29 Jun 2016 Matthew Britton – How to Win the Microstock Volume Game
Matthew Britton –or Matt, to his friends– is a very successful illustrator and the owner of the largest illustration portfolio in the microstock world.
And it’s not an average portfolio: he first got started illustrating with a very high quality of work, and only once he had consistently high quality did he turn himself into a production machine, building up the volume.
This is the strategy behind his success in microstock. Today, his coveted portfolio puts him among the top sellers in the industry.
Matthew is British, and is based in Wales.
He started his career working for an illustration company, where he would do work for product packaging, apps, games, and more. Stock was only a side activity at that point.
Later on he dropped his job to go freelance, doing commissioned work in ad campaigns, book covers, book pages, etc, and simultaneously increasing his stock production.
Unique Style that Evolves
As his professional background exposed him to a variety of subjects, clients and projects, Britton got to explore and produce content in a wide range of styles.
Matt is an ‘old school’ artist, coming from the early days of digital graphic art. Having been a 1980’s kid, he cites print art and culture from those days as the main influences for his personal style. In college, he started developing his drawing skills in paper.
This explains the ‘retro feeling’ present in his work, but Matt says it’s more a result of him not adjusting to the new digital age and the style that came with it, rather than a deliberate choice.
However it was this personal style what lead him to find the right spot in microstock, which he combined with a very structured workflow and intense discipline.
Simplicity, Volume, and Quality
Matt’s portfolio is very varied, but most of his designs are very simple. He says this was mostly a reaction to the microstock model from the early days –when he started– when prioritising quantity was the most successful way to go.
In the beginning he was drawing for stock in his spare time. His goal was to produce as much as he could, drawing in ink with no sketches and uploading absolutely everything he created, not bothering with rejections. Simple didn’t mean poor in Matt’s case, as his portfolio is consistently high quality.
The mix of his ‘old school’ style and his choice for simple designs lead him to discover his niche: simple, retro cartoon drawings. This kind of content wasn’t available until he brought it in, and it sold very, very well.
As he started committing more time to this business, and then when he dropped his full-time job, he injected more elaborate work to boost his portfolio’s appeal, but consistent quality and high volume remained his strategy.
On the other side of the spectrum, his commissioned work is usually very complex and artistic digital paintings. Although he still takes assignments on different styles from time to time, right now in this field he’s gotten back to a particular theme he seems to be fond of: sci-fi and fantasy art.
Matt still uses sketchbook and pencil to start most of his creations, but all his digital paintings are done entirely in Photoshop.
Other than his microstock niche, he doesn’t have a defined strategy when it comes to what to draw. He doesn’t do any market research, rather just creates whatever he feels like creating in the moment.
Where he does have a clear strategy is in his workflow. He’s very organised and has strictly scheduled working hours. He works each stage of the creation process –ink drawing, digitalising, keywording– in separate batches. He starts with large blocks of A4 papers –the paper type is important to him– and doesn’t move onto the next stage until he’s covered the whole block with drawings. Each design is different, but most his simpler creations took less than a minute to draw. One of his best-sellers only took a few seconds.
This discipline and style is what allowed him to scale up his work without compromising quality, and to dominate his niche in less time.
When he started, he didn’t know much about workflow assistance tools, and doing all uploading process manually slowed him down a lot. As it became impossible to deal with manual submission with his large quantity of files, he started looking for better alternatives –like scripts and other tools– to automate the process. This also left him with more time to create more designs.
Matt’s stock portfolio grew exponentially over the years, particularly after he went freelance. He has now around 600,000 assets, and still has a lot of hard drives with new files waiting to be uploaded. Having this backlog he decided to stop stock production this year and focus on his art, commissioned work, and new opportunities.
Wide Distribution, Collateral Self-Promotion
Matt started in microstock using Shutterstock as his only agency.
Around the time he quit his illustrator job and started pushing more and more files, he was actually considering selling his entire portfolio. But then some wider distribution opportunities came along.
Several microstock agencies contacted him offering to import his whole port and handle the entire submitting process for him. This resulted in a great earnings boost without any extra input from his part. From then on, he’s kept this wider distribution and expanded to more illustration-related sites.
Microstock represents half of Matt’s income with commissions making up the other half. Microstock has turned out to be a good advertising source for his assignment business, as many prospective clients reach out to him after finding his images on microstock agencies.
With such a large portfolio and wide distribution network, Matt constantly finds his images in use, online and also in physical prints in shops, clothing, etc.
He says that at times he feels like ‘his mind has leaked into the general environment’, and he might be seeing one of his drawings for a while before realising it’s his, and remember when and how he created it.
He doesn’t normally follow up with the uses he finds, but he does when something doesn’t look right, and so far he has found a few misuse cases here and there.
But some of his images-in-use stories are very cool. For example, while exploring a tattoo art blog he came across the photo of a man with a huge tattoo of one of Matt’s Day of the Dead Skull designs across his chest. This is one of his most popular creations, widely used in different items around the world, and even awarded as part of a wine bottle design.
He often gets clients who are interested in buying the rights to one of his illustration characters that they found on a microstock site. With exceptions of very high-valued cases, he explains that it’s not possible to grant exclusive rights when the images are so widely distributed, and instead offers them to create an original, custom-made design based on their needs.
Success with Volume
Beside the cool stories and interesting career, the stand-out point in Matt’s stock business is how well he’s doing from a portfolio of mostly very simple designs.
Being the production machine that he is, disciplined and methodical, he’s able to churn out quantity and play the microstock volume game. But as we know, quantity means nothing if you don’t have quality first. And that’s where Matt is winning.
He says he’s seen a few illustrators trying to follow his steps in quantity production, but he feels this is not the best way to go. For one, he doesn’t think recreating others’ methods is a good idea, as his own success is bound to having found an original niche and owning it.
But he also thinks that times in microstock have changed, and the strategy that worked for him is not so suitable for the current times. He feels the quantity game is now being played by the agencies, and it’s no longer productive for contributors.
In his opinion, buyers now seek out niche styles and higher quality in established topics. He thinks being ahead of these industry trends is key to staying relevant in business. And he’s acting on this theory by creating an illustration studio to represent other illustrators among his existing stable of clients. Having had some negative experiences working with agencies early in his career, he’s keen to do it well and help develop young illustrators with support and guidance as well as work.
To see Matt’s work. you can check out his portfolios at Shutterstock and iStock, and most substantial microstock agencies and vector specialised agencies. You can also see his own illustration studio website here.