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How I turned my passion for comics and failure into a business

How I turned my passion for comics and failure into a business

How I turned my passion for comics and failure into a business

 

Growing up, I had two passions: drawing silly comics, and not doing what anyone told me to do. I drew comics all the time. I even drew comics in my notebooks during psychology classes in college to help me learn concepts. I tried to get in the papers and failed. I tried to freelance. But despite my second passion, life directed me into 10 years in the corporate world testing the boundaries of authority as a graphic designer and art director, finding ways to explore my creativity within a box (albeit, a pretty good size box built by a bunch of Fortune 100 brands). So much for that Psychology degree.

Despite building a resume that looked good on paper, I couldn’t help but consistently go back to what I enjoyed the most: drawing stupid things to make my friends laugh. To offset corporate structure, I would enter t-shirt design contests as a creative outlet. And perhaps not due to the quality of my work, but my prolific nature, I won about 25 weekly contests and started wondering what else I could do with my obnoxious perseverance. 

So I started trying to sell t-shirts with my designs! Online, even at street fairs. This was before print-on-demand was a big thing, and I was buying t-shirts and getting them screen printed in bulk. It was expensive. It also failed pretty miserably. But it was fun, and failure is just a hint at a need for a change in direction. 

In 2010, a few months after my first child was born, I was inspired to make a children’s book. It was a short picture book called The Awkward Yeti, about a silly creature with silly habits that simply made him who he was. Again, it failed to sell, but here’s the difference between someone who has done it and someone who gives up: I adjusted course and continued to find a NEW way to fail.

Late in 2012, with nothing to lose and a Facebook page with a few dozen followers (not to brag), I started drawing a grown up comic version of the Awkward Yeti. It took inspiration from myself and the people around me, it was silly, and it felt RIGHT. I would obsessively watch my likes and follower count, enjoying the dopamine rush from an occasional spike from a big page sharing my work, and most importantly: I LOVED doing it. I started meeting other web cartoonists trying to do the same thing and it felt like home. Around the time I hit 33,000 followers on Facebook I knew I had something. Little did I know that number would eventually reach about 4 million in total across social media channels.

At that time, my mentality was that I just needed to work harder than the next person. So if I saw a more popular cartoonist posting 3 comics per week, I would post 5 comics per week. And I would adapt because I needed to succeed. Failure is only failure when it stops you. Failure is essential to success, but has to be combined with that obnoxious perseverance I mentioned. When someone on the internet would tell me I wasn’t funny, that my comic sucked, that I was dumb, that I should kill myself, it DID hurt a lot. But it never stopped me from getting back to it after a day or two of recovery (self care is important!).  

So as I made comics I would read comments, I would see what people liked, I would try to focus on those themes while keeping myself at the core of it. I learned to separate constructive feedback from needless criticism, trolls and negativity. I learned that people responded to science comics, so I did more science comics. I learned that I loved biology the most, so I focused on that. Over time, I introduced a brain character to further explore my own internal dialogue and mental health. A spike in interest!  Then, a heart to counter the brain. The part of me wanting to get out. A huge spike in interest. Interesting.

When Heart and Brain were born, it was an organic evolution WITH my audience. And through that, I found a genuine voice that truly reflected me, while connecting deeply with my audience. Using my experience in the corporate world, jumping to merchandise felt natural. If I didn’t know where to buy something I would ask around or use Google. If I wanted a contract changed, but it wasn’t normal protocol, I wasn’t afraid to sound dumb and fail, I would just ask. Within just a couple years of constantly grinding with hundreds of small and large course corrections (failures) along the way, I was able to bring in enough money to quit my day job.

And so, The Awkward Store was born. My attempt at freedom. My attempt to give people work that felt meaningful and fun. A place where I get to design the products myself (and with the help of a fantastic little team) and seek manufacturing with high quality standards because it’s what I want for myself, and it’s what I want for my fans and customers. I could have sold it all, I could have had someone else run it. I have been through some of the worst things that can happen in business because of my naivety or being overly trusting of people, but I am so obnoxious with perseverance that I won’t give up on it. I believe in it! And I think that’s why we are still here, even after losing our ability to connect with fans on social media in the past few years due to algorithm changes that keep posts silent.

After all I’ve been through, I have managed to maintain a real connection with my fans. They support me when I’m down, and I try to support them too. Every day I am working towards my freedom, and towards something that helps people feel better about their medical and mental health. I’m grateful for every failure that got me here, and I’m grateful for every fan and customer. It’s not just business for me, it’s something much more.

-Nick Seluk
New York Times Bestselling creator of The Awkward Yeti and Heart and Brain, OrganATTACK!, and founder of The Awkward Store

From left to right, Brian Gordon (Fowl Language Comics), Jim Davis (Garfield), Nick Seluk (The Awkward Yeti), Sarah Andersen (Sarah’s Scribbles), at the 2023 Reuben Awards shortly after I was inducted onto the board of the National Cartoonists Society