Before launching into this week's column, follow-ups on old business. We bought a "new" car (a used Chevy HHR still under bumper-to-bumper warranty, for those who care), I sold the VW bus to the state as part of their smog-hog buy-back program, and I sold all my film camera gear (thank you, Columbus Camera Group and eBay).
Care to guess which got me more money, the car or the gear?
We now return to the regularly scheduled broadcast, the latest column in the series on my "1000 True Fan" experiment. I'm using "support" in two senses: what Contributors get from the program and what I have to do to maintain it. When I proposed this, Ken Tanaka correctly pointed out that administrative overhead was not ignorable. Fortunately, it's worked out pretty much as I expected.
Make no mistake, I didn't get anywhere close to 1000 True Fans (didn't expect to), I got 94. But those Contributors provided me with approximately $15,500 gross revenues, $12,500 net. That's about one third of what I need to live on, not a life-altering level of support but certainly a life-enhancing one that provides me with considerably more time to work on my art—the point of this.
My paperwork overhead ends up being under one day a month. To track Contributors, I created a simple spreadsheet. I copy each new Contributor's information into the spreadsheet and annotate it appropriately. The first eight columns are mailing information that I use with a Microsoft Word mail-merge template I created to generate adhesive mailing labels. "Subs" are abbreviations I used to record the tiers of support, monthly or annual payments, and U.S. or foreign Contributors. "Fee" is how much they're paying. "StartDate" lets me track when subscriptions are up. The next two columns get summed, so I always know what my monthly and one-time-annual revenues total. "Status" is scratch notes I use to I track whether I've mailed stuff I'm supposed to, e-mailed notifications, followed up on missed payments, etc.
What do the Contributors get in return? Periodic e-mails tell them how things are going with links to a private webpage where they can see recently finished pieces. Ideally I should be mailing them every month, but I haven't gotten my act entirely together. The emails don't take a lot of time, just few hours a month to prepare a couple of new JPEGs, write a newsletter, and have Mail bulk-email it.
Last Christmas I sent the Contributors a set of holiday notecards that I hand printed and signed as a surprise gift. Something like that lets people know that you appreciate what they're doing for you. People don't give you money if they don't think you're grateful. Like the newsletters, it's a way of making a connection, but it's a lot more tangible and has more impact. That was relatively time-consuming and expensive. Preparing and mailing 100 packets of five note cards and envelopes took me a good week and a half. So, I'm now up to around two days a month for support.
You can also do your Contributers favors. Last winter I offered them about a dozen extra dye transfer prints from the first TOP print sale at an extraordinarily low price, and super-cheap copies of my photo restoration book before the new edition came out. They also got advance notice of this year's print sale.
I promised people at least a half dozen photographs to choose from for their fulfillment gifts, but I ended up offering 13; here's my final selection. The first photo on this page is a dye transfer print that I overprinted for the TOP print sale, although all I had promised them were digital prints. Another unexpected perk.
The big outlay of time and money is coming up: notifying the first Contributors their subscriptions are fulfilled and they can pick their gift prints, and preparing and shipping those prints. It will wind up being about a dozen days work.
All told, probably three days a month go into supporting people who provide one third of my living expenses. If I tripled the number of subscribers, I could survive on this (barely) putting just a third of my time into "business." That's not bad! Beyond 300 Contributors, I'm not sure about my current workflow; I doubt it works for 500. If by some miracle I ever got to 1000 True Fans, it would definitely break; simple arithmetic shows support would become a full-time job. When would I do the art?!
On the other hand, at $133K/yr. net I could afford to contract out a lot of the administration. Heck, it's more money than Paula and I combined have made in our very best year; she could quit her job and become my manager. This is what's called a "champagne problem;" I should be so "unlucky" as to have it.
Now comes the Really Big Question: can I keep my True Fans? This is supposed to be an ongoing source of income for creative types, not a one-shot. The model breaks badly for my kind of business around that (I'll explain next time I write about this), so I'm nervous. In a couple of months, I'll be able to tell you how my efforts to keep Contributors has worked out.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.