First, don’t give in to fear. Most of what you are afraid of will never happen to you anyway. I allowed fear to hold me back for years from going full-time with my publishing, writing and history — time I can never get back.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Don Allison. Don, a veteran journalist, author and historian, is the founder and publisher of Faded Banner Publications. He is a lifelong resident of Williams County, Ohio, where he shares a historic home with his wife, Diane. A 1976 graduate of Stryker High School, Don earned a bachelor of arts degree in journalism from the University of Toledo in 1980. As a high school student Don got his start in journalism as a sports writer and photographer with the weekly Advance Reporter newspaper. He joined The Bryan Times in 1981, where he served many years as news editor and recently retired as senior editor. He has received numerous Associated Press and United Press International awards for his news, feature and column writing and special section design. Even after venturing into his full-time work as a publisher and historian, Don’s weekly column “On My Mind” continues to be a Bryan Times fixture. Drawing on knowledge gained from a lifetime of studying the Civil War, Don has written extensively about that conflict. He and Diane are the founders of Faded Banner Publications, which publishes books on the Civil War and Northwest Ohio history, as well as the paranormal and its distinct ties to history. Currently Don is co-authoring, with fellow Northwest Ohio historian Richard Cooley, a book on the 38th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. For nearly four decades Don has served on the Williams County, Ohio, Historical Society Board of Trustees, and through the years he has held various offices with the organization. He spearheaded the successful effort in which the society acquired and preserved the 1845 Society of Friends Meeting House in western Williams County. Don also is a founding member and past trustee and officer of the Stryker Area Heritage Council. Currently Don serves as an historical interpreter with the Sauder Village, Archbold, Ohio. Don’s books include “I Met a Ghost at Gettysburg: A Journalist’s Journey Into the Paranormal,” “I Met More Ghosts at Gettysburg: A Journalist’s Paranormal Journey Continues,” “Hell on Belle Isle: Diary of a Civil War POW” and “The Best of On My Mind: The Bryan Times Newspaper Columns of Don Allison.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us Don! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I have been fascinated by the written word for as long as I can remember. Even before I could read and write I would imitate handwriting. Once I learned the real thing my imagination and curiosity were turned loose. I just wanted to know everything I could learn about whatever captured my attention, and I haven’t looked back since.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
I decided to write my first book after reading a work by a noted Civil War author, and I realized I was a better writer than he was. If he could do it, I concluded, so could I. My “ah ha” moment for making writing and history my full-time occupation came when I was a speaker at a regional paranormal conference several years ago. At the end of the event I realized I had made more money in one day — and had more fun and made more important contacts — than I could do in two weeks at my regular job as a newspaper editor.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
I read books and more books about publishing and history, I searched online for even more information, I read countless interviews with historians and authors, and I talked to more people than I can begin to remember who made history and or book writing their life’s work. I then applied what I learned in developing a formal plan.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Cast the fear aside. Find people who are working full-time doing what you want to do, and read about them, research interviews they have done in the past and, most importantly, reach out and talk with them. Most people do want to help, and their assistance can be invaluable. If after all this you still are excited about the possibilities, then go for it.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I mix things up. I usually am working on at least two and often three writing projects at the same time. If I feel stuck or losing interest in one project I shift to another, until I hit the home stretch on the project I decide to finish first. Then the adrenaline will carry me through. To deal with the isolation that being a writer can bring, I mix in my living history work to get me out and about among people.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
Far and away my favorite part of running my own business is the control and independence. I do what I want to do, when I want to do it. This is incredibly refreshing and rejuvenating. The downsides include having to rely on yourself, and sometimes only yourself, when push comes to shove. Cash flow also can be a challenge. To overcome these downsides I seek advice and assistance from friends and family when it comes to tasks, and I plan carefully when it comes to finances.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The lack of face-to-face personal contact in my writing vs. my newspaper editing work impacted me much more than I expected. I thought I would love the solitude. Instead I found a little bit of working alone went a long way, so I expanded my work as a living historian.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
I won’t say I haven’t gotten discouraged at different points, but I never felt I wanted to give up and return to working for someone else. Whenever I do get discouraged I try to focus on what I love about the independence of running my own business, and that helps me get back on track.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I showed up at a television station in Richmond, Virginia, where I was going to be interviewed as part of their morning news show — my first ever television interview. I walked up to the reception desk rather full of myself, expecting to be treated like the celebrity author I felt I was becoming. Instead of being awed the receptionist looked a bit bored and said “You are who again? Humph, I suppose I will tell somebody you are here.” I imagine I appeared to be rather full of myself, and I was taken down more than one peg as I received an invaluable lesson on the value of humility.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Abraham Lincoln, even though he lived more than 150 years ago. I have read and continue to read about him. His demeanor, his way of dealing with people by leading them without them realizing they were being led, are simply amazing.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Through my words and actions I try to illustrate the spiritual side of our existence, that there is much more to life and much more to strive for than is apparent in our physical day to day existence. I also try to offer guidance to young people whenever I can.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- First, don’t give in to fear. Most of what you are afraid of will never happen to you anyway. I allowed fear to hold me back for years from going full-time with my publishing, writing and history — time I can never get back.
- Secondly, be flexible. You can plan for every contingency you can imagine, but something will hit you from out of the blue. My first unexpected setback involved someone accidentally using the ISBN for one of my books before my book came out, which sabotaged my initial launch. I survived, but I had to throw my distribution and publicity calendar out the window and start over from scratch. And rest assured, once you deal with your first unexpected crisis, brace yourself for the next surprise.
- Be bold. Don’t be afraid to approach the people at the top of your field for help or advice. When I wrote my first book exploring the paranormal from the viewpoint of a Civil War historian and journalist I reached out to the dean of Civil War paranormal investigators, authors and television personalities, Mark Nesbitt. Mark not only offered guidance and support, he was one of the editors of my manuscript and he provided my book’s back cover blurbs.
- Keep learning every day. You never will know it all, so keep learning. The countless webinars in which I have taken part regarding publishing and book promotion have been invaluable, allowing me to reach new markets I never would have envisioned without the insight of others.
- Success doesn’t lie in your destination. Rather, success is measured in how well you enjoy and appreciate the journey. Life is too short not to enjoy it.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As crazy as this may sound, I would love to inspire people to be aware of their own spirituality. There is an incredible amount of evidence out there, including many things I have personally seen and heard, that shows our existence does not end with our physical death. Research into the paranormal is adding more and more to the body of evidence showing how our energy, our personalities, our souls if you will, continue on after we die. I wish I could overcome the stigma against serious research into and understanding of parapsychology.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote has been attributed to Abraham Lincoln. “Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Appreciating this has allowed me to be less worried about the results of my work and instead enjoy life in the moment. I think of this quote when I am feeling especially down or overwhelmed, and it truly does help lift my spirits.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Actually there are two — historian and author Jon Meacham because of his keen insight into our past and his ability to make it relevant for today, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg because of her toughness and tenacity in defense of our democracy.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.