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Entrepreneurial success stories are often focused on financial accomplishments or wealth building. For many entrepreneurs and side hustlers, the primary motivation is not money or wealth itself, but rather the freedom to live and work on their own terms. Instead of being forced into a career that drains energy and creativity, an entrepreneur can pursue fulfilling, enjoyable work that matters and has personal significance.
For Mike and Matt Moloney, two brothers living in Boston, Massachusetts, business ownership has provided the opportunity to earn a living doing something they love. Although they’re both still in their early 20s (Mike is 24 and Matt is 22), their business is nearly eight years old and they’ve never held a typical full-time job like most high school or college grads need.
The Moloneys run FilterGrade.com, an online marketplace that sells downloadable products to photographers, videographers, designers, and other creatives. Although the journey hasn’t been easy, the site now generates around $30,000 per month in revenue, and the Moloneys also run a production company together. Through the Moloney Creative Agency, they offer photography and full-service video production, specializing in short-form content, music videos, and branded content development.
Mike Moloney started FilterGrade in December of 2013 when he was a junior in high school. He was doing a lot of photo editing at the time and decided to start the website based on the recommendation of a friend and mentor. Looking back at those early days, Mike says, “The motivation was mainly to make money online and also learn more about photography and the editing world.”
The first products sold at FilterGrade were Photoshop actions created by Mike (actions can be used to give photos a specific look or effect).
During the first few years, Mike accomplished his goal of making money with photography while still in high school by working on the site part-time. The business was growing nicely when he headed off to college. After only one semester, he made the bold move to drop out of school and pursue FilterGrade full-time.
A few months after Mike left college, his brother Matt graduated high school in the spring of 2016, and the two teamed up to grow the business together. At the time, the brothers were 19 and 17 years old.
The freedom of being self-employed was a major motivating factor for them. As Matt puts it, “We were two kids fresh out of high school doing anything we could to NOT get a ‘real’ job.”
Matt also attended the University of Massachusetts Boston (he now holds a Bachelors degree in Business Management) while joining Mike to work on FilterGrade.
Although the site was doing well, it was still only a year removed from being the side hustle of a high school student. In order to produce the income they wanted to support both of them, they needed a plan to grow the site and make more money.
At this point, they turned to others in the industry who could get the FilterGrade products in front of their target audience. Matt says, “We started growing when we decided to partner with bigger creators and influencers to help them do exactly what we were doing – the only difference was people knew who these influencers were and they had an audience already.”
Relying on influencers was an effective strategy while they were also working to grow their own audience. Around the same time, still in 2016, Mike and Matt decided to scale up from a small online shop to a marketplace with multiple sellers. During the first few years, all of the digital products sold at FilterGrade had been created by Mike and Matt themselves.
On the decision to expand the marketplace, Mike says, “We needed a way to support ourselves full-time and also make the business more meaningful in general. We also both started to notice photographers selling Lightroom presets and it looked like a good opportunity to expand our audience. So we partnered with the first photographer to officially launch FilterGrade as a marketplace. From there we partnered with more and more creators as demand increased.”
About five years later, there are more than 1,700 people selling digital products on FilterGrade and more than 8,000 products in total. What started as a small shop selling Photoshop actions now also offers Lightroom presets, LUTs, photo overlays, After Effects templates, social media templates, and much more.
Today, FilterGrade has an established presence through their own social media profiles, their blog, and an email newsletter. The majority of their sales now come through those channels, as well as organic search traffic.
The move to open the marketplace and partner with other product creators has been instrumental in the growth of the site and revenue, allowing the brothers to earn a living doing something they love. Mike says, “Since 2017, we’ve been getting our primary incomes from FilterGrade and the company has become a bit more stable as a platform, but we’re still scaling every day and it’s never been easy. The pandemic was tough on the business for some time, but we’ve found ways to adapt and keep growing the business.”
The brothers credit their success with FilterGrade to the will and determination to keep trying through inevitable failures along the way.
Will and determination were developed in part through sports. Mike said, “In high school, we both played football in South Carolina, where we went to Saint Joseph’s in Greenville. We had a football coach named Joe Hyland that engrained it in our brains that if you want something, it has to come out of will and determination first and foremost before anything else. If you don’t actually want to do something, you’ll never get it done.
“Perseverance is another huge key. There’s been so many countless nights where we’ve wanted to throw in the towel. But what keeps us going is knowing we actually want to do this.”
Some of the challenges they’ve faced include lost business relationships, lost friendships and personal relationships, financial struggles, copyright issues, and mental health.
Mike is very candid and honest about his entrepreneurial journey. He said, “Many people don’t talk about some of the depression and anxiety that entrepreneurs face. It was something I struggled with for some time, but by talking to other entrepreneurs and learning how to balance work and life, I was able to handle it a bit more easily. It’s not as stressful anymore as it was for me during the first few years.
“I also struggled with doubt and insecurity in the beginning. Now things are very different. But making the decision to drop out of college and be a full-time entrepreneur was something that many people in my life didn’t support. I lost a lot of friends, relationships, mentors, etc., and struggled to find my way for a couple of years before I gained confidence in myself and my abilities. It took me learning about myself and who I truly wanted to be, to get there. No other person or experience could help me do that. I had to internally find a way to love myself and my journey.”
FilterGrade is almost eight years old now, and the Moloney brothers aren’t planning to slow down. Their current focus is growing the marketplace. Mike said, “We’re really excited to continue scaling FilterGrade as a marketplace and platform for creators. Our goals are to increase revenue and volume so more creators can earn a living selling their digital products on FilterGrade.”
Although the journey hasn’t been easy, the Moloney brothers now have a successful business that has allowed them to live and work on their own terms. Both have a creative and entrepreneurial drive that is an ideal fit for running a creative marketplace and a production company. If FilterGrade didn’t exist, Mike thinks he would still be blogging and building websites, along with running an agency alongside his brother. Matt also thinks his career would involve video production or something creative with or without FilterGrade.
For Mike, the best part of earning a living through self-employment has been “The freedom to work on what we want to. It’s also nice to have more flexible schedules and the ability to freestyle life a bit.”
Matt said, “One of the best parts of running FilterGrade for a living is getting to wake up and ask ourselves what we want to do everyday. No one can tell me how to live my life and that makes me happier than anything in the world. It was really hard to get here, but working towards this freedom has been thrilling.”