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Two Years of Mass-Driver (with Graphs)

foundry updates

This past weekend, Mass-Driver turned two years old — and it’s been an interesting two years. In this post, I wanted to share some deeper information about how the studio is doing and what that means for the future.

Day to day, Mass-Driver is not particularly data-driven. I don’t think it can be: with the number of sales I have, the signal to noise ratio is too low to draw major conclusions.¹ And I don’t really think it should be, either: type design is creative expression, not market research.

That said, data is still a useful tool to include as part of a broader decision-making process. Just as a typeface is a complex system that requires a holistic approach, so too is a foundry: the catalogue affects the sales; the sales affect the strategy; the strategy affects the catalogue. Knowing as much as possible about that whole system is the key to knowing where to implement changes.

In Q1 2020, I sold two font licenses — just enough to cover the website hosting and maybe a cup of coffee. Today, I’m delighted to say that the foundry is my full-time job. Here’s what that growth looks like, in terms of revenue over time:

Fullwidth Graph
Revenue per quarter, Q1 2020–Q1 2022. Labels above correspond to the release dates of new typefaces — MD Eight and MD System were present at launch.

Overall, just under 50% of the foundry’s revenue has been from direct sales, with the rest coming from sales via Future Fonts and from commissions (which includes fully-custom fonts, alongside lettering projects and modifications to retail typefaces). I’m quite lucky to have found this balance — as of now, retail fonts cover my expenses well enough that I can choose which custom projects (if any) I want to take on.

2-up Graph Left
Proportion of total revenue by source.
2-up Graph Right
Proportion of total sales by source.

It’s difficult to overstate just how much of the success of Mass-Driver is thanks to Future Fonts, the platform through which I released MD Nichrome and currently distribute MD IO as work-in-progress designs. Future Fonts’ fundamental idea is to allow type designers to begin selling fonts before they’re completed — which, if a typeface can take multiple years to be finished, is invaluable.

After the studio’s slow start, Future Fonts was what enabled me to connect with not only a community of type producers, but an existing audience of type buyers. And not only that, but in the dawn of the Covid-19 pandemic, it allowed me to try out a totally new design at a much more accessible price point. While MD Nichrome would take 18 months to complete, Future Fonts allowed me to start making sales after only a few weeks of development.

MD Nichrome launched on April 21, 2020 — two weights, with a bare-bones glyph set for just $16. And it was a profound success, far more so than I had anticipated. In fact, it still accounts for well over 50% of the foundry’s revenue.

On the subject of popularity, here’s how the first five MD releases have stacked up:

2-up Graph Left
By units sold, the combined larger audience and smaller price tag put the two Future Fonts designs far ahead.
2-up Graph Right
By total revenue, MD Nichrome retains the top spot, while the differences in the non-Future Fonts designs become more apparent.

Interestingly, the Mass-Driver–exclusive designs (MD System, MD Eight, and MD Primer) are fairly even in terms of units sold. Though in terms of revenue, the now-retired MD Eight’s lower price point and more similar set of styles (most people bought only one or two weights, with very few sales for the whole family) cement its position as ‘worst-seller’. MD Primer has done comparatively well, selling slightly fewer units than MD System, but to larger organisations.

The significance of the buyer’s size is down to the V2 license agreement, which I introduced alongside MD Primer in May 2021. In brief, it ties the cost of a font license to the size of the company buying it, rather than the size of their design department.² Alongside the straightforward ‘Commercial’ license, which covers all usage applications, there’s also a ‘Non-Commercial’ license which allows the fonts to be tested and used in student work for a fraction of the typical cost.

Introducing the V2 license was a risk, and I wasn’t entirely certain it would be a success. But with the benefit of hindsight, I’m convinced it was absolutely the right move: the new license is more permissive for individuals and smaller companies, while also ensuring that larger licensees pay their fair share, and that shows in the data.

Even ignoring the release of MD Primer, sales of MD Eight and MD System increased following the introduction of the V2 license — and the amount of time I spend answering licensing questions has dropped to practically zero.

Fullwidth Graph
Revenue per quarter (Q1 2020–Q1 2022) for MD Eight and MD System only.

Almost half of all sales are now V2 Commercial licenses, with the vast majority of those being sold to individuals and small organisations. And while the Non-Commercial license isn’t a big source of income, its popularity shows that there’s a fairly significant number of people who benefit from having access to fonts without paying full price for a public-facing license.

2-up Graph Left
Proportion of sales/revenue by license type (excluding sales via Future Fonts).
2-up Graph Right
Proportion of V2 sales/revenue by licensee size (excluding sales via Future Fonts).

I think the second of these graphs is quite interesting to consider. While larger organisations still account for the majority of the foundry’s total revenue, the fact that these companies are now required to pay in accordance with their size (rather than buying small licenses for only a few members of their design teams) means overall the price for smaller organisations can be reduced. Largely as a result, I’m very happy to see more than 90% of licenses are now purchased by individuals and smaller companies.

When I started Mass-Driver, I wasn’t certain whether the studio would still be around in 2022. I was hopeful, perhaps even confident, but still not completely sure I’d be able to make it work — so I’m extremely happy to say that today, the foundry is not just sustainable but (slightly) profitable. I’m really excited to see what the next two years hold: not just new typefaces and collaborations, but also the resources and time to focus even more on usability, language support, and production quality for typefaces.

Although I’ve always been hesitant to chase trends and follow markets, to some extent it’s been necessary to consider my designs in the context of sales. That doesn’t necessarily mean the shapes I draw are beholden to what’s popular, but sometimes I’ve had to make decisions based on cost — like the decision not to include tabular figures in MD Primer, or to release the original version of MD System without its planned narrow widths.

So this next year will be focused on rectifying some of those decisions. I’m starting with MD System — I’m in the final stages of a complete rework of the typeface, adding those two additional widths along with support for more languages, and typographic features like native small caps.

I’m also working on some new designs, from high-tech ’70s display typefaces to a workhorse text family inspired by calligraphy (and Mass-Driver’s first serif!). I’m really excited to show more of that work, as well as the next updates planned for MD IO, over the coming months.

23,500+ glyphs designed
95 fonts shipped
4,000+ trial font downloads
$0 spent on ads

Starting this studio was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it’s also been the most rewarding: it’s an absolute pleasure to work in this industry, and to speak to so many incredible people who make, buy, use, and appreciate type.

Finally: I should make it abundantly clear that, while I might be the only person working for the foundry full-time, I couldn’t have done any of this alone. I’m extremely grateful to Lizy, Travis, Chloë and everyone at Future Fonts; to Luke Charsley for his endless feedback and design review; to Frank Grießhammer and Liang Hai for their technical expertise; to Céline Hurka for feedback and strategy; to Tim Donaldson, James Edmondson, my TypeMedia teachers and classmates for teaching me how to do this; to Tom Conroy for making the website function; to Tom Benford for his work on the MD Primer release; to everyone who provided input on the V2 license; to my mother for her indispensable advice; to my accountant for keeping me in business, and to my partner for keeping me sane. And thank you to everyone who licensed a typeface from Mass-Driver, reached out, or supported the studio in any way.

Thank you for making this possible.

— Rutherford

February 23, 2022