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Choose Your Own Adventure: How Dustin Lee Built a Design Career His Way

Laura Busche September 2, 2021 · 6 min read
“I think we choose to ignore 99% of the options available to us.” With this thought, shop owner Dustin Lee kicked off an inspiring talk during last night’s Dribbble meetup at Creative Market HQ in San Francisco. Dustin shared his story and decision to pursue the “weird option”: a unique design career path that felt genuinely his. From an early interest in music and art, to getting accepted at Berklee (and deciding not to attend), to working at a bank, Dustin’s journey has been full of unexpected twists and turns. Relatable, yet? Read on or watch the video below to get inspired by his approach to mistakes, hard lessons learned, and stellar career growth.

Getting Started in Design

It all started when Dustin decided to quit his bank job and learn design at a community college. All of a sudden, he was taking on all kinds of design gigs, including those you are “not supposed to”. Think spec work, odd online listings, and short-lived jobs at companies that didn’t pay well. One day, Dustin joined a team that was building tools for people who wanted to make a living doing what they loved. He felt aligned with that idea, and it would influence his later work. For the time being, however, Dustin had all kinds of issues to deal with including personal debt, drinking too much, self-doubt, and an overwhelming amount of stress. While unique, his story isn’t too different from that of many creatives who find their north via trial and error — and that makes the lessons you’re about to read that much more relatable.

A Simple Plan to Bounce Back

In the middle of this hurdle, Dustin found out he was going to become a dad. And that single piece of news may have become the greatest turning point of his career so far. Excitement aside, he knew something had to change. And here’s what his immediate, 3-step “Simple Plan” looked like:
  • Step 1: Go to a local Starbucks from ~4:30 to roughly 7:30 am. Design products to put on Creative Market.
  • Step 2: Upload these products to Creative Market once a week
  • Step 3: Repeat. Just keep doing it. He continued to make stuff he could sell again and again.
Dustin’s first month surprised him: $818.30 USD in sales seemed mindblowing. This idea of his had potential, and he suddenly realized that his shop could get a leg up if he stepped up his marketing game. RetroSupply Co. slowly started looking different: text was better formatted, sales copy improved, screenshots were more enticing, and, perhaps most crucial for Dustin at the time, sales exploded. Retrolift was one of Dustin’s first hit products, uploaded on October 6, 2013:
By the end of that month, he had made $11,102.70 USD. Having paid off old bills and debts, Dustin felt ready to welcome his baby with a renewed sense of purpose and confidence. Fast forward to 2018: Dustin Lee makes a full-time income from his creative products, has bought a house, paid off his debts, found success building his own platform (read: website, podcast, course & more), and gets to share it all with his lovely family of 5.

Dustin’s 3 Big Lessons

Inspired by children’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, where you could change the story by choosing the page you wanted to explore next, Dustin explained the importance of giving yourself options. In his experience, there are three things that allow creative professionals to be successful:

Lesson 1: Dragons are awesome.

Problems, failures, and weaknesses are great in that they allow you to improve. Only after recognizing that his own illustration skills weren’t great, Dustin was able to see and expand one of his core strengths: creating effects and brushes to elevate others’ illustrations. To complement his skill gap, Dustin joined forces with talented illustrators that showcased what these tools could do for digital artwork. Some of these creatives also contributed product ideas that would go on to make thousands of dollars for Dustin’s growing business. Make sure to check out their Dribbble profiles:

Lesson 2: Keep getting back on the horse.

Dustin shared the story of a friend whose music went from being almost unbearable to outstanding out of mere practice and persistence. His own story as a musician in a band is also evidence that you can actually make an album “even if you have no money, little skill, and no connections”. The lesson here? In Dustin’s words, “just continue pushing forward, even if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” He shared how simple systems, executed repeatedly, can help us reach ambitious goals over time. Remember those 3 steps we outlined above? That’s an example of a simple system that worked for him. Dustin has created an online course called Passive Income for Designers to teach some of the systems and skills that have made a difference in his career.

Lesson 3: Go to the furthest edge.

In the early days, Dustin’s Creative Market shop didn’t face much competition because everything felt new and the marketplace was much smaller than it is today. Things were going great — until new players brought their own creative voices and aesthetic styles. Dustin quickly noticed how different types of products were starting to trend at Creative Market, including watercolor textures and script fonts. What could he do? The answer came in the form of 2 steps he got from Seth Godin:
  • Step #1: Find an edge that has been shown to make a product or service remarkable.
  • Step #2: Go all the way to that edge — as far from the center as the consumers you are trying to reach dare you to go.
The message was clear: if Dustin wanted sustained success, RetroSupply Co. had to double down on everything retro, vintage, and rustic. And doubling down can sometimes feel over the top — kind of like this:
A jingle tutorial for a retro-inspired product was definitely an edge. Dustin also created contests that had users hunting down cats on his website, and even sold fonts on the street with fellow designer Aaron Sechrist (@okpants). Again, farthest edge. His advice? Go for it.

Feeling ready to choose your own adventure?

At Creative Market, we’re all about helping creators turn passion into opportunity. This is true for Dustin, and it can also be true for you. Whether you’re into web design, photography, typography, illustration, or graphic design in general, we’d like to invite you to make a living doing what you love by launching your own Creative Market shop. Click here to apply and start selling products that change the way people create all around the world.
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About the Author
Laura Busche

Brand strategist. Creating design tools to empower creative entrepreneurs. Author of the Lean Branding book. MA in Design Management from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

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