Discussion on Getting Started in Merchandise

This “interview” was conducted in September 2021 via Discord. It consisted of a question and answer session over two days, with questions from Anemoine (link) and responses by myself.

Anemoine
Elisa

I’d like to know how you started your first FF-related merchandising? Like, what was your first step and how did you decide what you wanted to do?

I have some previous experience with making products from when I had Artist Alley tables at anime and gaming conventions. I also had previously participated in FF Fanfest activities in which I had to make stickers, charms, or prints. I was already part of an Artist Alley community. From this experience and network I had knowledge of some vendors already in-hand.

As I finished my playthrough of FFXIV Shadowbringers, I started toying around with making stuff because I was a fan of Emet-Selch and at the time, there was a scarcity of items featuring him. Sadly because I had jumped back into twitter pretty late, I missed out on opportunities to buy some items from various artists who I had previously patronized.


At this time, I was also following conversations among the Emet-Selch and Ascian adjacent fandom and noticing they were always hungry for goods. As a hobby artist, I strongly believe in making things that I like. And so I thought maybe it would be a good time to explore making items for myself. However, the supplier I worked with at the time required a minimum order of 10 charms, so I had to look for other interest to underwrite some of the risk I would take on with producing and buying the merchandise. 

Let me state that my philosophy and goal of merchandise is still the same. Make something I like for myself; finance it with help of others who want the same product.  My goal is not to net income, but to simply keep paying for my production and research on merchandise that I want to make.

Did you use website like Kickstarter or Etsy for this purpose or any other types of experiments?

In general, I do not advise Kickstarter for persons who are brand new to anything related to merchandise. There’s a huge administrative burden and costs (in fees) to running one.  Unless you have a campaign that you need a lot of money for like a set of pins, I and many other artists discourage it as your starting venture.  There are far better steps to raising capital and improving your actual ability to sell – specifically doing commissions and small runs of stickers or charms. 

As for Etsy, I know there’s a lot of complaining about the fees. However, this site is not only a storefront but features an immense  marketplace. It drives a lot of internal keyword based traffic and is in itself advertising your product to various niches like fandoms. However, you will need to consider that copyrights are a grey area. It is not appropriate for some property and it is your responsibility to do the research.

There are alternatives to Etsy to research such as Storenvy and Bigcartel. Storenvy has a marketplace (paid) and Bigcartel does not.   Ko-fi also has recently added a shop feature.  There are many reasons why one might be better than the other, including whether or not they handle the collection of Value Added Tax (VAT) to your customer market. Many countries are now required the collection of tax either at point of sale or by the customer.  

There is  of course, going on your own, but unless you have the social media standing to drive your own traffic, that’s not the normal first step for an entry level merchandise maker.

Did you do some specific research of what people like? And how? Did you create a poll or questionnaire?

Most of my early ideas were based on what I observed on discord and twitter.  I usually showed ideas and designs on Twitter or to friends who are picky 😊

Sometimes I do use Twitter polling but that’s pretty messy so I’ve done Google polling as well (and recruited via Twitter).  The thing is, if you don’t reach a lot of people, how are you recruiting for these polls?  It’s really problematic and so I have relied more on key buyers to give me input. 

Also just because people answer polls doesn’t mean they’ll actually -buy- anything.  Be very careful about using polls to inform your merch ideas. At the end of the day be conservative and only count on a smaller percent of those persons to become actual customers.

How did you advertise your very first design?

Twitter, Discord, and later Instagram.

Etsy brings its own audience in as well, so once I had a product to sell, the keywords would bring in other folks to look at product.

How much time and effort have you invested in this project(s)? My motivation might be different to yours… I’m not sure if it worth for me to put time on it.

Many hours.  I spend a lot of time on social media and discords and on Etsy looking at what’s currently available, what people like, and generally get excited about. I spend a lot of time window shopping in my fandom so I know what’s available. To that end, you need to do market research and look at who appears successful. 

You ask if making merchandise “is worth it?” 

The truth is there is maybe only a small handful of people who make good money in merchandise and they’re the ones who have been around for a long time.  The average merchandiser does not specialize in one fandom. They have multiple franchises they target and often are considering in-person and online customers. Note that in general, the average customer doesn’t just buy in one fandom but skips around between various anime and game-related fandoms.

So it was generally not viable to stick to one fandom as your entire stock.

It should also be pointed out that many people who were early merchandise creators also were freelance artists who supplemented their income with other work , art for hire, art for commission, and then merch for conventions.  (There are also many who are not art for full time in any capacity.)

Lately, many people (lured by the potential popularity of FF14) have been entering this space. There are other forces you need to weigh out. Many of my fellow customers who were avid buyers are slowing down our buying of items that are not “useful” or that are saturated.

In addition, the current economy is terrible.

More choices, less money = more competition. 

What would you suggest to people who are completely new to this area for their first attempt? (Explore) more of people’s interest? Start testing designs for interest?

First, you need to do your homework and study the current sellers and their products that are out there. You should always be “shopping” even if it’s just window shopping. Follow people who merchandise.  Try to figure out if they are successful and at what, and why.

Draw a lot of things and concepts. Start showing them to people. Build your customer base online if that’s going to be your main place to sell.  If you are going the convention route, you will have to simply ask people to give you real feedback and also appeal to strangers and gamble on making things that sell in person

You should also join groups that specialize in fandom sales, aka join the Artists Alley Discord and/or Facebook groups. Lurk and listen to what is working for others. https://www.facebook.com/groups/219602133060458/

What is your product design routine.  Do you have a checklist?

In reality, for myself there is not much of a routine. During pandemic times, I had a goal to make or create 1-2 new things every month, whether a print, a doodle that becomes a charm or standee, or something multipurpose that I can use in many other outputs. Sometimes I have a plan for a specific type of item.  Other times it’s just “I want to make a neat gift” and ask myself what among my art assets would work.

From here — generally I just sketch out ideas when the ideas occur to me (on paper) and then bring it into digital computer files to work further.

Sometimes I post early drafts (which I often delete) on social media to gauge how people respond to the subject or the idea.   There’s always some small risk of being copied with simpler ideas, so you have to decide what the risk is in sharing that .

Lately, it has taken me much longer to develop merchandise due to how messy I am as an artist. I have to often rework rough ideas into a good enough concept for presales (if I’m going that route).  I will often put an idea down and come back to it later unlike drawing which I tend to finish in a concentrated fashion.

The main things that shape my output, for better or worse

  • I don’t have a concrete due date for anything because I do not have conventions in my schedule anymore. 
  • If I do have a deadline, I plan at least a month for production, so backdate my work time to 2-4 weeks prior to turning something in for production.
  • Holidays/manufacturers timeframes also can cause a huge slow down in fulfillment. Sometimes Chinese holidays (particularly New Year) will stop all production. Sometimes depending on product I work around this by using an American or British vendor.
  • Health — other things like work and my lack of sleep/energy xD.    
  • Gaming. (This is why I try to take a few days off each week so I can recharge and do a little bit of art-work, business stuff, or merch development)

From your experiences, what type of product usually got the people most?

Everyone’s experience as a producer varies. First you have to distinguish whether your market is ONLINE or IN-PERSON.

In-person will depend on the venue and the part of the country. I haven’t done in-person sales in years for various reasons. If I were still doing in person conventions I would have a higher ratio of small prints (postcards, large prints, and stickers) vs other merchandise.  Prints are effective at bringing people over to your booth. In the past, I felt print work can stand out among a very saturated market that is full of cute merchandise.

The online FF14 fandom seems to really love character charms. They’re often worn by younger fandom in ita bags or shown off online in bulletin boards.

One caution is that these items are among the lowest barrier to entry for merchandise aside from stickers, and as a result this niche is very saturated.

The other common online item sold often are items that remind people of “what they like and who they are as a player.”  For example, there’s a sizable market for resin soulstones, stylized job (enamel) pins and charms, and favorite Grand Companies.

The issue isn’t always “what kind of product” but “what is on it (do I like the art?),” and “how much is it.”  At the end of the day, some people will always go back to what’s affordable and what’s practical given their budget.    

No one customer or friend is alike, so you should look at other people and what they say they buy and what they retweet.

What do you think its the most important thing when comes to the (merchandising) design? I’m asking from a more practical perspective– the design, colour, character, or the idea behind the design?

It has to be something that stands out from other competition in some way. Whether it’s the art, the execution of the product, the rareness of the product or character, and all that balanced against price.

You have to consider the minimum amount you have to make of something (Minimum order quantity or “MOQ”) and the cost of your investment prior to selling. 

It’s a bad idea to pick things that cost too much to make if you have no means to deliver and sell it.  This is why pins are considered  a very bad entry product for a new merchandiser. Most manufacturers will charge you a mold fee and then require you purchase 50-100 pins.

While Ff14 is not yet oversaturated in pins, there are quite a few pin makers in the small artist market and new ones entering every day. Your starting investment will be in the hundreds or thousands of dollars.

That said, even small things like stickers can be expensive mistakes if no one knows about them and then no one buys them.

Aside of cost of product to you, you also have to think practically about how much it weighs, how will you package and ship it, and how much does it cost to ship overall. All of these things from packaging to shipping cost money.

Basically for every idea you have, you must ask yourself“can you afford to take a loss on it?” You must understand how much you need to sell to not lose money.

And more importantly, you should have a platform first. You can’t rely on a good idea or great piece of work to do the numbers for you. You will need to have an audience.  While friends can help promote your idea, they can’t really sell it.

What’s your biggest challenge in this journey?

Not getting bored.     There’s a limit to what products I can create because my audience is NOT big enough to meet minimum requirements of manufacturing partners.  I need to grow my audience somehow to test out new products. Or I need to go play in a sandbox with a different bigger fandom that is a little more organized so I can have more opportunity to scale up and explore new merch ideas.

Not boring people.  Again, as there are limited types of products I can make now and this comes alongside increasing competition, it means it has become challenging to stand out. 

I am going to probably become super lazy until Endwalker and just fill niches that I want to. 

STANDEES HERE I COME BACK TO YOU.

I have a mindset I’m not sure if it’s right: You must have good solid drawing skill first and have some fans (to) start to create your merchandise.

So it’s good to work on (improving) drawing first before thinking anything else.”

I don’t think this is really correct for everyone.

If you look at merchandise, it is true there are some products that can be attractive based on the drawing skill of the artist (2D items such as charms and stickers).  But you can be good at a chibi/cute style and not be fantastic as a portrait artist. 

There are also many successful people in the space who do mostly design/vector work. (This would be their strong point whereas illustration is not.)   

And among the more interesting things now for merchandise are in the design space and crafting, particularly hand-made items.

For drawing-based commissions, I agree your skill and improving that (alongside speed) is important. If you haven’t developed a commission sheet, do that now. Get feedback on your sheets to make sure they’re straightforward and the pricing.

And for anyone who is trying to eye merchandise and selling online, don’t wait. Start posting your work regularly on social media. Follow (and chat with) other people in fandom who like the same things as you. Start building out your platform.

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