Heather Teysko is a fabulous example of someone who has found a niche, grown a platform and found a wildly successful way to monetise it. I'm incredibly excited to talk to her about it, and share what she tells me with you!
To give you a brief introduction to her story, Heather created The Renaissance English History Podcast back in 2009, which has now grown to an impressive listenership of about 50,000 downloads/month; she also organises the Tudor Summit, drawing about 1,000 attendees each time.
In looking for ways to monetise the platform Heather came up with the idea of the Tudor Planner (which you can learn more about below). When this was a wild success she looked into ways of extending her range of Tudor-inspired products, and that's how she developed her system of selling products, manufactured and dispatched at distance, via a Shopify website. Takings grew very rapidly, in a matter of weeks, to an astonishing five figure average per month, and now Heather helps other creative people set up a similar system - which she has named the "Abundance Whoosh" system (more about it in the interview) - for their own niche.
You've been running your Renaissance English History podcast since 2009 - but you were into techie stuff long before that, weren't you?
I made my first website on Geocities in 1998, about Colonial American history. At the time I was working as a secretary in a sports department at the University of Tennessee - I had just graduated from college, and I missed writing research papers, haha. The office was pretty dull, and while the pay was abysmal the with you benefits included free grad school, so I basically spent my time working on my site, and doing grad school, and occasionally answering the phone. At the same time, yes, I was playing around with all the new tools - selling on eBay before PayPal when you accepted physical checks, and had to get a PO box so people didn’t have your physical address.
When I was living in London I did some work for a woman called Lynne Franks, who is a PR guru (she launched Swatch Watches, the Spice Girls, lots of famous stuff). She is really into women’s empowerment in business, and she was starting a network called Seed, offering mentorship and courses for women who wanted to start their own business. I was in charge of building the online community, which meant I did things like organize weekly chat sessions with iVillage (is iVillage even a thing anymore?!?) and moderate the forums. She also toured around the country doing book signings and seminars to women entrepreneurs, so I got to meet all of these amazing people, which really touched something in me, and inspired me to want to do it, too. He So that was my early training in managing a community and organizing online learning.
How is it that you are so gripped by English, Tudor history? This isn't your personal background, so why is it that it appeals quite so much?
A lot of people get into Tudor history through the drama on the TV shows - the Tudors, Reign, the White Princess, etc. Which is great! But the way I came at it was from a different angle. I was a choral nerd in high school, and we sang a famous piece by William Byrd, his Ave Verum Corpus. (https://open.spotify.com/track/7J6b58JOnf4RGGqJmxq0bD?si=BFe0JrN7TlmMQD05OugQ0g)
Byrd was a Catholic living in Protestant England. He wrote music for illegal worship - he wrote Latin masses, which was completely illegal in Protestant England - this was a period when Catholics were feared. With the Spanish Armada in 1588 there was a lot of fear that, as war with Spain was looming, that the Catholic sympathisers in England would rise up and coordinate with Spain. It spoke to the inner rebel in me - I was about 16 at the time - that someone could write such powerful music as a form of artistic resistance, and also there was the anguish of feeling like you can’t worship in the way you feel called.
Now, I’m still very interested in those same themes because they seem to be such human characteristics - fear of the Other, scapegoating people who are different, believing the worst stereotypes of the Other, etc. In 1572 France saw an insane six week period which can only be called an orgy of killing - Catholics went insane, and what started as a mob in Paris where Protestants were killed turned into six weeks of killing throughout the country. It was called the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and English diplomats who were in Paris and survived it told stories of the horrors. Also, Protestant refugees who made it to England talked about what happened, of course, and it fueled this fear of Catholics. When the Pope had excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570 it also caused Catholics to have a lot of internal strife - who do you obey - the Pope, and your God by extension - or your monarch? And so, there was this background noise in England this whole time with Catholics and Protestants fearing each other. In that swirl, William Byrd wrote his music for private masses, and this idea of one man, writing and expressing his own private faith, for private worship, but knowing that at any time the whole thing could blow up in his face if servants at the house decided to tell the authorities - it really struck me at the time, and continues to do so.
There are also so many direct parallels to what we see with the Syrian refugee crisis today. People were afraid that, among those who were legitimate Protestant refugees coming to England, there were those posing as Protestants who were really Catholic, and were going to rise up against the Queen, and kill all the Protestants they could. Which is exactly what we see with the refugee crisis right now. So things tend to repeat themselves. Humanity is cyclical, but by learning these stories, and seeing where we’ve been in this exact place before, we can not just learn from it, but connect deeply, on an almost spiritual level, to our own humanity, our place in the universe, and figure out who we really are, and who we want to be as a species. Does that make sense at all?
I heard that Bess of Hardwick is your favourite heroine from the period. Can you tell us a bit about her?
She was born into a pretty ordinary family (landed gentry, but not noble at all, by any means) and she rose to become the second most wealthy woman in the country just after the Queen. She was smart, and lucky, and played her cards wonderfully. And I just love her.
Here are a few podcast episodes I did on Bess:
But, to be honest, in general I don’t really care about the individuals that much. It’s kind of sacrelegious to say, in a period filled with such amazing characters. I think it’s also the reason I don’t much care about ancestry or genealogy. I care more about the ideas, the development of society as a whole. If you dropped me down in England in 1485, after Richard III was killed at Bosworth, and the first Tudor won a trial by combat, I would have no idea what was going on. It was a completely medieval society, filled with local warlords, and castles as defensive structures.
Right around that period, William Caxton published the first book in England. Within two generations, England would break away completely from the Catholic church and start their own. The first Queen would be beheaded (followed, of course, a few years later by another one - Henry was nothing if not fickle), which led to a huge questioning in the power of the monarchy (if an ordained monarch can be killed, which means that God’s chosen is fallible, then do we need to even listen to them? What is the role of rebellion? This would ultimately set the stage for the US rebelling against their own sovereign monarch, King George, 200 years later!). We saw the first women rulers, which again led people to question how a woman - who is Biblically decreed to be the lesser sex - can rule over men. This was the period when entirely new continents became known.
The Earth was no longer the center of the universe. There’s a fellow called John Dee, who is the last in the line of medieval scientists - he was Elizabeth’s chief astrologer, a mathematician, a scientist - and he also had a conjuring table and searched for the Philosopher’s Stone. This was the period where we saw the move to what we would now call empirical science, led by the scientific method of experimentation. Doctors in the Tudor period would consult astrological charts to figure out whether a patient would recover. By the end of the period, that was coming to an end, and science was becoming much more based in hard facts that could be known and discovered. An entire class grew up - a middle class, which had never existed before - made up of merchants and traders. Information that before had only been in hand drawn illuminated manuscripts in monasteries could be quickly and easily disseminated through the printing press. Speaking of monasteries, they had mostly been dissolved, and England was becoming - while not what we would call secular by any means - at least moving in that direction.
So if you then drop me down in England in 1603 when Elizabeth died, I would still have a hard time, but I would be able to figure it out. We had moved from a completely medieval society to an early modern one. That shift is what I find exciting and powerful rather than the individuals within it so much.
Do think the fact that you grew up in an Amish area had any impact on your historical passion?
I don’t think it was that, but I do think that it’s because I grew up in a house that was 250 years old, and had been an original toll house on the turnpike from Philadelphia to Lancaster. I could feel the people who had passed through there through the years. vI always felt deeply connected to them - they were my friends, and I wanted to share their stories. vMy first job was as a docent in a 200 year old house that had been built by one of Washington’s generals - when I was in the house on my own, closing up at the end of the day, for example, it was like I was right there with them, and they were with me, and we were all connected in this big messy web of humanity. vThat was what I’ve always loved about history - it’s like a spiritual connection, almost.
Why do you think you have this entrepreneurial streak in you?
I have absolutely no idea. I think part of it is that I have never been able to just settle down to a “normal” job requiring going to an office at set times. I work in weird ways. My last job, where I stayed for ten years, was unique in that my boss understood how I worked, and didn’t really care as long as I got my work done. But it was rough for my staff, I think. I was a terrible manager - something I’m working on now with my VA!
When did it become clear to you that you were destined to be what you describe as a "creative entrepreneur”?
I made up the term "creative entrepreneur" for my dad, a retired teacher, because he always wanted me to do something he could easily label and describe to other people. So I finally just told him, “If anyone asks, tell them I’m a creative entrepreneur.” I added a sense of legitimacy to it, I think!
I have no idea, to be honest. I just know that while I had a great job, it wasn’t filling my soul, and I felt like I had more to give. Once I had my daughter, I became obsessed with setting an example, and showing her what it looks like to take risks, and be vulnerable.
What impact does the fact that you live in Spain, as an American, have on your creativity? I always find personally that new environments and travelling really stimulate me. Is this the same for you I'm wondering?
Absolutely! So many different colors, and sounds, and smells, and tastes! It definitely makes different neurons fire, for sure.
But even if people can’t travel, you can always replicate that in your own way. In Los Angeles, one of my favorite things to do before I had a kiddo was to get up super early on a Saturday morning, and go to the flower markets. It’s where the florists from all over Southern California come to buy their flowers, and they have open hours for the public starting at 6 am after the trade people have picked through the best ones. But you can get amazing things there - and the whole thing of waking up in the dark, and going to this part of town that was right by Skid Row, but was this block of vibrancy and life, and so much color, with flower vans parking people in, and stores selling all the stuff you needed - vases, wire, etc. - and then going into the markets and all the smells, and noises of people haggling over the price of sunflowers or daisies, with Reggaeton music blaring - it was amazing, and I loved it.
As a side note, the day before our wedding, my husband and I went there to get our flowers - for $400 we packed up our car, and all day we made arrangements with our family. It was so much fun! We did all the bouquets, the centerpieces, and the altar flowers, as well as the archway - totally my favorite part of my wedding, haha.
Point is, I always found ways to put myself in situations that were unique, and sparked my creativity, or got me out of my comfort zone. You can find little adventures like that everywhere if you’re creative.
Can you explain the Abundance Whoosh system to the readers and how it works, and the story of how you developed it?
The reason I called it that was because I started noticing that by having something to sell, I could do ads that would either pay for themselves, or actually make me more money.
But the magic of those ads was that people who had never found my podcast suddenly discovered me. So I was not only making money, but I was also adding to my mailing list, and growing my podcast listenership, which meant that my ad rates could go up. In the six weeks of selling my planner in November/December 2016 I added four times as many people to my mailing list as I had in an entire year of building it the year before.
Paid traffic like that only works if you have something to sell. So the idea of products is that they are twofold - first they provide you with something to sell to make money. But they also provide you with something to advertise, to grow your list, and your readership/listenership. Which is why I believe so much that this can work for any kinds of content creator - whether it’s art, writing, or music. People like that have been trying to figure out ways to make money online now for decades - I know because I was one of them.
Patreon and Paypal links are great, but they aren’t viable long term solutions. Selling people things based around your niche is something you can do that will last a much longer time, and get people excited about you in a way Patreon just doesn’t.
Has the success of your Abundance Whoosh system inspired other people around you?
My husband is training to be a kundalini yoga teacher, and now he has all sorts of ideas for a yoga store - he hasn’t done it yet, though! He should, though, because I might take his ideas soon, haha.
How do you come up with the ideas of your products? Tudor leggings, for example, are not something that might come obviously to mind!
I have no idea - I just walk around the mall, and look at stuff that’s selling, and think about how I can relate it to Tudor history. I look for things that are popular in pop culture and try to relate that back.
What are your bestsellers?
Well, right now I have this subscription box service, Treasures from Bess, that I’m developing, so most of my orders are for that. I think I’m going to continue working on pushing that for a while - once I hit 200 boxes/month, it’ll be full time income just from that, so that’s my goal for this year.
How did you get the idea for this?
Well, you know there are subscription boxes for everything, right? I saw ads all the time for ones for educational toys for kids, etc., and I kept thinking, “Why doesn’t someone do this for Tudor stuff?” So I decided to create one!
Can you tell readers about your Tudor Planner?
I’m starting work on the 2019 one now, which is fun. It’s at TudorPlanner.com. I got the idea because I’m obsessed with planners and journals, and stationery in general, and there wasn’t something like that out there already, and I thought it would be fun to make one. I try to do things that are fun, and that I’d want to buy.
Do think that creative people tend to be technophobes, or do you think there is quite a good degree of overlap between the worlds of art and technology? Do you think that for many artists, writers and other creatives, the idea of creating a business on the Internet follows naturally as part of their creativity, or does it tend to be rather alien to them?
I think often people look at the business side of things and get overwhelmed because they think they aren’t good at math or something like that. We tend to put ourselves into boxes - like, “creative people don’t make money,” or “artists don’t do math.” There’s even the sense of poetic pride at being a starving artist. And that’s a shame, because making money is what allows you to do even more art, and bring your message to more people. I think it’s important to remember that there are solutions to every issue, and everything has a solution.
Sometimes people even shut off different avenues for revenue because they don’t “get” it - there’s a quote I love that says, “Never compromise on a dream. Always compromise on how it will come true.” We sometimes get attached to this end vision we have - for writers it often involves something like having a cottage by the beach, and writing all day, and publishing lots of books.
But if you look behind that, at the actual dream that’s there, it’s a life of freedom, and being surrounded by words, and creative ideas. Well, you can make that dream come true in lots of ways!
For me, my dream is to be location independent, not have a set schedule, spend lots of time with my kid, put out lots of podcast episodes, surround myself with history and music, and have a community of amazing people around me.
It's traditionally quite a challenge for creative people to find a way of monetising their skills. Are you seeing the Abundance Whoosh as a fundamental way of changing this?
Well - that’s quite a big responsibility, haha. But yes, I do think that this is a way to show people that there are so many ways that they can make money doing what they love, and interacting with the subjects they love. And building communities to support them at the same time.
What would you say to other creative people who want to get themselves online?
I know it can feel daunting, but you don’t have to understand it all right now for it to work. We do things every day that we don’t understand, and it doesn’t stop us from using that thing - like electricity or cars. I have no idea how they work. Still, they make so much possible in life. If you only did things you understood, you would have a very small life, indeed.
So stretch, don’t worry about understanding it, and trust that the right teachers will show up when you need them, and you will be given the tools you need. You just have to trust that. You have to trust your message, and your skills, and your passion for your art enough. You have to value your art enough to put yourself in an uncomfortable position so that your art can thrive.
If you think of it like your child, right? If someone said to you, “Your child won’t thrive if you don’t figure out a way to get past this deep ravine in the next three years,” you would figure out a way to build a bridge or a ladder, or a way around it, right? You wouldn’t be like, “Oh, man, this sucks, I’m not an engineer, I don’t know how to build a bridge, or a ladder, or anything, I think I’m just going to sit here and sob about how unfair it is, and how other parents get their kids across the ravine when I know I’m just as smart as they are.”
I mean, you might do that for a little bit, right? That makes sense. But you would quickly get up, talk to every person you know and ask them if they have any engineering or ladder-making skills. Or if they know a shortcut to the other side that doesn’t involve making a bridge across the ravine. You wouldn’t care about looking like an idiot, or what you’re expected to know, or asking the wrong questions, because your child is at stake, right? So you’d find the people you need to find, and start making the bridge. And it would be scary as hell, but you’d figure some way out to get your kid across that ravine.
I think it’s also important to know that you’re not meant to know how to do this. You’ve never done it before. It’s all new. So give yourself some grace and space to mess up, take chances, look like an idiot, and keep learning. You figure it out as you do it. You can’t know how to do it already because you’ve never done it!
Can you tell us about the courses that you're now running to help other creatives get established with the Abundance Whoosh system?
Well, it’s a six week course that teaches people how to set up a Shopify store, do their first ads, and get up and running with it.
After running the first round, the thing I’m seeing is that it can be very intense and make people step out of their comfort zones. So it’s for people who are ready to try something new, and who are willing to put in the work. There’s a mixture of both mindset work, and practical work, because I fully believe that 99% of our success is due to our mindset.
Anyone can learn these tools - it’s not rocket science. But learning the tools, combined with getting your mind primed for success and working through your limiting beliefs…. that’s where the magic happens.
Your niche is obviously a niche with a lot of other fascinated people in it. Do you really believe that everyone can find a niche that they're really passionate about, and that they'll find other equally passionate people to share their interest and buy their products?
I think this works best for people who already have an audience, for sure. I do have one person in my course right now who is totally new to online business, and totally new to what she’s doing. She doesn’t have an audience. But she is incredibly passionate about what she’s doing (jewelry and accessories based around historical periods) and I have no doubt that that passion will make her hugely successful.
But as I designed this course, I designed it specifically for people who were where I was - who had an audience already of engaged people, yet can’t figure out ways to monetize that yet.
With that said, there are, what, 7 billion people on the planet? To have a successful online store you really only need 1500 or so of them to buy from you regularly. I guarantee you that if you have an interest, there are at least 1500 other people on the planet who share that interest. As much as we like to think we’re super unique, we’re not really all the time (another thing you learn in history, haha).
So if you want to try this out, I’d find the Facebook groups and online meeting places of the people who share your passion. See what they’re talking about. See if they have money to spend. See if there are already stores that cater to those people. If not, you know there’s room for you to enter! Even if there are, if you they don’t speak to you in the way you’d like, you know there’s room for you to do something creative!
How does the dropshipping work? Do you get samples sent to you first? And what happens if there are problems with delivery, or if anything needs to be sent back? Do get involved with any of that?
Well, the risk is that as dropshippers we take on responsibility for the delivery and returns. So that’s on us. For me, it’s just the price of doing business this way. The rewards so greatly outweigh the risk of returns. I do get some samples - not of everything I sell, but a lot of things - fortunately they’re things I want to own anyway, and if I don’t need it, I can always use it as a giveaway.
Do you think dropshipping could be the way of the future?
For people who want to be location independent, it’s definitely an option. I hesitate to call anything the “way of the future.” I remember when Google Glasses were going to be the way of the future.
But yes, it’s definitely an option for people that I think will be new and fresh for a little while longer. I think in a few more years people will be mostly hipped to it, and everyone will buy their products from AliExpress directly rather than pay a markup, but then we’ll just figure something else out.
Why do you think the Shopify system is the best for what you're doing?
Because it was created specifically for eCommerce, and is a web host around that. WooCommerce is more of a plug in for a content site, which is fine - I’ve used WooCommerce too, but Shopify is so clean, and elegant, and they’ve really thought through everything you need to do to be successful selling products, and they’ve created a system for doing that.
What are your other favourite online tools?
Canva, Trello, Evernote, DeepDyve for academic research, and all the Shopify apps, of course.
What do you think the best ways of growing your audience are for people who are just now starting out with an online business?
I think the number one thing is to be consistent. This is something I struggle with myself, but it’s really the key. I see such a boost in engagement when I remember to be consistent!
And don’t be afraid of technology!
Who are your main inspirations, in terms of other people using the Internet to make their living?
I look at the people who are location independent, and how they managed to get that way - people like Nomadic Matt. Maybe it’s through doing work on upwork, or online transcription, or however they can finance their travels and nomadic lifestyle. That’s what I’m really interested in.
Where should people go to find out more about you and what you are doing?
Thank you, thank you, Heather for taking the time to share all this!