It’s there, in the back of your mind.
Whether you’re feeling the buzz of learning a new skill, or taking a long-standing hobby to a new level, there are times when you start to daydream about how great it would be to turn it into a job.
It’s not a fantastical idea. In 2015, 608,110 small businesses started up in the UK alone, according to statistics from the Centre for Entrepreneurs and StartUp Britain. All sorts of professionals are taking the leap, from bakers to accountants.
It’s not all rosy out there, and starting your own business is tough. But with the right foundation, it’s possible to make a living from your art.
1. Draw up a budget
Before you even pick up a pen, a paintbrush or a camera, get stuck into the numbers.
Launching a business can feel like a huge undertaking. There are so many unknowns, fears and doubts. And, sure, there are all sorts of things that can happen, quite a few of which might be out of your control.
So how do you reduce that pressure and worry a little? Get things down on paper.
First up, how much do you need to earn from your work? Sit down and pore through all of your regular expenses, from the essential to the frivolous. How much does rent cost? How much do you need to pay bills, and buy food? What can you trim from your life without too much pain?
The ultimate aim of this exercise is to give yourself a “magic number”: A solid figure that you need to reach each month to make sure that you’re fed, clothed and have a roof over your head. Now you’ve got yourself a target to aim at, and your business suddenly feels a little more manageable, rather than wild and scary.
(Oh, and don’t forget to plan and save for your annual tax bill)
2. Don’t be scared to start slow – and develop your craft
Some folk love to jump in with both feet. And if you’ve got the urge to leap straight into a creative freelance role or a new business, it can be a great way to force yourself to sink or swim. But if you’ve got responsibilities and you’re concerned about making ends meet, there’s no shame in starting your creative business up as an “evening job” while you get your bearings.
If you’re still in full-time work, set yourself a challenge: You’ll work on your sideline in the evenings and weekends, see how it develops, and leave after a certain number of months. It doesn’t need to be a solid deadline – but try not to drag it out too much or you may never take that leap. Many prefer to keep the security of their salaried work as they test and grow their passion in their spare time. And some even do “non-creative” part-time work to provide them with some regular income to keep the wolf from the door.
Also, don’t be afraid to keep learning. Even professionals don’t know everything. Learn from your peers, test new approaches, and maybe even consider a distance learning course at the Open College of the Arts to develop your talents? The input of tutors and fellow participants can give you new ideas and perspectives.
3. Explore your niches
It might sound counter-intuitive, but sometimes there’s a benefit in being very specific about what you have to offer. For example, if an engaged couple is looking for someone to take pictures of their big day, the first thing they’ll search for is a “wedding photographer”, rather than someone who simply advertises as a photographer.
Give someone a clear indication of what you can do for them, and they’re more likely to contact you with requests. What’s more, it also gives people ideas of how they can use your talents. Someone might love your artwork, but might not be able to think of a way to hire you. If you tell them you can do murals, or something similar, it plants the idea in their head.
There’s a temptation to advertise yourself as someone who can do anything, as you’re worried about missing out on potential work. And – yes – there may be times when you might take on projects that aren’t *exactly* what you had in mind when you started. But identifying the niches where you work best – or know the right people – can be the difference between proactively establishing a client base, and simply accepting anything that’s offered to you.
4. Get yourself online (and offline)
When you start, make sure that you’re visible. Set up a website advertising your services, with clear layout, attractive examples, and easy-to-find contact information. It’s not as frightening as it used to be. You can use platforms like WordPress, Ghost or Squar
Sign up to the social networks where your target audience live, whether that’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram or even Snapchat. Don’t feel like you have to be everywhere, because you’re not going to get any more business from a social account that hasn’t been touched in a year.
Remember, your site and social accounts aren’t just there to advertise you. People also look you up online to confirm that you look legitimate and trustworthy before they get in touch.
If your audience is largely offline, go where they are. Advertise in newspapers, magazines, museums, libraries, galleries, shopping centres. Do your research. Test ideas. See what works.
4. Build your network
You may get quite a few “cold” queries for people that have found you online (especially if you’ve done a good job making yourself visible on Google, but that’s a discussion for another article). However, there’s nothing more valuable than a network.
When they’re starting out, self-employed people depend on their networks. Whether that’s friends, family, business acquaintances or fellow enthusiasts in a certain field, these are the people that will “give you a shot” at a new project, call you to collaborate on a task, or maybe put a word in with someone else.
Cultivate these links, and they’ll keep your business afloat as you expand your client base. Make time to attend events, and nurture friendships and business relationships. If you’ve already selected your niche, research the networks that could be most valuable to you, and start building those ties.
5. Set your price – and value your time
Here’s where it gets awkward, particularly for us shy types. One of the most gut-wrenching questions people ask themselves when they start out is how much they should charge.
The simple answer is: If you tell a client your price, and they immediately accept it, you’ve probably asked for too little…
Seriously though, this is an area in which having friends and contacts in your field can be helpful. Don’t be afraid to ask people how much they’d charge, and do some research of your own. Also, make some decisions based on how much time, effort and materials you’ve put into your service or product. Remember, you’ve got to make a living.
Prices aren’t set in stone. If you think you’re under-charging down the line, you can adjust and test later on. Sometimes, having a few less clients paying a little more can be better for your work-life balance anyway.
Speaking of work-life balance, keep this in mind when you’re planning out the services and prices you’re offering. Say you’ve got a lot of interest in illustrating bespoke birthday and Christmas cards. They’re taking you a couple of hours to design and create, but you’re only charging £3 a time. That’s a lot of time to spend on something that’s not making you a lot back.
Your creative business shouldn’t kill you. So remember to keep a note of how much time and money you’re plunging into your products or services, compared to what you’re getting back. If you find something that makes you more money for less work, and still inspires you, you’re onto a winner.
And while doing a free gig or two can feel like a good way to make friends and build contacts, don’t get into that habit. You’re an artist, and a professional, and your work has value. Don’t sell yourself short.
Also published on Medium.