When I first launched my Patreon, my top priority was offering rewards that my Patrons would feel were worth the money they were spending. I didn’t want anyone to feel like I was ripping them off, overcharging, or underdelivering. While I put together my reward tiers, my constant mental refrain was will this be worth it to them? Turns out that what I should’ve been asking is will this be worth it to me?
Don’t get me wrong — it’s very important to deliver rewards that your Patrons will love. But the whole purpose of Patreon is to support your creations, so if delivering rewards limits your ability to create, what’s the point? That’s the unfortunate circumstance a lot of creators find themselves in after promising overzealous rewards. It leads to stress, late reward delivery, burnout, and sometimes even drives creators to leave Patreon entirely.
After three years of being a Patreon creator, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. But if I could only share one, it would be this: Make sure Patreon is benefitting you more than it’s taxing you. If you don’t make that a priority, then your Patrons aren’t supporting you, they’re only making your work harder. You don’t want that, and your Patrons don’t want that, either.
Do the math
Let’s try a little exercise. I’ll show my work, and you should follow along with one of your own reward tiers (whether you currently run a Patreon, or are planning to launch one.) For my example, I’ll use my $10 tier. Start by answering these questions:
What rewards do you deliver?
In this tier, I deliver two early access videos and a tutorial every month.
How long does it take to fulfill these rewards?
The early access videos can vary, so we’ll focus on the tutorial: On average, between scripting, filming, editing, thumbnail, caption, etc., a tutorial video takes me 12-15 hours of labor.
How many Patrons pledge at that tier?
I have 49 Patrons currently in my $10 tier.
Now it’s time to do some math with that information. First, let’s identify how much of that $10 pledge goes into our pockets. Minus Patreon’s fees and the processing fees, I get $9.19 out of each $10 pledge. Since there are three rewards in that tier and we’re just looking at one, we’ll divide that number by three: I make $3.06 per Patron for that tutorial video.
That means with 49 Patrons at that tier, I make $150.10 per month on my tutorial video reward. Now divide that number by the number of hours it takes me to create that video, and you have a rough hourly wage. In this case, when I work on those tutorial videos, I’m making $10.00 per hour. For reference, I live in Colorado, where the minimum wage is $11.10/hour. I would be making more money working as a barista at Starbucks (and I’d get benefits!)
I would be making more money working as a barista at Starbucks (and I’d get benefits!)
Of course, we have to take these numbers with a grain of salt. To really get an accurate hourly wage for Patreon, I would need to include the higher tiers (my $20 Patrons also get access to that tutorial video, so some fraction of their pledge should count towards that hourly wage), the lower tiers (likewise, my $10 pledges are getting access to rewards from the tiers below them, so less than one third of their pledge goes towards the tutorial), and even more nebulous things, like the fact that the tutorial video requires me to spend money on materials, the fact that I make costumes and projects each month that Patreon rewards are based on that are not themselves rewards (and that earn money through other avenues), the fact that these Patron access videos later end up earning money when they go public on YouTube, etc. For higher tiers with mailed rewards, I need to subtract the cost of creating and mailing those rewards from the payout I’m receiving. Plus, all these numbers are before taxes. In short: It’s complicated.
But even this rough calculation should give you an idea of whether or not you’ve set up a reasonable exchange here. If you’re not making a skilled hourly wage on Patreon, you’re wasting your time and your Patrons’ time. They’re here to support your work, and if you’re laboring for minimum wage or worse trying to fulfill rewards that you chose to offer, something is deeply wrong.
How to fix it
So. Is something deeply wrong? Yeah, I thought so. It’s extremely common for artists to undervalue our work, so you’re not alone in the realization that you’ve created a job for yourself where you’re being underpaid. The good news is, since you created the system, you can correct it.
Which rewards are draining you?
Start by writing down estimates for how many hours each reward takes you to fulfill. Remember to include every single part of the reward creation, from planning to delivery. If you tend to underestimate or aren’t sure, try keeping a timesheet next time you fulfill rewards. This will allow you to identify which rewards require the most labor.
Once you’ve spotted those rewards, here are some options for what to do with them:
Price them differently. The rewards that take the most time to fulfill should be in your highest tiers. If they’re too low on the totem pole right now, either switch them into a different tier, or change the price for that tier.
Change them. Okay, maybe a monthly video tutorial is too much. How about quarterly? Maybe individual Patron chats are too labor intensive. What about a group livestream? Maybe mailing out individual drawings is too much work, so what about art prints? You can keep the spirit of a reward while scaling back on how much work it requires.
Eliminate them. Some rewards simply aren’t worth the work. There’s nothing wrong with deciding that a specific reward isn’t working for you.
If you aren’t sure about what direction to take, I encourage you to talk with your Patrons about it. Their feedback can be invaluable in helping you identify which rewards need to be adjusted, and which are okay to just pitch.
Keep low tiers low-effort
Unfortunately, this kind of restructuring can leave lower tiers barren. It’s a good idea to replace moved or eliminated rewards, so your Patrons don’t feel like you’re taking something away from them. Just make sure you’re not creating more work for yourself in the process. That means introducing rewards that deliver value without taking up more of your time. Here are some examples of self-fulfilling rewards that won’t require any of your labor:
Access to Patron-exclusive social media (Discord, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.)
A discount at your store
Access to a library of existing content, such as old Patreon rewards
Also, rewards that can be fulfilled quickly (I like “under an hour” as a guiding rule) for the entire tier are a good idea for lower tiers. For example:
Early access to videos, photosets, etc.
Follow-back on social media
If there’s something you know Patrons are interested in, just make sure you’re considering all your options. For example, if your Patrons enjoy photo editing, maybe don’t jump straight to photo editing tutorials when time-lapse videos or even before-and-after comparison images would fulfill a similar need but require less of your time.
There is an epidemic of creator burnout sweeping through internet communities right now, and while some of that can certainly be blamed on creator culture, audience expectations, and demanding algorithms, we also have to acknowledge that when we become our own bosses, we aren’t always very fair to our employees. If you wouldn’t accept a job at someone else’s company for the hourly wage you’re making on Patreon, why would you create a job like that for yourself?
If you overwork and underpay yourself, you suffer, your work suffers, and everybody loses. But if you take the time to create thoughtful, achievable rewards that both satisfy your Patrons and effectively support your work, everybody wins.