What’s it like to make a living with your art and illustration? How about running two successful enamel pin Kickstarters?
Shannon May Hall knows because she’s living that dream.
In this interview, learn the ins and outs about how she found and maintains her success, exactly how she funded her enamel pin Kickstarters within days/hours, and get practical advice and steps as an aspiring artist or crowd funder.
Watch the interview above, or keep reading for the text transcription*:
*Text has been edited for readability. Check out the full video for all of the candid, uncensored banter!
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Q: Tell me about yourself, your hobbies, and how you got into the business of art and illustration.
A: I’m Shannon May, and I live down in the UK. I’m a self-professed fantasy geek. When I’m not “arting,” as it were, (Is that word? It is now.) my main hobbies are tabletop roleplaying, mainly D&D and 13th Age, and I play a fair few video games. Final Fantasy XIV is currently my favorite.
Yeah, that’s about me.
Q: With your art and illustration, have you always kind of been artistically inclined, or when did that begin?
A: Sort of. It’s kind of a hard thing to articulate because it’s always been a hobby ever since I was a little girl. I think it is with a lot of people. But before I went into art in a big way, I actually went to university for computer science.
It took me years to realize that it wasn’t really what I wanted long-term. That’s not to say programming can’t be creative and fulfilling, but it wasn’t really for me. I guess that goes to prove you can always start again!
Q: What did the beginning of that journey look like? You decided, “Okay, computer science isn’t for me.” So then what happens next?
A: It started with me telling my parents. They weren’t particularly happy; I’m going to be completely honest. But my partner at the time was very supportive of it, and I basically started from scratch.
I went into graphic design first rather than illustration and went to work in a print shop. I basically went up from there and started expanding.
Q: Now, you do quite a few things. I see design is still one of them, but now illustration, and then I’m a big fan of your stickers and pins. Can you give me a general overview of what your business looks like now?
A: At first, it was just me freelancing, doing logos, brochures, and leaflets—that kind of thing. Then I used that as a bridge to my illustration and product design and thought, “You know what? Instead of designing things for other companies, I should probably put my money where my mouth is and launch my own products.”
That’s what I’ve been doing with my RPG pin collections.
Q: Before I ask you more about that, art is your full-time job now, yes?
A: Technically! I do have a day job, but it’s in magazine design, so I’m doing art and design all day long, then when I get home as well.
Q: I know that your hobbies center around video games and D&D, so it’s pretty clear those flavor the art, pin, and sticker designs. Was that a passion project, or did you know there was a demand out there for what you were doing?
A: I think if there’s anything I can recommend to aspiring business people, it’s to do what you know, or if there’s a niche you don’t know, research it extensively. But I did the first thing.
I’ve tried to keep up with trends in the past, like, “Oh, everyone’s drawing this, so I’ve got to draw this, and then I’ll get popular.”
There’s something to be said about short-term fads, but going into a niche that I knew well and evergreen products was a much better long-term goal. Gaming was where I had a lot of experience, so I was way more sure of how to market my products because I was essentially marketing to myself.
Q: You said the phrase “evergreen products,” which I think is good to touch on. What what does that mean?
A: A product that isn’t seasonal or isn’t a fad. Say, I’d make something for Christmas. It’s only ever going to sell around Christmas. Evergreen is something that people are going to want any time of year, for any sort of event, because they just make nice gifts.
Q: I found you because I found your Kickstarters, not that they’re running right now, but I saw that they were quite successful. That’s unique to me. I see a lot of Etsy shops. I see a lot of Shopify. Very rarely do I see a Kickstarter for a physical art product like that. What made you choose that avenue?
Related Read: How to make money as an artist, crafter, or creator: 5 ways
A: I think the thing that really drew me to Kickstarter was that I wasn’t pushing a lot of capital upfront myself. It was other people trusting me with their money, which is lovely, and I’m really glad that they did.
My Kickstarter beginnings weren’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. I thought about running a Kickstarter for a while, but I always doubted myself. I worried that I wouldn’t get funded, and I’d just fall flat on my face.
Then, some bad stuff happened in my personal life (I won’t go into it), and I really needed something to get my mind off it. So, I planned a Kickstarter within a couple of weeks, which wasn’t ideal, I now know. You really need a much bigger run-up. Do as I say, not as I do.
So, I planned it out, announced it on social media, and then during the campaign, I was a marketing machine. As soon as it hit my lunch break at work, I’d be on Twitter. Then I’d go into all the Reddit subs to say, “Look at this cool Kickstarter.”
Through that and lots of help from my friends, because I have a lot of friends in the same hobby space, we got funded in two days. It was an amazing feeling.
Q: For anyone who’s never done a Kickstarter, what does the planning for that look like?
A: The biggest part of planning is awareness. As much as Kickstarter has its own base of people who are going to be looking for things, and pins are definitely one of them, the engagement factor is a really big one. Plan out your social media campaign. For my second one, I created an email list so that I had a list of people from the get-go who were really interested.
Building hype. It is all about the hype with Kickstarter because that’s all you’ve got. You might have a prototype of a product, but you don’t have anything final to show them. Building that trust is really important.
Q: Did you already have a pretty good following on social media before you did your Kickstarter?
A: Yeah, it was all right. It wasn’t for pins and stationery and stuff specifically, it was just around my art, but fortunately, those two crossed over quite a bit.
Q: I’d love to hear a little more detail about the different marketing pieces you mentioned. Starting with the social media campaign, what did that look like? What kind of posts were you doing, what was your cadence, how do you go into subreddits without sounding annoying?
A: Oh yeah, that’s really hard, subreddits. I will say now, for anyone thinking of doing something like this, most of the D&D subreddits are actually quite nice. As long as you tell the mods ahead of time, they’ll usually let you self-promote. That was nice to find out.
The one big thing that I did with my social media campaign that worked quite well was I did them as a series of quests to unlock the next pin. I had drawings of my characters on there giving people quests and saying, “We need to find this mythical thing.” I think I had “The Dice of Natural 1’s” or something like that. Once the pin had been unlocked, I had another post up that would say, “Thank you, adventurers, for unlocking this pin!”
Q: Then your email list. Building an email list is notoriously difficult to do. How did you go about that?
A: For my first one, signups were like pulling teeth. I’ll be perfectly honest. But that’s kind of expected. At the end of the first Kickstarter, you send out a survey to all your backers asking what pins they want, their addresses, all of that. But one of the things you’re also allowed to do is ask if you can put their email onto your email list for future things. That’s basically how I built it. It’s been the easiest way because people who back something on Kickstarter are more likely to back something else. They trust the brand itself.
Q: Did you get any feedback along the way?
A: I didn’t see a lot of discussion until afterward, which was quite funny. I’d be in a Facebook group, and suddenly I’d see something pop up saying, “Look at this cool pin that I just backed! It’s awesome.” And I thought, “That’s mine!”
So, I started searching my name on other groups and finding out that other people have been talking about it. That’s why it blew up. Not necessarily just because of what I was doing, but because other people were sharing with their friends.
That kind of power is not something that I can do on my own.
Q: So, the second Kickstarter. What were some things that other than the email list that you did differently that second time around? Any lessons that you learned from the first one?
A: I gave the second one a much bigger run-up for a start. It was about three months before I actually launched the campaign. In that time, I was posting pictures of the artwork on it as well and getting feedback from people about the designs. I didn’t do as much of that in the first one.
But I would actually say I ran the first one better than the second one in some ways.
In the first one, I had a lot of variety. For my second one, I offered the same pin but in different colors. For example, there was a rainbow one and a purple one. They were very nice, but the problem was that in the first Kickstarter, a lot of people would say, “I’ll back the entire collection!” Whereas, for this one, people would say, “This is my favorite color. I’ll just have one.”
So, I stumbled a little bit. It still did really well. There are definitely things to take from both of those.
Q: Did you have to learn anything new or teach yourself anything to get this Kickstarter from start to finish? What about the making of the pins? How did you organize that?
A: That is definitely something I’ve never done before. I haven’t liaised directly with a manufacturer for things, and it’s not the easiest thing in the world to end up with the product that you want. You’ll often have to go through several phases of making sure they are.
As much as I have this vision in my mind of what I want, they’re not going to have exactly the same vision. I imagine that happens with all products, not just pins.
Q: Who did you work with to make the pins? Can I ask that?
A: I can’t remember the name of the top of my head. There’s a middle man that went to a Chinese manufacturer. At the time, I was kind of worried about quality control and things like that, so I really wanted someone else to be able to handle things for me. Also, there are obviously language barriers there.
I would have loved to be able to hire like a local manufacturer, but unfortunately, they don’t exist. Enamel pins are one of these very specific things, and I can’t remember exactly why. One of the things is cost. It’s just not cost-efficient to produce locally, so they don’t, but I think there are actually legality issues too. It’s something to do with money printing or something like gilding coins in the process.
Apparently, one of the processes in making an enamel pin is also used in counterfeiting coins, so it’s not legal or something like that.
The strange things you find on the internet.
Q: Were you pleased with the product once it finally got to you?
A: Definitely! Like I said, the first time, I went through a middleman. They got here, and they were lovely. The second time I did everything myself, which was interesting. I did have some problems the second time around where they had to get sent back, and I had to put my foot down on some quality control.
It was specifically because there’s this process called electroplating, which makes the really nice rainbow effect pins. They basically started flaking off when they got here, and I said, “Oh no. I can’t really send these out.” So, those were a bit delayed at the same time as I was doing all this fulfillment, so everything kind of went out the window. But it’s all fine now.
Q: Fulfillment side. Once the pins are done and ready to go out to backers, do they come to you and you do all the shipping, or what does that look like?
A: Yes, that is me sitting in my office for several days packaging tiny pins into tiny little bags and then signing like 100-200 pieces of paper with Thank You’s.
For my second one, I actually got a friend to help me, but yeah, all the fulfillment I basically did on my own.
Q: So how many, how many backers did you have, do you remember?
A: The first one had 230. It just blew all of my expectations, honestly. I expected maybe I’d eke out just the first goal, and I’d be happy. Then it just kept going up.
Q: Did the extra money that came in have to go toward costs, or did you get to apply that to other places in your life and business?
A: As the Kickstarter got bigger, I ended up having to design some more pins on the fly during the campaign so that there was more of a selection for backers. But yeah, after everything was over, I basically ended up putting what was left into my business and into a new line of pins called the “Dice Hoarder,” which is a little dragon. I used the rest of it to do him in lots of different colors.
Q: Back to your broader business as an artist. This is a kind of a general question, but one that’s just fun: What would you say is your most triumphant moment as an artist and your most difficult moment?
A: I think my most triumphant moment was also my most difficult moment.
I table at comic and gaming conventions. You know, when they were actually running. As part of one of them, I was asked to be on a panel of artists to answer crowd questions and talk about what I do. It was a scary thought, but I honestly felt honored that they’d even asked, so I said yes.
Then it got to the day, and I realized who I’d be on the panel with. It turned out to be the original artist of War Machine, Kev Hopgood, and the guy that sculpted Darth Vader’s mask. Talk about imposter syndrome. I was way out of my element.
They were both lovely, by the way, but they were listing off their accolades, and I thought, “What on earth can I say? I can’t match this.”
But, I went up there and did my thing. Most of the questions were inevitably about Iron Man and Star Wars, so I sometimes think they felt sorry for me and passed questions over to me. I thought, “People don’t want to know. They’re not here for me!” But it was fun.
That’s my favorite moment, but also definitely the most difficult position that I’ve been put in as an artist.
Q: So, you have tables at conventions, your website, and social media, the Kickstarter. What would you say is the most successful leg of your business?
A: At the moment, the online thing is definitely a plus, but conventions are really good for getting your name out there regardless of if you make a lot of money on them. I found a lot of people will come back to your website and buy something later because they remember you. Or, you’ll go to a convention, then the same people will be and another because nerd circles are smaller than we think.
Q: If someone wanted to sell at a convention and has never done it before, how does that work?
A: Once you’ve signed up and everything, you’ve got your table. One of the most important things is space. Always make sure you plan out your space effectively.
When I was younger and lived with my dad, one of the things I used to do was go down in the living room, and I’d set up my little table—all of my little grid cubes where I display my art prints.
I’d put it all up just to make sure that when I got there, I’d be able to build it really quickly, and everything would stay up. I’ve had unfortunate times where the display just fell down. Fortunately, not on other people. Fun times. But I’d say that’s the most important part of it.
Also, make sure you take plenty of snacks and drinks. You will be there a while, and you might think you’ll be fine. You’ll just be able to get up and grab something from a stall. But it’s probably not going to happen.
Number 3, if you can take another person, you’re going to need those bathroom breaks.
Q: The biggest question of the day. Let’s say you meet an artist that really wants to start getting paid for their stuff, whether it’s prints or pins or stickers or whatever it is. What is the number one piece of advice that you would give to them?
A: I would say “Jump.” I stopped myself from jumping for a very long time. I went back and forth with ideas I wanted to do and never really put my all into them over the years.
I’d say a Kickstarter is a really good way to jump, especially if you’re in a position where the financial risk of creating products is stopping you from making the leap. As I mentioned earlier, you’re only losing your time and pride if something goes wrong and it doesn’t get funded, and you can always try again. You don’t always blow up the first time, and that’s okay!
Thanks again to Shannon May for all of the amazing tips and advice, both on growing your business as an artist, and running a successful enamel pin Kickstarter.
Don’t forget to follow her on social media and check out her wares on:
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/shannonmayart/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/shannonmayart
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/shannonmayart
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAEU…
- Shop: http://shannonmay.art/
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