2020 taught us that ultimate stability is a myth.
The world can change in dramatic ways over the course of a few months, and with it the shape of our daily lives and the strength of our financial security.
How do we approach creative work, and the building of a creative business, with so much uncertainty?
To start, I’m embracing the ideas that author Todd Henry learned last year, shared in a podcast episode and summarized in these sketchnotes:
It’s that first lesson learned that I’m paying close attention to right now: diversify your portfolio before you need it.
Throughout 2021 (and in the years that follow) I’d like to broaden my portfolio of work in a way that leads to creative fulfillment and financial resilience.
Here are the four branches of my creative portfolio that I’m choosing to strengthen.
Verbal to Visual
The strongest branch of my portfolio is Verbal to Visual, where I teach the skill of sketchnoting.
In 2020 I made two major shifts to that online education business.
First I switched platforms, moving from a Wordpress site (with half a dozen plugins that allowed me to host courses and accept payments) to Mighty Networks (which provides the best blend of courses and community that I’ve seen).
About six months later I made the second shift, this time in how people pay for the online courses and ongoing community elements that I offer. I added an all-access monthly subscription option alongside the pay-per-course option that I’ve been using for years.
Those two payment options provide their own sense of diversity. Folks who want to participate in everything can sign up for the subscription and pay a small amount each month, which builds up some recurring revenue over time. Those who want just a single course can make one larger purchase and not worry about any billing in the future.
My goal is to have a healthy balance between the two — see slow but steady growth in the recurring revenue that comes from monthly memberships while also seeing enough individual course sales to provide those bigger chunks of one-time revenue.
Constantly watching those numbers doesn’t help them move upward, it only causes anxiety, so instead I try to focus on supporting the people who choose to enter that online learning space. The more valuable that space is, the longer folks will stick around, and the more diverse my portfolio of customers becomes.
Toward the end of last year I quit social media, except for YouTube.
I’ve chosen to stay there for three primary reasons: 1) I enjoy making videos; 2) it’s one of the major sources of traffic for Verbal to Visual; and 3) YouTube pays me.
YouTube was way ahead of the game when it comes to financially supporting the creators on their platform. Other social media platforms are just now starting to share ad revenue with content creators, but YouTube has been doing it since 2007.
The money that I make from YouTube’s Partner Program is neither fully self-supporting nor is it insignificant. And over the next year, I’d like to see it grow.
I’m still refining my approach to making videos. There’s not a single style that I’m hoping to land on, but instead a handful of rough templates: instructional videos that teach specific sketchnoting skills, explainer videos where I share what I learned from the latest book I read or podcast I listened to, and long-form coaching call conversations that I have with members of Verbal to Visual.
A portfolio within a portfolio, if you will. That’s true of three of the projects I’m describing here: a portfolio of Verbal to Visual members, a portfolio of YouTube videos, and a portfolio of essays.
Even before I started sketchnoting, I knew that I enjoyed writing.
That interest sprouted in high school as a member of the newspaper staff, and only grew from there. It’s part of the reason I started blogging back in 2010.
While I do plenty of writing within Verbal to Visual, the essay format has never felt like the best fit there. Video has always seemed much more helpful.
At times I’ve fully scripted my videos, but I don’t enjoy the delivery style when I’m reading from a script. The enthusiasm that I naturally have for the subject matter just doesn’t come through.
That’s why I began publishing here on Medium last year. This is a platform for writers, and I’ve found it to be a great place to explore in more depth topics that I only mention in passing within a video.
The starting point for these essays is often a sketchnote that I’ve already created, as you saw at the beginning of this one. This space gives me the opportunity to expand on the ideas that crop up through my work within Verbal to Visual, especially when I want to explore ideas that aren’t directly related to sketchnoting.
So writing essays is a form of creative expression that I enjoy, and as with YouTube, it pays, but not in the same way.
Where YouTube relies on advertising dollars to pay creators, Medium shuns ads entirely and instead shares membership fees with writers.
Much like other major publishers, you can read a handful of Medium articles for free each month, but after that you have to sign up for a $5 per month subscription for full access. That subscriber’s $5 (minus Medium’s cut) is distributed to writers based on the articles they read that month. It’s a model that works well for both readers and writers.
Since writing on Medium is my third priority, I haven’t committed to a publishing schedule (in contrast to Verbal to Visual’s weekly YouTube videos and live workshops). Roughly, though, I’d enjoy publishing here at least once a month.
I’m thinking of 2021 as foundation-building and experimental when it comes to my writing. I’ll have to write a lot and publish a lot to get a better sense for how this fits into the creative career that I’m building. But early indications make me think I’ll enjoy spending lots of time here.
Talking About My Favorite Tools (aka Affiliate Marketing)
The fourth branch of my creative portfolio has taken the longest for me to get comfortable with.
The core of it isn’t that complicated: I talk about the tools that I use to run my online business, and link to those tools.
The potential discomfort comes in the financial relationship hidden within that link — if you follow it and make a purchase, I get a commission. That’s what’s known as affiliate marketing, and chances are you’ve participated in it, maybe without even knowing.
Rules do exist that require affiliates like me to include clear disclaimers whenever linking to a product or service with a commission relationship. But nobody is scanning the entire internet to check that every single affiliate marketer is adhering to those rules, so it’s on each creator to choose transparency over convenience.
One of the reasons I’m interested in talking more about the tools I use (and including affiliate links along the way) is that the folks I’m already serving through my sketchnoting work might benefit from it.
While some folks want to build their sketchnoting skills solely for use within their current job, others see the potential in launching their own creative projects (and products) either as a side hustle or an eventual full-time gig.
I don’t have all of the answers for folks who choose to pursue a creative career, but I do have my own experience, and over the years I’ve stumbled into tools that work well for me. I like the idea of supporting other solopreneurs who are interested in following a similar path by sharing what tools I’m using, why I’m using them, and how they help me run my business.
I could charge for that information, but I’d rather put together a free (sketchnoted) guide that lays out my complete setup, which includes affiliate links to those tools. That’s what I plan to create at some point in 2021.
That guide will serve three primary purposes: it will demonstrate how sketchnotes can be used within a written guide to make it more impactful, it will point current or future creative entrepreneurs toward useful tools, and it will build up a fourth source of income through affiliate relationships.
Diversifying my creative portfolio is a long term play. Nobody knows when the next major societal disruption will hit. But we can all prepare for it.
What has surprised and excited me is how that preparation and diversification is also leading to deeper creative fulfillment overall.
Will I be able to make large contributions to all four of those branches of my creative portfolio in 2021? Probably not.
But can I build foundations and get the ball rolling? Absolutely.