He spent many thousands of hours building wonderful paper crafts in his free time, simply because he loved it. What started as an evening passion, grew into a huge body of work that demonstrated remarkable versatility in style and form.
In the beginning, he simply took some Instagram photos with his iPhone and posted them to Facebook, but interest steadily increased.
As the quantity of his work grew, so did the variety and quality. He continued to push himself to innovate and redefine what an origami artist was and could be. Magically different hues of folded parchments decorated each scene he orchestrated in all the colors of the rainbow!
He started to put greater effort into the capturing of his creations. He spent scores of hours learning the finer points of photography to better showcase his work. He invested in a custom-developed website that would display his work in a more respectable format.
As time went on, his passion flourished all the more. He kept creating for the pure joy it brought him. Others started to experience the magic that emanated from his work. Art directors from major publications began to contact him, remarking that they envisioned his art perfectly fitting the theme of their upcoming issue. They wanted him to create the cover in his style.
More and more, admirers of his work asked where they could learn to make such things themselves. The number of requests to teach workshops was getting overwhelming.
In response to this influx, he decided to raise his prices, hoping to curb demand. However, the increased prices only caused him to break into an entirely new realm which attracted clients with large budgets.
Wealthy brides hired him to create elegant centerpieces for their oriental-themed wedding decorations. He lost track of how many people told him they’d buy a book from him if he wrote one.
It seemed too good to be true. Sure, he worked extremely hard to get where he was, but it wasn’t supposed to be possible. It was just origami. No one makes a living at origami, right? It went against everything he was ever told. Surely it couldn’t be as straightforward as working hard and being passionate about what you do. Hadn’t everyone always said doing what you love is no more than a cliche and actually enjoying your work merely a pipe dream?
But it’s exactly what happened to me.
My homework was always littered with lettering. I got very good grades in school, but I often spent more time drawing the lesson title than I spent doing the lesson itself! Most of my artistic friends were illustrators or painters. I felt weird as a kid drawing letters. I didn’t discover until much later in life that I had a fondness for what was known as “typography”. I certainly didn’t realize it was something I could do to earn a living.
In my conference talk, Doing What You Love, I share the more specific details of my journey and how I came to build my own personal brand. I talk about my experience operating several businesses over the years and the principles I gleaned for smoothly transitioning from a day job to doing what you love full time.
However, in this article, I want to talk specifically about how I make a living at a niche pursuit now that I am already proficient at what I do. This is directed toward those who have already put in the significant amount of time required to excel at what they do and are now looking to find new ways to monetize their skills.
When what you love to do is an uncommon vocation, it can seem like there aren’t many apparent opportunities to make money.
While I am a hand lettering artist, there are many facets to what I do to make money. What comprises my income is actually a combination of various tangential efforts. I utilize my specialty in 3 different ways to create separate streams of revenue. It’s this three-chord diversification of complimentary efforts that together creates a reliable income.
1. Client Work
Taking on commissions was the first way I made money with lettering. When I started, everything I created was self-initiated. I did personal projects like these for a number of years without pay to build a large portfolio. As interest grew, I started receiving requests for lettering. Instead of spending efforts on my own projects, I then simply focused my time on the commissioned work.
While I’d done a lot of branding in my web design years, it was primarily comprised of typefaces paired with iconic logos that I designed. When I shifted to pursuing lettering full time, I embraced its tailored nature in my logo designs. I began to focus exclusively on crafting custom type logos.
My client work was previously comprised of original hand drawn art, tattoo designs, wedding invitations, or other various custom lettering. However, the jobs I take on now are almost entirely custom type logos. While my hand lettering certainly has wide appeal, the organic nature doesn’t compare to the value of a logo. The value of a custom type logo that is meticulously crafted by an experienced professional over the course of weeks or months is very high.
I still enjoy hand lettering to a great degree, but have found that its appeal is best capitalized when used almost exclusively in my apparel line.
There’s something freeing about making something the best it can be, to the absolute peak of your abilities, and unhindered by any external limitations. Sure, with how selective I am about logos, I do enjoy my client work very much, but more and more, the passion I have for designing new products increases.
I see lettering as a form of voice. I use the appeal of the aesthetics of my work to speak messages I wish to convey. Since the artistic nature of the lettering itself already garners attention, why not use this platform to project messages of lasting impression?
This is the foundation for the products I sell in my store. Essentially, I make things that make me happy, and if other people happen to dig it too, then awesome! That brings me joy.
Instead of building things that cater to what you think other people want, build what you want and the right audience will present itself.
— Sean McCabe (@seanwes) June 27, 2013
Digital products are another way I diversify my sources of income. While I haven’t spent as much time lately creating digital goods, the ones I’ve made in the past still provide a passive source of income.
Once you’re known for doing something well, you not only have people who want you to make things for them, or people who want to buy the things you make, but also people who want to learn to make things like you do! It’s this last one that caught me by surprise.
I’ve been lettering since middle school. It wasn’t really a trendy thing to do lettering—that is, until now. All of a sudden, in the past couple of years, lettering has exploded. Everyone is interested. I started getting more questions a day than I could answer. It lead to my finally writing the Learn Lettering page.
I’m starting to teach more classes and workshops on hand lettering. People still want more tutorials and books. It’s crazy, really; if I were so inclined, I could apply myself 100% towards writing, teaching, and making tutorials and likely have no trouble making a living at just one of these three approaches.
All of this within a niche.
It’s funny, in the creative industry, we’re used to being creative, but we often limit this creative mindset to the context of the projects we’re working on. We finish our day, we go home, and we turn off the creative thinking.
We so easily forget to apply this creative spirit to other things surrounding what we do—such as the business aspect. When you apply the same out-of-the-box approach you take with projects to finding ways to make money, you’ll be surprised at the opportunities that arise—or rather, were there all along.
The best part is, all you have to do is try things out. If one thing is working for you, or you enjoy another more, just go with it! As you become successful, you can scale any one of these efforts and focus on the other pursuits less.
For me, I’m still taking on select logo design jobs, but over the past year, I’ve been shifting my focus to products. Maybe as the years go by and the products become more self-sustained, I may apply myself more towards teaching and writing. I’m really just enjoying the now, and having fun with the diversification.
Looking for more? I talk about Making a Living at a Niche Pursuit in Podcast 014.