Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Janina, and back in 2002, I founded SP-Studio.de- a free tool for anyone to create cartoon characters without any drawing skills. What started as a fun little side project became one of the biggest and most popular avatar creation websites.
It’s easy to use but also gives you options to edit everything if you want more creative freedom. The drawing style was inspired by the TV show South Park, but most of my visitors just like the cute characters and the big variety of items that have been added over the years. Now you can combine thousands of different clothes, hairstyles, background sceneries, pets, and accessories. And with every update, the community has become more diverse: people from different countries, jobs, genders, and age groups create SP-Studio characters.
What might be unusual about my story is how I did not focus on earning money for years, even when my website became an internet phenomenon during the mid2000s. I used a single Google AdSense banner, but everything else is funded with voluntary donations and Patreon.
So what I am about to tell you is more about reaching a surprisingly huge audience than about how to earn money. I want to inspire others to follow their dreams (as Eric Cartman would say) because I managed to let my little project grow while being an introvert without any budget or business experience.
At its height, sp-studio.de attracts more than 60,000 visitors per day and you stumble upon the pictures all the time when browsing Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Back in the year 2002, I was a 19-year-old student during my final year of school, eager for distraction from my final exams. My plan was to study art afterward (which turned into the design later) and I was a passionate painter. I also was a big fan of the cartoon South Park. My South Park fan page was the biggest in Germany and had a very active online community. The logical consequence of my hobbies was to draw fan art and I fell in love with the simple but cute style of the South Park kids. Instead of copying the original characters, I started to draw friends and celebrities in this style, designing my own hairstyles, clothes, and accessories.
Soon I realized there were many people out there who loved these cute characters because I got more and more requests for drawings. They were mainly used as profile pictures in message boards. With the rise of social media, there was a growing interest in unique, personalized profile pictures as well.
Having a loyal community can give you a huge morale boost, and in my opinion, this is why it is important to not just look at what’s profitable, but also what brings you and your user's joy.
So I came up with the idea to create a website for anyone to build their own cartoon characters without the need for drawing skills or a tutorial. I mainly wanted to inspire creativity and joy while making it as accessible as possible.
Back then most character creators were very limited and it’s a common problem that avatars only show the head. Because of the unrealistic body shape, a whole SP-Studio character was able to fit perfectly into a square profile image, which was a huge advantage. Other features I wanted to focus on were different backgrounds and items to hold in your hands. This way, it would be possible to show your face and your favorite fashion style and hobbies. I believed the SP-Studio could become a very useful, fun, and unique tool for creating profile pictures. At least for South Park fans – because at first, I did not believe others might be interested in my nerdy idea.
I had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted the SP-Studio to be about, but there were technical problems to solve. While I already had experience with web design I was new to Macromedia Flash and programming. But I started to read tutorials to learn how to code little games with Flash because it was the perfect tool for what I wanted to achieve. Apart from the software and webspace, there was no need to invest any money, and as a student, I did not have much money to spend anyway.
Take us through the process of designing your initial product.
The character design was pretty clear from the beginning since it was inspired by South Park. I went for the children’s look because of the body shape and because it had another huge advantage compared to most character designs: All genders and body types can relate to it so there is no need to split the editor into “male/female” or different weights. I like this very much because everybody feels welcome. It also means that all items can be combined and there is no extra work needed to change clothes to different sizes. But there still were some tough decisions I had to make, such as, how many items should be included in every category for launch day. And since I did not know how to code a color palette yet I had to stick to just three hair and skin colors per item. The launch version was REALLY basic. But I was in a lucky position because there was no competition.
I worked alone on my little project after school and on weekends. Drawing the single parts was easy for me because of my fan art experience. I used an ordinary mouse and was drawing directly in Flash. But I had to get used to ActionScript coding. Since there was no budget to spend I learned everything on my own with the help of free online tutorials. Whenever I wanted to add something new I learned what I needed to solve this particular problem. So I never became an actual programmer and my code must have been a horrible mess. But thanks to Flash I was able to launch the SP-Studio. It was an exceptional tool for unskilled people like me because you could create interactive web experiences pretty easily and the handling was intuitive. For many creative people from a design background. Flash was the ultimate tool to work on their projects independently. Even today there is no software coming close to this.
The user interface of the early SP-Studio looked very basic, not to say ugly. Just a couple of rectangular text buttons. I will come back to this later about why it was a bad idea. But I made a good decision when going for English as the main language early on. It helped a lot with the unexpected international success. As you might have noticed by now my English vocabulary size is not the biggest but I translated everything myself as well as I can.
And… Why “SP-Studio”? The name of the whole thing should be short and easy to remember. Well, at first I wanted to call it “South Park Studio” and as far as I remember I even used this name in the early days. But I shortened it when I noticed more users without any connection to the cartoon. While I did not try to hide the connection to South Park I also wanted to show that I am not just copying from it. While many of my early drawings were directly inspired by the show today I do not do this anymore. I just stick to the typical body shape.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The first version of the SP-Studio launched in 2002 as a part of my German South Park fan page planearium.de and it was no usual product launch by any means. For a year or two, I did not think about growth at all. So, unfortunately, there is not much to talk about this period. I shared the link with my friends and on South Park message boards. The fans enjoyed the SP-Studio and started to share their pictures with their own friends or use them as profile pictures. Slowly the user base became more international and changed from South Park fans to a wider range of people. But it was a slow process.
When you start, don’t be discouraged by numbers. Most things take a while to get recognition and there often is luck involved too. Even the best idea might need some time until you see success.
So my “launch phase” was very long and during this time there were not many updates. For me, it worked out in the end but today I know the success might have come faster if I had done more during these early years.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
When feedback emails from around the world increased, I realized I should adapt to my growing audience. I bought a domain to separate the SP-Studio from my German South Park fan page, added a blog for updated news, and started to learn about the mysterious magic of SEO. From my experience, the basic SEO rules you find everywhere are the most important ones. While you can find 200 different ideas on how to improve your ranking, usually the top10 are the ones that make the difference. For me adding a blog and online community was important because the main page was just Flash without plain text.
In 2004 I changed the UI so it could work without reading. The first text buttons were not a good choice for those who did not understand English. So I introduced the intuitive “menu guy” and combined text with symbols to solve this problem.
Many children or older people enjoy building their characters, so what started as a fan project shifted to a more open approach. Of course, this was tricky. I always had to balance what the South Park fans wanted with the general audience. So from my experience, it is very important to know your audience.
Not only did I listen to direct feedback but I also have statistics of the most popular items used. For example, I learned that famous costumes inspired by movies look like the biggest favorites on social media, but when it comes to actually use them more general outfits are way more popular. So what did I learn from that? I continued to add updates with both. Pop culture-related items are great for getting attention and reaching new users. More general items which are useful for all types of characters are the ones that are actually fun to use.
Early on I also decided to expand creative freedom. While many users enjoy the simple handling others want to customize their character as detailed as possible. Again, this is a balance I have to keep an eye on. You can move, flip, rotate or recolor single parts. But if you don’t want this you can just keep them in their recommended shape and position.
When social networks became a thing I tried all of them, but in my case, I don’t think my social media presence has a big impact on traffic or revenue. And a newsletter was more of a gimmick than a helpful growth tool. The biggest part of my audience does not seem to be very interested in a deeper connection.
Instead, word of mouth is what made the SP-Studio famous. People create profile pictures, others see them, create their own, and so on. So the early days of Facebook and Twitter were a very successful time for me even though my amount of followers was not as big as the amount of SP-Studio pictures out there. I did not have to ask anybody to share anything, they shared the pictures on their own. And sometimes it really surprised me how many people cared about my website. For a Christmas special in 2008, I asked my visitors to write me their wishes for new items. I received 4,600 emails, which prevented me from running out of ideas for quite some years.
What is also worth mentioning is that most of my visitors do not return regularly. That is no surprise of course. If you find a funny website and creating a new profile picture is not usually something you continue doing every day. But a certain amount of SP-Studio users keep returning. They enjoy the challenge of creating true artworks.
For these users, I launched the SP-Studio community back in 2010. A gallery, a message board, and monthly picture contests continue to be an important part of my website. If you just look at the numbers you might think it is not worth caring so much about this rather small community. But their feedback is important to me and their joy keeps me motivated every time I struggle. They encouraged me to add a forum to the website and help me moderate it. Having a loyal community can give you a huge morale boost and in my opinion, this is why it is important to not just look at what’s profitable but also what brings you and your user's joy. Never underestimate how a single kind comment can brighten up your day.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
So let’s talk about money. As I already mentioned, for many years I treated the SP-Studio like a time-consuming hobby without revenue. But when I reached over 60,000 visitors per day I started thinking. Wow, what a wasted opportunity to not get something out of this! Especially since I had moved out from my parents and had to pay for my own rent and food now.
You suddenly realize there is a reason to earn money with your work. By the year 2010, I actually earned up to 1,600 € per month with a single static Google AdSense banner on sp-studio.de. I refused to use more profitable ad types because I did not want to annoy my visitors. This money was all I needed and I was super happy about it. It was during my early years of working as a freelance designer so this extra income was very helpful.
During the 2010s the traffic went down a bit and so did the earnings. The Google banner was not worth it anymore and I had to switch to voluntary donations instead. In 2015 I launched a Patreon campaign, though it felt strange to ask for money at first. Coming up with rewards was not easy as well because it was important for me to stick to my initial plan of a free tool for everybody. So there are no rewards that give you access to more items or special options. Everybody visiting SP-Studio.de has the same experience. But if you support it you can participate in polls to decide what the next updates should be about and be the first to see preview pictures, scribbles and “behind the scenes” blog posts.
I also offer personal character drawings as the highest tier. Patreon brought me a steady income of about 90 € per month during the past five years. My plan is to restructure the tiers soon to improve this. But I also might include a small ad banner again to see if it works out without distracting my visitors. My dream is to get back to earning about 1.000 € per month with the SP-Studio to be able to work less on my regular job and put more time into updates.
The past months were pretty exciting because in December 2020 the SP-Studio had a big relaunch (generously funded by donations from my community). Since Adobe did not continue the development of Flash I had to change to a different coding language which meant a complete rebuild of the SP-Studio. This journey took me three years and I was worrying I would have to abandon this project which was so dear to my heart. But in the end I was lucky to find Lars Gerrit Kliesing who is a very talented developer. He offered me help and since then he is responsible for the programming of the SP-Studio in React.
The new SP-Studio is finally mobile-friendly and has an improved UI. You can recolor all items now and combine them even more freely than in the old Flash version. It was a difficult decision to ask an expert for help after doing everything on my own for so long, but sometimes you have to accept that this is the best way. And I can still do content updates on my own, so not much has changed for me. In the upcoming months I look forward to drawing the next big updates with topics like “steampunk” or “business fashion”, which were picked by my Patreon supporters.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
What comes to my mind first is a story from the early days. Around the year 2003, the official South Park website showed interest in my project. They wanted to use it with my permission to promote the new season of the show on the official website. Being a little fangirl I reacted a little bit naive. As payment, I asked for autographs of the creators of the show and there was no contract. Even though I asked to keep my name in it, their version of the SP-Studio was edited some time later and my name disappeared. This led to me being attacked by South Park fans who assumed I stole the SP-Studio from the official website. It was a very frustrating situation and it taught me about the value of my own work. Even if it was inspired by an existing franchise I put a lot of time and passion into this project.
Because of this unfortunate episode and the limitations in earning money with my own drawings (e.g. merchandise) I sometimes regret using the South Park design in the first place. But the initial boost in popularity came from the South Park community, so I understand that my own random character design might have never become this successful. What makes the SP-Studio special is the huge amount of items and how you can combine them freely. But things like these are difficult to communicate. When you recognize a familiar-looking character design it helps to draw attention. So I stick with the South Park style, even though I stopped watching the show. I still like it and to be honest – there is no way I can do nearly 20 years of drawing AGAIN for a new design that might not even be popular. If you are a fan artist and think about a big project you should weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of using your own style instead. Changing it later might not be an option.
And if you work with images, never underestimate the annoyance of copyright issues. It can be depressing if you put a ton of time into a project while others copy your work without mentioning the source. Or even worse. Imagine shops selling fake South Park merchandise with your drawings, political groups printing racist stickers with it, or websites stealing your complete code. Even a famous fashion designer used the SP-Studio for his clothes which I only noticed because stars started wearing them on Instagram. There were countless situations like this and some were related to illegal activities. So I learned the hard way that I needed copyright rules and a watermark. But of course this cannot protect your work from being stolen. It’s the internet!
My best advice is to get used to a certain amount of troublemakers. In the beginning I tried to discuss things like that, but usually this only led to harassment and sleepless nights. Legal actions were not an option for me because I was just a student with no lawyer and all I wanted was peace. So pick your fights wisely. I still speak out against anybody who uses SP-Studio pictures in a way that’s strongly against my morals or the law. I don’t want racists among my visitors. But you don’t have to hunt down little kids just for sharing pictures on the internet without a backlink. And regarding the watermark: I made it optional. When you read the copyright notice there is a link to deactivate the watermark. I feel like this is a fair reward for those who actually take the time to read it.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
For websites, I always recommend WordPress. It is the most popular CMS and this comes as no surprise. There are tons of plugins available to help you build whatever website you need, but you can also edit everything yourself. And you don’t have to fear it will be gone soon.
In addition, I use a WoltLab Burning Board. I am still a fan of classic message boards and had good experiences with Woltlab for about 17 years. If you are more into modern social media I can recommend Later to plan all these posts for your accounts. I tried a couple of social media management tools and stayed with this one. It is for free depending on the amount of posts you need, so it is great when you have to work with a limited budget.
The SP-Studio Updates are still created with the help of Adobe Animate and its older version Adobe Flash MX. I love drawing with this software, so even after the death of Flash I continue to work with it. Visual Studio Code is used for the coding and Github connects Lars and me when he is coding new features. Finally I use Outlook for my emails, calendar, contacts and as a productivity tool. There were more in the past, like Google Analytics, Google AdSense and several more… but I’ll limit it to my current tools.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I am a big fan of learning the basics with a small beginner guide. It doesn’t matter much who wrote it. I learned HTML and CSS with the cheapest magazines bought at the local train station. If you are just starting you don’t need a 500 page book written by an expert. What you really need is a feeling of success that motivates you to continue. Like the one I had when I built my very first website after a weekend of reading this little magazine. The website was ugly and the code full of errors, but I achieved something quickly and this motivated me to learn more.
From this point on I googled whenever I wanted to solve a specific problem. The same with Flash, WordPress, or SEO. Some of my favorite web design resources include the usual suspects stackoverflow.com and w3schools.com. But often I just google and read articles by different people to see different approaches and opinions.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
I won’t give you advice on how to earn money quickly for obvious reasons. But I really want to encourage introverts like myself to be more confident about their projects. Don’t be afraid when you read about all these amazing people with amazing ideas and their amazing success. Your idea might be the one others are waiting for next. Just try! The wonderful thing about the internet is that we can try many different things. If you are an artist you can just start drawing and if you are a software developer you can just start coding. Do what you are most passionate about and see where it might lead you.
My other advice is to think twice about how to spend your money. Often free tools and free tutorials work fine and help you minimize the needed budget in the beginning – while in other cases it can be essential spending the extra 300 $ for specialized software. From my experience it always depends on your personal circumstances what you need and what might turn out useless. Don’t let anybody tell you there is only one way to be successful.
And try to stay optimistic. The internet gives everybody a chance, but it can be a really harsh place, especially when you are young. Back when I started I got comments about how it was even possible for a girl alone to build this website. Be angry about silly comments, but don’t let them discourage you. And not only comments. When you start, don’t be discouraged by numbers. Most things take a while to get recognition and there often is luck involved too. Even the best idea might need some time until you see success.
Where can we go to learn more?
- SP-Studio.de website
- SP-Studio.de Blog
- SP-Studio.de Forum
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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