Warning: this blog post is going to be crazy-long – and this is just part 1 of 2! I’m super passionate about all the stuff I’m about to spill, so prepare for an essay. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions!
How do you start a creative business from scratch?
Good question – if I was asked that just over 12 months ago I would shrug and tell you to Google it. Without sounding like I “fell” into this, which I definitely didn’t, I sure as hell winged a lot of it. I think if you spend your life researching how to start something and all the steps to take and in exactly what order according to some person you’ve only heard of from a book – you’ll NEVER do it! Just go. Start it. Make it up if you have to.
My business was actually started with a friend and was going to involve making and selling greeting cards. Through the design process (I had no idea how to use Photoshop or Illustrator) I discovered hand lettering and fell in love with the art – and wanted to focus more on perfecting that instead of making and selling products. I’ll touch more on this realisation at the end.
If I could give the tiniest bit of advice – the moment you want to start a business, go get an ABN! Or whatever the worldwide equivalent of signing up your business with the authorities is. This means (in Oz anyway) that you can start claiming things on tax against your business. Which is a godsend after you buy 85 million brush pens. Some clients also won’t work with you without one.
I’m still no expert, I wing stuff every day. If you follow me on Insta you’ll see the projects I just have a crack at all the time, particularly without reading or bothering to look at instructions (i.e. the current DIY chalkboard). The only way I learn is to try something, even if that means I fail hard. It’s a lesson. I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. Fake it ‘til you make it, as they say!
When I started my business I called myself the Founder and Creative Director. It’s not a lie, but it’s definitely an exaggeration. But I thought – stuff it! It’s my business, it’s technically true, and if I want to be taken seriously then I need to give myself a title and show people I take my business seriously. These days I’m more relaxed and take the piss a lot, calling myself the Chief Pen Wizard, because I can do whatever I want with BCC and no one can tell me otherwise! Which is all I ever wanted 🙂
I guess if I’m being totally honest and realistic – maybe I did have a slight advantage. I studied business management at University and I’ve worked in the depths of businesses (human resources and for company directors) for the last 8 years – so perhaps over traditional artists (we all know a tonne of talented people who have hardly any recognition) I have an advantage. I’m not an expert though, I just did the things I knew, that ‘made sense’ to do, and studied what I didn’t know.
What advice do you have for starting a side-business when you already have a full-time job?
TELL THEM! Be transparent as hell, immediately. From working in HR I knew all about moonlighting and that you could get in serious trouble if you start a business without telling them, and ESPECIALLY if your business is even remotely related to your full-time job. You could be breaching your employment contract. As soon as I got back from the Christmas holidays in early 2016 when BCC was born, I sat down with the CEO (by the way – not because I thought my life was so important the CEO had to know, I was his assistant lol – so your boss, tell your boss. And / or HR) and told him. He had no issue with it, and only asked me to sign the moonlighting clause for procedure because he already trusted me. It was important he found out from me and knew that in no way would it impact my job performance.
Do. Not. Work. On. Your. Side. Business. At. Work! Unless you wanna be fired, or have people talk crap about you. You might not think they will, but they will. The moment you are late to submit something, ANYTHING, even if it’s the first time ever, I guarantee someone will smirk “yeah, bet she was too busy working on her own business” if indeed, someone had caught you doing that before. Do not give yourself that rep. Do not use company resources (even printing) or time on your business, it’s not cool. You are not paid to do anything other than that job during those hours.
I try to keep my business as separated from my real job as possible. The people who sit near me and work closely with me know about it, my boss knows about it (new boss, who I told during interview because I wanted to be upfront), and they’ll ask me about it every now and then or say they saw something I posted. But (and this is a whole other topic) I really don’t like attention (introvert), so the less people that bombard me with questions, the better! Plus, I’m at work for my job, not my side hustle, so even talking about it is wasting time I should be spending doing the job I’m there to do.
What kind of time commitment do I have to give my own creative business?
It depends entirely what you want to achieve! For me, I’m all or nothing, so from day 1 I was obsessed and entrenched myself in it. I have wanted to own my own business ever since I was working for a dog groomer 10 years ago who had started her business from scratch and worked from home. I was like, damn! This is the DREAM! Especially because there are puppies everywhere, ALL the time. And she called all the shots. But it wasn’t until BCC that I found a thing that I really, truly wanted to do and thought I had a chance at. But also one that if I failed miserably at, wouldn’t have cost me thousands. Before then it was all just pipe dreams or unachievable ones (like becoming a travel blogger – such an oversaturated market).
So for me, in the beginning I spent an OBSCENE amount of time learning. The first 6 months of my business would be from the moment I got home until bed time, and then when I woke up I’d sneak in an hour or two before work. The last 6 months of 2016 were a lot less as I had started a new job and it’s amazing how much brain power it takes from you if you’re learning all day! I had been in my previous role for a few years so I could do my day job with my eyes closed, but I became a lot more tired during the second half of 2016. I would still try to create something for IG or answer emails, but most of the BCC work was saved for the weekend. I once smashed out 7 hours of work at the airport waiting to come home from a full day of travel teaching interstate workshops… I’m an animal sometimes.
I still spend an OBSCENE amount of time on the business, but it’s spent more doing the “businessy” stuff now. During holidays or whenever I don’t have work the next day, I’ll stay up until like 3am practising or looking up stuff online. Then I’ll wake up at 6am and do it again. Wanna know what I did for New Year’s Eve 2015 when I first started BCC? Stayed at home doing brush pen lettering… ha ha ha.
I could sit here and say I’ve sacrificed a lot – which is kind of true. But, nothing that negatively impacted my life or makes me regret what I did – I just wanted to do this more. I would spend way more time at home, I bought maybe 3 pieces of clothing all of last year so I had more craft money, I would not go to networking events that chewed into my personal time, and I would dedicate as much time as possible to BCC. I definitely still sacrifice my “present-ness” by looking at my phone too much when I’m with others, but I’m not sure that’ll ever fully stop! I need to get better at controlling it.
Friends and family have got used to me saying “just a sec, posting on Insta” or making them listen to me read out comments – it’s become part of who I am. I am my brand, after all.
I think if you really, truly want to make something as big a success as possible – you have to be willing to put a lot of time and effort into it. There are people who can do big things while being stay at home parents, or with jobs, or both, and maybe don’t seem to put in as much time as you thought you’d have to, but firstly, you only see snippets on social media, not all of the hard work behind the scenes. Secondly, maybe they only need to put in minimal effort, but you might find that they don’t get the same opportunities as you, or earn what you do from it. Do as much as you can I say, you can always scale back. I grabbed this with both hands. I have no commitments that could stop me travelling interstate on weekends, doing jobs after work in the evening, or taking on big corporate clients – so I may as well while I can.
How do you run your own creative business?
Ha ha I don’t even know. Most days the business runs me. If I’m being totally honest, I haaate the business side of my business. It’s tedious. I do business admin all day at work, doing it for what is my passion project is boring. I really don’t do a good job of it – my inbox is always overflowing, I take forever to reply, and I don’t even want to look at my finances because they are in no way streamlined or tidy! But whatever, it’s working OK for me right now, and as I’ve stated – no one else can tell me what to do with it! I’m sure one day I’ll get sick of it and clean my processes up, but for now I’m fine with being kept on my toes. As I said at the start, if you spend all this time getting things in order – you’ll probably never even start! Sometimes you just have to take a risk and go for it. Worry about the little things later.
What strategies do you employ to build a customer base, generate new work and continue improving your brand?
I used a social media strategy to grow my customer service base (focusing on IG, I’ll talk more about social media in Part 2). This year for me is when I’ll start focusing on other avenues, but for now it’s basically all IG with a little bit of Facebook.
In the beginning I reached out to a few brands I wanted to work with, and heard back from none. Life isn’t all it seems on IG, eh! I was relentless with one of them and now I work with them all the time. The rest of them (funnily enough) all ended up coming back to me, probably because my following had grown since I contacted them. Whatever though, I can understand where they were coming from, no company wants to waste their time, and now they can see that they’re getting a return on investment with me.
All my client work comes from people contacting me, I do very little with marketing myself for client jobs because I don’t have the capacity to do much more while I have a full-time job. To attract clients though, I highly recommend having a professional looking website that reflects you (mine says a tonne of dumb stuff, which is perfect because that is exactly my sense of humour and I don’t want to work with anyone who doesn’t want to work with me, so they may as well know who I really am), and put a portfolio online. I have a section of my website that just has a bunch of photos of work I’ve completed. But what if I haven’t done any, you ask? Just make some stuff up! If no one has asked you to do work for them, go make something and pretend they did! Some of the things on my portfolio are gifts I made for friends, it doesn’t matter. It still showcases what you’re capable of, so put your best work out there.
In terms of improving your brand… well, I AM my brand. As with this blog post, I put myself out there more and more as time goes on, I share my thoughts and feelings and am raw and honest, and I think that doing those things ‘improves’ my brand by making me more relatable. It’s hard to relate to someone who has built themselves up to be an untouchable, amazing, incredible, super talented, successful artist. I’m just a regular person who discovered something I love a year ago, and try to do it around my full time job. People relate to that, and it helps my brand as a result.
Suggestions around Copyright (quotes and lyrics) – are there rules around it?
There’s a bunch of info online on this but from memory you can only use quotes or lyrics that are like, pre 1920 or something crazy. There are a TONNE of people using quotes and lyrics to make money and it is not right! Emily McDowell is a great example of someone who has paved their way using only original quotes, and she talks about this topic a bit. You might think it’s OK to pop up a cheeky print on Etsy with some Justin Timberlake lyrics or whatever, but beware. I’m part of a women’s entrepreneur group and I’ve heard of many times where people have come into legal trouble through this. My advice, just don’t do it. If it’s a gift for a friend or family member, different story, but don’t use quotes or lyrics that are copyrighted by others, to make a profit for yourself.
How do you price products?
This is an extremely complex topic which I’ll try not to go into TOO much detail on. In short, it’s really bloody hard! There are SO many variables. I usually start by researching similar products and using that to benchmark. Look at a wide variety of makers though, as you’ll find their prices vary greatly.
Experience level can come into play. I charged 1/4 of what I do now for my first chalkboard job which was an 8-hour marathon. I learned a tonne and I’m glad I didn’t charge more because I essentially would’ve been ripping them off – I didn’t know what I was doing! I told them that too. Yeah the final result was good, but I took way longer than I should have. Once I had come up with time saving ideas to ensure I was doing jobs as quickly as possible while keeping the quality, the rates went up. I can also leverage off my social media following for higher prices which is an added bonus. Now for me it depends on the size of the board, how far from home I need to travel, if it’s complex (ladder required), if it’s a time consuming job (i.e. lots of illustration vs words) as well as who is asking me. Small businesses don’t have a big budget; big brands can afford it.
Research what others do and make your own price list. Decide, OK well $4 for an envelope, $2.50 per place card, $50 for an a4 print, and so on and so forth. At least you will be able to give a rough estimate off the top of your head when you’re asked, instead of ‘oh, uh let me go think about it’ which makes it seem like you’re going to rip them off. Another thing you can do straight up is tell people, ‘it depends on a variety of things, would you like me to send you through a design brief?’ You can find templates of these online and you can ask whatever you want. Size, materials they want, deadline, budget, whatever. This can help you assess the situation further, and make sure you can actually deliver what they want, before committing. Don’t forget – if someone wants something and you’re all booked up or they want it VERY quickly – you can charge more for a rushed service. Just because you are a 1-person operation doesn’t mean you can’t operate like a retailer – express shipping costs more, and so should your express artwork.
At the end of the day, don’t sell yourself short. If someone is approaching you, it’s because they like what you can do and they want YOU to make it. If you under-price, you will regret it. Once you’ve settled on prices, try not to budge. It’s the people who drill us down to cheap prices that are the most difficult clients to work with. You will absolutely resent these projects.
I could tell you at least 20 stories of clients I’ve quoted that haven’t wanted to proceed. Yeah it sucks to never hear back or have someone say “hmm I don’t have that budget sorry” but please just think of how awful it would be to do something for cheap / free for someone who doesn’t even VALUE your work in the first place!
I once posted on a women’s business page that I do lettering and someone DM’d me right away to ask for me to hand letter her name for her email signature. An email signature! Imagine how many people my work would be exposed to if I did that – hundreds! Sometimes exposure means more than money. Given I didn’t have to work to get that client and I wanted something cool like an email signature to add to my portfolio, I said I’d do it for $20. Her response? Oh? Oh sorry no, I thought it would be for free. Ummm????????????? Bye.
Same goes for if someone asks me to write their name on IG. Yeah shoot me $20 I’ll write whatever you want. There’s a great story about Pablo Picasso and a napkin. He was sitting in a café and an admirer approached him and asked if he would quickly sketch something for him on a napkin. Picasso politely agreed and whipped it up, handing it over whilst simultaneously asking for $1,000,000. “How can you ask for so much? It took you a minute to draw this!” to which he replied something like “and it took me decades to learn how to do that in a minute.” Never undervalue your skills, no matter how efficient you get!
Do you need an ABN for an Etsy shop?
Hmm. I don’t think so. From memory in Australia you can have a hobby without needing to register it as a business. However, getting an ABN is free and means you can get sweet tax breaks. I suppose it depends on what you plan on doing, but I’d recommend just getting an ABN anyway in case you need to invoice a client in future or something. Don’t take my word for it though, seek professional financial advice!
While I’m on the topic – once you build an audience, I think it’s best to get away from Etsy. The moment I could drive traffic to my own shop, I left it behind. I think you’re better off controlling your own shop and having a more professional look. I use Big Cartel and you can use Shopify as well for something a bit sleeker and more customisable. If you prefer Etsy, that’s fine, but I always take shops more seriously when they’re not on Etsy. Plus, you can only sell handmade stuff on there, don’t forget.
This wasn’t a question from anyone, but more just an important piece of advice:
LISTEN TO YOUR PEOPLE!
I sold something like 4 Valentine’s Day cards when I started my business. They cost me $150 to make and still sit around my apartment. My following on IG didn’t grow because people thought my cards were cool, people thought what I was DOING to make those cards was cool. So I watched and listened and learned and did what the people wanted. That’s a seriously important lesson in business. While doing exactly what YOU want is great, you’re not your customer, and if you don’t evolve to meet their needs, you become redundant.
How do I do that though, you ask? …Ask! Look at any of my IG posts, I ask for stuff all the time. What did you do this weekend? What do you think of this thing I made? Has anyone done this before? Who likes this TV show? I even asked what people wanted this blog to include.
Watch your blog and social stats. Get a Facebook business page, connect it to Insta and look at what works and what doesn’t. I can tell when I post something whether it will do well or not, because I know what works for my audience and when I feel like engagement is dropping, I’ll put something in particular up. Discovering these details can be extremely helpful.
Did I miss something? Is there anything more you’d like to know? Leave me a comment below and I can add it to part 2 of this novel blog post!
It goes without saying – but I am NOT an expert on small business! The above advice is based solely on what has worked for me and my creative venture, and I highly recommend you seek professional financial advice before you start your business.
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