Freelancers, designers, self-employed artists, and makers with businesses (in-person or online) are becoming more empowered to be creative entrepreneurs, in charge of their own careers, maintaining their core values, and keeping more money in their own pockets. To start a creative business and build a successful one, you need to learn and use what has been called “business of art” tools to sustain it. That means creating a budget, establishing your brand, marketing your business, products, and services, protecting yourself from lawsuits, and creating your work. That’s a lot of work!
We’ve picked the five most common challenges facing the creative entrepreneur today, and offer some advice for navigating through them.
The most obvious issue facing artists today is where their next paycheck will come from, and how to keep their last one from running out too quickly. Determining the cost of conducting your art business is an essential tool to ensure that you’re staying on budget and on track.
The first step to getting your budget down is to determine the actual cost of art-making. Do you keep a studio? Do you keep track of any materials you buy and consume? How often do you use them? Do you have a lot of waste? Being an artist-entrepreneur means you should know exactly how much you spend to make and manage your artwork. It’s a pivotal factor in making sure you have enough money to run your operation for months to come. Understanding these costs will also allow you to take a more educated approach to pricing your services (more on that later.)
As a creative entrepreneur that’s chosen to shun a typical 9-5 office job in favor of a more entrepreneurial type of business, you’ll be smart to treat every paycheck like it was your last. It may sound dramatic, but how many times have you heard of a star athlete or musician who blew their life’s earnings in the blink of an eye? We may not be talking millions here, but quickly burning through a big paycheck will get you in the same trouble. The key to maintaining a successful art business will rely on your ability to understand that this month you may make $6,000, but next month you may only rake in $1,000. You have to budget your life accordingly – get a good estimate on what you spend for living and entertainment, and make sure you don’t go splurging on any big items until you have a better hold on your finances. In addition, consider whether it makes financial sense to incorporate your art business.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for an artist today is figuring out who they want to be. What do you want to make? Do you have a niche? What sells best? Elizabeth Dee, a gallerist in New York, told Artrepreneur at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2015 that “An artist should never be thinking about what sells; that’s the gallery’s job. An artist should be focused on making art.”
That said, refining and understanding your practice, building engagement on a social media platform, and knowing how to market yourself will lead to the kind of representation that lets an artist or creative entrepreneur truly take a backseat to their sales efforts. Taking the time to build an online portfolio and using and engaging with social media platforms are two extremely cost-effective tools for using marketing to your advantage. Hosting platforms like Wix, Weebly and Squarespace are often free to use and offer a variety of templates to meet your needs. Other platforms, like Artrepreneur, offer a variety of unique functionalities to showcase your work, including the ability to make customized portfolios for different clients A clean, simple design that serves as a space to host your latest work will be easy to achieve for a minimal amount of work.
Once you have a portfolio in place, you can use it synthesize your brand across the board: add your website to business cards and email signatures; link to your work across your social media platforms, and direct anyone you meet to your body of work. By staying active on social media, you can also deftly enhance your marketing. In fact, several gallerists have pointed out that they first found their next young artist through their social media platform, when they’re work started trending.
Gaining and keeping followers on social media can be an arduous, time-consuming task, but it’s not impossible. Start by developing a schedule for posting – once a day is usually the sweet spot. Find your content niche – perhaps you want to focus on presenting dark, aimless images that best represent your work; or maybe you want to allow your followers to see your daily thoughts and inspirations. Test a few of these posts out and determine which ones tend to yield the most ‘likes’ and engagement. Always be sure to interact with your followers and their comments, and don’t be shy about taking a look at their own pages and following them in reply. Finally, use hashtags to draw even more views to your posts. The rules for social media are constantly evolving, so we recommend checking out best practices in this handy guide.
Getting your work noticed and getting in touch with potential clients can often be one of the more difficult tasks for artists. How do you find and keep a book of consistent art business if you’re shy or constantly stuck in the studio? Forget the traditional modes of networking and be more proactive. Engage with followers on social media, participate in local arts organizations, and do some research on your favorite arts institutions and collectives to determine whether it’s possible to send them some samples of your work. Scour the web or your local scene for your favorite artists and designers and reach out to them for mentorship advice. You’d be surprised how willing people are to offer advice or lend a hand to an aspiring artist!
One of the common missteps in maintaining a successful art business is an unwillingness to take any creative jobs that might fall outside your usual creative realm. Just because you take on a project that doesn’t necessarily align with your brand or message as an artist doesn’t mean that you have to promote it. Many artists often take commissions for works they may not necessarily want to add to their portfolio. The creative entrepreneur understands that diversifying a business is the single most impactful tool you can use to ensure your financial viability.
This is exactly why it’s so important to be able to create custom portfolios for certain clients. Consider the photographer who dreams of being a fine artist but works weddings in between big sales. That photographer may not wish to broadcast his wedding photography portfolio, but it sure comes in handy to have one to show his prospective clients.
Having a clear idea of how much it costs you to make art is a good first start in order to determine how to price your services. If you spend a certain amount on materials, then make sure you factor those figures into your pricing scheme. Do some research to determine what an hourly rate might be in your creative field, and determine whether you are on the novice or experienced side of that figure. Finally, consider how much back and forth this client may require, and consider upping your rate in order to respond to that client’s demands.
When you’re first starting out, you’re hesitant to charge what you think your services are worth because you’re concerned that a potential client might say no. But not understanding and recognizing your worth can have a lot of drawbacks in the long run.
Have you taken the time to consider that you may be allowing others to profit from your creative work? If you’re consistently creating art and not taking the time to register your works with the Copyright Office, then you might be exposing yourself to theft. In today’s highly digital, internet-savvy world, more and more artists are finding themselves the victims of copyright infringement. If your artwork is registered with the Copyright Office, then you can recover your damages.
Registering your work with the Copyright Office is formulaic and fairly inexpensive; you just have to take the time to do it. Start by compiling your work and deciding whether you want to copyright multiple pieces or one single work. Set up a system that asks you to consider whether you have any new, copyrightable works on a monthly or weekly basis. For further guidance, can check out this guide.
Another important protection for you, your business, and your assets is forming a corporate structure for your business. Whether you are self-employed or own a small company, you want to protect your personal assets from the company. Don’t be scared by the word “incorporate”. It just means the type of business structure you set up. You can learn more about it in the article, Should I Open a Corporation for My Art Business?
Being a creative entrepreneur is a brave endeavor and an exciting adventure. Just make sure you have the knowledge and tools available to enjoy the ride.
What do you find most challenging about being a creative entrepreneur? What do you prioritize and what are you still learning? Let us know in the comments below!
Nicole is a veteran arts and culture journalist. Her work has appeared in Reuters, VICE, Hyperallergic, Univision, and more.