Running a Business as a Creator: 4 Things I Learned at PatreCon 2016

When I got to PatreCon—Patreon’s first annual conference for creators—I’d hit a wall in my career. My novel trilogy had just been rejected by publishers. Not because it wasn’t good, but because almost no one wanted to commit until all three volumes were finished. Which meant I’d just spent three years writing for free, and was looking at two more years of doing the same.

I arrived at PatreCon feeling pretty helpless.

The first night of the conference, we got a tour of Patreon headquarters. As soon as we started walking around, I felt better, though I couldn’t say exactly why. I just felt like I’d come to a safe space. My fellow creators were warm, funny, and whip-smart. Over wine, we tried to guess each other’s specialties (and failed miserably): there was a resplendent cosplayer, a world-traveling troubadour, and even a stop-motion filmmaker who knitted his characters out of yarn. The building itself resembled a palatial treehouse, with art on every wall. In one mural, there was a cartoon fox lending an umbrella to another cartoon fox with the caption: Put Creators First.


In talking to other creators, I realized that everyone had stories like mine. Everyone had hit a wall—realizing that even if they were talented, worked hard, and did everything “right,” the game was rigged against them. In fact, that’s how musician Jack Conte came up with Patreon in the first place: he’d once spent $10,000 of his own money building a set for a music video, only to see a meager $200 in ad revenue from YouTube.

My fellow creators were wellsprings of ideas and experiences. And during the conference, through many a workshop, talk, and quiet conversation, I scribbled down four things I had to remember.


1. In 2016, artists must be entrepreneurs. Full stop.

…and I thought I knew this one already! But I realized I’m barely getting started. There are so many Marketing 101 tactics that I’d never even considered. Did you know that most people have to see something on social media six times before they click on it? I didn’t. Or that the stuff you have lying around your studio are things people will pay for? I didn’t. Or that temporary promotions can drive huge sales? I didn’t. And it’s funny I didn’t, because these strategies are employed around me all day, every day—coupons at the grocery store, pledge drives on public radio, discounts at my favorite online dress shop. Why did I think they didn’t apply to me?

But I’ve internalized one of society’s core prejudices against artists: that we aren’t “real”—and therefore aren’t deserving of money—unless we’re backed by a Big Name (a label, publisher, gallery, magazine) that takes care of marketing for us. Like so many artist myths, this one is deeply destructive, and I have to un-learn it.

2. Art and economics aren’t two separate things. They’re inextricable.

How, why, and for whom the art gets made is inseparable from what gets made. My novel will be fundamentally different now because the writing of it is funded by 400+ patrons instead of by a Big Publisher. I can’t say exactly how. But I can say that my patrons are with me because they like my work exactly as it already is: bold, weird, experimental. So that’s what it’ll continue to be.

3. Calling yourself a businessperson doesn’t mean you’re compromising your art.

In fact, it means exactly the opposite: that you’re giving yourself permission to be the exact artist you want to be. Sometimes, when I tell fellow artists they have to think of themselves as businesspeople, they look really uncomfortable. And I get that. When I hear “business,” I still think of a faceless person with a briefcase. But business is just another vehicle for creativity. And moreover–

4. The more I treat myself like a business, the less helpless I feel.

At PatreCon, I was surrounded by artists who were self-made, self-driven, and couldn’t care less whether a Big Name backed them unless they could offer better terms than they were already offering themselves. This was a huge epiphany for me: that even though I was “established,” I couldn’t depend on corporations operating on antiquated models to pay my salary, and I couldn’t wait for opportunities to fall in my lap. I would always have to make my own salary. I would always have to make my own opportunities.

Leaving PatreCon, I had no doubt I had witnessed the future of art. But of more immediate use to me personally—and, I hope, for all creators there—I realized that I didn’t have to wait for anyone else to decide my future. I got to decide it, plan it, and do it. When I left PatreCon, I didn’t feel helpless anymore. I felt fearless.

To learn more about PatreCon and stay updated on our 2017 conference, head here