Turning a Side Project into a Career: Behind the Scenes with Dismantle

by | Mar 5, 2019

When we began working as “full-time” adjuncts, we started to miss the creative, collaborative work that defined our lives during graduate school and the dissertation years. We loved teaching but felt how incredibly lonely it can be, especially with little to no departmental community and ever-increasing class sizes. Further, our incomes barely budged as we transitioned into the so-called “professional” stage of our academic lives. And there was little promise that these would improve, as we were well into the process of applying to the few available tenure-track jobs—with one rejection followed by another.

So like many of us in this new reality, we began to explore possibilities that would allow us to continue our work as scholars but in a way that was more rewarding creatively and maybe even financially. We also were invested in doing work together, because we figured that if our careers were going to be a struggle anyway, we at least shouldn’t do them alone.

This inspiration has resulted in Dismantle Magazine, an online platform we founded together with the mission of publishing fun, accessible content about the cultural studies of fashion and style. Over the last three years, we’ve featured work by 25 writers, with brand new undergraduate work appearing beside essays by well-known scholars, emerging artists, and seasoned activists. Our mission has expanded to include mentoring, curriculum development, teaching and webinars, workshops, and online as well as print publishing.

But we didn’t start there. It’s taken years and lots of free labor to get where we are now. Below we outline how we’re in the midst of doing it, and offer some concrete tips for those of you wondering about the messy process of turning a side project into a career. Our dream is that Dismantle will be our full-time job one day. Even if that’s not your goal, we hope that this advice can help you in whatever creative work you pursue. This article isn’t about saying “we have already done it and everything is complete!” but rather “we’re in the process of doing it and that process needs to be shown more.”

From idea to side project

It’s funny to think that four years ago we were tossing around the idea of a blog called “MissFits.” We wanted to fill an internet void by publishing accessible content in fashion and cultural studies aimed mostly at girls and younger women. We also wanted an alternative to what we felt was an increasingly stifling outlet for our own writing and teaching—academia.

But not long after we began, we realized we wanted to be more than a critical fashion blog, and we didn’t want such a limited audience or for us to be the only contributors—cultural studies is for everyone!

Soon our initial concept evolved into a website for sharing critical, exciting cultural studies work on fashion and popular culture with a large public audience. Once we formulated this idea, we realized that it could be a viable side project, with potential for multiple revenue streams and maybe even full-time jobs one day.

So here’s what we did and are still doing to one day turn our side project into a full-time career.

Played with a lot of ideas

We began with an initial idea and did some work to lay the foundation and grow from there. This involved hours of phone conversations and Google Hangouts as well as lots of email threads, during which we went through (and often threw out) lots of terrible or untenable ideas. (Fun fact: For a minute, “Frockers” was the frontrunner in our naming brainstorm…we’re very glad that we continued to play around until we came up with “Dismantle.”)

We also found it very useful to research similar businesses as we brainstormed. We needed to see what was already out there and then articulate ideas that offered something unique to the market. We continuously asked ourselves: How are we doing something similar to [other online feminist/fashion magazine]? What are we doing differently? How do we complement each other? It was a lot like formulating a dissertation or book proposal!

It took us a while, but we stuck it out until we hit on a model that felt right. For a long time Dismantle was going to be a nonprofit that offered various types of youth programming. And then we realized…we don’t actually want to run a nonprofit! But we’re glad we went in that direction so we could hone in on what did work for us.

Took some chances

Academics tend to be perfectionists. We are encouraged to think we can’t put an idea into the world until we have ten years of training and a terminal degree. Women are especially socialized to do this. But if we had waited until we knew exactly what we were doing and were totally confident in our trajectory and content, this project never would have happened. So right away  we took the plunge, started our website build, and just got stuff out there. We figured if our ideas didn’t work, we could always try something else. It’s important to play with possibilities in low-stakes ways, knowing that they can get nixed later on.

Trying new things is also not just for the beginning of a project, it’s what you do constantly throughout the whole thing. For example, recently we started a merchandise store with a print-on-demand service. We like playing with product design and hope that it will pay off in some physical objects that people will actually want to use and wear. The process has offered some insight into what people might buy (we assumed everyone has too many coffee mugs, but apparently that’s not true because we’ve sold way more of those than expected!).

We learned that we definitely want to keep up our merchandise game but also that another distribution model will probably work better for us. This is especially true if we want our products to at least somewhat reflect our values as a business. We recently discovered a great company that makes political swag for progressive campaigns and sells only union-made products. Now we just need a little more time, effort, and capital to make the transition.

Got comfortable learning the business stuff

One of us used to work for a nonprofit; the other has some experience running a small business. So we weren’t totally clueless about business or organizational strategies when we started, but neither of us knew much about how to create a viable internet property. Right away we started doing deep internet research and taking notes on business questions and the technical stuff that academia never taught us. We googled stuff like “how to earn money with an internet magazine” and spent hours reading articles and watching videos. Folks with PhDs are usually fantastic researchers—it’s one our most valuable skills. So it just took a little self-made crash course to get us to a starting point.

Once we got a sense of how we might earn money, we came up with a business plan. We started with something really small and loose, but it was important to get something down on paper. Now we have a two-year trajectory that has quarterly financial and business structure goals. But we didn’t just pull it out of the sky. We have continued to look at similar businesses—from popular YouTube yoga teachers to established organizations like Bitch Media—and drawn from their methods to develop our own.

We also talked to friends and family members who had business experience and we didn’t hesitate to take advice about things like marketing techniques or earnings models. For instance, one of our advisors suggested that we start a Patreon. Even though the idea made both of us a little uncomfortable (especially since many of our friends are in the same financial boat as we are), we went for it anyway. Right now it’s a small but growing source of income—and the one that has allowed us to expand our reach through paid marketing campaigns.

We’re also now playing with a Patreon-only feature called The Understanding Culture Toolbox. It’s a central part of our current business plan and one that we might not have discovered without the desire to provide our readers with an incentive to pledge a monthly membership.

Collaborated with lots of people—including non-academics

The two of us have been working together for over ten years and we are always happy with the results, so teaming up was a no-brainer. (And honestly, there are few other people that we’d want to spend this much time with!) We also have another very close friend whom we consider a third co-founder, as she was around for all of the early developments and continues to be our biggest supporter and collaborator.

But we realized early on that Dismantle required a wider support system, so we set out to work with people we love and love to work with. We were sure to talk with both academics and non-academics, and were amazed at the strength and support of our network. For instance, Dismantle’s web designer is a friend who liked what we were doing and wanted a creative outlet from their day job. This person continues to offer advice and time that has gotten us to where we are today.

We also sought contributions from friends, colleagues, and students and have been overwhelmed with the people who share their work with us. And we never hesitate to explore ideas with friends and family. One of Sara’s cousins gave us a crash course in social media marketing, and it’s had a huge impact on our audience growth. The advice and support and just general inspiration from Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire encouraged us to take the leap see where our business can go.

Treated our side project as real work

We formed this project around our passion. For most of us doing interdisciplinary scholarship, art, and activism, we love what we do. You’ve probably heard this before, but seriously, turning your passion into a business is not easy. You have to do all kinds of stuff that isn’t nearly as fun as your creative work (i.e., neither one of us has actually written much for Dismantle in the last year!).

For a side project to actually manifest, it’s important to carve out a space to do the work. There have been times, though, when creating that space seemed like an absolute impossibility. Even though we formulated the idea behind Dismantle relatively quickly, the first few years were very slow, as there were huge chunks of time when neither of us or only one of us at a time could dedicate ourselves to anything but teaching and writing. But over the last year, we have finally been able to spend at least a few hours a week (although it’s often much more) building our growing business.

It took a lot of planning and some big life changes to shape our current dedication to Dismantle. For instance, Elise quit her adjunct job—then she and her partner sold everything they owned to start a life in Mexico, where she now is living with way fewer expenses than she had in the US. Sara has established herself as a freelance writer and found a part-time teaching gig that energizes rather sucks the life out of her. We don’t necessarily a complete life uproot for everyone, but it can be helpful to recognize what changes might allow you to have space to work on your passion.

We now treat Dismantle like one of our real (if part-time) jobs. For those of us who spent years writing a dissertation or a tenure publication with no immediate earn, this part isn’t too hard—although continuing to do unpaid work is never fun when we’re all scraping side gigs together to pay the bills.

Learned what makes money—and what we WANT to do for money

We started this project with no money and less time. So we felt every expense. We were also pretty clueless about how to earn money with an internet magazine. We quickly realized that the days of getting rich from mommy or review blogs are pretty much over. While we’re not experts by any means, we’ve kept moving forward by continuously doing research and trying new things.

The end result is that we have developed a plan that includes multiple ways to make money. Right now we’re trying out our merchandise store, Patreon subscription, and sponsored content. We’re also looking into advertising as our next big move. Our eventual plan includes creating services like webinars and workshops where we can draw from our website content to do what we love, which is share cultural studies with others in a fun, comfortable educational setting.

At one point we thought about creating a tiered paywall similar to a lot of newspaper subscriptions—like cataloguing old content that only paid subscribers could access—but decided that’s not how we want people to use our site. We recognized that most of our audience, which has grown out of our own networks, is made up of educators and cultural producers like us. We want these users to be able to easily and quickly access the site’s content to share with others and use it for their own work.

We also got smarter about when it’s important to spend money now to save money later. When we were developing the website, our web assistant recommended that we pay the $50 for a premium template. Thank goodness we did, even though our yearly budget was $100 at the time, because it saved hours upon hours of work, allowing us the flexibility we needed in the long run. Plus it just looks a million times classier than the free themes. Now we’re still very careful with our tiny budget, but utilize a general rule: always spend money on what grows or has the potential to grow our earnings (i.e., social media ads that increase our website hits).

Remained patient and rode through the bumps

We’ve never actually had a conflict that delayed our progress. The closest we got was with disagreements over our logo, which in hindsight didn’t actually change our timelines in any way. Because we go into every discussion knowing our big goals are the same, minor disagreements are usually productive in the end.

Therefore, the only real frustration we’ve ever faced comes from our impatience with not being able to grow as fast as we want to grow and not having the time to dedicate to this project that we want to be successful. These delays are often simply there because of our own life decisions—hopefully ones that will contribute to Dismantle’s growth. For instance, after leaving academia, Elise spent six months traveling, often without good wifi or cell service, and did very little Dismantle work during that time. But that period helped her transition into a new life where the business could finally be her primary focus. Right now, Sara is spending a lot of time working with an agent on a book proposal with the goal of securing a publishing contract. But it’s a priority not just because selling a book will provide her with a necessary source of income—ultimately, it will raise Dismantle’s profile.

We have to continuously tell ourselves that as long as we have a plan and a continued desire to work on the project, progress will happen. For us that means that the more time we put into Dismantle, the more readers, followers, and supporters we get—which can eventually translate to real earnings. That’s enough to keep us going, even if we don’t yet rely on the project for income.

Put together systems for evaluation and improvement

We constantly evaluate where we are and have developed a system for improvement. There are those who complete spreadsheets and run numbers; we’re not quite there yet (maybe one day we’ll have an office assistant who loves Excel!). However, we make notes and task lists for all kind of things: where our Facebook advertising budget is best spent; which contributor content increased our Instagram followers; and how to improve the website layout, for example.

What’s important is that we have created a system that works for us where we are now. Most of the time that amounts to setting aside a few minutes each week to jotting down some notes. We also spend a lot of time texting each other and/or getting ear aches with our marathon phone calls. But when it comes down to it, our phone calls were always at least two hours long before Dismantle was a thing—we started with a existing communication system that can only come from building a business with your best friend.

The most important factor

At this point, our work with Dismantle is somewhere between side project and part-time small business. It’s a work in progress. We’re not yet in a place where we can say we’re done turning our side project into a career. But that’s our goal, and reaching it is what keeps us motivated.

We’d also rather do this job, with each other, than anything else we’ve ever done to earn money. While we don’t know yet if that’s enough, we do know this: we’re much happier than we were four years ago. And really, we think that’s doing pretty good.

Elise Chatelain wearing a white shirt

About the authors:

For over ten years, Elise Chatelain taught sociology, women’s studies, and cultural studies in a university setting. She loved so many things about this work, but that didn’t stop her from realizing that if she didn’t leave academia, she might actually die. Almost three years and some huge life changes later, she’s a happy, well-adjusted person who has stopped smoking, sleeps through the night, and eats three well-balanced meals a day. Just like Sara, Elise earned a PhD in cultural studies with an emphasis in feminist theory and research from the University of California, Davis.

Sara Bernstein wearing a black sweater and purple and red shirt

Sara Tatyana Bernstein writes about and teaches media, cultural studies, and fashion studies. For Vox, she’s written about “Menocore”, Picket Line Fashion and “Why Gen X Isn’t Psyched for the 90s Revival”. Her work has also appeared in BuzzFeed (“TV Reboots Aren’t Really About Nostalgia“), Inside Higher Ed (“Portrait of a Budget Cut“), Full Stop (“Coming of Middle Age with Ursula Le Guin“), Fashion, Style and Popular Culture JournalCritical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, and Dressand in several edited collections of scholarly essays. With her favorite co-author, Elise Chatelain, she’s published articles on feminist pedagogy and paranormal teens in TV and film, and presented numerous papers on representations of gendered labor. Sara’s PhD in cultural studies is from University of California, Davis and her MA in visual culture: costume studies is from New York University.

P.S. Check out Sara’s interview on the Imagine Otherwise podcast to hear more about the evolution of Dismantle!

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