I get this question a lot: How do I start up a creative business?
While the question is daunting, my advice is straight forward and simple: JUST START!
I know, I know…no one likes to hear that, but it’s true! The idea phase or the “where do I start?!” mentality can be completely crippling, but trust me. You just gotta start! But for the sake of practicality and giving you an action plan (I love action plans), here are my top 5 tips for starting up a creative business (that, if I could go back in time, I would do differently):
1. Observe and Research.
You know this. The creative space in this world is dense, to say the least. There’s a lot of people starting up, posting their work on social media, opening the Etsy shops, promoting their this or that service…it’s overwhelming! It seems like your skill is instantly diluted because there are so many people trying to do the creative small business thing. I get it. A couple of years after I got into wedding stationery, it seemed like evvvveryone was quitting their jobs and doing the calligraphy/custom stationery thing. But guess what? You can’t let that stop you. There’s enough space at the table for everyone to sit and enjoy their meal. And you know what’s going to get you a seat? Doing the research. What do I mean by this? Here’s an example:
Watercolor artists are a dime a dozen these days. But, if you do your research, you’ll discover that custom house portrait watercolorists is a less dense market! Niching down can do SO much for your business. Think of a category within your skill set that could help you define and target a specific audience! This is where I went wrong when I started 7 years ago. I had NO clue who my target audience was, so I ended up wasting so much precious time on trying to be something I wasn’t, or working with clients that weren’t a *fit* for me. So, does this mean that you can only paint that one thing, or serve that one type of client? No! But having this as direction will help bring clarity to your business, the next steps and how to find the customers who are interested in what you offer!
I’m talkin’ super straight up here…not getting into the nitty-gritty of branding and the metaphors and suggestions you make with your color palette and font choices. Choose a name and set up your domain name, create a “.com” email address with that domain name, snag your social media handles, etc. This is an important step, that may seem obvious, but don’t get too far into your business without doing this, then all of a sudden realize the name is already taken. Another important thing to keep in mind during this stage is your name. I ended up having to change my business name from “Mon Voir” to “Jenna Rainey” this year.
When I first started, I was offering calligraphy addressing for envelopes and had a few prints in an Etsy shop. I had no idea that my work would one day end up in major retailers like Target, Barnes & Noble, etc. and that I would have book deals. The name “Mon Voir” is hard to read, hard to pronounce (unless you speak French), and therefore, to my main target audience (English speakers), I was doing a disservice. It’s off-putting and doesn’t grasp the personality my brand is today. Mon Voir sounds elegant and sophisticated…lol, that’s so not ME. Going by my name made the most sense because my books have my name on the front, and I want to be able to have recognition between my books and my licensing products that are out there!
PS. setting up a website can be relatively cheap! No need to hire someone for a custom site…just check out squarespace.com or something like shopify.com if you sell products!
3. Build an Email List
*record scratch* ‘scuuuze me, what?! Yep! I said email list. No, email is not dead…in fact, email generates about 75% of revenue in my business. WHAT?! Not Instagram, people. Emails. Now, before I blow your brains with some numbers I’m about to share with you, I want to state a little disclaimer: this is not meant for bragging, or “look at me” stuff. Along with that, I am by no means an e-mail marketing expert. In fact, I’d say e-mail marketing didn’t really *click* for me until a few months ago and I’ve had an email list for over 5 years! When I first started my email list, it was so not maintained well. I’d just send e-mails about workshop updates and blogs when I remembered and had NO clue where to start with automation, sequences, tags, etc.
But here are some numbers for you:
- In 2014 my list was at 600ish people. I barely paid attention to it, and in that year I generated $5,000 from e-mail.
- In 2018 my list was around 7,000 subscribers. I had set up an automated welcome sequence of 5ish emails where I spent time nurturing and pouring valuable info into these emails. My *VIPS* as I like to call ’em were well served, and “warmed up” to my offerings. At the end of December, I launched my first full business course, Pen to Press, and I sent out ONE email to my list announcing registration. That ONE email generated more than $35,000!!!
No help from Instagram, or ads, or influencer marketing…ALL FROM ONE EMAIL. I was floored. That launch ended up doing very well, all because of email marketing. I had an incredible product, I listened to my subscribers and got to know them on a more intimate level, and I put together a course that I knew would help them take big steps in their lives.
My point with email is, you don’t have to have it all figured out before you start one. I’ve slammed my head on my desk many times because I’ve been figuring this platform out on my own these past few years. BUT, it’s an amazing way to engage with your customers, bring value to their inbox (not clutter), and therefore, instilling that “know, like and trust” factor that helps you generate more income!…way more to come on e-mail marketing in the future. That’s just a taste 🙂
4. Stay away from overhead!
As much as you can, stay away from overhead expenses. Some, you can’t avoid like supply costs, accounting and any legal fees (like for setting up a trademark, etc.). But one major mistake I made early on is I got caught up in overhead. While you’re trying to grow your business, the last thing you want to worry about is ordering a ton of prints, listing them in your shop and then NOT SELLING ANY! Yep. That happened to me! I had about 75K followers on Instagram at the time, my head was starting to swell up because I thought I’d figured it out, and so I thought, well, these people are definitely gonna buy some prints of mine.
Turns out I WAS DEAD WRONG.
I’m not telling you to not have prints or products for sale, it just comes back to my first point: do your research! Is your audience warmed up to this idea? Are they craving prints? And beyond that, you want to make sure that you’re using keyword research and strategies that help your products get seen more! What do I mean? Platforms like your website, Etsy, Creative Market, etc…they’re SEARCH ENGINES! If someone is looking for a floral watercolor piece to hang in their nursery…use words in your descriptions and titles that would be used in their search!
Because I didn’t do the research on what people were searching for and I hadn’t warmed up my audience to the idea of me launching prints, that endeavor was a total FLOP. I still have stacks of those prints in my garage somewhere, lol.
5. Create, create, create!
My last tip for how to start up a creative business is straight forward: JUST KEEP MAKING STUFF.
Keep posting your work even if…
…your mom is the only one who likes it
…you’re not generating any sales
…it’s starting to feel salesy
…you have no idea what you’re doing
This is how you find your style and your voice! Every business owner makes mistakes and every artist has work that’s crumpled up in the trash. Don’t compare your squares to someone else’s 5th year in their business! It takes time to grow your audience, it takes time discovering who your ideal client is…in fact, it wasn’t until THIS YEAR that I’ve felt really confident in knowing who my ideal customer is. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you can take steps every single day toward your dream and that starts with creating!