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May 2010

May 2010 -- Dragons



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  • Many Roles, Part 3


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  • Many Roles, Part 3
    by M. C. A. Hogarth

    In Part 1 of our series, we covered the roles you have to play to run your own business as a creative professional. In Part 2, we talked about two distinct classes of products and how you use them to grow and maintain your business. In Part 3, we'll discuss a Plan, Time Management, and have a look at some case studies.

    The Plan

    Without a plan, any successes you have are going to be accidental and hard to reproduce. And there's nothing Business Manager and Marketer hate more than accidental, non-reproducible successes. Heck, Artist doesn't like it much either when you explain that she can't eat chocolate or buy art supplies that way.

    Creating a business plan for your art career requires something most of us Artists love to do anyway: navel-gaze. So here are some questions you must answer to make one. You'll need input from all your selves to answer these, and you must be brutally honest. There's a niche for every artist, but unless you're honest about your answers you're going to wind up someplace you don't fit and then wonder later why you can't make it work.

    1. Do I like working with other people? Do I like getting out and chatting with them, or do I prefer to spend most of my time by myself?

    2. Do I like experimenting with other people's ideas or do I prefer to work on my own ideas?

    3. Do I work better with deadlines? If so, do I respond to deadlines I set for myself, or only those by other people?

    4. How good am I at keeping to a schedule? If I set a schedule, can I keep to it?

    5. How quickly do I coast to a stop without something prodding me (other people, external motivators like praise or money, etc)?

    6. What kind of things keep me going and where do those things come from?

    7. What kind of art do I like to do, and who do I think it appeals to?

    8. Do I need a steady, predictable income or can I handle irregular sums at irregular intervals?

    9. What kind of art do I like to produce? You can tell this by seeing what things make you happiest to make and what kind of things you make most frequently.

    Let's take some examples. Say you hate dealing with people, you really don't like implementing their ideas and you don't really like schedules or deadlines. Your studio is your haven, and you like to withdraw to it and put dreams on paper, beautiful intricate miniatures. If this workstyle makes you happy, drawing a web-comic is going to drive you insane. You should be trying to market yourself as a collectible fine artist and see about placing your work in galleries or selling it online where your interaction with others will be minimal.

    But say you love using your skill to explore other people's ideas; you get high on being given a description of something you would never have thought of yourself and trying to make it real for them. You love their gasp of delight when they receive it... you love how it stretches your abilities. If you sit down at a table to come up with things on your own, you inevitably spend days doing... nothing. Your head feels empty. If this describes you, you shouldn't be trying to come up with ways to "think of your own ideas like other people do." You should be doing commissions and illustrative assignments, as many as you can handle.

    Put these two artists in each other's work-environments and they will be miserable and make no money. But reverse them and they will be happy and productive. That's why knowing your work-style is so important and why honesty is crucial in evaluating your skills, interests and abilities.

    The catch? Sometimes you don't know the answers to these questions until you experiment. Even worse, sometimes your preferences change from year to year. You have to keep on top of the changes by revisiting these questions regularly... or when you're miserable and don't know why.

    Once you have described your work-style, you can ask Marketer how to connect what you like to do with how to sell it. Which is... such a huge and varied topic that it deserves its own post, if folks are interested. Suffice to say your marketing opportunities are mostly limited by your imagination and energy level. If you are willing to produce something, there's usually a way to sell it.

    Time Management

    One of the other major skills necessary to a working artist -- or a living human being, really -- is figuring out how to manage your time. In Part 1, I described three roles. Even though these roles exist within your same person, they all need time to do their work. Business Manager needs time to do accounting and buy supplies and mail things and go to the bank and organize files. Marketer needs time to do research, analyze trends and respond to customers. And Artist, of course, has to produce art. Somehow you have to slice up the time your single physical body has to meet the needs of the three voices in your head.

    Your first task when doing time management is to calculate how many hours a day you have to devote to this pursuit. Be honest about this (you'll notice the repeating theme here). If you could work right up until bedtime, but doing so invariably makes it hard to fall asleep because you're still vibrating, cut that hour before bed and give it back to "relaxing so I can sleep" time. Be honest in the other direction too: if you're serious about this and you currently use your lunch-hour for surfing, then take half an hour or the entire hour back and give it to your business.

    Once you have a number of hours per week, it's time to decide how to split your time. There are two approaches to time management.

    Using this scheme, you take the amount of time you have and split it into chunks and do the same activities at the same time, every day, every week. You use the first free half hour to answer email and do research. You spend the next three hours producing your art. You spend the last hour of your day doing accounting/running errands. Whatever works for you, but you make a schedule and you stick with it.

    The pros of this approach?
  • It frees up the mental cycles you'd ordinarily be using for scheduling and gives them back as productive time. There's a reason routine is so celebrated; we tend to respond well to it.

  • You can post "business hours." Patrons and customers like knowing when they can expect you to be available. If you can only respond to email once a week, but your website says that you answer email on Thursdays and you stick to that, you'll get a far more positive response than if you try to answer more frequently but erratically.

  • Business hours also keep you from burning out. When we get excited, we have a tendency to overdo things. We neglect family or chores or the day job or friends and then wonder why we feel so wasted. If you know for a fact that you stop working at 8:30 PM so you can have family time and wind-down-for-bed time, then you won't run yourself into the ground. Exhausted Artists produce no work.

  • The cons? This is the most obvious one.

    There will be times when the Artist doesn't care what your posted business hours are. She's going to do the work because she's on fire and you're just going to handle everything else while she's busy. Since your business involves sharing this excitement with your patrons, it's a bad idea to step on the Artist when she's burning to work. If you even can. I don't know about you, but mine won't stand down for anything. This leads us to the second approach to time management.

    Your other choice is to take your available hours per week and split them according to whatever's going on. If you have a lot of accounting to do, throw yourself at that until it's done. If you have a deadline, put all your time toward that project. If you have an opportunity to go to a book fair or convention to do research, spend your weekend doing so.

    The pros to this approach:
  • You are far more flexible. You can respond to opportunities and challenges when they happen.

  • You can accommodate a very temperamental and inspirational inner Artist.

  • You get bored less easily.

  • If your workstyle changes or you find your business is flagging, you can change your approach immediately to see if that helps.

  • The cons:
  • You have to spend a lot more time scheduling, which eats into your productive time.

  • It's easier to "not have time" for tasks you don't enjoy, which means that work piles up until it becomes almost impossibly daunting.

  • You will have a tendency to mistake a problem that would respond to more time by taking time away from it. Many business problems can be solved only by doing the same things over and over again until you reach a critical mass of something: customers, inventory, buzz. If you're used to dynamic allocation of time, you might think "it's not working, I'd better do something else" when the exact opposite approach is necessary.

  • For some people, a static approach is the only way to go: it keeps them at their desks and frees their mind from the burdens of constantly thinking about when they should be doing something. For others, dynamic is the only choice, because otherwise they'll feel stifled and resentful. For a lot of us, I suspect the best approach is a blend: do a little static scheduling to make sure you do certain tasks regularly, while leaving the rest of your hours more flexible. Your time management strategy might also change as your life situation and business needs change.

    Case Studies

    So let's have a look at a few people.

    The Full-Time Artist
    Amalthea likes to make delicate brooches out of antique doilies and collage material in her spare time after work. She loves people and has a broad circle of friends and acquaintances with whom she likes to have coffee. One day one of them admires the brooch she's wearing and asks where she got it. When Amalthea tells her, "I make them," her friend encourages her to sell them.

    The idea of selling her work through a dealer or online does not appeal to Amalthea, who likes excuses to get together with people. She also doesn't want the overhead of going to craft fairs or conventions. Instead, she thinks about book clubs and decides she likes the "intimate gathering" model. She rents a room at a local clubhouse, brings her coffee-maker and some baked goods and puts her work on the table, then invites her friends. They get together to talk. Some of them look at the jewelry; one of them buys a brooch.

    Within a few months, Amalthea's friends are inviting their friends, who are coming for the coffee and conversation and leaving with jewelry. Pretty soon, she's selling more than enough of her brooches to cover her costs and make some pin money on the side. She thinks about expanding, but finds she doesn't like the thought of losing the intimate vibe of her "brooch salons."

    One day an acquaintance asks her advice on putting together a bracelet, and Amalthea is happy to advise her. Her acquaintance is so pleased with her advice that she tells a friend that Amalthea is helpful (and also successful). They approach Amalthea with more questions, which she answers. In doing so, she discovers she likes to teach... and decides to offer classes on jewelry-making. She rents the same room as she did for her brooch salons, but fills it this time with paying students.

    Teaching jewelry-making is fun and more lucrative than selling her brooches. Amalthea finds she can quit her day job and do nothing but teach. She still makes brooches for herself or for occasional sale.

    In this example, we see that Amalthea has taken stock of (and been honest about) her principle strength: she likes people. Her initial business model takes advantage of that by maximizing her exposure to them; not only does this sell her work more effectively by letting her speak for it, she also enjoys herself. Her initial outlay was high: the cost of renting the room and feeding her friends, along with materials for her jewelry. But she was able to see that returned because she played to her strengths. It also allowed her to spot a new opportunity with a higher return: teaching, which let her charge for every person who walked in the door, instead of taking a chance on someone buying something while there. Plus, teaching jewelry-making sells her jewelry by spreading her reputation... and her jewelry sells her teaching, by enticing people already interested in hand-made jewelry to her classes.

    The Part-Time Musician
    Schmendrick is a quiet man who likes to make music in his attic, alone. He is currently unemployed. He doesn't like performing in front of people, but he is inspired by them; he likes to write music about his favorite stories. He has few friends and acquaintances, but what few he has are steadfast and true. It's one of these friends who encourages him to make some money off his art, if only to pay the electric bill.

    Dealing with people exhausts Schmendrick, so his friend offers to help him set up a website where people can download his music for a few dollars a song. Schmendrick offers some free samples. His costs are low (having already bought his musical instruments a long time ago, and using his computer to make the recordings), but he also makes little money. The thought of marketing himself more does not appeal to him, even if (as his friend says) he could make more money that way.

    But he does like making music based on other people's work. So he decides, hesitantly, to contact a few of his favorite writers and ask if they're interested in him writing music for their stories. Most of them don't get back to him, but one of them sends him a delighted email. They begin a collaboration that results in a new novel from the author and a new album from Schmendrick. This album does well for Schmendrick, since the author's fans check him out. It works well for the author too, who loves the music and gets a lot of marketing material for free... songs he can use for book trailers, or play on podcasts. He decides to work with Schmendrick again.

    Schmendrick enjoys this experience so much that he tries contacting a few more artists and authors to see if they're interested in collaborations. This time he mentions his previous collaboration with Author X... which brings him a few new artists willing to work with him. Pretty soon, Schmendrick is doing work with several artists and authors and enjoying himself immensely.

    His friend encourages him to try playing at conventions where these authors attend. Schmendrick agrees to try, but he finds the experience stressful and does not want to repeat it.

    A while later, Schmendrick finds a day job. He waffles over whether to take it, since he is making some money on his music now and could possibly make more. But he decides he doesn't like feeling the pressure to make art or starve, so he takes the day job and continues to work on his music on the weekends.

    In this example, ruthless self-evaluation allowed Schmendrick to avoid some of the pitfalls of working as an artist in modern society: he was very clear about not wanting to deal with people or become a marketing or business expert. He liked doing a very specific kind of work: collaborations with other artists that let him write songs about stories that mattered to him. He did not like public performance or over-booking himself. So he made arrangements that allowed him to do this, and when given the choice between continuing to do it that way or trying to grow it as a business concern, he chose the former. This is not an easy decision, but sometimes it's the only decision.

    . o O o .

    Having a plan, figuring out how to allocate your hours and responding to changes in yourself and your environment requires as much creativity in many cases as making art. It's also the place that most artists trip up. You really have to identify your strengths, your weaknesses and what you're willing to do if you want to do business as an artist; self-deception leads to misery and failure. Often the reason artists lie to themselves about their strengths and weaknesses is because they've been told there's only one way to make it as an artist... but there's not. Each path to success is as individual as the person embarking on it, and only when you've been candid about what you're good at and what you're not can you find the path to your happy-art place.

    . o O o .

    M.C.A. Hogarth has turned her "Three Micahs" into an ongoing column, which may be found at Merchandise for her "Three Micahs" may be found in her Zazzle store.

    M. C. A. Hogarth has been many things, but is currently a mother, artist, writer and anthropologist to aliens.

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