It always surprises me, the number of creatives (or Makers, as I like to think of them) I have in my audience. By Makers I mean artists, craftspeople, non-commercial writers and things of that nature.
I feel terrible because I’m not sure I can help you. When you start a business to make money, that’s a relatively straightforward process. But when you start a business from a drive for personal expression, well, that’s not inherently saleable. And even if it was, you wouldn’t want to make the same thing for the rest of your life just because there was a market demand for it. Look at JK Rowling, shutting the door on the Harry Potter universe, just so that she could be free to try other things. That takes guts.
But if you’re committed to building a Maker business, this is what you need to know if you’re going to make it out the other side.
#1 Ask Yourself: Is This Really A Business?
If you intend this endeavor to be a business, you should anticipate that 40-70% of your time will be spent on business-building, marketing, administration, and other non-creative activities. That doesn’t mean you’ll make money. It’s just the required investment to have enough people know about you to have the possibility of making money.
Many people find this unacceptable, and that’s fine. Other people think it’s worth it, and then they begin the several year quest to see if there’s a way to make the business viable.
#2 Growth: Always Linear, Never Exponential
Because the media loves success stories, you get exposed to a lot of “and then it just took off!” That phrase is storytelling device. It disguises a lot of plodding details that would slow the story down. I have even had people come along and suggest that I could just help someone “scale up” a friend’s Maker business. It doesn’t work that way. Makers have constraints that modern commerce has mostly forgotten about, because the industrial revolution was a long time ago.
But Makers aren’t the proverbial buggy-whip makers. There is a place in this world for them. Not typically a very lucrative place, admittedly. But a dignified and gratifying place. Anticipate the slog and you will be better emotionally prepared to weather it.
You are never going to hit that exponential curve that you see printed in success stories. At least, not unless whatever it is you make becomes a collectible. You are going to grow in a linear, stepwise fashion, hopefully without too many dips in your trajectory. Eventually, you may make enough money to give up your part-time job. This is success.
After that, from what I’ve seen, any extra money that you make gets stashed away against future lack; it goes into savings accounts and retirement funds and maybe you buy a bigger welder or rent a studio space, but once you’ve left the total hand to mouth stage, not a lot changes about your lifestyle. There’s nothing to change, because you’re not going from “barely getting by” to “exuberant prosperity”. You’re going from “barely getting by” to “making ends meet.” Not so sexy, huh?
This is the case for a lot of solo business owners, but mostly businesses have the possibility of scaling. Makers are a lot more constrained in their ability to scale. Think about this.
Could you 3x your productivity? Or hire someone? Could you 3x your prices? No? Okay, so what about distribution? Is there any way to duplicate whatever it is you made so that it can get into the hands of 3x more people?
Probably you can only really scale in one of these three directions, which automatically rules out that hockey stick growth pattern (exponential growth). Once again “and then it just took off” is merely a storytelling device.
#3 You’re Only As Good As Your Marketing
Nobody wants to market. No one. Marketing is emotionally difficult, time consuming, and really shoves the general indifference of the world in your face.
However, without marketing, no one knows you exist. Therefore no one sees your stuff frequently enough for a secret desire for it to grow in their heart. Certainly no one shares it on Pinterest or posts a Facebook status that says “Want!” It’s a long road to buying, and you need as many people making that pilgrimage as you can.
I will not pretend to know how you should market. There are too many variables. But I will say that unless you are spending 40% of your time trying to figure out how to get your work out there, you’re not marketing enough. I’m sorry. I hate that reality as much as you do.
And don’t try to be “better at your art” before you start marketing. All that means is that when you are finally good enough to try to sell your art, you have to start teaching yourself how to sell and market. Might as well start developing both your art and your marketing today.
#4 You Will Make Compromises. That’s Okay.
Most of the work of creating a viable business involves figuring out what you are willing to do for what amount of money. We’ve talked about the “resentment rate” but it’s also important to remember that even great artists did schlocky portraits to puff up their patrons’ egos. Or, you may decide that your daily blog-posts-for-pay are suffocating the creative spark you need for your novel and so find a job as an office manager to pay the bills.
There are endless, endless variations in compromise, so many that I’m afraid to name only a handful lest they should seem all-encompassing. But there are as many varieties of compromise as there are snowflakes. Ask your friends for some and get inspired– this is the creative problem-solving that will breed your success as a Maker.
#5 Not Everything You Make Will Be Saleable. But You Have To Make It Anyway
I’m not sure this is as frustrating to most Makers as it is to me, but there is a certain amount of waste inherent in the artistic process. At least when I write this post and I edit out one third, I’m only out a little time. But Makers will spend weeks and weeks developing a creative train of thought, only to find that it dead ends. Or they find that it isn’t saleable at all, but only after they’ve developed an entire series.
This is expensive. And unfortunately, it is quite difficult to build the cost of all your “creative development” into the price of the things that do sell.
This is difficult from a business planning perspective as well. I can’t tell you how often a book launch fails to really gain traction or a fall lineup just doesn’t gel with the market. In strictly commercial business, we would take that information and say “Okay, so what about this didn’t our audience like?” and then try to engineer a way to avoid that mistake in the future. With artists, though, it’s not really your problem what the audience likes or doesn’t like. This is one of the main ways that Maker businesses are completely unlike traditional commerce. Makers need to develop the skill of creation as being completely separate from the craft of commerce. This is not easy, but no one said it would be.
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If you’re a parent, or you’ve read the stories about how becoming a parent makes certain priorities come into sharp focus, well, great– you’ll get the hang of a business pretty easily. There’s a certain ruthless practicality to it.
Everyone knows that first and foremost, you’ve got to keep the kid alive. Feed it, bathe it, get it to sleep; later in the game you can worry about the dusting or whether the Christmas decorations are put away.
When you’re not really committed, you worry about things like taglines. I’m not slagging you– we’ve all been there and we all circle back there from time to time. But when you’re really super-duper serious about keeping this kid business alive, you’re showing up at your creative practice each and every day, you’re shipping, whatever that means for you, and you’re prepping all the images you’re going to share on social media late into the night. Most of all, you’re asking for the sale.
Once in awhile I see catty internet comments to the effect that “So-and-so became commercial.”
What the fuck is that supposed to mean? It’s clear that it’s seen as a negative, like getting paid for your work dishonors your artistic vision. That baby is being kept alive some way, somehow, and it’s no one’s place to judge the precise mixture of sacrifice, compromise, and rejiggered expectations that took place in order to keep it alive.
Also, how incredible is it when a Maker business makes it no matter how? You guys have about the same odds as a waitress in Hollywood becoming a starlet — even if you’re cast in a soap opera, it’s still success. (Until it isn’t — but there’s only one person who gets to make that call.)
By taking this risk on yourself, you’re honoring the creative in you in the best way you can– with absolute commitment and vulnerability. That’s an incredible achievement no matter how much money you ever make.
When a Maker creates a business, they’re not just artisans. They’re bringing their creativity and craft to a world that sorely needs it. This bottom-line capitalism that’s been in vogue for the last few generations is hollowing out everything– people, society, the planet.
It’s an uphill battle because you’re pioneering a shift in values as much as you’re producing goods. That’s amazing. Own that. Celebrate that.
There’s no entrepreneurship gutsier than creative entrepreneurship.
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