I work 40 hours a week at Amazon as a tech-artist manager, a role I've had since January, and on the side, I run a business. My side hustle, the Academy of Animated Art, helps people acquire the skills they need to become 3D lighting artists and get jobs in the animation industry. 3D lighting is the process of lighting in animated movies, games, visual effects, commercials, and so on. For example, if you have a scene with a haunted house, lighting helps create that spooky ambiance by adding shadows and dim lighting.
My online courses cost between $244 and $736 each and teach industry software like Maya and Nuke, which are widely used in the film industry — movies like "The Avengers" and "Frozen" were created with Maya.
My top-selling product is the Lighting Bundle that combines seven core classes and workshops into one package. The primary added benefit of the bundle is personal, professional feedback on students' work via the Academy's community channel. After graduating from the Academy of Animated Art, my students have been hired by companies like Disney and Sony. More than 5,700 students have gone through all our paid programs so far, and the majority come to us when they're just starting out in the industry.
I've had an entrepreneurial side ever since I was a kid. It's my passion, and I love to create something out of nothing. One of the other reasons I built the Academy is because it's very difficult to succeed as a lighting artist if you aren't already in the industry.
I started my side hustle in May 2012. The idea to teach others my craft came to me while I was working full-time as a 3D lighting artist on movies like "Ice Age" and "Rio" at major studios like Nickelodeon and Blue Sky Studios.
Based on sales in January through October 2022, I averaged $17,700 per month in revenue. My highest month was June, when I made more than $30,000 in revenue. We recently launched our diversity program, where I partner with leading studios to make animation accessible for children with diverse backgrounds, and this brought in extra revenue.
What keeps me going is the impact the Academy has on our students: It changes their professional and creative lives. Many of them come from creative industries — from traditional lighting artists to photographers, video editors, and engineers — but we also have students with diverse backgrounds, like healthcare professionals. Few things top that feeling of getting a message from a student who's found a dream job thanks to the Academy.
I had to decide if the courses should be live or pre-recorded, figure out the curriculum, and decide if there even was a market for my niche, which is very small.
To create the courses, I (or a teacher I collaborate with) do extensive curriculum research and create the 3D models and scenes we need to teach the skills. The teachers are generally contacts within my network or connections through my contacts. Sometimes they're alumni who are part of our community. We also record, edit, and create supplemental material.
The process of creating a course can take anywhere from three months to a year depending on the course and other time commitments at my full-time job. I've set up all my courses on Teachable and sell them through the platform.
The first thing I did after my first course was completed was post about it on LinkedIn and Reddit. When the first student signed up, it was so exciting and gave me proof that there were people who wanted to buy the course.
In the beginning, I ended up pre-recording lectures that came out on Sundays with assignments due the following Monday so that students could get feedback and ask questions. These days, we use a similar format with open enrollment, so that students can join the course at any time and submit their assignments at their own pace.
The Lighting Bundle was built up in the span of two years. While it's a lot of work upfront, it's less intensive in the long run and sustainable for creating a business that brings in a great income and allows me to work on other areas, like my full-time job.
It took me six years with a one-year break to scale to six figures and then multiple six figures. However, I was very casual about my side hustle for the first five years. I didn't promote it extensively and even paused the Academy after year five because I wasn't sure if I would continue working on it.
After that one-year break, I brought it back due to high demand. It was in the sixth year that I decided to focus on taking the Academy to the next level financially and doubling down on scaling sales seriously with Facebook ads, SEO, speaking on podcasts, and more.
Today, when I contract external teachers to create course content, I can keep my time commitment to three to four hours a week. The remainder of my time is spent on managing and mentoring.
Product creation takes more than three to four hours a week if I personally create the curriculum and videos — in that case, it takes me closer to 10 to 15 hours a week to work on my side hustle, with one to two hours a night on weekdays and five hours on the weekend. This creation phase occurs on average one time per year for two to three months.
Often, we think that the goal is to quit your day job to work on your side hustle full time — and I used to think that, too. But now I see everything I do as an extension of myself and an opportunity, not a chore. I love my full-time job and I love my business, so I keep them both. They help me design my work life so that it fits me perfectly.
To find that idea, look at things you're already good at, whether you've learned skills at your job or have a hobby you love. Then you can iterate your offer instead of creating the "perfect" product or service for the first release, which only results in overwhelm and stress.
Next, build up a profitable business before you scale it. Especially if you're doing it on the side, you have to be very focused and work on the tasks that'll have the most impact on your business: course creation, marketing, and sales.
I took my business to the next level when I was able to re-invest my side business income into a team that has helped me grow further. Currently, I have three part-time employees: one person who works on our SEO and content creation, one who helps manage our social-media channels, and a business coach who supports me in growing my business.
Ask yourself: "How can I make this easy and fun?" instead of thinking, "This is going to be hard, but I'm going to do it." A side hustle should be fun. That's how you'll be able to sustain and motivate yourself to work on it after a long day at work.