How long it takes for a creator to build a sustainable business

There are few overnight successes in the creator economy.

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How long it takes for a creator to build a sustainable business

The newsletter The Tilt published the results of an in-depth survey with creators about how they built their businesses. Here’s one of its most interesting findings: “The research shows it takes about nine months until the first dollar is earned and 26 months until the business brings in revenue to support at least one person.”

That figure captures an aspect of the creator economy that’s not contextualized in most media coverage: that building a solo content business is often a slow slog. Most articles about successful creators are written after they’ve already achieved stardom, and those same articles often gloss over the years the creators spent sending out content into the void.

A few weeks ago, I attempted to quantify how many YouTube videos it takes to get to a million subscribers. Though my sample size was limited, I found that it took an average of four years and 492 videos to reach that threshold.

What I like about The Tilt’s survey is that it’s more comprehensive and expands beyond just YouTubers. And its results ring true, both from my own personal experience and what I’ve heard from other creators.

When I launched the paid version of my newsletter in February 2020, I had been publishing content on the internet for roughly 17 years, but the problem was that I created the vast majority of that content for other brands. Whether I was working at a marketing agency or as a solo freelancer, I built online audiences for websites and channels that were owned by someone else. Rarely was my name even attached.

So while I wasn’t building an audience from scratch, that February 2020 launch represented my first concerted effort to produce content on a weekly basis — content tied to my name and personal brand.

Those first several months were eye-opening for me. After an initial spike in subscriptions, I entered a long fallow period in which entire weeks would go by without a new subscription. I had been writing about creator economics long enough to expect this slump, but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t sow some doubt as to the feasibility of my business plan.

But then after about six months, subscriptions began to pick up. That’s how long it took for my audience to grow used to the cadence of my publishing schedule and build an affinity for my personal brand. It’s the kind of affinity that can only be amassed through months of consistency.

Today, I’m 18 months into my experiment, and I still haven’t completely replaced my previous income. But I’ve seen enough progress to know that it’s worth continuing on this journey, even if it means turning down freelance projects that would allow me to generate more short term income.

So many aspiring content creators fail at building a sustainable business simply because they’re not able to wait out the initial slump. Success in this field is a lot less about creativity than it is about endurance.

My latest: How David Harper built a huge audience with his comic book criticism

David Harper spent a half decade writing about comics on other people's websites, and now he's building a business around the fanbase he amassed.

Is Spotify's podcast bet finally paying off?

Spotify recently reported that its podcast advertising revenue grew by 627% YoY. In a recent piece, I explained why its attempts to combine content, hosting, and distribution so that it can deliver targeted advertising at massive scale is starting to pay off. You can find my analysis over here.

Quick hits

An in-depth and unflinching profile of one of the most prominent misinformation peddlers on YouTube. [Daily Beast]

The Guardian is testing the limits of how many subscribers can be generated without placing any content behind a paywall. [WAN-IFRA]

"E-commerce at Forbes has been the fastest growing business over the last 18 months" [Press Gazette]

"For the first time ever, a film distributor will use Facebook to debut a movie exclusively via a ticketed live event." [Axios]

"If you look at the most successful people on TikTok, they do relatable things. They'll never be perfect. They'll never show a perfect existence. Some brands are hesitant to let go of that." [CNN]

“Listen up: why indie podcasts are in peril” [The Guardian] I don't really agree with this. A rising tide lifts all boats, and I think it's about to get much easier for indie podcasters to make a living. I actually uploaded a short vlog about this over here: [YouTube]

Streaming services are increasingly making huge bets on Super Producers — people who are paid hundreds of millions of dollars with the hope they'll produce several hit shows that appear exclusively on the same platform. [NYT]

A little over a decade ago, self publishing was often referred to as "vanity" publishing because it had virtually no chance of succeeding, but there are lots of fiction writers generating six figures today across a variety of self-publishing platforms. [Elle Griffin]

ICYMI: How this barbecue website built a thriving ecommerce business

AmazingRibs’s reviews of grilling products often show up at the top of search results.

Want to interact with me directly?

I’m very responsive to comments within my private Facebook group. In fact, it’s extremely rare that I don’t respond to someone who posts there. Come hang out with me and 570 other people who work in the content industry. We get up to some pretty good daily discussions. [Facebook]

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.