How to Make Stuff People Will Pay For

Every person earns a living by making stuff people will pay for.

If you’re an entrepreneur, artist or programmer, that reality may be obvious. You create products, pieces or code and sell them to people who need them.

But accountants, janitors and teachers are also makers. Accountants create understanding of financial flows for their clients. Janitors create clean rooms. Teachers create knowledge inside students’ minds.

The challenge is often that people don’t want to pay for the things we make. Or they want to pay so little, that it isn’t worth our time.

In this essay, I’d like to offer some advice on how to make things others will pay for, whether you’re an artist or an accountant.

1. Don’t Make it About You.

Don't Make it About You

People buy things because it will solve their problems or how it will make them feel. They don’t care how hard you worked, how much time you invested, which degrees you have or why you should be taken seriously.

Instead, make things that other people love and find helpful. It’s their feelings that count, not yours.

We’re naturally self-absorbed, so it’s hard to divorce our own feelings about our work from how they are received. If we spent years training to do something that people don’t appreciate, that can sting enough for us to reject their evaluation of our work.

However, just as we are self-absorbed, so are the people who pay for things. And they don’t care about you, they care about how what you’ve made makes them feel. If you can empathize with that, you can begin to make things other people will pay for.

2. Make a Lot of Stuff.

Make a Lot of Stuff

When in doubt, create. This should be your mantra.

Making more stuff has two advantages. First, by increasing variety, you’ll increase the chances you’ll find the right combination of qualities that will create delight and desire in your customers.

Second, the more stuff you make, the better you’ll get at making stuff. Quality comes from quantity. Doing more things gives you more opportunities to learn, refine your skills and improve.

3. Start by Making Copies.

Make Copies

Originality is a virtue. But copying is the path to mastery.

When you start out, find people you admire and copy what they do. Don’t plagiarize (or if you do, don’t publish it). Instead, try to emulate what you like about their work, within your own designs.

Copying is useful because it reduces the difficulty in finding the right combination of things people like to get them to pay for it. When I started writing, I emulated the voice in the bloggers I liked, although I wrote about my own ideas. When I started making courses, I studied the format of more successful publishers and emulated their format.

As Picasso once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

4. Make People Pay You.

Make People Pay You

I follow a Twitter account, For Exposure, which republishes insane requests artists get for them to do professional work in exchange, “for exposure.”

On the one hand, I sympathize. It’s frustrating when other people believe that you should work hard and they should enjoy your labor for free. I remember publishing my first ebook and asking for $14, and then getting a scathing comment when I offered to sell it from someone who didn’t think I should dare ask for the money.

On the other hand, however, it’s important to recognize that nobody wants to pay for things. They pay for them because they want what you’re offering enough to pay for it.

This means you need to ask people to pay you, refuse to work for people who don’t. Don’t feel guilty about that decision, but also don’t feel angry at people who don’t want to pay you. It’s not their job to figure out how you’re going to make a living making stuff, it’s yours.

5. Make Friends With People Who Get Paid.

Make Friends With People

Just as you should emulate successful people in your early days, you should also befriend as many people who actually get paid as you can.

The first reason is the same as before. Befriending people gives you access to information which narrows the mistakes you can make and helps you avoid obvious blunders. Just talking to people, without even specifically asking for advice, lets you pick up aspects of the profession by osmosis.

How do you make these friends? Find them and say hello. The problem isn’t that you don’t know anyone. A quick Google search will reveal thousands of people getting paid to make the things you want to make. The problem is you’re too shy and worried about getting rejected.

The truth is, a well-written email which is polite and asks for a quick phone call, Skype or cup of coffee (if they live nearby) is almost never poorly received. The worst response is usually nothing, so it can’t hurt to ask.

6. Value the Stuff You Make.

Value What You Make

As explained before, people largely care about themselves. This isn’t an evil, but simply human nature.

This means that if people can take advantage of you, they often will. In fact, they often won’t even realize they’re taking advantage of you, and in their minds, they believe what they’re doing is just normal business.

Not paying you for your work. Offering to pay you and not actually giving you money. Not giving you money promptly. Agreeing to work with you, and then asking for millions of changes (for free). Paying for something, using it, and then asking for a refund.

This can be disheartening. But the solution isn’t to get angry about being exploited. Instead it is to set your expectations and be immovable in the face of them.

Tell your customers what your fees are, when they balk, don’t negotiate against yourself. Tell them what level of customization and alterations you’ll provide, don’t back down when they’re being finicky. Tell them what your refund policy is, don’t be upset when they use it, but also don’t change it once you’ve stated the rules.

Enjoy Making Stuff

The final lesson should be to enjoy making stuff! Although the stuff, and not your enjoyment, is what customers will value, if you enjoy making things you’ll find it much easier to deal with everything else.

And if you don’t enjoy the stuff you make, why not try making something else?

Building Up Your Intellectual Immune System

Ideas are like viruses.

They can hijack your mind and cause you to do dangerous things.

Consider Ted Kaczynski. Despite being a brilliant math prodigy, he became convinced that the world was heading towards self-annihilation. The only solution was to return to a pre-technological, agrarian society.

When his own exile from society failed, he started mailing bombs to university professors and airline officials, demanding to be heard. Nicknamed the Unabomber, he was eventually apprehended, but not before he killed three people and injured dozens of others.

While Kaczynski is an extreme case, the impact of ideas and ideologies is profound. Anorexics can overcome one of the human bodies most hard-wired instincts—to eat enough food to survive—driven by an ideal of thinness. Fanatics can kill thousands all in support of an abstract ideology.

More modestly, our lives are deeply shaped by the ideas we find persuasive. This can be profoundly good—education is a process of ingesting ideas which improve ourselves. But it can also be dangerous, when incorrect ideas take us down risky paths.

Your Defense Against Influential Ideas

Radical Skepticism Doesn't Work

One solution to the danger posed by ideas is to adopt a radical skepticism. Don’t believe anything you read or see. At least not without enormous quantities of proof.

However, a quick look at online groups devoted to skepticism and you’ll see a large number of wacky beliefs. Vaccine skeptics reject useful medicine to ward off imaginary problems. Flat-earthers doubt the shape of the globe, and all the modern science that goes with it.

Blanket skepticism doesn’t help because the mind inevitably believes something. Total doubt isn’t a psychologically realizable state. Doubting everything, perversely, allows you to become infected by ideas most sane people would reject.

A useful analogy is to one of actual pathogens. Your body can defend against intrusion of bacteria and viruses. But you still need to eat, walk around and live in the world. Therefore, contamination is impossible to avoid. Living inside a sterilized environment ultimately makes you even more susceptible to dangerous bugs.

In contrast, careful exposure is often a better remedy. It allows your immune system to adapt defenses so that when exposed to harmful ideas, you have the ability to avoid them.

Exposure Therapy for Better Thinking

The way to avoid being corrupted by bad ideas, but also to get the value from beneficial ones is to expose yourself broadly to large swathes of ideas. This has a few effects.

The first is that broad exposure to lots of different ideas (many of which contradict) prevents smaller ideas from expanding to occupy your entire worldview. Conspiracy theories are prevalent because as the theorist begins to hone in on his particular delusion, explanations for why to reject outside sources grow and grow.

The second is that certain patterns of ideas can be quite persuasive, when you hear them in isolation, but as you hear more debates you become less convinced.

When I started reading popular science books, I was often instantly sold on the truth of some new theory of biology, psychology, physics or human nature. After all, the person who wrote the book was so smart, and they had so much evidence.

That is, until I read another book by a different author who disagreed with the first. They managed to poke all sorts of holes in the other’s theories that I was surprised I found it so persuasive to begin with.

Reading a lot helps prevent malignant ideas from festering in your mind.

Seek Out Antibodies to Popular Positions

Vaccines work by injecting yourself with a small amount of the pathogen, so your body can train itself to fight off the infection.

You can do the same for your beliefs by seeking out smart people who disagree with you and hearing what they have to say. If they truly are wrong, you’ll learn to spot the persuasive tactics they use so you can avoid them next time. On the other hand, they may have some merit, and help you immunize yourself against the persuasive tactics you’ve already fallen victim to.

Does this mean you should have to read, in-depth, every crazy theory or belief system, no matter how widely discredited or dismissed? No, of course not.

However, I think ideas which are popular deserve some attention, even if they don’t deserve your belief. Popular ideas carry persuasive memetic mechanisms, so they’re worth understanding why other people believe them, even if you don’t agree with them yourself.

Unpopular ideas are safer to reject from a distance, perhaps with the caveat that unpopular ideas with support from small subsets of other experts, deserve a little more attention.

You Can’t Guard Your Mind, It Is Already Infected

One approach to this problem would be to guard your mind carefully, so that it isn’t unintentionally contaminated by the wrong ideas. This doesn’t work, however, because all of us are already infected by many ideas. The only solution is to balance our existing infections with competing ones. Moderate the impact of our bad ideas, rather than amplify them.