Ask a Designer #3: Is Passive Income Possible if I Don't Have a Lot of Followers?


October 2, 2019


Meg Lewis


Designer, speaker and educator Meg Lewis (@yourbuddymeg) is our resident advice columnist for our 6-part Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. Today, Meg talks about how to build a business that doesn't require having millions of followers.

Dear Meg,

While studying at university, I’ve had experience of selling student merch which is something that doesn’t need much promotion. Now I am very slowly building my audience online while working on client projects as a freelancer. Ideally, I want to start selling postcards and posters. I don’t have a design education. I am a self-taught lettering artist (why is it so hard even to write this word!). And I am from Russia, so at the moment I am only considering online platforms.

Do you think a designer with an audience of 600 followers can have a steady flow of passive income? If yes, what would you recommend as a start? Or should I instead focus on building my audience further?



Dear Unsure,

As a fellow freelancer, I can totally relate with a lot of what you’re going through and I have a lot to say about the benefits of having passive streams of cash coming in regularly. Passive income makes up for an average 1/3 of my total earnings and I am so thankful to have it in those sticky freelance months where no client comes a-calling. My passive income consists of online classes (over 100,000 students have taken them!), books and e-books, and physical small goods. My personal goal is for my passive income to be able to pay for shelter every month. That means passive income pays for my ability to have a place to sleep and work. It takes the stress of making ends meet a little easier and helps me to not feel totally dependent on clients to give me work in order to survive! Passive income sure makes freelance life less stressful and I’m so thankful for it.

What is passive income? To me, the definition of passive income is anything that allows you to make consistent money without full-time upkeep. Sure we’re all hoping for passive income that allows for 0 work after it’s launched, but for most of us passive income streams include logistical admin work and some marketing in order to make sure the passive cash keeps inserting itself directly into our hot little hands. Passive income can come in many forms both digitally and physically. And for you and I as freelance designers, we have the best possible skillset for success. Being able to design and have a business brain is exceedingly helpful so three cheers to you for being a creative!

When taking matters into your own hands and creating a passive income stream for yourself, there’s a lot you’ll have to do that’ll make you uncomfortable. I already see you focusing on the details that are setting yourself back: living in Russia, no formal design education, modest following on social media. You’re doing what I do every time — fixate on the things you think that’ll hold you back and allow them to prevent you (in small or large ways) from taking action.

Here are some tips that will directly and indirectly address your specific “holdsies backsies” and hopefully help you with the obvious imposter syndrome you seem to be feeling, because HELLO. SAME.

Tip #1: Find something only you can sell

In order to get rid of the imposter syndrome I’d ideally like for you to get to an empowered place where you can say, “People really want this right now and I’m the only person in the world who has the personality and skillset to make it happen!”. But how the heck do you get to that place? Write a list of your entire skillset. 8-12 niche skills combined with higher-level abilities is ideal. Then, comb over that list and notice any common themes. For me, when I looked across my list I noticed most of my skills have something to do with making people feel a certain way: safe, comfortable, excited. So I thought, how can I combine that overarching skill with some of my more niche skills like comedy, graphic design, and teaching? BA-BOOM, Full Time You (my massive passive income product) was created. I was able to make a product that combines comedy, design, and teaching while allowing me to make people feel empowered, excited, and most importantly safe to be themselves. It’s a product that is wholeheartedly reflective of my personality and skillset and is truly unlike anything anyone else can make. I’d like you to find something similar that only you can make happen!

Write a list of your entire skillset. 8-12 niche skills combined with higher-level abilities is ideal. Then, comb over that list and notice any common themes.

Tip #2: Utilize your existing following

From personal experience, I’ve found that smaller followings (50-5,000) have been more engaged and ready to support me than larger followings. When you have a following that’s modest, people think of you as a real person that they can communicate with openly. Once you get thousands upon thousands of followers, people start to think, “Oh I won’t bother Barb, she has so many followers I bet she gets tons of messages a day and won’t even notice mine”. Whereas, if you have a small following it feels easier for your audience to directly converse with you. Use that to your advantage and allow your followers to be a part of your journey. Show them behind the scenes as you develop your passive income stream and allow them to feel like they’re a part of it. It helps them to feel emotionally invested in what you’re creating so when it comes time for you to launch, they’ll be more likely to support you!

Tip #3: Digital goods are the best place to start

Digital goods are my favorite because they’re low overhead. If you’re teaching a class or offering a digital download, your overhead consists of your time and the occasional hosting fee. Digital goods allow you to easily test ideas, launch, and iterate without having a bunch of discarded physical products filling your home. If you’re concerned about enough people buying into your digital product or service, use one of the many tools and companies that have audiences baked right on in. I love selling products through Cotton Bureau or Etsy. And of course Kickstarter has a massive audience waiting to support your indie project.

Digital goods allow you to easily test ideas, launch, and iterate without having a bunch of discarded physical products filling your home.

Tip #4: Be careful with physical goods

Actual, tangible objects are much higher risk than digital goods for so many reasons. I’ve made the mistake of ordering too high of a quantity of a particular item under the assumption my audience will love that product as much as I do. But, alas it is almost impossible to understand what people really want until you start learning the exact taste of your audience. I’m always shocked by what people actually order vs. what I think they’ll order — I’m always way off! Sometimes audiences will seem excited about a product and give you the ol’, “Can’t wait to buy this!” “Please make this as a t-shirt!”, but when the time comes and you make the dang tee, a lot of times they don’t follow through. Moral of the story: if and when it comes time to purchase physical goods, order small runs until you can launch and understand if your audience is into it. The last thing you want is 6,000 pairs of custom clown pants in your closet that you’ll keep moving around from apartment to apartment hoping someday you’ll be able to sell them. Too specific?

Tip #5: Collaborate to grow your audience

I love to collaborate with friends and artists I love as it helps me to make work that’s even better than I could make on my own. And heck, it also allows me to support and encourage another creative! My favorite part of collaborating with others on products and services is that it allows me to tap into their network. They’re going to say, “Hey world, I made this thing with my buddy Meg!” which helps their audience to become supporters of what I’m doing and naturally grows my audience. Sure, it’s frustrating to share your revenue with someone else, but in the long run the exposure and support you receive can help further your career than if you were completely on your own. And you’re still getting paid so heck yes go you!

Tip #6: Un-sexy also sells

To be honest, the most boring products and classes i’ve taught have brought in the most money. Why? Because they’re less niche and appeal to a wider audience. I love having a balance of lame-ish things and super-weird-Meg-things that bring in my passive income stream. I have a non-sexy set of Photoshop classes on Skillshare (I tried to make them as fun as possible, promise) that people find wildly useful. Because of how generic the topic is and its usefulness, it’s been my highest passive income earner throughout my entire career. Whereas my weird little products I sell on the side have made a small fraction of that. Finding a balance of a product or service that has high demand and not a lot of people out there doing it is the best case scenario. For me, I was the first instructor on Skillshare teaching photoshop, so of course everyone immediately flocked to my classes.

Finding a balance of a product or service that has high demand and not a lot of people out there doing it is the best case scenario.

I truly hope you’re able to learn from my years of selling random products, teaching classes, and offering people things in hopes of making money in return. Please don’t get in your own dang way by focusing on your weakest points. Be your biggest cheerleader and get empowered by knowing you’re the only person in the world who can make this thing happen and the world needs you in order for it to be real. Now get out there and make that money, baby!



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About the author

Meg Lewis is a designer making experiences for happy companies and a speaker and educator creating more fulfilling lives for humans of all kinds. Meg empowers individuals to discover their unique selves through books, video series, workshops, and talks titled Full Time You. She also founded Ghostly Ferns, an international collective of designers and commercial artists.

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