May 31, 2012

Big News for Starbags!

Shopping at Haley’s Starbag Emporium

After weeks of working on the next phase of my Ramona Flowers bag project, the results are finally here. This represents a year and a half of refining and perfecting this one project, and the results are pretty awesome.

Changing Colors

One of the things about the starbag in the comics: it doesn’t stay one color.  Maybe it’s part of its magic properties, but every time Ramona changes her hair color, her bag changes to match it.  I’ve altered my original pattern to allow you to change out the color of the star on the fly.  That means you can use this bag for any flavor of Ramona cosplay, or to match a certain look when you aren’t in costume.  You get three colors when you buy the bag, and I’ve also made some others, including some pretty wild patterns.

Make Your Own!

I’ve been working on perfecting this pattern for a long time, and now it’s finally getting to see the light of day.  You can buy it here and make your starbag well in time for Comic Con.

I may have overdone it a little on this pattern.  There’s a cutting guide to show you how to lay out your pieces, a shopping list with tips on where to look for stuff in the store, and all of the pieces have a checklist on them so you can keep track of what you’ve cut.  It also includes the pattern and instructions for making your own inserts.

New Payments

The last big piece of news is that I’m trying out a WePay store.  I’m thinking about moving away from Etsy, and I want to see if WePay, which is the alternative of choice for Regretsy fans, is right for me.  Since Haley’s Starbags are my biggest sellers, I figure if anything I have for sale on Etsy will sell on WePay, it’s these.

The biggest advantage for you: You won’t have to open an Etsy account or deal with PayPal at all, which should make for a smoother checkout experience.  I’d love your feedback on the shop, the pattern, the new bags, or anything else!  Drop me a note in the comments.

Apr 24, 2012

Sweet Swag vs. Crap: Addendum

Reading over my post from last night, I realize it sounds like I’m advocating you DIY everything.  What I didn’t mention is that in this project, my handmade items come in elaborate storytelling packages, and those packages have mass produced parts.

I’ve found the best way to get optimal value out of a plan is to focus on doing work that only you can do.

Once you’ve put together a spreadsheet or just run the numbers yourself, you can see that not everything is efficient to do by hand.  Printing projects, for example, are much cheaper to farm out to a custom printing place than to do at FedEx Office.

Another factor to consider is whether you plan to use the leftovers. If they’re exclusive to the Kickstarter, making them yourself may make more sense.  In my case, most of the mass produced parts will be used to maintain my stock of product, so it’s reasonable to use the Kickstarter campaign to pay for the first run of them. Run your numbers, and make the call.

Crowdfunding: Sweet Swag vs Crap

So, I’m working on a “little” tangible narrative project to fund on Kickstarter – little in that, it’s half couture accesssory line launch, half collection of short stories. A lot of thought has gone into planning the rewards for it, so I thought I’d share some of those thoughts, and walk you through some of my logic.

My campaign is a mixed bag of mass produced stuff, handmade stuff, and services. In my spreadsheet, each reward has an efficiency score.

Unit Price x (1 – (Sales Tax % + Kickstarter % + Amazon %)) – (Material Cost + Shipping Cost)

Unit Price

Efficiency =

This is basically like a profit margin that leaves out certain costs. The score shows how much of the revenue actually goes toward paying the project’s fixed costs, and (maybe! even!) making a profit.

Mass-Produced Stuff

(Average Efficiency: 61%)

This includes t-shirts, posters, hats, stickers, magnets, copies of a book – basically anything you take out of a box from a supplier and put into a box going to your backer. The upside to these is that they’re easy; but they also come with their own pitfalls.

There’s nothing wrong with mass-produced stuff, but it’s worth it to think through how that stuff is going to relate to the project as a whole. Copies of your book are highly relevant; t-shirts featuring the logotype for your horror movie aren’t, even if it’s a very pretty logo. Which I’m sure it is.

In my experience, things with logos printed on them are for giving away at events, not for making money. I’ve taken breaks from planning my rewards several times; when I come back to them, anything that doesn’t “fit” with the project jumps out at me right away and I can nix it.

Batch size is also a critical consideration, and you should budget things differently depending on how many of them you need to buy. It’s not wise to count the cost of anything you’ll be buying in the hundreds or thousands as costing you “$1 per unit” if it costs $100 whether you sell one or 100. The best way to stay safe on your budget is to pick a likely number of orders and roll the cost of covering them into your fixed costs.

Finally, anything mass produced has a market value. No matter how awesome it is, a t-shirt is basically worth somewhere between $10 and $30 to a consumer, which means that charging $100 or $1,000 for it won’t seem fair. In the end, that means you are only creating a small amount of the value on that item, which means you’ll only get a small amount of the money.

Handmade Stuff

(Average Efficiency: 73%)

This is the central model of my project; people pay me money to buy supplies, turn those supplies into finished goods, and mail those to them. Handmade items require a lot of your time, but they also net you more money because you’re creating the bulk of their value.

I highly recommend counting time as part of your unit cost when you go to determine your reward prices. Put a reasonable dollar amount on your time, and estimate how much of it you’re using to make your rewards.

This is important to do because all the time you spend on reward fulfillment is time you could be spending on larger project goals. It’s easy to discount the time commitment when you think about making one or two reward items, only to find yourself overwhelmed when you have to make hundreds.

I keep my labor and materials costs separate, and assume that all or most of the labor costs until I fund are going into paying off the project’s fixed costs. The other advantage to assigning a budget for time spent, is that if your project overfunds, you have the budget to hire skilled collaborators. For money. That’s very helpful if your kickstarter ends up being a runaway success, as it should be.

Remember, signing posters and writing thank you cards takes time, too.

I find it’s easier to keep handmade things relevant because of the time commitment; I want my time spent to overlap with the main goal of the project as much as possible.

Also, unless you plan to close up shop and never offer these products again after the Kickstarter, you should also plan to stock yourself for retail or online out of your Kickstarter funds. Raise the money to make more product than you’ll sell in the campaign.

Services

(Average Efficiency: 74%)

These are the things that usually live below the fold on any Kickstarter page; they’re usually reserved for backers who pledge a lot of cash. In fact, I could overfund my campaign just by selling one of each of my services! Wait, is that right? *Doublechecks the spreadsheet.* Wowza!

I may differ from others on my philosophy for high end rewards; I’m looking to sell high end work, rather than get a large grant from a generous donor. I want my high end offerings to sell, and sell well. Someone out there would actually be giving my the listed amount, so I want to offer something that’s worth that much to them.

Determining their value is kind of a fuzzy proposition, but generally the following things increase the value of a service: luxury, personal attention, exclusivity, collaboration, credit, and relevance to the project.

The classic example of a good upper level reward is inserting your backer as a character in your book/movie/game/comic. That’s exclusive, requires personal attention, gives credit in a spectacular fashion, and is deeply relevant.

You may notice that their efficiency is only marginally higher than handmade items. I tweaked my services a lot to keep them close to the median efficiency, even though that has meant offering more stuff. If the efficiency is much higher, it means I’m offering too little and won’t likely attract a buyer; and if it’s much lower, it means I’m spending too much time or cutting too deeply into my funds.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to services on the high end of the reward spectrum.  Make sure all of your services have concrete limits and deliverables. The more specific the service is, the better you can set a price for it.

Crunching Some Numbers

So, to figure out all of this, I built a set of spreadsheets. I won’t go into ALL of the details, because it’s pretty detailed. Here are the sheets I built:

Costs – The costs of all common materials, including labor, printing, time on CNC machines, paper, boxes, bubble mailers, etc. It calculates the total for each. This sheet takes also tallies the fixed costs for the project.

Each item in the sheet has a package price, and units per package. The average number of backers for a project of my size is about 250, so for anything that comes in boxes of more than 250, the costs sheet calculates the unit cost as the package price divided by 250, to keep costs from getting “hidden” in large package sizes.

Services – On this sheet, I enter the time it takes to perform each service offered, and it calculates the total cost.

Parts – I enter the materials used and labor time needed to make each part, and it calculates the material and labor costs for each.

Packaging – Each type of packaging has fields for the cost of its base unit (such as a box), parts that need to be printed and cut, shipping, and assembly time. It calculates the materials and labor total for each. This includes both retail packaging and shipping methods.

Kit Builder – In this sheet, I mark off which parts, services and packaging I need for each reward, and assign it a price. It calculates a whole host of different things about each reward, including profit margins, net pay, and how many I’d need to sell to fund the project with just that reward.

This sheet also averages the calculations for all of the “active” rewards, so I can see the average profit margin and average amount needed to pay for the fixed costs.

Campaign Modeler – This works much like the Kit Builder; you can set numbers of sales for each reward and see how you’d do in different scenarios. For each scenario, it tells whether I’ve funded, and whether I’ve met my net goal and overfunding goals.

This may be more complicated than you want to get into, but I’ve found it extremely helpful in eliminating areas of doubt in my funding plan.

So, that’s essentially how I’ve gone about developing this.  Of course, everyone’s projects are going to reflect their needs, strategy and philosophy.  And after all, I’m describing a project that hasn’t even launched yet.  I’d love to hear your advice for me, too!

UPDATE: I felt this needed an addendum, so I wrote one.

Apr 13, 2012

Inadvisable Advice: How to Ask Artists for Free Work

We all have passion projects, and at some point they might need a piece of creative work we can’t make ourselves: whether it’s video, audio, or even something as simple as a logo. When you get to that point, your best bet is to scrape together the money to have someone else do it. It will save you time, headache, and hassle, and make for a good final product.

But what if you simply, really, truly don’t have the money? Then it’s time to go asking for free work. Nobody wants to work for free, and simply asking can make a poor impression. So if you have to – and I mean absolutely have to – approach an artist about working for free – which you should avoid doing at all costs – here are some tips to do it right.

 

1) Know what you want.

Before you ask someone to donate their time, write down specifically what you want from them. Include time frames, deliverables, and spell out who will pay for materials if there are any. Also include as much information as you can about the project: tone, subject matter, platforms, audience, etc.

While you’re doing this, try to get the volunteer part of the job as small as possible.  The smaller the job is, the easier it will be to fit into the artist’s workload.

Don’t expect the artist to fill in these gaps for you; our ideal amount of free work is “none.”

 

2) Be upfront.

If you can’t pay, you can’t pay. Say that at the beginning. Never engage anyone with promises of paid work, hoping they’ll like your project so much they’ll do it for free. Never neglect to mention your lack of budget, either.
This can lead to the worst possible scenario for your project: the artist spends your entire development cycle trying to find time for you, only to bail at the latest possible date, leaving a big hole in your project.

 

3) Make sure your project is relevant to the artist.

You have a much better chance of getting volunteers if what you want is in line with the work they already do, or with a passion area of theirs. The work itself should be fun for them, and should produce a piece that fits in their portfolio.

 

4) Offer other things.

If your project is going to make money, anyone working on it in the no-budget stage should get an equity stake proportional to the work they did. This should go without saying.
If your project won’t make money, think about why you’re doing the project, and how you can share those incentives with the rest of your team.
Is it for charity? Let them know what they’re working for.
Is it for exposure? Push them into the spotlight.
Is it for experience? Give them access to resources they normally wouldn’t have.
Is it for fun? Make their experience awesome.
Is it your dream? Offer to work on one of their projects in exchange.
Remember, you work for free on your project because it’s yours; if you want others to work without pay too, you have to make it partly theirs.
Don’t skimp on your non-money rewards, either; make sure they have a lot of value.

 

5) Be prepared to hear them say no.

Plans go awry, and better sooner than later. Make sure your project doesn’t hinge on getting a particular volunteer, and be gracious if it doesn’t work out.

Feb 24, 2012

Tour the BlagOTron

As many of you know, in the fall I opened an IndieGoGo project called BlagOPets with the hope of collecting enough dough for a new laptop. While the campaign didn’t reach its goal, my awesome contributors were kind enough to put me within reach of a new low-cost computer, which I have christened The BlagOTron.

Since others helped me acquire the BlagOTron, I thought it would be nice to pay their help forward by writing a quick, mostly non-technical review of the machine I picked.

This is the Acer Aspire One 722 netbook, and it’s basically a new iteration of the Aspire One ZG5, which I’ve been using since 2009. Both are solid low-cost machines, but compared to its older incarnation, the BlagOTron is a god.

The 722 is larger, and its screen doesn’t feel crowded. It took weeks to get used to a more normal-sized keyboard after pounding away on the ZG5’s miniature one for years. The battery is good enough to last through a day at work, or to withstand a two-hour Google Hangout session – neither of which were within the ZG5’s reach, even in its prime. It also features some impressive specs.

I opted for the most expensive version of the 722, which comes with 4gb of memory and a 500GB hard drive. It’s a great deal, especially if you go the route I did and buy from Costco, whose price point is comparable to online after tax. In my product search, the laptops I found with slightly better specs cost at least $100 more than the 722.

It has Windows 7, which is pretty awesome; which is good, because its basically what you get if you buy a Windows machine today. (I’ve been using XP and Ubuntu for the last eight years.)

Between the expansive RAM and its AMD Radeon HD 6290 graphics card, The BlagOTron can handle many of the RAM-heavy and graphically intensive tools I use every day without hanging or skipping frames, which was a problem with the ZG5. It can even do some things I’d never, ever expect from a netbook.

I thought I’d install Portal 2 to see how badly it crashed, as a shared benchmark with my old machine (it gave an error message on the ZG5). To my surprise, it’s actually playable on the 722, even on the default graphics settings.

So, there you have it. If you have around $400 to spend on a laptop, I definitely recommend this machine.

I can’t thank the patrons of BlagOPets enough for helping me with this, by supporting a funny little side project. Thank you, BlagOPeeps. You are magnificent.

Feb 7, 2012

Instructable! How to Cover Webbing to Make a Bag Strap, With (Almost) No Pins

(click for Etsy link)

So, I’ve been making Starbags like the one above for over a year now, and every single one of them needs a custom strap that matches, like the one in the photo.  My first attempts at making them looked great, but took hours upon hours to get right.  One problem was the pinning.  How do you pin something paper thin to a piece of webbing 1/8″ thick and have it come out right?  Not to mention, the seam was a cool 70 inches long.

So, over the past year, I’ve perfected the technique of covering webbing with fabric to make it match.  The most amazing part is that you only have to use a few pins for one very small part of the process.  As a bonus, you end up with a strap you don’t need to edge, since the edge is already encased in the fabric.

All along the way, I was looking for tutorials that might give me a clue to how to do this one thing better, and finding zilch.  So now I’m putting it up there for other intrepid bag makers.

Check out the Instructable.

Jan 20, 2012

“Hobbyist for Hire” Isn’t a Profession

So, yesterday I finally figured out what my New Year’s resolution is going to be.  I resolve to stop acting like a hobbyist.  A couple of people have asked me what that means.

Does it mean giving up your creative voice to chase profit, or taking less care in your work?  I don’t think so – at least, that isn’t my plan.  Here’s what I think it does mean.  If you’re making art, and getting work, but not making a lot of money, these thoughts might be helpful to you, too.

The bad news: Not acting like a hobbyist means trying to make money.

As a professional artist, you have to also be a businessperson, which means choosing your projects based on practical considerations, managing your time well, and pricing yourself appropriately.  And pricing yourself appropriately.  And pricing yourself appropriately.

If you think like a hobbyist, you are never truly invested in yourself.  You tell yourself you don’t have to spend time building a business plan, doing cost analyses, optimizing the ways you spend your time, or even promoting your own work, because, hey, this was just for fun anyway, right?

I’ve been doing this thing – design – as a professional for more than six years now, and I still think this way.  As though I think one day I’ll wake up with an entirely different set of skills, motivations, and ambitions that will make me NOT an artist.  Maybe I’ll turn into an investment banker or something.  I have been alive for a while now, and discovered that it just isn’t happening.

More bad news: Not acting like a hobbyist means not doing everything yourself.

As a designer who sells her work directly to buyers, I do a lot of things by hand, on my own time, that could be done by someone else.  I hand cut my own stickers.  I hand label and hand assemble all of my packaging.  I spend hours assembling my own sewing kits.

These things sound very authentic, but really, it woudn’t diminish anything if I paid someone else to do them.  I have the industrial design and communication skills to get pretty much anything made at a shop, if I decide I want to pay them to do it.  If I choose to delegate the right things to the right people, the final product might even be more valuable, because the quality and consistency might be better.

Picking the things you want to entrust to others can be tricky, but remember that as The Artist, your time is worth a lot.  The time you devote to something trivial that you could pay for, you could spend promoting your project, making it better, and even making more art, which is the whole point of the endeavor.

Imagine your time is worth what a tech consultant might charge, say $150 an hour.  If you spend 15 minutes cutting out a set of stickers, those stickers are worth at least $37.50.  Are you going to charge that much for them?  Don’t discount your time to make a price work –  the next thing you know, you are paying yourself sweatshop rates, which is great for getting your stuff done on the cheap, but lousy for making money and sustaining you through to the next project.

But the best reason to outsource the trivial, secondary things, is that at the end of the day you know exactly what your expenses are, and how much you need to ask for the work to make a profit.  Pricing is one of the hardest things to do as an artist who sells her own work, but when you have hard expenses that need to be covered, the math becomes incredibly simple.

Worse news: Not acting like a hobbyist means simply not doing some projects.

If you’re like me, you come up with many creative ideas that are worth doing every single day.  But when you think like a hobbyist, it’s easy to get sidetracked by new ideas as soon the thing you’re working on becomes “not fun.”  So, you can cull your ideas down to a select group and gradually work through them.

The truth is that some of those ideas just won’t get done, at least not in the near future.  You’ll be too busy doing things that pay.  Not being a hobbyist means letting go of the idea that you can do everything, while still generating those great ideas.

The good news: Not acting like a hobbyist means being a better artist.

Not being a hobbyist means always creating the best thing you can, because you’re going to get paid for it.  Whether that money comes from selling your finished work, or taking commissions to be as totally badass as you can muster, you’re still getting paid.

I don’t know about you, but I behave differently when I know, for certain, that I’m creating value.  I stay focused, hit deadlines, and avoid distractions – which I don’t have to do when I’m working “just for fun.”

Allowing yourself to say you’re really doing art for fun is a way to let yourself walk away when you don’t live up to your full potential – when you create something half-baked or just don’t finish it, which happens to everyone.  It’s a way to fake yourself out.

Better news: Not acting like a hobbyist means panicking less.

This may seem a little insane – after all, trying to make money means putting an extra level of pressure on yourself – but pressure and panic aren’t necessarily the same thing.  It all has to do with what kind of problems you’re forced to deal with on a project.

When I think like a hobbyist, I’m always wondering, “Is what I’ve created so far good enough, or is this a waste of my time?” and then, “My god, if I can’t create something worth my time, is my time worth anything at all?”  This creates anxiety, which leads to panic.

When I’m getting paid or otherwise creating value, I think, “Am I on track?  Do I have time to do anything extra to make this better?  Is this worth what I’m getting paid for it?”  The big difference is that those questions have answers.

Big questions about our absolute worth keep artists up at night.  Questions with answers are so much easier.

In short, not acting like a hobbyist isn’t the same as becoming a professional artist.  It’s how you accept that you already are one.

Dec 13, 2011

Meanwhile, Back at the BlagOFarm…

So many things have been happening in the world of BlagOPets.  Here are just a few of the updates that I’ve already sent out to the fabulous people who donated through IndieGoGo.

I’ll gladly draw something similarly dorky for you, if you go here and donate $5 or more.

Nov 12, 2011

Saturday Side Project: BlagOPets

So, I’m launching a little side project today on IndieGogo.

You see, back in the Olden Dayes of Yon Internette, before there was Webkinz, NeoPets, or DeviantART, artists traded adoptable pets between their Geocities pages. Some of these virtual adoption centers were surely scams, but others were just set up by artists who wanted to share their work.  It was an interesting social scene in the days before the web was social.

Some of these could get pretty complex with their projects- creating virtual pet kennels where every single “adopted” pet had a breeding history and a pedigree.

So in homage to that, I’m offering BlagOPets for adoption starting today.  Each one is unique and hand-drawn by me.  Here’s an example:

When you adopt you will get a graphic like this one, to share on your blog or just to enjoy.  But that won’t be all!  Your BlagOPet will also have adventures like this one:

At least two things will happen to your BlagOPet.  I’ll be sending you each one about a week apart – so if you adopt now, you’ll have two weeks of genuine virtual pet ownership ahead of you, with all the joys it brings.

WARNING: Your children may not get some BlagOPet jokes.  Please don’t explain them.

If you contribute a tad more, I’ll also send you the original art, and sign it with a <3.

So if you’re interested in playing this little game with me, go check out the IndieGoGo Page and make a contribution.  You can get yours for a cheep cheep price of $5 USD.

You’re Doing Me a Favor

You will get your first BlagOPet email as soon as I can draw it – I’m not waiting around to see if we hit the IndieGogo target of $500 – but there is something I need.

I’ve been doing a lot of projects from my first generation Acer netbook.  It’s been a pretty decent little laptop, but when I was in San Francisco for StoryWorld this year, I discovered that its wireless card has gone flaky – almost causing me to have to abandon a project.  I want to replace it with something new.  Not necessarily something flashy, just something that works reliably.

Nov 9, 2011

As seen on north Texas public media

The people at KERA’s Art and Seek were nice enough to come out and shoot a video of me demoing some things at the Dallas Makerspace open house last weekend.

The real agenda is to promote Art Conspiracy, a fundraising event where I’ll be making some art LIVE! to benefit a local organization that teaches piano to hospitalized children.

Oddly enough, one of the hospitals it benefits is also a Child’s Play member hospital, so between this event and Desert Bus, those kids should be swimming in video games and music lessons!