So you’re thinking about striking out on your own as an artist?
Congratulations! Small business ownership can be the single best opportunity for success as an artist. Go into the process with your eyes wide open, though. . .
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Success of any kind in not guaranteed, nor is it likely to happen quickly. Most “overnight successes” have put years of effort into their businesses—they started at the bottom and worked their way up one slow step at a time. Success may have come suddenly, but it was because of those years of hard work.
Are you OK with that? If so, then read on!
First things first. . . what IS a small business?
The Small Business Administration defines a small business as one that is independently owned and operated, organized for profit, and is not dominant in its field. Webopedia adds that a small business typically has a small number of employees.
For most artists, the simplest definition is any business that you run yourself, with few or no employees.
Next, who can own a small business?
The short answer is anyone! That means you, me, and everyone in between.
If you have a product or service that other people need, you can start a small business. The more clearly you can define WHAT you’re selling and WHO you’ll be selling to, the better. . . but if all you have is the glimmer of an idea and a dash of hope, it’s not too early to begin thinking about the possibilities of business ownership.
Now, ask yourself these 3 questions:
1. What is your product or service?
This might seem like a “Well, duh!” question, but it’s probably the most important one to answer. Why? Because there are literally thousands of ways to make a living in the art business.
Do you enjoy painting portraits (people, animals, etc) or illustrating books or designing book covers? Are you good at teaching art to others, and if so, do you prefer teach in a class setting, workshop, or one-on-one in private lessons?
If you’re creating art specifically for sale, are you planning to sell originals only or do you want to offer reproductions as well (prints, mugs, wearable art, etc)? Or maybe you’d rather offer support services for artists, things like graphic design, web design, or gallery work?
See what I mean? Those are just a few possibilities off the top of my head, and I’m sure you could come up with many more. Take some time to think about how you could market your personal interests and abilities, and get as specific as you can.
2. Who is your target market?
And don’t say “everybody.” That’s a surefire way to failure; at best, such an attitude will delay your success. No one can please everyone all the time, and while some forms of art may have broad market appeal, most of us will find that our work appeals to a small group of people. The better you know your target market, the better able you will be to make wise marketing decisions, spend your marketing dollars well, and have the best results.
For example, I’ve been painting portraits of horses and other animals for over 40 years. I know that my ideal client is going to be a horse lover (not necessarily a horse owner) who has a strong interest in art, has the money to spend on original art, and will WANT to spend money on art.
With that knowledge in hand, I know who to market to, and (more importantly) I know who not to market to. I know which events to attend, and I know I’m more likely to sell art at a horse show than at an art show.
Take some time to identify an ideal customer or two. If it helps, give them a “typical” name and address to cement that “type” of customer in your mind. Then you can focus on designing all your marketing to that person.
You won’t reach everyone who’s living and breathing with this strategy, but you don’t want to. You want to reach the people who are most interested in your work and most likely to buy it.
3. What is your marketing plan?
In other words, how are you planning to get your product (or service) and your target market together?
You probably won’t know all the details for this part of the equation, but you do need to have a basic idea of how you plan to market yourself. Ideally, you’ll begin your marketing before you even open your doors for business!
I started my business before the age of the internet so all my marketing was word-of-mouth and print. I posted fliers at tack shops and feed stores and left them at horse shows. I handed out business cards. I used the classifieds and bought ads in print magazines. In short, I did everything I could think of and could afford.
These days, that same list of activities might also include creating a website and launching a blog. You might need to be on at least one or two social media outlets. Not sure which one to join? The answer will vary depending on the type of work you do and who your target market is. Find out where they hang out and hang out there, too.
Shows and exhibits are a good way to market yourself if you primarily create original art. Art festivals and similar venues are no longer as lucrative as they once were, but a dedicated artist with the right products and the right mentality can still do well.
Don’t forget to think outside the box, either!
Do you paint florals? Have an exhibit at a home and garden show or an interior decorating show. Does you work have a strong local theme? Contact local realtors and see if they might have a need for original art, especially in model homes. Or, contact furniture stores. Large pieces of artwork and sofas are made for each other.
Of course, there’s a little more to starting a business. You’ll have to find out what the tax codes in your area are and get the appropriate licenses, if any. At the very least, you’re likely to need a sales tax license.
You may also need a written business plan of some sort, whether or not you need a loan (but especially if you DO need a small business loan).
Some of the details will vary depending on the work you do, the type of business you have, and where you live, so plan on a lot of additional legwork and good, ol’ fashioned research.
But before you go down that road, make sure to answer these three, very important questions first.
What are you selling?
Who are you selling to?
And what’s your plan to make it work?
Develop your answers as completely as possible and I guarantee you’ll avoid a HUGE amouunt of headaches later on.
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