A Few Thoughts On “Making It” In The Outdoor Industry

A Few Thoughts On “Making It” In The Outdoor Industry

How can I do what you do? Do you have any advice on getting a job in the outdoor industry? What should I do to start a blog or a podcast or get a writing gig with a magazine or film for TV? How can I hunt or fish for a living?

I get questions like these and hundreds more every year. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of people out there who’d love to merge their career with their passion and find a way to make a living doing something they love. About eight years ago, I was one of those people too. I dreamed of working in the outdoor industry, but getting that opportunity seemed so far-off and out of reach. It seemed that it was the kind of thing that only “those people” could do – you know,  those better looking, much smarter, funnier, better-beard-growing, more experienced people than me types. But I was wrong. A gangly, peach-fuzz faced, average looking and thinking kid from the Midwest could in fact “make it” (or at least “make it work”) in the outdoor industry.

Today, I thought I’d take a stab at some of the questions I get on this topic and offer a few thoughts that might help those of you in pursuit of a purposeful and meaningful career doing something you love related to the outdoors. I’ve been unbelievably blessed and fortunate to be here doing what I am today, and if you have a fire in your belly to do something similar, I want you to feed that fire and chase that dream.

How I Got Here: First, for those who aren’t familiar, here’s the short version of my own story. I graduated with a marketing degree from Michigan State University in the spring of 2009 and took a full-time job with a tech company. The summer before, I’d started a deer hunting website to help scratch my hunting itch while stuck in New York City working an internship. Fast forward to the fall of 2009 and I was now working my full-time job in California’s Silicon Valley, and again, dying to be back in the Midwest chasing whitetails and my other outdoor passions. At this point I realized I couldn’t continue on this “normal career path” that I was currently on – I needed to get back to what I loved.

So I turned back to my blog, Wired To Hunt, and devoted myself to building that, someday, into a career. I read every book I could about entrepreneurship and online marketing and blogging and social media, and I worked every single morning and night on the site. I was working 50+ hours a week at a very demanding new job and then coming home at night and working for five or six more hours on my own thing, and I continued this for years. I wrote 5-7 new articles a week, I learned the basics of photography and videography, and I was constantly posting on social media and connecting with others in the field. And as I started getting my work out there and developing a network, new opportunities began to present themselves to write for other publications or participate in other projects.

It took two or three years of this before I made a dime, and then the next year I made a little more, and the following year a little more and finally after four years of grinding I finally decided that I was in a position to make the jump. I’d built Wired To Hunt to a point where, if I quit my day job and focused 100% on my own business, I could hopefully make ends meet. I set a date six months out from that point, made a plan to prepare myself for the leap, began saving extra money, and worked my tail off to make sure I was ready when the day arrived. And on October 4, 2013 I quit my day job and went full time in the outdoor industry. You can read more about my story in this 2015 feature by Outdoor Life.

How I Make My Living: There a lot of different ways to make a living in the outdoor industry , and my story is representative of just one small slice of the opportunity out there. But, for those interested, I want to explain how I personally have been able to make it work. I also want to make it clear that making a living in the outdoor industry, in most instances, is not going to make you rich. At least from my experience, you’ll be best served by entering this world for the love of the outdoors and not for the love of money or fame. For me it’s about being passionate about what I do, living a lifestyle revolved around the outdoors, and making a meaningful difference with my work. That said, here’s how I’ve personally been able to do it.

When I first quit my job, I had to piece a bunch of different small income streams together to make ends meet and I cut many extra expenses – like cable TV and going out to eat – to ensure I could survive those early days. I made a chunk of money from sponsorships/advertisements on Wired To Hunt, I made a chunk from writing for magazines and other websites, and I made a chunk from some consulting/marketing work I did for other organizations. Over the past three years, as Wired To Hunt has grown, I’ve been able to transition more and more away from those other projects and instead focus mostly on my own business. That said, I now make the lion’s share of my income directly from Wired To Hunt in the form of sponsorships/advertisements and digital/physical product sales. I still do a small amount of contract work on the side for a conservation organization and occasionally write articles for magazines – but the amount of time I spend on that has decreased dramatically. So with that said, my work load primarily consists now of just a few core projects – producing and managing Wired To Hunt articles, videos, and podcasts, interacting with and building my audience, and then managing the behind-the-scenes business infrastructure that makes it all work.

My Typical Day: A typical day for me, similar to many people outside of the outdoor industry, revolves around an office and a desk. I get up around 6:30-7:00, grab breakfast and a coffee and head to my computer, where I’ll check social media updates and email. From there I usually try to schedule a handful of social media posts and then get working on the projects for the day – usually that involves writing or editing an article, recording or editing a podcast, or doing the same with video. That continues til lunch, I eat, read a magazine for a bit, take a walk with the dogs and then get back to the office until 5 or 6.

80% of the year – that’s what I do. I sit at a desk and write or edit. It’s mostly just a lot of hard work. But what makes it so fulfilling is that I’m writing or editing something I’m passionate about – hunting and the outdoors. On top of that, I do also have a lot of flexibility to get outside and do the things I love. During shed season I get to go out on midday shed hunts, during turkey season I hunt mornings and start work late, in the summer I can travel and work out west for months at a time – fishing or backpacking or scouting, and during deer season if conditions are right – I’m out of the office and in a tree.

How To Get Started: So if you want to work in the outdoor industry, I’d recommend you consider a few things. First – in what specific way do you want to be involved in the industry? One way would be to get a job working for a company in the outdoor industry doing work that’s similar to what you might already be doing in your current job. If this is the route you’re looking to take – the first and most important step is simply getting to know people in the industry and making connections. Connections equal opportunities. Social media and in-person trade events are great ways to build those connections. Go to the Deer & Turkey expos or ATA or SHOT or NWTF show or whatever industry event your world revolves around and get to know people. It’s amazing how a random conversation can lead to new things.

If, on the other hand, you want to try to go the route of creating your own business or being a freelancer of sorts (writer, photographer, videographer, podcaster), it requires some additional steps. The first thing I always recommend to those hoping to get work in one of those fields is to choose what specific “thing” they want to focus on. You can’t just say you want to work in the outdoor industry and expect it to just happen. Rather you need to decide on a focus area and then get to work on it. If you get the most enjoyment out of photography, make that your focus and then get to work improving your craft. Whatever it is you’re going to create – photos, videos, articles, podcasts, a physical product, or whatever – constantly be creating and improving and doing – and then share it. Put it out in the world and get feedback and keep improving and then keep sharing, building a community through social media around your work and your passion. And then as you do that, try to connect with others and share what you’re doing and see what they’re doing and help them out if you can. It’s a very simple formula, but it’s the common factor I’ve seen in many many successful people in this industry. Just keep making and sharing and improving and connecting and helping and repeat over and over and over.

Another thing to keep in mind is how you will differentiate yourself from the crowd. There are hundreds of websites and writers and photographers and videographers and TV shows and magazines and youtube creators and podcasters and products. What makes what you do unique and valuable? Figure that out or develop a unique angle and focus on it, nurture it, pour your time and energy into whatever facet of this craft you can uniquely deliver on. Without a unique value proposition you’ll be lost in the noise.

Challenges To Expect: No matter what aspect of the outdoor industry you decide to tackle, it’s important to know that there will be challenges. Any time you leave the comforts of the current normal every-day-circumstances and reach for something new, you’re opening yourself up to stress and hardship and struggle. Know that going into this. It’s not going to be easy. An opportunity probably won’t drop in your lap. The money might not be great. The work required will be long and strenuous. It’ll be scary, it’ll be uncertain, it’ll be different than you expected. Doing something you’re passionate about, making a difference, leading a purposeful life – that stuff isn’t ever going to be simple and comfortable and easy. It takes stubbornness and perseverance, a decent bit of crazy and lots of hard work.

What To Look Forward To: But as tough as it all can be at times, the rewards are oh so worth it. I remember those days back at my original job – sitting in a cubicle for nine hours a day, reviewing stats, filling out reports, sitting in meetings talking about sales or proposals or strategies I didn’t care one bit about. I was just existing, floating along, surviving each five day stretch between the weekends. I lived for those two day breaks and the couple weeks of vacation I had a year – just like hundreds of millions of people across the country do right now. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can wake up in the morning and not dread the next ten hours. You can look at your calendar for the next month and see exciting projects and work that will fill you with life rather than suck out your soul. You can live and work in and for the outdoors. For those who are willing to suck it up and chase something better – opportunities are out there.

Chase it.

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