The Gag Cartoonist’s Business Plan

PlanGot this in my email the other day:

Hi there,

I am a product design student from Wales, UK and I am working on an assignment where I have to come up with a business plan. I just wanted to know what it takes to set up a business in cartoon illustration, and what it involves, as this is an area I have great interest in. What do you do that sets your business apart from other similar businesses?

I’d be very grateful for any information you could offer.

Thanks very much for your time.

Normally I just ignore stuff like this. I get a fair share of “tell me what all your markets are and how I make money” emails, but the above note seemed nice and it gives me an opportunity to blog about the business side of gag cartooning.

Let’s see… Business plan…

I’ve used the phrase before, but to be honest, cartooning isn’t the kind of business where you get your idea, get a loan, set up shop and hope to make a profit in a year or two.

Here’s some advice on how I’ve done it so far (I say “so far” because it’s a precarious job and I may very well be wearing an orange apron next week while directing you to the key copying guy), and I’m going to keep it more on the financial end of things:

1) Keep your day gig as long as you can

I worked for a screw manufacturer, a metals distributor, and an auto advertising website for a combined total of about six years before making the leap, and even then it was with the caveat that I juggle cartooning with being a stay-at-home dad.

Being a professional cartoonist most realistically means fitting it in, even when it’s your only source of income. I drew cartoons early in the morning before work, on my lunch hour and at night for years. Now I do it while the kids are at school, and on the weekends.

2) Things you should buy

As I said, cartooning isn’t business as usual, but there are some things I found helpful starting out:

  • A decent computer – My first was an Emachine that came with a printer, monitor and scanner for $500. It was a piece of crap, but it worked. Get something you can afford that gets the job done. You can get that tricked out Mac later.
  • Some sort of website – When I started out blogs didn’t exist yet, so I built my first site myself. It was horrible. Now there’s all sort of options from a blog with ComicPress to Tumblr to Rapidweaver. Keep it on the cheap, but make it look professional.
  • Reasonable art supplies – Cheapo printer paper, a pencil and something other than a Sharpie will get you a long, loooong way.
  • The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker – You can get the paperback for about $30. When I was starting out I raided about every library in the state and read every book of cartoons I could find. This is more or less a one stop gag cartoon education.
  • Mountain Dew – You’re gonna be up early and stay up late. Coffee is good too.

3) Things not to buy

Even more important is avoiding unnecessary expenses. Don’t bother with:

  • A drafting table – It’s nice and it makes you feel professional, but no one cares what you drew the cartoon on. I worked at a coffee table in my living room for almost a decade
  • Mailing lists – Don’t waste a grand and upwards for hundreds of markets that couldn’t care less about cartoons. Use the library to find the biggies, read cartoonists’ blogs and websites, and just plain hunt around.
  • Business cards – I had 1000 printed up and used about five. Plus, your style is going to be changing a lot early on. A total and complete waste.
  • NCS membership – You need to be earning at least half of your income off cartoons to even apply, but as much as it’s a great place to meet other cartoonists, it’s largely social, and certainly not neccesary to work as a cartoonist.
  • How-to-cartoon books – It’s not rocket science here folks, and if you can’t draw a little already, you shouldn’t be looking at a career in cartooning. Most are outdated.

4) Watch your money

Anyone will tell you most businesses fail early because of accounting issues. Know how much you are making, spend as little as you can initially, and track it to the penny. Generally artists don’t like the business end of things. Learn to be good at it, or be an instant success and hire an accountant.

5) Stick to it

It’s hard, it’s discouraging, and you’re going to fail almost constantly. But if you love it you’ll keep doing it because, in the end, no cartoonist really does it for the money.



9 thoughts on “The Gag Cartoonist’s Business Plan”

  1. Great points. I think your list more or less applies to writers as well. You don't need fancy equipment, but you do need a source of ideas (newspapers, etc.), markets, and caffeine (personally, I'd go for a cup of French Roast over a Mountain Dew any day!)

    I also agree that business cards and mailing lists aren't always money well spent. And some writers spend too much time attending conferences and too little time actually writing.

    Speaking of which…better get back to work!

  2. Some excellent info.

    In the last years of my real world 9-5 job, I saw that I could sell here and there — and that was a telling sign to me. I even got a book deal — but even then, it took me another 5 years before I finally took the plunge and quit, to become a full-time cartoonist.

    That leap requires a will of iron, balls of brass, etc. I think your column is good hands-on advice to anyone who is thinking of taking that same leap.

  3. Hey Angie! I've always wondered about those conferences. You never see those for cartooning.

    Mike – I also have a spleen of pure aluminum.

  4. Great plan. I appreciate hard-headed practical advice much more than arty-farty "follow your bliss" stuff. I would only add the absolute necessity of possessing a beryllium bladder.

  5. Very good blog entry.

    I think word-of-mouth is far more valuable than any marketing scheme out there. And it costs nothing to get it (as far as money goes), only strong effort and good client relationships.

    Also worth adding this blog entry is to keep a list of contacts (ie your clients). Remind them of yourself by mailing out holiday cards and every once in a while send them friendly e-mail asking how they're doing.

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