Dustin Lee Designer, Founder of RetroSupply Co.

Dustin Lee is founder of RetroSupply Co., a shop that makes Photoshop and Illustrator effects easy to create. Dustin successfully runs an online business and teaches us how to do the same quickly and effectively with the combination of finding a problem other industry professionals encounter and creating a solution with the skills we already have (hint designer, illustrator).
Interview by Cesar Contreras

Cesar: Pencil or pixel?

Dustin: Oh man. That’s hard because I run a shop that does, that turns pencil to pixels. It’s counterintuitive to what I guess you’d say since I run a site called RetroSupply. But I guess I would say pixel. The whole point of my shop is that we’re bringing things and we’re making them digital to save people time. I’m going to think back on that later and wish I said pencil but I stand by pixel right now.

Cesar: We’re definitely going to talk about RetroSupply and what it is. But before we do that, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What led to RetroSupply, and what were you doing before?

Dustin: I’ve always been an art person. Like I think a lot of graphic designers, I went to the first art…

Cesar: I’m sorry to interrupt, but I love how you said art person.

Dustin: I was, you know? I like comics, I like drawing, strangely as a kid I liked packaging a lot which sounds weird, but I was drawn to packaging. I went to the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics in Vancouver, Washington which was the first art magnet school. And I got in for drawing and then I studied guitar and composition basically the whole time I was there. But you’re required to take everything.

So I took classes on moving image arts, painting, sculpture. You had to hit every art form. So my senior I had to take dance and I had held off. And they put you in a class with people at your same skill level. So I ended up being in a modern dance class with sixth graders which was insane. I’m glad there’s no footage of it that I’m aware of.

Anyways after that, I almost went to Berkeley College of Music to study music, and got accepted to go in, and then I go afraid of all the student debt. What I decided was that the smartest thing to do would be to study business. I figured I could learn the art side, but you can’t make money unless you know the business side. I decided to go work for a bank because what’s more business than a bank?

Turns out that you don’t learn a lot about business in a bank. You just learn a lot about counting money and making cashier’s checks. So I hated that job and I left it to be a designer and went back to school. And I just really wanted to be an entrepreneur. So I had been trying some things and failing, and then I found out, we moved to California, made a little start-up with my friend, and it was failing. And then I found out that our …

Cesar: What was it, if you don’t mind me asking?

Dustin: It was called Play Book and I was working for an online marketer. And it was essentially getting online marketing celebrity types and having them show their specific steps to different marketing recipes. And we just were in over our heads. You have to find developers to build the site, you have to build these relationships out, it was just too much. We would break even, so we were making money, but I wasn’t going to get rich off this, or even make a living out of it.

Then we found out we had a little girl coming on the way, and I just felt a tremendous amount of pressure. So I started getting up really early before I had to work on the start-up, and making products like design products for Creative Market. It was a Hail Mary, I didn’t know what else to do. So I just figured I’m just going to every day work at this and that was what really pushed me to stop, we were talking before we started recording, about imposter syndrome, and things like that.

That kind of got me over my imposter syndrome and I just realized I had a little girl on the way, and I need to make stuff and put it out there. Like there’s no more time to let my vanity or my fear of criticism from other people get in the way. I just have to put things out. And within 30 to 45 days it was off and running. I think by the end of the second month I had made over $15,000. I just figure I should keep doing that.

Cesar: That’s such an interesting story and we’re going to talk about different ways that artists could make money. One of them being passive income. And yeah super excited about that. But I’m curious, before we get into that, you said that you’re an art person. Which is awesome, I love that.

What was it that led you to graphic design? Me for example, I was in a band and we needed merchandise and website and all kinds of stuff, and I kind of stepped up to …

Dustin: I notice that’s a really common path into graphic design.

Cesar: Yeah. What was it that led you? Because you were ready to go to Berkeley for music. I mean you were set to go.

Dustin: Sure, I was. I reserved my room, I mean I was serious about going. That’s not really how I got into it. I was in a band and the singer in my band was a web designer, but how it happened for me was I had read the 4-Hour Workweek and you know, a big premise of that, that book and there was another one that hasn’t been as big called Career Renegade by Jonathan Fields. It’s like one of Jonathan Fields’ first books. He’s a brilliant guy and his big thing was you need to start a blog. I was reading the Art of Non-Conformity blog by Chris Guillebeau and I wanted to start a blog. So I set up a WordPress site and then, you know what happens if you’ve ever done a WordPress site. The next thing you know, you realize you need graphics.

Cesar: Yeah, yeah you start digging into CSS and you get into plugins and it gets crazy…

Dustin: Exactly and so that just led me down this rabbit hole to Photoshop and Illustrator and I just found that I enjoyed Photoshop and Illustrator more than I did the blogging. It just slowly morphed into loving graphic design.

Cesar: Now how long did that take? Because we listen to what you’re saying and it just seems like this is just kind of flowing through and it’s just a matter of, I don’t know, maybe a few weeks, few months. How long did it take?

Dustin: It took years. It was years of failure and being, you might have heard of the famous thing from, if you’ve ever watched, listened to “This American Life” with Ira Glass, he talks about taste. Do you remember that famous, have you seen that?

Cesar: Oh absolutely.

Dustin: Yeah and the general idea was that as designers or artists, lots of times we have taste way before we have the talent to execute on our ideas. And that’s where I was. Like I knew what looked good, I knew what I thought people liked, but I didn’t have the skills to do it.

I spent a lot of years failing, making very bad stuff, and I can only be thankful that I was naïve enough to think I was pretty good. And I think that’s a powerful thing. I think when you can kind of feel pretty confident about where you’re at, it helps you push forward. I mean if the whole time I thought that I sucked, I would’ve never gotten anywhere.

So anyways, it was years. And I remember waking up in the middle of the night, especially once I had a family, or once I was married, and thinking am I living a pipe dream? Am I the dude that everyone knows that keeps doing something even though it’s not working? And it was really terrifying.

Cesar: Shit man, that’s how I feel.

Dustin: Yeah, yeah.

Cesar: Even today, even today.

Dustin: Oh yeah, yeah absolutely. And I’m glad to hear that you feel that way too. I still feel that way sometimes and then it’s a little easier to justify it once you start to see a little bit of success. But I mean I spent a lot of time being embarrassed to try to explain what I was doing. Because inevitably money comes up or things like that, and you’re like the money’s not coming yet. But I’m working on it. So I’m glad I stuck with it. But I was at the point where I was about to give up.

Cesar: So true. When you’re about to give up, when it seems like nothing’s working, right? I mean for some reason a new opportunity pops up or something good happens. And you start to realize that maybe I’m going in the right direction. In your case, going in the right direction means starting RetroSupply. Now can you explain to us what RetroSupply is? We’ve been talking about it this whole time.

Dustin: Sure, yeah. RetroSupply grew out of a little creative market shop made out of desperation when our first child was on the way. And it was basically my response to seeing so much work on places like Dribbble that I loved, where they’d have these amazing textures or these amazing registration errors, and stuff like that. I remember being a really big fan of the Fossil boxes.

And that drew me back to the actual real original stuff from mid-century American design. Nobody was selling solutions to that kind of stuff. And I finally just decided I’m going to be the person that does that. I’m going to make the shop that no one will make so I can get this stuff. And I just started every single day spending two or three hours making and trying to recreate those things, and figured it out. And just by keeping on doing it turned out I wasn’t the only one that was interested in that. So we sell Photoshop and Illustrator files and fonts and all sorts of stuff, particularly to help you recreate mid-century American design aesthetics – to tie it up.

Cesar: Yeah you were scratching your own itch. You saw an opportunity, you noticed that there was a need for designers …

Dustin: Right.

Cesar: And you figured it out. That’s awesome. I remember when I was trying to figure out how to create a specific effect in, I don’t know, Photoshop or Illustrator and I would spend hours trying to figure the damn thing out and it would just give me a headache and I’d put it away for a long time. Finally days later I would figure it out or get close to that effect.

Dustin: Do you remember, this might still be a thing, but do you remember like you look on Dribbble or anywhere where people were showcasing their work and remember people would say, “What’s that font you’re using?” or “How did you get that texture?” And then it would be like radio silence from the person that posted it.

Cesar: Oh yeah.

Dustin: They didn’t want to give up the secret and I found it maddening that no one wanted to share that. And I was like I’m going to be the guy that does this. Like I’m going to be the guy distributing this and being transparent on how this stuff is done.

Cesar: Love it.

Dustin: Because I mean at the end of the day, like things like RetroSupply or textures or things like that aren’t what make great design. It’s just something you can add that is appropriate for some projects. For instance for my audience, a lot of people are illustrators that do children’s books and things like that. It works great for that.

But there tends to be this kind of thing where people feel like they have a secret sauce and they don’t want to share it with other people. And I’m not saying I’m past being like that sometimes, but I just, that really provoked me to try to create that stuff.

Cesar: Well I love that and you’re doing what I think a lot of well-respected artists nowadays are doing. They’re just being completely open about what they do. All of their methods and tactics and everything. I personally am super grateful for that. This is one thing that people think, that once you share what you know, your work is going to go away.

Someone else is going to take over what you’re doing, which is completely not true. What it does is it exposes you a little bit more, people start to trust you, and they’re like, “Hey you know what, man?” Basically they’re saying I’ve got your back.

Dustin: Right.

Cesar: And on top of that you’re kind of passing along a little bit of knowledge, which when you see the big picture, nothing happens other than you made another person happy.

Dustin: It’s so true. And it is, it’s hard to get over. When RetroSupply first started and it started to really gain some traction, I remember Creative Market approaching me and saying, “Would you mind writing like some blog series on what you think makes things do well.” And I had a background from working for a business called Paid to Exist, which was all about online marketing and making a business you’re passionate about.

So I had a good understanding of online marketing and I think that really helped that I was mixing online marketing concepts with graphic design, and they asked me, “Would you write some posts on this?” I had to think about it because I was like well what if I tell people this and then I lose. Because they all start doing what I’m doing and seeing how it all works. Then I realized if I don’t do it, somebody’s going to do it. This was for purely selfish reasons at first. I just realized if I don’t share this stuff, someone else will. So I might as well get credit. And I know that sounds bad, but that was my initial reasoning behind it.

Cesar: I have to be the guy.

Dustin: I’m going to be the guy, yeah. I figured, I might as well be the guy. And then as it turns out you’re 100% right. You share stuff and it doesn’t take away from you, it just helps more people succeed, but there’s room for everybody and I think I needed to learn that by seeing it happen.

Cesar: Yeah.

Dustin: Everyone’s different, everyone makes special, unique stuff. There’s never going to be too many podcasts.

Cesar: Exactly.

Dustin: Or too many design shops as long as people are being themselves for sure.

Cesar: Your company which is now, it’s been around for how many years now?

Dustin: About three and a half years.

Cesar: Yeah three and a half years, man. I mean you’ve done pretty well for yourself.

Dustin: Yeah, yeah. I mean I’m no Bill Gates for sure, but I went from… I remember it being a Friday evening, and I love Thai food, and I remember me and my wife really wanted to go get Thai food. But I had to ask the question, if I get the Thai food, can we still afford to pay for this bill? Or like get creamer for the coffee tomorrow? Or like the birthday present next week for the birthday party?

Cesar: It’s the budgeting life.

Dustin: Exactly. And I think this, I like to think of where I’m at now as a point where I don’t have to not have my Thai food on Friday because I’m afraid that I can’t afford my half and half on Saturday. So I’m not a Bill Gates, but like it definitely has given me freedom. And to go back to your idea about sharing, with Passive Income for Designers, I’ve shared a lot of that and like I recently had just done a very closed course to just a handful of people, about 50. I’ve got I guess a little more than a handful. And so many of them made some serious sales and it feels really good. I think it took me like, when like I said, when I first started, I was so I guess maybe just what’s the word like spiritually, like without getting all woo-woo.

Cesar: No please, please start getting woo-woo. I’m totally cool with that.

Dustin: Like I can’t think of the word, like lack of abundance. Like I felt like there was only enough for…

Cesar: Oh okay you didn’t feel fulfilled?

Dustin: No, no, like I felt like kind of like we were talking about earlier, like I felt like well if I give away secrets or stuff, then there’s not enough left for me.

Cesar: Yeah.

Dustin: And I slowly realized that there is. The more you give away stuff, it sounds cheesy, it’ll keep expanding out because new opportunities will arise. Through the Passive Income for Designers course I showed people what I did, they did it, a lot of them became successful and my business is doing better than it was. So it doesn’t take away from you to do that.

Cesar: I love it, man. This whole passive income thing, there’s this bad connotation to marketing.

Dustin: Right.

Cesar: So marketing and business and passive income. You could throw out all these different terms.

Dustin: There’s a very like Sham Wow feel to passive income.

Cesar: Yes, yes. Can you explain to us what is passive income? How can designers, illustrators, painters, artists, musicians, writers take advantage of these hidden opportunities?

Dustin: Right yeah. Well first of all you’re totally right. Passive income is like this totally loaded term that I think most people associate with car salesmen and Sham Wow and late night infomercials. When you hear that, it basically sounds like a “get rich quick” scheme thing that you shouldn’t trust, and you should turn and run away from, right?

Passive income is just a negatively connotated word, that really what it means is making something once and profiting off of it for a long time. That’s not a new concept. So the idea of book publishing, way before the internet. The idea of films and licensing and merchandise and things like that, those are things where these companies license out the concept of Frozen to go on every single thing inside of a whole section of Target. And they make the stuff for Frozen once and they make money off the licensing forever.

So passive income is not a new idea, it’s not a “get rich quick” scheme, it’s a very common thing that has gotten this name that has gotten a bad rap. But here’s the really ironic or I don’t know if it’s ironic, but here’s the really funny thing about designers and passive income.

Cesar: Throw it at us, man.

Dustin: If you read books or look at people that are like making things that create a passive income, say eBooks or online courses, or all sorts of other stuff, the people making the core components that lead to profits are graphic designers. That’s the crazy part. The graphic designers are getting paid by the hour, they’re selling their time …

Cesar: That’s so true.

Dustin: … and they’re making something that the third party is selling to create a passive income. So literally the graphic designer has the thing that creates the passive income and they sell it once for a couple hundred dollars or a couple thousand if they’re good, and then someone else makes tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars off this.

To me it seems absurd that as graphic designers with all the skills and creative resources we have, that designers are not doing this. We are the ones that can make it. The other people need us. So yeah work for other people, but like take a note from their playbook and start doing that for yourself too. I hear so many stories of designers being like, “Well I’m living in this feast/famine cycle. One month I’m doing well and who knows what the next month will be like.” Some months it’s wine and fancy cheese or whatever, and other months it’s breaking Top Ramen blocks in half to make it through the month, right?

Cesar: Ramen and water.

Dustin: So you think like if you could just make something cool that other designers or other people will find useful, and really that’s all it’s about is finding the pain point, and just eliminating the pain point for people and selling that for a reasonable price. If you can do that, you can make up the difference of that one client that drives you bananas.

Or you can make that difference in the gap between a good month and a bad month. If you can bridge that, think about how less stressful your life is. I’m making a full-time living doing this, but you don’t have to do that. A lot of people do this and they just make $500 extra bucks a month. That’s a lot of money. That could go a long way between, I mean that’s a rent for a lot of people, you know?

So that’s what it’s about, is it’s about trying to eliminate some stress and giving people the freedom to be able to fire that horrible client that like they dread every month, or stuff like that. It’s really about freedom and eliminating stress.

Cesar: What would be a way to, or an exercise to get some ideas rolling?

Dustin: Sure yeah. Well the first thing is you want to know what your strengths are. So when I do workshops, what I highly recommend people do is they talk to other designer friends and they just say, “Hey will you tell me, and you’re not going to hurt my feelings, tell me what I am really good at.” Like, “What, if you were going to refer me to someone, am I excellent at?” And there will be something you’re good at. It doesn’t matter how small it is.

Me for instance, I’m good at making textures. Is that a complicated thing? No it’s not a complicated thing but as it turns out I like scanning stuff and photographing stuff and making textures.

Find something that you excel at and start there and then find ways that you can help to eliminate that problem for other people.

So as an example let’s say you’re great at making badges. I’m kind of thinking like someone like Nick Slater here. Like Nick Slater’s amazing at badges, right? Not that he needs a passive income. I’m sure he’s probably raking in the dough from these amazing logos he makes. But let’s say you’re great at making badges and you really excel at that. Well you’re probably just getting paid every time you make one. And when you ask everyone they say, “Well dude, obviously you’re great at making badges.”

So what if you were to make, I mean there’s all sorts of ways you could do this. You could make a course where you literally just buy some simple software to record your screen and you guide people through making badges. And then at the end of some of the stuff you post on social, you just say, “Hey if you’re interested in doing this and you want to feel like you’re literally looking over my shoulder watching this, here’s this little course. You can grab it here. And I’ll tell you what. For like $19, $49, $100 to learn how to do that, that’s a skill that’s going to pay for itself.”

So you could sell it that way. I mean you could make up a bunch of the extra junk pieces that your clients rejected and put them all in a file and say, “Here’s all these rejected pieces of badges and no one ever wanted. You’re welcome to mix and match them and make your own badge set.” You see what I mean?

So it’s getting something that you’re good at that might be a pain point or something that’s hard for other people, and packaging that in a way that does not involve trading time for money.

Dustin: At its simplest.

Cesar: This is a hard one because everyone’s different of course, but I mean what simple concrete set of tools would you say someone would need to get started for an online business.

Dustin: Yeah it’s hard because when you’re beginning, a big problem is that most people in their starting don’t have a big audience or following. More often than not that’s the case. So I would say if you’re starting, and let’s just say you’re a graphic designer, a great place to go is to Creative Market.

Creative Market gives you a 70% cut of anything you sell. You can go on there, make a shop. You can literally go on there and just look and see what’s ranking high. I always tell people look at stuff that’s ranking high in different categories, find something that’s your strength, and then don’t copy what they’re doing. But look at what they’re doing and go look at the comments. Look at the comments on very popular products and look for complaints.

You’ll look at a popular product and they’ll say, oh maybe it’s an amazing script font, right? People say there’s no language support for this. Why won’t you do this? Or they say, “I don’t understand how to do this. Can you explain how to do this?” So that means they didn’t give good instructions. You make your own version in your own flavor. You don’t steal someone’s glory, like you were saying. You be yourself and you make something that hits those same pain points and needs that is making that product popular and then you improve upon it by looking at comments from people that are expressing their pain. And maybe you amplify the things that people love. So maybe people say, “Oh I absolutely love that you have so many stylistic alternatives to this font.” Let’s say you’re making a font. You make even more of those. Or they say, “I love your preview images of how you put this on to posters or pillows or whatever.” You know there’s a lot of people that buy for Etsy there.

So then you say, “Okay I’m going to show people how to set this up and have it printed onto pillows.” You do that and you will find your own audience.

If you listen, people will literally tell you, you don’t have to guess. You can look at comments and look at popular products and it gives you everything you need to know to make a product that will do well.

Cesar: I’m already thinking this is going to be a great episode.

Dustin: Nice. [Laughs]

If someone else has done something, do it and be unabashedly yourself. Let your personality shine through. Let the weird things about you shine through because when you do, people won’t forget you. If you try to be like everyone else, people will forget you.
– Dustin Lee

Cesar: All right so on that note, how could someone overcome the fear of building an online business? We were talking about this earlier before even recording. There’s imposter syndrome, there’s the thought of like well three other people are already doing it, so why should I do it? How can someone overcome the fear?

Dustin: So it’s interesting because a lot of people will say, well like in my course, a lot of people would say, “Well people are already doing this and I want to do something different.” And my feeling on that is that’s insanity. That’s total insanity. If something’s doing well, if something’s doing well that means they’re making money.

And if you really want to know if something will make you money, because remember the whole point of this is not to live your passion. I mean you should do work that you love, but it’s very seldom that you can just do whatever you love and it just happens to rain money on you. You have to look at what eliminates pain points for people. So if someone is doing something, it’s probably making money. If someone keeps repeating what they’re doing, it’s definitely making money.

So let’s say you go to Creative Market again, and let’s say you see that someone has released eight script fonts. Unless they’re just insane, like unless like maybe they’re just a crazy person.

Cesar: They just love script.

Dustin: Yeah they just love scripts, yeah. They’re probably going to keep making scripts because they’re making money. So I guess that’s just something I wanted to mention to overcome the idea that you need to, if someone else is doing it, you shouldn’t do it.

The other part about that too is that we buy things because it makes us feel good inside. You get that little just rush that I don’t know what you call, like an endorphin rush maybe, when we buy things.

People want to buy things, even if you’ve already bought something you’ll buy it again, because someone else made it. For instance I have a marketing book from Seth Godin called Purple Cow. I’m guessing you’ve heard of it judging from talking to you.

Cesar: Absolutely.

Dustin: But that doesn’t mean that I’ll never buy a marketing book again that’s about differentiation because everyone has different spins. So just think if someone else has done something, do it and be unabashedly yourself. Let your personality shine through. Let the weird things about you shine through because when you do, people won’t forget you. If you try to be like everyone else, people will forget you. But if you’re the guy that does whatever, people will remember you.

The other thing about eliminating fear I think is we’re always afraid to release something. That’s such a good question you asked, because so many people when they start, they try to start these businesses and never actually start them. So before I had this business.

Cesar: Me right here, my friend.

Dustin: Yeah, yeah. Everybody has. I had it. And so before I had this business, I worked for a company called Paid to Exist and we helped people start businesses based on things that they loved. About 70% of the people in these groups that paid for this class, never released things because they kept hemming and hawing and wringing their hands. And I mean that respectfully towards them.

Cesar: 70 percent?

Dustin: 70 percent.

Cesar: That’s huge.

Dustin: Yeah. What makes people succeed is not that they have the best idea, it’s the people that can overcome things and get things out. So how do you do that? The best way to do that is to get in a philosophical mindset where you tell yourself, “I want this to fail. I don’t expect this to do good. I’m going to open the shop and I’m going to put something out, and I’m going to put out whatever I think is neat or I’m going to spend 15 minutes looking across the site of similar products, and find something I like, and I’m going to make it. And I’m going to make it in four hours or less and I’m going to release it with full intention that it’s not going to do well.”

Cesar: Starting with low expectation.

Dustin: Right. Like just accept the fact that it’s not going to do well. And if it does, you’ll be happy and if it doesn’t, it won’t come as a surprise. And once you’ve done that, you break through that mental barrier in your head, and you realize it’s going to be okay.

I remember when I released my first product, I kept checking my email because I was afraid people were going to oust me and be like, “You suck. Like you shouldn’t be on here. Like you’re not good enough to be doing this. Who told you, you were allowed to be on here posting new products?” And nobody’s ever done that. So I guess my whole idea behind that is release things, release them soon. Typically when people don’t, it’s because they’re just …

Cesar: And it doesn’t matter if they’re perfect, right?

Dustin: It absolutely does not matter. People are so forgiving of things if you try your best, and remember like when you put something out, like let’s say you put something out and people don’t like it. Or they buy it and then they say, “Well this didn’t work. That was really not a good idea.” That’s awesome. They literally just gave you free consulting advice. They literally just told you this needs to change.

So you go change that and you got free consulting on how to make the product better. But bottom line is you just have to get things out. You just have to become a person that puts stuff out.

Cesar: How often do you read? We’re mentioning a ton of books here.

Dustin: I have a bookshelf that looks like it might be the same white Ikea bookshelf that you have right to the left hand side of me. And it looks just about like yours. So I read a lot.

Cesar: So you read a lot of business books? Does it vary?

Dustin: I read a lot of books on either marketing or philosophy.

Cesar: Cool. What are some of the philosophical books you read?

Dustin: Yeah there’s an author, I’m going to butcher his name. His name is like Alain de Botton I think is how you say it. And he, I believe was an Oxford graduate in philosophy and he gets philosophical concepts from philosophers from all the way back to ancient Greece to the present. And the way he puts it is he says, “Most philosophers don’t help you apply these things to real life.” So he gets concepts and he helps you to apply philosophical concepts to your life.

So great perfect example that kind of goes with this failing thing. There’s a philosopher, and I can’t remember the name off of the top of my head, but he said, “If you’re anxious about things going wrong” he said, “get the most horrible, cheapest torn apart clothes you have.”

Cesar: Oh, Seneca!

Dustin: Seneca, thank you. “The most horrible clothes you have and go sleep on the floor with a bowl of water or something like that, on your kitchen floor with no heat on, and just kind of get a feeling for how horrible things can be. And you’ll realize things are not actually that bad.” So I guess his whole point is just kind of helping us to reframe how we think about things so we can inoculate ourselves or change our minds and not fear failure so much.

Cesar: You’re still alive, right? I mean you’re still alive and well somewhat.

Dustin: Exactly. And it’s certainly not to discount people being homeless or having those struggles.

Cesar: No, no, no, definitely not.

Dustin: Yeah, I mean I totally understand like …

Cesar: But it’s just kind of a way to shock your brain and your system into like hey if this is the worse that could happen, it’s not really that bad.

Dustin: Right exactly, exactly. Or to realize that, when we were just talking and you were saying that you, oh man I’ve woken up before and been like what am I doing? Like this is insane. Am I that guy living this pipe dream? To like I think when we realize that other people are going through those types of things, it makes it so much easier to keep going. Because you realize you’re not insane or weird or different than everyone else; that everyone else is struggling with these same things. It’s just very few people mention it.

Cesar: And that’s one of the beauties of the internet, getting to talk to people that are doing it, that have had the same struggles, and yeah speaking of books are there any other book recommendations that you might have?

Dustin: Oh for sure. I’d be curious to know, you seem like you read quite a few books too judging by the massive stack behind you.

Cesar: I try to get by with them.

Dustin: Yeah we’ll have to have an extended conversation sometime about this.

Cesar: Yeah, I’d love to.

Dustin: I bet we can trade some cool stories. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a guy named Dan Kennedy? He’s a copywriter and he’s a very heavy sales-y, almost borderline car salesman. He’s just a very aggressive copywriter who writes this very, it’s the kind of sales copywriting that really turns a lot of people off. But I own a couple of his books and it’s not because I want to be that kind of marketer when I sell my products, but it’s because you can go through them and you’ll find little nuggets.

Cesar: Yeah.

Dustin: You’ll look and see one thing, you’ll be like, “That’s a great idea like to build into my product.” Or “This is something fun that I can add to the products.” I think the thing about the 4-Hour Work Week which is so great is that he has such specific exact things to do that you can read them and say, “Oh I can kind of tweak this for what I’m doing.” And you can kind of plug and play with ideas. It’s just, I love that kind of stuff.

Cesar: Yeah the 4-Hour Work Week is, it’s one of those heavily research-driven books. It’s almost like you’re reading a report. It’s definitely worth giving it a shot, giving it a read. And copywriting, thank you for mentioning copywriting, because it’s super important. And we could definitely take advantage of little tricks to catch a bit more attention with our writing. So definitely a big one. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of selling online? So what are the pros and cons?

Dustin: So the biggest pro is this. If you build an email list with something like MailChimp you can make a significant amount of money very quickly. In fact you can make money without even having anything done yet. So you can literally just come up with an idea. I see a furrow in your eyebrows a little bit, so I’ll give you an example.

I created a subscription pack on RetroSupply. And it was a pack of textures that I made, I called them diet vector textures. So I made these textures that won’t crash Illustrator and the whole thing around it was you can avoid the spinning wheel of death.

I just made one pack and it took me, I don’t know, a couple hours with me and a friend and maybe a couple other hours to make a little video, and I recorded myself making a howling wolf sound, we put a little animated wolf in it. Anyways it didn’t take that long to do.

Cesar: I remember seeing that, yeah.

Dustin: Yeah it didn’t take that long to do, and we just made that one pack, and then we sent the email out to about 15,000 people and said, “Hey if you buy this pack, it’s going to cost you $29 and every week for the next three weeks, we’ll deliver you a new pack.

Cesar: Whoa.

Dustin: I sent that out, I didn’t think much about it. And by the time my wife picked me up for lunch – I was out of town using my old laptop – by the time my wife picked me up for lunch, I had made like $3,000.

Cesar: In how long?

Dustin: And hour, 15 minutes maybe.

So that’s the advantage. And just to be clear, that doesn’t happen every time. I mean sometimes you send something out and it’s like crickets.

Cesar: Right.

Dustin: So that’s the highest most exciting thing. It’s amazing to make as much as I used to make in a month, in an hour.

Cesar: Yeah. Can I go back a little bit? You mentioned 15,000 subscribers. You already had these subscribers?

Dustin: I did. Something I learned from working in online marketing before I started RetroSupply, was that more important than your products, more important than your social media following, more important than anything, is your email list. So if I had to today, if someone said you can either keep the products you’ve made, or you can keep your email list, I would say take the products and let me keep my email list. The products are not worth anything because products don’t grow money out of them somehow. People give you money for stuff.

Cesar: Exactly.

Dustin: So a good list is more important than anything. That’s the most positive thing about having your own business is having the ability to do that, and it only works if you really respect your list and you treat them good and just treat them like you would want to be treated yourself.

What makes people succeed is not that they have the best idea, it’s the people that can overcome things and get things out.
– Dustin Lee

Cesar: Can you give us an example of how to treat the list?

Dustin: Yeah, I mean by like if someone emails you and says, “I didn’t like this product.” I have this better than money back guarantee where I say if you buy this and decide you don’t like it because you don’t like it, if you decide you don’t like it because you don’t like my face, if you decide you don’t like it for whatever reason, just email me and I’ll give you your money back. Why? Because that’s how I’d want to be treated. I’d like to know if I buy something and I’m not happy with it, that I don’t feel burned. Doing things like that I think does a lot. The negative part when you run your own business like this, I work from home, so it’s been amazing. I get to see my daughters grow up. And I can go take a nap in the middle of the day.

I have this after lunch where I can’t do anything, I’m so exhausted. So I’ll take a nap every day. That’s amazing. The hard part is that it’s hard to turn it off. When a customer writes you at 10:30 at night after they spent $59 on something and they can’t open it, or they’re having a problem, it’s really, really hard to keep away from the computer. Because you know someone’s sitting off in Milwaukee or something like that feeling like they just …
Cesar: Or maybe halfway across the world.

Dustin: Yeah or maybe they’re just waking up in Australia or something like that and they bought your product and now they’re bummed out, and they feel like they got burned.

Cesar: Yeah, that’s one of those things that I would be afraid of having the responsibility to handle on my day-to-day.

Dustin: That is the hard part. The good thing about it is that you can, if I was to do it again, I would’ve built it a little differently. So right now I’m going back through and I have a part-time, probably going to full-time designer working with me now. And I’m starting to build in the system.

I always think of like Ray Crock and McDonald’s. How can we make a system where everything always happens the same way? It’s not like you’re reinventing the wheel every week. I joke with Suzanne who’s the designer I work with that sometimes it feels like, because you know, we have to pay bills. I have to pay the designer, I have to pay for software, I have to pay for my mortgage and for my kids, and for savings.

I told her, I said, “Sometimes it feels like I’m in one of those game shows or something where the week starts and then like you’re in one of those tubes and the money starts blowing, and you have 30 seconds to grab as much of it as you can before the machine turns off.”

Cesar: Yeah.

Dustin: And that’s chaos. So we’ve been building systems. And the more you build systems, the less work it becomes. And it’s just smart and I’m a slow learner, and I’m finally learning how important it is to implement these systems. And even with the few I’ve put in place, my life has become so much easier. So you can solve these things.

Cesar: Absolutely. I’m just going to bring a book up again.

Dustin: Sure, yeah.
Cesar: You just reminded me of one that I’m reading right now. It’s by Scott Adams, it’s called How to Fail at Everything and Still Win, I think. I think that’s the title.

Dustin: I read that.

Cesar: And I just began reading the book and he says, “First and foremost, you have to create a system.”

Dustin: I listened to the audio version of that book a couple years ago. That guy’s brilliant, huh?

Cesar: He’s so good.

Dustin: He’s a very smart dude.

Cesar: What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see others making who are selling art or want to sell art? And how can we avoid or fix them?

Dustin: I think the biggest mistake is that people want to make things that expand, and I mean this in not an insulting way, but people want to make things, designers oftentimes want to make things that expand their own egos as opposed to the other person’s ego.

And here’s a perfect example. I think one of the hardest businesses to get into as a designer is selling t-shirts. Every designer wants to sell t-shirts. It’s insane. And they want to put their illustrations on t-shirts and they want to sell them and nobody does it. Like very few people. Right like what? United Pixel Workers Union? A couple others? I mean most of the people that make money selling t-shirts are the people where like they sell other people’s t-shirts and then a handful of those people make money.

So in those cases, these people are trying to sell their artwork on a t-shirt. But if you think about it for instance, you for example, you have a pretty bad-ass blue tiger on your shirt which is pretty cool.

Cesar: Oh yeah, Jason Sturgill right here.

Dustin: So that’s pretty awesome, right?

Cesar: Yeah.

Dustin: I have some shirts like that too. That’s sweet. But if I was going to sell shirts, and let’s say like you’re like a podcaster. You have just as much a chance of selling a lot of shirts using some sort of insider term that only podcasters know and just putting it in Helvetica on the front of a shirt.

In fact that’s more likely to sell than someone putting one of their pieces of artwork on the front because it’s going to expand the other person’s ego, right? And I mean that in a positive way. Like we all have that ego part of ourselves. We want to express ourselves.

Cesar: We want to be taken seriously. [Laughs]

Dustin: Yeah or you want like other podcasters to know like, they’ll see you and be like, “Hey buddy, I know what you mean with like your Yeti microphone shirt. I know what that means. Like we’re in the same boat here with this podcast thing, right?” That’s going to probably sell better than some random illustration on a shirt.

I think the biggest mistake people make is they don’t ask, “Is this eliminating a pain point for somebody?” The closer you get to eliminating true pain points or helping someone to express themselves, I think the more likely you are to make money. The more you’re trying to just sell people on yourself and your own artwork, you just have to decide, am I in this to try to make a living, or am I in this to express myself as an artist?

Cesar: Yeah.

Dustin: And I think they’re both equally awesome paths to go down. You just have to decide which one do I want?

Cesar: I love it.

Dustin: So yeah it’s just you have to decide. It’s very hard to have it both ways. You can either make money or you can express yourself 100% on your own terms. I hate to say that, but I really do think it’s true.

Cesar: Any other resources that you’d recommend, besides some of the books that we’ve mentioned? And I know there are many more, but any other resources? And they could be documentaries, it could be blogs, websites, people that you’re familiar with, anyone, anything.

Dustin: Yeah there is a YouTube channel. This is by, again the philosopher Alain de Botton. I’m sorry Alain if you’re hearing this, I’m saying your name wrong, but he has a YouTube channel called the School of Life.

Cesar: Oh that, okay. So I’m familiar with that.

Dustin: Okay yeah. I literally love that so much, there was like three months where I went to bed listening to it, just absorbing it. I mean so if you want something that will just I think strengthen your mind and your perspective on your design and your work and being brave, and how hard it can be sometimes to be a designer, fantastic channel to listen to. Oh you know someone else I just recently discovered who I absolutely love is, there’s a guy named Justin Jackson.

Cesar: Rings a bell.

Dustin: Yeah he’s a guy …

Cesar: He’s a Canadian dude.

Dustin: He’s a Canadian dude, yeah.

Cesar: My friend Paul Jarvis is his friends, yeah he knows him. Okay yeah.

Dustin: Yeah. He does know Paul Jarvis and he just is one of those guys that just makes things. And I don’t know him personally, but I feel like he shoots from the hip a little bit where he’s kind of like what we’re talking about. “I make stuff, it’s not always perfectly polished, but I’m making more stuff than I’m consuming and just trying stuff and having a fun time.” It’s kind of like a little, feels like a science lab or something.

Cesar: That’s awesome.

Dustin: So Paul Jarvis is fantastic.

Cesar: Great guy.

Dustin: Seth Godin is a very common person you hear about, but he’s one of those guys where he’s an author and you can buy any of his books, and all his books, you know you can open to any page and it will like inspire you with some little nugget of an idea for what you’re doing.

Cesar: It doesn’t fail, man.

Dustin: It doesn’t, he’s amazing.

Cesar: You were talking about the Passive Income for Designers. Is that something that’s available to anyone out there at the moment?

Dustin: Yeah, yeah. So there is a site. I know it’s the longest domain name in the world, but it’s passiveincomefordesigners.com. If you go there, currently I think there’s 12 episodes of a podcast there. So people can get interviews with people that specifically make a passive income by selling digital products that are graphic designers. Can sign up for the email list, and I have like a five days of free training where I kind of hit on like the big things that I’ve learned or that the biggest core components that I think attribute people’s success.

We talked about some of those today. You can hit the contact button and reach out to me there. I’d love hearing, talking to people. But yeah, you can find me there or you can find me on RetroSupply.co.

Cesar: Thank you!

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