The (Unfinished) Story of an Accidental Entrepreneur

A story of one creative who followed his passion and built a company without a business plan.

In the journey of every person who wants to build a business online, there comes a point where you need to make a decision. Usually that decision is surrounded by fear, and in some cases that fear can be crippling.

In this 26-minute episode Darrell Vesterfelt and I discuss:

  • The two-minute version of how StudioPress started
  • The fears I faced along the way
  • What challenges I’ve faced over the last year
  • Transitioning out the old and in with the new
  • Opportunities, ideas and what the future holds

The Show Notes

The (Unfinished) Story of an Accidental Entrepreneur

Brian Gardner: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the No Sidebar podcast. Here I am, Brian Gardener, your host. I am here, as always, to discuss the struggles around being (and becoming) a creative entrepreneur. Together, we are going to identify what stands in the way of you building and growing your online business.

Here we are, another Wednesday. Even though we didn’t get any ratings on iTunes last week, I’m going to bring Darrell Vesterfelt back on the show. That’s a subtle hint. It makes a difference. We jump higher. We do more flips in the cage if, in fact, you go and give us a rating and say something nice. It helps the show.

Anyway, Darrell, welcome back to the show.

Darrell Vesterfelt: Thanks for having me. I think we’re going to punish everybody today. We’re only going to go for 18 minutes today to punish them for not giving us any ratings.

Brian Gardner: This is the No No Sidebar. The abbreviated No Sidebar podcast show.

Darrell Vesterfelt: We’re just going to keep taking away minutes until we get some reviews on iTunes.

Brian Gardner: So what in 17, 18 weeks from now, it will be the one-minute show?

Darrell Vesterfelt: Give the people what they want I guess.

Brian Gardner: There you go. Here we are, back in the saddle. Last week, I had a really great time.

Darrell Vesterfelt: We spent the whole time talking about me, and I felt bad because you’re always just interviewing people. I want to interview you today. I want your story.

Brian Gardner: Oh, come on now.

Darrell Vesterfelt: Yeah. I remember the first time you and I traveled together. We had been friends for about six or eight months, and we were going to Colorado to spend some time with some friends. We’re sitting in the airport. I said, “Brian, I don’t even know how StudioPress started.” I actually don’t think I’m the only one. I want to interview you today about being an entrepreneur.

Brian Gardner: Oh come on.

Darrell Vesterfelt: I’m taking over this show. This is now the No Sidebar show, hosted by Darrell Vesterfelt, interviewing Brian Gardner. I love the fact that you’re so humble and that you have spent a lot of time interviewing other folks about the successes they’ve had. I think there’s a great conversation we can have today around you starting StudioPress because I love the story. It’s so amazing.

I think a lot of people don’t know that it almost started, not almost, it was an accident. You started this whole company on accident. I want to hear about it a little bit. Give us the two-minute background about how StudioPress started — where you were at, what you were doing. You were working a very boring, normal 9 to 5 job when this all happened. Give us a little bit of the background on that.

The Two-Minute Version of How StudioPress Started

Brian Gardner: If you want more than the two-minute story, earlier in the season, I did a show, kind of a monologue about fear and how this all got started. I’ll give you the two-minute version. That basically is this. If you have the stopwatch, just get it going, and hit me off at two minutes.

For 10 years, I was a project manager at an architectural firm. I didn’t not love what I did, but after 10 years of being in the office and doing the same Groundhog Day thing, I knew I was heading in a direction of needing something new. I tried to formulate a position within the company, but it just wasn’t happening.

As a byproduct of that boredom, I started blogging on WordPress. As a guy that likes to tinker around with stuff, I started messing around with the themes, which is the visual skin of a website, and making it my own. I was just writing personally as a byproduct of the boredom and just needing something new, or some sort of meaning, or whatever.

I started to freelance from that with WordPress design. It was fun. It was something new. It was the “web,” and I thought it was that dream of, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to work from a coffee shop and do web stuff.” That wasn’t happening.

Darrell Vesterfelt: And you were getting paid real dollars to work on the Internet, which, back then, that was kind of like the wild, wild West.

Brian Gardner: Yeah, for sure. There wasn’t an expected income or anything like that. It was just from time to time, people would write me and say, “Hey, I’m using some of your themes. I’d like to change it up a little bit. Can I pay you to do it?” I had no idea what I was doing back then because I didn’t have any degree in business school or whatever. I was just flying commando and doing some changes and charging what I thought people would expect to pay for them.

Darrell Vesterfelt: What were you charging?

Brian Gardner: I want to say it was $50 an hour. Because I wanted to acquire business at that time, I was probably undercutting myself. I was just like, “The more jobs I get, the better. Let me just kind of low ball it so that I can get in.” Stuff like that. It got to a point where it was becoming a little bit more and more. I had to be a little bit more selective, and I increased the rates at that time.

Darrell Vesterfelt: You were doing all of this at night while you were working a full-time 9 to 5 job?

Brian Gardner: There were some times that I got stuff done throughout the course of the day, but not much. That was just more of the email correspondence piece because I was on email all the time.

Then came this one guy, who I talked about earlier in the season, the real estate guy who wanted a full custom design. He rejected it and needed something more simple, which the audience here at No Sidebar could appreciate. What I was left with was, ultimately, the WordPress theme that not only started the premium WordPress theme space, but also launched the company StudioPress before I even knew it was going to happen.

I had a little bit of an audience back then. I asked them, “Hey, would anybody buy this theme?” It was something that wasn’t being done in the space. Everything, at that point, was just free for download. I don’t know if it was that nobody thought they could, or just nobody thought to do it. I was like, “Well, let’s see if somebody would buy this.” Hundreds of people left comments saying that they would. I realized even without a business degree, that was an opportunity.

Darrell Vesterfelt: I love it. When you asked that question and people wanted to buy the WordPress theme, did you think this was the start of a business or was this just, “I have this thing, and I want to see if someone’s interested in it.”

Brian Gardner: It was more the latter. I thought, if anything, it would just fund some vacations that we would do. I figured, “Okay. A few thousand people …,” or not even that, “just a few hundred people would buy it. Maybe I’d make $5,000-$10,000 off of it. That would be great, and I would continue doing my job. Shelly and I would be able to go to some vacations and stuff like that.” It was kind of cool. At that time, our son Zack was young. I want to say he was maybe two or three at that time. He was at an in-home daycare, which, of course, costs money.

These are the things that, when you start to dabble into that type of space where you make a little bit of extra money on the side, it was paying for that. Gave us more money to do a few things. I was shocked. The first month in sales were, as I mentioned earlier on that episode, it was $10 000 in sales the first month. I was like, “Hey, this is great. That’s like one or two vacations.”

It was a great ride. What I did not expect, though, was that month two brought $20 000 in sales. Month three, $40,000 dollars in sales, and month four, $80,000 dollars in sales. At that point, I didn’t expect that it would double endlessly, but I realized, “Wow, I just made $150,000 dollars or whatever — in four months. This is not just a side project.”

Darrell Vesterfelt: Yeah. It’s probably a little bit more than what you’re making at your day job, huh?

Brian Gardner: Three times as much, I think.

Darrell Vesterfelt: Yeah. We talked last week a lot about ideas and having lots and lots of ideas. Even just in the two minutes that you’re talking about this process, you had the idea to tinker around with WordPress. You had the idea to do some freelance work for clients. You had the idea that this failed custom design wasn’t going to work, so you had the idea to sell it. It’s ideas, ideas, ideas, ideas. It’s like you were just following all of these ideas and seeing which ones would stick. The freelance stuff didn’t stick, and the selling WordPress themes did.

Brian Gardner: Yeah. I think it’s important, again, this is more about the accidental entrepreneur, which is different from the person who sets out to be an entrepreneur I guess. For me, it worked because there was passion behind it. In other words, it wasn’t something that was a quick money thing and then I lost interest in.

It was fascinating to me. I was really starting to like the idea of online publishing paired with design, which I didn’t realize how much I liked design until I started going through these early stages of WordPress stuff. Eight years later, here I am, and I’m fascinated with design. I’m 100 percent in love with design.

Looking back, that’s so crazy how I just wanted to tinker around with some stuff, and it really bread into a total passion. That is really what has been able to sustain things over the years. When you spend eight years doing something very specific again and again and again, if you’re not interested in that type of thing, there’s no way you’re going to hang in there.

Darrell Vesterfelt: That makes a lot of sense. When you’re at month four and you just made $80,000, what was the conversation like with your wife about quitting your job?

The Fears Brian Faced Along the Way

Brian Gardner: The conversation we had was, really, it was almost argumentative. Shelly, at that point, was working, too, at MetLife as a manager. She wanted to be the at-home mom. What it came down to was I needed to leave my job before she left her job. It made sense, but she didn’t want to accept that because she wanted to be the one that left. I was like, “That doesn’t make sense for you to do that, and I’m getting hammered with all of this work on top of working the day job. I actually need to focus 100 percent on this.”

There was a little bit of … it wouldn’t even be argumentative … Just some real conversations where I was like, “Look, I need to be the one that goes. I know you want to go and stop working and stuff like that. I think that if I go first, it will pave the way for you to, in a much softer landing, be able to quit your job also.” The idea of two of us quitting day jobs where we had expected income, and benefits, and insurance, and all that kind of stuff to do this. What almost felt like, back in the day, kind of an abyss, right? The black hole of Internet stuff.

Darrell Vesterfelt: Yeah.

Brian Gardner: It was kind of sketchy. We were both still afraid. Though making $80,000 a month, at that point, made it very not afraid. Of course, who knew back then that eight years later, we’d be doing multiples of that revenue. It would sustain and continue to grow.

Back then, I was always waiting for the bottom to fall out. For me, it was always like, “All right. Let me just see if I can sustain this for a couple of months. Because even then, if the bottom falls out, I’ve saved enough to then figure out to go, ‘Where will I go back to work when this falls down?'”

Darrell Vesterfelt: That’s amazing. If you look back at that, that fear seems so crazy. It’s crazy that you believed that. Now, standing eight years down the road saying, “Oh my gosh. Look at what has created now” — I think it was revolution themes back then.

Brian Gardner: Yeah. That was the very first.

Darrell Vesterfelt: “Now StudioPress has changed the name to StudioPress. We hired people. We merged with Copyblogger. Now we’re a part of this big company.” That fear, back then, probably seems a little silly now.

Brian Gardner: It does, but as things grow and evolve, there’s always going to be fear. There’s always going to be decisions to fear. Quitting the day job was only the first fear I faced. It was not, by far, the only one I’ve ever faced. Quite honestly, as the years have gone on, some of the decisions I’ve made around that business, or the company with StudioPress, were even far greater than the original jump, the leap at the beginning.

That felt like a bunny hill at that point, looking back. Especially when Brian reached out and asked if we wanted to merge all of our lines of business and form Copyblogger, there was huge fears around that, giving up control of the, at that point, $100,000 some dollars a month StudioPress was bringing in. The idea of taking something I built and handing it over to four people who, in essence, I really didn’t know, that was a huge fear.

Darrell Vesterfelt: That’s a crazy story to me, too, because you guys really didn’t know each other before all flying to Colorado and having that meeting.

Brian Gardner: Brian and Tony had a longstanding relationship. Brian and Sean had a longstanding relationship. Same with him and Sonia. It was him and I who really didn’t have a longstanding relationship. We’ve known of each other for years because we were in the same space. In fact, he and Chris Pearson had a partnership with a competitor of ours.

A very interesting conversation, but a lot of times, when we’re faced with these decisions in business, they’re opportunities. Whether you make the decision to go for something or don’t go for something, opportunities exist either way. For me, I don’t want to paint the picture that everything was hunky dory with StudioPress because there were definitely some things that, for me, were not optimal. The idea of working 80- to 100-hour weeks and handling support and doing everything myself, accounting and legal stuff, there was a good trade-off there.

It was probably one of the big reasons why I decided, at that time, to take him up on that was to off-load a lot of stuff that I just wasn’t capable of doing. Then again, as an entrepreneur moves down the road of success, there are decisions to be made, fears to face, and control to give up. When you let go of something, there’s usually a reason. It allows you to do different things.

Darrell Vesterfelt: You talked about fears a lot. I think that the fears have kind of been a progression. They haven’t gone away as you’ve gotten more successful. The more successful you’ve become in StudioPress and the business you were doing, the fears didn’t go away. How did you overcome those fears in the moment?

You get this call from Brian Clark, he’s asking you to come, basically, partner in business with a bunch of people you don’t know. There’s obviously a lot of fears in that. You could play out the worst case scenarios of all of it, but you didn’t. What choices did you make, or what things happened that helped you overcome the fear in those moments to make decisions that have now, ultimately, caused the continued growth and success of your business?

Brian Gardner: The whole idea of the merge, there was actually two fears. I had to face a fear either way. The fear of giving up everything to put together the company was definitely there. The fear almost of missing out of what potentially could have become, which is now, Copyblogger Media. There was a fear there. If I said no, would he have picked someone else? Not only would I have missed out on what they’ve built, but how would that have affected StudioPress.

In other words, part of the reason I said yes was a defensive move. I was afraid that if I said no and wanted to be proud and say what not, “This is my thing. I’m going to keep going with it.” I could have potentially been destroyed by whatever entity he formed with someone else.

There was that fear, and all of the benefits that came with merging also basically outweighed the other fears I was having, which was giving up the control and all of that. It was an interesting time. Part of it was just flying by and part of it was just going with my gut and realizing I had fears, but it really did feel like the next step, like the evolution of my personal life online was to now become part of something bigger and better.

Darrell Vesterfelt: Yeah.

Brian Gardner: That’s what it came down to.

Darrell Vesterfelt: Here’s the thing, man. I think we just hit on something really beautiful without even realizing we did it, is that you don’t like just punch fear in the face and make it go away. It’s actually some other type of fear that propels you past the original fear. It was the fear like, “What if I join these guys and the company tanks?” Or, “What if I join these guys and … ” There’s so many fears, but there’s actually a bigger fear that propelled you past all the smaller fears.

That’s a huge myth that I am so tired of hearing from people that, “Oh, you just have to overcome fear to do things that are important.” That’s not true. You have to have greater fears that propel you past the stupid fears. You have to have a fear of not doing something significant with your life to overcome the fear of, “What if I put this out and nobody likes it?” I don’t think that people who accomplish things are actually not afraid. I think they just have greater fears that propel them past these smaller fears. You know what I’m saying?

Brian Gardner: Yeah. I do.

Darrell Vesterfelt: Sorry. That was a little side note. I get a little fired up. I am so tired of people pretending. I’m an entrepreneur, and I feel like a loser because people keep telling me, “You just got to overcome fear.” It’s just not true. The more successful you become, the fears are just different. Fears do not go away. They’re just different fears.

You don’t just muster up the courage and push the fear down. You have to put it into perspective and say, “I’m actually afraid of having this idea, or this business idea in me for my whole life and going to my grave with it.” That’s a greater fear than, “What if somebody doesn’t like what I do?”

As soon as that fear outweighs the small fear of being rejected, or somebody making fun of me, or whatever, that’s when I start doing something that actually matters. I think I start finding success more often than not.

I kind of went off there for a little bit. Let’s get back to the story here. I feel like my brain just shut down because I just went on a little rant there.

What Challenges Brian’s Faced Over the Last Year

Brian Gardner: I think we were going to talk about challenges I faced over the last year, at least that’s what the show notes say here.

Darrell Vesterfelt: Okay. Let’s get back to that. Sorry for the rant.

Brian Gardner: Scripts to keep us on par.

Darrell Vesterfelt: Here we go. On guard — so challenges you’ve faced over the last year. You’ve actually now transitioned again with the job. You’ve stepped out of managing the day-to-day with StudioPress. There’s probably, again, some familiar fears that are coming with doing that and handing over control to somebody else. That kind of mirrors and parallels the idea of partnering with the folks whom you guys started with Copyblogger Media.

Brian Gardner: Like I said, I’ve been doing WordPress themes for seven, eight, maybe even nine years now. I lose track. Over the last year, I’ve personally just gotten to the point, much the same way that I was when I worked at the architectural firm, kind of go through that seven-year itch where it’s kind of time for something new.

Yes, design trends have changed. The development of programming of WordPress and theme structure and stuff like that has changed and evolved. But I’ve needed, again, something new. It has come along at a great time because we’ve grown as a company. We’ve brought in people. Our company has grown. We’re up to 40 some people now. We’ve got some mid-level management in place.

Transitioning Out the Old and In With the New

Brian Gardner: It really became evident to me that it was time to step away a little bit from the day-to-day operations of StudioPress, for two reasons. One, I wouldn’t say I’m getting tired or bored with it, but it’s just that I’ve needed a new challenge. It’s been great. We’ve got people like Lauren Mancke who has come in and stepped up. She basically has taken over the daily operations of StudioPress.

With that decision and transition, came — I wouldn’t say a lot of fear — but some fear. Just the idea of letting go and handing over something that I built and had total control over to someone who, even though I trust and have known for years, just handing that over.

As we face fears and make decisions and do things that are good for us, it has allowed me to re-enter a creative phase that doesn’t necessarily just sit upon design. No Sidebar, the branding behind all of that, and the content that we’re producing, it’s my next fun project.

It’s been great to be the audience or be the consumer of our own products and understand how what we build, how that can be used and how it benefits, and all the features that can be used. It’s been fun to go through that as a user versus as a developer, programmer, or builder.

Even inside of all of that, there’s some fears, right? Building a brand and an audience. Trying to identify what’s resonating, what’s not. Just the whole idea of, “Is what I’m doing beneficial to the better good? Is anybody listening to what I’m saying? Does it matter to people?” I wouldn’t say it on a lower level that there’s now a new set of fears. The whole podcast thing for me was a huge fear, and still is to some degree.

Even though I’m considered a successful entrepreneur, built a seven-figure company and all of that, I’m still the same guy who, back in the day, was shaking in his boots. Every day I hit publish, “Is this something that people are going to laugh at? Is this a design that people aren’t going to get?” and stuff like that.

Darrell Vesterfelt: Let’s just get unfiltered for a second here. You still tell me that you have fear over hitting publish on a Facebook post. You get that little notification that comes up, “Do you want to stay on the page, or do you want to leave the page?” That hasn’t gone away. That fear hasn’t gone away. It just looks a little different. It still continues to persist and come up. I like that because, often times, we can sit back in our 9 to 5 job chair and say, “Well, Brian has been successful. He’s not afraid to do something new. He’s just a different person than I am.”

The reality is you’re not a different person. The guy who’s built the seven-figure business was the guy sitting in the 9 to 5 chair shaking in his boots to hit publish. It’s still the guy who’s shaking in his boots to hit publish today. I want to pull the curtains back a little bit and say you’re not different. You’re still the same guy. You’ve just made choices to be motivated by different things than the fear of not hitting publish and not doing things.

Opportunities, Ideas, and What the Future Holds

Brian Gardner: Again, as a guy who likes to be authentic, that breeds fear left and right. When you’re not authentic, you’re masking and hiding. There’s nothing to fear at that point when you’re just framing and positioning your life the way you think everybody wants to see it.

It’s been fun with No Sidebar. A little bit to push the borders of authenticity and really trying to just be real. I realized that I’ve built a mini-platform. I have an audience around. People who are creative entrepreneurs, most of which came to me by way of StudioPress and WordPress things. Just like me, maybe they’re in their job and they use our stuff to do client work, and they’re trying to get out.

There’s been countless people who I’ve been blessed to basically have allowed and enabled the same type of life decisions. People who’ve used our products that were stuck in a day job and now can design and build their business around our products at home. That’s a thrilling thing for me, knowing that I’ve changed lives and all of that.

Really, the take-home message in all of this, as we wrap up, really is embracing that fear of the creative entrepreneur because there are so many opportunities we have. Especially now, things nowadays are so much different than they were eight, nine years ago with the ability to reach people and to advertise via social media and stuff like that. I really do think that, in this closing statement, I probably will say things that could breed five different new episodes that we have here, just the opportunities of creative entrepreneurs.

Darrell Vesterfelt: Yeah, and I think a second thing to take away is just keep trying. Keep putting ideas out there. What if you wouldn’t have ever sold that theme? It was actually a failure to deliver a design that a client want that resulted in the success that is now StudioPress. Just keep trying. People, often times, sitting in their 9 to 5, the fear overcomes when they meet a resistance point.

You could have hit that resistance point with this guy and said, “Well, I guess my design’s not that good.” I have actually known people who have stopped designing when they have stuff like that happen. Instead, you’re like, “All right. Well, I guess I can just sell this as a theme. I can tweak some things.” It just felt like you kept moving and kept going.

The people who find success aren’t the people who maybe have the best coding or design skills, but the people who, in those moments, decide not to let fear capsize them and decide to let fear motivate them to go a different path and to try something new. That’s kind of been this story. If we can boil it all down, too, a subset or secondary thing that we can take away is that, every time fear came, you didn’t let it capsize you. You let it either redirect you or slingshot you into new things, which I really love.

Brian Gardner: On that note, if you like what you’re hearing here on the show, the best way to support it, head over to iTunes. Every time you leave a happy rating for the No Sidebar podcast …

Darrell Vesterfelt: … an angel gets its wings.

Brian Gardner: Yes. I was just going to say that. It’s like you knew what I was going for. Yes. Hop on over to iTunes. Leave a rating and a comment. Tell us that you appreciate what we’re talking about. Darrell and I will do new tricks.

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Until next week, this has been Brian Gardener with my friend Darrell Vesterfelt. Thank you for listening.