Arree Chung is an illustrator, children's book author and creative entrepreneur. He’s also a member of The Futur Pro Group.But more importantly, he’s a shining example of how to find the silver lining in a bad situation. Like say, a pandemic.
Arree Chung is an illustrator, children's book author and creative entrepreneur. He’s also a member of The Futur Pro Group.
But more importantly, he’s a shining example of how to find the silver lining in a bad situation. Like say, a pandemic.
It’s no mystery why businesses across the planet have been decimated. And our guest is no exception. But what he does excel at, especially during these miserable times, is pivoting his way out of it.
Arree’s remarkable story comes with many twists, turns and tough life lessons. Like leaving a salary of $120K a year to pursue happiness that only pays $30K. All while shouldering hundreds of thousand of dollars in tuition debt.
But like we said, there is a silver lining. Which is why he now happily pays $8K/month in Zoom bills. And he does it debt free. Is that enough mystery for you? We think so.
You’ll have to listen to this two part episode to really appreciate it what that means.
Thank you to Gusto for sponsoring this episode.
Arree: I feel that in life we're all very unique individuals and the more turns and twist that you go on, if you're really pursuing your inner voice and your passion, hopefully, you're realizing the thing that you're meant to do.
Greg: Hey, I'm Greg Gunn and welcome to The Futur podcast. Today's guest is an illustrator, a children's book author, and creative entrepreneur. He's also a member of The Futur Pro group. But more importantly, he's a shining example of how to find the silver lining in a bad situation. And that situation goes by the name of COVID-19.
Now, it's no mystery why businesses all over the planet have been decimated and our guest is no exception. But what he does excel at, especially in these miserable times, is pivoting his way out of it. His remarkable story comes with many twists, turns, and tough life decisions, like leaving a salary of $120,000 a year to pursue happiness that only pays 30 and all while shouldering hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition debt. But like I said, there is a silver lining and that's why he now happily pays $8,000 a month in Zoom bills, but he does it debt free.
Is that enough mystery for you? Sure hope so. But you'll have to listen to this two-part episode to get the whole story. Trust me, it's worth your time. All right, enough anticipation building. Please enjoy our fascinating conversation with Arree Chung.
Chris: Arree, for people who don't know who you are, can you introduce yourself and give us a little brief description of what it is that you do?
Arree: Sure. I'm Arree Chung, a children's book author and illustrator and a creative entrepreneur and I make picture books as well as I teach kids and adults how to become more creative, how to chase their dreams, and even how to build a business.
Chris: Beautiful. You've said that a few times before I take it.
Arree: I've been working on it. That's [inaudible].
Chris: Yeah. It's very smooth delivery. All right. If I'm following the story correctly, were you doing business stuff before you did art stuff?
Arree: That's correct. In my undergrad-
Chris: I didn't know this about you.
Arree: I studied economics and then, I thought it was going to go to business school. I took the GMAT. I got a consulting job. I learned how to build databases and became an Excel wiz. I got to a point where I didn't really care about work. I thought this consulting job was going to be fun and glamorous, but really, you're just a spreadsheet jockey and you're working on calculating financial damages for large insurance companies and it just felt like soulless work. That's when my life changed when I met a bunch of artists on the BART train on my way home and that's when I thought-
Chris: Wait, wait. Pause, pause, pause. What year is this that you are being a spreadsheet jockey as you say?
Arree: Yes, that's 1999, 2000. It's quite a while-
Chris: I just need to follow on the timeline.
Chris: Yeah, it has been a lot. So you're in the Bay Area, riding the BART, and then you meet chance encounter artists on the train?
Arree: I meet Erwin Madrid, [Lei], and a few other folks, Steve and they are students at the Academy of Art and they have those large art bags that they carry around their figure drawings in.
I had always drawn in school and in classes. I take notes and I doodle in the professor. I want to see how good they were, I want to see what their work was like, and when they showed me, I was blown away. I immediately saw there's a whole another level of artistry and learning. My life changed because I thought, "Oh, that looks like fun. I want to do that."
Erwin and Steve were still friends today. They invited me to basically crash a drawing workshop at the Academy of Art. The following week, I got off work a little early. I used to have to wear a suit to work then. I went to this drawing workshop in my suit. I showed up in my suit. Didn't think about it. I pulled out one of those yellow legal pads and all these young students were looking at me like, "Who's the guy in the suit?"
Chris: Oh, my God. This is like a fish out of water story.
Chris: I could see the poster for your movie just based on that scene alone.
Arree: I'll never forget that moment because the guys were there and they greeted me. I felt really stupid for showing up in my suit but I had fun. I drew from a nude model for the first time and it was confusing and hard. But I knew this is something I want to do regardless of money. It was fun and I want to get better at it and I was looking... I think a lot of people can relate to that where your first job isn't what you think it's going to be and you're thinking, especially when you're a kid out of college, you're like, "Is this going to be the rest of my life?" And I didn't want it to be that.
Chris: This is very interesting to me because this is a lot about your personality. You're riding a train, you see these kids with these large portfolio cases, and the way that you are, and we're going to get into this, you have a conversation, and now 30 years later, you guys are still friends?
Chris: That's so cool.
Arree: Chris, my best friend is from first grade, we're still best friends. I don't have a ton of friends but the friends I have were friends for life.
Chris: We're back in this nude figure drawing class and you're in your suit with your yellow legal pad, which is hilarious. What happens next that takes you on this other arc?
Arree: The next two things that happened was, I signed up for weekend classes at the Academy of Art. They were really expensive. Even then, it was $1500 for a weekend class. But I had to make this decision whether I was going to invest in something I want to do, whether I was willing to pay the extra money, I was making a pretty good salary but that's where my disposable income went.
And then that led to the next step where I thought, "All right, I'm going to be serious about this. This is my life and I need to figure out how I'm going to become an artist." I started researching the top art schools in the country. I'm very analytical so I wanted to know where I can get a really good job. So I researched all the animation studios that I loved and I researched Pixar and I found their jobs page.
I was trying to do research of what art schools they recruit from so I can go check out those art schools but I found actually a job opportunity that matched my skills pretty well. It was a description for a production scheduler and they were looking for someone with economics and finance background, which I had, and then they were also looking for someone who could build spreadsheets and build reports. I applied and two weeks later, I got hired. I was at Pixar.
Chris: Oh my God.
Arree: Yeah. I feel like God really had... Looking back all these years, it's just been part of this plan. I really do feel that a lot of things that has happened to my life has just unfolded in the way it's supposed to. You can never see it going forward but when you look back, you're like, "Oh, yeah, that was part of it."
At Pixar, I was there for three years and that's where I saw the creative process, I saw how you can make something as an artist that touches people and changes people's lives. Maybe most importantly, I saw that I want to be a storyteller. That was the main difference between Pixar and lots of other studios is they cared so much about story. Every single story was amazing and I wanted to be a storyteller. Not just an artist, I want to be a storyteller then.
Chris: When did you go to ArtCenter?
Arree: Three years at Pixar, I was taking classes on the weekends. I was sitting on every single art meeting I could just to soak it up all in. I felt lucky being there but I was still making spreadsheets in my job 90% of the time.
I just got to a point where I had to decide do I give up my art dream and become a manager, which is on the table if you're there long enough and you learn the creative process, you manage people, or do I jump ship and go another route.
I had made a lot of friends in the art department and pretty much at Pixar people come from two main schools, either CalArts, and a lot of animators come from CalArts, or a lot of the designers came from ArtCenter and that's when I discovered ArtCenter and I thought, "If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this all the way. I'm going to go to the best school." I flew down the ArtCenter. I had the tour of the main building with the bridge and I just fell in love and I knew that this was my school. That's how I landed at ArtCenter.
There's a mini story in there if you'd like to hear about the financing part.
Chris: I'd love to hear about it.
Arree: I'm very analytical. I had a whole spreadsheet about financing. ArtCenter is very expensive as you know. The conversation I had with my dad was, "What? You're not going to business school? You're going to go to art school?" And he told me this is the worst idea that I could-
Chris: Of course.
Arree: Yeah, this is just not a prudent... I told him, "Dad, I'm going to figure it out and this is why I want to do it. It's not based on logic, per se, but I want to become an artist in the world and this is going to be the best school for me."
I'm a person of faith and I calculated how much money I would need and I said, "God, if you want me to go to ArtCenter, you're going to give me..." I told Him, "You're going to give me a $10,000 scholarship at least. Otherwise, I can't go." I applied and of course, I get nothing from scholarship.
Already, I put the wheels of motion at Pixar where I was going to go. It was too late to turn back. It's not so cool to say to your employer, "Oh, I was just kidding about leaving. I'm going to come back." I was a little bit at loss of what to do. At the time, Finding Nemo had just hit the box office and it was making so much money that the company gave everybody two months of additional pay as a bonus.
Arree: The day that they handed out the bonus was the day before my last day. If my last day was two days before, I would not have gotten that bonus and that bonus paid for the first term of ArtCenter.
Chris: That's a great story.
Arree: Yeah. And to me, that was just like, "Okay, you don't have to have everything figured out. This is a sign. Just go do it." When I landed at ArtCenter, I had a whole lot of motivation to make it worth it.
Chris: Being that you're a man of faith, you asked God to come in the front door and you waited, but God came in the back door.
Arree: Yeah. I think that happens a lot in life that things don't always happen the way you plan them, but they happen somehow.
Chris: I think it's now, what 2003?
Arree: Yes, that's right.
Chris: You're at ArtCenter.
Chris: It's three years later, right?
Arree: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chris: You decide to study illustration?
Arree: That's right.
Chris: Any bits in the story arc there that stand out?
Arree: I think probably the key moments at ArtCenter, there were a lot of key moments, but the main ones were that I thought going in, I was going to become a designer for movies. I thought I was going to either be a storyboard artists or conceptual artists. That's what everyone at ArtCenter dreams about being. And then I took a children's book illustration class with Stephen Turk. Do you know him, by the way?
Chris: No, I don't.
Arree: Oh, he's great. Really great person.
And it changed my life because I was like, "No, this is what I want to do. I want to make my own stories. I want to write them. I want to illustrate them. I want to own the intellectual property. I want to do the whole thing."
This is where I felt like it was another step in my journey is that Pixar helped me learn that I want to be a storyteller and also the creative process and how much work goes into making a story great and all the details. And then at ArtCenter, I rediscovered this love of picture books which I hadn't really thought a lot about picture books then but I knew coming out of ArtCenter that my goal was not to actually go work at Pixar. It was to become a picture book author and illustrator.
Chris: Now, you're a little bit older when you go to ArtCenter, right?
Arree: Yeah, 26 and then I graduated when I was 30, which used to be the norm and ArtCenter has gotten younger.
Chris: So picture books. You discover your love for picture books and this is where you're headed next in your journey?
Arree: Yeah. The next stop is actually just getting a job because becoming a picture book author and illustrator, you need to get a contract from a publishing company. It doesn't pay very well to start off with and I had over $200,000 in loans even with scholarship and paying first term with my own money and also cashing out some retirement funds. I still came out with $200,000 of loans. So I needed to get a job.
My first job was actually at Disney as a development artist for a video game project they were working on. This was right before the economic crash in 2008. Do you remember that?
Chris: I do.
Arree: So I was really lucky. I think the term after I graduated, it was really hard to get a job but I graduated right before the crash and got that job at Disney and I worked there for a year and then they started cutting. And then I basically moved to Seattle for another job and just wrote out that economic downturn in video game companies and I just went from video game company into video game company and meanwhile, I was working on my own children's books. I was learning the things that you don't learn in school about storytelling and storytelling with picture books, in particular, because it's a very specific format, it's a very specific age. There's just a lot of things that you don't know or there're not a lot of places to learn sort of that craft.
I started learning that and then eventually, I got my first picture book deal in 2012 which was Ninja! And that led me to becoming a picture with author and illustrator which is the next part of my journey.
Chris: What are the qualities that make a book picture book?
Arree: The first thing I'd say is the age group. Picture books are specifically for kids from the age about three or four to about seven or eight. Those books have to engage those kids' imaginations. There's a heavy emphasis on pictures and the combination of pictures of words for storytelling. It's both the content and the characters as well as the formats. Picture books are usually 32 or 40 pages so they're not very long either. There's a lot to squeeze in into 40 pages and to be very efficient with your storytelling.
Chris: I have a lot of fun memories around picture books and growing up in America as an immigrant, it's not that my parents understood what these things were and I remember we would have, I think, they call them the book fair where there's this just big truck would drive up and they would have books and your parents were supposed to give you money?
Arree: Yeah, the Scholastic Book Fairs.
Chris: My parents didn't always understand that. I always go in there and look at these books and be mesmerized by the artwork. The stories didn't always live up to the art but it was like, "Wow, this is so cool."
Arree: Yeah, I have those same memories. It's magical, right? Whether it be the bookmobile or these book fairs opened up a whole new world and hopefully, it hooks you as a reader and hopefully, you become a reader ever since. But yeah, picture books are pretty magical. I still love them a lot.
Chris: You're working at video game companies doing art?
Arree: Yeah. Started art directing and whatnot.
Chris: And then you've got your first book out, right? Because you secured a publishing deal. Who was the publisher?
A side story there is, for anybody who's interested in writing and illustrating picture books, you should check out SCBWI stands for Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. I went to a lot of their conferences and Ninja! was reviewed at one of the workshops and that's where I met my agents and an editor from both Macmillan as well as another editor from Penguin were there and that's where they saw Ninja! and they both bid on Ninja! and became my first contract.
But I want to mention that because at the time I was actually pretty miserable working at the video game companies because we were making lots of mobile games and I just didn't care for the content. I want to mention this because I think it's a pretty important part of my journey is when I dreamed about becoming artists and I was at Pixar, I think there was this purity of being proud of what you make and wanting to make something that was going to affect the world in a positive way.
When I landed at video game companies, their primary motivation is to make money. We were just chasing the next trend. Actually, the company I worked out was pretty innovative. They made a game called It Girl and the whole point of the game, Chris, is to be the hottest girl.
Chris: Something I know a lot about so...
Arree: And the way you become the hottest girl is by buying the hottest, latest clothing in these virtual stores. I led the team that would design the stores and design the clothing line and I had a team of about 14 people and it was basically a factory. We're making virtual items and this game made over $10 million a year in playing this small team. Although I was making pretty good money, I was compensated well as the manager and art director, I was miserable. I just felt, "This couldn't be part of my journey and my story where I go to Pixar and part of these amazing movies, I learned so much. I take this big gamble to go to art school to end up here to make girly clothes for a game that I don't care about or believe in." It was just killing me inside.
I bring this up as a point because I think that pain was really the thing that made me put extra work into making my dream come true. Every day after my job, I would go to Starbucks and I would just work on my picture book. It was my way out. It was the thing that I thought this was going to help me achieve the creative freedom that I craved for.
It did give me creative freedom much later in terms of I now make things that I care about and love and I have control over that. But I didn't necessarily have the income part, which is, we'll get to that when we talk about business. But that was a big breaking point for me because at least I was now making work that I loved and cared about and felt good about in the world.
Chris: How much was the book deal worth?
Arree: Initially, the first bid was $12,000 to write and illustrate the book but Macmillan and Penguin got into a bidding war which is really great for you and really good to have an agent to help you navigate those waters. We close that $25,000.
Arree: So not too bad. What do you think, Chris?
Chris: I think that's really good. You got an advanced basically on the sales of the books, right?
Arree: Yes, yes.
Chris: Now, you get the deal, are you able to clear out your schedule so you can focus on doing this?
Arree: I quit my job and found a different art directing job at another game company which is a whole another story to get into. But in summary, that company, it was a startup, really didn't work out, and then I had time to focus on picture books.
When I made Ninja! I was still working. I was doing both. I was coming home and working extra hard and then I made a transition to becoming a picture book author/illustrator full time. But I learned quickly that that is very difficult to support yourself. I made really good money as an art director in video games. I think my salary was about 120,000 so I was able to chip away at the school loans and still save money and I had a really fancy, expensive apartment in San Francisco which took forever to get. In retrospect, I wish I didn't move there because I felt I wasted all that money on rent.
But when I made the leap to become a children's book author/illustrator, I moved back to my parents' house and the most important thing was time. I didn't want to work to pay rent and I want to buy myself time to be able to create my own stories and my own businesses. That's pretty much what I've done ever since joining this journey of becoming an author/Illustrator and creative entrepreneur.
Chris: I have to ask you a question. At this point in the storyline, you've had a couple of different jobs since graduating from ArtCenter. You worked at Disney and a handful of video game companies and that decision that your dad or the advice that your dad gave you about, "Don't go into this. This is not a good idea." How has that opinion changed at this point?
Arree: It didn't. When my dad saw me become an art director, he was relieved and proud. He was proud that I was making good money. I was able to start paying off my loans. The number one thing he said before all this is, "How are you going to pay this debt back? How are you going to support a family? How are you going to support yourself? You don't want to be 40 years old and broken. Not being able to have a family or support anybody." That was his warning.
In some ways, a lot of that became true. As I got into my mid 30s and my late 30s, I still didn't have a lot of money. I still had debt. The 200 went to 100 and then, 70. It was this big, looming monkey on your back which gives me very mixed feelings about ArtCenter, because I love ArtCenter but at the same time, it's been a huge burden. That debt is real.
I think a lot of things that my dad said there were true and they came true and he was just trying to help me and I recognize where that fear came from for him. He did have some relief that you can make more money as an art director. When I got the art director jobs, my dad actually became ill. He's been a smoker his whole life and he got lung cancer and it started spreading and pretty much in a period of two months, he passed away.
Chris: Oh, no.
Arree: I was back in the Bay Area. I was here. I was so grateful that I had a high paying job when he died so that way he died with some peace. But I have to tell you the story, Chris, because it's hilarious and it's true to my dad.
My dad's on his deathbed and he says, "Come closer. I want to tell you something." And I'm like, "Yeah, what is it, dad?" I'm anticipating something that you'd remember for the rest of your life and hopefully feels good. He tells me, "You still made a mistake going to ArtCenter."
Chris: Oh, my God. The last words from your dad to you is, "You made a mistake, son."
Arree: His exact words were, "You know when you're young, I didn't worry about you at all. I knew that you could figure things out. But that was a big mistake and that was still your biggest mistake." I was shocked for a second and I thought, "That's good to know that you're still here, dad."
Chris: Oh, my God. It's hilarious. I don't know how you're going to respond to that.
Arree: It's your life and you have to navigate those things. But he was right in a lot of ways and wrong in a lot other ways as my life's been stable and consistent, no, and yes, you had a ton of debt, but I wouldn't be doing all the things I'm doing now without chasing my dreams. I don't regret that.
Chris: Your dream chasing has taken more curves and turns and twists than most, I have to say.
Arree: Yeah, I feel that in life we're all very unique individuals and I think the more turns and twists that you go on, if you're really pursuing your inner voice and your passion, hopefully, you're realizing the thing that you're meant to do. Do you feel that way, Chris? Because you've gone through a lot of twists and turns in your story and I really admire your story as well.
Chris: It's interesting that you asked that because I always thought my path is pretty straight. Once I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, it's gone on a pretty direct path. It's bent a little bit and the big break was when I started The Futur. But for 20 years, it was moving in a very linear direction.
Arree: I guess here's the question I have for you is, do you feel looking back that The Futur and what you're doing now is what you were always meant to do?
Chris: I believe so, 100%.
Arree: Yeah, that's what I mean is I think starting blind, start having real life experience in business and as a designer and growing a company has enabled you to really give so much value to everyone else who is a designer doesn't know business and doesn't know how to... The things I love that you do is you teach people how to value themselves and value their work and how to market themselves. I think that's what you're here for. That's one of the things that you do so great that I appreciate so much.
Chris: Well, thank you. I feel like I've lived a pretty blessed life and have been able to do things that I never dreamt possible and so now, it's my obligation to help others along their journey.
Arree: Yeah, you're doing great job, Chris.
Chris: Thank you.
Arree: I've been watching your YouTube videos for many years before I finally signed up as a pro member. But I think there were a lot of mindset growth that you've helped me make breakthroughs on in my journey and you were affecting me before you... You didn't even know who I was.
Greg: Time for a quick break but we'll be right back with more from Arree Chung.
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Welcome back to our conversation with Arree Chung.
Chris: I want to get to our chance encounter at some point here. I'm still trying to figure out where we are in the storyline here. You're in the Bay Area. You moved back in with your parents and then your father passes away and you're still trying to figure things out. What year is this now
Arree: This is about 2014 to 15.
Chris: We're getting closer to present day.
Arree: I got my book deal in 2012. My book came out in 2014. My dad passed away, I think, in 2012 or 13. That's where we are in the timeline.
And then, I basically quit my job as an art director. I worked at another game company and that was a really difficult startup because just the management there was really unorganized, very toxic situation. But all these hard things that you go through in your life are really blessings in disguise.
I don't know about you. Tell me if this is true for you but all the hardest moments I've had in my professional career always led to the next pivot that was what I need to do anyway.
At Pixar, I was pretty bored after three years of making reports. I need to make that decision. That was a hard decision to leave someplace that you love so much and you felt like you're missing out. At that last game company, for me, it was, my gosh, how many art director jobs I'm willing to take and still feel unfulfilled.
In this latest startup, I was so hopeful that the company would grow and we would make lots of money as a company and my stock options were going to be worth lots of money and I would pay off all my loans. That was the dream. And instead, it was chaotic. The company was not making money. There was a very tight timeline for us to release games. Management was all over the place. For me, it was like, "I didn't want to go through that again. I'm helping build other people's companies here and I'd rather just go on my own."
But did you have that experience where the hardest pivots in your career led to the next best thing?
Chris: Yeah, but there's that really uncomfortable valley between those two points when you realize you need to be doing something else and then after, it works out. The part in the middle is really messy and difficult and full of unknowns and variables and it's very scary.
Arree: Yeah, it is.
Chris: But it seems like this whole time you're searching for something. You're not even quite sure what it is yet, but back your Excel jockey days and then you move to Pixar. It was doing similar work but just for a cooler company, right?
Arree: Yes, much cooler company.
Chris: Right. Yes. Then it's like, "No, I still don't have that fulfillment. There's something missing in my life." And then the idea that now you're going to go to art school, you're still finding and looking for that thing and then you wind up in a bunch of video game companies and that itch that you want to scratch isn't there and you're still looking for it.
I love that about your story where you're happy with what you have but you're always looking at, "Is this really it for me? Is this my life?"
Arree: Yeah, I think that the part that I found that ArtCenter gave me is for the first time I had the ability to create with my hands. I think that's the powerful thing. I believe everyone's creative. Do you believe that, Chris?
Chris: I do, I do, 100%.
Arree: I think this is where we overlap a lot. I actually believe drawing should be something that's taught in schools and it's just as important as writing and just as important as math because drawing is the way you visually communicate.
For me, ArtCenter filled the hole that I needed because when I realized I want to be an artist, what I was really learning was I want to be a visual communicator and be able to tell stories. I was able to do that. And then jobs in retrospect just became soul sucking because I wasn't telling stories. I was making art assets to make money in these ridiculous ways. That was soul sucking in the sense that I didn't feel like I was fulfilling my mission or doing the thing I was supposed to... I knew just deep down that this wasn't my path, my journey. I had to get off this train as fast as possible.
Chris: What brings you to the next arc or bump in your storyline here?
Arree: I go through a period of about two or three years where I am working really hard on making books, making a career. I wasn't making enough money to pay the bills. My income goes from $120,000 a year to 30, 35,000, which 90% of that goes to my student loan and I'm living at home and living with my mom and my brother. My dad's passed away.
You have this a little bit of guilt and shame. In some ways, you feel that maybe you're not as far as you should be in life or as successful and you have these thoughts of, "Maybe I should just get a job," and you have other friends that go work at Google and other places and they're telling you that, "Oh, I could probably get you in," or "There's opportunity." But then you're like, "No, I'm going to stay true to the dream. Being independent. Making a career out of my own creativity." I knew that was what I always wanted.
The next bump in the story is I had a chance encounter, or not encounter, I came upon a post from a friend that I went to college with. Her name is Jen. Jen and her husband, Steve, had started their own online business and Steve runs The MyWifeQuitHerJob podcast. I learned about their journey of how they started an online business and how they were able to create a lifestyle business where an online store makes millions of dollars and then Steve actually has a whole program teaching how to build an online store. I thought, "I've always was interested in being an entrepreneur. I actually think this was a dream before I even want to become an artist." I signed up for his class.
I worked really hard for a couple years building my first online business which was called Live in a Story. I saw all these wall decals that were being sold online and I thought the quality was really bad. I thought the artwork looked atrocious and I thought, "Oh, I can do something so much nicer and better." So I started this company to make wall decals using children's book artwork.
I started this with a couple of friends and we tried really hard for a year and a half. I learned so much about building a business. We closed a year and a half later. I lost about 40, $50,000 in the whole process.
Chris: Oh my God.
Arree: Instead of paying rents or chipping away at my loans more, I invest in that business but I learned so much though. It was one of the best things I ever did even though that was painful. We tried really hard. I researched like crazy and then I learned how to make a physical product. We bought our own printers. We're renting an office space. All these things, I'm like, "Oh, those are all mistakes actually."
Chris: I have a couple of questions here. One is where did you get the 40 to $50,000 to invest in your business when you're still trying to pay off your student loans?
Arree: When I was in the art directing jobs, I knew that I want to start something so I wasn't making extra payments. I was just doing the minimum payments. I had about 50, $60,000 saved up because I knew I wanted to have some margin there but it all hit the... The money came from two places. I had money saved up there and then I was still making books.
When you make books and you get the next contract, you get that advance and what's nice with advance is when you sign a two or three-book contract, for a short period of time, you feel rich because the contract is for 70 or $80,000 or $90,000 and you get a check for half of it right away. What no one tells you is that, "That's got to last you in the next year and a half." So you have to basically budget really well.
But to be honest, at that point, I spent that money into business and we made revenue but we were losing money in the business. We spent more money than we made.
But that's where the money came from is combination of savings from the art director job to advance in the future. But money was super tight and I was still paying my student loans which was 1800 dollars every month.
Chris: What went wrong in this decal business? Why didn't it work out?
Arree: I think there're two main lessons here. The simple answer is that I never had product market fit. There's a bigger answer to what is product market fit. But essentially, what product market fit means that you can find customers that are willing to pay what you're offering, pay you the price you want for the offering you have. This is the number one mistake that I had made was I assumed I knew better than the market. I was a little bit snobby in my artistic taste and I made a higher quality product and I was aiming to charge a lot more. Wall decals, the market is 10, 15 bucks, 20 bucks, I made a premium product and I thought I could find people to spend hundreds of dollars on their wall decal.
Arree: The comparison, this is really where we failed, is if you saw our wall decals, they're gorgeous, there's no outlines. They look like a mural painted on the wall. I did not know how to market and sell it properly. I did not know how to convey that value. In retrospect, I think that there is a market for a high end wall decals but you're going to sell to interior designers. You're going to sell it. You're not trying to compete with low end cheap wall decals. Instead of hiring a muralist that's going to take two weeks to paint this hand painted thing and have all these fumes in your house, why not get these wall decals? It looks like paint. Your designer can help you design the perfect children's room and instead of paying 10 grand, you'll pay two.
Our number one failing is that we never found the way to market and sell to those customers. I didn't know how to find them and I didn't know how to sell to them. I've had some big gross in terms of mindset around marketing and selling and frankly, I didn't know what that really was before then. That was the number one reason why we failed.
I'd say the number two reason is that as an artist, I care so much about the quality of the product. I spent all my time developing the product, very little time marketing it. We spent so much time making this thing. We had our own printers, we spent so much money on development. Looking back, we never had a chance to see it. I didn't even market long enough for us to make enough money, too. We just spent all our time developing thing and we didn't launch fast enough.
If I had to do it all over again, I would spend 70, 80% of my time on finding product market fit. I would have sold decals at a loss just to find what is the price point that they're going to pay at what kind of quality level. And then I would have made these samples and sold them locally. I would have sold them at a loss and then find the right manufacturer in China and ship them over and then scale the business profitably then. I just know a ton more now than I did then. But that was the reason why it basically failed.
Chris: There's a lot of classic things that you do that artists do, artists in any description of creative execution or implementation but we believe in our idea so much that we invest in it without finding a customer first.
Arree: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: You went whole hog. You bought the equipment and you thought miraculously customers would appear because the idea was so good. It had to work. Failure at that point was not even part of your mindset. It was not an option,
Arree: Then you didn't know how to find the customer. If you don't know how to find customer, you don't have a business.
Chris: Right, right. You have to find the customer first. Now, I'm going to jump forward in the story because the exciting part is really coming up because you're hearing a lot of the trials and tribulations that Arree is going through.
Now, this is totally random. Our stories intersect a little bit here. I'm at Urth Caffe in Pasadena and it's grad show and I'm there with Melinda and I'm walking by... I think it's Urth Caffe and you were sitting there with a few friends, I believe.
Arree: Yeah. my old roommates.
Chris: Right. You're like, "Hey, I know you." And we chat a little bit. I'm not trying to say anything about myself but I have encounters like this at random places more and more these days. So I was like, "I wonder who this guy is." But it turns out you're a super legitimate person who has got a whole art background and now I find out a whole entrepreneurial background and something else happens in here, too. I want to just set you up for the next part which is really the reason why what you've done has blown me away in so many different ways. Can you just set that part up and let's get into this part of your story?
Arree: After that first failed business, I was licking my wounds and I started thinking of what my next business would be. I'm pretty stubborn. So I started a business called Storyteller Academy. I knew that becoming a picture book author/illustrator was a bucket goal. It was something that was so important to me and even outside of money, I want to achieve this goal and create things for kids. I started this online school called Storyteller Academy. We've grown it over the last four years and I've been operating the business and that's when I met you and I thought we had so much in common in terms of we're both teaching artists and I had been listening to your YouTube videos for a long time.
Fast forward, I've been growing the business, operating it. We've had some great years. We've had some hard years in terms of the marketing things that we're working are no longer working. You've got to figure how to switch.
I think I was really interested in learning and I still am actually in how to grow YouTube following in content marketing because that's where we're pretty weak on. We don't do a lot of that. Our whole business has been built on Facebook ads and for the most part, what we do is we either run a Facebook ad to a webinar, either a live webinar or a recorded webinar, that teaches you something, gives you a lot of value and then, gives you an offer of, "If you want to join, here's where you can join and here's a discount," or "Here's a bonus," or whatever is that you're giving them as an incentive.
That's what I was doing in the last four or five years meanwhile making picture books which has also taken a lot of time and then more recently when COVID hit, everyone's world got turned upside down and I guess this is part of the story where... Shall I get into this part, Chris? What do you think?
Chris: Before you do that, can you explain to people what Storyteller Academy is, though?
Arree: Storyteller Academy is an online school for people who dream about becoming picture book authors and illustrators and we teach them everything from how to write stories to how to draw, how to paint. Basically, it's an online school of learning how to build the skills you'll need to become an author and illustrator. Now, I'm actually teaching business classes there as well.
Chris: This is for people who want to do what you do, right?
Arree: Yes, exactly.
Chris: In terms of probably even how to get an agent, how to go to these book fairs, and-
Chris: Negotiations, all that stuff. Okay. Beautiful.
Arree: That business is still growing and it's doing great. This is really where I've learned my entrepreneurial chops. My first business, I really didn't know what I was doing and this is the business that I've learned how to hire, learn how to scale a team, learn how to run ads, learn how... I had product market fit right away which was great so we were profitable right away.
It's also allowed me to grow my income and make a sound passive income. We teach live. It's not a passive thing and we still run marketing. But time wise, it's really good and it's allows me to make picture books and I can earn a healthy living from having this online business as well as making picture books on the side and with picture books, the goal is that you're making some books that become bestsellers and then you earn passive income through them.
But I think another key point in the timeline is I have this really big idea about using color theory to talk about diversity. When I had this idea, I was like, "Oh, my gosh, that's such a good idea. I wonder if someone's done this story before." And no one had. And then I spent two years developing this story and it became Mixed. I'm bringing this up because Mixed has won awards and it's potentially moving into film rights now.
Arree: Yeah. There's a lot of exciting things. A big theme in this story has been making artwork that you're proud of that is going to live in the world and make the world a better place. Mixed is that book. Ninja! Also makes kids happy and I'm so proud of it. But Mixed is really the book that I felt like the world needed and I felt like God gave me this beautiful story to bring to the world.
Storyteller Academy allowed me to not work a job and allowed me to work on making books. I had time to make Mixed and Mixed has come into the world.
Chris: Now, we got to get to the story about COVID and the pandemic and the plan before and then what happens afterwards?
Arree: At this point, I have still about $80,000 of debt from ArtCenter. I'm 42 and I just feel like, "I'm so tired of debt." There are days where I have bad days where I feel like I'm a failure. I don't feel like I'm very far in my life. I don't have family. I don't really don't have any assets. I work hard. I have some business entities but we're not millionaires or anything and I have all this debt. It's really easy to get negative sometimes. I'm overall a very positive person but I have those days.
At the beginning of this year, I also had some hard discussions with my family and you just want to help out and you don't want to feel like you're a burden ever. I made it my goal to get out of debt this year. I just said, "You know what? I'm too old to have debt. I'm going to do whatever it needs to get done."
I started opening myself up to these new opportunities that I would have said no to before. I have freelancing opportunities come to me all the time. I said, "Okay, I'm going to do this freelancing job with this company and help them develop their app. I'm going to do this art camp with this company for kids." I negotiated a pretty good fee of... I was going to teach a whole week for this in person camp and to attend this camp, it would be $350 or $500 for the whole week and there's going to be 36 kids. I put a lot of work into developing this program for that week.
I was lining up these new income sources and then COVID hit and all these opportunities disappeared overnight Because obviously, you can't have in person camp. That company, they were scrambling just to figure out how to have people work from home. All these opportunities disappeared and I had a moment where I was like, "How is this going to affect me and how is this going to affect my student loans and..." Storyteller Academy at a time was, I think I was in a little bit of a negative place, meaning I was so cautious about spending money. I never want to risk the business. As a business owner, you never want to run out of cash.
With all these other income sources drying up, I had a moment where I thought, "I'm either going to figure out a way to invest and be aggressive and find the silver lining to how things have changed." Or, "I think it's going to be really hard and I'm going to either find how to be positive and how to give value in this new time." I felt like we're going to have to write it out and live through being a little more fearful but being cautious.
A couple of things happen is I applied for the PPP loan so we got a little bit extra cash in the bank and then I just thought on the whim because I saw all these parents and all these educators freaking out about what are they going to do with their kids and I just thought, "Why don't I just take all the content that was going to in person and let me just do it for free and let me just grow my email list for free." Why not?
Chris: You already done the work, right?
Arree: Yeah. I already planned all the work and let's just see where it goes. I posted it on Facebook. People started sharing like crazy. In one week, we had over 3000 signups for free camp. And so then I taught that camp for free for a whole week and I was not planning on extending it. I was one and done. It was a lot of work. I taught every single day. There were-
Chris: This is a live teaching over Zoom.
Arree: Yes, live teaching over Zoom and you see all the kids' Faces there was also a lot of learning of how to teach kids over Zoom and all the controls.
The first day was a complete disaster, Chris. Oh my gosh.
Chris: But they got their money's worth, it's free.
Arree: Yes, exactly.
We got Zoom bomb. It was-
Chris: Oh my God.
Arree: There was profanity in the chat. Someone took over your screen. I got to tell you someone even drew a penis on the screen with little kids on. I was like, "Oh my gosh."
Chris: People are terrible. There're terrible people out there.
Arree: Yeah, but I didn't give up. The next day, I fixed it. I took off all the controls. I fixed it. The silver lining is you just got to go, figure it out, fix it, it's okay to fail. You just got to fix it fast. If anything, there's so much pressure for you to fix it because you're having so many people complaining. It forces you to grow fast.
At the end of that free week, all these parents were like, "Are you going to continue? Our kids are still at home." And I thought, "Oh, I don't know, I'm so busy with Storyteller Academy which is a real business. This is just a side thing. I did for free." And then they said, "We'll pay you. We'll pay you. We'll pay you." And I'm like, "Is this going to make enough money to be worth my time?"
I'm in the future at this point and we're talking about branding yourself and what is the one thing you're doing and going to be known for. At that point, I was teaching adults, I wasn't teaching kids. I have another friend who's a marketing consultant and she said, "Arree, these people are asking you for an offer. You need to come up with the offer right now, this weekend, and you need to give it to them right now." It's now or never.
Chris: The window of opportunity.
Arree: Yes. Over Saturday, I have a big heart for all the parents are struggling. I knew that there were lots of people losing their jobs. Let me put together something that's going to help them for the next three weeks. Let me make it ridiculously cheap. So I said, "Okay, $47 for every day creativity camp for the next three weeks." Three weeks for $47 every single day. I just made more time with my schedule. I just worked harder and slept a little bit less and we did it.
All of it was profit because I had not spent any money on ads or anything and I was just-
Chris: Oh, really?
Arree: Yeah, this was-
Chris: So the 3000 people that signed up, you have their email, so you just email those 3000?
Arree: We had 160 sales and that end up being about $9,000 which is not too bad for three weeks.
Arree: It's not too shabby. It was a lot of work, though. at the end of three weeks.
What happened then three weeks was everyone's... Because this is when we're like, "Oh, this isn't go away in a month." And then at the end of three weeks, we're like, "This thing is not going away. It's getting worse." I'm like, "Oh, my gosh. What's going to happen?" Everyone's freaking out.
And then so I just said to the parents because they started asking me, "Are you going to extend it? Are you going to extend it? We still need you. You can't end this now. This is the thing that allows me to work in the afternoon and my kid loves your camp." And so I said, "Let's do another three weeks." And this time, this is what I'm like, "All right, it's game on. I'm going to take all my marketing skills that I've taken from Storyteller Academy. I'm going to take this $9,000. I'm spending 1000 for Teachable to put all the replays. Now, I'm putting the rest in ads.
Then we went from 3000 people on our email list to 14,000 and that's all through running Facebook ads. I did another free week of, "This is creativity camp for free. Sign up for this free week. And then at the end of the free week, we're starting the paid camp. You've got three days to sign up." You're either in or out and I raise the price slightly to $60 and I still gave an early bird bonus of, "If you sign up before this day, you get $13 off. But after this day, it's 60 bucks." Even it's just $13, people are motivated by saving money.
Arree: We turned basically 160 customers the first camp into about 700 customers the second camp. Revenue raised from $9,000 to about $45,000. And then I just did it again. At the end of that camp, the COVID was still going on. Parents were like, "Are you going to extend it? Are you going to do it again?" I said, "It started to turn into a business." i hired my first team member then. I hired an assistant then. The team was three people and then we took that money. We made about $40,000. I started saving some of that away for paying off my school loans. I think I saved 10, 15,000 for that and then put the rest into ads.
Chris: You spent about 30K in ads?
Arree: The next time around we spent 26, $27,000 on ads.
Chris: Okay, 26. That's a lot of money on ads.
Arree: Yeah. And then I paid my staff and I paid myself a little bit for this. I was saving money aside for taxes as well as the student loan which was the thing I wanted to pay off.
The third camp, we went from about 700 customers to 1500 and then we made $70,000 in a month. Now, we're gaining momentum.
Chris: Yes, you are.
Arree: I've done this three times in a row and the ads, the cost per lead on Facebook were really cheap. I was getting things for about $1, $1 50. On Facebook, for anyone who's not familiar with how Facebook advertising work is basically you run an ad, people click on the ad and then they opt in and then you get their email. Facebook tells you how much did it cost for you to get their email. When I say cost per lead, that's what that means.
As a business owner, you're always looking at how much did it cost me to acquire this group of people and how many sales that I get from that marketing to that group of people. It's really as simple as that. You don't need to over complicated.
This is where the most amazing thing happened.
Chris: Wait. Pause right there. I'm curious about one thing. You do the first class and it's three weeks long for $47. You run the campaign and the campaign you spent, I think, 14,000 of that to sell basically a free week, right?
Chris: And then from those people, "Do you want to sign up for the paid course?" And then you're able to convert. When you run this again, are you also doing the free week formula or now you're just going straight for the paid-
Chris: Okay. Same thing.
Arree: Great question, Chris. You always have to give value in advance and you teach this., the way that you give value in advance is just by this overwhelming, huge library of videos that are free on YouTube. Basically, by the time people buy from you, they love you. They just want to say thank you and they want to be closer to you. They want to be closer to the group. They want to be part with Melinda and Ben and Matthew. I'm your classic customer. I'm like, "I just want to be part of the gang."
For us, we don't do it organically through, but I would love to do that, that's where I can learn a lot more from you still. What we do is we give you a free week of classes and we don't sell in the beginning at all. We're just like, "This is a whole free week. Enjoy it. We do let you know that this is a school and you can join later. But just enjoy it now. See if your kids like it, just have fun." And then midway through, we've transitioned to, "There're only two more classes left. This is the schedule."
There's a very specific timing on rolling things out. You share, "These are the classes happening in the next three weeks and then here's the material list." And then you tell them, "Here's the offer and here's..." either the bonus or the discount that you get by signing up. And then the final push is, "The camp is starting. Enrollment's ending. You're in or out." You always get to customers at the very end as well.
Chris: You're doing a couple of things I want to point out really quickly before we get to the big moment.
Chris: Which is you're giving a free trial, you're demonstrating basically this is what you're going to get so if you like it, there's low risk to you as a parent to try it out and see if your kids like it. And then once they have a taste of it, then they're going to deal with the loss aversion bias is because once you have something, you probably can't bear the fact that you're going to lose this thing. And then you get into the scarcity part which is there's a real deadline, it's coming up, and if you miss it, then you'll miss that wave, right?
Chris: You're doing all the right things. This is like a week-long webinar but with value.
Arree: Yeah. I'm glad you brought that up, Chris, because I did webinars for Storyteller Academy for two, three years and they were working magic for two, three years, especially since I was doing them live. But the problem that I had with webinars which I didn't really like myself is you're on a call for an hour and then you give people an offer and then you're actually squeezing for the sale right away. It works it but I always felt like it was rushed and I didn't feel-
Chris: It doesn't feel good.
Arree: Yeah. You have to do it to basically get that commitment and start and it has to be okay when you're a student because you're actually growing. That's the beginning of relationship. If you're teaching so much value, they love you later. But if you squeeze them in the beginning, doesn't feel good.
Chris: No, it doesn't feel good.
Arree: Yeah. I like this launch a lot more because there's a whole week and they already know. They're experiencing the real product and there's no confusion of what you're getting, you're getting it. It's the same thing, it's just longer.
Chris: It's not that high pressure used car salesman technique. It's value, value, value. By the way, if you want to do this and continue this journey with us, you do need to act because the next class is starting. There is some pressure, but it's applied the right way, I think.
Arree: I like to think of it as when you're going around Costco or the mall and you're getting those free samples, I think in a webinar, you're getting a super small sample and then someone's giving you this big coupon that says, "All right, if you buy right now, you'll get the sandwich for half off." And then it still feels like, "Ooh" versus you're like, "Oh, go ahead. Go shopping. We'll be here..." If you're going to sign up for the ship, the ship is sailing at this time and there're 100 seats and 50 are gone. You need to decide. We're not pressuring you. We're just telling you what the date is.
Chris: Now without further ado because I'm almost out of time here. Tell us this last big launch that the game is changed at this point.
Arree: I do a lot of thinking on my bike. I ride my bike and get exercise and do a lot thinking and I was thinking about the journey and I was thinking about how the whole goal of this was to just raise my email list and give value. At this point, the email list is, I think, about 40,000 people and I was like-
Chris: That's significant, man.
Arree: Yeah, I was like, "This is not bad." And then I did some math in my head because we were converting anywhere between 4.5 to 5% of the people that sign up for the free week and that's really high. If you're converting 2%, you're doing great. So 4.5, 5% is crazy high. I just thought, "What if I had 100,000 people on email list?" Then I was reviewing the numbers.
There's one thing I didn't tell you about is we ran a contest on the last few promotions that basically gave us double the amount of leads. My lead costs went from $1.50 or $1.20 to 60 cents and I was like, "That's insane. This is so cheap." At the same time with Facebook, advertising cost just went lower because all these businesses are struggling, they're not running ads. The ad costs went down by 20, 30%. And I just thought, "Oh, this is the best time to grow my email list." That led to the idea, "What if I had a promotion with 100,000 people? If I convert 4%, that's 4000 customers."
I'd already been listening to my customers. They're like, "What are you doing for the summer? We want a summer camp. We want a summer camp." I'm just listening to what the customers want and I thought, "I'm going to take all this profit and I'm going to put into ads again. I'm going to go for it." I did the calculation. I'm like, "I think we can make 400,000 this summer."
I planned out the promotion and instead of three weeks, it's going to be a five-week camp and then instead of me teaching all the classes, I thought, "Why don't I just invite all my friends and I could pay them really well and let's try to make a bunch of money and help a bunch of people out. Let's go for it."
The promotion went pretty much to plan. The only thing that went above and beyond was the sales were so high. We close with 4700 customers and we made over $730,000 in this promotion. The bulk of it came... This is mind blowing thing. We had 36 hours where we made, I think, $400,000 in 36 hours.
Chris: Incredible. So good.
Arree: Oh my gosh.
Chris: So good.
Arree: It taught me a lot about money mindset is that a lot of business is a system. You're building a system and you're investing into the system. The internet is so scalable.
Greg: That does it for part one. I know. Right when it was getting good, too. But don't fret because there's plenty more story to tell here. Tune in next week to hear how exactly Aree scaled his new business all the way up to making over $400,000 in just 36 hours. That's crazy. We'll see you then.
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