Stop Making T-Shirts

by Chris Hanel

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I want to kick off this new blog by sharing some thoughts on being a content creator, attempting to earn a living at it, and how important it is to keep your priorities straight when starting out.

Background

Before I did what I do now, I had a more traditional career during the day while suffering from a constantly pressing need to work on side projects in my free time. They were all kind of similar in that they were centered around putting content online, they satisfied my need to be creative and try new things, and they all supplied varying levels of secondary income. Being creative was always a bigger motivator than earning money, but I’ve always been too entreprenurial to pass up earning a return on my efforts. Additionally, there was always the voice in the back of my head saying If this goes well, this could become your full-time job. If I was going to move forward with a project, I was going to have a big red button handy, sitting under a piece of glass labeled BREAK IN CASE OF SUCCESS.

The most successful of these projects was The Daily Blink, a World of Warcraft webcomic which I worked on for a number of years. During this period, I threw myself into learning about the webcomic ‘economy’: Making sure that I was using my limited time wisely to make good content, grow the site’s readership, and monetize the site in a way that wouldn’t alienate fans. I spent a lot of time talking with other cartoonists, comparing notes and sharing ideas for how to support our endeavors.

In some of these conversations, and especially in posts on forums by newer artists, questions like the following would frequently appear:

“Getting ready to launch my new site. Is Google Adsense the best ad network to start with?”
“I’ve got my first strip online, and I finally have traffic! Can anyone recommend the best place to get T-shirts made?”

Every single time, responses would correctly bypass the question itself, and center on the truth of the matter: When you’re first starting out, if you’re focusing on monetizing, your priorities are wrong. If your goal is to earn a living by being supported by your 1000 True Fans, it’s vital to actually have fans first. It became a long running gag- The frequent occurence of webcomics that would have merch for sale with the logo hastily stamped on it before the first strip had even been seen outside the artist’s immediate family. Advice on the matter began to be reduced to three magic words- STOP MAKING T-SHIRTS.

Opportunity Cost

Now, while creating a webcomic isn’t the same thing as, say, starting a Twitch channel, the overall business strategy is more or less the same that I followed for The Daily Blink: Invest a lot of time making good content, build a community around it, and monetize appropriately. Where many get tripped up is the worry that by not having those opportunities in place at the start, they are missing out on revenue they could otherwise earn. Are they right? Technically, yes. However, that money will not reach non-trivial amounts for a considerable amount of time.

Meanwhile, all that time you’re putting into the perfect tip alerts, promotion, branding, Facebook pages, and merchandising is not allowed to be spent where it belongs: making your content better. Attracting more viewers because you prioritize being entertaining. Improving your metrics to the point where you can apply to be a Twitch Partner, where the real opportunities to earn income begin (and not, as a lot of people seem to assume, end). This is known in Economics as opportunity cost: the loss of gain from what you chose not to pursue. And in this example, the opportunity cost is always higher than you expect.

Let’s use a gaming analogy - in Starcraft II, your goal is to build an army to destroy the opposing force. If you were to look at the list of units you could build, and see that the most powerful unit open to you is a Battlecruiser, you could easily say to yourself, “Excellent! I know my strategy!”

  1. Build battlecruisers.
  2. Win!

As the game progresses, while you’re busy keeping a laser focus on all the requirements that creating a Battlecruiser mandates, your opponent will be debating whether it’s better to crush you now, or allow you to have a few more minutes of hope. You have officially put the cart before the horse.

The Good News

If you have aspirations of ‘making it’ as a content creator, it is going to be a long (and sometimes frustrating) journey. The ‘side project’ you’re starting is going to be earning a lot less than minimum wage for the indefinite future. But every time you make something - whether it’s a webcomic, a livestream, a podcast, or a song - you are learning how to be better, and you are gaining opporunities for others to discover what makes you worth paying attention to. And as you strengthen those first vital connections, you won’t have to worry about missing the point where you can earn something for your efforts: your fans will make it clear they want to help you succeed, and ask what they can do to support.

You can have fun and earn money - just remember that one usually follows the other.