How is it that something can simultaneously feel super-niche and over-saturated?
On the one hand, most people on the street probably have no idea what hand lettering is. On the other hand, it can feel like it’s hard to stand out in a new field that everyone seems to be flocking to.
Everywhere you turn, you see more hand lettering. Everyone and their brother is getting into it—at least it seems.
This is actually extremely good news when it comes to getting paying clients, but I want to focus more on the emotional struggle we feel when we are discouraged from trying something because so many other people seem to be doing it.
Hand lettering is no doubt experiencing a significant resurgence, but more likely what you’re experiencing is confirmation bias.
If I say, “Notice everything green around you,” immediately the green items begin to stand out.
When you’re looking for hand lettering you’re going to see hand lettering.
It can seem like a once-quiet specialty is getting crowded.
- How could I compete?
- How do I find my own unique style?
- What’s the point of even creating?
You’re in what I call a Bubble of Awesomeness. This is really easy to do online. You follow the cream of the crop in hand lettering and as a result you’re surrounded by lettering constantly. Not just any lettering, but the best of the best.
Because of this, you’re acutely aware of whenever you see someone new begin to learn hand lettering.
The problem is what you don’t see: the fact that 99.99% of the world is not creating hand lettering at all. In fact, they’re downright not creating anything. The Bubble of Awesomeness is a construct you’ve built around yourself. It feels like everyone is doing the same thing, but if you’re creating at all, you are the 0.01%!
The very fact that you have trouble explaining to your friends and family what you do as a hand letterer means there’s immense room and opportunity. If your own family doesn’t even know what this is, that means this isn’t nearly as common as you think.
To the rest of the world, hand lettering is just a small speck.
Here’s a few reasons why you shouldn’t be worried about other people doing hand lettering.
1. Market Validation
The people you might see as “competitors” are paving the way for you. This is a good thing. They’re proving that there’s interest in hand lettering. It’s much easier to break into an existing space with a validated market than it is to create a brand new market.
“But Steve Jobs told me people don’t know what they want until I show it to them! Maybe instead of hand lettering, I should try to create a new industry where I’m the first!”
You’re not Steve Jobs. Apple is the 0.01% that creates industries. Don’t try to create industries. If you want to be ambitious and create a new industry, at least try to do it after you’ve had some prior success to serve as a foundation for the many failures you will encounter. Apple created industries only after they had a foundation of successful products in proven industries first (and a lot of failures). They’re also almost never the first to do something. They come into an existing niche and execute way better.
An industry may appear to be saturated, but what you don’t see are the number of people who have yet to put any money down. The solutions that exist may not be right for them. They may be waiting for something tailor-made.
It’s also possible that they have purchased a solution that wasn’t a very good fit for them. it could have simply been the best option at the time. If you look at an industry and think, “Oh, someone already bought a product. I guess it’s too late!” then you miss out on a chance to sell them something else that they were primed for.
2. There Are a Lot of People
Your potential audience and client base are ever-increasing.
First, the world is trending in a digital direction. More and more things are getting automated, and design is cleaner and simplistic.
As things trend toward automation, people are craving the human element. No one likes listening to automated phone systems, why should design feel like that?
The subtle irregularities of hand lettering remind the observers that someone with a soul was behind the work they’re looking at.
This is comforting. Of course, companies take note of this as well. They are always seeking ways to get attention. If hand lettering is what is resonating with the people, then hand lettering is what they want.
This is where you come in.
Secondly, your potential audience grows by the day. No, I’m not talking about the increasing interest in hand lettering (although that is a fact). I mean literally: more people are born than die every day. The actual world population is increasing.
But it’s not just that: as technology improves and devices get cheaper, there will likely be a billion new people online in the next 10 or 15 years. That’s a billion new people hungry to consume content. Will that be your hand lettering?
You’re so concerned about the handful of other people doing the same thing, but your work could be someone’s very first experience.
3. You Are an Influence
You’re following the cream of the crop, remember? Most people are not there yet. Regardless of where you are, you are an influence to someone. Whether you have 10 followers, 100 followers, 1,000 followers, 10,000 followers, or 100,000 followers, you are an influence.
Even if just to your friends:
You don’t have to be a master hand letterer to teach someone how to take the very first step.
It takes a shift in perspective to see that you don’t need to teach the masters. It’s the other 90% of hand letterers that are your potential audience for teaching.
You already influence people.
Your work already matters. If you care at all to any degree about the work you do and you make an effort to do it, then you’ve already made it.
Focus on the people you already influence. Build relationships with them and invest in getting to know their story. Find out what their struggles are and help them.
Understand that you won’t always have that opportunity. You may not even recognize that you have an opportunity right now that I don’t. Once you hit scale with 10,000, 50,000, or 100,000 followers or subscribers, you can no longer facilitate those special 1-on-1 relationships. You won’t be able to have those valuable 1-on-1 discussions with every single person.
The most important concept you can grasp is that the 5 friends, 10 subscribers, or 100 followers you have right now are actually the key to your next 10,000. This is easily overlooked when you’re hyper-focused on getting to the next level, but these people are your ambassadors.
You have a unique opportunity to build real relationships and invest in the people you currently influence. These people are going to be the ones to spread the word about you and share your story. Invest in them.
4. You Have Your Own Unique Voice
Just like we all have a unique way of speaking, we all have our own stylistic preferences when it comes to hand lettering too. Posting copied works is never a good idea, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take stylistic inspiration from a piece.
Diversify your inspiration. If you’re only looking to the work of one other hand letterer, it’s going to be very apparent. You may even get called out for ripping off someone else’s style.
The solution is not to try to innovate and create letters no one has ever made before. It’s to diversify—combine and remix styles that have already been done.
Represent things from your perspective. Repurpose it in your voice. Try actually writing your own words instead of using other people’s quote. This automatically makes you unique.
Combine the above with stylistic expression that’s sourced from diversified inspiration and you’re going to stand out.
5. There’s Room
You might look at me and think, “I wish I was ahead of the curve like you were, Sean,” but others in the future will look at you and say, “I wish I was there to take advantage with you when hand lettering was taking off.”
Will you take advantage of the opportunity or will you be too busy comparing yourself to others?
You’re probably looking at people with big audiences and wishing you started when they did. Maybe you’re wishing you got the same “lucky break” or exposure that they did.
After many years of observation in this space, I can tell you confidently that the people who are winning at hand lettering (and life) are the people who have been slaving away and their work for years. I’m talking about 99% of them. They’ve been working hard.
You may think you saw some “lucky break” they had, but I guarantee you they were only in the position to capitalize on that opportunity because they were working hard long before it.
Virtually everyone who is successful puts in the work. You won’t always be able to go back and see it, but the beginning of someone’s online feed isn’t the beginning of someone’s life and it certainly isn’t all that’s in their sketchbook.
There is always, always, always, room for someone new to work hard.
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