“From Avocation To Vocation: How I Turned My Hobby Into A Career” With…Matt Secrist, cofounder and COO of BKA Content
An interview with Phil La Duke
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing…Matt Secrist is the cofounder and COO of BKA Content, an online content writing service. Matt has years of experience working directly with marketing agencies, enterprise companies and small and medium-sized businesses in helping with their content marketing efforts. Matt is a dedicated husband and father, an avid NBA basketball fan and an outdoor enthusiast.
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Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
As a kid, I was decently smart, somewhat creative and a sports fan. Groundbreaking backstory, right?! I was like most kids — I had great potential and big dreams. My early aspirations included being a cartoonist, running the 100-meter dash in the Olympics, and making it to the NBA. Here’s the thing, though: I was surprisingly committed. I drew hundreds of pictures of my own cartoon characters (mostly during class), ran laps around the block in the mornings while still in elementary school, and spent countless hours after school shooting hoops in my driveway.
So why is this not an interview with an Olympic gold medalist/NBA champion/animator? (First of all, let’s just take a second to realize how amazing that combo would be.) One of the main reasons why I didn’t get very far with any of my childhood dreams was that I was so scared of rejection and so easily influenced by negative feedback that I’d simply give up.
The cartoonist dream got erased one day when some kids in my class saw a cartoon character I was doodling and made fun of it. I became ashamed of what I’d created and hid it away.
The Olympic dream that was born while watching Michael Johnson in the gold Nikes in the 1996 Summer Games fell short one morning as I was running laps and a lady in the neighborhood pulled over her minivan to ask if I needed a ride home because I looked lost. Embarrassed, I hung up my gold Nike running dreams forever.
And NBA basketball? After months of training in my driveway for junior high tryouts, someone told me that making it to the NBA was statistically unrealistic, so I should just work hard in school. They were right, of course, but instead of using their words as motivation toward achievement, I let the dream go flat. In fact, I didn’t even try out for the team, because I was too scared of getting feedback that would confirm what I already feared.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of my childhood story. A two-year voluntary service mission in my late teens completely changed me, turning what was previously a shy, easily influenced kid into a confident, go-getting adult with purpose. Looking back, my hesitancy to go after my dreams as a kid has been a huge motivator to ensure that I make the most of the opportunities placed in front of me now.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
I graduated from college in the spring of 2009 with a finance degree. The economy was in a downturn, and my job prospects were low. That summer, I moved into my older brother’s basement while I continued to look for a finance job. It was there that my brother introduced me to SEO, or search engine optimization. He had found some courses online on SEO best practices and was trying his hand at building and growing websites as a side hobby. Intrigued, I joined him.
We bought domains in our spare time (which I had a lot of) and optimized them with written content. I had always enjoyed writing and doing so became a primary focus in helping these websites rank on search engines. We worked on our own affiliate sites all that summer and had fun at the thought of building some passive income through our writing efforts. I wrote hundreds of articles on a wide range of topics. It was entertaining and rewarding work, and I realized that I had a knack for it.
The summer ended, and I still didn’t have a finance job. Even so, I was ready to stop mooching off my brother, so I moved into an apartment with some friends. As a goodbye present, my brother built me a one-page website where companies could order from me one, five or 10 articles to help with their online marketing efforts. He had realized that there weren’t very many good places online for businesses to buy quality written content, and he figured I might be able to get an occasional writing project while I continued looking for a job.
Fast forward a few months later, and I was so busy with writing projects that I rarely came out of my windowless basement room to socialize. I remember my “ah ha” moment came one week that spring after I had written for 60 or 70 hours to get all my projects done. At the end of the week, I went to dinner for my sister’s birthday, and one of my family members commented on how tired and disheveled I looked. Up until that point, I had considered the writing projects a temporary endeavor, something that wouldn’t last but that I should try to make the most of while it was happening. But receiving that feedback made me realize that I was working myself into the ground with all the projects I had lined up. I was working more than I would at most full-time jobs!
I came to understand that either I needed to commit myself to this endeavor and get some help or I needed to get out of the industry because it was affecting my quality of life. I decided to commit to it. That next week, I called up my brother and said, “We are on to something here.” I told him that projects were coming in consistently, but I needed his experience to turn what I had into something bigger. Though he had a marketing position at an established company and his wife was pregnant with their first child, I asked him to quit his job and come help me. I promised him we’d make it work.
Turns out I ended up being quite the salesman because my brother quit his job and came to help me. Nearly 10 years later we’re still going strong.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
The hardest part was recognizing the opportunity I had in front of me. I valued the work I was doing as little more than a side gig to perform until I got a “real” job. In fact, when I first started getting so many writing orders that I needed help to get them all done by the deadline, I turned to competent friends and family who had a passion for writing and I paid them the full amount I would have made if I had written the content myself! In my mind, these people were just doing me a favor so I could meet a deadline. It took some time for me to realize that I had a scalable business.
The lesson to be learned is that you have to set aside time to work on your business, not just in it. That usually translates into long, stressful hours early on because you may be working full-time just to fulfill your normal projects. So, coming up with a way to scale your business and hire/train/manage more people equates to extra work hours on top of your normal responsibilities. But you have to do it; otherwise you WILL burn out.
Staying afloat early on is a balancing act that takes a lot of sacrifice, hard work and ingenuity.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
It depends on where the reluctance stems from. If you’re only half in on the idea of starting a business because you’re not sure about all the extra work, or you aren’t completely sold on your own reasons for starting it, you’ll be hard-pressed to make the business succeed. If this is the case, I’d say you should keep it as your hobby.
If your reluctance stems from inexperience with business matters only, but you have a strong belief in the idea and purpose of the business idea, then that’s different. Every business owner I know has felt some of this before really going after it. If you fall into this category, I’d say you’d regret it if you never tried.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
Three words: Scale your business. Early on I was writing 95% of the time and working on the business 5% of the time. Now that’s basically reversed to where 95% of the time I’m working on the business and writing only 5% of the time. Some people may think that I’ve lost my “hobby” in the process, but I’d contend that I’ve gained it back again.
When your hobby becomes your full-time job, you do sometimes lose the passion for it. Getting back to where writing is something I get to do because of where my business is, and not something I have to do is the difference. Now I get to pick the writing projects that appeal to me, while still advancing my business — the best of both worlds. The only way you can do that is by scaling the work.
The quicker you can bring on help to do the job you do so well, the quicker you can get back to doing it because you love it and not because you must.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
What I enjoy the most about owning my own business is the satisfaction that comes from growing something that truly matters. I’m not sure there’s really anything else out there in the professional world that compares. The business has become an entity on its own that people are loyal to, take pride in and work hard for. It’s so strange but also incredibly rewarding. The idea of building something bigger than yourself is a worthwhile endeavor.
That being said, there can definitely be downsides. When things go wrong, whether it’s with clients, employees, products or policy, ultimately I am responsible — and it can be tough shouldering that load. I’ve had stretches where I was so stressed about issues at work that when I would come home to my family, I’d be a shell of myself just trying to keep it all together.
I found that in those times, I needed a shoulder to lean on. Whether it was family, a friend, a mentor, or another business owner who could relate, I just had to have someone to talk to. My pride kept me from learning this lesson for a while, but over time I learned that it’s OK to be vulnerable and ask for help. Humility isn’t a weakness; it’s a strength. We’re all human, we all make mistakes, and we all need support at times.
Another downside is the temptation to become a workaholic. Since so much of what you do has an immediate effect on your business, it’s easy to work yourself into the ground trying to get ahead. While the intentions are good, working too much is not healthy and ultimately will make you unhappy. Finding a good work/life balance is essential. Set rules for yourself and then stick to them. Not everything has to be solved the second you find out about it.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Early on I figured my writing would always be the primary means for bringing home the bread. Now as head of operations, I’m a professional “fixer-upper.” I get to help improve every department, having my hands in diverse tasks. The variety makes my job a lot of fun, and I get to nerd out over spreadsheets and formulas and making other people’s jobs easier. It’s the best.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
Have I had hard times? Absolutely. Situations where I was stressed beyond what I thought I was capable of handling? Definitely. But have I ever seriously considered giving up? I haven’t. Because we started the business when I was in my early 20s, I’ve never had a 9-to-5 job. So, I literally have no idea what else I’d be doing. This IS my backup plan, so it has to work out. That’s always been my mentality.
For people who may have had that moment of serious doubt when running a business, I’d suggest the way to overcome it is to get back to the “why” of your business. If the idea is solid, if the reasons for pursuing it are valid and if you truly believe in it, then the next step would be to work like there are no other options available to you and surround yourself with people who can help you make that happen.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I make mistakes all the time, so this might be hard to narrow down! Let’s see … early on when I was trying to scale and bring on writers to help with projects, my only criteria for hiring was if they had an English degree — which is ironic because I don’t have one myself. At the time, it seemed like the quickest, most comprehensive way to know if someone was good at writing. The first person who responded to me had an English degree AND a self-professed love of editing! I think I hired her immediately over email and gave her a piece that night to work on.
The article she submitted the next day was beyond bad. It was off-topic, had poor sentence structure and was filled with spelling and grammar mistakes; basically, the content was unusable. I let her try writing a few more article assignments after I gave her some feedback, just to make sure it wasn’t simply bad luck, and sure enough the subsequent batches were just as bad. I ended up spending more time fixing her work and trying to save my pride in hiring her than I’d like to admit.
I learned then the importance of being able to vet real talent, and how crucial doing so is to business success. It’s something that’s taken a lot of trial and error to figure out, but learning how to find the right people and put them in the right positions makes all the difference.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
My older brother (he’s also a co-owner) has been one of the biggest leadership inspirations in my life. He’s been a mentor to me in so many ways, both inside and outside of work, that I want to be a mentor for other people. Also, the leader of the church service mission I referred to earlier has had a huge influence on me. He taught me how to keep a cool head about issues (to take a step back and look at things analytically instead of instantly reacting) and how to love people I serve.
Honestly, so many people in my life have taught me about leadership that it’s hard to name them all. I’d like to think I’ve developed a fairly balanced approach to leadership by trying to emulate the best things from many amazing people. I’m nowhere near where I want to be as a leader, but I do have a desire to get better.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
There are a million ways to make the world a better place — and each one can have a ripple effect. Our success as a business has changed the world specifically through living our core values.
For one, I think we’ve created a business atmosphere that people enjoy being a part of, which in turn helps them to enjoy their jobs. People who enjoy what they do have a better quality of life that they then will share and pass on to others.
Next, giving back to our community has been another core value we hope to keep expanding with growth. Every year we support special causes, such as providing supplies for low-budget schools, writing letters to veterans, assisting families in need, and sponsoring community charity races. Our efforts not only give our employees and independent contractors a chance to come together for a cause but also help those around us in a meaningful way.
Lastly, I do believe that making sure we provide a valuable/quality writing product is a boon to businesses everywhere, thus improving the economy and benefiting individuals and families that work directly with and for our clients.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- First, get a business mentor. Whether it’s a family member who’s been an entrepreneur, a friend, or someone you don’t yet know, a mentor can exponentially speed up the learning curve that comes with starting a business. Early on, we basically tried to do everything ourselves — and took pride in it. We had an “us against the world” mentality, but in the end, we were basically reinventing business processes that had already been around for a long time and we could have skipped the figuring-out process entirely with the right support behind us. We wasted so much time that could have been spent building the unique parts of our business.
- Second, document your processes. When we first started the business, we were doing everything ourselves, so documenting our procedures was the least of our worries. Once we started getting more work than we could handle, we really needed help. The issue then became trying to create documentation for processes that we could hand off to other people while also trying to fulfill the extra work orders that were coming in. It ended up making stressful times even more stressful than they needed to be. Documentation is also useful for small, periodic tasks that are crucial but that you don’t do often. If procedures are written down, they are easy to reference so you don’t have to figure out how to do something all over again every time it comes up. Trust me — documenting your processes makes a huge difference.
- Third, look for “fastest growing business awards” you can apply for. They are the easiest awards to win for your business and can be a great launch pad for getting clients you may not have been able to approach early on. We made the mistake of thinking these awards were organically given to great businesses, but you actually have to seek out awards and apply for them to win them. Don’t miss out!
- Fourth, find a really good accountant. Taxes, payroll, and bookkeeping can be a huge time suck and source of frustration if you don’t know what you’re doing. A great accountant is a worthwhile investment that will save you time and headache in the long run.
- Last of all, enjoy your success! Even if the success is comparatively minor when evaluated against other businesses you interact with, it’s still worth celebrating. Early on, the competitive side of me had a hard time enjoying the ride because I was so hell-bent on beating out our competitors, but it’s OK to stop every once in a while and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. This is especially important once you have other team members on your side who will thrive off of positive reinforcement.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I love the outdoors. One of my favorite pastimes has been to go on a yearly backpacking trip into a remote part of the country where it’s just me, some close friends, and lots of nature. It’s a time I can completely disconnect from the world and reconnect on a personal, spiritual level with what’s actually important in my life. I feel like I always come back from those trips with more energy, more conviction, and an increased self-worth.
I understand that not everyone can or wants to go backpacking in the deep wilderness, but the movement I’d like to see is more of a disconnect from tech in order to reconnect with people. There’s a time and a place for technology (obviously), but when you’re with those you love, it’s so important to be present! Get off your phones, get off your social media and make the most of the time you have with the people you love.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he’s been robbed. The fact is that most putts don’t drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to just be people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is like an old-time rail journey — delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.” — Jenkin Lloyd Jones
I know it’s long, but I’ve loved this quote ever since I heard it. I appreciate the realism in it and the advice to not get caught up in what you expect something should be like. Instead, make the best of your situations and enjoy the great moments when they do come along. This is especially true when it comes to business. Lots of long hours and hard work lead to momentary, thrilling bursts of speed that make it all worth it.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Probably Tony Hsieh. Reading his book “Delivering Happiness” changed my outlook on what I should and could create at my company. Culture is now just as integral as our bottom line, and usually investing in the former increases the latter. I’d thank him and let him know how much he affected my outlook on owning a company.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
About the Author
Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com