What Are You REALLY Doing?

By | Friday, January 10, 2020 Leave a Comment
McDonaldland Comics #101
I watched the 2017 movie The Founder recently. It basically tells the story of how Ray Kroc stole McDonald's from two brothers out in California and built it into a huge mega-business that we know today. Interestingly, the movie is pretty clear that their protagonist, Kroc, is a slimy asshole and he really ripped off the original McDonald brothers.

There's a point in the story, though, where Kroc has managed to franchise a dozen or two locations in the Mid-West but he's barely breaking even, and the bank is on him to pay off his startup loans. A savvy accountant overhears his dilemma, and offers to go over his books. He comes back and essentially says, "There's no way you can make money by taking a cut of these franchisees selling 15¢ hamburgers*." Then he tells Kroc about the boatload of money he's sitting on without even realizing it. The money is not in the franchising itself; it's in the real estate. If Kroc buys the land a McDonald's could be built on and then leases that to a franchise owner, he can make a killing in the leasing fees regardless of how many hamburgers that particular location sells. McDonald's today has approximately $30 billion in real estate holdings and is one of the largest commercial real estate owners in the world. It's a real estate company, not a fast food restaurant.

Marvel came to a similar epiphany around the turn of the century, after they came out of bankruptcy. They had historically always viewed themselves as a comic book publisher. But right around 2000, they formally stopped being a comic book publisher and became a character licensing company. Within a year or two, their income from comics had dropped to about one-third of their overall revenue with another third coming from toys and another third from licensing. By 2005, licensing represented 70% of their income!

That's actually part of why they were bought by Disney. Marvel had matured enough to realize what they were really selling wasn't comic books, but character interactions. Marvel's press releases at that time began describing the company as "one of the world's most prominent character-based entertainment companies." Just a few years previously, their description began by calling them "the largest publisher of comic books in North America." The idea is similar; you're not going to make tons of money on $3 comic books** -- you're going to make money licensing the characters out for t-shirts and video games and movies. I've seen people grouse that the comics are now just a break-even R&D platform, and they're not wholly wrong. I don't know that that is necessarily a bad thing, but it's not inaccurate.

The key with any business, ultimately, is figuring out what kind of good or service you're REALLY providing. Overall, webcomic creators, I think, have some understanding of this. They're giving away their comics for free on their website, and trying to make money selling t-shirts or fridge magnets or whatever. The thing that most people know them for -- the comic itself -- is what drives traffic but it's not what drives their business. As a creator -- whether you're Raina Telgemeier selling a gazillion books or a mid-level creator just making enough to earn a living or a beginner who's still working two part-time gigs to make ends meet -- you need to figure out what it is that you're REALLY providing your audience. I mean, sure, they might be buying and enjoying your comics, but what is it that they really get from you.

That can be hard to figure out. I get it. I've been writing about comics for almost a quarter century now, and I still don't know what it is that I'm really providing. Superficially, it's always been insights and information about comics that you're not likely to find anywhere else, but I know those are just 15¢ hamburgers.

* A McDonald's hamburger cost 15¢ at the time.
** A Marvel comic cost $2.95 at the time.
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