This post is more than two years old. As a result, it may contain information that's out of date or that I no longer agree with.
Posted 07 Dec 2017

Yesterday Patreon announced a change to their payment processing that’s likely to hurt the people who need this sort of system the most: folks who depend on a group of small donations each month. They intend to start charging a mandatory fee to both patrons and creators, which will make the service more profitable but price out people who can only contribute $10-15 a month, split at $1/creator. I want to talk a little about why I went a different route to begin with, and what options I recommend for other people.

Why I don’t use Patreon

I don’t use Patreon because I don’t feel they’re trustworthy. They’ve had bookkeeping problems in the past, they don’t have clear guidelines for acceptable content so sometimes they kick folks off for bad reasons, and if something goes wrong, I would lose both my payments and my ability to contact supporters at the same time. Even though I’m sure there are people who would send me money because I was on Patreon and it made that convenient for them, it doesn’t feel like a good risk for me.

Patreon bundles several services into one platform. They process payments for supporters, process payments for creators, provide a system for creators to communicate with supporters, and provde a platform for supporters to find creators they might be interested in. It’s only worthwhile if they provide sufficient convenience for both sides, and have enough users to create a high level of discoverability. My feeling, in general, is that there are a number of economic and social factors that make platforms like Patreon really only work for the company itself and the users with the best financial backing (who honestly could choose to be anywhere, but they serve a second purpose of making the plaform look good).

My own plan

The route I decided to go with instead has a couple of pieces. For quick spur-of-the-moment payments I encourage people to use Square Cash. It’s free for this sort of use (“I like you! Here’s $5”). They could also send me money through PayPal but I don’t trust PayPal either (their particular history of fucking up is long and gruesome). Ko-fi seems like a nice interface though. If people want to send money on a recurring basis, I send them to a form on Moonclerk. That’s a paid service that connects with Stripe for the payment processing. It’s $9 a month for me and for a while I ate the cost, but now there are 20 recurring monthly payments coming through there, so it seems like a reasonable fee. The individual payments cost $0.30 + 2.9% which is pretty standard.

Why Stripe? All they do is payment processing, so getting that right is what they’re judged by. The API is integrated with all sorts of things, so I also receive payments on invoices this way. They’re not PayPal.

The other part is how I communicate with supporters. I have a small personal mailing list on TinyLetter and social media accounts (Twitter, Instagram, Mastodon) where I try to post regularly about what I’m working on. If I hit a stressful point on any of the social media services, I post a link to my Square Cash page and ask people if they’ll send $5. For The Recompiler we use MailChimp (same company as TinyLetter but with a bunch of added analytics and shop integrations), plus Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Both my personal stuff and The Recompiler have blogs (look, you’re reading a blog post!). If at any point I need to change one piece of this, I can export everyone from my lists and re-import them elsewhere. It’s a little harder to change the payment side, but I can still export everyone’s contact info and ask them to set up elsewhere. I would probably lose a few supporters in the process.

What about discoverability? It’s not easy to solve. I think ultimately using social media to push people toward a mailing list is the route most of us should go, but you still have to post enough and make the right connections. We generally bundle this under “marketing”.

What it takes to make this work

Let’s go back to the original promise of Patreon: that it helps small independent creators keep doing what they love. Unfortunately it doesn’t sound like they were succeeding at that for most users to begin with. In order to be good at making money through Patreon, you have to do the same things you need to be good at marketing creative work in general, and the platform doesn’t actually have an incentive to help you improve on this when they have so many users. Whether you have 100 people giving you $1, or they have 100 users being given $1, it’s the same for them. If you are going to choose a social funding plaform, do it because the people who like your sort of thing are there. Maybe it turns out there’s a whole community of readers of webcomics about bears on Librepay — you’d want to sign up there if you draw bears and post them on the web. Just keep in mind that if that community of creators like you is too big, you won’t stand out just for being on the site. You can see this effect in popular categories on Etsy too.

So what’s your plan? If you create things, especially non-tangible ones like writing and digital art, and would like people to support than financially, you need to:

  1. Make things
  2. Build relationships with people who like those things (you may already have those relationships with your friends)
  3. Ask them for money
  4. Give them a way to give you that money
  5. (optional) Create a set of structures that encourage people to give more (I’m going to explain below that I think products are better for this than tiered support levels)

If you like supporting things that people make, you need to:

  1. Learn about those things
  2. Pay attention to the person who creates them
  3. Intend to give them money
  4. Actually do so (buy things or send them money just because)
  5. (optional) Sign up for things that make it easier for you to remember to give money to people

You can get pretty low-tech with parts of this. Put a thing on your calendar reminding you every month to post what you’ve been up to and ask people to chip in $1. Support people by committing to sending a dollar every time they do something that catches your eye — and make a budget for how many of those dollars you can spend each month. Yes, it’s some work. Maybe you can’t or won’t do that work, but this is the basic system and maybe we can see by now that consolidating and automating it doesn’t always work. I don’t think a company like Patreon actually has much reason to do this right, and small indie companies trying a similar thing are going to have to work out the economics of payment processing, which is hard for micropayments because (to my knowledge) there is no escaping that each transaction will have a fee associated with it. Batching them helps, and maybe Stripe would negotiate on those rates. For most of us I think it makes sense to just look for the lowest fixed costs and work on connecting with more people — that comes back to my social media, mailing list, and Square Cash/Moonclerk strategy.

Make products, please

One last recommendation for people who create things: turn some of your work into a product you can sell. If you do visual art, hook up a service like Printful and put that art on a tote bag or pillow. The same print-on-demand options let you offer prints. If you write, create an ebook with some of your favorite pieces (I’d try Gumroad for selling them). Musicians, make a mixtape. It’s capitalistic, but many people find being a customer an easier proposition than being a patron. You could add a payer-only mailing list or blog if you want to connect “gave me money” with “gets to look behind the scenes”. I’ve seen someone do this as a private message board too. A couple of times a year you can also try something I’ve started to categorize as a “stunt” — a special one-time item that costs a little more, or a limited batch short run that you plan to sell out.

In the end, what we’re all doing is a mix of busking and streetside vending. It’s a creative hustle in a capitalist world, and there are no easy shortcuts.

If this was helpful to you, consider sending me a dollar to say thanks.

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