Some successful steps along the path towards being a working stay-at-home Dad for our son, Rowan.
Back in March of 2022, I hatched a four-year plan to address a looming problem that would arrive on our doorstep in 2026. The issue is that, at that time, Rowan will graduate from highschool and be home full-time, requiring full-time care, and my ability to work outside the home will be severely curtailed. For those of you reading this who don't know Rowan, he is our 14 year-old son, nonverbal with Down Syndrome and Autism. He is an unfiltered ball of love and emotional expression, the most genuine and unguarded person I have ever known. He needs supervision 24/7, and when he is at school I can get out of the house and work for four hours. That second income for our household is more critical now than it was when the upcoming problem was first recognized, and I can only imagine it will be even more so when Rowan finishes grade 12. Something tells me that life is not going to get cheaper and more affordable over the next few years.
The situation will require that I figure out a way to make an income from home, so we decided that I would start an online store and start selling t-shirts and whatnot with original designs created by me. At the time I was (and still am) undergoing a personal creative renaissance enabled by finally giving up the booze. There was an explosion of creative energy that I'm still surfing to this day, and it made sense to channel that energy in a productive way towards solving this problem. I recognized that this was a slightly risky strategy, in as much as I had never made an online store, nor made an effort to sell my art in any form. I looked around, though, and saw that it was possible, so I set about it.
Long story short, I created Lazy River Design Works, a POD (print-on-demand), dropshipping store with an inventory of t-shirts, print-all-over t-shirts, Hawaiian shirts, bucket hats and umbrellas. I got busy making designs, putting them on products, adding those products to the store, and posting about it on Facebook and Instagram. I had no money for marketing, but that was fine because I was on a steep learning curve for about a year. Learning how to build the store on Wix was fairly straightforward, but there were and are very large aspects of the endeavour to figure out. There are the mechanics of design, the demands of the printing process and how to make an image look good and professional on a shirt using editing software. There is SEO management, the arcane wizardry that gets you found on Google. There is marketing and promotion, the art of generating traffic and getting eyeballs on the store. Perhaps the most important and fundamental aspect of all of these is figuring out what will sell. What will appeal? What will motivate a curious browser to actually buy something?
I was working on these challenges when, on Nov 24, 2022, I decided to try out Midjourney, an AI image engine that I had heard some good things about. It didn't take long for me to fall in love with the platform. I could see almost immediately how I could use Midjourney to speed up production time creating designs, use it to craft and fine-tune the structure of the store, and, most importantly, achieve a level of illustration skill that I am just not capable of. Despite having worked for over twenty years in theatre, film and TV as a scenic artist, I am not a great illustrator. I would call my abilities "workmanlike," competent but slow, and ultimately "satisfactory," a word that damns with the faintest praise. It's for that reason that, up until the point I tried Midjourney, all of my design work had used photographs and Public Domain images for my raw materials.
AI image engines like Midjourney are controversial, to say the least, but the longer I worked with the platform the more I came to believe that it is a tool like any other that can be wielded clumsily or with skill. That skill takes the form of prompt crafting, which I'm getting better at, but even more importantly in this context it is an exercise in curation and editing. When it's possible to get thousands of images of literally anything, the ability to pick and choose results that adhere to one's personal aesthetic, to be able to see which images "work" and then follow up on those images with variations and refinements is critical. I think I'm getting very good at that aspect of using the platform.
Evidence for this growing ability is my recent success on the official Midjourney Facebook group, Midjourney Official. At over half a million members, it is a very busy group with a lot of activity. I joined the group in December of 2022 and tied a few posts that saw little traffic. That lack of impact started to change with an image that is a personal favourite of mine, Death's Ball Pit, posted to the group on October 20th of last year.
The image got a good reaction, my best yet. On a side note, this design has made an impact in other ways, too. Shortly after posting it on my Facebook feed, a woman I used to work with (Victoria Bryers) contacted me to ask if she could paint the image as a painting exercise. I agreed, of course, and she did a great job with it in acrylics. Even more recently, Voidship asked if they could use the image as an album cover, which I was happy to agree to.
Encouraged by all this, I started to contribute more to the MJ Official group and started to actually get some traction. Many of my posts sank like a stone with minimal interaction, but some of them caught fire, with a few of them garnering over 1000 reactions. See the gallery below for my top posts so far:
With the increase in activity came an increase in new followers to my personal Facebook feed, to the extent that Facebook has labeled me a "Rising Creator" for a number of weeks.
This bump in traffic inspired me to take advantage of it by finally getting around to doing something that I have been mulling over for quite some time, and that was to create another store with more focus. All of the advice I have read online about how to be successful selling products like t-shirts and whatnot online says that you have to find a niche, a relatively narrow market that allows you to appeal to a special interest and offer products and designs that aren't available elsewhere. I decided that my niche would be film noir, or at least the noir aesthetic. Two of my best performing posts on the MJ Official group had noir themes, and other noir-flavoured posts I've made there have also been received very favourably. Not to mention that I love noir in all its forms and it's a space I'm very happy to work in.
As a result, I created Big Shadows a couple of months ago. This is really a labour of love, and I've had a blast applying all the lessons I've learned from making the Lazy River store to this new one. It's streamlined, focused, and cohesive. I'm currently busy making designs so that it has a decent inventory, but have elected to make open and operational while I do so as a sort of soft open. The hope is that the increased traffic on Facebook will translate into more eyeballs on the store, and what's more those eyeballs will belong to people who already like my work - that's the reason they went there. After that, it's a numbers game. One out of X amount of visitors will actually buy something, so (obviously) the more visitors, the more sales. It's very early yet and the store's catalog is still pretty sparse (we moved house recently, which sucked up a lot of my time), but I've already had one organic sale as a proof of concept - a guy from Illinois who knows me from MJ Official went to Big Shadows and bought a shirt. Yay!
I'm feeling very optimistic about the whole thing, which gives me a lot of energy and motivation to work on the store. I feel like I've turned a corner and this thing is starting to come together. Wish me luck! And sign up for my mailing list - the form is on the Home Page.