It's a really amazing time to be an artist (no really! it is!). Recent years have seen a shift towards a demand for quality handcrafted goods, and artists can now sell those goods globally using a variety of online marketplaces and platforms. The accessibility of the internet has produced a new kind of creative economy that champions the small business and connects buyers and sellers directly. I've spent the past three years working at Etsy.com - the global marketplace for handmade and vintage goods and I've worked with hundreds of artists and makers - everyone from fine artists, jewelers, woodworkers, ceramicists - who have established their businesses with some fairly simple online tools. There are so many different channels to monetize your work and cultivate an audience beyond just the traditional model of submitting your work to galleries or wholesaling to retail shops. There's also the flexibility of running an online business with low overhead costs and an ability to create work on your own terms.
How does someone become a Creative Entrepreneur?
If you are a creative with a product line that you want to bring to market, there are a ton of different ways to start your business. Much of it will be trial and error but the best part about selling online is that there is very little risk and investment when you are first starting out. First, you must start with a good product, something that tells your story, something that is unique but also something that you think has a consumer base.
Tell your story.
Spend some time thinking about your story and how you want to tell it, think about the kind of brand you want to have and be thoughtful about how you present your work to the world. The reason why buyers purchase handmade goods is because of the story behind the product. Are your materials locally-sourced? Did your mother teach you how to sew? Were you inspired by your travels? Share this with your buyers. Identify and build your unique brand. Create a recognizable (easy to spell!) name for yourself and be consistent with it. Use the same branding and photos across all of your online channels. Know who your product is meant for and connect with that audience through the power of your story.
Do some research.
If you're not sure whether or not your product will sell, setting up an online shop is one of the best ways to do some market research. If you try Etsy, you can monitor the amount of clicks, favourites and purchases your items are getting and that will help you inform the direction you want to go in. You will also want to scope out the competition. Look at other online shops that are doing similar work to you, how do they present themselves? What is their price point? How much do they charge for shipping? What do they use as their tags? Start reading blogs that align with your work, if you are looking to sell baby items look up mommy blogs, as well as some lifestyle and home decor blogs. You will learn a lot about what people like posting and where you might get some coverage. All of this information is available to you online for free!
I meet a ton of artists who are incredibly talented but aren't business minded. This skill is critical to the success of your business. You need to have some sense of how to market yourself, how to budget yourself, how to price your products and ultimately, how to take your business to the next level. If you just want to produce, you might want to consider getting outside help. Don't skip on this part because you are intimidated by it - embrace it! Being an entrepreneur is one of the most liberating things you could be, go easy on yourself and know that it will be a learning curve at first. Luckily there are so many incredible free business resources online, and small business organizations in your city (some of them also include government grant programs to kickstart your business).
Find a mentor, someone who inspires you. Reach out to established makers and ask them for coffee, or join Meetup groups online to get free business advice. So, you will want to write a business plan, visualize how you want your business to grow and what you will need to do to get there. Do you need to invest in equipment? You might want to consider doing a kickstarter campaign or checking out local community spaces where you can rent out professional equipment such as sewing machines or just time in a studio to take great product shots. How much do you want to price your work for and are you accounting for time and materials? Or will you decide to outsource some of the process to a manufacturer? Will you eventually want to try wholesale? What kinds of handmade markets should you plan to apply for? What about taxes? All of these things should be considered before you start your business so that you can protect yourself from costly mistakes you could make.
Take great photos.If you've got great products, the next and most important step is taking great product photos. If you don't have a great camera or don't feel confident about your photo skills, then ask a friend or hire a professional - it will be worth it. Remember to keep it simple, plain white backgrounds are best, don't use a flash - use natural lighting or a light box if you can. Sometimes props can work for scale and style, if you sell prints, try hanging them in frames so the customer can get a sense of size.
Experiment with different platforms. Etsy may or may not work for you depending on your product but there are so many great platforms out there for you to try! Shopify has easy to use templates for your own online shop, as does Big Cartel and Squarespace. Or if you want your designs to be printed by someone else, try Society 6. Once you get going, you can pitch your products to blogs, magazines, craft shows and even retail shops if you're looking to do some consignment or wholesale. Remember to start a blog, and social media channels so that buyers can start to follow you, learn about your story and your process and engage with you online.
What are typical startup costs?
It really depends on a lot of different things. If the cost of your materials are high (fine jewelry, woodworking) you will have to invest more than if you knit scarves or create easily reproducible prints of original works. Same goes for the equipment you will be using. Beyond that, running an online business is one of the easiest, cheapest ways to start selling your products. Costs range from a few dollars (literally!) to a few hundred dollars depending of if you want to host your own website or sell on a platform. Other costs might include purchasing a camera, hiring a designer to create your brand identity, and paying vendor fees for markets.
What is the pay like?
Again, it depends on your items and the profit margin on your work. You may want to use this simple formula if you're not sure how to price your work: Materials + Labor + Expenses + Profit = Wholesale x 2 = Retail. Given that it is your own business, you will determine whether it will be a part time project to supplement your income and feed your creative side, or if you want to "quit your day job" so to speak. I have met artists and makers who run the full spectrum, from those who are happy to make a few thousand dollars a year on the side to artists who pull six figure salaries entirely from their own online business. Where you end up will be largely a combination of the quality of your work, your marketing and your own perseverance!
What are the best parts of being a Creative Entrepreneur?
There is a lot of freedom to doing what you love, on your own terms. You can create your own hours, take your business in new and exciting directions, find a community of likeminded people and work with your hands. You can spend endless hours in your home studio listening to podcasts and music and go on impromptu trips or spend more time with your family and friends. Working for yourself is one of the most satisfying things you can do, you can build something and watch it grow, you can learn so much about yourself and see how far you can push yourself. You can be independent and never compromise your vision.
What are the biggest challenges in being a Creative Entrepreneur?
What you put into it is what you get out of it. Starting an online business takes a lot of work. You can easily get swallowed into a pattern of 16 hour days with no breaks because you become obsessed with it and feel a responsibility to keep up with demand or take every opportunity that comes your way. You also won't be profitable overnight, sometimes it may take months or even years to become successful and find your customers. You might spend a lot of time honing your craft, learning your industry, making mistakes, and figuring out what channels work best for you. You have to balance being an artist with being a business person and that can be difficult for some people. The biggest complaint I hear is that artists end up spending most of their time on marketing, updating their online shop, shipping their products and posting on social media which leaves little time for actual production. It can be difficult at times and you might feel like giving up, but if you have a strong support network and mentors who can help you- you can see it through and realize your dreams. All it takes is your first online sale to affirm your work, there is nothing like that feeling of putting yourself out there and having customers respond positively to your creations.
Helpful resources or links:
The Seller Handbook on Etsy is an amazing archive of thousands of free articles on how to run an online business.