How to make more money from creative work (and free tools to start right away)

image: Jocelyn Wu

Over Christmas I decided to set up Otagai, a venture with a single aim: to help independent creators make more money.

This isn’t “one neat trick.” It isn’t “get rich quick.” It isn’t even “buy my book.”

The secret to making more money from creative work is… there is no secret. Creative businesses are still businesses. Best practice is established, recorded, and constantly developed by entrepreneurs across the world.

However, this can feel inaccessible to an independent creator who may not see themselves as an entrepreneur — and is tacitly encouraged to stay that way.

I speak from experience.

image: Ian Schneider

I’m the editor-in-chief of Anime Feminist, a niche media organisation for a small community. After months of growing our income and paying more and more contributors, we’re close to breaking even.

Not close enough. And it’s taking too long.

And saying that so bluntly is legitimately scary.

“Thanks to the generosity of our patrons, Anime Feminist has been paying writers since our third month of existence. Right now, we run in a deficit, and our income is spread very, very thin… but I’m just grateful that we can finally pay everyone (except me).”

Look at that paragraph. This is typical of how I speak about my business.

We need to talk about how messed up that is.

Any work I do for Anime Feminist is crammed in around a 9–5 job. I work on my commute, over weekends, during holidays. I still cover a number of costs out of pocket.

Despite all this, when I say “everyone gets paid” at Anime Feminist, I feel compelled to add “except me.” Like that’s something to be proud of.

I’ve been following an unwritten rule of creators: those who seem to expect money for their work do not deserve it, and will not receive it without the proper level of humility and gratitude.

Following this rule, I cannot be seen to accept — or even want — money for my work with Anime Feminist, in case people see that as a sign of impure motives and withhold their patronage.

In other words, the dominant narrative in our culture that “creators should work for the love of it” makes it a financial risk for us to be seen treating our creative projects like a business.

We need to talk about how messed up that is — and the very real impact it has on society.

image: Alice Pasqual

In this environment, a creator’s only choice is to treat creative work like charity, appealing to people’s principles and goodwill.

This comes with built-in limitations.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, there are as many as 162 million of us making money through independent work. Not all want to live off that work, for sure. But those who do are incentivized to keep their earnings to subsistence level only.

Monetizing via goodwill means you can tell supporters they’re helping you pay rent… but you can’t tell them they’re funding your beach holiday in the Canary Islands.

(At least not without detailing how you haven’t been on holiday for five years/are grieving a loved one/struggle with severe seasonal depression.)

This artificial barrier to financial wellbeing is unhealthy for our community. It’s even worse for those who are, for whatever reason, excluded from more conventional sources of income.

Again: we need to talk about how messed up this is. Why shouldn’t independent creators earn enough for an expensive holiday? Why should a private individual have to justify how they spend any of the money they’ve earned?

I repeat: earned.

Income from creative work means earning money for providing a product or service people want to buy. We have more in common with startups than charities.

So that’s who we should be learning from.

image: Annie Spratt

Read enough startup resources today and you’ll absorb the idea that what makes a profitable business is a) almost universal, and b) as true of companies coding software as it is of those engineering gadgets — or creating art.

Independent creators don’t necessarily have the same priorities as, say, an entrepreneur aiming for Silicon Valley venture capital. However, by studying what has worked for them, each of us can cherry-pick what we’re comfortable with to find out what works for us.

Let’s say a strong and profitable business is:

It provides something people are willing to pay for at the price point and in the quantities the creator needs.

The creator gets as much value as possible out of the time, energy, and resources they put into it.

The creator regularly and rigorously tests elements of their work to ensure their business is always as effective and efficient as possible.

Now ask yourself: could your creative business be…

More effective? 
As a starting point, fill in a Lean Canvas. Just having your business model clearly laid out on one simple page can clarify any gaps — or opportunities! — you may have missed.

More efficient? 
If you haven’t already, check out Zapier and IFTTT. Look for parts of your regular workflow that you can automate, and get as much time-consuming grunt work off your plate as possible.

More experimental? 
First, find something new to try. (If you’re not sure where to start, scan the most recent Buffer blog entries on tools and pick one you think could be useful.) Structure an experiment to test how useful it is, perhaps tracking the results through Google Analytics (via regular free reports from Quill Engage, if Analytics itself is a bit much).

These are all resources I came across in my marketing day job in a tech startup. However, they are all resources I can recommend because I now use them in Anime Feminist.

Anyone monetizing creative work is a small business owner. We can — and should — learn from the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. We can also learn a great deal from each other though, just by sharing our experiences and lessons learned.

That’s why I set up Otagai.

image: Austin Chan

Otagai is a laboratory for creators. It’s based on the premise that building a routine of structured experimentation and knowledge sharing will help all its members make more money.

As a data-driven marketer with growth hacking training, I know full well that making Anime Feminist more profitable means running regular experiments from which I refine how we do business.

I also know how much easier and more valuable it would be to do this alongside other like-minded creators.

Every two weeks, I want to run new experiments with Anime Feminist and share the results in Otagai. Did what I tried increase revenue? Traffic? By how much? What will I change about my business as a result? What impact do I expect from that change?

And I want to learn these lessons from the 50, 100, 500 other creators running experiments of their own, too. Then I want to package those learnings up into an easily searchable archive and share key takeaways outside Otagai, so our wider community can benefit too.

I’ve been looking for a space like Otagai for over a year. I couldn’t find it — so I’m making it.

image: My Life Through a Lens

Otagai will of course evolve as new members join and shape our activities. As a starting point though, we’ll run three streams of work:

  1. Regular: set goals, run experiments, reflect constructively
  2. Responsive: ask questions, seek help, share learnings
  3. Resonant: create link libraries, guides, checklists, meetups

The word ‘otagai’ is Japanese, roughly meaning ‘mutual’. It’s often used in the context of “Let’s do our best!” meaning “Let’s support each other to get the positive outcomes we want!” It can be collaborative, but it can also be an expression of support between two people facing individual challenges.

I truly believe that being part of this will help independent creators and projects like Anime Feminist make more money — which, in turn, will have a positive impact on our community and our society.

So let’s test that.

The experiment begins March 2018. To be a founding member of Otagai and first to know when it goes live, sign up now.