Playing in Other People's Gardens, or Why You Need To Build Your Audience and Keep the Data.

Who is most likely to make money in a gold rush? The person selling the shovels.


Unless you happen to be a wizard at online commerce, IT, sales, marketing and general promotion, and you happen to have an unlimited budget or generous benefactor, you are going to spend a lot of time in other people's gardens while you get off the ground. Playing in other people's gardens means that you are piggybacking on their resources and generally accessing their audience too (Do you connect with people on Facebook? That's a pretty big garden right there).
When you play in someone else's garden, you are beholden to them and if they change something to change their business, it affects you too. This means that you are forever chasing ghostly algorithms as you try to outsmart tech behemoths at their own game. Generally, as more people start to figure out how to beat the algorithm, the algorithm gets changed and we're all back at square one. It's kind of like we're all trying to climb a set of stairs only to have them turn into a slide and drop us all at the bottom to start over.
Print On Demand (POD) sites run a similar racket. They convince you that you too can become a successful creative retailer if only you have a well-stocked store on their platform. Create the art, post it using their handy tools, use the right hash tags and in no time, you will be able to sit back and relax and watch the money roll in. I have things posted on a few POD sites and I have yet to make enough money to buy even one $4 ice cream cone per year. POD sites also often have terms of service that limit when and how you can withdraw your money. Sometimes you are given credits to use in their store (which are convertible to cash is you ask for it) or you have to reach a certain level of profits before they make a payout. If you are earning 25 cents for each sale, it will take you a while to get a payout. How do these companies stay in business? They sell a dream. And they hold on to your money for a while before they give it to you. Consider this: If 500,000 artists each earn $1 profit per year on a POD site, that is $500,000 that the company holds on to (and presumably collects interest) until they pay out.
If you want to know which POD sites are out there, simply collect enough cookies in your browsing history while searching for POD sites and pretty soon you will see dozens of sponsored posts and targeted ads trying to lure you to yet another POD platform that claims to be better than the next one. Which brings me to another issue.
Is this overwhelming you? Search often enough for phrases like "Passive Art Income" or "Creative Work from Home" and you will also receive sponsored and targeted ads with a tag line that reads: "Want to succeed? Buy my book/take my course and you too will become a successful online entrepreneur like me!" One of my other skills is in freelance writing. I got really frustrated with other freelance writers who claimed that the only way that I could succeed as an author is if I bought their book. They built a market: other writers. If I had unlimited time and money, I could spend the rest of my life taking courses and reading books on how to succeed. In fact, that's probably why the self-help industry is so successful.

So how do you sort this out and get ahead?

  1. Stop and look at your goals. Are you ready for a very long journey to reach them? There are no overnight successes. Are you willing to do one thing a day until you succeed? If yes, proceed to step 2.
  2. Second, figure out a hard limit on your training budget in terms of time and money. This may be set by your other life responsibilities (ie parenting, caregiving or a job). This may be set by your household disposable income. Do not underestimate the power of free resources at your local library, community centre or artist's collective! Once you have this, proceed to step 3.
  3. Make something creative. This will help you to figure out what it is that you like to do (it can change over time, and it will, so don't worry). This phase can take a few years to figure out. It also helps you decide what you don't like doing creatively. For instance, you do not want to invest a lot of effort into business making and selling polka dot prints if you discover that polka dots make you dizzy. Once you have this started, proceed to step 4.
  4. Figure out how and where you are going to plant your flag. This could start with a social media profile. Or a table a local artists market. Or a personal website. Whatever you do, ALWAYS collect contact information if you can and keep it separate from your other profiles. This protects you if any given site goes dark (this can include a social media site, or a POD site).
  5. Explore ways that you can sell your designs to the world. If you take the POD route to start, see what you can do to build your own store that incorporates other POD output on your site. While you will have to work a little bit harder to generate an audience, you won't be reliant on any one POD site for your sales. If one of those POD sites goes dark, you will have others to rely upon. If you ran a brick-and-mortar store, it is very unlikely that everything that is sold in that store comes from one supplier.
  6. NEVER get sucked into buying in bulk simply to get a better price for something. It is far better to make 25 cents per sale on 10 items and sell them all than 50 cents per sale on 50 items but have 40 items leftover is storage. Unless you want to use cartons of unused product as an end table or footstool, be prudent in what you order.
  7. Build your audience one person at a time and build a relationship with them. You are building a group of patrons over time who want to see you succeed. Yes, there will always be that one person who buys everything you create (thanks Mom & Dad!), and there will also be those people who buy one thing from you and then never buy anything else. You are aiming for that group in the middle. They might buy one thing for as a birthday gift and then want to buy another one for another gift giving occasion. Personally, from a customer's point of view, I have maybe five stores or brands that I return to each year when I am buying gifts for friends and family. That includes our local bookshop, a local holiday craft market, and a couple of websites.

Use other people's gardens to find your audience, but plant your own garden plot. Eventually it will flourish and support you. And you'll be the one setting the rules.

PS If you made it to the end of this post, send me a message to say hi! I might even be able to tell you a joke!