The Problem(s) with Patreon

Many years ago, when I was still part of SFWA, I had a long conversation with the Patreon reps about their platform. I’d been using Patreon for a several years already, and they wanted my take on it. That conversation led me to a video call/interview with the engineers—I think I did two of those? In which they questioned me about use cases and I had a chance to explain what I felt was their greatest challenge. As is typical of me, the tactical stuff had to wait on the philosophical stuff, because I believe you can’t really figure out what you’re doing until you get the big picture in order.

What I told them: ‘you guys are great, but you really have to decide whether you are a payment management system or a content delivery system. Right now you’re trying to do both, badly, and the compromises are killing you.’

Fast forward several more years (I think I’ve been on Patreon for seven now) and if anything they’ve doubled down on their confusion. I’m not the only one who thinks the results are untenable; they invited me years ago to their private sandbox for interaction between creators and the engineering team, and the posts there echo my concerns and frustrations. They’re still doing so after opening that sandbox up to all creators (and replaced almost all the engineer interaction with a marketing/customer communication liaison, who filters our issues before putting them in front of the coding team).

If this is painting a picture to you of a company wildly out of touch with the needs of its users, then yeah. That.

If anything, the philosophical issue of ‘what are we, a way to distribute content or a way to manage payments for artists’ has been compounded by a second, enormous philosophical issue: ‘who is our customer.’ (See my picture above!) You would think this would be straightforward: patrons pay creators, and Patreon skims a commission off the top of that transaction (#1). That means the person cutting the check for Patreon is the creator. They are handing some of their money to the company. But Patreon continually messes this up and treats the patron as the customer: “They are paying Patreon, right?? So that means they’re the ones we should listen to!” They think the relationship looks like #2 there.

But guess what? The person most in touch with what they need to give their audience the experience they expect is… go figure… the artist! Not the people trying to make money off the artists!

If you haven’t got your foundation in order, anything you build on the results is going to fall apart. The many ways Patreon is failing creators are manifest to us… and to patrons as well. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Why doesn’t the search work better? No, the search within the artist patreon, not on the whole site.
  • Why does the page load so slowly? And I didn’t ask for infinite scroll. I wish the stupid infinite scroll would turn off. Why does the infinite scroll not even remember sometimes what the last thing I looked at was??
  • What if I want to catch up on previous entries? Why is it so hard to look back?
  • Why are these entries poorly tagged?
  • Why can I only see one image unless I go to the dog-slow Patreon site?
  • Why doesn’t Patreon leave me logged in? Why do I have to re-login to the site every time I go to it? Why doesn’t it remember which page I was trying to go to once I do login??
  • WHY CAN’T I FIND ANYTHING
  • Why is the comment section SO USELESS

Trust me, these frustrations aren’t minor and you’re not alone. Creators have entire lists of them that get aired and re-aired on the sandbox while the Patreon team designs new layouts for your creator page “to make it easier to attract new patrons.” (Several people always say, “What, so we can immediately lose them because of how much the patron experience sucks?”)

I could forgive some of those languishing projects (anyone remember the Community tab?), but not the fragile backend that breaks every time you change something—or Patreon does. If you are a relatively new patron and you’ve been confused by how many broken links there are, that would be because Patreon made it impossible for us to reassign old posts to new tiers when we shifted them. Or when they shifted them, as they did when they made the ‘you can pay in your local currency’ switch. (Yes, that change broke the permissions system. Without warning.) To fix these continual breaks, I would have to go back and manually reset the permissions on every single post I’ve ever made. All thousand plus of them. Because Patreon has never given us the tool we’ve been asking for to do bulk management of posts. It’s like they’re still in start-up land mentality: “oh, no one has more than a few months of data/posts!” But Patreon’s been around for seven years! Most of us have hundreds, if not thousands of posts!

Believe it or not, there’s not even a mass delete function. And you are surely not surprised that there’s no archive function either, so you can’t download your posts for back-up.

This is without the undercurrent that makes it evident Patreon is not interested in small time creators. They keep making changes (or trying to make changes) that would substantively hurt the 90% of their customer base that isn’t raking in thousands of dollars a month, like shifting the commission structure to punish microtransactions, or putting together and pushing merchandise plans that you’d have to be rolling in money to afford. They very clearly consult frequently with those big dollar creators… but as usual, those creators are the exception, and catering to their needs (while obviously a better financial decision for their company) will rarely help their less lucrative accounts which, you begin to think, they’d rather not have at all.

Do I blame them for focusing on their bottom line? No. (Well, maybe a little, but only because they say they care about all their creators when it’s obvious they don’t. I won’t blame you for trying to maximize your earnings, but I will blame you for lying to make yourself sound good while doing it.) But if Patreon’s gotta do what it’s gotta do, and more power to it, I still have to evaluate whether it’s going to serve me… and right now, it’s clear that as a content management system, Patreon isn’t working. There’s no way for me to manage the number of posts I have, and no graceful way for you all to navigate them. They didn’t even let you tag the posts with more than five tags until recently, when they did a stealth update that allowed it (I would never have known had I not fat-fingered my way onto a sixth tag recently). You can’t find the good stuff, like the short story downloads, without having to swim through dozens of short news posts and other ephemera. And this is a problem that will only get worse with time.

Do I have a plan? I wish. The reason so many people are using Patreon is because there aren’t better options. But I don’t trust Patreon to stick around as a useful platform (why are they so concerned with those upper echelon earners? What do their financials look like?). My safest bet is probably to do all my own hosting and to use Patreon solely as a payment manager, and possibly use it in conjunction with other options (like Paypal subscriptions) to diversify the tip jar income stream in case Patreon collapses, or throws me off the platform, or something else blows up. But my thinking, starting with the foundations (very important) is something like this:

  • Do not sell bonus content. You didn’t do this with Livejournal, and it was healthier for you mentally/spiritually and for the community.
  • Use the Patreon as a tip jar, and as a gateway for Discord access.
  • Continue using Discord as your paid service.

What this looks like, in terms of getting people fun bonus content, is something I’m still trying to figure out. But for now I’ve thrown together a page on my website for some of the missing stuff, and I’ll be putting more things there as I find them. Yes, that page is unlocked (though it’s not linked anywhere). If it gets out to strangers, then I guess they can download some short stories. I’m not going to police that page use; I’ve gotten pretty far trusting my readers to be honorable people and so far you all have never given me reason to regret that, so I will go on as I have.

I expect that these decisions will lose me some people and that’s okay. Not all methods work for all people, and I don’t blame anyone for moving on, or downgrading their tips, if what they expected was exclusive access to bonus content. And maybe I’m a little nervous about that, because Patreon is no longer an insignificant part of my income. But I have got to arrange this so it’s sustainable for all of us, and with Patreon continually breaking things and giving me no way to manage any of it, this method is not working.

I will pause at this point and mention that if you haven’t tried the Discord and you’re at the level where you have access, that it’s worth trying. It’s an extremely positive community, and unlike a lot of creator/patreon Discords, I’m actually there daily, chatting about what I’m doing/working on, sharing excerpts or brainstorming aloud. And that’s just the parts about me; the people there are fantastic, and we do weekly events, and talk about everything from what we’re cooking to what we’re working on. It’s a very supportive and friendly environment, and Discord makes it easy to access (there’s a web client, a desktop client, and a phone client). I recommend it!

So that’s where I am with my thinking. As I said, I’m not sure how it’s going to look once I figure things out, and you are welcome to chime in with your suggestions, comments, or questions, as always. This is a more discombobulated post than I usually write, but trying to fix/figure this out has seriously upset the inside of my brain and it’s mostly confetti in here. Ugly, sad confetti. *halfsmile*

Book Launch: Business for the Right Brained

 

That’s right… I finally compiled all the columns into an e-book for chapters upon chapters of useful business advice illustrated by cartoon jaguars! This book includes all the original Three Jaguars columns, plus an introduction and an extra chapter written just for this book. I also did extra art for it, and added checklists!

So what can you expect inside? Useful information for artists and crafts of any kind on how to productize your art, deciding on your best business strategy, wrangling the day job, tracking important statistics and spotting trends based on them, how to communicate as a professional, figuring out why your time management tactics keep failing… on top of several chapters on how to market yourself without feeling gross, how to price things, what’s that branding stuff, and dealing with change!

Y’all, this is a ton of information. It’s like a brain-dump of all the business advice I give in a single place. And it’s full of bouncy jaguar art. And as if that’s not ENOUGH, there’s a foreword by Kyell Gold, who is an award-winning author and wears a hat. No, seriously, he’s an amazing guy and I am a-squee that he did the foreword.

What are you waiting for? Go forth and enjoy! Click to grab!

 books2read.com/threejaguarsbook

The Three Jaguars: Many Roles

Our first step in embarking on any business endeavor as an artist is to realize that there’s more than one role involved in making a business work. The moment you hand over something in return for money, you’re no longer just the Artist… now your concerns have expanded to include how to handle money, how to get your art into people’s hands, and how to arrange things so both those things happen more often.

By my way of thinking, there are three basic roles: Business Manager, Marketer and Artist. Artist covers any artistic endeavor: writing, craft-making, singing… whatever you’re trying to make money on. Veterans of larger companies will note that I’ve folded Sales into Marketing, which is a personal bias. Don’t worry, Marketer’s pretty energetic, she can handle it.

Without further ado, then, the Three Jaguars!


Business Manager

Primary Workmode: Practical and Administrative
Your Business Manager self needs to channel an inner Virgo (if you have one): meticulous, data-focused and completist. This is the self that makes lists and does chores and says, “Uh, no” to things like “Can I buy a crazy-expensive thing that we can’t afford.” Since I don’t have an inner Virgo, I think of the Business Manager as my inner Parent; they both say ‘no’ a lot.

Duties

  • Accounting: The primary duty of the Business Manager is accounting: tracking expenses and revenue and calculating profit. That means every time money comes in, you write it down, and every time money goes out, you write it down… and then you subtract the one from the other to see how you’re doing. The Business Manager is also in charge of maintaining lists of customers, tracking layaways or recurring purchases/income, and preparing taxes.
  • Personnel Management: Your Business Manager self is also charged with time-tracking: this means that you need to know how long everything you do takes, whether it’s marketing, creative work, or your business management tasks. That really does mean everything. Runs to the post office, inputting income, drawing a new picture, researching a new art supply, social-networking, composing blog posts; all of that is a cost of doing business, and you need to record it. The Marketer will need this data to help advise the Business Manager which tasks are more profitable than others.
  • Asset Management: The Business Manager also tracks (and depreciates) all your assets, manages inventory and replaces or re-orders necessary parts. This is the part of you that shows up to sort and label all your existing work, figures out if you need to buy a new computer or brushes, and purchases another year of your post office box when the rent comes due.
  • Process Management: All businesses have processes… and the Business Manager should always be on the look-out for ways to streamline yours. If you spend less time on processes, you have more time to do everything else. Things like deciding to run all your business errands on the same day so that you aren’t constantly interrupting your studio time to hit the post office fall under process management.
  • Administrative: This is the Self that goes out and mails out things, deposits checks, packages products for mailing, buys pens and papers and coffee.Facing: Vendor and Financial Institutions
    The Business Manager is the one buying things (with a jaundiced eye and a tight fist) and interacting with banks and financial institutions.

    Outsourcing Potential: Medium.
    You can get people do so some of the work of the Business Manager; it’s not too hard to get someone to label things and mail them for you. You can pay for someone to prepare your taxes. This can be moderately expensive, depending on where you are or whether you have access to artist organizations. The cons? A lot of Business Management requires close interaction with you on a day-to-day basis, or exchange of personal information. Getting other people to help you streamline your processes can be hit-or-miss if they don’t know your daily routine or your personal situation.


Marketer

Primary Workmode: Creative and Social

Your Marketer self is the one that spends most of her time thinking about, interacting with, or guessing at what other people want. This can be a surprisingly creative process. The first questions she holds in her mind are: “How would I like to be treated as a customer? What kinds of things would I love to buy?” (Followed closely by “How do other people seem to like to be treated? What kinds of things do they seem to like to buy?”)… which means you spend a lot of time delighting yourself by figuring out what makes you happy and trying to do that for other people.

Duties

  •  Trend Analysis: Your inner Marketer is in charge of taking sales, revenue, and expense data and using it to figure out which of your tasks are the most profitable. For instance, the Marketer might notice that selling prints at a show takes roughly 20 hours and makes $800 before expenses and $600 afterwards… while selling a single original might take 8 hours, make $500 before expenses and $450 after; this would lead your Marketer to tell Business Manager and Artist at their next meeting: “Hey, stop going to shows and produce more originals.”
  • Customer Care: The Marketer is also in charge of dealing with customers. She’s the one who figures out how to attract them, the one who closes the sale (and decides how to manage the sale process to make the customer feel special), and the one who keeps in touch with them afterwards to see if they’re interested in new products. The Marketer’s also the one who deals with problems: yours (“Oops, I was late delivering something I promised: here’s my apology and a coupon or free cool thing!”) or theirs (“Ack, the post office broke your handmade bowl, let’s discuss what we can do about that”).
  • Product Management: Your Marketer is the one who develops new products and maintains existing ones. There’s more than one way to sell an artist’s labor; the art you make is not a product until the Marketer figures out how to sell it. You might choose to license it, sell commissioned work, package it as a book, sell it as prints, collaborate with someone else to create a different item… the possibilities are as endless as your imagination.
  • Research and Advertising: When you sit down to update blogs, do social networking, respond to customer queries, enter contests, send work to juried shows, design fliers, or contact the local paper to offer an interview, it’s your Marketer who’s doing the work of advertising. She’s also the one charged with research to see what your peers are up to: how are they marketing themselves? What products are they offering, and can they be adapted to your work-style? What’s hot now?Facing:Customer
    The Marketer is the one dealing with patrons, audience, customers. You should always have your best face forward for them!

    Outsourcing Potential: Medium-to-High.
    Of all the roles you’ve got, Marketing and Advertising can respond the best to outsourcing (in my experience). You can hire people to run and create your website. You can buy books or read blogs that basically tell you what kind of products to sell or how to sell them. You can hire advertising firms, if you’re so minded. The problem? It’s very expensive. It also means your marketing is less customized to your product and work-style, which can become a problem.


 Artist

Primary Workmode: Creative and Internal

Nose to the grindstone in your studio! Here’s the raison d’etre for the whole business.

Duties

  • Creation: Your number one job as an artist is to make stuff. That’s probably the reason we all signed up for this, after all. But this is ironclad: you really have to make things. You can’t sit in a studio and think about making things. You can’t say you’re going to make things and never get around to it. You can’t make things irregularly. If you’re doing this as full-time work, you should be doing it for most of the day.
  • Research: Your other job as an artist is research. Not just what other artists are doing, though that can be helpful. You should be researching your craft (has some new technology come out that’s made things easier or better? Is there a new technique you can learn somewhere?). You should be experimenting, both with the art itself and with the processes you use to create it. Your goal should be to develop as an artist, because there’s no holding steady. You’re either improving or stagnating. Entropy is law in this universe, and you are no less subject to it than anything else.
  • Practice: Related to research is practice: you should be improving your skills. This relates not just to technique, but how quickly you can turn your work around. Practice is also the only thing that will allow you to learn to estimate your time-per-project, an essential skill: this will allow you to set realistic deadlines and feed data to the Marketer about how much time it takes for you to create something.Facing: Internal
    Your creative self should be quieter than your other selves when interacting with people; by nature most people’s inner Artists are passionate and that passion can often clash badly with your need to be an empathic salesperson. A lot of artists also find that talking about their work gets in the way of doing it: they lose interest after discussing it, or they find themselves discussing it as a way to procrastinate.

    Outsourcing Potential: Low
    Only you can do the work!

In our next segment, we’ll discuss products! Stay tuned!

 




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