Designerpreneur #1: Zero to One
"Going pro", creating momentum, and collecting small wins
Hello all! 👋
It’s been a big month for me, this newsletter, and the projects that surround it.
In the spirit of building in public, I’m going to start sharing reflections on my progress in writing this publication and building a business.
Public companies present to shareholders, start-ups present to the board, and companies of one… well… they share with the fine folks who support them and make their work worthwhile.
Becoming a ‘designerpreneur’
‘Creatorpreneur’ is a term YouTuber Ali Abdaal uses to express the new business opportunities available to creative professionals.
While the professional design landscape is pretty weird these days, I believe it’s a great time to be a designer because the skill set is a perfect base for carving your own path in this evolving tech and media landscape. In fact, when I watch the creator-preneurs who have established themselves in the market I see them learning and applying design methods to their work in many different ways! (regardless of whether or not they realize it)
There are plenty of other skills we’ll need to level up around the design base to execute as entrepreneurs, but I believe that designers are particularly well suited to make this leap.
While I’m just getting started on this adventure, this series of posts will share what I’m learning as I’m figuring out my path to ‘creatorpreneurship’.
I’m calling it ‘designer-preneur’.
Let’s dig into some stats from last month.
A big month for “Better by Design” 📈
The month I “went pro”
After two, 6-week writing experiments earlier this year, in August I decided to commit a professional level of attention to this project.
What does that mean?
Basically, it just means that I show up and work on it at least a little bit every day. It also means that I run it with the same level of detail that I bring to any of my paid design projects. This includes building design systems in Figma, workflow systems in Notion, and so on…
While this project may not earn enough money to support me full-time for quite a while, the quality and consistency I expect to deliver will be at that level.
Shipped 9 pieces to this newsletter
Grew Substack ~360% → from 70 subscribers to 323
Grew Twitter ~128% → from ~700 followers to over 1600
All of these small wins have been motivating for me. While the absolute numbers are small, the trends are pointing in a great direction. Perhaps most importantly, I now have momentum. It’s always painful to overcome inertia at the beginning of a project, so any movement that puts it in motion should be cherished.
A global audience
Better by Designers are located in 55 countries!
That’s mind-blowing to me! 🤯
Here I am in my little town in North Carolina in the US and I’m able to communicate with all of you across the world each week.
Currently, we stand at about 125 subscribers in the US, 19 in India, 18 in Great Britain, 17 in Nigeria, 9 in Canada, France, Spain and Brazil and many more across the remaining 47 countries.
If I could say thanks in all of your languages I would, but instead I’ll have to settle for saying it in mine: Thank you!!! 🎉 🙏
Operating costs vs. revenue
I currently pay for a small suite of software to facilitate my work.
Right now it costs me around $68 per month. You don’t have to pay for some of these, but it’s worth it to me to be able to operate in a professional manner.
It was cool to almost cover my monthly costs with revenue from my products and supporters this month. After fees and taxes, I don’t think I quite made the cut but the fact I came close is a great start!
My current software stack:
Design → Figma: $15
Writing and project management → Notion: $4
Personal site publishing → Super.so : $12
Twitter drafting and scheduling → HypeFury: $19
My guiding philosophies right now 💡
Take swings and hope for hits
In business, you’re always looking for a hit. But particularly in media, hits are the name of the game.
The funny thing about hits is there’s no guaranteed way to manufacture them. All you can do as a creator is make stuff that you find interesting, send it out into the world and do your best to promote it.
It’s a lot like a batting average in baseball: make sure you take a lot of swings so that you at least get on base. Every once in a while you’ll nail that swing and hit it out of the park even though you didn’t really do much different.
Increase output to decrease luck required
Over my summer holiday, I rediscovered the YouTube videos of creator Casey Neistat.
There are so many things to admire about Casey’s work but the one that resonated with me the most was how prolific he was/is. Yes, his content is also high quality, but he only achieved that level of skill due to being prolific in the first place.
For me, this meant one thing: I needed to increase my output.
Particularly in the noisy world of the internet, the odds are small that any one piece reaches its full potential audience at the time of release.
You need luck. And the main way to increase your odds of good luck is to be prolific.
I’ve heard creators liketalk about it like buying a lottery ticket where each piece you release is like one ticket to the luck lottery. Of course, quality is still important, but ultimately the more tickets you have, the better the odds that your number will eventually be called.
Increase cadence to decrease overthinking
I have a tendency to overthink things.
As a designer, I’m paid to sweat the details and it’s just kinda seeped into everything I do after a while. It’s not a bad instinct, but I’ve noticed that I have to take some actions to offset that tendency to get stuff done.
Setting arbitrary time constraints has been the single most effective way I’ve found to decrease my overthinking and force myself to act. Simply put, increasing my publishing cadence to twice per week has forced me to stay engaged and be decisive. It requires that I put in work every day and since I have to finish something it’s easier to prioritize what I can and can’t do in the time that I’ve allotted.
This doesn’t mean I’ll never do bigger projects that take more time, but rather that right now the single most important thing is getting out of my own way to build momentum.
Experiment report 👨🔬
What worked? ✅
Approaching Twitter as micro-publishing, not social media
Like it or not, Twitter has certain patterns you need to adapt to if you want your content to perform well and for people to follow you.
Ultimately what it boils down to is that brand and advertising perform. This includes visual assets like your profile picture and cover image but also the written structure of your tweets. There’s a reason so many copywriting and marketing accounts have gathered huge followings: they’ve embraced the fact that writing for Twitter is like writing ads. The same structures that guide ad copywriting guide Twitter writing too.
Personally, I don’t love it. But hey, they aren’t my rules.
Creating a content calendar and management system
I have to make a lot of content each week and the only way I can manage it is to centralize my ideas and then distribute platform-specific riffs on them over the course of the week. There’s too much to share in this piece, but I’ll break it down for you soon.
Being agile in creating a product in response to community interest
A few weeks ago I asked designers to share their favorite Figma keyboard shortcuts. Many people responded which indicated a lot of interest in the topic. Because of that interest, I dropped all my other plans, did an analysis of those responses, and then built out a product to support anyone who might like to have a tool to reference for working quickly in Figma. It took basically every waking hour I wasn’t working to pull it off that week, but I learned a lot in the process.
What didn’t work? ❌
The main thing that didn’t work was trying to be agile in writing a piece based on community response to another creator’s content. This resulted in some unintended and unanticipated consequences, so I chose to abandon the piece. I was disappointed to lose it, but I’ll just write it off as a lesson learned and move on.
What was just ok? 🤷♂️
Launching a product
I’m proud of launching my Gumroad store this month and getting my first sales. Could it have gone better? Sure. But it was a great learning experience with no downside.
One particular weakness it highlighted: I realized I know basically nothing about pricing. I want to find the pricing sweet spot, but I have a lot of work to do to understand how to get there.
Refining my brand
I’m not a brand designer by trade, so I’ve felt a bit out of my depth building all of the visual assets required to establish my presence across the platforms I’m now on. I think it’s getting better gradually, so I’ll just continue to chip away.
What’s next? 🔜
My main focus in the near term will be refining my routine until it’s second nature. I’m starting to feel the benefits of systematizing my work but have room to improve.
From a content perspective, you can expect me to continue sending gratitude out into the designer-verse and to keep leaning into the blurry parts of design that overlap the most with engineering and product management. Namely: design systems, design technology, and design strategy.
I would love to get more input from you on the kinds of things you’d like to hear about. I don’t have a shortage of ideas, but I do want to write about things you think deserve attention. So please message me if you have ideas, feedback, or requests!
Finally, from a product perspective, you can expect to see more experiments in branding and product development as well as in cross-promotion or collaboration where they make sense.
Until next time 🖖,