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Giving Your Product Away For Free Is a Business Model?

June 12, 2013

Hey Sandra, I think I’ll take up doodling as a hobby.
– Howard Tayler circa 2000

My friend Howard Tayler lives about 3 miles from me. We worked together briefly at WordPerfect. He’s got a wonderful wife and three beautiful children. He drives a green Volkswagen beetle and he has a completely insane business plan. Howard draws comics. He’s the genius behind the popular and award winning webcomic “Schlock Mercenary.”

Howard’s business model is to draw a comic and give it away for free on the internet every day. Schlock Mercenary launched on June 12, 2000. That makes the strip 13 years old today. And it really is free. You can go back and read every Schlock Mercenary strip from that day in June 13 years ago to today, all 4,748 of them, for free. There are two amazing things about Schlock Mercenary.

First is that in all that time, 678 weeks (and two days) Howard has never once failed to update his comic. That includes the day that the datacenter hosting his servers blew up.

Second, and to me more impressive is that all 4,748 days are available for free. Try it. Go to www.schlockmercenary.com and look at the navigation bar on the right. Click the “GO TO FIRST” arrow and you’ll see the first strip. I’ve put it here as well.

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((c) HyperNode Press and Howard Tayler. Used by permission.)

Here’s an updated version of that first strip that he did as part of a bonus story a couple years ago.20130611-234631.jpg((c) HyperNode Press and Howard Tayler. Used by permission.)

And here’s the strip from today. As you can see, Howard’s drawing improved. . .a lot.

20130611-235405.jpg((c) HyperNode Press and Howard Tayler. Used by permission.)

When the strip launched back around the turn of the century, Howard was working for a big computer software company. About 6 years ago, he opted to ditch the cubicle and become a full-time cartoonist. . .by drawing a comic and giving it away for free on the internet every day.

How does that even work?

It works by creating a brand and a fan base and then providing added value to those fans.

1. Create free content
2. Attract a following
3. Repackage your content into books with some added bonuses
4. Keep creating free content
5. Find new and interesting things that your fans will want to buy based on your content

The genius of his business plan is that he gets you hooked on the story. You want to go and play in his universe. His added content gives you that opportunity. His most recent project is Challenge Coins. Howard introduced them both in his comic and to his fans this year. He ran a Kickstarter campaign to launch the coins.

The success was more than anyone expected. Howard asked his fans for a modest $1,800 to create a few coins. Thirty days later thousands of his fans had pledged over $154,000. What makes it interesting is that the coins, the physical coins, are not an integral part of the story. You don’t have to have ever seen a challenge coin to enjoy reading his comic.

Here are a few of mine.

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The last piece of Howard’s business plan that amazes me is this.

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That’s a group of volunteers who showed up last month to help Sandra, Howard’s business manager and wife ship the challenge coins. They shipped a lot of coins all over the world.

20130612-000125.jpg 20130612-000221.jpg

Not only were they able to get fans to come and help ship product, the competition to be one of “Sandra’s Minions” is fierce. Sandra will post a call for help to the Schlock Facebook group and within minutes all the volunteer slots will be filled.

So, how do you create a successful business plan by giving your product away for free? You don’t focus on selling product. You focus on building a community. A community who enjoys your work and enjoys the world you’ve created. Then, you give that community the opportunity to participate. If you do it right and do it well, the fans will jump at the chance.

Happy 13th birthday, Schlock. Congratulations Howard, and thank you for all the free Schlock.

(Rodney Bliss is an author, blogger, and IT manager. He’s been in the computer business for longer than he can remember. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his wife and 13 children.)

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