Have you ever wanted to make a living from doing the creative things you love? Overwhelming, isn’t it. Where do you begin? How do you find customers who will actually pay you what you’re worth? How do you cope with the tax stuff? If you took a breather this afternoon, and we sat down together for tea and finger sandwiches, what would you ask me about running a small, creative business?
My Story (briefly)
As most of you know, I’ve been blessed to do what I love for many years now. I launched my present business at the height of the global financial meltdown in 2007-8, supposedly at the worst time ever for starting a business, and it’s grown steadily every single year. I’ve been working from home for thirteen years, in total control of my life, and financially independent of a day job or a partner for the last three years.
I get huge fulfilment and satisfaction out of running online sewing magazines Your Wardrobe Unlock’d and Foundations Revealed, and I can provide paid work for a small crowd of other creatives too (which is very rewarding). I’m able to live a relaxed life and travel freely.
Most importantly, I’m able to live a quiet life. I’m an introvert at heart. My energy level is unpredictable, and I have designed a work life that fits around my ups and downs, if you know what I mean.
I usually try to keep all this fairly low key, but having figured it out, I would also feel selfish keeping what I’ve learned to myself. I struggled for a lot of years to get here. I did a lot of soul-sucking day jobs before I made my breakthrough. With so many people still having their souls sucked and asking me to share what I know about making a living from my passion, it’s time for me to show others who’d like to walk in my shoes how it’s done. There is room for many more of us on this path, believe me. Come and join me!
Last week I sent out a survey asking creative people for their most burning questions about starting or running a small, creative business. I expected lots of questions, but I was truly blown away by the passionate outpouring of frustration that came back. There are a LOT of people who yearn to create a small business doing work that gives them joy, and I want to take some time in my next couple of posts to address the most common questions I received.
First, I want to address the elephant in the room. There’s one big issue that underlies 80% of all the questions I received, and I want to deal with this right now, once and for all.
“How do I know that I have what it takes?”
YES, it IS possible to succeed as a creative. Please know that you CAN do this. Many, many of your questions were unsure, hesitant, or simply came right out with it: “Is this really possible?”
Listen. There is a crowd of people for whom the “struggling artist” paradigm is a reality, sure, but for many others it is not. (And there are many of us, working quietly in the background.) Some creatives succeed, some don’t, just as it is in any field. Just think about all the successful authors, musicians, designers, and artists out there. There are many big names, and none of them started out as superheroes; they are all mere mortals like you and I. And of course, there are many, many more unseen creatives who are not household names, but who live a quiet, comfortable, unremarkable creative life, like I do.
If so many creatives are out there, quietly doing just fine, why is the struggling artist such an enduring cliché? The reason, I believe, is one great, honking myth that gnaws at the creative heart, and I want to look at this in detail so that we can explode it once and for all… the fallacy that being a successful creative is some kind of cruel lottery.
The Myth That’s Holding You Back
Many creatives believe that if they just practise, practise, practise their creative talent enough, then one day they will discover, or be “discovered” by, all the right customers (the ones with all the money, amirite?)
Wrong. Creative skills are vital to success, of course, but it’s not just talent that moves the needle. Think about it: we all know supremely talented people who are overlooked all their lives and even die in poverty (Mozart, anyone?) and we can all name people with, ah, limited artistic talent who have made it disproportionately big in this world. Clearly, although sufficient skill is vital, artistic capability alone is not the overall deciding factor in creative business success.
So what is it that separates the thrivers from the strugglers?
Hard work. That’s it, isn’t it! Hard, hard work over many years. Like a fly beating its head against a window: if it just works hard enough, it will make it through sheet glass, won’t it? No, of course it won’t. Although effort is necessary, heroic struggle is not, in itself, the key to success. Like the fly, you could beat your head against a window for twenty years and still not get anywhere.
In that case, if it’s not talent and it’s not hard work, I’m sure that this is where you’ll get fatalistic about it. It’s luck, right? The callous cast of the die. The right place at the right time, the right bandwagon, the right zeitgeist. Wrong. To make luck the master of your fate is to shift responsibility out of your hands and give up on yourself altogether. While a stroke of luck might give you a helping hand now and then, it’s not useful to sit around waiting for lightning to strike – and it’s certainly not helpful to complain if fate does not send the magic tsunami of fortune on schedule.
So what is it? What is the difference between struggle and success in creative business? It’s not a function of talent, or work, or luck, although each of those factors plays a part.
You’ve heard the phrase about working smarter, not harder? Here’s the rub: Success is a skill set.
A successful business results from learning relevant skills, and then using them wisely. You have learned your art, but a profitable business does not naturally follow simply because you are talented, or because you try hard, or because the gods of success smile on you. You need to learn how to plan out and run a business, and that’s where the average creative person falls short. That’s where the artist gets intimidated, throwing up her hands and wishing she had a manager to do “the business stuff” for her.
Stop selling yourself short!
You have learned new skills before, and you can do so again. You learned to do your art, didn’t you? You had your first day as a fumbling beginner, and you studied, and learned, and improved, and now, here you are, successful at making your stuff. Migrating your creativity into a business setting does not happen by accident. You’re good at your art, but if you want to make a hobby into a business, you need some more skills.
And you know what? You can do this. You can learn it one step at a time, just like you did with your art. If you are reading this, you learned to read, and let’s face it, that’s not an easy skill to master, especially when you’re five years old! But you did it. You did it because you had to read in order to get ahead in this world. And you can learn to make a living too, and achieve the kind of life that will keep you calm, fulfilled, financially solvent and happy, long term.
It’s as simple, and as unremarkable, as that.
The Five Elements
There’s lots of business advice out there, but much of it is not geared to the creative life or the creative temperament, leaving those of us in the artistic category overwhelmed and unsure. (And please don’t take business advice from people who’ve never run a successful business; your Mom loves you, but she’s not been there.)
What does it really take to make a small, creative business pay the bills? If you need results sooner rather than later, what are the most vital skills that you need to master? There are five elements to get right… and I’ll go into those in my next post.
Leave me a comment and let me know – did this resonate with you? Have you been holding yourself back in your professional creative life? I’d love to hear your story.