Growing up, I’d watch my parents come home from jobs they hated. Tired, stressed and gradually more excited for the weekend. Only to rinse and repeat. They’d work their butts off too, but no matter how hard they worked, the pay slip was the same, every month. This, among many other reasons is why I decided to be self employed from day one (since graduation). I didn’t want a ‘normal’ full time job, in fact, the closest thing I’ve had to one was my nine hour a week shift selling mobile phone contracts.
For some extra money, when I was still a student, I started freelancing; designing t-shirts, websites, logos etc. And whilst I love to design and create things, I never found much satisfaction when creating for someone else, but never the less, it was making more money than my part-time job, and I needed it.
Towards the end of my first year at University, I met the love of my life, Abbie. She was studying Photography, and was obsessed with artist research. So much so, that I created a blog for her, so she could publish her discoveries. She would post daily, sharing the work of random Photographers, Designers and Illustrators that she stumbled across. The blog was suitably named, Inspiration Hut. Eventually, I started. The site turned out to be a great solution to store our inspiration and research.
Our First Visitors
On 20th September, 2011, we received 11 visitors from Google. I know it’s not much, but it was a little strange. We hadn’t shared anything anywhere. A week later, we had 10,609 visitors come from nowhere! One of our articles was submitted to StumbleUpon by a random visitor and it exploded! This continued for 5 months, with the highest peak reaching 50,222. We were mind-blown (and so was our web-server). After the dust settled, we were averaging 500-1000 views a day from a variety of sources; StumbleUpon, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. It was during this time that we started to take things a little more seriously. With our lack of knowledge and experience in the field of writing, marketing, and every thing else we needed, it was time to learn.
Abbie was (and still is) great at finding talented artists and designers. So whilst she was busy populating the site with beautiful inspiration, keeping our readers coming back for more, I was busy experimenting with marketing, branding, and what was most important to us (at the time, not anymore), monetizing. Below I’ll give you a quick run down on what went on in each area.
Marketing – Okay, so we had zero social media presence, but very quickly realized that we needed one. So immediately I made social accounts on the social networks that were referring traffic to us; Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and StumbleUpon. We started sharing every article we published. I also started posting to link sharing websites like Delicious and Digg. There was no email list (my biggest regret), no guest articles (high quality links from relevant sites), and no free downloads.
Oh, I did learn what RSS was, and found we had a few hundred subscribers. I didn’t know much about it, but added an RSS logo to our site knowing some people were interested. A very big one (300×300). Above the fold, in the sidebar. A prime location!
Things I wish I knew
- Consistency is key, but quality is more important
- Make a fucking email list and use it
- Create more unique content (free downloads, tutorials, compilations etc)
- Recycle old articles
- Above the fold is important, too important for a huge RSS logo!
- Share more often, and at prime times
- Share content from other sites
Branding – In total we must have used at least 8-12 logos, every color combination imaginable and over 20 different website themes. There was no consistency, nothing for people to remember us by and our website was a UI nightmare that was forever changing, so to summarize, we didn’t at this stage have a ‘brand image’, it was more of a ‘monthly experiment’.
Innocently, I assumed a good layout would not only look great, but instantly bring more subscribers, traffic and increase social shares. So for confirmation, I’d check our monthly stats and mark when I changed the theme. I found that in reality, you could strip a website back to bare bones, and as long as it functions well, you’re winning. Today we keep it plain and simple, we act human, and we allow our content to do the talking.
Things I wish I knew
- Keep it simple
- Be yourself
- Functionality over image
- Everything you share, is branding
- Everything people see, is branding
- Everything is branding
- Branding and Marketing are friends
Monetizing – This was a priority to us, we needed money, and pretty quick. Graduation was fast approaching and we needed jobs. Google Adsense was our number one source of income, and it wasn’t enough. Our thought process was very black and white, ‘to make more money, we need more visitors, and to get more visitors, we need more content’. It was quantity over quality for a long time, a big mistake, and one that we are still fixing. We accepted every sponsored article that was thrown at us, and accepted paid links in existing articles, even if they didn’t entirely blend in.
The need to make money was our biggest down fall, but also our biggest learning curve. Without the urgency, we wouldn’t know as much as we do now. Truth be told, our efforts worked a little, but not enough. We graduated and Abbie moved in with me and my family to continue working on Inspiration Hut. The opportunity was there and we were going to take it.
Things I wish I knew
- Quality over Quantity
- Brand over revenue
- No advertising is better than irrelevant advertising
- Play the long game
- Be very selective with who you work with
- Say no
Things Were Falling Into Place, Finally!
Whilst Abbie was improving her writing skills, research efficiency, and her search engine optimization. I was learning more and more about the rights and wrongs of marketing, branding and monetizing. After 2 years of solid work, study and ups and downs, our page-views, revenue and social following was finally increasing at a quick pace. At this point I had realized the importance of an email list (about time!). I started to create free downloads and to download them our visitors would need to sign up to our newsletter.
The growth of the newsletter brought us to a whole new playing field; selling. Affiliate selling to be precise. We would advertise a variety of design assets that were on trend, and available for a good price. And whilst the conversions were slightly above average, we wanted something that we could sell and in return get 100% of the revenue, not 20-30%. I wanted to start designing again, but with my own rules and my own time.
We Need a Product!
It was when we reached our target of 5,000 views a day and an email list of 6,500+ subscribers, that I realized we needed something to sell. Most businesses would thrive with that kind of traffic, and whilst we were doing OK, we weren’t thriving. I loved hand lettering, and was getting pretty good at it, we were also receiving quite a few search terms around the subject. So I decided to try my luck with font design, and after a few months of trialing and testing different font programs and techniques, my first font was made. Then the second, and third, until I had a small collection of 10 fonts I was proud of and ready to market. I then created a marketplace for Inspiration Hut on a sub-domain (Using WordPress and WooCommerce) and started to design the presentations for the fonts. Luckily, by this point, I had a pretty good understanding on what will work and what wouldn’t, so the set-up was fairly straight forward. I launched with a few free fonts to test the waters, and gathered quite the collection of subscribers whilst doing so. When I did eventually launch a premium (or free) font, I’d tell them about it.
Our First Success Story
Our very first premium font, Bobby Jones, launched with great success and within weeks we received an email asking for a custom license. We shortly learned that it was to be used as the headlining font for an international marketing campaign for Beats by Dr.Dre. We sold them a custom license that allowed full creative use throughout the company. I knew nothing about font licensing, and it never crossed my mind. During the call to the design agencies art buyer, we agreed on a price that was double what he first suggested. It was an exciting call.
Then after months of silence, I’m sat next to Abbie drinking a hot chocolate watching ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get me out of Here!’ and in the commercial break, this advert is aired (all of the text is Bobby Jones). I nearly choked. I was rewinding, recording, and rewinding again. It was also used everywhere online, and on their packaging. This was huge for us and solidified the choice to design and sell fonts.
The ‘Eureka!’ Moment
The consistent fonts sales would drive the development of more and more fonts. Things were going well, until they started to slow down over a period of 2-3 months. Whilst ‘umming and ahhing’ about what it could be, the problem instantly became clear. The niche I was aiming for, handwritten fonts, was becoming very popular. Particularly with the recent rise of Creative Market and their catalog of independent sellers. The one thing that independent sellers had over us, was their independence, and the most successful of the bunch would make it very clear with portraits of themselves, videos of them creating, and pictures of their cat.
They all had a name, and that made their products and the relationship with their customers more personal, trustworthy and human (the very nature of handcrafted fonts) which was something that I entirely ignored. We would advertise a font, customers would purchase a font from us, and that was it. The indirect marketing, the branding, and the wide content that Inspiration Hut provided was too impersonal to successfully continue to sell something so specific. It was at this point that our business took its biggest turn, and where a new brand was born, a brand that I could afford to pin to a specific audience.
The Making of the Tom Chalky Brand
Within a week, I designed and launched the Tom Chalky brand. The reasons why I chose to use the surname Chalky instead of my actual surname; White, are simple. Firstly, I feel ‘Tom Chalky’ is far more brand-able and unique than ‘Tom White’. Secondly, the actual word, Chalky, sits snug with hand lettering. Lastly, it’s a family nickname that I wanted to continue with.
Alongside the launch, all of the font descriptions were changed to be more personal, and direct. Most of the font preview images were also changed, and I directed all new subscribers (who downloaded free fonts) to a fresh email list. Once I was happy with the new store, I directed all of the traffic from the Marketplace (using the WordPress Plugin ‘Quick Redirects’). The next few months felt like I was starting again, the sales were very low. Lower than ever in fact, but I was convinced that the right choice was made, and stuck with it. After all, I had a new brand that people were not familiar with. They were familiar with Inspiration Hut, not Tom Chalky, I had a lot of work to do.
Eventually, the sales increased, as did the subscribers and something I never thought about, the conversation. Now that It was obvious that I was an actual person, and not a company, people wanted to talk to me more than they did before, and I love that, so much so that I ask for replies to every newsletter I now send. I would also receive various thank-you emails for the free downloads (for more often than when Inspiration Hut launched them) which are always uplifting, and provides me with the opportunity to get to know the kind of people that are interested in what I do.
Growing Outwards and Upwards
Because I had now established myself as an independent seller, I felt like it was appropriate for me to join Creative Market (My store). I didn’t think I’d see much success, but I was proven wrong pretty quickly.
Within the first month, I uploaded the entire collection of fonts to the platform and they generated the same amount of revenue as my own store! And the majority were featured in their newsletter and on their site on a number of occasions. The second month I was invited to join the Creative Market bundle that made over 6x my average revenue. At this point, myself and Abbie were bouncing off the walls. Within the same month I decided to create my own font bundle and launched it the month after.
I compiled every font I made between 2013-2014, with a few extras, and sold it through multiple sources (A design deal website, Creative Market and my own store). The bundle made 5 figures in under a month, and continued its success the month after. This sudden boost of income not only took us by surprise, but allowed us to stand back and re-assess our entire business (And move out of my parents place!). It provided some much needed time off, some breathing space and clarity.
The Now and the Future
The whole bundle fiasco happened between January & April 2015. So you’re nearly up to date. Since April, and after a much needed breather, I’ve noticed that we have much to work on, and many faults to amend. That being said, over the last 5 years we have both come a long way, and now see ourselves as entrepreneurs as opposed to two graduates with a blog. We are now educated enough to spot our mistakes, mistakes that we are very grateful for, and mistakes that are being rectified before moving forwards.
At the moment, whilst Abbie continues to provide inspiration to the audience of Inspiration Hut, and manages our social profiles, she is going back through old articles and editing them, one by one, until she is happy with our entire archive.
I, on the other hand, am working on our marketing and the acquisition of new subscribers, and how to convert current subscribers into friends and customers of Inspiration Hut and Tom Chalky. I’m also re-assessing the quality of every product currently for sale, with fresh eyes, and continually expanding my library of fonts and design assets whilst building this lovely blog for myself.
We’re still failing and learning and we still have a long way to go and many plans to execute, but we’re now at the stage that we are comfortable with our direction. There is so much more that I want to talk to you about, but I’ll save all the technicalities for specific articles. That way, I can elaborate without steering off course. If you are interested in business and design, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter. I aim to write about all the lessons I learn as and when I experience them, in the hope that they can help someone, somehow.