What Leads to Success?

That’s the magic question. If there were an easy answer, we’d all be rich and sitting on a beach while a robot served us endless Piña Coladas.  But we’ve all seen Terminator and know how that ends.  So, back to my point.  What leads to success?

A gentleman named Richard St. John spent more than a decade researching the lessons of success — and distilling them into 8 words.  His 3 minute video over on Ted.com is a *must* see.  A link to the video is at the end of this article.

I’m going to look at the sixth word in his list of eight: Serve. Or specifically, serve others something of value.  This key point applies to any business, but really is the answer we comic artists are looking for.  A successful comic brings its readers something of value.  It may be a good story, it may be dynamic characters, or it may simply be a slight chuckle as they watch Charlie Brown miss the football… again.

As with most entry level comic strip artists, I am looking to monetize my webcomic.  But, if the thing of value that we serve is offered completely for free, then HOW do we make money?  Nothing is going to make your readers buy your t-shirt, your latest book or latest trinket… unless they find value in it.

Creating that value is our job. It is not an easy task.  To be blunt, if the only thing you are serving is your comic strip, the odds are greatly against you that you will ever make any significant money from your webcomic.  WAIT! Don’t run away depressed now, there’s light at the end of this dark tunnel.

You simply have to listen to your readers. Observe their comments.  See which comics hit a chord with your readers and build on that foundation.  Your readers will tell you what they want.  For a couple years now I have heard a message from my readers over at 1977 the Comic.  I have been reluctant to serve what was being asked for two simple reasons: 1: I didn’t think I was talented enough to deliver a quality product and 2: I was being asked for pin-up style artwork of my characters.

Now, it’s not what you may think.  Pin-up art is actually very hard to do (and do it well).  Dean Yeagle makes a ton of money drawing his character Mandy in various tasteful nude poses.  This is what my readers were asking from me.  Did I feel a stigma about drawing semi-nude characters?  Sure, at first.  It’s not exactly work you draw while sitting at Grandma’s house.  Here’s how you might imagine the conversation going: Grandma: “Whatcha drawin’ sweetie?” Me: “Large breasted women in bikinis…. Crap, Grandma’s fainted!”

But, recently I have gotten the courage to take on these commissions and have surprised myself.  One, I’m not that bad.  I’m not Dean Yeagle, but hey, I just started this!  Two, people are buying it.  Holy crap!  That was too easy.  Imagine that, I listened to my readers, I pushed past my self-doubt and bingo, I’m selling.  Am I rich enough for the robots serving drinks on a beach?  No, but maybe I can motivate one of you in the right direction!

Am I saying the path to success for you is to draw semi-naked women?  Of course not.   Your Grandma’s health is at risk here for God’s sake!  But, what I am saying is to listen to your readers and overcome the self-doubt and know you can serve something of value.  If you apply Mr. St. John’s list (which is below and includes pushing past self-doubt) to your comic, then success will come.  It may be as easy as listening to your readers!

What Leads to Success by Richard St. John

  1. Passion – Driven by your passion.  Do it for Love, not Money
  2. Work – Nothing comes easily. It’s hard work, but fun.  Work-a-frolics.
  3. Good – Get damn good at what you do. Practice, practice, practice.
  4. Focus – Focus yourself on ONE thing.
  5. Push – Physically, mentally, you gotta push, push, push.  Push past shyness & self-doubt.
  6. Serve – Serve others something of value.
  7. Persist – Persist through failure. CRAP = Criticism, Rejection, Assholes & Pressure
  8. Ideas – Listen, observe, be curious, ask questions, problem solve, make connections.

    Link to Ted.com video: http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_st_john_s_8_secrets_of_success.html

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    28 Comments

      • Clairol hair products tag line is “Because you’re worth it!” But what they’re really saying is “we’re more expensive, buy us to make yourself feel better about yourself!”

        You can sell ice to Eskimos if you try, and… if you find a way to bring value to it. I said just doing a comic for free is not going to make you money. Extracting what your readers find of value and then selling THAT to them is exactly how the larger comics make money.

        PVP doesn’t make money by having all the hits he does, he makes money by selling things his readers consider of value. Now, if he’s CREATED that value in his readers minds, then that YOUR job as well with your readers. Will they buy a book from you? Only if you sell it them as something of value.

        They’re not just gonna buy because they like your comic. We’re not Bill Waterson and neither is PVP, but they both created something of value (Waterson’s was created by his Syndicate to a certain extent).

        Chin up man, we’ll all get there if we apply ourselves!

        • Ha ha, ice to eskimos… good one 😉 I see your point about value. However there is a difference between real value and perceived value. Perceived value is what marketeers are good at selling (chia pets anyone?) and some people are just damn good snake oil salesmen. Real value is inherent and sometimes an audience has a harder time realizing it. Many art forms were initially rejected by the public at first – impressionism -cubism, but the value was real and the audience only warmed up to it much later. Please do not forget that Krazy Kat by Geo. Herriman was NEVER a commercial success despite the fact that Hearst forced his editors to run the strips. Now every museum wants a Krazy Kat…

    1. Solid article. I think it’s fitting that the foremost lesson is that no matter how hard you work, ultimately you are making something that is meant to be consumed–service comes before passion!

      • Thanks man, that’s the whole point. It’s actually very simple if you just apply those 8 points to whatever it is you’re doing. We as artists have the passion to draw, now we just gotta do the other seven.

        That’s the hard part. 🙂

    2. Nice (short) presentation by Richard St. John. Inspires me to work harder and focus more on 1-2 things at once.
      And guess it’s now time to start my survey on my webcomic, just to check out what my readers thing/want/feel 😛

      • Great things in life are short: animation, sex and learning. Not in that order of course.

        If you don’t ask your customers what they want, then you’re just taking pot-shots and you could shoot for years before you hit the target. Marketing is about polling your potential customers and finding a need and then serving it. I got lucky, my readers TOLD ME what they wanted, I just didn’t listen AND I let self-doubt stop me.

        • Thanks for the great article!

          An interesting aspect about the Halfpixel guys, is that they realized at some point that there are thousands of webcomickers who would love to know how they got tens of thousands of readers.
          Thing is, there’s no sure fire answer to it. Some may labor for years on a webcomic to basically have a readership in double digits (like my previous webcomic).

          Tangentially, on pin-up art… my favorite is Gil Elvgren, though unlike Dean Yeagle, he’s more of an illustrator that a cartoonist. Joe Chiodo has a pretty good book on doing pin-up art for drawing and painting that I really liked.

          • Well said. I could tell you my “secrets” to success and they won’t work for you as, well, you’re not me.

            But key elements like these steps do make a difference. There’s no trick to this, just hard work.

    3. I find it interesting that in his Ted-talk he puts Passion first, and Service is much farther down the list…His order was this: Passion, Work, Good, Focus, Push, Serve, Ideas, Persist. The order he by which relates these things is very important and I think you may do a slight disservice by ordering them differently than the author did. I may be wrong of course. And others may simply not share my opinion.

      Thanks for sharing your passion with us, Byron. And thanks for providing a link to the Ted talk so we can see for ourselves what he actually said and in what order.

      Thanks for focusing on the self-doubt part. I started my graphic novel full to the brim with self-doubt. I was terrified. At the beginning I asked myself why the heck I’d just jumped into this way over my head. But I can draw well enough and my passion for my work and for sharing it has brought me a very long way in just over a year. Someone once said “If you can’t NOT do it then you ARE it. (Writer, Artist, Dancer, etc.)” I’m an artist. I can’t stop drawing hardly to eat. I’m always doodling or drawing. My scripts for Aedre’s Firefly are drawn as thumbs, not written. I’d like to add that in my books a passion for sharing is the same thing as Serving. And that getting rich is not the only way of being successful. Just a few more things to think about.

      Thanks again for a thoughtful and thought-provoking article, Byron.
      ~ Jande (@eccentricorbits)

      • Now, beyond the mistake I made…

        Self-doubt is killer. How many times have your heard others say “I can’t…” I am truly against that as you’ve already defeated yourself. I’m guilty of it, big time. But once you let go of that fear, then usually you find out how easy (or at least satisfying) it was to do the task.

        I came into this field in 2007 having not drawn for 30 years. Scary as hell, but I put my feeble drawings out there, if nothing else to motivate myself to get better. People enjoyed the comic just the same, but now they get both. It was only because I pushed myself.

        So ALL 8 steps are vital.

        • Thanks, Byron. I know all about “senior moments”. I’ve had them all my life. :`)

          I’ll share a story about “I can’t..” There have been a few people in my life who refused to sing though you could tell they really wanted to join in. Talking with them about it privately I learned that they had been mortified as children by teachers who told them to “mouth the words”, to pretend to sing because they sounded horrible and couldn’t sing on key.

          One man who sat beside me at the piano was literally shaking and sweating when I asked him to just sing one note, the lowest note he could find. But he did so –pushing through the fear– and did so again when I asked him to sing the highest note he could sing. That enabled me to find his vocal range, and therefore to show him the musical key which best suited his voice. Though he was still sweating and shaking he was able to sing the whole range of notes on key in that key. For him the courage to push through the fear of mortification created an epiphany and he has gone on to eventually shed his fear of singing even in public and has made recording of songs he’s written. He has a lovely smokey midwestern voice that is perfect for blues. I know five people now who have learned that their teachers were liars, well-meaning perhaps, but ignorant at best. Those five have gone on to be able to sing in public. Some have joined choirs and all now make singing an integral part of their lives.

          The story illustrates, hopefully, that we all have good reasons for NOT pushing through the self-doubt (or even the self-certainty that we can’t do it!), but the rewards of doing so far outweigh the costs. And the fear eventually dissipates to be replaced with confidence. Just as it has for you Byron. Thanks for sharing your story. Every story is a drop in the stream that becomes a river of hope that the courageous can dip their toes into and eventually become immersed.

          One of the things I struggle with is sharing my opinions. Right now I’m having to push myself to submit this comment. And against the wishes of all the negative voices in my head, I will do so.

          • Good for you! One step at a time. It’s not easy, nothing is, but once you’re there, it’s GREAT!

            Keep pushing. We use to say “Keep on truckin'” and it essentially means the same thing.

            And thank you for sharing! That’s what this is all about.

    4. I think that the key to offering something of value to your readers is to think outside of the box and offer something that nobody else is offering. And that is not easy to do. Sometimes, you just come up with ideas, try them out and see what sticks. If it isn’t working, move on to the next thing.

      I took a marketing class in college, and the thing that stuck with me the most, was that marketing isn’t as much about finding a need and filling it, as much as CREATING a need and filling it. Sometimes you have to show people something they never knew they needed, but now they can’t live without. For webcomics that can be hard to do because comics and humor are so subjective. Which is why it will be so different for each cartoonist, his/her feature will drive the need, and will define the box that needs to be departed.

      How do you sell ice to Eskimos? You flavor it. See? Now there’s a need.

      • Absolutely. In three years I’ve tried posters, matchbook covers, comic books, t-shirts, book markers, digital version of the comics, and on and on. Some will sell, some won’t (t-shirts with a pot leaf logo for example! 🙂 )

        Creating a need is important too and thank you for bringing it into the conversation. Think of commercials on TV: Suffering from the pain of [fill in blank}. And everyone goes “Hey my [blank] DOES hurt! I need that product!” And screw that check to Greenpeace, they’re on line buying some placebo pill, but it cures their “pain”. So, yes marketing is creating a need as well.

        Well said!

    5. I think the three P’s mentioned – Passion, Push and Persist are like bookends to the other aspects of success. Posting a comic strip on the web is a long climb up a mountain obscured by clouds. You’ve go to have Passion to want to make the journey in the first place, Push to stay the course, and Persist to get to the summit. Some people will give up, some will fall off and others might decide to take up scuba diving instead. I thought I was prepared for putting out a three times a week strip, and although I love it, man it’s a LOT OF WORK. The passion part is what keeps me motivated, though, and I’m sure if I didn’t actually enjoy making comic strips, I would have a harder time going forward. Great post, Byron!

    6. Number 5 is a big one…I’ve battled social shyness for years and years and it has probably led to some missed opportunities.

      It can be done, however and I did happen to conquer it (even if just for one day) yesterday. I went to a comic book store in the area that was having a day with a comic book publisher (IDW Publishing). I brought some printouts of my strip along with the proof of Vol 1. to show. As I stood in line, I had the urge to bolt several times (after seeing what some of the artists in line had in their portfolios to show…the usual superhero, monster, mainline comic stuff)…I mean, my stuff is good but it isn’t what IDW publishes. I fought the urge and was sweating bullets, but why was I there in the first place? Did I have some grand idea that they would suddenly stand up when they saw my stuff and cry tears of joy applauding? Did I think they would hire me on the spot and come around the table hugging me and offering to have my child? No! I was there, first and foremost to get my name out there to a big firm, to show I had confidence in my work and perhaps someone in line would see it and know that if you believe in yourself, it’s worth the trip and effort to share. As I stepped up to the table, wiping my sweaty palm on my pants, I handed my opened portfolio to the man behind the table, introduced myself with a big smile and said “this is something completely different from what you will see all day.” They looked at my stuff, said how refreshing it was to see something different, how it works well in color for the web, but looks great in b&w for the book and not to change it, told me although they don’t publish it because it isn’t a mainstream comic book look, they did say where they thought it would fit in and gave me the info for that. I handed them my business card, thanked them for their time and walked away knowing I conquered my inner shyness…even if just for one day. One day at a time, folks, but it can be done…get out there, don’t be afraid of failure, don’t be afraid because fear keeps us from doing things and the possibility of what could be…don’t be afraid and then have regrets later of “what if”…you control the “what if’s” in life…turn them into “what can be’s” !

      • The “applause” sign is blinking furiously here folks… Karl has hit it on the head. Thank you Karl for sharing that.

        It is hard as hell to do what you did (don’t know if I could at this point) so you’ve made the first step toward the Dark Side. And, hey, they have cookies it seems…

        Congrats on conquering your fear!
        🙂

      • Great Job Karl!

        My problem is similar in that I have trouble promoting my own work. Give me someone elses work and I can hawk it no problem, I am not the least bit shy then. (Though it took me a while to build up to that too…)

    7. I made a fair bit back in 2006 when I was only getting about 2,000 visits a day by offering “donation gifts” of nude pinups in exchange for donations of $5 or $7. I can’t say I ever felt completely comfortable about it, but I was on ComicGenesis and this was the pre-Project Wonderful era.

      These days traffic is high enough that ad revenue takes care of me pretty well, and since there’s more legitimate nudity in the comic now, the bar for donation-worthy skin would reach a level of explicitness I’m not prepared to raise it to.

    8. Thanks for the article. My main fault lies with “FOCUS”. Suppossedly it is normal because I may have ADHD. (Doctor/wife/sisters/mother/aunt/kids think so, but I haven’t been oficially diagnosed)

      Another stumbling block is that I have not developed the speed to publish daily, which is what I really want to do. With my regular job and commute time, I don’t have as many hours available to work on my comic (or anything else).

      Last, but not least, I have to push through the CRAP and self-doubt.

      I’m going to treasure this.

    9. I’d throw in step zero – RECOGNIZE:

      recognize what success IS, what it means to YOU. Figure out what you really want and what you really need. I say this just because I was wrong for a long time about what kind of success I really wanted deep down.

      Also, when I listen to my readers, I hear crickets… 😛

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