When I started Simple Mom in early 2008, I didn’t intend for it to become a full-fledged career path. I saw it more as a creative outlet with a possibly to fund my coffee habit. Never in a million years would I guess it would become my platform for writing and providing a sizable portion of our family’s income.

I consider it an enormous blessing, but also a humbling responsibility; one I hope I never take lightly. I feel like I’ve been entrusted with a delicate gift, for both my family, but also for the readers and the SLM contributors. I wake up elated to do what I do, but also with a dash of trembling.

Today’s post is the last in a series I’ve done this month about working from home. I’ve had a great time reminiscing, sharing behind the scenes, and thanking you for the privilege of calling this both work and a deep love.

I’m often asked what I “did” at the beginning to make Simple Mom successful. I get the sense that the motive behind this question is a search for an easily duplicated, ten-step process that will work for everyone, so I’m reticent to answer this in detail. But it’s a good question to ask because it’s healthy for me to evaluate often.

See, the reason I hold SLM with open, shaking hands is because for me to run it well, I have to hold the posture of a lifelong learner. I can never get too comfortable and run on autopilot, because in this shrinking world, and especially on the Internet, things change before we can blink. What made Simple Mom launch well in early 2008 will probably not work as well now. So in this post, I’ll tell you some things I did in the beginning, but this is more descriptive than prescriptive. 2011 is different.

Hopefully, it’ll shed some light (for you and for me!) on how we can apply some general principles to specific tasks before us now.

Working smart, not just hard

I work hard, don’t get me wrong. In the beginning, I worked long, long hours, mostly without pay. So when I say work smart, not hard, I don’t mean that working smart implies you won’t have to work hard.

What I mean is, I worked intentionally, using seasons and times in the day to my advantage. I did my best not to run on an endless hamster wheel, going nowhere but still expending all my energy. Working smart means sitting like a sniper, aiming your efforts at a target, not barging in with a tommy gun and hoping to hit something of value.

Here are some ways I did that.

1. I helped spearhead a new niche.

I started Simple Mom with a vision to marry the topics of parenting and productivity into a niche I hadn’t yet seen in the blog world (because, from what I could find, it didn’t exist yet). I enjoyed “mommy blogs,” and I enjoyed productivity blogs, but I didn’t find any that talked about both. I wanted to write about intentional living, getting things done, and prioritizing life well, but from the perspective of a stay-at-home parent. And because I didn’t find a blog like this, I started Simple Mom.

I didn’t duplicate anyone else’s content; I created my own. This helped me posture the blog in a unique angle; providing something not much else in the blogosphere yet provided (my friend Rachel Meeks started Small Notebook the same month, and together we encouraged each other in the best of ways, plowing the field for an apparent harvest of interest in the topic of simple, intentional living).

Seems funny now to think that the niche of productivity and simple, intentional living would be unique, because it seems like it’s everywhere now. But in early 2008, it wasn’t.

Your application

What’s not yet being done? What’s an interest of yours that might be an interest to others? If you want to make jewelry, don’t duplicate what’s out there – think of something truly unique. If you want to write, don’t try to be another Zen Habits and hope that the audience will flock. The Internet has room for everybody to contribute, but our attention spans only have room for so much. If someone’s out there already doing something well, let them. Do something else with your unique touch.

2. I focused on something I love.

There aren’t many blogs out there on beaver watching, but I didn’t choose the niche of beaver watching because I don’t do that. I probably wouldn’t love it, either (though I could be wrong). But I knew I would burn out quickly if I chose to do something just because it might be marketable. Sure, people are interested in iPhone apps, so that could technically do really well on Google searches and potential ad revenue. But I don’t have much to say about iPhone apps because I’m not that terribly interested in them. I wouldn’t last long in that niche.

I found that Simple Mom’s topic stuck with me because I was doing it anyway in my life. I was genuinely interested in intentional, simple living because that was what I was learning about, reading about, and trying to apply in my own life. I’d do that whether I wrote a blog about it or not. So I naturally wrote about that because I cared about it.

Your application

What do you love to do? What would you do for free if you had the time? Research ways you could earn money doing that. Find your element.

3. I made the most of my seasons.

My middle son, Reed, was a newborn when I started Simple Mom. I was nursing constantly, so I had a lot of time to just sit and read. I chose to read blogs such as ProBlogger, which taught me how to start a blog on the right foot. I consumed a lot of information, and then applied that information with the hope of maybe turning a small “hobby” blog into one that generated a little bit of cash.

I’m so thankful for those first few months, where I learned simple but important things like the best spots to offer ad space, the value of white space, basic coding, and the difference in the style of writing for a blog versus a book. It didn’t take long for that newborn of mine to become mobile, and I had a lot less time by then. During that season, I didn’t read much; I just wrote when I had the time (usually when Reed was sleeping).

Your application (and mine)

I still take advantage of seasons, knowing there’s another season around the corner. I get most of my writing done when my oldest is in school. I do most of my graphic design, email replying, and photo tweaking after the kids are in bed. I also don’t write much during the holiday season because I’m busy, and I leave expectations to get a lot done on the back burner when we’re doing heavy traveling. Basically, I make the most of my time and the seasons I’m in. And of course, this translates to all parts of life, not just in running a business.

Align your expectations to the season you’re in. If you need extra help because this season is full, find it unapologetically.

4. I learned my industry…

It’s important for me to keep my writing and editing skills polished, but there’s so much more than that to running a successful blog. It took time, but I started learning when blog readership is higher and when it’s naturally lower. I learned when I needed to lower my ad prices, and when my ad space real estate was more valuable. I learned why writing a clear, concise post headline was important. I learned as best I could how Google scans sites and what to give their spiders to read.

In other words, I became knowledgeable in my craft. Some of Simple Mom’s early success was due to being in the right time, in the right place on the Internet. But a whole lot of it has been due to my studying, studying, studying. I found out that it’s not enough to be good with words if I wanted to turn this into a business. I needed to learn the tools and skills of my trade.

Your application

If you want to run your blog as a business, don’t expect to hit “publish” and watch the readers flock. You’ve got to do everything you can to play your cards right — you’ve got more control over what cards are in your hand than you think. Luck has little to do with it. If it’s blogging you’re after, read ProBlogger to begin. If it’s another industry, learn from those ahead of you who’ve already found success.

5. …and I’m continually learning.

Soon after I launched Simple Mom, I signed up for this thing called “Twitter.” I had no idea what it was, but heard it was a good idea to sign up for most of these new digital platforms that were launching left and right in late 07/early 08, if anything just to claim the name for branding purposes. So I grabbed the Twitter handle “SimpleMom,” expecting never to use it. Boy, am I glad I did that.

A mere three years later, and things have really changed in the blog world. What’s true today might be different three months from now. I need to continually learn how things work if I expect to run SLM for the long haul. I’m learning so much about running a business, something I never thought I’d need to learn (I started the blog as a place to write, not as a business to manage, after all). I went to EntreLeadership, I read books by John Maxwell, I love Michael Hyatt’s blog on leadership, and I continually search for helpful content to help me shepherd and nurture my editors, who in turn do the same for their writers.

Your application

Don’t ever get too comfortable with where you are on the learning curve. Enjoy the process of learning from those wiser than you, and be teachable. You don’t know everything, and neither do I. Once I think that, my ship starts sinking. Be willing to learn from others.

These are general business principles, so they can apply to just about anything you try your hand at, be it generating income from a blog or starting an Etsy shop. Expect to work hard as you work smart. Assume there will be seasons when you work all the time, and understand that there will be times when you work for little to no pay. But if you love what you do, your work just might feel like play. It does for me.

How to Have Your Cake and Eat it, Too

I’ve mentioned Mandi Ehman’s new ebook, How to Have Your Cake and Eat it, Too a few times during this series. She’s not only a friend, she’s also a blogging colleague, a regular contributor for Simple Mom, the ad manager for SLM, and a rocking work-from-home mom who serves as her family’s primary breadwinner. She asked me to mentor her back in late 2008, and I was solidly impressed with her from the get-go. She knows what she’s talking about.

Her ebook is all about dispelling the myth that it’s just impossible to both be a stay-at-home parent and run a successful business. She talks about finding your passion, learning from mistakes, and working harder than you imagined, but it’s also filled with practical tips about when to work, when to delegate tasks, and how to procrastinate well. If you want to pursue your dreams, generate income from it, and be there for your kids, I highly recommend downloading her ebook.

Blog Essentials Course

So many of you have told me you’re interested in me leading a group class of sorts on blogging essentials for beginners. I’m listening. If you haven’t yet filled out the form and you’re interested, you still have time!

Thank you for the blessing of sharing some of my work with you over the past few weeks. It’s been fun.

Which one of these five ways to work “smart, not just hard” is easiest for you? Which one is hardest? Which one will you focus on this next week?