110. Expanding Your Expertise Through a Side Hustle | Melissa Emler

September 19, 2019

A side gig can be a lucrative way to expand your expertise in a field you love, while earning supplemental income at the same time.

Melissa Emler works in the education industry in both her regular job and her side hustle. She is the Director of Innovation at a regional service agency for educators. For her side gig, she co-owns a business called Modern Learners, where they serve educators around the globe to put the focus back on learning.

But to call one a regular job and the other a side hustle misses the point somewhat.

You see, Melissa loves her regular job. She loves the field, and she loves the people she serves. And because her side hustle is in the same industry, Melissa gets to extend that passion while wearing a different hat.

She gets to fine-tune and expand her expertise while providing value in both her roles.

Melissa considers both of her roles as her main thing. As she says, it just depends on what time of day it is. So perhaps, a better way of looking at it is that her work is a whole with 2 equal parts.

In this discussion, we talk about how Melissa got started with her side-hustle with minimal financial risk, her approach to work-life integration, how she maintains flexibility at her day-job which then allows her the space for her side project, and so much more.

Personally, I took note of how Melissa created the opportunity by reaching out to a major influencer in the education space. She initiated the connection and proposed a role that didn’t exist. I think this brilliant move by Melissa is a key takeaway from this conversation – no matter your field of work or your plans for your next career move.

Mentioned in this episode


The Impetus for the Side Hustle

Melissa Emler I did a lot of grieving for leaving [a prior] principal position. It was a job that I had wanted and strived for and did all of the preparation for that I possibly could have. In my mind, I thought of my leaving as a failure to some extent because I really wasn’t ready to leave. We were making some really good ground and we were doing some really good work.

You know that old saying that says you don’t really leave jobs, you leave bosses? In my particular situation, I was definitely leaving my boss more than I was leaving the job.

I was also hyper-aware that a lot of what I was feeling was because I was a woman in educational leadership. While the field is mostly comprised of women in classrooms, leadership in education is very much saturated by men.

The year I started working in my regional service agency, I felt I wanted to help other women in educational leadership. And so that became my side-learning project. I read a bunch of research about women in educational leadership, etc. I came across marketing people online and I started to listen to marketing podcasts about specifically membership sites. I also joined Marie Forleo’s B-School in 2016. I was a really good B-School student and I completed all the modules.

Creating the opportunity and taking action

Melissa At one point I decided to reach out to Will Richardson, who is now my business partner. Will and Bruce Dixon had had a membership site for educational leaders. I wanted to know what had happened to the membership site. Where did it go? What happened to it?

I reached out via email and asked Will about it. I explained that I was working on starting something for women in educational leadership and I was thinking about a membership site. But I had a lot of respect for them and wanted to know what happened with their membership site.

Will got back to me and said basically it was the marketing. They didn’t have the bandwidth. And because they were really more content people, they didn’t know how to get the word out. I couldn’t understand the issue because they have such a big audience. Why didn’t they feel they had the marketing handled?

Five minutes later, I sent him another email. I wanted a place to test what I was learning in B-School. I said, “I think I can help you”. So my goal was to help them with their work because it needed to be shared with the world.

And that’s how it started. We developed and sold a product early in 2017 that really really did well. At that point I was on an interesting business model with them. I was on a revenue share. My husband couldn’t understand why I was doing all this work for free.

Well, I did do it for free essentially because I gave all my money back to them when I bought into the business. But it was a really good move for me in the long term because I didn’t have any financial risk – except my time and energy – which was reassuring when I was getting started.

Did you know Will and Bruce prior to you reaching out to them?

Melissa They are well known in our field. Will has been speaking on stage as a keynote speaker since 2008. And when he started to document everything that he did online, I followed him.
We refer to Bruce as the Godfather of one-to-one laptop computing because he was instrumental in starting that movement across the world.

So they are very renowned. I met them at a conference and Will actually sat at the table with me. We just talked and really connected. We had maintained that connection on Twitter. So I didn’t feel uncomfortable reaching out.

Lou What I found interesting there is that you reached out to them cold. They weren’t asking you to help them. You were the one who asked about the membership community and said maybe I can help you.

Melissa Yeah very much that way for sure. And it was just on a whim.

Were you worried about work-life balance?

Melissa My husband will say that if it wasn’t Modern Learners, it would be something else. I don’t actually talk about being time crunched or busy.

I’m very intentional with how I spend my time. If my friend calls and says, “Do you want to go to lunch?”, I’m racing out the driveway to go to lunch with my friend. That is important for me and things can move around for that.

I don’t miss my kids sporting events because I account for those in the work that I do. I never schedule things when my family has things going on. It’s manageable when you put things where they need to go.

I don’t worry about time very much. I just really believe in being present. I’m not always great at it but I’m very conscious of not complaining about being busy because I fully recognize I bring that on myself.

Integration and expanding expertise

Melissa I have 100% flexibility in my day job. So it’s all about ebb and flow. And my boss at my day job is very much okay with the ebb and flow.

Starting this particular contract year, I’m getting a significant number of days for marketing for the agency. So the skills that I’ve learned for Modern Learners are now starting to support my day job.

For a long time, I felt the need to hide my business. I felt like I couldn’t be fully open about it.

In reality, every time we would have a conversation in our agency about how do we message this or how do we get this information out to people? Or how do we get more people to come to this training? It was all about the skills that I was learning in my business that was impacting the conversations in my day job.

So actually, there’s a tremendous amount of ebb and flow. Both my day job and my business benefit each other.

Do you think about leaving your day job?

Melissa I think about it but I can’t even imagine it. Because I love the work and the people I serve. My job helps me stay relevant and it helps me stay grounded in my local communities, which is really important to me.

Now, I don’t know how long I’ll do both things because I actually believe in creating sustainable systems and sustainable leadership.

I think about who will follow me in my agency and how my departure will impact the agency, if and when it ever happens. It’s just about making sure that the systems are in place and documented so that the person(s) following me can be successful.

And at the same time, Modern Learners is still working on being sustainable. If it couldn’t sustain me in a leadership role with an appropriate salary, I might be already there. Right now, there’s not a lot of extra revenue to share among owners. So, I’m certainly not getting rich, but I’m certainly having an impact.

Lou What’s fantastic about that is that because you love your job, there is no sense of urgency to get out. Everything is balanced. There’s no frantic energy about getting out and moving into Modern Learners full-time.

Melissa I do not feel that at all. I understand it but I don’t feel it. I felt that way when I was leaving my principal position. I felt like I had to get the heck out of there and my sustainability notes were very minimal.

What helps you the most in managing these roles and the different priorities?

Melissa I think it’s that I love my field — the field of learning and education. So it doesn’t feel like work to me in either place.

The other thing that has made all of this possible is 100% flexibility and 100% control of my time. My boss at my day job trusts me. That’s because I continue to produce. If I wasn’t producing at my day job, it would be different. But because I do, I continue to have the flexibility that I need in order to do both things.

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