There are plenty of technical skills to master along the way, but the biggest obstacles to earning passive income have to do with mindset—in essence, designers have to unlearn a lot of what has worked for them so far. Here are a few key concepts.
You’re not just a designer anymore.
There are many different ways to make passive income online, but they’re all based around attracting the attention of an audience and monetizing it. That means designers have to stop thinking like designers, and start thinking like publishers. Much of the grind has nothing to do with creating beautiful interiors and everything to do with building an email list, writing content, figuring out search engine optimization, talking to your audience and setting up conversion funnels. If all of that sounds deathly boring, maybe passive income isn’t a good fit.
Instagram is not your friend.
The social media platform is the design industry’s playground, town square, theater and catwalk. It’s natural that designers spend most of their time and energy there. Problem is, it’s not particularly helpful for passive income. Why? Instagram is fairly self-contained—it’s difficult to make followers actually click that infamous “link in bio” URL and get them into an environment where you can monetize them. Pinterest, says digital marketing consultant Leslie Carothers, is a much more useful social network for generating site traffic. But even after she explains that to designers, it can be hard for many to let go. “There’s an ego gratification to Instagram,” she says. “If designers understood that they could refocus their efforts away from the platform—yes, you’re not going to get that hit of dopamine when you get a like, but it doesn’t do much to help you earn 24/7.”
It’s not free.
A passive income source has a much lower barrier to entry than, say, starting your own fabric line, but that doesn’t mean it’s free. Designers who are successful at it usually end up investing thousands on content and a better website, sometimes hiring staff specifically to maintain their social channels. “Having all these income streams has really helped me pick and choose the clients I want to work with,” says designer Claire Jefford. “But I wouldn’t want to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes: I’ve spent significantly building a new website. There is money you have to invest.”
You have to love it.
This seems obvious but it’s not: Some designers come to passive income motivated mostly by the “income” part of it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money, but if you’re creating content or courses cynically, it’s not going to work out in the end. “You have to be genuine in what you’re doing, or people will see through you,” says Jefford. “It’s just like starting your design business—you didn’t get into it for money, you got into it because you have a passion.”
Taste isn’t everything.
Designers tend to present themselves with two audiences in the back of their minds: a discerning and affluent client who wants to renovate six houses, and other designers (admit it, it’s true). The problem is, designers don’t hire designers, and there are precious few tasteful billionaires to go around. Earning passive income requires building up a decent-sized audience, which means targeting consumers who are mostly interested in DIY content, not the highest forms of luxury. You also have to hustle for sales, ask people for money out in the open, and experiment with things that other designers might look down their noses at.
Patience is everything.
The elevator pitch for passive income (“Make money from the beach!”) tends to evoke a kind of feverish excitement—and can often set designers up for failure. The truth is, it takes time. “To be [regularly] earning significant income from these methods takes two to three years,” says Carothers. Jefford agrees. “The biggest mistake people make is that they’re not building a list and building good content before they bring something out,” she says. “I was sharing on YouTube and in Facebook groups for years before I came out with my first product. When people come out with something and it doesn’t work right away, they get discouraged, but this is a long-term game. There is no magic pill.”
It’s not really that passive.
Once you set up a successful passive revenue stream, expect to keep promoting it. Jefford runs a busy Facebook group for interior designers and posts weekly check-in videos; she’s also a frequent YouTuber. Designer Jillian Lare stays active on Pinterest to drive readers to her blog. Color expert and designer Maria Killam credits passive income streams with helping her business ride the waves of the pandemic, but stresses that they all take work: “It’s great to sell e-books while I sleep, but if I stopped doing social media today, that would dry up pretty quick.”
Homepage image: A bathroom by color guru Maria Killam, who cautions that passive income requires constant self promotion. One of Killam’s downloadable e-books, which helps clients select paint colors, retails on her site for $27. | Courtesy of Maria Killam