Photo: Flickr / d i l l w e e d
Meet Zach Weiner, 29, the owner and author of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.He makes a living by drawing comics and posting them online, and then selling advertising and merchandise.
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has more than 250,000 visitors every day, up from about 160,000 around this time last year.
You’ll see his comics show up just about anywhere on the web — especially sites like Reddit, thanks to their geeky spin.
When he’s not doing that, he’s spending his time reading textbooks and studying the secrets of the universe.
He’ll tell you that makes him a better writer.
What’s it like to be an entrepreneur that specialises in web-based art? We caught up with Weiner to find out. Here’s what we learned:
- The most important metric for most web-based artists is daily visits. That’s different from traditional ad-powered websites, which focus on monthly unique visitors.
- Selling merchandise is more reliable than selling ads. Most online artists have their own stores on their sites.
- Keeping up with deadlines is critical. Most comics have an “update schedule” that artists will adhere to religiously. Weiner’s is particularly hectic — once every single day.
Here’s our full interview with Weiner:
BUSINESS INSIDER: How did you get into comics?
ZACH WEINER: The original version was really just a hobby. If you go to an archives section of the site, there’s a whole section that’s the original comic — a three-panel comic in college. I switched to doing single-panels and gag strips in college. I kind of fell into it in that I was pursuing other things and comics kept working out for me — there was an audience and they had money. Around 2005 I wanted to do it full time and I got on a regular schedule. Within one and a half years I was able to scrape by — I was eating lentils and barley, but I wasn’t working a day job.
I went to college from 2000 to 2003 and got a bachelor of arts in literature. After I left that I was in the entertainment business for around 2 years. I worked on a movie called Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, worked for The Asylum studios for free and then landed at a talent agency — which was a terrible, terrible job. I credit the horribleness of that job with inspiring me to not wanting to work a job any more.
I cannot overstate how much I hated this job. If you want to be a writer, the reason you work for a talent agency is so one day you can show them your work. After about six or eight months, I was talking about one of my bosses, I showed my boss this comic and she said something like “imagine where you could be if you had been doing this for five years” and I thought I would be somewhere else. Pretty soon after that I started updating pretty much daily. I haven’t missed too many updates since then. The reason I was updating daily was explicitly with the goal of not having to work a day job any more. By late 2006 to early 2007 I was making 800-1200 a month — it was enough to get a cheap apartment and eat noodles and lentils.
BI: Your comics are pretty popular with the tech and geek crowd — where’d that come from?
ZW: My dad was an engineer who became a doctor. My little sister is gonna be a doctor and my older brother is an engineer. But what happened was, right when I quit my job at the talent agency, essentially what happened was I had come into a little money through random circumstance and was able to quit my job a little before I should have. I had all this spare time, because for the first time ever I was just doing my comics. I took on a job doing closed captioning because I found it had an easier time writing. Just something about talking to people and watching weird media made the writing a lot easier. My new theory of self was that you can’t write well unless you have a little strife in your life. I worked at the closed captioning job for 4-6 months and by then I was making enough money on the site to responsibly quit my job.
The problem was I didn’t want to quit my job and have readership fall off because I couldn’t write, so my crazy idea would be to go back to school. I thought it was going to be this weird environment, with younger people, and that would be good. At some point I switched over to physics because I thought it was really neat, the comics improved and they got more geeky and they were a higher quality. I was totally broke but having a really good time just learning constantly. You could probably anchor the rise in geekinees to sometime around late 2006.
Photo: Flickr / thebadastronomer
It would have been around 2007 where I had this semester where business on the comics had gotten good enough — it would have been my second semester of physics majoring — and I had this semester where I wasn’t sleeping because I had to update but also study for finals. I missed a bunch of updates and I ended up with Bs in all my classes, so I decided that comics could be my career and I could still teach myself science on my own. I decided to focus on comics but self-teach in my space.I feel it’s hard to write if you’re not reading a lot. I’m compelled to read a lot and fairly quickly to keep up this thing. I suppose the ideal int he abstract was to be in a position where people want to hear from me. I get on a kick with something and explore it — I’m on an economics kick right now. I would say it this way, if tomorrow I published a book and sold a million copies it would affect my desire to do comics daily. I don’t actually know to be honest — if I had some clever idea in the sciences that I thought I could publish, that would affect my desire to update comics daily. It’s also kind of a mental thing, it’s nice to be able to work through lots of different ideas. It’s nice to get to share stuff.
BI: Are you a fan of Khan Academy (an online site with hundreds of educational videos)?
ZW: Pretty much everything on Khan Academy is stuff I know, if I need a refresher. I know more or less everything there, generally speaking what I prefer to do is just pick up a text book. That’s why I made peace with myself in the college environment — I’m more and more convinced that the lecture system isn’t optimal. Unless you have a really excellent teacher, generally you’re getting someone who’s giving an abridged textbook version. If I’m having trouble I will go to a forum or usually I just read through the book.
BI: How’s business?
ZW: It’s doing really well. I have a manager who does publicity stuff for me and negotiates for me. I have a kid who does some assistance for me, little stuff like being a go-between between people and doing bits of research for me. The little stuff I could use taken off my plate so I could do more reading and comics. It’s growing nicely. We just took over our own store next year. Profits compared to what I was doing earlier is up 4-5x, which is really cool because most of the revenue we make is off ads. We’re transitioning to merch because it’s more reliable, ads don’t really make sense. I live far more comfortably than I ought to.
I’m obviously writing too, I guess that all relates to the books. Part of why I had to quit school was because I was spending 4-6 hours all day on clerical stuff. For a while I was doing my own shipping, now I think unless I really back up I don’t spend more than an hour a day on non-reading and writing stuff. I’ve been slowly over the last five years moulding my environment to be as ideal as possible.
I could give you a couple different metrics: daily visits tends to be between 200,000 to 250,000, unique visitors is somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000. Around 100,000 RSS readers. The metric most cartoonists use, randomly, is the easiest metric: daily visits. It’s an approximate number perhaps of how many readers you have. I think a year ago I would have probably said something like 160,000 to 200,000, I think. There’s a lot of stuff over time, roughly speaking it’s like 20% growth. It probably should have been better, but I had a couple trips that were just crazy.
Your prestige, your income is based on this number. It’s conceivable you could do something on your website where everyone could just disappear. You’re watching this big thing where you earned just slip away. Maybe other people don’t feel as strongly as I do, but I have trouble focusing if I haven’t put up an update that day.
BI: Have you ever taken a break?
ZW: Not intentionally. I wasn’t going to take time off when I got married. But we were super geniuses, thinking it would be easy to get married one day and move the next. My wife is a researcher, so I just go wherever she goes — we just moved again three weeks ago. We decided it would be super clever to move the day after we married, and we just happened to get what we think is strep throat. I started showing symptoms five days before the wedding, I was on my back in bed for about three days. So I was just starting to get over it when we got married.
If I had just two of those things I would have kept my update schedule, but having all three at once I figure I should get a few days off. That was the first time in a while that I missed three updates in a row, maybe the first time I professionally missed three days ago. When you have an update schedule and you’re not on it, you feel guilt and you feel terror. I’ve talked to cartoonists who have a legitimate phobia, the fear that you will wake up and your whole audience will be gone. You’re defined, if you’re doing it professionally on the web, you’re defined by how many readers you have.
The good and bad about closed captioning — working an office job — was working 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. At 3 p.m. your work is done. I was doing comics but I wasn’t depending on it for a living. Now I’m pretty comfortable, there’s no point at which there’s something I could not be doing. If you work a regular job, if you get off at five you can just knock off for the day. I can’t do that, because I wouldn’t trade it if it’s much more worthwhile to work on something you can see improving your career daily.
The stress is actually good, a little stress is good — you don’t want to have no stress because you won’t feel motivated. I used to take on as many projects as I could possibly do. Just because I was getting more success, there were more potential projects to be doing. I was losing sleep and barely having time for anything. That is the tricky part, it can be stressful, but if you get the right amount of stress it forces you to work. But it’s a virtuous cycle: you do work, and feel good, so you do more work.
BI: So what’s next?
ZW: I was doing a talk once, someone asked me how long I plan to do comics. I’ve considered it, some people are really dedicated to the medium of cartooning, I’m not. I can think of a dozen things I’d be just as happy doing. I’d be just as happy if I were studying science or writing books. I would say I have some other projects I’m working on that are not comic-related. Something that really appeals to me, a person doing research should change careers every seven years. You do something for seven years and you’ve applied everything you can to it so you ought to switch. That idea does sort of appeal to me.