Editor’s note: This article refers to earnings that accrued 8 years prior to the date the post was written.
You’ll hear me talk a lot about the importance of earning money and driving revenue as a priority over all else. Too many of us scoot around the importance of a strong, humming cash flow, instead placing more emphasis on things like pursuing passion; dreams, and ‘doing what you love’.
These are all important, but you will never be able to do what you love if you don’t have decent and sustainable money coming in.
I’ve been in the extremely uncomfortable situation of having less than zero funds in the bank several times. It really hurts and crippled my ability to even function as a productive and creative human.
Whenever I’ve been in those situations, it’s because I did not prioritise money-making (and preparing for tax bills) with enough of a sense of urgency.
But, as many have found, finding work and making money is not always quick and easy. From what I’ve seen in recent years, however, it appears to be easier to make money doing your own thing rather than joining the queue and crossing your fingers for the opportunity to be employed by someone else.
Money made on your own terms is the best kind, and because something is ‘challenging’ should certainly not be a reason to avoid it.
Despite some really tough phases in my life financially, there have been many instances where my own creativity, productivity, and drive for making an income have proven very fruitful.
I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart, since very young when I’d find and sell used tennis balls and children’s toys, and wash cars in my neighbourhood.
I’ve tried and failed at several ventures over my lifetime, including selling DVDs online and setting up my own real estate advertising business, both semi-successes, but short-lived.
The following are some of the ways I’ve made money that have worked for me, that can work for you too. All the ideas listed are methods that I believe still work today, otherwise I would not include them.
I’ve had better success in some than others, but it does not mean that you cannot take one income generator, and make use of it with juicier results than I did.
They are in chronological order, with one of the earliest financial successes for me, first. Not all have been consistent income sources and I have not included all the ways I’ve earned money in the past.
1. Stock Illustration Sales
After I finished my geography degree in London in 2006, I wanted to make some side-income when I was living briefly at my parent’s house. I can’t remember how I found stock illustration, but I certainly didn’t hesitate creating artwork for www.istockphoto.com as soon as I found out about it.
iStock is still active today and allows photographers, illustrators, artists, film-makers and audio professionals to upload work for sale on their platform.
In the space of about two years, I had added about 350 separate illustrations that I would sell there, on repeat, and earn the royalties on those that sold.
I must have had about three illustrations rejected by the site inspectors for each one that was accepted.
Many people have reservations about stock uploads because the artist does receive a very small percentage of each sale and it most certainly undercuts the industry in various ways. However, I was able to earn quite a lot, especially earlier on, because of the volume of traffic that site received and the ability to sell the same artwork over and over.
I would almost certainly have been unable to generate the kind of exposure and incentive to create that I had without that particular platform, which I was a member of exclusively (to maximise income).
I also learned a huge amount about what kind of illustration work sold in the market, and I got a ton of feedback from inspectors and other illustrators working there, not to mention the fact that all this led to client commissions and kick-started my career as an illustrator.
I’m earning much less than my peak several years ago ($1,300 per month) because I’ve (regrettably) not added any work in years, as well as the fact that it is getting more competitive and more saturated there.
I do believe there are still opportunities for unique, commercial styles and there are plenty of gaps still in that market if you do the research.
[Estimated earnings to date from selling stock illustration: $67,000]
(of which iStockphoto.com has earned well over four or five times this amount from my work)
2. Illustration Commission Earnings
As mentioned above, developing an extensive stock illustration portfolio led directly to getting noticed online by clients who commissioned me for illustration projects through me directly.
To build a successful career as an illustrator requires a strong, honed style more than anything else. Don’t worry about being ‘on-trend’ – be an innovator.
Some clients do prefer to be safe and going for ’trendy’ work. But being trendy is not safe for you as an illustrator. It is much better to invent.
Then you either need a good agent and / or you need to be able to market yourself effectively, especially if you don’t have or choose not to have an agent.
I’ve been accepted by a few agencies in the past, but have definitely not led to the successes one might imagine with an agent. One wanted me to move in a direction that did not interest me.
Another couldn’t find me any work, and my current agents offer me work sporadically, but not enough for a sustainable income.
So I’ve secured work through a combination of means over the past few years.
Do not expect to sit back and wait for agents to bring in work for you. You need to be active with updating and developing your portfolio and liaising with your agent.
I have worked with a range of great clients, including the BBC, Wired Magazine, Sony, Mars and Kraft. I’ve been paid poorly for illustration work (mainly due to me being too open to work with sub-standard clients) and I’ve been paid extremely well (the highest in the industry with a fairly short contracted stint with Google Plus, for example).
If you can carve yourself a distinct niche with a solid timeless style, build a strong personal, human brand, and market yourself well, you can earn very well as an illustrator.
[Estimated earnings to date from illustration commissions and projects: $260,000 +]
3. Ebook Sales
In around 2008, I first picked up Tim Ferriss’ book: ’The Four Hour Work Week’. It got me really excited about the idea of earning money passively. After I read the book, I got to work writing my own so that I’d have a product to sell online.
It was an ebook entitled: ’10 Steps to Powerful Online Self Promotion for Creatives’.
Read the full book for free, here.
I had learned a huge amount about online promotion through being a self-taught illustrator, and knew there was a gap in the market for other creative professionals needing help with marketing.
I wrote the book in about two months, and launched it via RLC in January 2010 (I’ve since taken it down because I’ve replaced it with updated approaches).
With a small audience subscribed to the site, the book did very well, selling over a hundred copies at launch, and a few hundred over the next year and a half. For me at that time, it felt like a huge success and it inspired me to keep writing from that point on.
I’ve since self-published several more books through RLC with varying levels of success, though I’ve taken down several because I want to make updates.
Ebooks are just one method for sharing and selling information online these days. Selling ebooks introduced me to the huge benefit of building a system that allowed money to flow in without me doing any work, and there is nothing that beats that.
I feel I’ve only just started in this area, and the possibilities for earning passive income from selling information are endless. Think about how you can bring various forms of communication delivery into the products you create.
This includes writing, audio, video, screencast presentations, memberships, software, digital tools and templates, infographics and diagrams.
Video lessons is an area I’m moving into (I’ve already created a video course and plan to do more).
Another recent course I have available helps creative businesses win clients.
[Estimated earnings to date from ebook sales: $37,000 +]
4. Print and Product Sales
A few years ago, I set up an online shop through my other blog: Ape on the Moon. I wanted to monetise what was becoming a popular illustration site (340,000 page views in 2014).
As I’d been forging some great relationships with illustrators around the world, I was able to easily get several artists on board to offer their artwork for sale through the site. For each print sold, I’d split it 50:50 with the artist.
I didn’t sell particularly many prints (a few a week), and the shop lasted a few months, before I took it down.
The reason for this was not low sales (I knew that sales could pick up over time with more attention placed on that side of the business), but the logistical and practical pain of dealing with different shipping rates for different customers, and a few returns.
What this process did show me was what was possible, and that selling prints, or any kind of product online, once you have an audience to sell to, is a potential income stream.
Today there are so many channels through which to make selling prints (Red Bubble or Society6 for example) and physical products really easy, that I may return to this income stream again soon.
Amazon do a great service from what I hear for printing and sending books on demand for your customers. That service is called CreateSpace.
My preference has and always will be selling digital products to make a passive income stream, though you can by all means create this kind of income through selling physical products.
As such, my focus right now is on developing digital products rather than physical products for Ape on the Moon and Red Lemon Club.
[Estimated earnings to date from physical products: $250]
5. Illustration Employment Part-Time
Beyond winning client work on a wide range of projects from magazine illustrations, to animations, to online games, I’ve made money employed in-house as an illustrator too.
A few years ago, I needed to drum up some new illustration client work.
I was fresh out of leaving a job as a researcher for a property magazine in London (Estates Gazette) and needed some income.
I’d been doing a poor job of generating illustration work opportunities with prospects over the last few months, so I needed to get paid work fast. Among other methods, I got on Twitter and did a search for people who were sending out tweets with requirements for illustrators.
I typed in: “illustrator” and “need”, and was greeted with search results that directed me straight to a London-based cloud computing startup who were looking for a full-time illustrator in one of their tweets.
I immediately sent them my portfolio, and set up an interview in their Brick Lane office within two days.
I negotiated it down to a three days a week job, to allow me to focus on building RLC and creating other forms of passive income. I was working for them in-house within a week.
The job was creating illustrations for their marketing presence, and paid, pro-rata, about $62,000 per year. I worked with them for just over a year, before I moved to Tokyo for a change and to focus on one-off illustration client work and more.
[Estimated earnings from employed illustration: $45,000]
6. Affiliate Product Sales
Selling other people’s products is something I’ve been trying to make money at since I was probably eighteen.
The way affiliate product earnings work is that you take someone else’s product, be that a digital product like an ebook, or even a service, and promote it on their behalf for a cut (usually 30-50%) of the earnings from that product.
Many years ago, I’d set up a generic website, make sure it was set up in such a way that it would appear high up in the Google search rankings for certain keywords, fill the site with content, and sell affiliate products through there.
People make money in this way all the time, but for me it was not a particularly sustainable, interesting or even ethical way of making money online and I soon ditched that.
With affiliate products, it’s much better to promote other people’s products that you actually like, that you have used yourself, and that you have truly benefitted from.
This is in contrast to selling any old thing for the hope of making a quick yankee dollar. It’s also much better to actually get to know the person whose product you are marketing.
Perhaps you can increase the commission they offer, and they might bring you some extra exposure in return and even promote some of your own products down the line.
There have been one or two products from others that I’ve dropped into my social media feeds, mentioned in my newsletter and in a few blog posts, mostly through mutual agreements to doing so.
I have made some good money from brief affiliate sales and I’m only just starting to explore making use of – and amplifying – this income stream through all my platforms much more effectively.
You don’t always need to create your own products in order to make money.
You can leverage someone else’s hard work on a great product or service that you actually like, and you can sell it yourself, for sometimes great commissions.
Conversion rates on products sold will be much higher when you have built a loyal audience who trust your recommendation.
[Estimated earnings to date from selling affiliate products: $4,400]
7. Marketing Services
Helping other people, particularly creative professionals, market themselves effectively has been something I’ve been striving to teach since I started Red Lemon Club. Most of this has been in the form of blog posts and digital books and products.
I have, however, offered some products and services that directly market people’s work online that have brought in income for my own business (rather than teaching it).
A side-project I set up a few years ago was a promotion service for illustrators.
It was called ‘Lunarize’ and I’d charge one hundred or so illustrators a gallery space for $77 on the Lunarize website along with a range of promotional methods to bring prospects to the gallery pages and hopefully hire those illustrators.
These channels included social media sharing, advertising on major online networks like Creative Review, email campaigns, and newsletter marketing.
It only broke even, but was generally a failure, with most illustrators not receiving the level of promotion they and I had anticipated.
The many refunds I had to give people dug into my profits and probably dented my reputation.
Lunarize was an important learning experience in business for me, and a solid reminder that to be a success in business you need to truly help people, not just say you will. You cannot afford not to deliver, whether providing a service or a product of any kind. You must deliver what you say you will.
Beyond Lunarize, I have made money from other forms of paid promotion for other people and companies.
One of my major campaigns was the ‘RLC 10×10’ whereby each month I’d offer a maximum of ten people ten tweets through my two popular twitter accounts to help generate some quick exposure for $149 each.
Since I joined Twitter in 2009, I’ve amassed a total Twitter following of 115,000 over two accounts (as of Feb 15th 2015), 95% of whom are creative pros or those with an interest in the arts.
I will go into detail in another post on exactly how I did that. But such a following has meant being able to help support others through opening up their work to a large, and mostly relevant audience.
[Estimated earnings from marketing services to date: $14,200]
8. Sponsorship and Advertising
I get offers all the time from shady-sounding companies and faceless PR people who want to plant links in my posts to help them get advertising on Red Lemon Club for a fee. I decline those because I don’t want my site filled with (usually) crap.
But this does not mean that I have not been open to sponsorship opportunities from people and companies I know, like and trust.
I have charged relevant, creative people and businesses for showing banner ads on my sites in the past, but I try and avoid it because it clutters up my site, and I prioritise a minimal and enjoyable user-experience for my readers.
So I now focus on sponsorship partnerships with people I like, whereby I exclusively ‘advertise’ their products through my channels in exchange for a monthly fee. I have had sponsorship on RLC since late 2013 to great success.
Right now, I’m looking out for an exclusive sponsorship collaboration for Ape on the Moon, so do let me know if you know anyone suitable.
[Estimated earnings to date from sponsorship: $25,800]
9. Public Speaking
Before October 2013, I’d done very little public speaking at all. But since then I’ve given eight or so talks to fairly large audiences, some of them paid.
Speaking to audiences does not come naturally to me, and I’d probably have avoided it in life as much as I could had I not been invited to speak at various events.
In the last couple of years I’ve given talks on my experiences at the Association of Illustrators in London, ‘Ilustratour’ festival in Spain, DXSaigon in Ho Chi Minh City, Behance in Tokyo, and OFFF festival in Barcelona to a crowd of over two thousand all at once.
Yes, I was nervous before each of those.
Public speaking has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. This is mainly for a sense of fulfilment in sharing your ideas with others, but also for the self-confidence and personal growth.
Public speaking has made me a more confident person and it has introduced me to people and opportunities that were previously out of reach.
I have not been paid much yet for giving talks, though I have earned quite well for the ones that were paid, or I’ve had flights and board covered rather payment in cash, which is also great.
So far, all my speaking gigs have been invites, but I know that there are a ton of events and organisations that are on the look out for speakers.
The thing is, most people do not put themselves forward for speaking.
You can, and most places will be happy to hear from you. Also look into setting up your own event or conference featuring your talk and those of others.
It will bring with it a host of opportunities, not to mention great self-exposure and you can charge for that through tickets.
You can make a great income from giving talks and lectures if you carve a niche in an area of expertise or you have experiences to share that others will find useful.
The more well known you become on the speaking circuit, the more you will earn.
[Estimated earnings (including perks) to date from public speaking: $4,100]
Teaching does overlap into public speaking, and earning from things like ebooks and courses. But there is money to be made in the traditional sense of teaching, such as giving live workshops and classes, online and offline.
I’ve given a few workshops and classes in the past that have earned money, but not many. I prefer earning passively, so that I can put energy and resources into the next project, so teaching in this sense fails on that front.
However, teaching people in real time is enriching, and you will learn a lot about how to be a better teacher and knowing your subject as best as you can, when you teach.
Teaching a real class is also extremely refreshing if you spend most of your time in front of a computer for the real social interaction and it’s physical nature, and something I personally believe is important to do regularly from a long-term health perspective.
One of the best, and most challenging experiences I’ve had, was giving a week-long workshop on illustrated map-making in Valladolid, Spain in 2014 to a class of eight in an old monastery building.
I can guarantee you that I learned more through the process of being a teacher than any of my students did!
There is no quicker route to mastering an area when you become a teacher in it.
[Estimated earnings to date from teaching: $2,400]
11. Coaching (consulting)
Again, coaching is a form of teaching, like it is a form of sharing information through books and courses. But I want to dedicate coaching to its own section because there are some differences to traditional teaching.
Coaching people one-on-one is something I’ve started doing quite intensively over the last few months through Red Lemon Club.
Like with teaching, coaching will help you learn so much about the struggles people you teach are having, allowing you to learn a great deal in the process.
Coaching for me is an invaluable tool for making sure my guidance through my courses are the best they can be. With coaching, I’m always identifying gaps in my own knowledge and making sure those gaps get plugged.
All this knowledge really helps generate further content as an expert, for things like blog posts and even further paid products.
Coaching or consulting is actually very straight forward. All you need to do is find something that you have a certain level of expertise in that will help a specific type of person.
The great thing about coaching is that you get paid before you even start, so it is a means of generating very quick money.
All you need is to be one step ahead of that person.
In my case, I’m teaching creative freelancers, mostly illustrators, how to market themselves and get ideal clients. I also act as a very strong accountability partner for getting tasks done each week.
It’s great for me financially (short term), and it is truly helping some very happy clients make their own money so that they are able to keep paying me for the support.
The process for getting new coaching clients is basically as follows, though you do not need to take every step – this was my own route:
– Identify an area that you can develop your expertise in that you can really help people with.
– Build trust in my own expertise through blog posts, newsletter shares and social media value sharing.
– Get people on my newsletter list as soon as possible.
– Put interested people through the process of experiencing my expertise in more depth through ebooks.
– Write free short marketing reports for some buyers of my books (optional, but really adds value and peaks people’s interest).
– Mention that availability for coaching has opened up when the opportunity is right.
– Arrange brief calls with potential clients who have shown interest.
– Book coaching and secure payment.
– Deliver coaching through weekly hourly Skype calls.
[Estimated earnings to date from coaching: $13,500]
So these are some ways I’ve been able to monetise all of what I’ve been teaching myself (including the illustration) over the last few years. There are still several other income-producing ideas that I have not included here.
I still feel that I’ve only just started on the route to monetising my work effectively, and I have plans to maximise income as best as I can over the coming years.
I honestly believe that (bar the illustration maybe) I’m earning at the very low end of what is possible from each area I’ve discussed in this article. The scope is very wide.
What have my experiences shown?
– It is possible to earn well by committing to being good at one or two things, and it can be totally self-taught.
– Making good money from a blog, but more importantly, your own ‘inventions’, is a possibility if you work hard at crafting something that is truly useful.
– You need to build, grow and connect with an audience who stay aware of you, as soon as you can.
– I’ve invented every single product and service that I have made money from. None of what I’ve earned from has come from formal education.
– If I can do all this, so can you.
Overall, stay with getting great at one thing that is useful to others until you see success with it rather than dragging yourself in several directions over time.
Have patience and have faith.
Do the work, then do more. Make the right sacrifices. The money will come after plenty of monotony and discomfort, but the process can also be plenty of fun.
Final note: I have recently started investing in things like gold, silver, and bitcoin, which I will talk about in future posts.
How have you made money from your skills?