Make Your Own Career #2: Artists

Over the course of November I’ve been freelancing at Bath Spa University running a series of events on enterprising career paths.

This is the second of three blogs about the events I’ve facilitated.

The second event in the series was focused on artists and creatives looking to sell their work. We knew from previous experience that many students studying creative disciplines aren’t drawn (and in some cases are repulsed) to the language of entrepreneurship and business more generally. However we also knew that lots of these students were trying to sell their work – specifically the products and artefacts of their work rather than their skills (which we covered in the freelancing event a week earlier).

We held the events at the Bath School of Art & Design to better connect with our audience too. We also deliberately flagged the events still to come in the series which would focus on business planning and pitching, both valuable skills, but again often unattractive at first glance to creative students. However coming to this event first might help persuade them to come to the next event.

We scheduled two workshops; the first of these was a profiling of the DeutscheBank Awards for Creative Enterprise (DBACE) scheme – which is a great opportunity for emerging creative graduates.

The second of these was led by Abigail Branagan who works both for Bath Spa University and for Creative Industry Finance. Abigail has enormous experience supporting artists and creative businesses to step up and find ways to commercialise their work.

We also provided a series of 1-2-1 meetings for creative students to drop in and I helped them work through their first steps in developing their business ideas.

I’ve distilled some of the key lessons below:

What is a Business Plan anyway?

For many people a Business Plan is a potentially dry and lifeless document, a formality for the bank manager, potentially even a straitjacket. But it needn’t be, and the best capture something of the spirit of the business. Some of the examples provided by DBACE are really interesting and are practically works of art in their own right. See Rhythm Passport  and M62 for just two examples.

However, many people in business don’t have a plan at all, or maybe not a formal document anyway. Such things have their uses but if the basic purpose of a plan is to set out an agenda or a sense of direction and purpose then this has to resonate and work for the document’s creator as much as any external stakeholder. Could an ‘artist’s statement’ constitute a business plan? How about this one from Cleo Mussi?

There is also the whole school of thought that says you should have a business model before you have a business plan anyway – and then we have a rash of different ‘canvas’ tools that bring something of the artistic visualisation and illustration to the heart of the business planning process.

What is true across all the sectors and modes of writing plans is that the discipline of planning, and the process of putting something on paper (statement, canvas, manifesto, or plan) is a good discipline for herding up, sifting through, connecting up, weeding out, and generally honing an idea into something that can be acted on with purpose and efficiency.

Developing markers of credibility

We touched on this last week by encouraging emerging freelancers to do personal and voluntary projects to build their portfolio and project the image of being ‘in action’ as a professional as opposed to being wholly unproven. What else helps project credibility and professionalism, even as a facade, before you have a long career to call upon? Making things is one answer, as an emerging professional it can be easier to be a product business rather than a service one – you get judged on the product, not the years of experience you don’t have. Finding the right partners and sales channels is another – getting into the right shops, into the right networks, championed by the right people can all short-cut the process of gaining credibility by borrowing that from someone else!

For many artists (and customers buying art) authenticity is critical so make a point of declaring your values and principles – and then upholding them and putting them front and centre of the brand.

Triangulating to find your pricing strategy

Many emerging businesses and freelancers struggle to price their work. The basic process is one of triangulation between three points: 1) how much it cost you to produce – hours of labour, raw materials, costs like space, power, tools etc, 2) its value – what should it be valued at? Is it rare, exclusive, bespoke, are there people who are more likely to appreciate its value than others? This a bit more difficult to determine but a bit of aspiration is no bad thing, and 3) the prices set by competitors – do you want to position yourself as a bargain, as a peer, or as a superior? Lots of makers start out by calculating their raw costs and simply doubling it – and this is not bad advice! The danger of pricing too low is not only that you don’t make money, but that you’ll struggle to ever raise prices, and that you’re undercutting existing professionals who’ll resent the fact that you’re making them look too expensive…

You then have to get out in the market and try and sell it; finding the right audience, via the right channel, is critical. Whilst many heathens and barbarians might not value something there is always someone for whom its priceless, so target your audience carefully – where are they shopping?

Also, don’t forget the margin that some retailers will take! If they’re making 70% of the retail price you have to be able to still make your own profit at the retail price after the shop have taken theirs…

Build relationships

Critical to all the above processes is getting out there in the market and meeting people. It was suggested on the day that there is no substitute for direct sales – i.e. dealing with your customers face-to-face – in terms of building ongoing relationships (for future sales), for gaining feedback to develop your business, and for making valuable connections – relationships are key.

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