How Creatives Can Successfully Survive In Business? Design-In-Practice Series
How Do You Start and Run A Business Selling Creative Products?
Between Commerce and Art
Many people learn design in order to sell what they make. Designers create websites. They create interiors and exteriors. They build things. They craft things. They make art. All in an effort to make some money.
In today’s world, designers who sell what they create must become savvy in both regular retail selling, that is, directly business-to-customer, as well as internet retail, or virtually business-to-customer. This might seem too complex. Too overwhelming. Too impossible. Too boring. There are a lot of tensions here between commerce and art, not least of which is having to introduce your creative products publicly and persuade people to buy them. Creative thinking is not the same as business thinking. This makes many creatives uncomfortable.
Let Business Concerns Influence Your Artistic Choices
OK, you want to sell your work. But there is always this nagging question: To what extent do (and should) business concerns influence the artistic choices you make?
If you want to be in business, then I’d say, “A Lot!” But this isn’t what a lot of artists like to hear. Design is not the same as painting a painting or sculpting a sculpture. With paintings or sculptures, the artist does not need to communicate interactively with the viewer in order to create the product and that product be deemed successful. Design, instead, is more of an interactive art. It is like architecture, where success can only be created through some kind of meaningful interaction with others, and only be defined as successful as the product is introduced publicly.
Selling your pieces is merely another phase of this interactive art, but, as a business, selling creative products sometimes forces upon you some more limits and refinements. You have to market to audiences. You may have to make trade-offs between visual appeal and functionality. You may have to standardize things to be able to make the same thing over and over again. You may have to work in a production mode and repeat making certain designs, rather than freely creating and designing anew each time. You have to price things so that they will sell, and you have to price things so that you can make a sufficient profit. You shouldn’t undersell yourself, like offering discounts to family, friends and co-workers, lest you run out of money.
You have to conform to prevalent styles and colors and forms. You have to make things that will photograph well. You have to make things that clients want and are willing to buy. You may end up with a lot of “one size fits all,” because producing too much variety in sizes, shapes, colors and sizes could overwhelm you financially.
You find that if you want to make your designs into a successful business, you may have to compromise with yourself, your artistic drives and sensibilities. You may have to limit what you offer. In order to make that sale. In order to make a profit. And stay in business.
A Good Business Selling Creative Products involves:
— Putting your artwork on a sound cost/revenue footing
— Developing market-driven (what they want) strategies as opposed to product-driven ones (what you want)
— Pricing your work for sale
— Implementing various selling strategies
— Compromising artistic and design choices, in the interest of the business
Why Designers Fail In Business: Some Key Reasons
Over and over again, I have seen one designer after another fail as a business. Usually the reasons why keep repeating themselves with each designer.
1. A reluctance to learn how to conduct oneself as a business
2. Gets bored
3. A fear of marketing your own things
4. Trying to please all audiences
5. Doesn’t do homework on the competition
1. A reluctance to learn how to conduct oneself as a business.
Many designers get so excited after making their first sale, that they think they don’t have to get too involved with business principles. They misunderstand their “business” as a “project-by-project” endeavor. Make something, sell it. Doesn’t matter what the price. Doesn’t matter to whom. Doesn’t matter if making the work in the first place is in line with the resources you currently have, or will drive you in debt in order to get those resources. All that matters is the count — the number of pieces or designs you have sold.
Designers need to focus, not with the count, but on what’s called Velocity, instead. You need to have in place sufficient strategies for keeping your money turning over at a constant rate. You make something. You sell it. You reallocate the money you just made to reinvesting in more inventory, replacing the inventory you sold, evaluating the pros and cons of the sale that just happened, adjusting accordingly, and strategizing how to keep this velocity going at a constant, or ever-increasing, velocity or rate. If you can’t maintain this rate, you go in the hole.
And artists need to keep good records, and implement good accounting principles so they can monitor and evaluate the data about velocity.
2. Gets Bored.
People who get started are very excited. They’ve made a lot of pretty pieces or designs, and someone has bought some of them. But then you need to leave your creative mode, and enter a production mode. You need to discipline yourself to make the same things over and over again, particularly in the first 2 or 3 years of your business. Many designers quickly lose interest.
3. A fear of marketing your own things
You won’t succeed without marketing. Marketing is more than advertising. It includes all forms of self-promotion. It includes doing research on your markets and market niches. It incluces how to reach your potential clients in these markets, how to get their attention, how to get them to translate this attention into needs and wants and desires, and how to get them to part with some money.
Many artists are shy about self-promotion. Time to train yourself, if this is you, to get over it.
4. Trying to please all audiences
When people get started, they are reluctant to use the “No” word. They want to please everyone. But when you get started, you can’t. It will put you out of business.
Let’s say you are a jewelry designer, and have some jewelry for sale that is predominantly purple. Someone at work loves the jewelry, but asks if you can make it in red. If you don’t have an inventory of red beads, and will have to go out and buy them, it may make this sale foolish, from a business standpoint. You can’t buy just one bead at a time; you need to buy strands or packages of these beads — many more parts than you would need to make one piece of jewelry for this customer.
When you start in business, you need to pursue a strategy of depth, rather than breadth. As a digital designer, you want to invest in a limited number of software applications, equipment, and related resources, and narrow your focus on the types of projects you undertake. As a jewelry or crafts designer, you want to buy a limited number of pieces, colors, sizes and shapes of materials in large enough quantities to get adequate price breaks. So, initially, your designs will be limited, as well. If someone asks you to develop a project or design that is outside your budgeted resources, you need to be able to say No!. No! to your family. No! to your friends. No! to the people you work with.
In my experience, such as the situation for the jewelry designer with red vs purple beads above, when you say No!, the potential customer tends to make a face. Pitiful. Angry. Frustrated. Sad. Pleading. If you can wait 60 seconds, in almost every case, the customer stops making this face, and says, in our jewelry example, for instance, “OK, I’ll take what you have in purple.”
60-seconds. That’s how long you have to wait without responding. Only 60-seconds before that person gives up and stops making the Face. It always amazes me, but so many jewelry and other designers can’t wait those 60 seconds. They cave.
And don’t give these people discounts. They’re already getting it cheaper, than if they bought the same design in a store, or purchased the design services from a large corporation. One major way your business will get built up is word-of-mouth. You don’t want some of that information to include extremely low price expectations. If you are stuck giving low prices, you will never be self-supporting in your business.
5. Doesn’t do homework on the competition
You need to understand how other designers you compete with function as a business.
How do they define their markets?
How do they price things?
What kinds of inventory, software and equipment do they own? What kinds do they NOT own?
Where do they advertise? How do they promote themselves?
How do they staff up, contract out, or learn the necessary skills to get the jobs done within the set time-frame?
How do they define their competitive advantage — that is, all the reasons people should buy from them, rather than from anyone else, like you?
Where do they sell things? What seems to work better for them?
How do they figure out the best place — real or virtual — to link their product and product message to the customers most likely to need, want and buy their designs?
You can find a lot of this out by Googling. You can look for designers in your field and occupation. Directories of designers. You can plug in a designer’s website, and see where they are listed, and who lists them. You can look at their work. Often, you can discover many of their clients. You can look at reviews.
Can I Make Money?
Some designers are only interested in selling the occasional piece or project. Others want to create a steady flow of some extra income. Still others want to be financially self-sufficient as a designer.
Whatever your personal goal and commitment, can you make money? The answer is YES… That is, if you are smart about it.
Your friends and relatives might tell you that living as a creative designer “Is not practical,” or a warning “Don’t quit your day job.”
I won’t lie to you. It’s tough. It requires commitment and perseverance. It requires some introverted skills and some extroverted skills. It requires managing a process that includes some creative elements and some business and administrative ones. But you can do it.
First, Goals. Sit down and write down some do-able sets of goals for your business. Some sets of goals will be on the creative side; others on the business side.
One set of goals should answer the question: How are you going to manage the design process (from inspiration to aspiration to finished product to marketing and selling your products)?
Another set of these goals should answer the question: How are you going to maintain your cash flow throughout the whole year?
After you start implementing your goals, at some point you should be able to ask a friend: Did I achieve my goals or not?
Second, Time. Organize your time. You need to spend a certain amount of time with creative activity. Another block of time on business, administrative and marketing activities. And a certain amount of time for reflection and evaluation and self-care. You need to maintain balance between the personal and the professional, and between the creative and the administrative.
Third, Limits. Do not try to do too many different projects or work with too many different kinds of design elements and components at the same time — particularly in your first 3 years in business.
As your business grows, you’ll reach a point where you have enough cash flow — that Velocity of sales — that you can begin to broaden your efforts, meeting more of the needs of your current clients, and expanding the options for new clients.
Fourth, Realism. Do not go for roofs before setting foundations. Learn about materials and techniques in a developmental order. Things will make much more sense and be easier to accomplish as you advance your skills and endeavors.
Last, Supports. You can’t do everything by yourself. Find compatriots. Find a mentor. Share or coordinate some workloads. Be sure you structure in ways to be accountable and get feedback.
Bethke, Kelly. “A creative’s guide to starting a new business,” Fast Company, 11/9/18.
Campbell, Anita. “A 30-Point Checklist For Your Start-Up,” Small Biz Trends, 4/18/13.
Other Articles of Interest by Warren Feld:
Thank you. I hope you found this article useful.
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Other Suggested Readings:
Backward-Design Is Forward Thinking, (FELD, 2020)
Disciplinary Literacy and Fluency in Design, (FELD, 2020)
Jewelry Design: A Managed Process, (FELD, 2020)