When kids are asked what they want to be when they grow up, few say “creator.” But what once may have been an unheard-of career is now becoming more and more common. Spurred by the pandemic, The Great Resignation led to millions of people quitting their jobs to find their true passions—many of which involve creating content.
One estimate suggests the creator economy could now be worth more than $100 billion — and is growing rapidly — meaning those who are new to the industry will face increasing competition in the coming years. Not only will they need to have creative ideas, they’ll need passion and perseverance too. We talked to three creators about how they found success in their work and what advice they’d give to those who are just starting out.
Pick social platforms that work for you
Lo Harris describes herself as a digital art native. She started using Microsoft paint as a toddler, and in middle school used the internet to discover new artists. As a journalism major at Northwestern University, Harris fell in love with graphic design and freelanced for The New York Times’ video team and Bustle. After graduation, she joined the motion graphics team at NBC while also keeping her own art alive through a personal Instagram account.
COVID-19, the 2020 presidential election, and the Black Lives Matter movement compelled Harris to do more than create pretty things, but to use her art as a vehicle to share her narrative as a Black woman. She quit her job at NBC and started pursuing art full-time. Harris’s first two vibrant illustrations captured her emotions about the heightened social unrest of 2022. To her surprise, they ended up going viral. From there, she landed her first big client—Amazon—and has since done work with Old Navy, American Express, and Milani Cosmetics, among others.
Harris says focusing on the social platforms that worked best for her was a crucial part of her growth. “My work lends itself more to commercial work, so I wanted to make sure it was getting in front of the right people,” says Harris. “One benefit from working in news and having done internships is that I already had a very robust LinkedIn presence and network, so that’s been the secret sauce in terms of getting my work in front of different art directors who are on these platforms.”
Find your niche
Jacquelyn Shao worked as an engineering program manager for several years before she found her calling creating and sharing healthy and simple Californian cuisine recipes. Feeling unmotivated in her 9-to-5 tech job, she quit and enrolled at the San Francisco Cooking School. After graduating, she worked freelance jobs while trying to build her own brand on social media. Now, with more than 12,000 followers on TikTok and working as the Head of Creator Success at Foody, Shao says finding her own voice within the food industry was an important part of her journey.
“When you bring your individual approach to a niche—say, BBQ recipes—and it’s very distinguishable from the other personalities in that area, it’ll attract a lot of attention from the larger creators in that circle,” says Shao. “They’ll see a unique perspective and value that you’re bringing, and they’ll support and promote you. That type of visibility is crucial and what I’ve seen some successful smaller creators utilize and lever.”
Let your creativity shine
Ashley Geiger spends most of her time working at a children’s hospital. But when she’s looking for a creative outlet, she turns to art. For many years, she shared her work on her personal Instagram account, and would often gift her art to family and friends. As she got older, she found it harder to just make art for herself and have fun. But when the pandemic hit, Geiger had more time to explore other artists’ work online. She became inspired to push her creativity, and challenged herself to draw characters from Avatar the Last Airbender in different cartoon styles. Her first video alone on TikTok earned her 10,000 new followers. In a year, she had 90,000 followers.
Geiger believes the audience was drawn to the unpredictable nature of her art: they never knew what they were going to see. Drawing in so many different ways benefited her as an artist, as well. “I found out that I don’t have one distinct style,” she says. She discovered, like her followers, she likes exploring.
Harris urges creators not to repeat things just because it’s what people like. “If you want to deviate from what you typically do, you are within your power to do that,” she says. “Not everyone might be comfortable with it, and they might ask ‘where's the old stuff,’ but the point is that it's something that you want to do, so you should never put yourself in a stylistic prison. You're never going to be done with your style.”
Be true to yourself and don’t give up
Shao, Harris, and Geiger all stressed that nothing is as important as loving the work you do and keeping at it.
“Don’t do something just because you think it’s something someone else might like,” says Geiger. “Find your niche and find people who will appreciate it.”
Harris has done just that. She's stayed true to herself by turning down requests that don’t serve her work.
“The final piece of advice that I would give is to not take rejection too seriously,” says Harris. “Whenever a client comes to me because they are interested in working with me but then go with another artist, I don’t let that bother me. Because what that indicates is that they know that I exist and they know that I’m a potential candidate, so as long as I know that I’m on their radar, the only thing that I can do is continue to be great.”