Khoi Vinh on How His Blog Amplified His Work and Career

Khoi Vinh on why writing and blog in particular has amplified everything that he has done in his career.

It’s fair to think, what if you never monetize your website? What if no one reads your blog? What is it all for?

We spoke with Khoi Vinh, Principal Designer at Adobe, author of How They Got Here: Interviews With Digital Designers About Their Careers, and a writer who’s been publishing on his blog, Subtraction, for nearly 20 years.

In his first blog post published on July 30, 2000, he meditates on the idea of having a journal, an online place where he can publish his ideas. He writes:

“I’ve been reckoning with an immense docket of changes and challenges. All of which seem like ideal fodder for posterity; an amateur writer in me feels compelled to record what I can.”

The initial inspiration has empowered Khoi to tell stories, share ideas, and offer wisdom on design for nearly two decades. The key is to look at this as if you’re taking care of a plant—the more water you give, the more you put in the path of sunlight, the more it’ll grow.


Khoi, you’re no longer that amateur writer anymore. Can you describe how writing on your blog impacted your life and career? What kind of asset or catalyst did it become for you?

It’s hard to overstate how important my blog has been, but if I were to try to distill it down into one word, it would be: “amplifier.” Writing in general and the blog in particular has amplified everything that I’ve done in my career, effectively broadcasting my career in ways that just wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

It’s hard to overstate how important my blog has been, but if I were to try to distill it down into one word, it would be: “amplifier.”

From the inception of Subtraction, you used it as a place to think out loud. Were you ever tempted to change the purpose of your blog? Were there things you wouldn’t write on it because of its core purpose?

When I first registered the domain, I didn’t really even know what to do with it—I just thought that it was kind of remarkable that such a basic .com domain as “Subtraction.com” was available, so I grabbed it. At first I used it as an online portfolio.

So eventually the domain found its way to blog software, but even then, it took me some time to figure out what particular flavor of blogging made sense to me. I’ve tried quick hit-style reposting of links, I’ve tried photo blogging, I’ve tried writing round-ups of recent events, and a few other things.

For years I wanted to be the kind of writer that could write more often, more quickly, more succinctly than I do. But throughout it all, I’ve been drawn back to writing the same kind of posts, which are sort of like opinion column-style essays of 500-plus words or so, and that always takes me way more time to write than I would prefer, if given the chance. Ultimately, I just learned to accept that that was the kind of writer that I am, for better or worse.

You’re knowledgeable about many industries and changes in tech. Where should more attention be going towards ownership of content, using social media (or not), personal platforms, etc.?

The word “should,” is loaded, because far be it from me to pretend that I know what most people should be doing. Many terrific careers have been borne from creating works on centralized platforms, where the creator has only the most tenuous ownership over what he or she is creating or its brand.

That said, I personally can’t imagine handing over all of my labor to a centralized platform where it’s chopped up and shuffled together with content from countless other sources, only to be exploited at the current whims of the platform owners’ volatile business models. I know a lot of creators are successful in that context, but I also see a lot of stuff that gets rendered essentially indistinguishable from everything else, lost in the blizzard of “content.”

Not that the work I do is all that important or memorable, but I prefer to think of it as “writing” rather than as “content.” And for me, that’s an important distinction. Content and writing are not the same thing, at least the way that we’ve come to define them in contemporary society. Content is inherently transactional; its goal is to drive towards some kind of conversion, some kind of exchange of value. This is why platforms just think of it all as “content”; for the most part, they’re indifferent to whether it’s good or bad writing, or even if it’s writing at all. It doesn’t matter whether it has any kind of inherent worth, whether it’s video or animated GIFs or whatever— so long as it’s driving clicks, time spent, purchases, etc.

I personally can’t imagine handing over all of my labor to a centralized platform where it’s chopped up and shuffled together with content from countless other sources, only to be exploited at the current whims of the platform owners’ volatile business models.

Again, I’m not suggesting that what I do has any superior worth at all, but what I will say is that the difference between content that lives on a centralized blogging platform and what I do on a site that I own and operate myself—where I don’t answer to anyone else but me—is that what my writing on Subtraction.com has a high tolerance for ambiguity. It’s generally about design and technology, but sometimes it’s about some random subject matter, some non sequitur, some personal passion. It’s a place for writing and thinking, and ambiguity is okay there, even an essential part of it. That’s actually increasingly rare in our digital world now, and I personally value that a lot.

When you’re looking through other people’s portfolios, what stands out? Do you have any advice And could you share any practical wisdom to creatives on how to showcase their portfolios better?

Students often ask me about what kind of work to put in their portfolios and my answer is: what kind of work do you want to do?

What I look for is work that reflects a great personal passion, whether it’s for a certain kind of client or industry, or a certain kind of subject matter or even a certain kind of problem solving.

I’d be much more interested in a portfolio full of made up projects that are representative of exactly what a designer wants to do more than anything, than I would be in a portfolio of highly competent but passionless work executed by someone who’s not thrilled by any of it.

The passion is the difference maker.

Students often ask me about what kind of work to put in their portfolios and my answer is: what kind of work do you want to do?

What practical advice would you give to artists and entrepreneurs on committing to the long-game of building one’s platform?

I think you’ve just got to do it consistently, repeatedly, and you’ve got to be undeterred by the time it requires and the inconvenience in your life that it generates. But mostly you have to do it in a way that continually stirs your personal passion.

I don’t think it works to do something like writing a blog or whatever just because you see it’s something that other successful people have done, and so you want to use it as a method of replicating that success. I think you can only do it successfully if you can find a take on it, a spin on it that’s reflective of who you are and the change you want to effect on the world.

What’s your definition of owning your content?

I can make it and present it however I want. Both aspects of that are very important to me.

Of course, if you want to make an impact, you have to make and present in a way that makes sense to the world at large—you can’t be so utterly idiosyncratic that the public is bewildered by your methods. But insofar as you’re able to do that, to create in a way that respects your audience, then I think ownership is really about the freedom you have to bring it to the world in a way that you want it to be shared.


This interview was produced in partnership with WordPress.com CreativeMornings.

Morning people get 20% off their WordPress.com site at wordpress.com/creativemornings.

Interview by Paul Jun. Illustrations by Jeffrey Phillips. ‘Own Your Content’ illustration by Annica Lydenberg.

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Jen Hewett on Letting Go of Perfection and Growing Multiple Skills to Enrich Her Creativity

Jen Hewett started blogging in 2006. She shares how she learned different creative skills, how they enrich each other, and the different ways it grew her business and online presence.

When you have more than one creative craft and different avenues for your freelance business, how do you decide where to put it all? How do you write about yourself or showcase your projects?

The future of creativity is very much multi-faceted. Nowadays, side hustles and growing new skills that enhance our creative process is a natural way to continue learning and expanding your identity.

We spoke with Jen Hewett, a printmaker, surface designer, textile artist, teacher, and recently the author of her first book, Print, Pattern, Sew: Block Printing Basics + Simple Sewing Projects for an Inspired Wardrobe. Her inspiring CreativeMornings/San Francisco talk highlights a core philosophy of her work: “Perfection is the enemy of craft.” And why handmade art reflects the very human quality of imperfection.

Jen generously shares her experiences on growing her career and how she weaves her various skills together.


Jen, the beating heart of your work is about making things with your hands. How has growing a diverse set of skills—printmaking, surface design, sewing, teaching—enhanced your creativity?

All of my skills are intertwined — developing my sewing skills led me to learn how to screenprint my own fabric, which led me to learn how to block print yardage. All of that led to teaching classes and writing a book, as well as designing a licensed line of fabric. Even though sewing remains a hobby for me and is not something I do for income, it was the catalyst for me to develop the skills I needed to create a very diverse body of work.

All of this is a plug for hobbies. Have them! They can be totally unrelated to your work. You don’t need to monetize them (in fact, it’s best if you don’t). We need to have joy and fun and rest in our lives in order to be our most creative. Hobbies offer us all of those things.

We need to have joy and fun and rest in our lives in order to be our most creative. Hobbies offer us all of those things.

When you were starting out, was it challenging to showcase your projects and talk about yourself as you stretched your creative identity? What advice would you give people who are in a similar position to you. What helped you process this particular challenge of crafting your creative / artistic identity online?

I’m lucky that I started blogging around 2006, and started printmaking (and sharing my work) in 2008. Blogging was still relatively new, and we were all just figuring it out together. Social media wasn’t as widespread as it is now; if we wanted to share photos, we either did so on our blogs or on Flickr.

Part of the beauty of both those outlets in the early days was that they weren’t about having just one, perfect photo, or sharing one, tight sound bite. We could iterate, provide context. Blogs in those days felt like digital zines — scrappy, raw, and democratic. We were all beginners in the early days, and we were very often kind to each other because we were all on the same boat.

A friend told me that you tend to get the kinds of projects you’ve already proven you can do, so do — and share — the projects you want to do, even if no one’s paying you for it.

In many ways I built my following within this context. The two projects which led to me teaching (52 Weeks of Printmaking, in 2014) and my book (Print, Pattern, Sew, in 2015) were about me learning new skills and applying them to my work, and then sharing them publicly. I look back at those projects now, and see how they grew up publicly, on my blog and on social media.

When people tell me they think they should be blogging and posting on social media, but they don’t have anything to share, I recommend creating daily or weekly challenges for themselves. Those two projects I mention above were challenges I set for myself. Challenges have become very popular on blogs and social media, and for good reason: it’s great to have a following that keeps you accountable.

But I also believe that making and sharing work regularly is a great marketing tool, especially if it’s personal work. A friend told me that you tend to get the kinds of projects you’ve already proven you can do, so do — and share — the projects you want to do, even if no one’s paying you for it.

As a maker of beautiful fabrics and textiles, how has it been beneficial for your freelance career to build your own platform and own your content?

I’m a printmaker and a surface designer, but a good chunk of my income comes from teaching. I teach online and in-person classes, and my book contains my class curriculum.

I decided early on that that information is my intellectual property and my livelihood, and that I would only share as much of it publicly (i.e. for free) as I felt comfortable doing. That livelihood has been crucial as I’ve built the rest of my creative career. Because I have other sources of income, I’ve mostly been able to choose the projects I want to take on, and to allow my creative voice to develop without feeling the need to chase trends.

In your CreativeMornings/SanFrancisco talk on letting go of perfectionism, you share how this practice grew your confidence and was a catalyst for your success. Can you talk about the events that inspired this realization and how it changed the way you lead your creative life and business?

I struggled with anxiety until my early thirties. My anxiety is probably partly biological, but I began to realize that it mostly stemmed from being conditioned to fear making mistakes, especially public ones. When you have anxiety, small mistakes feel like big failures, and the result was that I just would not take any risks. I played it safe, but that still didn’t shield me from panic attacks. After a particularly bad panic attack, I finally started therapy. The first assignment my therapist gave me was to consciously make a mistake, and see what happened. Of course, nothing happened. I was fine.

In some ways making that first, little mistake inoculated me against the fear of succumbing to larger mistakes. I began to take larger risks, speak up more, and take on more of a leadership role (I was still working a non-creative corporate job at that time). I still made mistakes, of course, but they became opportunities to learn, and then to move on.

During this time, I also decided that I wanted to learn how to screenprint. I went to a drop-in class, and was quickly hooked. I spent a lot of my free time at the shared print studio, made a lot of bad work, and started to make at least as much decent work. I developed a regular practice, started a blog, got on social media, began to share my work and publicly set challenges for myself.

Again, a lot of my work was not very good in those early days, but it was (and is) more important to me to build my creative muscles than it was for me to create perfect work. I still live by this, though with a shift from working mostly on personal projects to working with clients. I can’t share iterative work like I used to, so what people see is often the finished, polished product. But trust me — I still make a lot of not-great work behind the scenes!

When people tell me they think they should be blogging and posting on social media, but they don’t have anything to share, I recommend creating daily or weekly challenges for themselves.

What are some ways that you stay connected with people who are in love with your work?

I’m very active on social media. Well, by “active” I mean I post a lot. I don’t always respond to comments or messages; I decided a while ago that the best way not to get overwhelmed by social media is to not spend a lot of time in conversations on it.

My favorite way to communicate with my fans is through my semi-monthly newsletter. Of course, I use it to sell my work, but I also open every newsletter with a reflection about living a creative life, then close by sharing links to articles, podcasts, and books that I’ve found interesting. Often those links are to content by/about people of color, on topics that may be underreported. Yes, I make pretty things and am drawn to the beauty and color, but I’m also political and engaged with the world.

I’m an artist; I’m complex. Longform writing is still the best way to convey that complexity.

Owning my content means I have the right to determine what I’ll share and where I’ll share it, whether or not it’s something I want to be paid for, or something I want to give away for free.

What’s your definition of owning your content?

As an artist, my content is my livelihood. This is true whether it’s the work I create or the curriculum of my classes, or the list of tools and materials I use to create my work.

Owning my content means I have the right to determine what I’ll share and where I’ll share it, whether or not it’s something I want to be paid for, or something I want to give away for free.


This interview was produced in partnership with WordPress.com CreativeMornings.

Morning people get 20% off their WordPress.com site at wordpress.com/creativemornings.

Interview by Paul Jun. Illustrations by Jeffrey Phillips. ‘Own Your Content’ illustration by Annica Lydenberg.

Paul Jarvis on Making Your Business Better, Not Bigger

For the last two decades, Paul Jarvis has been building his business differently than what most would attempt: he’s focused on small, not big; better, not bigger; and every detail within his courses, books, essays, and newsletter reflects his thoughtfulness and personality.

For the last two decades, Paul Jarvis has been building his business differently than what most would attempt: he’s focused on small, not big; better, not bigger; and every detail within his courses, books, essays, and newsletter reflects his thoughtfulness and personality. In short, he lives the ethos of owning your content.

He’s not afraid to lose subscribers because they don’t agree with his worldview. He doesn’t self-ascribe himself as an expert or thought leader. His humility and down-to-earth approach to building a thriving creative career is one worth studying and possibly emulating. His latest book, Company of One, hones in on why bigger isn’t always better in business.

Paul shares his generous wisdom in building a beloved newsletter, where his business ideas come from, and how this mindset of keeping things small and intentional enabled him to continuously empower creatives around the world.


Paul, your newsletter, Sunday Dispatches, are personal stories that share your point of view and connect with your readers. How do you overcome the feeling of being too vulnerable or too open in your messages?

For me it comes down to this: I’d rather someone not like who I really am, instead of not like me for someone I’m pretending to be.

I don’t mind sharing my point of view because without it, there’s nothing of substance. I could share mundane ideas with no perspective, but I can’t see how that’d build an audience or draw people to my work. By having a point of view, I’m not sharing not only what I know about a topic, but also my take on it—that just makes for more interesting writing (and reading).

Show me a piece of content that doesn’t bleed a little but keeps you engaged? Being vulnerable is what makes content great instead of boring. A point to note though, is that while I’m completely open about the topics I write about, I’d never overshare or get too personal with my writing on certain subjects. That’s why I only write about topics I know I can fully share and be completely transparent. That way, I’m honouring my writing authentically, leaving no stone unturned for my readers, but also keeping a huge swath of who I am private. I only write about things I’m happy to open up about.

As far as overcoming feelings, I don’t think I have. In some ways, I find it easier to express myself writing in public, but in other ways, I’ve still got the same level of anxiety every time I hit “Send” in my newsletter software.

One thing many people struggle with is how they talk about themselves, i.e., their About page copy. What are some tips on ways to write about yourself thoughtfully and honestly?

I struggle with mine each time I read or rewrite it.

There’s common advice that our about pages aren’t about us, they’re about our audience/customers. Which I think is both wrong and right at the same time. It obviously has to cover who we are and to some extent prove what we know. But it also can’t leave out an aspect of “why would someone else care?”

I’m Canadian, so I (politely) battle talking about myself constantly. But I also know that most about pages are the most visited on any given site, so I try to keep mine full of proof that certain people might want to pay attention, a little sarcastic/silly since that’s who I am, and including links to what other people have said about me (since that’s easier than bragging).

About pages can also vary widely depending on who it’s about and the type of work they do. My business is heavily leaning towards me as the brand or in other words, personality-as-a-brand, so that’s got to shine through on mine. But if was a corporate type or in a different industry or ran a business that was not personality driven, mine would be quite different (and probably not have a silly note about Grey’s Anatomy). Even my bio on my books website is different than the bio on my personal site, because context is important.

I think we just have to be honest and get over our penchant towards not wanting to brag a little. We should be proud to showcase our accomplishments, our features, our clients, etc. We should also make sure that every bit of what’s mentioned bears some relevance to who we want to be reading it. So I don’t need to mention my love of gardening or pet rats on mine, but I will mention who I’ve worked with, my most recent product and some social proof. I may even apologize a little bit (I’m Canadian after all).

I think we just have to be honest and get over our penchant towards not wanting to brag a little. We should be proud to showcase our accomplishments, our features, our clients, etc.

Your latest book, Company of One, makes a strong assertion that thinking smaller is better for your business. That’s something many people would disagree with. How did you arrive at this belief? What inspired it? And how is it influencing your work nowadays?

The inception of my latest business book started the way I assume most business books start: I was out for a dawn session surf with my buddy.

We were talking about life and work and everything else you do while you’re sitting in the line-up waiting for the next rideable wave, and he mentioned something in passing that stuck with me. It was around September, but he said he’d made “enough” for the year and was going to travel for the rest of it. Then he took off on a wave and left me sitting there with my mind blown.

For him, he knew how much money he needed to make to be comfortable and stress-free about finances (he knows a lot on this subject, he’s an accountant), how much needed to make to cover his life costs, and how much he wanted to put into savings. Beyond that, his life wouldn’t be better should he make more, so he didn’t bother. Instead, he opted to enjoy his life outside of work.

The more I thought about this, the more it made sense. Every business was a lifestyle business. Every single career or path we take with our work gives us a specific lifestyle associated with it. If you work at a high-growth startup, you probably have to work a lot of hectic hours. If you work at a corporation, your butt is probably going to have be in a chair at a desk from 9-5, five days a week. If you work for yourself, though, you should get to choose the life your work gives you outside of work. For myself, I’ve always wanted a business that supports my life not a life that supported my business.

This idea of “enough” spoke to that. It spoke to working hard, but also knowing at what point you reached diminishing returns on time spent working and making money. Enough is also a hard line in the sand, whereas “more” is like the horizon. Sure you can run towards it, but you’re never going to reach it. It’s just there, slightly out of reach, but you’ll get sweaty and tired trying to reach it.

The book came from this belief. That we could work towards enough instead of more.

If you work for yourself, though, you should get to choose the life your work gives you outside of work. For myself, I’ve always wanted a business that supports my life not a life that supported my business.

Determining enough is different for everyone too—and I feel like enough is the counterbalance or anti-thesis of unchecked growth which is basically capitalism how traditional capitalism works. Enough is the true north of building a company of one, and the opposite of the current paradigm promoting growth-hacking and quick scaling in startup culture.

Ever since that day surfing with my buddy, I’ve been thinking about this, researching this and talking to others about it. Since I’m a writer, it was fairly straightforward to turn this idea into a book.

My work now is still the same as it’s been for ages: I’m always thinking about how I can do better, instead of how I can achieve more.

I’m always thinking about how I can do better, instead of how I can achieve more.

Your business seems to follow a natural growth—you write stories that you want to tell, readers connect to it, you listen to the pain points, and then develop a solution around it. At what point do you realize that there is a seed for a potential business avenue, and what steps do you take to bring it to life?

I don’t know how to do business any other way.

I don’t know how to come up with a solution without knowing there’s a problem.
I don’t know how to build something without first knowing who wants it.

To me, this feels like how business is supposed to work. You start listening to a group of people, see where you can help, then start helping them. That said, not all helpful things can be turned into profitable businesses or services, and there’s where a bit of guessing is required. But still, at the very start, it has to start with knowing a specific group of folks needs something, and knowing that you have the skills to fill that need.

Business is about serving others, for money. The only way the money bit happens is if one side feels like they can both afford the solution and if they can, that the solution is worth buying at the price it’s at. If you’re thirsty, I can solve that problem with a tasty drink, but if that drink costs one million dollars, I doubt there’d be any takers.

To me, this feels like how business is supposed to work. You start listening to a group of people, see where you can help, then start helping them.

To see if there’s a seed for that help, which others will be willing to pay, I typically start with figuring out if that group of people are used to paying for something similar. For example, if thirsty people are used to paying a buck or two for a can of something to drink, then I know a buck or two is what the market will bear, and if I have a tasty beverage I think can solve that thirst, I better price it similarly. Sure, I could be a little over (premium tasty beverages!) or a little under (no name brand tasty beverages!), but I at least have to be close.

We also have to know the group a little bit to know their price tolerance for a solution. This is why I write a newsletter, so I can be in constant communication with a group of people I like to help and know what they’re buying, thinking, needing help with. If I didn’t do that, I’d be guessing at almost everything. By paying attention to them, I see they spend money on online courses, books and software, so that’s what I make. Since I have experience with those three things, I know that I can make each profitable. Being profitable (or profitable enough) is great because businesses that make money seldom go out of business. And it’s easier to help customers long term if you can keep your lights on. Profitable businesses don’t tend to go out of business.

I firmly believe that business can be summed up as: create something that some other people want to buy from us. To know what “some other people” want, we just have to get to know them, listen for what we can provide solutions for, and then provide those solutions. To make sure they “want to buy from us” we have to price at a point the market will bear and that will provide profit on our end.

It seems more and more people are realizing that housing one’s content or building one’s business on a platform they don’t own isn’t smart. What are some first principles or practical tips you would give to someone who’s committed to building their own little home on the corner of the internet?

We may not directly pay for social media, but we definitely pay for it with the trade-offs we make to use it. As Benjamin Franklin once said (probably), software users who trade privacy for functionality deserve neither.

This is where your own blog and your own newsletter differ entirely and why I think they’re better than social media or any other platform you rent or use which isn’t your own. Companies who provide us with blog software and email marketing software charge us for it or make it open-source for everyone.

As Craig Mod wrote in WIRED in his epic The ‘Future Book’ Is Here, but It’s Not What We Expected:

We simply cannot trust the social networks, or any centralized commercial platform. Email is definitely not ideal, but it is: decentralized, reliable, and not going anywhere—and more and more, those feel like quasi-magical properties.

Mailing list data is owned by the sender and not governed by changing algorithms. No one company controls email. No single company can get between a sender and their recipient (even though Google tries with those damn tabs and their spam policies).

If I didn’t want to use my newsletter software, Mailchimp, anymore (though I doubt that’d ever happen, since Freddie and me are BFFs), I could export my list and import it into any newsletter software provider that exists easily and quickly—I wouldn’t have to start again and I wouldn’t be worried that Mailchimp would start emailing my subscribers without their consent.

Try exporting your “page likers” from Facebook or even your followers on Twitter… oh wait, you can’t do that?! That’s because those platforms own your data and own your social connections, not you. They own the connection you have with the people who connect with you there. There’s no portability and they can absolutely take and use those connections to further their own bottom line. They can also change the way you use their platforms, based on their whims. You want to reach your likers? It’s now $5 or more.

Same goes for blogs that live on servers you pay for. You own that content, it’s yours. No single company controls hosting and servers, and if you want to leave and move hosts at any time, you can pack your data up and leave. Your ownership stays in tact. Same goes for content management systems that power blogs—if you want to switch from one to another, you can typically grab an export of the data (since it’s yours), and migrate to something else.

As someone who’s been freelancing for 20 years, how has your definition of success changed? And how have you personally adapted to it?

I’ve always defined my own success as freedom, plain and simple.

I’m doing well if I have the freedom to make more choices. About who I work with, what I get to build, and the audiences I get to serve. And most importantly, about the lifestyle I get to have outside of work.

I’d never want to make choices that took away that freedom. In 20 years, this has been a constant. It makes decision making easier, even if it’s “a great opportunity”, because I’ll always end up choosing the path that leads to continued freedom.

This is why I’ve never grown my business, because for me personally, being responsible for employees would reduce my freedom. It’s why I haven’t taken any funding for any product in the past, because then I’d be beholden to investors (limiting my freedom). It’s why I believe in the mindset of being a “Company of One” because the books core thesis is that the byproduct of business success shouldn’t be unchecked growth, it should be freedom.

These platforms that we don’t own try to tell us we need them to operate. That the internet needs them to stay afloat. That society itself would crumble without them. But this simply isn’t true.

What’s your definition of owning your content?

To make a silly analogy, I focus on platforms I own, because then it’s my bouncy ball on the playground. If I don’t like the playground, I can take my bouncy ball and go somewhere else (or go home). If I don’t like the people playing on it, I can take my bouncy ball and go home. Whereas if I use and focus my efforts on a platform I don’t own, like social media, well, it’s not my bouncy ball anymore. Those platforms can take their bouncy ball and go home, leaving me (and everyone else on the playground) without a ball to play with.

These platforms that we don’t own try to tell us we need them to operate. That the internet needs them to stay afloat. That society itself would crumble without them. But this simply isn’t true.

Human interaction and connection, and even the internet as a whole, has existed for longer than these owned platforms, and I hope it’ll continue on, unscathed, once they’re gone.


This interview was produced in partnership with WordPress.com CreativeMornings.

Morning people get 20% off their WordPress.com site at wordpress.com/creativemornings.

Interview by Paul Jun. Illustrations by Jeffrey Phillips. ‘Own Your Content’ illustration by Annica Lydenberg.

Anita Sarkeesian on Amplifying Your Mission With Storytelling

Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency, talks about how she amplified her mission through storytelling and engaging with different platforms.

At a point in your career, you’ll engage with new platforms to amplify your mission. How do you decide when to start a podcast, a blog, or a video series? How will you know it’s working?

We spoke to Anita Sarkeesian, media critic, blogger, and founder of Feminist Frequency—a not-for-profit educational organization that analyzes modern media’s relationship to societal issues such as gender, race, and sexuality.

She shares her insights and experiences on how she amplified her work to beget new opportunities to talk about her mission and create a greater impact.

You started Feminist Frequency in 2009 while you were a student at York University to create accessible media criticism from a feminist point of view. Throughout a decade, this platform has created opportunities for you to teach, speak, and broaden your mission. Was this a dream when you first started the platform or was this unfolding more serendipitous?

Anita: To be honest, back when I first started Feminist Frequency I wasn’t really thinking that far ahead. While I was in grad school I just used video blogging as a platform for activist work and my hope was to get social justice messages in front of audiences who might not be exposed to them otherwise.

At what point during FemFreq did you start feeling momentum? What did you do to keep feeding it?

Anita: My short answer is that it started when the Kickstarter for Tropes vs Women in Video Games took off and was wildly successful, but in actuality there were small waves even before then.

Particular videos of mine got some attention and notoriety, such as one I made about the Bechdel Test. But from this vantage point in the future, that early success seems quaint.

I think we just keep making media that is educational and fun, trying to keep an eye on how technology is changing and asking ourselves if we need to change with it. Some of our projects are more successful than others, but ultimately they all come from our passions as a team. I had several ideas for the new season of The FREQ Show and I presented them to the group.

When I suggested we go back to the roots and do entertaining and effective feminist explainers on fundamental concepts like privilege, intersectionality, and misogyny, their faces lit up, and I knew that with everyone excited and invested, we would be creating work that was valuable and that we believed in.

One of your biggest projects was the Kickstarter video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, inspired by a talk you gave on the female representation in games and the toxic behaviors that women faced. There was an earlier version of this focused on characters in science fiction. How do you think about your projects when you start them and how do you scale, remix, or amplify the mission?

Anita: The earlier project was just called Tropes vs Women which I produced for Bitch Media. It was focused primarily on film and television but called out some games and comics too. My processes pre- and post- Kickstarter are very different.

Before, Feminist Frequency was just a side project I did when I had time or had an idea; sometimes it would just be one-off episodes and other times I would work a series around a specific topic, but outside of “pop culture” there wasn’t any particular process other than me asking myself, “Is there a compelling story here that I can tap into to illuminate feminism in some way?”

The Kickstarter changed everything, as the scale and scope of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games expanded tremendously in response to the Kickstarter’s success. After the crowdfunding campaign, I basically spent five years just trying to produce and finish that series. Between producing episodes that were far more in-depth and far more difficult than anything I had ever done before, I was also contending with ongoing, relentless harassment and trying to become an educator around that issue as well.

Since Feminist Frequency became a non-profit and hired staff, and with the lessons I learned from the experience of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, I’ve become able to scale and scope more effectively than I would have before. We created a series called Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History which tells the stories of five brave women who time had sadly forgotten (which was turned into a book History vs. Women which will be available Oct 2nd, 2018). This was an idea I had long before Tropes and it was exciting to see it come to life. Now we’re running The FREQ Show, which is a constantly evolving work-in-progress that was originally birthed out of our frustration with the increased normalization of fascism and white supremacy in mainstream American and global politics. We wanted to create a video format where, in any given episode, we could talk about pop culture, or politics, or how these things are all interwoven together.

I think the biggest change for FemFreq, though, is that we are much more than just video projects; we have several podcasts, we livestream video games on Twitch every week, we post articles and reviews on our website among other things. The YouTube/video landscape has changed dramatically since I started FemFreq and I think it’s important that we have several avenues to help spread our mission.

Do you have a framework for how you decide on what platform to use next? How do you determine if a podcast or a livestream is the next step in amplifying your work? And ultimately, how do you know if it’s working?

Anita: Nothing is set in stone, and given the way the media landscape is evolving so rapidly these days, I think that’s key. We just look at how technology and platforms change, and try to adapt as best we can.

For example, Facebook decided it wanted to be the dominant player in the realm of online videos, and so everyone started uploading videos to both Facebook and YouTube. I used to be adamant about not splitting views across platforms, but at this point I just want to get our work out there and in front of people wherever it can make the most impact. Similarly, we initially only made scripted videos, but as the ways in which organizations engaged and interacted with their fans expanded, we expanded with them. It took me a while to feel comfortable with platforms like livestreaming and podcasting that encouraged more off-the-cuff conversations, because all the toxicity and harassment I’d experienced had taught me that every word I might say would be scrutinized, manipulated and regurgitated as part of some defaming strawman argument which, despite being transparently false and misleading, nonetheless would fan the flames and result in even more harassment.

Eventually I stopped caring, and I’m really enjoying the opportunity to be a little more human and available with our audience. It also gives us an opportunity to show people that Feminist Frequency is not just me, but a wonderful team full of smart and funny people.

Given how rapidly the online world is changing, I feel like assessing whether or not things are working is a perennial process. I’m constantly reassessing what it means to be successful or to have impact. Is it just raw numbers of views? Is it how many people reply on Twitter telling us they love what we’re doing, or write in to say that our work had a positive effect on their lives? I think it becomes a combination of all those things.

What’s your personal framework for deciding who to partner with or where to share your work? Are there any principles or criteria that you follow that helps you make smart decisions for working with the right organizations or people?

Anita: I enter into every partnership with other people and organizations on a case-by-case basis. I look at the work they’ve done and try to determine if we have similar goals, a similar mission, a shared worldview. We don’t have to agree on everything or have the exact same strategies and tactics in our activism, but we should be fighting for the same ultimate goal.

In particular, I like partnering with people and groups whose work I think is really valuable and that I want us to amplify, so that it can reach people it otherwise might not. And often this sort of thing can go both ways; those groups may have access to an audience that we don’t, and by sharing each other’s work, we can do something mutually beneficial and help make more people aware of the work that we’re all doing.

Depending on the type of relationship, it’s also important to be able to communicate well, and figuring out that dynamic early on is key. If we’re collaborating with a producer or director, or some other creative partner, being able to give and receive criticism in ways that are healthy, empowering, and ultimately good for the project and the mission is really essential.

Nothing is set in stone, and given the way the media landscape is evolving so rapidly these days, I think that’s key. We just look at how technology and platforms change, and try to adapt as best we can.

Your mission in your work is profound and clear. How do you stay focused on the change you seek to create? Have you ever felt tempted to start a whole new endeavor completely outside of what you’ve created thus far?

Anita: I always dodge the questions about what you would tell your younger self because, let’s be real, none of us would listen so what’s the point? I think we’ve all gotten plenty of advice in our lives that we wish we would have listened to but didn’t because we were stubborn, or prideful, or just didn’t have enough information to really understand the advice.

I think the piece of advice I’m still trying to learn is to trust your gut. It sounds like such hippie-dippie woo-woo nonsense but every time I have made choices when my gut told me otherwise, it’s always been the wrong choice. So I guess, learning to trust yourself, and have faith in yourself…which just feels like the kind of maturity that comes with time and experience.

When I was first politicized, in my early twenties, I decided I was going to do work that would be meaningful to the world, that would promote and fight for social justice. I didn’t know what that work would look like, I didn’t know if it would be paid or volunteer, but there was definitely a moment of clarity when I realized I wasn’t going to go down the “American Dream” path. That drive has never left me and I think that’s what keeps me focused. The means and tools can change but the goal of social justice never does.

I love Feminist Frequency and I love the team I work with but of course I’ve thought about what I would do if Feminist Frequency couldn’t sustain itself–but nothing else has seemed as captivating so I am still here. As hard as this job is, I am tremendously lucky to do this particular kind of work and get paid for it. While we are constantly working on new projects at FemFreq, I do sometimes get antsy to do different things, which is what side projects are for!

I’m working on something that I’m really excited about right now that has literally nothing to do with anything related to Feminist Frequency. It’s called Mixed Flour and we believe that emerging technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) can be used in real life settings to build memorable, collaborative experiences. Our first project is a pop up in Copenhagen that will integrate technology, interactions & high end cuisine. I’m a bit of a foodie so it’s exciting that I can work on projects that bring together my interests in technology and food in meaningful ways.

Depending on the type of relationship, it’s also important to be able to communicate well, and figuring out that dynamic early on is key. If we’re collaborating with a producer or director, or some other creative partner, being able to give and receive criticism in ways that are healthy, empowering, and ultimately good for the project and the mission is really essential.

What’s your definition of owning your content?

Anita: Well first, I actually hate the word content. It feels like our creative, artistic, and intellectual work is just filler for ads without merit of its own.

Early on, when I first started doing online video, I was very open about my work, and used creative commons licenses. I love the idea of sharing, remixing, reusing and repurposing work. Or even just having access to creative works. All of which is discouraged with restrictive frameworks like copyright.

Unfortunately, because of all the harassment and attempts of people to co-opt, distort and erase my work, I tend to lean towards traditional models of copyright with Feminist Frequency. But I don’t make creative works so that I can own them; I make them to share with others, to hopefully change the world.

What does the future of content look like to you?

Anita: This is a really good question that I have no answer for but I have been thinking more and more about interaction and immersion. I am increasingly interested in how we bring interactive technologies such as those in video games, virtual reality, augmented reality etc. into other facets of our lives whether for pleasure or work or disseminating information or stories.

When I was first politicized, in my early twenties, I decided I was going to do work that would be meaningful to the world, that would promote and fight for social justice. I didn’t know what that work would look like, I didn’t know if it would be paid or volunteer, but there was definitely a moment of clarity when I realized I wasn’t going to go down the “American Dream” path. That drive has never left me and I think that’s what keeps me focused. The means and tools can change but the goal of social justice never does.


This interview was produced in partnership with WordPress.comCreativeMornings.

Morning people get 15% off their WordPress.com site at wordpress.com/creativemornings.

Interview by Paul Jun. Illustrations by Jeffrey Phillips. ‘Own Your Content’ illustration by Annica Lydenberg.

Recommended tools:

  • Feminist Frequency is both in person and a remote workplace so the essentials like Slack, GDrive, Google Hangouts, Asana are critical to day to day operations
  • For media production (YouTube videos and Podcasts) we have a combination of our own studio equipment as well as renting cameras when needed.

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Luvvie Ajayi on Being Generous With Your Work

Luvvie Ajayi shares her thoughts on why for many years she gave her work away for free and how that built her voice and platform.

As your expertise grows, so does your responsibility to give back. But how do you decide when to work for free or accept lower rates? What does it mean to be generous with your work? And how does any of that impact your career and your art?

We spoke to Luvvie Ajayi, an award-winning author, speaker, and digital strategist who thrives at the intersection of comedy, technology, and activism. Luvvie’s work as a culture critic and activist has brought her much acclaim. She was selected as a part of Oprah Winfrey’s inaugural Supersoul100 list in 2016, as someone who “elevates humanity.” She also started a podcast called Rants and Randomness

Luvvie shares her thoughts on why for many years she gave her work away for free, staying true to your voice, and how to decide what opportunities to take next.


Luvvie, you’ve been owning your platform and work for over 15 years, creating an expansive and generous body of work. If you could estimate, how much of your work was (and continues to be) free, i.e., blog posts, speaking, educational resources, etc.?

Luvvie: When I started blogging in 2003, it was just a hobby so it wasn’t something that I came out the gate thinking this is something that I’m gonna monetize. It was a while before I was like, “Oh, this is actually something that somebody would be willing to pay for,” or “My work is more than just a hobby. Not just this cute thing that I’m doing.”

It took me seven years to realize this wasn’t a hobby—a lot longer than it should take most people.

As a content creator, I think it’s important to not necessarily forward all my content behind the paywall. When I started blogging, I was able to create the site that I wanted to guide my expectation.

I think a lot of the work that you do for free, it’s okay for it. I’m not saying that art isn’t worth value. For me, it took time to finally charge for work because I was used to giving away so much.

I think it’s part of the nature of the beast in that as an artist, unfortunately, it’s one of those things that people want to see before they pay for it. I can’t imagine being a brand new blogger who is then all of a sudden charging people to read my blog. That wouldn’t work. People wanna feel like you’ve invested in them in some way and then they’ll in turn invest in you.

I am a fan of people monetizing their art and their work. Part of what I speak about when I talk now is how long it took me to understand the value of my art because it took me that long to actually realize this is beyond a hobby. This is a passion. This is legit and absolutely it’s worth being paid for.

People wanna feel like you’ve invested in them in some way and then they’ll in turn invest in you.

Was there a project that you did or any recognition that gave you validation and confidence take things to the next level?

Luvvie: The Gap reached out to me ’cause they were launching a new line of jeans. I think this was back in 2011. That’s the first time I ever worked with a brand, and it’s because they came to me, I was like, “Oh wow! If they were willing to do that then I guess other people would be willing to do the same thing.”

It was a more internal thing. People might be willing to actually pay for this work that I’m doing and maybe if I get in the attention of people who have money. I didn’t all of a sudden jump into starting to advertise, branding work, etc. No, I think for me it was just a moment of recognition of what could be.

You started The Red Pump Project in 2009—a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate women and girls of color about HIV. What inspired you to create this and how has it impacted your life and career?

Luvvie: I was inspired to create it after learning about HIV and AIDS in college, and realizing it was still such a huge problem. You just haven’t heard too much about it in recent memories. The problem was being masked and because a lot of people are suffering in silence it would help if we actually just create space to talk about it. Then I also found out somebody I know who had 20 cousins who were living in Malawi with her grandmother because their parents had died of AIDS-related complications.

So for me it was kind of a moment to be, “Alright, what can I do to essentially move this issue forward?” That’s how Red Pump started. I co-founded it with my friend Karyn Lee.

Looking back nine years when you first started this, what’s one thing that continuously inspires you and the work you do?

Luvvie: It’s hearing personal stories about how our work has affected them. For example, a woman who said that she went and got tested. She’d been married for 10 years. She had kids, and she went for a regular check up, and ended up finding out that she’s HIV positive, which opened up a whole lot of questions, and kind of blew her world open. She hadn’t told anybody in her family or her friends, and she messaged my team.

For me, it captured the power of this work. That we created space for her to be able to actually say, “Here’s what I’m going through.” I think moments like that really show how the things that we do can really impact people on a daily basis. On a very personal level.

I mean, honestly a lot of times you do the work in a vacuum, and you don’t know beyond comments here and there how it’s really affecting people. For me, especially when my blog wasn’t making any money, getting those kind of people kept me going.

I remember getting notes from somebody who told me that she was in the waiting room as her mother got chemotherapy. The reason why she wasn’t crying was because she was reading my blog in that moment. Things like that for me are really tangible and they really show that our art does have a lot of power attached.

What advice would you give to your younger self about committing to the long haul of your work? Not being pulled left and right for money, fame, and prestige. How do you balance that when you’re starting out?

Luvvie: I think it’s important not to focus on that first. The beauty of blogging, or starting blogging when no one was expecting much from it, is that with that lack of expectation we were able to crack our voices in the exact way we wanted to carve it, and we were able to write as if nobody was reading. We weren’t focused on strategy or my observations. We were writing purely, so I think the value in that is that it allowed us to be more honest.

Nowadays, people start podcasting, blogging, and video blogging with a strategy in mind. It’s all about what type of content is doing well online right now. “Okay, this is how I’m gonna approach it. This is the type of content that I’m gonna do. I’m not gonna stray away from it so I can get the most people.” But what happens is they’re not really starting in a way that puts the authenticity of the content first.

Starting so early, it made a lot of us very honest ’cause nobody was really reading, and we wrote like nobody was really reading. It worked out very well because we were able to hone our voices to build an audience that saw us in our most vulnerable times and without any of the polish. But they grew with us as we got the power, as we figured out what strategy was, but our voices stayed the same.

Honestly a lot of times you do the work in a vacuum, and you don’t know beyond comments here and there how it’s really affecting people. For me, especially when my blog wasn’t making any money, getting those kind of people kept me going.

You recently started a podcast—how did you approach it? Was there any tension in wanting to start with strategy first?

Luvvie: I didn’t spend too much time on strategy. I was just like, “I’m gonna come up with the type of content my podcast would have, and then I’ll drop it.” I try to make sure even though I have a massive audience now that I’m still not changing my voice in any other way. I mean, there’s different versions of me in terms of what my podcast is not.

I wanted my podcast to be a super companion when you’re driving; especially me, talking about the things I wanna talk about, and then interviewing really interesting people.

I was like, “Alright, so the main thing I should spend time on was to be, ‘What is the outline for my podcast? What content am I putting there that doesn’t necessarily feel like I’m letting go of my blog but it’s still, at the core of it all, me. I’m the central voice in it.'”

That is always going to be present, and clear, and that’s important to me. I want my readers to say, “Okay, this is another version of her,” or “This is her voice in a different format.”

Everything that I do is basically me in different forms.

Starting so early, it made a lot of us very honest ’cause nobody was really reading, and we wrote like nobody was really reading. It worked out very well because we were able to hone our voices to build an audience that saw us in our most vulnerable times and without any of the polish. But they grew with us as we got the power, as we figured out what strategy was, but our voices stayed the same.

Another generous project that you shipped, Awesomely Techie, is an online publication that shares insights on business, social media, gadgets and more. It seems like this was born after your initial blog, Awesomely Luvvie, because of what you learned from growing your own business and brand. Can you talk about the intentions that spark your motivation for creating free resources like this and committing to them? What keeps you going?

Luvvie: My professional background is in marketing and visual communications so that’s what I was doing when I graduated from college. I love teaching people.

I’m a fan of being like, “Okay, I found out this information. I wanna tell you about it so you know about it too,” which is why I created Awesomely Techie because I actually familiar writing those type of pieces on AwesomelyLuvvie.com.

I feel like the essays needed their own home. Whereas if somebody’s trying to start a blog or start something in business, they could use this place as a resource, and that’s how I started Awesomely Techie. There’s so much information out there that we’re all for ourselves that it would be better if we let people know about it.

Everything that I do I consider myself my audience. If I don’t find whatever it is I’m doing interesting, or helpful, or useful, then why am I doing it? For me, Awesomely Techie is something that I would find useful if I was a blogger, or if I was an entrepreneur, if I was a small business owner. It’s info that I would want to access so I wanna make sure people have access to it.

Everything that I do is basically me in different forms.

What’s a personal framework that has helped you decide whether to do something for free or charge for it?

Luvvie: I have a series of questions that allows me to say yes or no to stuff that I started using back in December 2017.

I realized that I needed to kind of democratize my decision-making to make it easier on me. What I mean is, I’ll get emails about different activities, and then I have to figure, and be like, “Ahh, is this worth my time? Should I do it? What is the point?” I realized if I could quantify my decision-making it just makes it that much easier.

So the questions are:

  • Will I enjoy it?
  • Does this pay my fee?
  • Is it something new, different, or challenges me in some way, allows me to grow?
  • Will this put me in front of a larger audience?
  • Will this elevate my profile?

Those two questions—being in front of a larger audience and elevating my profile—sounds like the same questions but they’re not. Let’s say they want me to speak in front of 5,000 people, right? Or something could elevate my profile when there’s only 10 people in that room. Those 10 people could be Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, and Ava DuVernay, right?

The answer has to be three yeses out of those five questions.

You’ll get to a certain point where your opportunities are coming, and now your challenge is less, “Oh my God, I need to get opportunities,” and your challenge is more, “How do I get through them to figure out which one is best for me?”

Everybody is gonna end up in a yes loop which is when you are getting all these things in your inbox ’cause they all sound cool. Next thing you realize, you said more yeses than you can handle.

You cannot say yes to all of it. You have to start being more selective and create more filters to figure out ’cause you can’t … Our time is finite, right? So there are many things that we can outsource, but there are many things we can’t. When we realize our time is finite and you can only do so many things, then you really have to be like, “Alright, I got to be a little more picky about where I’m spending my time and how I’m exerting my energy.”

Everything that I do I consider myself my audience. If I don’t find whatever it is I’m doing interesting, or helpful, or useful, then why am I doing it?

What does the future of content look like to you?

Luvvie: I think that the future of content really looks like ownership. I always preached against building your entire business in a walled garden and walled gardens are platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Google and Instagram. If they decided today to somehow snatch a platform, you’d be with that one. You can of course use them, I use them, I place value on them of course, ’cause you have to do social media if you’re gonna be an entrepreneur in 2018.

However, let’s say your entire business is based on Facebook and there’s no other way to contact your clients or consumers or audience. That’s a broken model. Imagine one day randomly Facebook decided to take out pages, for whatever reason.

I think it’s up to us to make sure we always have our own newsletter, our own website, something that is not controlled by somebody else. So I think the future of content creating is marketization of content. You don’t need to work for a newspaper to have an opinion blog, a column. You don’t need to work for a radio station to have a show ’cause you got your own podcast. You don’t need to have a major network producer show because you can create it on YouTube.

What is your definition of owning your content?

Luvvie: Creating content that is on your own terms. So you know how they’re saying, “Created for other people?” You’re creating what you want to create, you’re putting out the art that you want to see in the world. Of course, it’s controlling the platform, whatever that platform may be, some way. That’s huge.

Any final thoughts on this subject that you want to express that I haven’t asked as a question?

Luvvie: I think people should trademark their work. That’s a big piece of it. Art is trademark-able, which basically puts the extra stamp on it that, “This is mine, my intellectual property, this is something that I control.” That’s big for me, and I know that a lot of people are like, “I’m just doin’ the work.” But you also have to protect our work. Even as you give it away, it’s still needs to be protected.


This interview was produced in partnership with WordPress.comCreativeMornings.

Morning people get 15% off their WordPress.com site at wordpress.com/creativemornings.

Interview by Paul Jun. Illustrations by Jeffrey Phillips. ‘Own Your Content’ illustration by Annica Lydenberg.