Luvvie Ajayi on Being Generous With Your Work
As your expertise grows, so does your responsibility to give back. But how do you decide when to work for free or accept lower rates? What does it mean to be generous with your work? And how does any of that impact your career and your art?
We spoke to Luvvie Ajayi, an award-winning author, speaker, and digital strategist who thrives at the intersection of comedy, technology, and activism. Luvvie’s work as a culture critic and activist has brought her much acclaim. She was selected as a part of Oprah Winfrey’s inaugural Supersoul100 list in 2016, as someone who “elevates humanity.” She also started a podcast called Rants and Randomness.
Luvvie shares her thoughts on why for many years she gave her work away for free, staying true to your voice, and how to decide what opportunities to take next.
Luvvie, you’ve been owning your platform and work for over 15 years, creating an expansive and generous body of work. If you could estimate, how much of your work was (and continues to be) free, i.e., blog posts, speaking, educational resources, etc.?
Luvvie: When I started blogging in 2003, it was just a hobby so it wasn’t something that I came out the gate thinking this is something that I’m gonna monetize. It was a while before I was like, “Oh, this is actually something that somebody would be willing to pay for,” or “My work is more than just a hobby. Not just this cute thing that I’m doing.”
It took me seven years to realize this wasn’t a hobby—a lot longer than it should take most people.
As a content creator, I think it’s important to not necessarily forward all my content behind the paywall. When I started blogging, I was able to create the site that I wanted to guide my expectation.
I think a lot of the work that you do for free, it’s okay for it. I’m not saying that art isn’t worth value. For me, it took time to finally charge for work because I was used to giving away so much.
I think it’s part of the nature of the beast in that as an artist, unfortunately, it’s one of those things that people want to see before they pay for it. I can’t imagine being a brand new blogger who is then all of a sudden charging people to read my blog. That wouldn’t work. People wanna feel like you’ve invested in them in some way and then they’ll in turn invest in you.
I am a fan of people monetizing their art and their work. Part of what I speak about when I talk now is how long it took me to understand the value of my art because it took me that long to actually realize this is beyond a hobby. This is a passion. This is legit and absolutely it’s worth being paid for.
People wanna feel like you’ve invested in them in some way and then they’ll in turn invest in you.
Was there a project that you did or any recognition that gave you validation and confidence take things to the next level?
Luvvie: The Gap reached out to me ‘cause they were launching a new line of jeans. I think this was back in 2011. That’s the first time I ever worked with a brand, and it’s because they came to me, I was like, “Oh wow! If they were willing to do that then I guess other people would be willing to do the same thing.”
It was a more internal thing. People might be willing to actually pay for this work that I’m doing and maybe if I get in the attention of people who have money. I didn’t all of a sudden jump into starting to advertise, branding work, etc. No, I think for me it was just a moment of recognition of what could be.
You started The Red Pump Project in 2009—a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate women and girls of color about HIV. What inspired you to create this and how has it impacted your life and career?
Luvvie: I was inspired to create it after learning about HIV and AIDS in college, and realizing it was still such a huge problem. You just haven’t heard too much about it in recent memories. The problem was being masked and because a lot of people are suffering in silence it would help if we actually just create space to talk about it. Then I also found out somebody I know who had 20 cousins who were living in Malawi with her grandmother because their parents had died of AIDS-related complications.
So for me it was kind of a moment to be, "Alright, what can I do to essentially move this issue forward?” That’s how Red Pump started. I co-founded it with my friend Karyn Lee.
Looking back nine years when you first started this, what’s one thing that continuously inspires you and the work you do?
Luvvie: It’s hearing personal stories about how our work has affected them. For example, a woman who said that she went and got tested. She’d been married for 10 years. She had kids, and she went for a regular check up, and ended up finding out that she’s HIV positive, which opened up a whole lot of questions, and kind of blew her world open. She hadn’t told anybody in her family or her friends, and she messaged my team.
For me, it captured the power of this work. That we created space for her to be able to actually say, “Here’s what I’m going through.” I think moments like that really show how the things that we do can really impact people on a daily basis. On a very personal level.
I mean, honestly a lot of times you do the work in a vacuum, and you don’t know beyond comments here and there how it’s really affecting people. For me, especially when my blog wasn’t making any money, getting those kind of people kept me going.
I remember getting notes from somebody who told me that she was in the waiting room as her mother got chemotherapy. The reason why she wasn’t crying was because she was reading my blog in that moment. Things like that for me are really tangible and they really show that our art does have a lot of power attached.
What advice would you give to your younger self about committing to the long haul of your work? Not being pulled left and right for money, fame, and prestige. How do you balance that when you’re starting out?
Luvvie: I think it’s important not to focus on that first. The beauty of blogging, or starting blogging when no one was expecting much from it, is that with that lack of expectation we were able to crack our voices in the exact way we wanted to carve it, and we were able to write as if nobody was reading. We weren’t focused on strategy or my observations. We were writing purely, so I think the value in that is that it allowed us to be more honest.
Nowadays, people start podcasting, blogging, and video blogging with a strategy in mind. It’s all about what type of content is doing well online right now. “Okay, this is how I’m gonna approach it. This is the type of content that I’m gonna do. I’m not gonna stray away from it so I can get the most people.” But what happens is they’re not really starting in a way that puts the authenticity of the content first.
Starting so early, it made a lot of us very honest 'cause nobody was really reading, and we wrote like nobody was really reading. It worked out very well because we were able to hone our voices to build an audience that saw us in our most vulnerable times and without any of the polish. But they grew with us as we got the power, as we figured out what strategy was, but our voices stayed the same.
Honestly a lot of times you do the work in a vacuum, and you don’t know beyond comments here and there how it’s really affecting people. For me, especially when my blog wasn’t making any money, getting those kind of people kept me going.
You recently started a podcast—how did you approach it? Was there any tension in wanting to start with strategy first?
Luvvie: I didn’t spend too much time on strategy. I was just like, "I’m gonna come up with the type of content my podcast would have, and then I’ll drop it.” I try to make sure even though I have a massive audience now that I’m still not changing my voice in any other way. I mean, there’s different versions of me in terms of what my podcast is not.
I wanted my podcast to be a super companion when you’re driving; especially me, talking about the things I wanna talk about, and then interviewing really interesting people.
I was like, “Alright, so the main thing I should spend time on was to be, 'What is the outline for my podcast? What content am I putting there that doesn’t necessarily feel like I’m letting go of my blog but it’s still, at the core of it all, me. I’m the central voice in it.’”
That is always going to be present, and clear, and that’s important to me. I want my readers to say, “Okay, this is another version of her,” or “This is her voice in a different format.”
Everything that I do is basically me in different forms.
Starting so early, it made a lot of us very honest ‘cause nobody was really reading, and we wrote like nobody was really reading. It worked out very well because we were able to hone our voices to build an audience that saw us in our most vulnerable times and without any of the polish. But they grew with us as we got the power, as we figured out what strategy was, but our voices stayed the same.
Another generous project that you shipped, Awesomely Techie, is an online publication that shares insights on business, social media, gadgets and more. It seems like this was born after your initial blog, Awesomely Luvvie, because of what you learned from growing your own business and brand. Can you talk about the intentions that spark your motivation for creating free resources like this and committing to them? What keeps you going?
Luvvie: My professional background is in marketing and visual communications so that’s what I was doing when I graduated from college. I love teaching people.
I’m a fan of being like, “Okay, I found out this information. I wanna tell you about it so you know about it too,” which is why I created Awesomely Techie because I actually familiar writing those type of pieces on AwesomelyLuvvie.com.
I feel like the essays needed their own home. Whereas if somebody’s trying to start a blog or start something in business, they could use this place as a resource, and that’s how I started Awesomely Techie. There’s so much information out there that we’re all for ourselves that it would be better if we let people know about it.
Everything that I do I consider myself my audience. If I don’t find whatever it is I’m doing interesting, or helpful, or useful, then why am I doing it? For me, Awesomely Techie is something that I would find useful if I was a blogger, or if I was an entrepreneur, if I was a small business owner. It’s info that I would want to access so I wanna make sure people have access to it.
Everything that I do is basically me in different forms.
What’s a personal framework that has helped you decide whether to do something for free or charge for it?
Luvvie: I have a series of questions that allows me to say yes or no to stuff that I started using back in December 2017.
I realized that I needed to kind of democratize my decision-making to make it easier on me. What I mean is, I’ll get emails about different activities, and then I have to figure, and be like, “Ahh, is this worth my time? Should I do it? What is the point?” I realized if I could quantify my decision-making it just makes it that much easier.
So the questions are:
- Will I enjoy it?
- Does this pay my fee?
- Is it something new, different, or challenges me in some way, allows me to grow?
- Will this put me in front of a larger audience?
- Will this elevate my profile?
Those two questions—being in front of a larger audience and elevating my profile—sounds like the same questions but they’re not. Let’s say they want me to speak in front of 5,000 people, right? Or something could elevate my profile when there’s only 10 people in that room. Those 10 people could be Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, and Ava DuVernay, right?
The answer has to be three yeses out of those five questions.
You’ll get to a certain point where your opportunities are coming, and now your challenge is less, “Oh my God, I need to get opportunities,” and your challenge is more, “How do I get through them to figure out which one is best for me?”
Everybody is gonna end up in a yes loop which is when you are getting all these things in your inbox 'cause they all sound cool. Next thing you realize, you said more yeses than you can handle.
You cannot say yes to all of it. You have to start being more selective and create more filters to figure out 'cause you can’t … Our time is finite, right? So there are many things that we can outsource, but there are many things we can’t. When we realize our time is finite and you can only do so many things, then you really have to be like, “Alright, I got to be a little more picky about where I’m spending my time and how I’m exerting my energy.”
Everything that I do I consider myself my audience. If I don’t find whatever it is I’m doing interesting, or helpful, or useful, then why am I doing it?
What does the future of content look like to you?
Luvvie: I think that the future of content really looks like ownership. I always preached against building your entire business in a walled garden and walled gardens are platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Google and Instagram. If they decided today to somehow snatch a platform, you’d be with that one. You can of course use them, I use them, I place value on them of course, 'cause you have to do social media if you’re gonna be an entrepreneur in 2018.
However, let’s say your entire business is based on Facebook and there’s no other way to contact your clients or consumers or audience. That’s a broken model. Imagine one day randomly Facebook decided to take out pages, for whatever reason.
I think it’s up to us to make sure we always have our own newsletter, our own website, something that is not controlled by somebody else. So I think the future of content creating is marketization of content. You don’t need to work for a newspaper to have an opinion blog, a column. You don’t need to work for a radio station to have a show 'cause you got your own podcast. You don’t need to have a major network producer show because you can create it on YouTube. What is your definition of owning your content?
Luvvie: Creating content that is on your own terms. So you know how they’re saying, “Created for other people?” You’re creating what you want to create, you’re putting out the art that you want to see in the world. Of course, it’s controlling the platform, whatever that platform may be, some way. That’s huge.
Any final thoughts on this subject that you want to express that I haven’t asked as a question?
Luvvie: I think people should trademark their work. That’s a big piece of it. Art is trademark-able, which basically puts the extra stamp on it that, “This is mine, my intellectual property, this is something that I control.” That’s big for me, and I know that a lot of people are like, “I’m just doin’ the work.” But you also have to protect our work. Even as you give it away, it’s still needs to be protected.
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