covers, birthday parties and such.
I have a possible big shoot coming up: a trip to Maine shooting stills for a PBS documentary that a friend of mine is producing. Not 100% confirmed, but looking good. I don't know what it is with Maine, but this will be my third professional trip there. The first was to teach digital photography on the sailboat The Stephen Taber, the second to demonstrate Laser Lunchboxen at a technical conference (PopTech).
The photo biz paid half the bills last year, much to my surprise. One would think the digital revolution would have killed off the photography biz long ago, but people still appreciate the difference between good enough and excellent.
How To Succeed In Bizmo
I continue to shoot and write for local magazines (including this one, obviously), and even got a big raise from Bizmo! (Thanks, Jim and Jan!)
My Macintosh computer consulting hotline hasn't exactly been ringing off the hook, but I get a steady trickle of interest from my website. My web SEO (Search Engine Optimization) efforts are paying off: if you search Google for "ann arbor macintosh computer help" I come in second in the natural search, which means I don't pay for Google Ad Words to push my biz. Ann Arbor has a big retirement community and I'm starting to get business from out of state, when people hire me to set up and look after Macs for their parents and grandparents.
My Web biz is cooking along; I have 35 sites I manage, and have added several in the past year. Old clients are finally having me re-design their sites, bringing the code up to date and formatting things for the larger monitors we have in use now.
Last year I also mentioned my secret plan and new business - this was my idea to market the amazing Laser Lunch Box™. This great concept has hit a major technical snag and has been moved to the back burner, where it continues to simmer.
On the front burner is our laser lightshow, Illuminatus 2.1. We do laser shows at conventions and Maker Faires, and we're currently trying to figure out how to actually make money at this. In the meantime, I'm having a blast learning how build laser lightshow projectors.
This involves a fair amount of metal working, so I'm honing my skills with the band saw, drill press, and belt sander. I'm also learning optics: dichroic filters, polarizing beam splitters, galvanometers, and kinematic mounts. Did you know you can make a white laser by combining the beams from red, green, and blue lasers?
You keep learning new skills, you never grow old. Or so I would very much like to believe.
Passion, Passion, Passion
To me, retirement means working, but working at what interests me, what I'm passionate about. I got started in photography by shooting the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival as their volunteer photographer and web master. That morphed into shooting products for web sites, and once I started to amass professional gear, shooting events for the School of Education.
And of course, there's a down side. My income varies from month to month, peaking in February and dying down in August. But that isn't hard and fast; sometimes I will get a major web site gig or photo shoot that will sustain me for a month. Sometimes, zip. The local WWW economy hasn't slowed down as much as other industries, it would seem; most of the other Web developers I talk to are also doing OK.
Another downside is that I usually work too hard, when there is work to be had. It is definitely true that you work the hardest when you are working for yourself. If there is a job in the hopper, I generally keep working until the hopper has hopped dry.
Weekends tend to take on a vague location in time, as I find myself working 8+/7 when work is available. "Working for the weekend" loses all meaning. I sometimes forget what day it is. I have to force myself to take a day off. But, hey, I enjoy what I'm doing. Fortunately, my wonderful wife Salli keeps me from burning out completely.
Take It From Me
So if you are approaching the end of your particular working cycle, think about hopping on a new cycle and tooling around town with a new set of tools. Find what you like to do and figure out how to get people to pay you to do it. And try not too work too hard.
PS: After 60+ years living in Ann Arbor, I'm moving to a beautiful house in the country south of town to help support my mother-in-law, who is moving in with us. This gives me the opportunity to design a new office with a 20 foot-wide desk so I can continue working too hard even better. I can't wait!
Mike Gould was a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of the FacTotem constellation, builds lasers into lunchboxen, performs with the Illuminatus Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.