Don’t pay attention to accepted wisdom — some of my best business ideas haven’t followed the traditional path.
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 Sharon Santoni. In 2010, at the age of 50, Sharon Santoni made the decision to reinvent herself. With no training or experience in business or technology, the self-proclaimed “housewife” discovered the world of blogging and began her own — My French Country Home. To her surprise, the readers came rolling through. Recognizing that sharing her passions made others happy — and understanding the power of a sizable audience — Sharon leveraged her blog and started an international, multi-faceted company that to date reaches 2M+ across media channels. Today, Sharon runs a luxury subscription box service, elevated French tours and a bimonthly magazine born from her original blog with her small, dynamic team located on both sides of the Atlantic.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in England as the daughter of a successful entrepreneur but without any clear ambition for a career of my own. I was a child in the 60s, when it was generally expected that I’d marry a nice boy and raise a family. Fascinated by all things “foreign,” I found languages easy to learn and first visited France in 1981, with the intent to study for eight months. But I fell in love with the country — and with a French boy — and at the end of the school year, I forgot to leave and made France my permanent home. I’ve been married to that same French boy for nearly 40 years, and together we have four bilingual, bi-cultural kids who are grown and thriving in their own professional lives.
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?
In 2009, I’d been a full-time mother to four for two decades. It had been fun, and I’d loved every minute, but I felt deeply that it was time to reinvent myself. As midnight struck on NYE, I raised my glass of champagne and declared to anyone listening that 2010 would be the year I’d reinvent myself.
Two months later, I taught myself how to use a computer, discovered the world of blogging and began my own blog — My French Country Home. I wrote about decorating, cooking, entertaining, antiquing, gardening… simply highlighting the comforts and charms of my daily life in the French countryside. I had no idea if anyone would ever read it, let alone had the intention of creating a business.
To my great surprise, I found an audience, and soon my inbox was full of readers writing to me, asking for recommendations and to take them shopping around France. That was really the first moment I thought I might be able to make an income as a direct result of the blog. I started by beginning My French Country Home Tours, and after that, other business opportunities gradually began presenting themselves.
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?
Everything I have created has grown naturally. I started my blog around my authentic passions, which organically amassed a following. My French Country Home Tors began and grew as a response to my readers’ requests. My books — My French Country Home: Entertaining Through The Seasons and My Stylish French Girlfriends — came to be because a publisher approached me after seeing some of my work. My subscription box service — My Stylish French Box — came to fruition because I found myself with a huge audience hungry for all things French. And my magazine — My French Country Home Magazine — launched earlier this year as an additional way to spread the word about our various activities.
I did something that no business school would ever teach — I worked really hard for five years without ever looking for an income. I created a community, saw what they gravitated towards, and then I offered them something to purchase. I focused on building a highly-engaged readership, who fortunately trusted my judgement and saw me as their friend in France.
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?
Follow. Your. Heart.
Authenticity is priceless. If you are authentic in your way of presenting everything you do, it will come across and resonate with people. You will be trusted, and you will enjoy yourself along the way. Double win.
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 realized many years ago that I need to be creative every day. Raising a big family is creative; designing and maintaining my garden is creative; living in my old French house is creative… and today I find the same creative pleasure in my work. Everything is a learning curve, and at the age of 60, that is something that is very welcome. I am pushing my limits every single day, I am ambitious for my brands, and I’m passionate about all that I have created over the past ten years. So far there has been no risk of it not being fun or fresh.
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?
I love my business as if it were my fifth child. I love that it is mine, and that I don’t need anyone’s permission to make decisions or to take risks. I love to see the successes and to see it grow. I love that I am pioneering “senior entrepreneurship.”
I would say that the downside of running my own business, especially one with multiple brands, would simply be a lack of time in the average workday. There is never a shortage of things to do or get done. That being said, I had no wish to tie myself down to an office, surrounded by my team. In today’s world it seems pointless to travel each day to do something that can just as easily be done from home. To avoid the commuter trap, I created my office at home, and each member of my team does the same. We work physically together once or twice a month, and that’s always very productive. Other days, we communicate constantly via Slack and phone. We all are respectful and give each other what one another needs. Everybody is effective while not wasting precious time commuting to work.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Frankly, since I had no intention of creating a company, I had no specific expectations. When I started the blog, I just hoped someone would read it! I am very happy with the way things have turned out, and I’m happy still with how they are progressing.
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?
When the blog had been running for about five years, I knew I had a healthy readership but I hadn’t yet worked out how to monetize it. I reached a plateau here for about a year, during which I maintained a healthy audience but saw no growth. That was a frustrating period. I knew that my sizable audience gave me huge potential, but I couldn’t see which direction I should move towards.
In the end, I found new energy and direction by pushing myself harder and by stepping outside of my comfort zone. I created new videos, I engaged even more than I had been with my followers, I explored ways to work with other brands and companies. Once I set new balls rolling, once I had pushed open a few additional doors… new and fun opportunities presented themselves, and my enthusiasm was refreshed.
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 wish I had a funny story to tell you! It feels ridiculous to say, but I don’t really have an answer to this. Given my initial lack training in technology or business, there definitely has been some fumbling along the way. I think the most difficult thing to get right was working out prices on the products we sell — be it the magazine, the boxes or the tours. That was a huge learning process for me.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
I don’t consider myself to be a great leader, but one of the people who has inspired me the most is a dear friend called Yorn Michaelsen. As a young boy he designed for Monsieur Christian Dior and then made his way in the world of fashion by creating his own Haute Couture house in Paris. He is considerably older than me, and it’s been truly inspiring to see how he has spent his life living creatively. He’s wise, he’s charismatic, he’s interested in other people, and he’s taught me the importance of being mindful of others and always giving back. His natural elegance and kindness inspires people around him, myself fortunately included, to live their best lives.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
It excites me to know that I make my readers and my customers happy by bringing them a true taste of French living, especially if it’s something they weren’t able to find before me. Knowing they’re happy makes me happy, but I would never be as so bold as to think that I am markedly improving the world.
I just hope that my story is able to show others that it’s possible to start a career at any age or stage in life, despite any lack of perceived necessary skill. I want to empower people to have ambition, follow their natural passions and consider turning a hobby that brings them joy into something they can share with the world.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t pay attention to accepted wisdom — some of my best business ideas haven’t followed the traditional path.
- Go for it; trust your instinct — my gut has always told me what feels right.
- Work hard — you can’t just expect to be handed things, and it’s more worthwhile at the end of the day if you know you’ve made it because of your own efforts.
- Don’t be shy to enjoy your success — you deserve to feel good about what you’ve accomplished!
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.
I love helping women discover a new direction in their own lives. I believe this is one of today’s greatest luxuries. Many people want to reinvent themselves, but they don’t know how to go about it or what to do next. Thanks to internet, and to the fact that we are living longer and with fewer boundaries set by our age or our sex, we can do almost anything! By being more active — and proactive — in our lives, we live better.
As I explained above, I started my brand as a way to reinvent myself after being a housewife for most of my life, and I feel confidently that I have. And I’ve had a ball doing it! I can’t tell someone else what they should be doing, but I hope that I can inspire someone to be brave and to trust their instincts and discover a new life, should they desire one. This is why I’ve begun leading retreats specifically designed around the concept of reinvention.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Something I say repeatedly to myself and to others is “keep your eyes and your mind wide open.” You just never know what is around the corner, and just how much fun it could be.
We are very blessed that 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.
I’d love to talk to a female entrepreneur. I’d be honored to sit down to chat to Deborah Meaden, who I have watched on the UK show the Dragon’s Den. We are the same age, and I like the way she analyzes situations. I wouldn’t try to pitch to her! But I’d love her insight on what it looks like I am trying to achieve here, and I’d love to hear more about her experience as a woman in business.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.