Tips for starting a creative business
Want to be a full time artist but not sure where to begin? This article is for you.
Let's dive in!
After my one year social media post about being full time for a year I was inundated with requests to write a blog post on how to start a creative business and lots of specific questions. I thought the easiest way to answer these would be in a detailed blog post answering them which you can refer back to if you need and which will hopefully help you on your own creative journey! YAY!!
But before we start let me say this because I don't want any confusion:
The business I have at the time of writing is one year old with me doing it full time, but it is years of work while I had full time jobs and did my art on the side. I have worked on my art almost solidly since I left art school and would give my holidays, weekends, early mornings before work and my evenings to it. I would get up at 5am just to paint and be creative in some way before the day really started and I went to a job that was not creative in the slightest. I painted every spare minute I could and I have worked incredibly hard to get to where I am. I'm sure there are wonderful, creative businesses and artists who have achieved what I have and morein a year alone but that is not my story. My story was just me with a big dream and determination to find a way to make it work any way I could and it one hundred per centinvolved early starts and late nights and giving up my weekends just to chase it a bit more! I had lots of messages asking how to get where I am in a year but I wanted you to know that for me this wasn't possible. It's taken grit, determination, persistence and honestly, years of work.Sarah Coey Artwork 2017
But first before we get to questions... lets journey back and I can fill you in on some details of my ownRAINBOW-TASTICbusiness!
The year is 2012. I had just graduated from DJCAD in Dundee with a degree in Fine Art and I hadn't a Scooby Doo clue what to do next! I wanted to be a full time artist but how in heavens name was I going to manage that?! How to get my work OUT THERE *imagines big wide world*
Oh 2012... The Hunger Games had just come out, Gangnam Style dancing was a thing, Kate and Wills announced they were having their first baby and the social media world was very different than it is now. Instagram was not a big thing. Smart phones were not something everyone had yet. Facebook was there but we had no idea as creatives how copyright worked with it - like if I posted a photo did it then belong to Facebook?! Did Facebook have the right to sell it and pretend they made it?! These questions may seem silly now but they weren't at the time as we had to figure out how new technology worked with our art. There were so many "I hereby do not give Facebook permission to copy my art" posts doing the rounds, and I posted one of my own *cringe* The general advice was not to be too "out there" with your art until we knew how it worked in terms of copyright.
Not to mention if anyone DID post on Instagram it was with some awful grainy filter in sepia tones of flowers and clouds. It was not the wonderful visual hub it is today in 2019!
As much as I wanted to be a professional artist I also needed money and we all know that these two things do not always go hand in hand. And on a personal note, my now husband and I really wanted to live together. We had spent two years doing long distance while I was at uni, seeing each other every second weekend, texting (because I refused to get a smart phone...what was I thinking?!) and we had had enough of being apart. I wanted to just LIVE with no deadlines, essays, pressure to create and just have fun, spend time with Eliot and start our life together. I took a full time job in a pharmacy and we moved in together, got a dog and saved for a house. I stopped drawing for a bit because I was so creatively depleted after 4 intense years at uni and just wanted to soak up inspiration again. I took lots of photos of flowers instead haha! In fact if I look at my private Instagram page the first 4 pictures are sepia toned flower images... the person posting these daft pics was me all along haha!
Fast forward to 2015. I was drawing again but it was very different from where I wanted to be creatively. I was selling work, quite a lot actually, but it wasn't what I wanted to create. It was in black and white. It felt VERY formulaic in how I made it and I needed something to really sink my teeth into with my art. I could have gone full time at this point but something was holding me back... I know now it was because I wasn't inspired anymore by my style of drawing (This chapter could be a whole blog post in itself so let's save that for another day and keep going)
2016/17. I was now working at a private school teaching in the Learning Support department and absolutely LOVING IT! Best job I'd had. I loved seeing those kids light up when they finally UNDERSTOOD something they had struggled with. I loved teaching them little tricks to make their learning easier. Eliot and I bought a house, I was pregnant and I was also in the midst of really starting to know how I wanted to work. It turns out black and white wasn't for me (haha!!) or how I liked to paint. I was creating every day, but nothing worthy or of merit. I made more mess than anything else, and some of my paintings were UGLY. Like terrible! But I was excited. I was inspired. I knew that the excitement every day came because I was on the right track to finding my style, one that was making me FIZZY I was so happy. Out of the general mess of art were one or two paintings that WERE IT! THE THING I WANTED TO CREATE! I HAD DONE IT!! I have never been as inspired as I was when I was pregnant and I started to hone the creative painting style I have today. My style. MY RAINBOW0-TASTIC STYLE!! There it was at last! FINALLY! It was almost like everything had clicked into place after a year of me making a giant mess and "wasting" paints.
My work started selling, I had so much enthusiasm for where my work was, my Instagram grew and every painting led me to more ideas than I had time to put to canvas. I was on maternity leave by this time and made time (that's key... I MADE time to paint) to put brush to canvas and to work, no matter how tired I was. And I was tired a lot! And at this point I knew I had a big decision to make with regards to my art and my future, and the future of our wee family.
Rather than detail all the mundane ins and outs of what happened next (because this is starting to become an autobiography haha!) I'm going to answer your questions below along with the details from my experience getting from this stage to going full time. I was on the precipice of becoming a full time artist...
How did you know it was time to go full time?
This is the question I got asked most. It's hard to describe when I knewit was time to take that leap of faith. Each person is different. Each artist is different. Each family and lifestyle is different.
For me there were two key reasons: The first was that I was earning more selling my art than I was on my meagre maternity pay. Every painting I made was selling as soon as I posted it (I don't say that to be boastful but so you know how the situation was) and I was exhilarated to have that happen! I still am! But this was a key part of my decision making, because nobody wants to leave a full time job to earn zero pennies! I knew if I wasn't going back I needed some form of income.
At the same time, I was looking at going back to work as my maternity leave drew to an end. It really was a case of now or never. Would I have the confidence to go back to a full time job, thento leave it? Would it be easier to take the leap now while I was already away from the workplace? Did I want to spend my hard earned cash on childcare which is ridiculously expensive in the UK?Did I want to leave baby bear with a nursery so I could go to a job which would then pay for his childcare and leave not much else afterwards to save/pay bills with?? My art money was good, and I could either go back to a full time job, pay for childcare and try to paint when I got home as I had before, while trying to be a mum to a very small baby, look after the house and spend time with Eliot too. (Even writing that was stressful -can you imagine trying to do all of that all together?! OOOFT! Hat's off to you if this is you - you are a CHAMPION)
I decided to see what happened with my art and do that full time. I knew I would regret it if I didn't try and honestly I didn't relish the idea of spending all my time away from baby bear. My husband has always believed in me; I am cautious when it comes to uncertainty, particularly financial uncertainty, but Eliot is a believer that something good is always around the corner and he is the one that gave me the push to following my dream. Thank goodness he did!
How did you make it work financially at the beginning?
Now, I think it's important to say I didn't start being a full time artist out of the blue. I certainly didn't waken up one Tuesday morning and think "AHA! I think I'll become a full time artist today!" and then march off to quit my job and hope it would work. I'm sure there are people that are brave enough to do this but I am not one of them. I think that takes great courage and it was not something we would do with a mortgage to pay and a baby to look after.
I was already at a place financially where I was making good money while I was on maternity leave with my art. Before that I was painting constantly and selling my work regularly and my maternity leave gave me the opportunity and time to create more art. I saved hard when I was earning and used the savings to help out on slower months. We decreased all unnecessary expenses so we didn't have many luxury items. We chose to save less every month so I could get my business to go from a paying hobby to a livelihood. It wasn't easy, or fun especially when we had unexpected expenses (our roof leaked! aaahhhhh!) But we tightened our belts and after 5 months I was earning more than I had at my full time job. We ate a lot of pasta and didn't go out (not that this was hard given that we had a newborn baby bear in the house!) We found ways to make our money go a little bit further. I am a budgeting NINJA and we were really strict with expenses.
Being a full time artist means you will not earn a guaranteed amount every month - at least I don't. Your monthly earning will likely vary depending on workload, collections, deadlines, sales, but if you are savvy with your money and your savings then it balances out.
Business registration Process?
It's so easy peasy! I went to the Government Gateway website here in the UK and registered myself as self employed and that was it! Literally that was it! I was sent a confirmation letter and I now just need to await a letter asking me for my first years self assessment tax return. I don't know how it works in other countries but in the UK it's very simple and there are loads of resources on the Government Gateway website to help you plus phone numbers if you are a bit stuck.
How do you know for sure if you are ready?
This is a tricky one! I don't think anyone knows for sure if they are ready, do they? How do we know we are ready to buy that house? Become a parent? Take that test? Apply for that dream job?
"For sure." That for me is the key part of that sentence isn't it? We as humans all want and seek out certainty, guarantees, assurances that we will be ok financially and that our dream won't be dashed. What if we fail? What if after all our careful planning it doesn't work out? What if we fall on our faces and it was a disaster from start to finish?! Unfortunately, there are no certainties with being self employed, or in life.
Nobody else will be paying your bills, nobody else will be putting bread on your table or a roof over your head. Taking a leap of faith into being self employed and a full time artist is absolutely a Leap of Faith. There is a huge element of trusting that there is work there and that people will buy what you create. Eliot is the best at looking for a window when a door closes, and his sheer trust that I could do this was what eventually convinced me, and in my moments of worry he was able to reassure me. I like to panic! He likes to chill.
But we can't put all our eggs into a basket marked "Hoping For The Best" can we?! So there are practical things you can check too so you KNOWit's not just a pipe dream and being hopeful is the only thing keeping your business afloat. Do you have a good customer base? Is your work selling regularly? Are you making enough to cover your bills? Are more months that "good" months where you earn rather than "bad" ones where its more slow going? Do you have savings to lean on if things get tough? Do you have a plan up your sleeve if you do find that it's going pear shaped? These are all things to consider before jumping and they will differ for each one of us.
Do you have any help with administrative work and social media?
Not a single bit! I do all my own emails and all my own social media. I am such a perfectionist and I like having control over this form of communication, rather than outsourcing it, so that I am reaching out to my customers in exactly the way I want to, saying exactly what I want to chat about that day. Maybe as my business grows this will be something that might need altered in some way but for now I do everything on my own. It's truly a one woman show here at Rainbow HQ! In the future, I will likely look for a VA to help me with my emails which are honestly my nemesis (can I have a nemesis in 2019?! I do. Emails are it) but everything at present is done by my own two hands.
The only thing I didn't do was build my own website... I am capable of updating it and adding things into the shop, updating pictures etc but I asked my sisters fiancé who is a web designer to build it for me because I know my skill set... and website technology ain't it!!
How did you start getting sales?
TELL PEOPLE THINGS ARE FOR SALE! Honestly! (I bet you're reading this rolling your eyes because it seems so blooming obvious, but bear with me!)
This seems so obvious writing it down but I didn't use to do this. I know right? What was I thinking?! But it's so true... Nobody will know unless you tell them it's for sale. They might just think you are posting pretty pictures on Instagram, or just looking at is as a hobby and not as a potential career.
I used to post work on Instagram or update my website and just... hope for the best. Cross my fingers that someone loved it enough to ask about buying it and I would get a sale - haha can you imagine!? Oh younger Sarah.. you big dafty! I used to wonder why people weren't buying it and convinced myself it was because the work was rubbish. Nope. it was because I wasn't sharing that it was available.
People won't know you sell things unless you state "for sale" or "email to enquire" or even just add a cost below the piece. It seems like the most obvious thing but I found as soon as I started doing this that I was getting enquiries. You might feel a bit awkward doing this to begin with but give it a go! Edit the post if you feel weird about it afterwards. Don't stress if nobody buys it straight away. If I updated my website now I deliberately made a post about new work for sale. If I have SOLD a piece I share it online because it looks good to collectors that your work is selling. YAY!
And shout about your achievements! People love to celebrate others successes so if you're thrilled you sold a piece, say it out loud! Don't be shy! Every little achievement is a win and a boost for your creative biz.
When did you put up a website and did you ever use Etsy?
I never used an Etsy but I had a website domain name set up since I was at university for my art as it was a key part of our graduation year project. For me, it seemed foolish to have an Etsy AND a website.. especially when I was going to have to pay fees on both. I figured it made more sense to keep a website and revamp it when I already had one, rather than build an Etsy from scratch. Also I don't really "get" Etsy... I struggle to find things and I thought I would likely get confused in some way. Having a website seemed easier for techno-challenged me! I think Etsy is a wonderful site and I know lots of artists and creatives use it to great success though! It really is dependent on what you make and where you think your target market is.
If in doubt, try it out! You can always delete it later if it's a wet firework.
Do you ever get sick of doing art all day?
NO WAY! Never ever!! This was my dream since I was a little girl! It is my passion, my hobby, my excitement, my inspiration! I'm going to sound like such a hippy but it's what I was born to do! I do not get sick of it at all.
Sure, I get days where I don't want to paint because I'm tired but it's not something that I ever get bored of. In my uni course we were self directed - there was no sign in sheet, no deadline each week, no tutor or professor that would notice if you were in that morning or not, or if you'd decided to sleep the morning away in your flat. We had a deadline at the end of the year for a project, a tutor we would see once every two weeks or so if we needed and for the rest of it we were SELF DIRECTED. This taught me that the only way I would get things done was if I actually planned them and organised my time so I could get my tasks done. It is one of the best lessons I have ever had because if you are self employed nobody else will be checking to see if you worked that day so you have to have the discipline to work hard. Like anyone, there will be days that I just am not feeling like working that day, so I try to do something that will help my business even if it's not putting brush to canvas. I tidy my studio, answer emails, write a blog post. Some days I just don'twork but I know if I don't get back to it then I will lose out.
And some days I don't work because we all need a wee day off too!
What about art fairs? Are they worth the investment?
I think this is very dependent on what your type of creativity is, where you live, who goes to the fairs etc and the only way you'll find this out is through trial and error. I live in a very small village, and the local fairs here are more craft stalls, local scout packs doing a tombola and knitting than art. The people that mostly visit them are older people who are looking for trinkets and bargains than collectors looking for Fine Art so it's not really my target market. Have a think about who your ideal customer is... are they likely to be finding your work at an art fair (maybe they will if you live in a big city with a big art scene?) or is your client likely to want to buy your handmade jewellery at a vintage fair? These factors all contribute to if they are worthwhile or not.
I have done one or two fairs when I was starting out after uni and they TANKED! They were dreadful!! But I've done others which have earned me good commissions and that's been exciting. Here in Scotland there are bigger art fairs at nearby cities but I've never been to those and honestly don't have the time to put in the work to make them profitable at present. I think if you are interested in doing a fair with your own work then have a look at the type of work there that sells and see of you think yours will fit in well enough! Go scout them out and see if you think it would be a good opportunity. Ask the other vendors. Give it a go and even if it fails you'll have learned one more thing that works, or doesn't, for your business! It really is a case of trial and error and every business will be different. Just because a friend did terribly at one doesn't mean you will.
So there you have it! A wee (hopefully) helping hand to starting your own full time creative business! I hope that my experience can be of some help to you and maybe answers questions or doubts you have about your own journey.
Unfortunately there is no "How to become an Artist" guide. Each artist and creative person is so different as is their work and what works for one person will not necessarily work for another. Just because one person favours Etsy vs a website, or jumps straight in vs planning for months doesn't mean they have it all figured out and it doesn't mean that they are doing it in an exactly right way. they are doing what is right for them and I think that is a really important distinction to make. It doesn't mean that because one artist has great success doing one thing that you need to do that too. We are all so wonderfully unique and our businesses and their development will be as unique as we are too! YAY!!!
And I certainly don't have it all sussed! I make a mistake at least once a week, I'm learning as I go, I ask questions - sometimes really silly ones, I google stuff, I try, I fail, I pick myself up again and I persevere. Every time I "fail" at something I remind myself I know more today than I did the day before. It's a non stop learning curve!
The key thing, I think, with running your own business is to know that its a marathon not a sprint. You are not falling behind just because another person is forging ahead. You are not "less than" because you are not ready to take the leap to being full time yet. You are not a giant failure if you neverwant to do it full time and having a paying creative hobby is enough for you! You are not lacking because someone who started at the same time as you seems to be doing better than you are. We have a lifetime to be as wonderful, creative and unique as we were born to be and I am a firm believer that everything comes in it's own good time. Don't be frightened to chase your dream, don't be embarrassed if others think its not achievable and don't call yourself a failure if you have a setback. YOU'VE GOT THIS!