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Jan 1, 2015

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Planning for the New Year: A Basic Guide for Self-Employed Toy Artists & Customizers

Ian Ziobrowksi painting a custom Dunny for the Dopevinyl 
Kickstarter intro video - image credit: Jordan Ahern
Happy New Year everyone! As we all look ahead to this new year, we are filled with hope and excited to build upon the successes of last year.

But what does that mean, particularly for self-employed toy artists?

This post is intended to set a direction for toy artists and customizers and give some guidelines about decision-making in 2015. Some of the points I'm going to make will also be useful for artists of all kinds, and other small business owners in general.

Here's what I think you should do:

1. SELF-ASSESSMENT - Assess your sales from this past year. Do you have a list of the pieces you worked on, with the amount of money you sold them for, and what you profited out of each one? If not, work back through your paypal and try to figure it out. Make a list of pieces you made, both sold and unsold. Create a spreadsheet, do it on a piece of paper. I don't care. Anything to better assess what you did in the last 365 days.

2. WATCHING THE BOTTOM LINE - Which pieces made you the most money? Did you make a series of pieces that were particularly successful? Why were they successful? Did you sell a piece for a higher amount of money? And if so, did you profit MORE off of that piece? What I am trying to have you do is figure out what made you the most money (profit, not just gross sales) with the least amount of time/effort spent. This is the type of project you should focus on in the new year. Not 100% of the time, but you should be aware of the types of projects that are best for your bottom line, and do more of them.

I frequently urge my friends to stop creating giant $1500 OOAK sculptural pieces and to start producing runs of 3" resin figures, for example. Why? Because normal people don't have $1500 to drop on a 3 foot tall sculpture. But 90% of collectors DO have $40 or $50 they can drop on a small pieces that have been hand-detailed by you. It's infinitely easier to create, promote, sell and ship 3" pieces, especially when you have 10 or 20 or 50 to sell. This is my businessman side battling with your artistic urges. I know you all WANT to make those epic pieces... but unless you have a buyer lined up, I'd try to keep the epic pieces to a minimum each year. 2 to 6 maybe, if you can sell them. The rest of the year, make sure you have items in the $20 - $100 range to sell. Remember, the buyer that has a great experience with you buying a $10 sticker pack might be the one that comes back and commissions a $1000 piece later.

3. PROMOTION - Which partners helped you the most? Did you collab with someone with a bigger network? Did you sell via a shop or gallery? Was it easy, or profitable? Did they promote you? Who got your name out there the most this year? If you don't know who provided backlinks to your site, try this: Go to Google, type linkto:http://www.yourwebsitename.com in the search box. Then, click on the Search Tools button, and choose "Past Year."

Poke through them, all of them. You'll see who's talking about you. This works for checking backlinks to your website, shop or blog. Any web address.

Backlinks also help you in terms of Google- Google likes sites with more backlinks. So try to get links back to your site / blog / shop on as many OTHER sites as possible. Do this simply by being nice and asking the owner of the site. Nothing underhanded here. Just ask. Any toy blog works, so don't be shy about emailing Andy, Jack, Spanky & Nick, myself, Gary, Chris, Ben & Travis and all the other people who write about toys. If you don't know who all of those people are, and you create custom toys... stop now. Go back to Google. Search for "toy blog" or "art toy blog" and make a list of which ones pop up. There's a limited number. Find an email for each of those blogs. Put the emails on the list. Create a "group" in your email system, or a mailing list, containing the emails of the toy blogs you wish to connect with. EVERY TIME you have pictures of a new piece to show, email the blogger group email list you just made. Give them: clean pics of your piece, description of piece, size, material, backstory, quantity, price and MOST IMPORTANTLY A LINK TO WHERE READERS CAN BUY THAT ITEM.

I can't believe how many of you don't do this regularly and it drives me batshit crazy. If you want to sell stuff online, you have to tell everyone that you have stuff for sale online. And the best people to tell are the people who post shit online all the time and have a big following. Read: the 10 most active art toy blogs. Email them.

Just so you understand the concept of networks, think about it this way: if you are selling your car, would you reach more people by handing out leaflets at the local CVS, or by placing an ad in a national newspaper? Take advantage of the bloggers' larger networks to help promote your work.

I've heard that some of you don't like self-promotion. REALLY? Do you like selling your art? Which one do you like more, cuz unless you have full-time management, or you're represented by a gallery, your ass better start enjoying, or at least practicing, self-promotion. No one is going to hand you success on a silver platter. You have to fight and claw your way into widespread recognition by yourself. Step one of that process is reaching out.

4. SOCIAL TIME - Do you have a personal Facebook page? Great, so do I. Do you have a business page for your art, or a fan page or whatever? You should.
What's the difference, you ask?
Well, say I'm an art collector. I find out about your art, but the only FB link I can find is to your personal page. You post pics of your artwork, sure, but also pics of you and your friends drinking, some fried chicken, how angry you are at your ex, how no one buys your art, and a picture of the street because it's raining.

WHO. THE. FUCK. CARES.

If I'm a prospective art buyer, I literally give zero fucks about your chicken and rainy days.

Show me the damn art. Gimme a link where I can buy it.

Start a FB business page, keep a FIRM divide between the types of stuff you post on your personal page (all kittens and chicken) and the art you post on your business page. Business page is ALL BUSINESS: new items, promotions, WIP shots, cons you attended (no fried chicken pics please, we all go out to eat after cons, no one cares), etc etc.

Many artists create a reality - an alternate personality or a whole alternate universe - online to support their art. I'm thinking: FriendsWithYou, tokidoki, Vamplets, shawnimals, Suckadelic... there are thousands of others. They do not post about their art products as regular people who eat fried chicken, they post IN CHARACTER as an entity that exists in a world they have created. I'm not saying all of you need to go this far, but I am saying that there can and should be a divide between your own personal life, and the worlds you are creating in your artwork. Unless your artwork is inherently tied to your physical person and your real personality in some way, there' no reason why your art clients need to know about how cute your kitty is and your thoughts on Obama.

On that note, here's one I need to practice as well: seriously stop dicking around on Facebook. Add up all that time, over a year, posting stupid crap to your personal page and surfing your news feed, and you've just clocked in your LEAST productive year ever.

Get on FB for 15 minutes a day: spend 10 uploading pics of your artwork to your business page and captioning/tagging them properly with LOTS of info and links, spend 5 minutes responding to FB messages, then log off. Any more and you are seriously wasting your life away.

See what I'm doing right now? I'm making a valuable blog post. I AM spending my time on this. Guess what? As soon as I hit Publish, it's sent to my FB business page! Automatic update. So easy. It's also sent to my business Twitter, my Tumblr and Google+, and packaged into an email that's sent to my blog email list subscribers. If you don't understand how to have that done automatically, let me know in the comments and maybe I'll make another blog post about just that type of system.

The benefit of making this post on a blog as opposed to on FB is that Google searches my blog for content and does not search Facebook for content (April 2015 edit: Facebook business page info is now searchable on Google). Blogs are inherently more useful than Facebook for that reason. The Facebook search feature (for content associated with keywords) sucks. So no one ever uses it. Everyone searches Google.

TL;DR - 
  1. Analyze your sales.
  2. Figure out what made the most money with the least effort and do more of that.
  3. Figure out who promoted you and court them.
  4. Get serious about harnessing social media and web content to steer your business.
I hope that helps you focus a bit in the new year. Sorry I got all ranty. (edit: I am no longer sorry) Please leave a comment and let me know if this was helpful, and if I missed anything you wanted to hear about.

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