When I first started my freelance business, Objektiv Digital, I had a strong grasp of who my target market was, what my pricing should be, how to market myself, and how to make a sale. Everything came quite easily because what I was doing is something that countless other people do. There was an established formula, and all I had to do was stick to it.
With Curious Markings, I was entering unfamiliar territory not only to myself but as far as I know, to everyone else. My unique combination of skills as an artist, writer, and software developer led to me creating a product and a way of marketing myself that I haven't seen any other artist or writer do. I was creating unique pieces of art, and heavily integrating my technology stack with them by creating a catalog, gamifying them in an Android/iPhone app, and using a marketing algorithm sending cryptic messages to people on Tumblr and Twitter.
As I progressed through the project, launching the game, selling my block prints, putting my art on merchandise, I quickly began to learn that the art itself doesn't resonate with people because every attempt I made at monetizing the project came from a place of desperation. I was lucky if I broke even at local markets, my online shop never made sales outside of my small circle of super fans (Hi Mom, Hi Avery!), and if I had been paying myself my Objektiv freelance rate for the number of hours I put in, I would be in debt by 6 figures.
By January 2019, things reached a critical mass, and I had burned myself out. Over time, the fun was being sucked out of it, and by the time I was in my 12th month of working on Curious Markings, it was a point of stress rather than artistic relief by a vast margin. After a moment of panic-induced self-reflection, I decided to stop working on Curious Markings until I started having fun with it again. From there on out, I only worked on the project when I felt like it. I only did things that I would get enjoyment out of.
Fun first, monetization last.
It has already paid off. My userbase has doubled in the past 3 months, the number of engaged users is higher than it ever was, and I'm not tainting the project with desperate attempts to monetize. I am adding value and growing a following. If there's anything I've learned from watching other successful creatives, when I have less than 1,000 users, my focus should be adding value, fostering growth, and not pay-walling anything until there's a well-researched and justifiable reason to do so.
Most of all, I'm having more fun with the project than ever. That's what side projects are for, and I have found tremendous reward in trying to keep it that way. Fun and recharging first, engaged and excited userbase second, monetization last.