Have you ever wondered what it’s like to build your business on Reddit?
Jilted marketers and entrepreneurs speak of Reddit as a barren wasteland, a place you enter only to leave with your pride notched down a couple levels. Others treat it like the promised land: with over 330 million highly-engaged monthly active users, there’s a sizeable audience for anything you want to do… right?
Depending on how you use the platform, it could be either. For creator and art instructor Irshad Karim, Reddit was the key to growing his side business.
Irshad, “struggling to smile on command.”
Four years ago, Irshad Karim established r/ArtFundamentals, a subreddit that now has over 70,000 subscribers. His dedication to offering valuable, free content and his commitment to engaging with his growing community are what drove his fans to give back.
Currently, he earns over $2,000/month from his Patreon page and another $300/month through affiliate links and advertising on his website, DrawABox. All that while he holds down a day job as a concept artist and programmer at a gaming company.
What follows is the story of how he grew a community on Reddit loyal enough to pay him… and his advice for how to do it yourself.
Note: Want to make money doing what you love? Try Patreon.
How r/ArtFundamentals Came to Be (and How You Can Start Your Own Subreddit)
Before Irshad ever thought to start his own subreddit, he was an active user on Reddit (especially r/DigitalPainting). There, he and other artists would swap advice and critique each other’s work.
But unlike Irshad, many of the users never had professional training. They felt like they were missing certain fundamental concepts in their art. And that was something he could help them with.
An image from Irshad’s Texture Challenge, a lesson on adding texture to art.
In 2014, he had studied art at the Concept Design Academy in Pasadena, California. While there, he took a class in visual communication dynamic sketching, taught by Peter Han.
He had taken classical art classes before, but was frustrated because, “they don’t really tell you why you’re doing anything,” he recalled. It was all about practicing until things “click.”
But in the dynamic sketching course, “it separated the idea of artists and artisans, where artisans focus on the actual, technical skill of just communicating visually,” he explained. Those techniques made art more accessible than ever to him, and he wanted to share that with others.
So, he made the r/ArtFundamentals subreddit and posted his take on the lessons he learned, along with suggested homework assignments and the promise to critique anyone who wanted his advice.
Offer Something of Value
Aspiring artists who visit Irshad’s subreddit will find lessons that help them explore constructions in three-dimensional space, along with homework suggestions.
Those who completed the homework could submit it for Irshad’s critique. He curated a hands-on experience to help artists shore up those “fundamentals” they knew they lacked.
Along the way, he developed a “grumpy” personality that his audience loves. The intentionally disrespectful persona he puts on is something that entertains them and keeps them coming back.
One of the critiques Irshad offered a patron. He called out the fox’s underdeveloped feet.
In the example above, he noticed his student had been “especially neglectful of the feet on the fox.” In his critique, this became, “Feet, bitch.”
“It’s a bit embarrassing,” he laughed. “What I wrote for my patrons was not at all respectful, but it’s measured. I know when I can get away with it. And people are strangely appreciative.”
In another critique, he referred to his student’s “drunken koala hand” as he explained what she needed to correct in her work.
In this snippet of a critique, Irshad playfully compares his patron to a “marsupial with a drug problem.”
Sometimes his critiques are a few words scribbled on top of a submission, and sometimes they’re a page’s worth of typed comments. But all of them are imbued with Irshad’s unique personality.
“You have to let yourself develop into your own personality. If people don’t like that personality, they’ll go away. But there will always be people who are willing to not just accept, but love who you are as this figure. As long as you’re genuine, they will always come back,” he said.
His service is as much about the genuinely helpful material he offers as it is the human experience of interacting with another person.
Give More Than You Get… At First
For the first six months, Irshad’s work was completely free. His focus in those early days was on growing the community. Money could come later.
A homework exercise submitted for help by user posthill on Irshad’s subreddit.
“My whole business model has been based on the idea of making sure that I’m always giving people — at least at that moment in time — more than they’re giving back to me, so that individuals, if they could, would be more inclined to give me more than I’m asking.
When you ask for an amount and hope that people will be able to give that back, you’re capping yourself off. They’re going to give you at most as much you’re asking.
If you give them the room to give you more, some people are willing to give you way more than you ever would’ve asked for just because of the emotional attachment and appreciation that they have. In that regard, there’s no clear ceiling to what they’re going to give back eventually.”
It’s an idea borne out through his Patreon account. When he launched his Patreon in March 2015, he earned $70/month from it. Now, he’s earning over $2,000/month from his audience.
He’s had to reorganize rewards and rethink strategies (more on those learnings in a minute), but the concept held true: by providing lots of free value to Redditors, he built a sustainable side hustle that he feels is worth the investment.
And it’s no small investment of his time, either — since Sept 2015, he’s done over 3,000 critiques!
Don’t Start a Subreddit The First Day You Join Reddit*
It should be obvious. But not everyone gets it. Don’t market yourself on Reddit without a history of providing value on Reddit.
That typically ends in your post being deleted (after you’ve been harangued and mocked by the local Redditors).
One of the main drivers of Irshad’s success was that he did his due diligence. He was active in many Reddit communities before starting his own, which meant that
- He knew his audience and what they needed, and
- He had relationships with moderators for other subreddits.
As a result, the r/DigitalPainting moderators didn’t mind when he cross-linked to his own subreddit after answering someone’s question. (Note that he wasn’t just dropping links all over Reddit: he would refer other artists to his subreddit when his content was relevant and useful to them).
That meant that, by the end of his first day, he already had his first 100 subscribers on r/ArtFundamentals.
A series of grayscale images Irshad drew for a Youtube lesson on composition.
Further growth was encouraged by the fact that he responded to every question himself.
*Note that Reddit won’t even let you start a subreddit with a new account. Give it a good 30 days, at least.
Three Insights on Managing and Growing a Community
Growing from that first $70 to his current $2,000+ monthly income required some adaptability. Irshad had to learn how to protect his time, raise his rates, and keep his fans engaged. Here are three learnings he shared.
1. You can earn more money by protecting your time.
By the time September 2016 rolled around, Irshad was completing 200 critiques per month… all for free. His Patreon was still just a “donation drive” — a means for grateful Redditors to tip him for his work.
But 200 critiques? Each one takes anywhere from five minutes to two hours. They easily consumed all his free time. It was too much.
“I really needed to focus on the people who can afford the pittance that is $3,” he explained. If someone wasn’t willing to spend even $3 for a critique, then he simply couldn’t prioritize them.
When instituting the change, he presented it to his audience as an opportunity for him to improve his free offerings. “That decreased my workload, but also gave me the freedom to create more free content, like Youtube videos and stuff,” he explained.
It also helped his fans realize just how much they’d been getting from him… without giving anything back. Immediately, he saw a $250/month surge in pledges on Patreon, with more increases over time.
In other words, he started making more money for doing less work. And his fans were happy to pay.
2. His biggest driver of patronage is communication.
Every time a new patron signs up on Patreon, Irshad will reach out with a personal ‘thank-you’ message.
“I remember one guy had pledged $1,” Irshad recalled, “and I reached out to him just to thank him and to get his Reddit information if he had any. And he was so amazed that I had reached out to him, that he increased his pledge to $10!”
That person is still a patron (and has now donated over $200 to Irshad).
“The appreciation that people have for just being contacted plays a huge role in their patronage,” he added.
An image from Irshad’s lesson on drawing plants.
He’s even had his patrons tell him to charge more. This past March, he told his patrons that he needed to re-organize his reward tiers and raise prices a bit. He asked them what they thought and what they wanted.
They responded by telling him to push what he had planned for the $5 tier into a $7 tier because $5 was just too little.
“The whole $7 tier was their own idea,” he explained. “Over all this time, I’ve built a strong relationship with my audience and so they care as much for my sanity as they do for the value that they’re getting.”
He believes unequivocally that his relationship with fans is what drives pledges on Patreon, more so than the lessons and critiques he offers.
“If I wasn’t engaging my audience, I simply wouldn’t have been making enough money to continue growing. That’s been the capital that I’ve been reinvesting: the time to interact with my audience,” he added.
Not only that, but his relationship with his fans is the reason he’s been able to improve so much over the past four years.
By doing critiques and talking to people about his lessons, he gained insight into their problems — and how he could better solve them.
“I could see that these are the mistakes people are making. Why are they making them? Why are they misunderstanding what I’m putting forward?” he reflected.
3. You can market your Patreon without getting up in people’s faces.
Irshad never felt comfortable posting much about his Patreon, so he doesn’t. Instead, all the cues for becoming a patron are more subtle.
On his website, there is a navigation tab labeled “Give Back.”
Clicking on it takes you to a list of all donor names (past and present), along with information on how to support Irshad (commonly known as u/Uncomfortable).
But even more effective in alerting new fans to his Patreon are the rewards he gives out.
Critiques are public for everyone to see, but only patrons get them now. People who complete his lessons get badges, so newbies wonder, ‘How can I get this badge?’ and follow the trail to Patreon. If they join his Discord channel (one that his fans started and handed over to him), then higher pledging patrons get brighter names on the channel.
“Sometimes a person will come into Discord with this bright, glowing yellow name — it looks nuclear — and people were saying like, ‘Holy crap, there’s a titan here. She’s giving $20 per month.’ So, you let the culture breed itself,” he recounted.
What happens when a $20/month patron enters the discord server.
All those little cues have marketed his Patreon for him at a level he’s comfortable with.
Despite having 70,000+ subscribers on Reddit, 2,000 unique daily pageviews on his website, and 17,500+ Youtube subscribers, Irshad still struggles with imposter syndrome.
He emphasizes in his lessons that he’s still just a student (albeit, much farther along than his audience).
A portrait drawn by Irshad for #RedditGetsDrawn.
He found it helps to know that “when people talk to you, they’re fully accepting of your flaws. They understand that you’re just another person, and so they’re fully willing to support you in your endeavors as long as you are fully willing to support them.”
That said, “make sure that your audience is engaged,” Irshad urged. “You can’t just sit there and let the dollars role in. If you want to run a successful campaign, you do have to do a lot of extra management” to make that happen.
That means putting in the hours to build your audience before you start to monetize.
“Sometimes it’s better to set monetization aside for a while and let things grow. And once they’ve grown to a point where you feel like you can start just slipping it in, that’s when you’re going to get the best results.”
Note: Ready to put Irshad’s strategies into action? Get the support of your audience on Patreon.