Taking Care of Business

It was a rapid fire Q&A event with the discussion focused on Business and Personal Finance for artists (my favorite!), and I spent the day typing as fast as my little fingers could tap to address all the thought-provoking questions. Here’s a few them in a multi-question installment of ‘Ask Smartly’.

Dear Smartly,
I get dragged down at times by the business side of art, so much so that it interferes with my creativity; i.e., second guessing my subject matter, etc. My husband suggested that I find a way to separate the two so that when I’m in my studio I am JUST in my studio. Any suggestions?
— Cindy

I hear you, Cindy. Most of us don’t go into art wanting to hone our business skills. But, once you cross that line from hobbyist to professional, the long shadow of business seems to cover everything we do.

Your husband has good instincts. I agree that you need to preserve the studio as a creative space to make sure your work is coming from an authentic place that has nothing to do with business. In my experience, when you find yourself starting a piece with a final transaction in mind, you’re in danger of losing your flow and innovation. And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that those delicate and abstract personal assets are essential to the continued evolution of your art practice.

One strategy that people often use is to either perform all business-dedicated tasks on one or two days of the week, or else one or two hours at the end of the day. Regardless of which schedule you choose, try to do that business somewhere other than your studio. That way, you’re more efficiently focused on either making art or doing business, and one doesn’t pollute the other. Your grunt work gets done more quickly without the distraction of your creative work, and your studio is preserved as a place where your mind is business-free.

Another strategy that I have been using more and more is to outsource some of that pesky business. What?! I know it sounds crazy, but today there are so many virtual assistants out there who are fast, affordable, and highly skilled. I’ve done short contracts with VAs who know WordPress, MailChimp, Kindle publishing, or whatever else is giving me the biggest headache. They’ve solved problems that would have gobbled up my time (and will to live) incredibly fast and for less money than I could have imagined. I regularly use Upwork to find these people, where I can post a job, collect offers, select my candidate, have the work done and settle the bill all in one day! Not all jobs are (or need to be) that quick, but regardless, sometimes it’s worth throwing a few dollars at someone that can do the work more efficiently than I can. On more than one occasion when I’ve considered hari-kari because I couldn’t get my MailChimp API to synch with my WordPress site or I got lost in the mumbo jumbo of SEO analytic whosie whatsit, I’ve found that an hour of help from someone who knows what they’re doing saved me from throwing my whole career in the trash. Sometimes a quick $20 fix from a VA can do wonders in keeping me focused and creative. I hope that helps!

Dear Smartly,
How do you decide where to spend money to grow your business when you have an extremely limited income? For example, I love certain online/tutorial/guest speaker/community websites that are great resources for my art career, but the cost or monthly fees are prohibitive, and I just do not have money for all of them beyond my living expenses. Without investing in my career I feel like I’ll always be in this position, though my goal is to live at my creative best and make a living. How do you take the baby steps, keep the faith, be the best artist you can be and still get bang for your buck? I don’t have money to burn when I don’t know what the return on investment will be.
— Kathleen

Kathleen, the question of how to assess the investment you want to make in your art career while juggling limited resources is one that so many of us are wrestling with. (Also, I’m glad you used the word ‘investment’, since you were mainly talking about skill building and education — those are some of the best investments you can make!)

This is how I would suggest you go about figuring out the most efficient and beneficial use for your money while faced with that dilemma.

The very first thing to do is define your goals. If you can get in touch with what you’re really after, both within and outside of your career as an artist, you can focus your resources more strategically. It might sound great to learn glass blowing, but once you define your goals and get really clear on where you’d like to go, you may realize that accounting could be a better fit. I’m not trying to say that you should only invest in the ‘boring chores’ of an art practice, but before you start doling out your precious dollars, think about where these education opportunities will take you, and make sure they align with where you want to go.

Next, you should look at your finances and assess what you can afford. That doesn’t just mean seeing if there’s enough money in your checking account this month to cover the costs, or worse, still having room on your credit limit. I’m talking about looking deeper to see if you are maintaining high-interest credit card debt that needs to be paid off, or if you don’t have an adequate cash reserve to carry you through any slow/rough patches. As artists, getting out of high-interest debt and saving a cash reserve are essential to giving yourself longevity in your creative practice — which, in my opinion, is your most important ingredient for success.

So, if there are other financial holes that need to be plugged before continuing your educational investment, then do that with a single-minded ambition of getting stable so you can take as much advantage of those future classes / workshops / retreats as possible. Going so far as creating a plan with actual numbers of how much you’ll save each month towards your goal will get you there faster than you could imagine.

And while you’re saving up for that special program, you can keep busy by pawing through the mountains of incredible free and inexpensive resources littering the online landscape. Comprehensive, easy-to-follow Udemy classes can be found on sale for $10 – $15. Lynda.com has a 10-day free trial — and you can learn a lot in 10 days! Business-focused Facebook groups like the Artist Entrepreneur Network can be the perfect solution when it comes to getting specific questions answered by peers who are working out the same systems you are. Have you watched CreativeLive? They have tons of business-focused classes for artists on every topic, which are broadcast live and free the first time around. You can even participate with questions during the live recording without spending a dime. If you can multitask with your ears, then try listening to great art-focused podcasts while in the studio, like Bad At Sports and the Creative Capital Podcast. Or give yourself a free, weekly, creative shot in the arm from The Art Assignment. And to top it off, you can now take classes from Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and 80+ other top-notch universities for FREE through the collective edX program. — It’s amazing!

One last idea is to get a local group together who you can share the task of gathering some of this information with. Meet once a month with a different person presenting on a researched and relevant art-related business topic each time. That way, the whole group benefits as you learn from each other, and nobody has to trudge through the weeds all by themselves. I hope this helps! Good luck!