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Can creative entrepreneurs really make money?

Treat your creative passion like a business.

Treat your creative passion like a business.

Can creative entrepreneurs really make money? I'm talking about people like artists, sculptors, writers and others who are pursuing their creative passions. There's a widely held belief that it's very hard to make money as an artist. After all, the concept of an "artist starving in a garret" is one that's often bandied about. And the idea that you can't get rich as a creative type is perpetuated by those who say they would not survive without grants from governments or arts organisations.

Personally, I'm a big believer that you can make serious money as a creative entrepreneur. But, in order to do so, you have to treat your creative passion like a business. If you want to make serious money, then you need to get serious about your marketing, sales, cash-flow and systems. And you need a business model that works – not one that relies on grants or handouts.

I want to focus on creativity not business

"Oh, but I don't want to deal with all that," I often hear people say. "I want to focus on what I'm good at – being creative. I just want to be an artist." I can't tell you how many times I've heard this from writers, artists and musicians.

Well, you know what? I just want to sit on a tropical island and sip daiquiris all day while writing my next book – and never have to look at a spreadsheet, BAS statement or business plan ever again. But guess what? That's just delusional.

Hey, if you become as successful as Nicole Kidman and can afford to employ an army of assistants, accountants and business advisers, then, sure, let them take care of the "business" while you focus on your "art".

But until you get to that stage, chances are that you need to get serious about the business side of your creative passions yourself if you want to earn a proper income from it. That doesn't mean you need to study accounting or read the corporations act. You just need to ensure that you address key factors in your business – especially sales and marketing.

The new world of selling

"I don't like to sell," I also hear people say. "I want my work to speak for itself. I want people to love it and buy it because it speaks to them. I'm just not a salesperson, I'm not good at that." 

While I can completely understand that you may not like the stereotypical idea of a high-pressured salesperson trying to close a deal, the reality is that if you're not going to sell it, who is?

The good news is that "selling" has become a hell of a lot easier than it used to be, thanks to the internet. It only take minutes to open an online store, through platforms such as Etsy or Shopify. And, you can soft sell your products by boosting your profile and creating relationships online.

That is, these days, you don't have to set up a market stall on a cold and rainy football oval at some ungodly hour of the morning and entice shoppers who are looking for bargains into buying your wares. And you don't have rely on carting around your wares from store to store trying to convince retailers to stock you. Half your battle can be won by building your profile and networking online – so that you get on the radar of the right people (potential customers, stockists and influencers). Over time, they get to know, like and trust you. And when it comes time to buy, refer or promote your products, they are comfortable doing so. In fact, sometimes, they do your "selling" for you by genuinely recommending your products to their networks.

Building communities

It's also about building a community. That's such a buzzword in business these days that it's easy to dismiss this idea. However, it can be incredibly powerful. For example, I run a writers' centre in Sydney, and I've created a community of people who are interested in writing. But I don't limit this to my customers. It's open to anyone who is interested in getting published or writing with confidence. It's not a physical community because we don't organise actual meetings. You'll find this community on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and our blog.

As members of our community have a common interest, they share resources with each other, organise their own meet-ups, and recommend our different products to each other. One of the benefits of a nurtured community is that they become fans, advocates and informal ambassadors of your brand. And there isn't a single moment of hard-selling in sight.

Ultimately, it would be wonderful if we could all simply explore our creativity and hope that money rolls in as result of our artistic genius. But the reality is that unless you treat your creative passion as a business, then it will forever remain a hobby.

If you're in Sydney, I'm speaking on "How to boost your creative business by networking and building your profile" at Etsy Success Sydney on Saturday June 2.

twitter Follow Valerie Khoo on Twitter @valeriekhoo

13 comments so far

  • In other words "No".

    Imagine the people you call 'creative entrepreneurs' being interested in creativity. That you don't like this doesn't really mean that it is wrong. Snide remarks about sipping daiquiris don't tell creative people how to make money from their art.

    If you think it is so easy to do the business set yourself up as an agent on a commission. Until then I'll maintain my conviction that you know nothing about being an artist.

    Evan Hadkins
    Date and time
    May 24, 2012, 4:35PM
    • I think Valerie Khoo is actually qualified to comment on this, as leader of Sydney Writers Centre and a successful businesswoman in her own right. Her message is that everyone needs to think about the business of their work. Sure, focus on the writing (product) but success also comes by marketing and managing the business side of things well too. Or don't and, and keep the works in your shelves.

      Date and time
      May 25, 2012, 12:53PM
  • I am an artist and a business person who runs a small gallery without government grants.The difficulty for most artists is that creative work is labour intensive and so is administration - so if the same person has to do it, it's just too hard.

    I am skilled at management but the constraints we operate under ie the gallery must be community based and in a certain location - ensure that we will always struggle. The result? Too much admin work and not enough money.

    More art is being produced than will ever sell, particularly as most buyers do not understand the difference between mass produced garbage from China and hand produced work by someone with vision. Most artists need a job on the side - or grants - as the Australian market is small and conservative. People who would not hesitate to drop a few hundred on shoes or clothes, hesitate to spend $200 on an original work. I think it's because the shoes etc are visible to all as a status symbol but the artwork is not seen that way - and will only be seen by a few invited to the home. So less kudos for the buyer of art than for those Loubouttins.

    It is true that many artists don't bother learning the business of art but it is also true that most artists will not be able to support themselves from their art. This does not mean their art is a hobby (which implies a casual leisure time filler after the serious things are done). It's the way it is.

    Date and time
    May 25, 2012, 12:54AM
    • That's the reality. "Fun" careers are harder than "boring" jobs, and usually less paid.

      Otherwise we'd all be travel writers and painters and professional video gamers!

      Date and time
      May 25, 2012, 9:28AM
    • "Otherwise we'd all be travel writers and painters and professional video gamers!"

      You see I think that is the problem. Everyone thinks it's so easy just because it's fun.
      I'm a creative and I'm good at what is my passion, doesn't mean I can suddenly also be a genius painter or sculptor of screen writer just because I want to be. Even game designing requires to know coding, that by no means is fun.

      Takes years to be good, sometimes a lifetime spent honing in on your craft to be become great.
      Mostly it's a lifetime of rejection, abuse, seclusion and indifference.
      Many people aren't in the creative "industries" or aren't artists or musicians, simply because they don't posses the talent or disposition.

      Riff Raff
      Date and time
      May 25, 2012, 11:39AM
    • If you want to make a living doing it, you need to treat it as a job - which means if you want to be paid $1,000 for a drawing, you have to convince the buyer it's worth $1,000.

      A hobby is doing something for yourself - a job is doing something for other people.

      There's no sense bemoaning an unresponsive audience - as a freelancer, your job is to convince them of the value of your work.

      Date and time
      May 28, 2012, 12:09PM
  • Following the standard textbook product development process then you can applied your creativity and turn it into cash.

    That is make what the customer wants and not make it and let them chose! You can still be very creative by making a product and/or services of what customer wants.

    Really it's very simple product development101.

    Lastly, no not everyone needs to be like Apple and Google, you just need to find your market to survive.

    Date and time
    May 25, 2012, 9:43AM
    • Bob, that's the attitude that makes it impossible for artists to make money. Because artistic pursuits are perceived as fun, the attitude is that fun should be its own reward, instead of money. Back to the 'hobby' attitude.

      I found in my former life as an executive, most of the misery was caused by those I answered to, being bullies whose constant rage and nagging wrecked my health, rather than the work itself.

      Most art is produced with a lot of hard work - the old saying about 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration is true - and many artforms are expensive to produce too. Without patronage, we would not have the works of Leonardo or Michelangelo - because of the costs they faced. Most artistic works can't be sold on the internet because the internet works best for small inexpensive consumables, not large scale works or more cutting edge work (which is what gets the artist grants)..

      While consumers expect to pay third world prices for first world art - or not pay at all - artists will always need grants and non art jobs for support. Most artists accept this because it means their art can be freely expressed. And without art, life would be boring indeed.

      Support local galleries and performance spaces - and support local artists! You never know, you might even have fun and make some friends.

      Date and time
      May 25, 2012, 9:58AM
      • You can make a lot of money from art but the reality is that you must have a head for business also, if you dont have that you wont succeed no matter how good you are,

        Date and time
        May 25, 2012, 10:28AM
        • Hackneyed dos and don’ts for artists or anyone is just boring and defeats the heart of innovation. I think Valerie Khoo would make a very good army officer.

          Date and time
          May 25, 2012, 1:46PM

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