When The Great Resignation inspired millions to look past their paychecks and seek purpose in their work, many decided to trade the security of a 9-to-5 job for the flexibility of being a creator.
Though few have been able to parlay their passion into full-time work, the struggle for steady income doesn’t seem to deter them. That’s likely because most creators aren’t chasing a paycheck. In fact, a recent survey indicates they’re more motivated by self-expression, fun, passion, and challenge than money.
So what keeps them optimistic in the face of changing economic conditions? We asked creators to tell us why they chose this path, what keeps them going, and what they’d recommend to people navigating the creator economy in 2023.
Embracing spontaneity, building a network
Blair Breitenstein is a fashion illustrator and artist who’s done work for world-famous brands including Chanel and Prada. Long before she began monetizing her work as a independent creator, she had been sharing her drawings on social media.
“Art was always important to me. I realized how important when I worked in an office. I just felt so unhappy, so I would literally get home from work, then draw for hours. When I found an outlet on social media, it was really freeing. It was this new world where I could really express myself.”
Though she started out posting just for fun, she received so much positive feedback on Tumblr that she decided to set up a shop to sell her work on Etsy. Two years later, she moved to New York and has been a full-time fashion illustrator ever since.
What she appreciates most about her life as a creator is that it allows her to stay spontaneous and create personal relationships with her customers. “I love being able to talk to people that buy my artwork or follow me. That's the reason why I started it.”
Though traditional art galleries sometimes attract a crowd that stands back with their arms crossed, online spaces have made it comfortable for more people to have conversations directly with the artist. “They can become your friends in real life. There’s something really cool about being able to talk to people from all over the world.”
The downside of the online spaces is that they sometimes tempt you to chase the algorithm to be financially successful. Like a lot of creators, she has mixed feelings about that. When she does try to post something she thinks will get a lot of likes, she usually finds that it’s not her best work.
“I'm still trying to figure out,” she explains. “I don't think as a creator and an artist, there is a right way to be. This is how I support myself, so it's important to keep it in mind, but it's also important to keep my integrity. I don't feel like the algorithm owns me. I'm willing to take breaks for the sake of my art.”
While other industries tend to feel more competitive, Breitenstein says the camaraderie among creators gets better every year. That’s why she’s looking forward to hosting an American Influencer Council (AIC) town hall to talk with other creators about the issue of feeling stifled by the algorithm.
“They can become your friends in real life. There’s something really cool about being able to talk to people from all over the world.”—Blair Breitenstein
“It's nice to have a network of people that understand the struggles,” she says. “I think the less mystery there is around influencing, the more people can find each other and network. For a long time, it felt like it was impossible to be an influencer. Now, it's almost completely the opposite, where everyone's willing to talk about it.”
The lack of industry standards also makes creators hungry to learn from each other and compare notes on everything from what to charge brands for partnerships to how to work with any agent. “People really need to share information in this space because there’s not really a hub for those kind of questions, other than the American Influencer Council," one of the new groups that has emerged to help provide creators with mentorship, education, and trade resources.
Helping others become financially successful
After graduating from college with a degree in finance, Milan Singh didn’t follow the usual path to a 9-to-5 job as an investment banker.
Instead, the founder of Milan Media leaped right into life as an solopreneur. He started out building e-commerce stores, but during the pandemic, he noticed an opportunity at the beginning of the TikTok boom. He’d been seeing a lot of e-commerce videos, but not much in the way of creators offering financial advice.
Having had a keen interest in side hustles and investing for years, it wasn’t hard for Singh to identify his niche. “I knew from the start it was going to be finance because that was what I was obsessed with,” he says. “I wanted to make the page specifically for educating on finance.”
So on January 27, 2021, he decided to post his first video.
“It went viral and had about half a million views,” says Singh. “The next day, it was another 100,000 views. The third day was a million to three million. It was growing fast.”
At the time, he wasn’t focused on monetizing the content. In fact, he had no idea how much he might be able make.
“I posted a video every single day for six months,” he recalls. “I wasn't making any money from it. It was strictly, ‘I like finance and I want to get really good at social media.’ From that also comes the benefit of everybody getting impacted. So it's a win-win all around.”
After six months, he began learning more about generating revenue through brand partnerships and saw the potential. So he decided to shift his attention from e-commerce to devote his energy to making a living as a full-time creator.
Though he’s gone through stages where he focuses on growing his business, lately he’s been turning attention back to the passion that inspired him in the first place—connecting with the people he’s helping through his videos.
“I'm always getting DMs [saying] ‘I started investing because of you.’ I went to India for one of my cousin's weddings, and somebody recognized me and asked to take a picture. For Singh, these interactions that show how his work is making a tangible impact can feel surreal. “[It] brings a different sense of fulfillment that money won't bring.”
Traveling light, finding new friends
Gabby Beckford is a travel expert, digital storyteller, award-winning content creator, and founder of PacksLight.com, a resource provide guidance for fellow Gen Z digital nomads. Growing up, though, she didn’t expect to find herself on an entrepreneurial path.
“It brings a different sense of fulfillment that money won't bring.”—Milan Singh
“I definitely was on the doctor, lawyer, engineer track my entire life,” she recalls. “I went to college as a biomedical engineer and did that for two years. I started my travel platform as a hobby for creative expression, just to talk about anything besides STEM for fun.”
Then she had epiphany while studying abroad in Dubai on a scholarship, where she met people who were already living her dream of establishing a creative career while traveling.
Though she got an engineering job after graduating with a degree in mathematics, she quickly realized it wasn’t the right fit for her. “I hated working in a windowless room. I hated long hours. I hated commuting. I couldn't travel.”
So she started researching ways to earn enough from her platform PacksLight.com to fund some of her trips. At first, she didn’t tell anyone—not even her father—about her plan to make it her full-time source of income. She waited until she was making almost as much as she did in her engineering job.
Just as she was starting to grow her audience as a travel influencer, the pandemic hit. That’s when she noticed her content was gaining traction among homebound friends and followers who were fantasizing about travel.
“They were looking for any sort of guidance, especially in that first month of March,” Beckford recalls. “I think that was my opportunity space.”
For the first year of the pandemic, she focused on creating as much content as possible and growing her following. Now she’s reached so many, she’s built an international community that shares her intense passion for travel.
“You're a super nerd about a subject in daily life,” she explains. “Then you go into a hyper-focused niche of people who also love what you love, and you can just nerd out over it. They relate to me in those abstract ways. So when we talk, they’re already on the same wavelength.”
She even invites them to meet up in person on her travels. “I'll say, ‘Hey, I'm in London. Is anyone here?’ Or people will recognize me on the street and say, ‘Are you Packs Light?’ Then we'll go out to coffee or something. I love meeting them offline. It's more personal than business. I make my content relatable with that in mind.”
Whenever she feels siloed, uninspired, or overwhelmed from juggling too much, Beckford relies on support from organizations like the AIC.
Beckford says having a community of people who can relate to her experience and talk candidly about their experiences and challenges is essential for staying inspired.
“Sometimes I'll hear [AIC members] talk about their highs and lows, then I'll feel like, ‘You're really not alone. It's not just you trying to figure this out.’”
In the years ahead, finding your community while earning a steady income may become easier for creators as well. As generative AI gets better at identifying and connecting you with people around the world who share similar niche interests, the potential to build sustainable businesses in the creator economy is bound to improve.