How I started my 3D miniature business | by JLRose | Aug, 2021


It started towards the end of 2019 when my beauty brand business failed, I was broke, my lease was ending and so was my visa to stay in Australia.

Covid was still a sub-heading in the news, nothing huge yet to most people. The student accommodation company I was working for was taking it seriously within our building cluster, but our area manager was just rolling his eyes at us as we scrambled to located students that had gone missing (trapped in quarantine in China at that time) and keep track of who’d been exposed and where. Oh boy did eat his words later.

Let’s just say I was stressed out.

I’d gone to university to study Games Design in Melbourne, but when I graduated I ran into one big problem: too many graduates and not enough jobs.

It didn’t help that I was so busy working to keep my rent and student loans paid, that I never had time to go out and network, which I was bad enough at on its own without the other stresses of life.

I was a mostly self taught 3D artist, and in the wake of minimal jobs in my field, I started hustling on the side doing freelance web design, graphic design and some 3D asset work.

After working on some 3D environment assets for my old lecturer’s VR Mars Flight simulator and my beauty business blew up (in a bad way) my lecturer sat me down and showed me a Kickstarter that was live at the time sporting a set of 3D printable figures.

The designers had created a set of printable figures and were selling the digital files to customers who have desktop printers at home.

It was successful.

Very successful.

He thought I could do the same thing and pushed me to try it. I really had nothing to lose at this point.

Technically I had the means to make this happen myself. I had the general knowledge, I just needed to sit down and work out the details of this particular niche, because creating 3d assets for games and 3d assets for printing are two completely different things with different rules and pipelines.

I also needed a fiscally responsible way to test print my figures since I didn’t have my own 3D printer anymore.

The FDM printer I’d had I had just sold for rent money. That’s how low I was.

I was lucky in the regard that my teacher had knowledge in the area of 3d printable figures since it was a hobby of his, and he agreed to test print whatever figures I came up with for this shot-in-the-dark project.

So I got started.

Research.

I started looking into more kickstarters dedicated to 3D printable figures and then turned to 3D printing Facebook groups which helped point me in the right direction of further research. Who better to go to than your future customers?

Sites I used for research into my include.

  • Kickstarter — To view other live projects and their successes
  • Patreon — To research other creators putting out monthly 3D packs
  • MyMiniFactory — One of the most popular 3D printable shops on the web
  • Artstation — A massive hub of 3D and 2D artists working in games and VFX all around the world
  • Thingiverse — A site for free 3D printable files
  • Pinshape — A site for free and paid 3D printable files
  • Cults3D — A site for free and paid 3D printable files
  • Youtube — I used youtube to view speed sculpts and tutorials for creating 3D figures, as well as reviews of 3D printers and established miniature creators.
  • Various Facebook groups dedicated to 3D printing and Zbrush (specifically) — just search for tabletop and 3d printing groups.

Practicing my 3D sculpting.

Thankfully I already owned Zbrush, which is a high-end 3D sculpting program used by games and VFX studios all over the world. It’s industry standard. I wasn’t great at it yet, I was still self-teaching myself, but I owned it and that was a huge step up since the program itself costs about $895 USD, which I didn’t have at the time.

Today there is a simple version of Zbrush that is free (or very cheap) and contains its core tools. There is also a monthly subscription option for the full program that’s easier to handle than the upfront price in the short-term.

Alternately, Blender is a high-end free software with sculpting capabilities. Its very popular and can do everything you need it to do for this business.

Personally, I don’t use Blender for the simple fact that I started 3D modeling in a program called Maya, then moved to Zbrush. As a result I prefer to stick to these two programs instead of learning a third one, because Blender is very different and I’m a creature of habit. I don’t want to learn a new interface.

If you want to dabble, I suggest starting with Blender and some youtube tutorials.

So, since I already owned Zbrush, I got to work.

Based on my research and my own personal preferences, I quickly decided I wanted to create full characters, and, because of my own preferences again, I decided to create a set of dark gothic ladies.

My lecturer agreed I probably couldn’t go wrong with a set of ladies since my consumer base is largely men. I was also better at creating women than men.

I started by watching zbrush speed sculpts on youtube to see quick workflows in creating the character bases and set about creating my first full character figure.

There was a lot of trial and error of course, but there is in everything.

3D sculpting takes time, patience and practice. Like drawing, anyone can technically do it, but it will take time to learn, especially if you don’t already have a background in 3D design of any kind.

After you complete a figure, you have to prepare it for 3D printing which is a whole separate pipeline, all doable within the program of your choice.

Creating the Characters

3D Renders of Ophelia
Ophelia, printed and painted by Conor O’Kane

Ophelia was the first full figure I created and I made her the face of my intended kickstarter, because that was how I planned on starting. Just like the big projects my lecturer had shown me, I figured that it would be the best course since the platform has a fantastic marketing algorithm built into it.

People shop on Kickstarter looking for new projects to back, and KS itself will cater its recommendations based on its users preferences and it actively pushes projects. This is good for everyone. They want to make money, and the only way to do that is to push your project and help it make money for you.

After I completed this figure figure I immediately started on the second, then the third, then the fourth.

I made a grand total of 8 figures. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but 3D design isn’t exactly a walk in the park. It’s hard, long, grueling, tedious work. It takes a lot of time to do this stuff. Why do you think so many game artists are bat-shit crazy? This includes me.

I had intended to do 20, but I quickly realized that was not going to be feasible, not in my dwindling time-frame in Australia. I was running out of time to make some cash to make my next life-altering steps, so I pulled back to 10, and then 8.

8 was a good solid number.

I also found a problem with my work: I was having trouble creating figures that were suitable to be printed at 32mm, which is standard tabletop size. I couldn’t (and still have trouble) creating details large enough to show at that size. I get stuck creating small details — its a flaw.

So I decided to create a set of 75mm figures. This size of tabletop figures are used less for gaming and more for painting and display. That said, many people do use them for games. It felt like a solid middle ground between pure tabletop size (32mm) and full figurine size (150mm+).

Getting Ready to Launch

When I started on about the sixth figure I started marketing my campaign.

Marketing is really hard, I’m terrible at it but I somehow managed to make this work. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

I started by erasing my instagram and relaunching it with the brand name I picked for my work and started posting images of the printed figures with relevant hashtags. I started following accounts of other creators, printers and figure painters. I also started following likeminded creators on Twitter, Twitch and Facebook.

Your brand is important. You should figure this out before you launch a project because you want to be memorable.

I created a Facebook group (not page) dedicated to my new brand as well. The FB algorithm tends to eat up official page posts and hold them hostage unless you pay for their advertising. By creating a group, its members are more likely to see your posts in their feed.

I recommend adding some questions to your group that potential members have to answer before they can join so you can weed out spam and troll accounts.

This next bit is how I really got solid start.

I took Ophelia and I made her a free download to everyone who joined my newsletter that I created with Mailchimp. I posted this free download in 3D printing groups on Facebook.

I originally put Ophelia up in google drive to be downloaded, but then I found a platform called Gumroad that allowed me to track the analytics of downloads. I recommend this platform for digital products. It’s free.

By giving away this one figure, I earned about 300 signups to my newsletter, and these people, in turn, joined my Facebook group.

I started posting the final images of my kickstarter figures in my new group and in the other 3D printing groups, which helped gain more downloads of Ophelia and more joins to my group.

I also posted the figure to Thingiverse for free with a link to my newsletter.

This is marketing!

The Kickstarter goes Live

Setting up your kickstarter page is straightforward and the platform will walk you through the essentials. I recommend browsing other similar projects for ideas on how to make your actual Kickstarter page interesting and fun to look at.

Graphic design is important. People are more likely to back your project if it looks more professional. If you can’t do it, I suggest finding someone who can and either paying them up front or offering a percentage of your funds, after fees.

Contracts are your friend in this regard.

Looking back, my first Kickstarter was absolutely terrible graphic design wise, but it worked, so it was good enough, just not to my current standards.

See it here.

I had quite a few people question my motives in giving away one of my core figures for free, but it turns out this was the best thing I could have done.

I was an unknown creator at the time. It gave consumers a chance to test me out without the risk of losing money, even a little bit.

Quick Tip: When I submitted my kickstarter, I thought it would go live immediately, it turns out the platform takes a few days to approve the project then gives you the option to launch. Factor this into your timeline so you don’t spend four days pacing the floor waiting for the official go-ahead email.

After I received that email, I launched! It was about 3AM when this happened, but I was too excited to wait.

After it was officially live I sent everyone on my new mailing list a newsletter with the official launch.

Now, I expected to make maybe $1,000 on this project. I was hoping for it because I needed the cash to fly out of the country, but because of my free model giveaway and the newsletter, my project brought in $2,000 within the first two hours.

It was a success!

I made sure to put a download link on the kickstarter page for Ophelia. I kept her free for the duration of the campaign so that all of the new backers could test out the new creator.

Before it ended, however, I helped push it by adding stretch goals to my project. I still didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was really just making it up as I was going at this point.

Stretch goals are rewards that will be added to the main product after the kickstarter reaches a certain amount of funding.

This helps encourage the backers into pushing your project in their circles of friends, because they’ll want the project to reach higher funding to unlock the new rewards so they can have them.

I recommend planning these before the project starts so you’re not floundering like I was.

Whether you create these rewards before or after the kickstarter is up to you. Personally I now prefer to do them after the kickstarter ends, so I only create the ones that are unlocked and I don’t do unnecessary work.

By the end of a very long, emotional 30 days, my project raised $16,000 (before fees). The most money I’d ever made in my life and enough to help me move to another country and then hold me over when the country went into lockdown just a couple of weeks after I arrived.

I’ll note that by the end of the campaign, 75% of my backers came from kickstarter itself. Remember what I said about their algorithm doing a fantastic job of marketing your project? I wasn’t making things up.

You’ll get a very thorough analytics of your backers and project growth.

The first 24 hours and final 48 hours will be your biggest days. Everything in the middle is small and fluctuating, so don’t lose hope during this time period.

You thought that was it, right? Wrong. There’s more to a business than just a single kickstarter.

There’s a lot of grumbly, gross personal stuff that happened just after the kickstarter ended and I ended up in a new country. A lot, and it impacted my work, but let’s skip that and get to the good stuff.

I created an official shop on Gumroad with all of the figures I created for my kickstarter, now available as individual models. Passive income is your friend.

I then started a second kickstarter after I finished the stretch goals of the first.

I tried a new style of miniatures for this project, and it was successful, though not as successful as the first. See it here.

Be willing to try new styles and niches within this niche. There’s a market for almost everything if you’re good enough at it.

It’s worth noting that I launched the second campaign in the middle of the world lockdown at the peak of Covid. Undoubtedly this had an impact on the overall funding.

I then decided it was time to turn these one-off projects into a steady income, so I started a Patreon and extended my storefront to MyMiniFactory which has a built in audience looking for printable figures.

Patreon is a good form of monthly income, since backers pay monthly for a set of rewards. The only drawbacks to this platform are the fees and the need to be constantly putting out work –which is the point– but it is hard to stay this creative on a regular basis and it can be bad for you health-wise in the long run.

I’ve currently run into a terrible bout of carpal tunnel which has effected my work and business in a massive way. Please take care of yourself, I can barely function right now. I’m writing this story one-handed.

Patreon gives you monthly income but you’re going to have to hustle to build your patreon numbers and increase that income. Marketing never ends.

Kickstarter projects are proving to be the best marketing tool to convert people to patreon members, in my opinion, of course.

The past few weeks I’ve been advertising my third kickstarter and I have a pre-launch page set up for it. This allows people to sign up to be notified directly by kickstarter when the project goes live, and it’s resulted in an increase to my patreon numbers.

I’ve also linked my patreon in the product description of all the figures listed in my shops. These shop figures are also listed at a higher price than they are on patreon, which gives more incentive to people to join if they can get the figures cheaper there.

Just like the first two kickstarter’s, I’ve released a figure for free as a leadup to the launch. This has also resulted more people finding my past figures, current patreon and signing up to the future kickstarter.

The Best Way to Grow Your Business

Keep getting better.

Keep practicing.

Ophelia, as much as she helped me get started on this journey, is terrible. I hate her now, but despite my feelings she’s still one of my most downloaded figures.

I go back and compare her to my newest figures on the regular so I can measure how much my work and style have changed.

Whoops, that was a lot. Here’s a (long) breakdown.

  • Research the 3d printable tabletop figure world
  • Research the niche you want to create
  • Research what consumers are looking to buy
  • Join FB groups dedicated to the hobby so you can connected with consumers and fellow creators — There are also a number of discord channels popping up that are equally useful.
  • Choose a software to learn to create 3d printable figures
  • Find online resources and tutorials to learn the pipeline of creating printable figures
  • Find a way to test your 3d printable figures
  • Start with a kickstarter
  • Build a newsletter
  • Create a storefront
  • Convert your KS backers to patrons (if you choose to go this route)
  • Keep new products flowing to increase your income from storefronts
  • Be willing to try new niches and styles in your work
  • Take care of your health!
  • Keep creating and keep getting better
  • Have fun!
The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article we publish. This story contributed to World-Class Designer School: a college-level, tuition-free design school focused on preparing young and talented African designers for the local and international digital product market. Build the design community you believe in.





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