My 2021 Income Report

When I set the income goal of $250k total for my streams of income at the beginning of 2021 which was almost double my 2020 gross income, I had no clue what the year would hold for me. Would I earn any easy passive income? How would my earnings from surface design and art licensing compare to 2020? There were a million questions swirling in my head.

Side Note: It was a number that absolutely freaked me out to share publicly. But I’ve done a fair amount of money mindset work over the past 2 years and despite the fear, I also had complete faith in myself that $250k was an achievable number.

So the big question is: did I hit my 2021 goal of making $250k?

SHORT ANSWER: No… I made just over $230k.

And you know what? I’m incredibly happy with that, even though I didn’t hit my goal.

But you know me, I always like to give you details, especially because it’s important to me to promote transparency surrounding artist income, so just like my 2020 income report, I’d like to give you a little more context.

Also, just a reminder we’re talking about my gross income; I didn’t take home $230k.

My expenses for 2021 were just under $70k. It’s by far, the most I’ve ever spent on my business in one year but much of that was used to improve and grow SDR. I also hired half a dozen female-owned businesses for everything from photography to branding to website redesign.

So my net profit was just over $160k… but still, that’s not what I paid myself.

Instead, I gave myself a monthly salary and set aside the bulk of my net profit to invest back in my business. And I’d still love to tackle expenses, net income, and carving out a salary as your business grows later on, but let’s get back to today’s topic!

And unsurprisingly, I have a few thoughts to share before we dive into the details…

Initially, I was hesitant to write this post. I was concerned some wouldn’t see me as a “real artist” anymore because the majority of my income came from teaching my signature courses here at SDR. And to be honest, I still feel a little uncomfortable sharing my income details for fear of being misunderstood or judged.

However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my nearly 10 years working for myself it’s that every year will look different. Just like our art evolves over time, so do we and our businesses. This is something I felt deeply when I reviewed the past 12 months, especially because teaching still lights me up more than anything else right now and I don’t want to apologize for that.

I also thought it would be a disservice to every surface designer who’s striving to build their own careers, not to share the details of my own growing business. Because you deserve to know what’s possible for YOU.

More than that, I want you to know that my path isn’t the only path to success. In fact, I have several friends in this industry who earn six figures in gross income and none of us have the exact same streams of income:

  • One artist earned six figures focusing primarily on physical products and wholesaling, but also earns through affiliate commissions and teaching.

  • Another friend earned six figures almost exclusively from art licensing alone, after building a long-term relationship with multiple companies. It’s uncommon, but can happen!

  • And a third earned six figures primarily through freelance projects and teaching, but also print-on-demand and licensing – it’s Elizabeth Silver and she shared her own income report this year; it’s definitely worth a read.

So no two artists’ paths are alike… and that’s a GOOD thing because it means you can forge your own path, mixing together the income streams you enjoy the most!

Finally, one last quick note: I’m very aware of the privilege I’ve had to build a business slowly over the years because my husband’s income supported us. I also know that’s not everyone’s situation.

But I also feel it’s important to mention that even if you don’t have the financial support I did, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful artist on your own. Obviously, your journey will look different than mine, but it’s absolutely possible!

My 2021 Income Sources

In 2021, I had six significant income streams. I say “significant” because I technically had a 7th: print-on-demand income. But I put zero effort into it and earned $12. So yeah, it’s not really an income source for me.

Here’s the six sources that did contribute to my 2021 income:

  1. SDR courses

  2. Skillshare

  3. Surface design

  4. Guest speaking

  5. Affiliate payments

  6. Reviews & consults

Let’s walk through a few more details from my top 3 sources of income which account for nearly 95% of what I made in 2021…

1. SDR Courses

2021 started with my second signature course, Artful Pricing, in February followed by Pitch Your Portfolio in April and another round of AP in August. When planning at the beginning of my year, I’d intended to launch PYP for a second time in October so I’d have a total of 4 course launches, but had to scrap those plans due to my family’s move abroad to Ireland.

Still, Sketch Design Repeat was my almost sole focus for the year and I was very pleased with the income I generated from it. I ended up making $180k+ from the 3 course launches we had.

However, had I been able to move forward with a second PYP launch in the fall, I have no doubt I would have exceeded my $250k income goal.

Beyond just the numbers though, teaching hundreds of students inside our two signature programs was honestly more rewarding than I can say.

It’s so meaningful to see the impact a little guidance, organization, and encouragement have had on my course students. My heart skips a beat when I get an email or someone posts in our FB groups about landing a deal, overcoming a fear, or hearing back from a dream client.

Truly nothing motivates me more in my business than to see the positive impact I can make on the surface design community.

2. Skillshare

The 6.6% from the graph doesn’t sound like much, but I actually made slightly more than what I did in 2020I increased my Skillshare earnings to just over $15k. 

That’s due to the two new classes I launched on the platform: Surface Design Portfolio Advice You Don’t Actually Have to Follow in February and Airtable for Artists: Advanced in July.

Surface Design Portfolio Advice: a class on Skillshare taught by Shannon McNab

Airtable for Artists: Advanced a class on Skillshare taught by Shannon McNab

However, I don’t know if I’ll be continuing to post regular classes on Skillshare moving forward. As much as I appreciate the incredible education platform Skillshare has built, it takes an enormous amount of energy to write, record, edit, publish, and then market classes on SS, especially considering I received an average of just 7 cents for every minute watched in 2021.

And not every class sees the same level of success. Take my Airtable for Artists: Advanced class above. Even though it was a follow-up to one of my most popular classes ever, Airtable for Artists, it’s vastly underperformed all my other classes.

A lot of that is from my mistakes creating the class (and going a little too deep with information). But because of all of the time invested beforehand, it’s always a bummer when a few months of work doesn’t translate into an equal financial gain.

Also, when I conducted my yearly review at the end of 2021, one major realization I had was how much I loved teaching students LIVE, an element that’s not currently possible on the platform.

I still haven’t made any final decisions about Skillshare yet (and I may change my mind later on). But for the time being, I plan to focus my attention on other teaching avenues I’m more excited about, like the live masterclasses we’re introducing here at SDR this year.

3. Surface Design

In 2021, only 6 .1% of my income came from surface design which amounted to just under $14k and that was from a combination of licensing and freelance. Of course, that’s about half of what I generated in 2020, but there were several factors that contributed to that:

  • I exhibited in person at Surtex in Feb 2020 and received several licenses, freelance projects, and buyouts directly from the show. However, I didn’t exhibit at any trade shows in 2021 for obvious reasons… *cough* COVID *cough*

  • I designed a lot less, only creating a handful of new portfolio pieces, and worked on only one freelance project with a client. And once my family’s move prep began in late summer, I had zero motivation to design.

  • Because I gave myself so little design time in 2021, I did very little marketing this year, only doing the “bare minimum” to maintain my art presence.

    P.S. Don’t follow my lead on this! If you’re still establishing yourself as a surface designer, marketing yourself is incredibly important and regularly emailing companies is the best way to consistently build up your client list.

Two new designs I managed to add to my portfolio in 2021.

Despite the roadblocks above, I was content with my surface design income for 2021 and celebrated some small wins:

  1. I received regular royalty payments from 7 different companies, more than any other year because of relationships I’ve developed with clients.

  2. My single freelance project was my largest project to date – it was a $5k+ job.

  3. Both the licensing & freelance income I earned was just below the average of what surface designers earned from our 2021 Surface Design Industry Survey.

Fortunately, despite my “slow” design year in 2021, I’ve recently felt that itch to create again. Especially now that I’ve finally settled in Ireland, I’m really looking forward to getting back into my sketchbook and portfolio in 2022 as surface pattern design is definitely something I still adore.

Whew! I hope you appreciated all the details – I’m someone who salivates over stats and graphs so you know I’d always rather give you too much info than not enough. 

And my goal with this post was to make you feel optimistic about what’s possible because I genuinely believe anyone can build their own art business as big as they envision.

What I don’t want is for you to leave this post comparing the current state of your career with what I’ve shared today as someone almost 10 years into my business. Remember, everyone has their own unique path to success and yours IS out there!

  1. Sarah Ann Smith says:

    Thanks so much for this. At 64, I am in a very different place than most folks trying to break into surface pattern design. I am well known as a textile artist and teach art quilting, but COVID and stress have caused me, also, to reassess. I will discontinue most/all teaching, but would love a smaller but reliable income from licensing as well as continuing to sell my art (I sell on average 2 pieces a year, for somewhere in the $2000 range each). Your comment that the best thing is to keep emailing me has given me the nudge…. I stink at self-promotion, so will gird my loins and start up again with the pitch emails. Thanks and best of luck in Ireland–my ancestors came from Cavan and Westmeath. Look forward to seeing what you do once the Government of Ireland blesses you with a work permit!

    • Shannon McNab says:

      Sarah, I’m so happy to hear that my post has given you new motivation to send pitch emails. Because while developing licensing income can take a while, regularly contacting companies is one of the best ways to get the ball rolling!

  2. Lina says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these details with us! Your transparency is greatly appreciated and really helps to get an idea of what’s possible. Congrats on all of your amazing achievements!

  3. R says:

    Thanks for sharing and being so honest and open about numbers. It’’a inspiring to know what’s possible!

  4. Maria says:

    I appreciate and admire your vulnerability in sharing this personal information in such a public way, despite your fear. It is incredibly helpful to have access to the specific details from someone who has developed a highly successful career from their creativity. It is affirming to hear that the income streams you enjoy and love have become the most profitable – it tells me that the advice to follow your gut and pay attention to what lights you up is worth considering!

  5. carolyn says:

    Hi, I really appreciate your vulnerability here. I have a couple of follow up questions about "cost of living". Where are you located? Does you location provide any free services like healthcare, childcare, social supports? How many dependents do you support? and Do you have a partner with an income and benefits?
    I’m curious because although my salary is published publicly (State employee) and it really doesn’t reflect about the reality of my income.

    • Shannon McNab says:

      Hi Carolyn,
      Until last December, I was living in the SF Bay Area (where the cost of living is exceptionally high). But I recently relocated to Dublin, Ireland as my husband found a new job. And as I mentioned above, my husband has been the main income contributor to our family for the majority of my career.

      However, salaries in Europe are much lower than those in California and my husband took a significant pay cut when we moved to Dublin. So my increase in income over the past 2 years is what allowed us to finally move overseas. I actually talked about this in more depth in my most recent IG Live chat:

  6. Allison says:

    I really appreciate your transparency! Surface design is my dream and I often feel my progress is very slow with a full time job and young family. It’s nice to see how you have built your successful business over time.

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