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How The Noun Project Is Turning Icons Into Profit

The Noun Project, the online dictionary of universal symbols, has had 10 million downloads and expects to turn a profit this year. But it wasn't an instant success story.

How The Noun Project Is Turning Icons Into Profit

In the business world, it isn’t enough to just create a smart product. You also need a super-smart business model. Case in point: the Noun Project, an online icon collective of more than 30,000 symbols that strives to create and compile, as co-founder Edward Boatman puts it, an "everyday emoji" for just about everything. Over the last four years, Noun Project has grown to become a sort of visual dictionary of universally recognized symbols that’s had 10 million downloads. It’s the go-to resource for everyone from the stat heads at, who use a judicial gavel and block symbol as the shorthand "civil rights" in some charts, to store owners in Minneapolis, who will soon be able to apply at a county level for window decals that signify exactly how they organically recycle. But only recently did the Noun Project settle on a viable business plan.

The Noun Project has launched its own API, which allows fans who have a paid subscription to the service to incorporate their icons directly into webpages, mobile apps, video games, and other image driven products, without attribution. For instance, Squarespace, a major web publishing platform, announced today that it will be using the library to launch its own DIY logo builder. The model has helped the Noun Project dramatically increase revenue, and the company expects to turn a profit for the first time this year.

Noun Project’s initial idea for generating consistent revenue didn't exactly equate to an image of a bright light bulb popping on. "It was a horrible idea," Boatman says. "We originally thought the database symbols would be a great resource but then we were going to use it to sell T-shirts." It's the sort of murky brainstorm that, if continued without any sort of adjustment, would have tanked their little startup—or at least doomed it to obscurity. Instead, Boatman and his cofounders, Scott Thomas and Sofya Polyakov, re-geared their profit potential in a way that will let them expand.

Boatman helped spot the need for a Noun Project back in 2005. While working as an architect at Gensler in Santa Monica, he realized that despite some book-based collections of symbols provided by the likes of AIGA and the National Parks Service, there wasn’t a common repository for things like "bicycle" or "picnic area" anywhere online. That made his job of telegraphing simple concepts in PowerPoint presentations a lot more complicated. Eventually, he and his co-founders began uploading icons from many of the existing emoji galleries to create a formal registry.

In 2010, the crew launched a $1,500 Kickstarter campaign. The goal: Expand the repository by opening it up to public submissions and add a search bar and some better categorical organization. But Boatman and his team expected the real money maker to be sartorial. Backers who contributed $30 or more would get to choose their own icons for a custom T-shirt. In that way, each contribution would act a lot like a pre-order, allowing Noun Project to stay lean and only print clothing on demand. "We did the Kickstarter to minimize risk on inventory but we didn’t really know how great of a branding and community tool it could be," Boatman says.

His backers, however, did. Noun Project beat its goal by 1,000%, getting $15,000 and an avalanche of feedback from other geeks and designers less eager for the T-shirt than the chance to build out the visual library itself. In November 2011, the team launched user uploads complete with a profile page so that users could search by general genre, word, or for the ultra-obsessed, each individual icon artist. They quickly learned another lesson: Creators also wanted credit for their work. Of the 30,000 icons that have been submitted, only about 4,000 are so-called public domain, meaning they were added without any restriction on use. The rest, about 87%, are Creative Commons-licensed, meaning that, when optioned, each must include some fine print that acts like attribution to the designer. That made the simple pictures more complex but also gave Boatman and his crew a far more valuable idea for generating revenue.

In September 2012, Noun Project debuted the solution: Instead of adding the clunky attributions, users who downloaded icons were given the option to pay $1.99 per download. (For those on the cheap, the free-with-attribution option is still available.) More importantly, a part of that money goes back to the artists themselves. "Designers do want in some form or another to get credit for their work," Boatman says. "People need to understand that creative content on the web isn’t free and it shouldn’t be. These people are putting hard work and passion into their designs and they should either have their name next to the image for personal equity or compensation for that." That idea attracted an undisclosed amount of angel investment, but the company still wasn't profitable.

Today, Noun Project has a full-time staff of more than a dozen people. It has also helped create icons for complex topics being dealt with on Wikipedia, by the Red Cross, and at the New York Times. Among users, their new API model goes one step further because it operates like a subscription model; hobbyists, architecture firms, and ad agencies can now buy the rights to license batches of icons at a rate of about $1 per license per month, minus any need for attribution. Part of that revenue, too, is shared with the icon originators. While Noun Project won't disclose exact subscription rates, revenues are up 300% since launching; they expect to turn a profit for the first time this year. If Squarespace's participation is any indicator, the new system should provide a lot more stability than either T-shirts or the old a la carte model (which still exists for smaller shoppers).

Boatman himself even has his own profile page online. Of the many icons he created for resale the most hilarious is probably Facepalm. It features a man smacking his head in the classic "Doh!" gesture. That could have easily represented Noun Project’s failure. Instead, thanks to several smart pivots, the company is finally making money off it.