Bootstrapping Tin Magpie

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In 2012 I attended Wold Domination Summit, an inspiring conference of bootstrappers and “solopreneurers.” But instead of filling me with can-do positivity, listening to the other attendees and speakers only reminded me that I worked for someone else, that I wasn’t building something of my own. You see, I used to have my own company.

At the tender age of 19 I began publishing my comics under my Manga Punk imprint.

18 Revolutions and Crow Princess graphic novels
My two graphic novels from _Manga Punk._ Notice the tiny, hot pink _sakura_ logo on the spines?

My dream was to grow to publish and distribute other comics for teenage girls, too. At first things went very well: I was successful enough to move out on my own, exhibited profitably at comic conventions, even won a few awards for my work.

A pink footlocker covered in comic convention and web conference badges and stickers.
The trunk I used to take merchandise to comic conventions. I used to tape my convention badges on it. I still add badges… from web development conferences.

Spoiler: It didn’t work out.

Manga Punk faced several major stumbling blocks:

  1. teenage girls don’t have credit cards
  2. there’s only one comics distributor in North America
  3. print publishing was facing down a digital tsunami

Even with my comic as a weekly syndicate on an iVillage site for teenage girls, I had trouble making ends meet. I was doing great for a cartoonist, but I was failing as an entrepreneur. The company wasn’t growing. It was treading water. When I ran into medical problems, it was time to shut The Dream down. (Dreams, no matter how promising, are sadly prone to Demolition by Crisis. Exponentially so for minorities and people with less of a safety net, like single twenty-somethings with no family.)

I’ve been working in web development for someone else ever since.

Seven Years Later

In 2013 I realized that the browser is an “infinite canvas” if you will: I can tell stories with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript that my younger self, limited to flat images and text, could only dream of. Not only could I use animation, but sound, interaction, game mechanics were all available to me. I quit my job and started speaking full time about such things at web development conferences, hoping that with enough visibility my Dream Job would find me. I was sure that somewhere out there was a company who thought this stuff was as cool as I did.

It didn’t happen.

While the web development community remains largely enthusiastic about my work, it is understandably hard to justify hiring someone just because they do really cool work. It was also hard for me to personally justify taking a position doing less than what I wanted to do. I did meet all of my personal heroes and visited some tech campuses in Silicon Valley in the process, though, which gave me a lot to think about.

$100

By fall of 2013 my husband and I had our house in Raleigh, North Carolina ready to sell, but I hadn’t accepted a job offer. It was time to make a choice.

'The $100 Startup' book and a hundred dollar bill

It was then that I pulled out this envelop from that World Domination Summit the year prior. At the end of the conference, organizer Chris Guillebeau gave us all a copy of his The $100 Startup book and handed everyone envelopes with a hundred dollar bill tucked inside.

Our duty: Turn the $100 into $105 or $200 or $20,000 in a year. Invest it. Make it grow.

It had definitely been over a year since the Summit, and I’d done nothing with my hundred dollars. But looking through his book reminded me of how once, seven years ago, I had been my own boss, doing things I wanted to do, reaching my audience, filling a real need (even if my business model was doomed at the start). On my travels I’d visited the Disney Family Museum and the Computer History Museum while in the the Bay area. My head was full of the successes and blunders of entrepreneurs from storytelling and technology.

Hey, I thought, maybe I could try again. With a business plan that isn’t doomed.

I called a designer friend of mine and, although I knew his skills were worth much more, asked him if he’d help me make a logo for $100. He was quick to accept my offer and soon Tin Magpie was hatched.

A small thing, full of wonder

I wasn’t sure what I wanted Tin Magpie to be at first, just that it would involve doing things with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and stories that no one else was doing. I took on a few interactive projects like Alice in Videoland for Adobe, and the opening videos for FOWD where I learned what it was like to be the boss of a team for once (turns out I like it!).

I decided that web apps were as close to my ideal projects as I can get, and they’re monetizable via marketplaces on Kindle, FireFox OS, and Windows 8: I could build an interactive graphic novel in one place and deploy across multiple platforms without changing the code much while shining brightly amid competition.

I turned to one of my past collaborators, Xamag, creator of The Black Brick Road of O.Z. and arranged Tin Magpie’s flagship interactive graphic novel: Look for it in October on Kindle Fire. Depending on Black Brick Road’s performance, you could see a lot more of these from us in the future.

Boldly going where I’ve already gone before

In February 2014 we moved to Portland, Oregon, one of my favorite cities, so I could be closer to the cartoonists and animators I seek to collaborate with. The weather is good, and the living is cheap enough to let me work full time on Tin Magpie’s projects. The city encourages the healthy work-life balance I would like to pass on to any employees I might one day have. (My only complaint is that there are few direct flights to Europe, where I often speak!)

It’s exciting, building something of my own again. Scary, too. But I’ve never been happier. I can speak about my work at conferences, lift up the brilliance of others, and master and teach new ways to tell stories. While I can’t forecast if this business will pan out, I know which direction to head in: up.

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