Christine Elder Illustration & Design, Christine Elder
I run a business of primarily online courses and workshops focused on the intersection of the arts and life sciences with a curriculum based on studying the natural world through nature sketching and journaling practice. I primarily serve an audience of youth, their families, and their educators, but my classes also attract viewers of all ages from across the globe.
I was inspired to start my own business for various reasons, including my love of nature, children, environmental education, and greater independence and creative freedom. I was tired of working in formal education (as a high school and college biology professor), where I was underpaid, underappreciated, and overwhelmed. I wanted to teach students who truly wanted to learn without the pressure or motivation of grades. I had a desire to make a difference in the world in my own little way. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” I was deeply distressed about our environment's state. Knowing that we leave the world to the next generation, I wanted to inspire youth and their educators to understand and value the natural world. I also wanted the freedom to follow my own creative whims and curiosity about the world instead of teaching a set curriculum.
I believe that my business is special because I fill a gap in high-quality online life sciences content for families. For example, since the pandemic started, I have taught over 120 workshops that make learning about the natural world fun and interactive with my sketching-based programs. My unique niche of providing most of my content in a live, online format is deeply appreciated by my audience, many of whom have been locked down in their homes since the pandemic began. They thrive in the close-knit, interactive community I have formed. In my workshops, participants learn about the life cycles, ecology, natural history, and evolution of a wide variety of flora and fauna, not just ‘charismatic megafauna’ like panda bears, but also about less well-known and maligned creatures like sharks, snakes, and carnivorous plants.
The high points of being a self-employed, location-independent entrepreneurial business owner have included the freedom to travel and work anywhere and at any time when I feel most inspired. Most of the highest points have occurred this past year during the pandemic. I have been so grateful to work from the safety of my own home and still build a loyal, global audience of students. My students continue to inspire me and keep my spirits up during the lockdowns of the past year. Another high point was realizing that I could pivot my business at the beginning of the pandemic from in-person, local workshops to a primarily online business model. I also realized that I could apply the skills I had previously learned for filming and creating my static courses to my live online content that better served my audience during the pandemic. Low points of being a business owner mostly occurred earlier in this adventure of self-employment… including having a widely fluctuating income….and even having a negative income at the end of some months! It was a challenging juggling act at first to wear the many hats of a ‘solopreneur' in terms of marketing, pricing, and time management.
A couple of years ago, I was going through a major life transition in which I really needed to up my game with my business, which up to that point, I’d treated more like a side hustle or part-time hobby than a viable business. So, I decided to seek out the assistance of SCORE and get paired with a local mentor.
I’ve been lucky to have my SCORE mentor for over a year now. She has served as a steady guide by keeping me on track with my business goals.
I deeply appreciate her wisdom, support, guidance, and willingness to meet with me weekly for over a year now. It’s been great to have a woman SCORE mentor since there aren’t many in the business world.
- You must be passionate about your idea to see you through the lean times.
- It will take you longer to start and grow your business than you think it will. But like putting money in the bank and earning interest, it will grow slowly at first but increase steadily as time goes on if you stick with it.
- Don’t be discouraged if others offer a similar product or service – it is your own special sauce that makes you unique. Do make sure to research your competition and think of ways to set your brand apart from the rest with your style, personality, service, etc.
- Research your potential audience, then serve them well.
- Be authentic, consistent, and focused on quality over quantity.
- Don’t give up – treat your business like a science experiment and try lots of angles to see what sticks and learn from your ‘failures’ to help you tweak your ideas.
- Celebrate your successes, no matter how small! Don’t burn yourself out. Keep a balanced life because building a business is like building any relationship. It takes time, and you need to take care of yourself physically and emotionally to take care of anyone else, including your clients.
I’ve learned many things that I can apply to my business and my own personal life as well. As a sole proprietor that started my own business and has run it in various iterations for over 20 years, I've learned:
- Success comes from perseverance… and an equal combination of luck, resilience, hard work, talent, and a good team.
- Importance of reaching out for collaborations…seeking out collaborators who share a similar audience but offer a different but complementary product so that you both might benefit.
- Address problems early before they grow out of proportion…have clear expectations and boundaries.
- Acknowledge that I and my business aren’t for everyone – you can’t and shouldn’t try to please everyone.
- Set procrastinating perfectionism behind me… as the saying goes, ‘perfect is the enemy of the good.’ So, in my case, it is more important to connect with my audience and serve them more often than wait for the perfect product and moment to come along.
- I am capable as an independent woman and don’t need a partner to help support me. I can take care of my own future and build my own nest egg without anyone else’s emotional or monetary support.