We’ve all heard that maxim: Do what you love and the money will follow. But how smoothly, how quickly, and how much—if at all?
In the creator economy, those answers rest squarely on the shoulders of the faces fronting the businesses. And as nearly every creator will tell you, the idea of “overnight success” is the tip of a very, very deep iceberg.
In their words, three successful creators share the insights behind their relentless resourcefulness, and how they turned audiences into customers right from the start.
The accidental gardener
When we moved to San Diego, we got our first water bill and it was $700. I thought, “What the hell?” Water’s really expensive in southern California. So I looked at all my grass and thought, “This has got to go.” I decided to landscape our place on a budget of $0. I trolled Craigslist and Facebook ads like a hyena looking for a snack, and started a blog to chronicle when I scored something nice.
After about a year of that, I thought, “I wish I could do something like this for work.” I was a mortgage broker, and it was stressful as all hell. And then I realized: Why couldn’t I? I did a lot of Facebook stalking about what people were looking for, and what their challenges were. I understood that plants meant so much more, emotionally, to people than just buying a plant.
I told my husband, “I need six months.” I quit my job and started personal plant shopping. As my client base grew, I opened an online store. Then COVID hit, and demand for houseplants exploded. I went from doing 30 orders a month to 1,200 orders. It just went crazy. I needed to expand the line, because I knew I needed to give people a reason to continue coming back to the store. But where was I going to keep all these plants? When I first started setting up my website, there were tears. I’m not tech savvy. When you run your own business, you don’t know that you’ve made a mistake until you make it.
My husband recently quit his job, too, to help with the business. One comment I get often is, “I want to have your life,” and I’m like, “So you really?” On the days that I’m out shopping and I’m soaking wet, smelly, sweating, I’m dirty, I’ve got dust in my ears, and I’m like, “You really want this? OK. Yeah. OK. Let’s go.”
The making of TikTok’s plant mom 🌱
Partly Sunny Projects exploded thanks to Sonja’s dry humor and knack for video content. Find out how she went viral on TikTok and get her advice for selling on the platform.
Templating your best idea
In 2018, I started my own creative agency. I was doing two jobs: my in-house agency job and running my business on the side. It was brutal. I'd wake up at 5 a.m., work for three hours, take the subway to Manhattan, go to the agency job, run out of a meeting room and take a call in a café around the corner with espresso machines grinding in the background. Eighteen-hour days for six months straight. Very, very bad.
Six months in, I got a big enough project that I could leave my day job. But I eventually ran into a problem: The demand on the service side exceeded my ability to fulfill it. I kept thinking there was a way to outwork the system, that I could just spend more time. And that was a fundamental misunderstanding on my part. I realized I had to get to a point where people really know what I do, which is to help people tell their stories succinctly and visually, in the most compelling way I can. That was the first iteration of Visualize Value.
The advantage you have as a creative person is that you’re always leaving proof of work in your wake. Happy clients talk. By then, there was enough attention on this thing I was doing that it could become a brand and a set of products that don’t necessarily require me to show up every day.
Visualize Value has always been a filter for my curiosity, that’s the engine that keeps it running. The compounding effect takes a long time to create. Two years ago, I wasn’t trying to monetize the visualizations, I was just trying to create them consistently. I’ve learned that you don’t have to be all-in on every new idea each time. You establish a base doing something and then you run experiments. When you get a little traction on one experiment, you lean a little further in. And if there’s enough, then you keep leaning. It’s all this very non-linear process.
There are no secrets, which is the beautiful thing about it. A lot of it is just banging your head against the wall until you see a little glimmer of light, and you’re like, “OK, I’m just going to keep hammering here as hard as I can.”
Feedback is a gift
I’ve always been entrepreneurial. I used to charge my parents a fee to watch my girl band perform in the living room. I’ve just always known that was where I would end up.
I’d amassed about 50,000 followers on my fashion blog when I decided to start my own line. But when I started Kai, it was a huge anti-climax. I was very naive. The night before Kai launched, I was looking for the house I was going to buy in a really nice part of London, because I thought we were going to sell out again and again. I thought that because I had this community—which in hindsight I’ve realized was more like an audience—that it would convert. It didn’t. The sales just didn’t come through.
For years later, I didn’t feel like my life was going anywhere. A lot of entrepreneurs start businesses by identifying a problem. I didn’t do that. I just identified that people wanted the clothes I was wearing. So I thought, OK, how can I give people what they want? Let me really go back to my roots and bring elements of my Nigerian heritage into Kai. I worked with a designer to create prints that reflected who Kai was in my heart. That changed everything for us.
In a lot of respects, I didn’t know what I was doing. Building something when you are already a creator and you already have a following, you’re so scared of looking stupid or failing. If you’re going to create something, you want it to be something good. You are going to fail—it’s better to fail earlier. So I started to ask for feedback. That was when we really started to build a close-knit community, because they saw themselves and their feedback and their opinions reflected in the brand.
In 2020, we released our mesh marble Gaia print dress. It’s become really popular—it sells out and it’s highly imitated now. We got press in places like Vogue, and from Beyoncé. After 2020, nothing was the same.