The Story of CG Cookie

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“What do you do when you have everything to lose?”Create a business that challenges traditional structures, sprouts a devoted community and inspires creativity in tens of thousands of people around the world. Obviously.Easier said than done, you think? You’re right. This is the story of CG Cookie from its early days as you have not heard it before, complete with bite-sized lessons we learned along the way.


2007 didn’t start off great for the Burkes. With freelance work drying up, Wes and his wife were months behind on their mortgage payments and looking at certain financial doom if something didn’t present itself. They had just had their first child and were quickly running out of time.

Lesson 1: Believe in Your Mad Dreams

The humble studio of CG Cookie when it started.

^The humble studio of CG Cookie when it started. 

Until Wes found a job in downtown Chicago, a 2-hour one-way commute away from home.  Think about it: how do you endure a 2-hour journey, twice a day, 5 days of the week? For some, this would mean catching up on sleep or scrolling through their Facebook feed with glazed-over eyes. 

For Wes, it turned into 2 hours of intense work on a site he decided to call CG Cookie. “I don’t exactly remember why,” he admits today - a result, perhaps, of sleep deprivation. After 8-10 hours at work, he would reverse his commute, continuing to build what was becoming a patchwork site of CG news, jobs, images, and tutorials. 

At home, Wes would allow himself 30 minutes to relax after dinner and continue to work on CG Cookie until midnight. Rinse, repeat.“Looking back, it seems like total insanity,” smiles Wes. “But in my case, that is just what it took: a slightly mad belief that what started as an insignificant side-project could one day become something more, something that would have a positive impact on people's lives.”

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Lesson 2: If Things Aren’t Working Out, Give Yourself an Ultimatum

Before that would happen, there were serious hurdles to jump; fast forward to spring 2009 when Wes was struggling again. No longer able to afford CG Cookie, he and his friend Jonathan Williamson brainstormed for solutions. 

They decided to outline and offer pre-sale on a DVD covering the latest release of a little-known open-source 3D software: Blender.  If this didn’t work out, it seemed certain the project would shut down and they’d write off their losses.Having launched the pre-sale site at 10 o’clock in the evening, Wes fired up his email the following morning and excitedly called Jonathan: “We have well over 30 pre-orders for a Blender training DVD!" 

This was a defining moment for CG Cookie; in addition to providing a desperately needed financial injection, it was the first validation of all previous efforts, as Wes remembers: “It was a huge moment for us: the first proof that what we are doing might be ‘real’.” 

Lesson 3: Find a Way to Get Paid For Your Work

This was well into the second year of the existence of CG Cookie as a site, but as a stand-alone business, CG Cookie wasn’t born until 2010. Wes and Jonathan (now official partners) incorporated the company in November and made a crucial decision just 1 month later: “We decided to offer a subscription-based membership for $10/month.” says Wes. In return, members would gain access to pre-recorded content teaching them Blender, Photoshop and other software packages.  Offering subscription meant two things for CG Cookie: first, it provided the business with residual income. 

Second, it put the site on the front lines as a commercial entity in the open-source Blender community. Afterward, things moved fast, as they tend to do at CG Cookie: “We created our first iPad game Eat Sheep, published a book 'Art of Blender' and increased our staff from 2 to 6 full-time members,” says Wes. “We were beginning to feel the pace of the adventure quickening.” Art of Blender - working through proofs.

Self-publishing our first art book was hard!

Lesson 4: Be Generous and Give Back

The success of CG Cookie was showing financially, too. “Each year, we would increase our gross revenue by at least 30%,” says Wes, “and from the early days, our profits would go right back into the company to create more content and new features. 

At the same time, we were donating thousands back to the Blender Development Fund as a way to give back to the community that supported us.” (CG Cookie's Blender Market is now the main sponsor of the Fund.) Wes and Jonathan invest heavily into the CG Cookie crew: “Our hope has always been to enable our crew to live where they would like to, spend time with family and feel vested in CG Cookie and our mission,” says Wes who supports a remote working culture, a flexible vacation policy and a 4-day work week. 

“We wouldn’t be where we are without our crew - that’s not a cliche, but pure fact. For that reason, things like paying 100% of our full-time employee’s medical benefit costs are a no-brainer to me.”Crew

Lesson 5: Be Prepared to Change Everything

With lots of love going around, 2014 started off great for CG Cookie. The author crew was publishing tutorials of higher quality than ever before; the growing community was loving the new content and the CG Cookie brand continued to gain recognition. 

But under the surface, worrying signs were emerging: after a long period of growth, the numbers of CG Cookie subscribers hit a plateau and Wes and Jonathan were left scratching their heads. What are we doing wrong? The answer presented itself during a company retreat in early 2015. “We all sat at a table and asked some tough questions about who we are and what we want to achieve. 

What emerged from the debate is the one thing we were lacking: a clear direction,” Wes remembers.  This really hit home for Wes when filling out an application for a Venture Capital program called indie.vc which asked him to list all of CG Cookie's social networks: "I started to feel embarrassed as I listed the social accounts of all the sites we were running: Concept Cookie, Blender Cookie, Max Cookie, Sculpt Cookie, Unity Cookie...each of them having their own Facebook, YouTube and Twitter accounts. This really opened my eyes as to how scattered our focus had been." 

With this realization, the crew quickly got to work on restructuring CG Cookie into a concise, focused website. For months, the crew would work on creating a logical progression of tutorials into structured learning flows with quizzes and exercises, until the new ‘CG Cookie Five’ was revealed to the community in the summer of 2015.  “Looking back, it was an insanely short amount of time to accomplish what we set out to do,” says Wes, “and it was far from perfect, with bugs and even a few non-functional pages at the launch at 4am. But we did it!" CG Cookie Characters

Art education taught by a bunch of characters :)

Lesson 6: Be Clear on What You Came Here to do, and don’t forget it!

“The main thing we learned from our rehaul of CG Cookie in 2015 is the need to be clear on who we are,” says Wes. In his words, what exactly is that? “Our goal is to enable artists to become successful. How to do we do that? 

By providing affordable, top-notch education, incredible tools to speed up your workflow and a marketplace to enable financial success.” Instructor and Lead 3D Artist Kent Trammell Instructor and Lead 3D Artist Kent Trammell

The company’s mission defines everything the crew does, from deciding what tutorial to create to designing new site features. The bottom line, to Wes, is that CG Cookie will succeed only if it helps its members succeed as well - whether that means growing their skills for their own enjoyment or making it in the industry. The question, "Will this benefit our community?" has become a mantra for the whole team and the answer decides what action will be taken; for a small crew with limited resources, clarity and knowing your priorities is everything.

Lesson 7: Embrace Fear

More than 7 years after the birth of CG Cookie on a train into Chicago, one lesson rings particularly true for Wes: the necessity to confront one’s fear.  He remembers the times of feeling fear from facing insurmountable odds: “There have been numerous times in the CG Cookie journey when I felt a gut-turning anxiety, the visceral fear of the unknown and of making a wrong choice,” says Wes, “but I’ve learned to press through the fear, the questions, the doubt and turn them into a fuel to create something amazing. Having a great business partner, team and family in my corner certainly helps!” 

Today, he speaks at industry meet-ups, events for creatives and, recently, at his college’s graduation ceremony, about accepting fear and then taking the plunge anyway: “I’ve learned that fear usually means I am on the right path,” adds Wes, “unless, of course, it is that fear of being electrocuted by sticking your fingers into a light socket. That one is real - don't do it."

Wes Burke and Tim von Rueden at CGC's first conference!

Wes Burke and Tim von Rueden at CG Cookie's first conference!


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    Jonathan Fisher

    This is a nice read. It really is amazing what people can do; I know I've learned a lot from CG Cookie. My skill set is in accounting, taxes, audit, etc., and because of you all, I learned how to do CG which was something I didn't think I was able to do or have the time to do. Keep up the good work. Thanks Wes for putting up with all that sleep deprivation and hardship, I hope you and your team continue to be rewarded--and cash flow continue to rise.

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    Mark Smith

    I've witnessed a big part of that story, being a long term customer...
    I think you have made good on the dream...
    keep up the good work!

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    oiyou

    Have you really never stuck your fingers into a light socket? Maybe that's just a British kids' thing - and we're 240V :)

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    Nate Melo

    It's really been incredible to watch CG Cookie grow after almost 2 years of being a part of the community. It's a daunting thing to want to develop a game - never knowing what to work on next when your interests are heavily invested in all things that make up the creation of a game. CGCookie make's it so easy to be confident to think that "Hey maybe I want to make some 3D models today, but how the heck do I round off this sharp edge on sphere?" and bam - CGCookie has the concise answer. I'd love to stand on a stage winning an award one day and have the opportunity to thank your incredible team at CGCookie. Thank you!

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    Matthew Fricker

    This place really has changed my life, as some of you will know.
    It is great to see that the struggles and hard work in the early years were well worth it and paid off. You guys are a great team and I am eternally grateful for how much you have inspired and driven me. Keep up the good work. I am proud to be a member of the CG Cookie community, I wouldn't want to learn from anybody else :)

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    keithc

    Really good article on the beginnings. This place is already vast for me. I have long-term plans on sticking around here, to help me get where I want to go. Really glad you started all of this!

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    cookiebland

    Pretty much 99.99% of my CG knowledge came from you guys making awesome tuts. This site definitely has the "don't think, just subscribe now" recommendation for people just starting out. You're all E P I C.

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    smilingrob

    Congrats on the success everyone!

  • b
    bielus86

    Inspiring story.
    From experience I know that the most difficult part of the project is to actually finish it.

    Glas to be part of community.

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    johnleigh

    Great stuff - Im certainly familiar with the late nights, overnights, and that lack of sleep can only be endured for a short time - in my case its been for a company, and to my detriment I still have yet to get myself on my own feet with my own business - ive been promising myself for a while and time is passing so fast - thanks for sharing your story its inspiring

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    jence

    I really enjoyed reading this. I'm always curious to how companies and Artists start out, particularly one that I feel I'm a part of :D go Concept Cookie! Thanks for writing a great article to read ^_^

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    uzhul

    In Germany we say:

    Herzlichen Glückwunsch für den tollen Erfolg und alles Gute für die Zukunft!
    :-D

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    Omar Domenech

    Cool read. It's just now that I realize I've been in CG Cookie since 2012... I think. My oh my how time flies. Here's to even more years as a member, cheers *raises wine glass*

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    v0rt3x

    I think it is awesome that Wes had the motivation and follow through to capitalize on the 'dead' time in his commute. So many times it's just easier to watch TV surf the web or sleep. I remember changing jobs from a 1hr commute each way (driving so no laptop time). I mostly used the time to relax and mentally prepare for the day and week. I was getting up at 5am every morning, working and then taking care of twin babies to relieve my wife until it was time to go to sleep and start the day over. Things leveled out so well that I can't imagine doing that same thing again. However in pursuit of a new idea, I'm burning the candle at both ends once again.
    Congrats to the CGCookie team, I've enjoyed using the site and promote it to anyone that shows interest in CG or art.

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    stronguser

    You guys are awesome, amazing job!

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    tardigrade

    This was awesome guys! Thanks for sharing this with the community!
    (I believed in you guys from the start! :) )

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    Sarah Heath

    Thanks guys! I appreciate CG Cookie for existing and helping me with my art education. Without you guys, I would never have made as much progress as I have with my own projects. Here's to more years of cookies to come!

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    lindasoriginals

    Hi
    I had no idea CG Cookie was such a young endeavor. Congratulations on your perseverance. I started on blender 2 years ago at age 67 having no experience on
    computers. It has been a challenge, especially being a left brain thinker- artist, art
    teacher. I am now at the point that I need a more powerful computer as Hair will not
    render to my satisfaction. When that happens, I will be ready to rig and animate my
    character into my story backgrounds. Meanwhile I plan to incorporate some 10,000 photos I have taken over the years by studying photoshop with the goal of using
    them in my finished product. This is a wonderful opportunity for any artist/teacher
    to realize their artistic dreams in yet another medium. Thanks for all your help.

    With kindest regards

    Linda

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    louis1lal

    So inspiring

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    Daniel Ordonez

    I see a team with the same goals and tremendous human value. :)

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