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The Reality of Creation

Picture of Simon Fairbairn

Simon Fairbairn

Just because you built it, doesn’t mean people will pay for it.

A lot of the old model was built around the idea that artists and creatives needed to be somehow protected from the world of commerce. They should just create, someone else would figure out how to sell it. A lot of people got very rich from this model, and often it wasn't the artists or creators themselves.

Stories of bad deals, of artists not earing a penny or not owning their own works, are legion.

Now, a creative person has the power to take complete control of their work, from production to distribution to sales to marketing, maintaining ownership throughout.

But along with this comes the discovery of just how much what they produce is actually worth, and this is a hard lesson to learn.

Failed Experiments

I have built two apps, both in the App Store. I don't consider either of them to be works of art in that they contain little in the way of self-expression, but the principle of creating something from nothing and offering it to the world is the same.

I spent a lot of time on the first app. I learned all about Objective-C, Core Data, and Storyboards. I sketched and illustrated icons. I filled out contracts and tax information and wrestled with Apple's app submission process.

In the end, 5 people bought it.

The hard, heavy truth is that it wasn't beautiful or original. It didn't fulfil a particularly pressing need nor was it functionally exciting. It had no existing market and it wasn't exciting or interesting enough to create a new one. In short, it was entirely unremarkable.

It hurt, of course. I had devoted a chunk of my life to its creation only to have it categorically (yet understandably) ignored.

I had two choices: give up, or pick myself up, learn from it and keep moving forward.

Our second app is now selling well. People are responding to it, which is wonderful. It still hasn't quite reached my vision for what it could be, but it's definitely getting closer.

And it's another step on a path that I have, after trying many, many different paths, decided is right for me.


If you believe in what you do, you should certainly keep doing it.

Having an understanding of economic forces, marketing and the subjective value of a particular piece of work is just another insight into human beings and their interactions with each other. It's a data point, not a moral value or a judgement on your position as a creator. You get to choose what to do with this information.

You can move your work towards the middle of the bell curve, finding out what sells and what doesn't in order to produce more of what does. Give the people what they want.

You can keep going in whichever esoteric direction you decide to go in. The exploration of the human condition and the pursuit of pure self expression. Perhaps you'll create something that will resonate. Perhaps not. Either way, that's not the point.

Or you can hit somewhere between these two extremes. Try to inject a bit of your own voice into something, while keeping an eye on the popular. Pimp your stuff hard and try to get heard. Convince people why they should pay attention to you. Draw your own lines on what is acceptable for you and your creation and then push up against them.

Get close to the middle, build an audience, then perhaps slowly bring them out to the weirder edges with you.

Marry confidence and self-belief with humility. Understand that there are no guarantees, that you don't get to set the value of what you produce in the context of the marketplace—that you don't even have the right to be heard—and learn to be OK with that.

Then keep going.