Living the dream: Transforming a passion into a business

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My name is Iain Miller, and I run the outdoor adventure company Unique Ascent, based in County Donegal on the northwest coast of Ireland. I provide fundamentally two services:

  • The first is a unique and extensive guiding service, where I guide people on experiences of true adventure to remote unclimbed sea stacks, previously unclimbed sea cliffs, and difficult-to-access sea caves on and around the uninhabited islands of western Donegal.

  • The second is a mountain training service, providing formal qualification courses and assessment for accredited awards in Ireland and the UK.

In an average year, I’ll be out between 250 and 300 days, either climbing on my own or providing one of the above services. Out of these 300 days, I only consider three or four to be work. The rest of the time, I’m simply having as much fun as is humanly possible doing what I love.

Laying the foundation with SEO

It was in 2008, when I was involved in the first ascent of Cnoc na Mara sea stack, that I made the decision to start a business. It was my best climbing day to date, and I realized it would be possible to make a living doing this. Make a living while exploring full time? It was a no-brainer to give it a try.

The first thing I did was work out the minimum I needed to earn annually, monthly, and weekly. It may seem very basic, but it works on almost any economy of scale: every business has a breakeven point where, ideally, you don’t want your earnings to drop below in the feedback section. I also made sure to keep my overheads low, not buying equipment I didn’t need yet—things like that.

Once I’d established my minimum earnings, I built a website. But not simply a brochure site advertising my services—it’s an in-depth rock climbing in Donegal information site. Content for each climbing area is available as a free PDF download, and I’m constantly updating the individual PDFs with new climbs as I do them. The Donegal sea stacks guidebook is by far my biggest download.

The Unique Ascent website

This kind of content marketing has helped the website gain reasonable domain authority, making it easy to find on Google. And that makes a difference: I currently get 80% of my business from people who aren’t looking for me specifically. They do a search for “rock climbing Ireland,” and there I am.

A deep dive into local search engine optimization (SEO) is well beyond the scope of this article, but there are certain features every local business’s website should have these days. Here’s how to complete an SEO audit to help grow your business.

The best part: I’m building my SEO presence by going out and climbing in previously unclimbed locations. It gives me new, unique content for my website, social media, and press releases. And it’s all because of things I would be out doing anyway, even if I wasn’t running a business.

Building a brand and creating a need

When I first started, the county of Donegal was pretty much unheard of. I had to establish Donegal as a good climbing and adventure venue, but I also had to establish Donegal as a place to go, period. That was the first step. I wasn’t really promoting myself. At most, I was promoting myself just through my association with Donegal.

This initial part of my marketing strategy attracted visits to the county by Outside magazine, The Globe and Mail,The Guardian, Red Bull Canada, and Forbes. Donegal was also awarded the coolest place on the planet by National Geographic for 2017, and in the same year, Star Wars: The Last Jedi filmed in Northern Donegal. And both organizations cited sea stacks as one of the primary reasons for their visits.

It was through my promotion of Donegal and its world-class sea stacks that I gained publicity. And in time, this publicity began to creep toward articles being written about me rather than about Donegal. The lesson: you need to learn to promote yourself, but promoting your industry or town or anything else you’re associated with is all part of the process.

Raising the bar

My unique selling point (USP) is that I’m the world’s only full-time professional sea stack climber. It’s this level of expertise in a very niche facet of rock climbing that would be near impossible to replicate in anything less than a decade of full-time pursuit. This, combined with the extremely specific and fickle nautical conditions required to play safe on the west coast of Ireland, means any potential competition has a huge barrier to entry.

Even with this USP, I can’t rest on my laurels: I continue to find ways to raise the bar. But if my competition is non-existent, why do this?

  1. It allows me to explore and grow as a climber. I love it.

  2. It ensures that anyone hiring my services will have the best experience possible.

As we go through life, we pick up skills that can’t be taught through formal education—it’s called experience. To become a full-time professional climber, I needed to first and foremost to be a very experienced climber. It takes time. And if you’re going to run a business, especially as a solopreneur, you need to have experience with what you do. If you just started baking bread during stay-at-home orders, you shouldn’t start a baking business. You need to be an expert first.

But you also need to continue to be an expert. No matter how unique your service is, if you’re not offering an essential service—not that sea stack climbing isn’t essential—people can always just choose not to do that thing at all. So continue to flex your skills, gain new experience, keep practicing, and raise the bar.

Going outside your comfort zone

Of course, being a good climber (or baker or anything else) is the absolute minimum requirement. You’ll also need other skills: everything from photography to social media to writing—the list goes on. My industry is particularly nice to look at, so I made sure to grow my skills with filmography.

I make a video, upload it to YouTube with an SEO-friendly description, and accompany the footage with a blog post or information page on my site. Then I promote my video far and wide. I’ve found reaching out to journalists works well. I link to the footage in the first sentence—I need to get whoever is reading to watch the video, and they may be opening thousands of similar sounding emails a day. If I impress them, press agencies and journalists will often ask to embed their own version of my footage on their domain. That’s ok, but I like to be sure I get a link back to my video, blog post, or website.

Here’s an example of a video I made that did very well in getting backlinks from news sites all over the world.

After two years, I still have over 30 high-domain authority backlinks for this video.

A summary of the dream

I’m very lucky. I’ve managed to transform my near-lifelong hobby into a highly successful business doing exactly the same activities I did prior to going professional. The key to success was a solid foundation, expert skills, and the right kind of marketing.

I am, quite simply, living the dream.

This was a guest post by Iain Miller, a rock climber, mountain instructor, and guidebook author living, working, and playing on the sea cliffs, sea stacks, mountain ranges, and uninhabited islands of County Donegal in Ireland. Want to see your work on the Zapier blog? Check out our guidelines, and get in touch.

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