I recently began selling digital design products on Creative Market as well as a few other shops and realized I just might be onto something big… My products (design assets, stock photography and stock video footage) started selling pretty quickly and made me thousands of dollars within the first couple months.
So, as I’ve done with every other lucrative business endeavor, I started interviewing successful people in the space to find out their secrets. I was amazed at how helpful everyone was, how willing they were to share their strategy and how much money they were making!!
Dustin Lee (founder of RetroSupply) has an incredible story about ditching his start-up to pursue digital products full time. When I read about his journey, I had to reach out and learn more. He agreed to be interviewed and was an open book… so I’ll dive right in and let you get to know Mr. Dustin Lee.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background? How did you initially get started in Graphic Design?
I’ve been into drawing and music since I was a child. I attended the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics during my high school years and studied visual arts, music, film making and dance (it was a requirement and I was not good, haha).
I’ve always been a very nostalgic person. Great design in books, toys, food and clothing has always been intriguing to me. I just didn’t know there was a job where people made that stuff!
In 2002 I was accepted to attend the Berklee College of Music and planned to spend my life as a musician. But at the last minute began to fear that I would never make much money as a musician.
So I decided to get a “business” job. I worked in the financial industry for 5 years and was really unhappy.
But then I discovered a book called The 4 Hour Work Week from Tim Ferris and that changed my life. I started a blog, then found myself learning Illustrator and Photoshop in order to design my blog.
Eventually, I quit trying to make a blog, focused on design, quit my job and spent around 2 years completely broke trying to make a living as a graphic designer.
I learned a lot of hard lessons, but eventually I did start to figure things out!
Q: What was the focus of your start-up in 2013 and why did you ultimately decide to ditch it?
The start-up I created was called Playbook. It was a project I partnered with my good friend Jonathan Mead (www.paidtoexist.com) on. The idea was that we would uncover the successful to-do lists (or recipes) of success from various online entrepreneurs and then break them down into online courses.
I still think this is a cool idea. Unfortunately, we just went about it all wrong. We invested a lot of money in development and the process of creating courses was long and complicated.
I quit it because I had my first child on the way, needed to make money and it was becoming very clear that Playbook would not become profitable enough to support me.
Q: How long have you been selling digital products?
Q: Is Retro Supply your full time gig? How many hours on average a week do you work?
Yes, RetroSupply almost instantly became my full time gig. My work hours are flexible but I tend to spend about 40 hours a week working on it.
My work is a mix of creating products, working on expanding the business into new areas (I have a tutorial site and stock image site in the works) and marketing.
Q: How important do you think it is to establish a niche in the industry?
I have a sort of weird view on this. I don’t think a niche is critical. But I do think its critical to differentiate yourself. Your customers should see your products and know you created them without looking at the name of the shop. Be different. If you’re not a little uncomfortable with how different you are, you need to push farther to the edge.
If you’re work isn’t sufficiently different than people will quickly forget you. And when you’re trying to build a following and generate sales you need to to burn your business into peoples minds instantly. So don’t be afraid to be dramatically different!
Q: What is your typical day like (paint us a picture… do you work in various coffee shops or at home in your pajamas)?
I work based on energy level. So when my energy is highest I focus on creative work (this is typically morning and late afternoon). I answer email, work with my book keeper and stuff like that when I’m tired and don’t need to be creative.
I mostly work from a home office with a standing desk. I drink a decent amount of coffee and take frequent breaks to spend time with my wife and daughter.
Q: Is your income comparable to what a full time graphic designer working at an agency makes ($45-75k) or does it far exceed this?
My income exceeds this. However, I consider a big reason for this to be because of my marketing background. I spent over 2 years working as a designer for a company who made every dollar through online marketing. This taught me a lot about how to build an audience, make products people will buy and sell. So, in a way, I think it’s hard to compare what I make to a designer as I’m really spending a lot of my time doing other tasks than designing.
Q: Do you focus on Creative Market primarily or do you have your products in multiple shops? If so, which other ones?
I only sell two places: Creative Market and RetroSupply (www.retrosupply.co). I have two reasons for this:
1. Creative Market is awesome! The people that work there are designers themselves. They’re passionate about the products their community makes and truly committed to making it a win/win/win for shop owners, designers and their employees. I feel a huge sense of loyalty towards them because it’s so rare you see a business run with so much heart.
2. I sell on my own site because I believe if you see things online you MUST have your own site. Having your own site gives you the ability to build a tribe, give them special offers, and create a unique experience. You can’t control what happens to other businesses, only your own. So in my opinion you shouldn’t rely solely on someone else for your income.
Q: How much of your time is spent on creating products and how much is focused on marketing?
It’s probably a 50/50 split. Every product is informed by market research. I tend to do a lot of surveys and listen carefully to what my audience wants.
Q: I’ve noticed how much time the marketing takes, how do you stay organized? Do you have systems you follow? Anything you can share with us?
I don’t have any elaborate systems. But I do have priorities. Those are:
• Making products my customers love
• Building my email list
• Consistently releasing new products
• Listening closely to what my audience wants and making it
Q: Do you use the Google Keyword Tool or research trending products before you start creating or do you just go with your gut?
I use Google Analytics, Survey Monkey and I pay attention to sales and responses to products to see what resonates most with people.
Q: Do you invest in PPC advertising on Facebook, Google or ?
Yes! I just stared getting into this and it’s a lot of fun. I use Facebook primarily. But the goal is to build new relationships via my email list. Not to makes sales upfront.
Q: How much time do you invest in social media, sharing and getting followers? Do you focus on certain platforms over others?
I tend to focus mostly on Facebook for the past few months. I’ve also found Dribbble works really well. Lastly, I’ve seen a lot of other designers have huge success with Instagram.
Q: What are your goals for 2015?
To launch RetroAcademy (tutorials based on historical design) and to release a stock image site focused on real retro stock images from the 1940s and 1950s.
Q: Anything else you’d like us to know?
Yes, if you’re interested in learning more about building a side income/passive income for your design business please sign-up for updates from my site: www.dustinlee.co
I share detailed, step-by-step articles about how to start building a passive income if you’re a designer.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you!
How I email (I read every email but can’t reply to ’em all)