There are lots of tips and tutorials on the internet about how to begin your career as an artist. Being self employed is the dream of many artists, but what happens when you reach that point? What happens when suddenly demand for your art exceeds your ability to meet it? Suddenly you’re in business, real hard working business and you want to throw you hands up and say “But I’m just an Artist! I can’t handle this! No one prepared me for THIS!”
“It’s a good problem to have”, is the saying that gets thrown around the most at this point. Yes, it is good, but it is still a problem. The majority of people in general, let alone artists, don’t have a head for many aspects of business management. But there are many things you can do to make running your own business as an artist easier, no matter where you are in your career.
Look for your nearest small business advice centre
In many areas, you can find business centre’s that offer free advice and training for small businesses. Often you can book an interview time with one of their business advisors, and go in for a chat about your business, and get some great feedback from a business professional on many different aspects of running a small business. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “I’m an artist, they won’t understand what I do”, but you also have to remember, that business is business, and while a lot of what self employed artists do is lost on the general public, you are still running a business, and a lot of things carry over from any businesses day to day running.
When you go in though, do be prepared to spend some time explaining in detail what it is you actually do. Take some art in with you; visual props will help out tremendously. Also take any other supporting documents, yearly sales reports and such, to help the advisor understand where your business is, and what advice is most needed.
Don’t be afraid to get outside help in
One of the best pieces of advice I received at a visit to a business advisor, was that you need to spend time doing what you do best. Every business has many different aspects and tasks. In art, let’s simplify it for a moment down to creating the artwork, and doing the bookwork. As a small business, many people do both parts of the job, but as business grows and the bookkeeping starts to take over, finding time for art gets harder and harder. This is when it’s important to realize one, very simple fact. ANYONE can do bookwork. Only YOU can do the art. The art is the soul of your business and the basis of any income you will earn. Hire someone to do the bookkeeping (or other tasks) for you, and while it may feel like money being lost, you will have more time to do what you do best, create new art, that will keep bringing the money in.
Make lists, lists and more lists
Business planning is an important part of any business, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Simply keeping a journal or folder in which you can write lists of projects and tasks you want to complete works well. Try to break your business down into “departments” for different tasks and work areas, for example “Creative Department”, “Management”, “Design and Development”, “Sales”, and “Marketing”.
Seeing each department separately can help you understand where your strengths and weaknesses are, and what tasks are needed in different areas.
On top of a business plan journal, (because personally I easily get muddle-brained when more than one thing is happening at once!), I also keep a large whiteboard with a to-do list for more urgent tasks, business shopping list, orders coming in, and calendar to keep me focused and from missing any important jobs or deadlines. And just to prove I’m a work-a-holic, on top of THAT, each day I write another list of jobs I want to finish that day. It’s a good way to stay on task and feels great having a sheet full of crossed off jobs at the end of the day.
Tips for Artists working in mail order and merchandise
Mals-E Shopping Cart and mOrders
Mals shopping cart (http://www.mals-e.com) is a great free shopping cart program for websites, which is used very widely on the internet, which I have also used for years. When first starting out, when I received orders I would log into my Mals account, print off the orders, hand write addresses on packages, and send off individual emails to let people know their emails have sent. As soon as the volume of orders starts going up, doing things that way just isn’t viable.
One solution is a program designed to work directly with Mals shopping cart. mOrders is available also through Mals, for a fee of about $100, and allows you to download all your orders into the program on your computer. It’s also good for when you have multiple Mals accounts for those with more than one online store. From there, you can set up to print off custom invoices, shipping labels and more. You can easily run filters to select only orders from a certain account, on a certain date, or of a certain status. You can change the order status as needed, from “new” to “shipped” or “awaiting payment” or any custom status you want. And then, you can also send out custom emails straight from the program to your customers, containing all their order information as well. It keeps all of your order records archived away, and can even run some nice, basic sales reports. It’s a great time saver, and a great all in one program to keep all your customer records straight.
Something that has made a great improvement to the running of my business is having a greater understanding of what I actually do. It may seem funny, but in the past, my understanding of what I do was “I paint and fill orders”. But what does “filling orders” entail? How many orders? How many products? What kinds of products sell the most? I had no idea! But thanks to the help of someone savvy in these things, I can finally see all the numbers.
Another benefit of the mOrders program from Mals-e is the ability to export all the data into spreadsheets or database programs like Microsoft Access. You can then run some filters and know exactly what you’ve been selling.
This is helpful for a few reasons-
1. Knowing what is selling, and what isn’t. You don’t want to invest a lot of capital in buying stock of a product that you only sell occasionally. Being able to see which product types are most popular, you can put the money into them, and discontinue the time wasters.
2. Bulk ordering! Being able to look at your sales and see exactly how many products you’ve sold in a year makes ordering in bulk feel much safer! Bulk ordering saves money, thanks to quantity discounts, time, thanks to not having to re-order all the time, and stops you running out of stock at an inopportune time!
3. You get to see, without dispute, which your best selling images are. You may think you have some idea, but it can often be surprising when you see the true statistics! This is handy for both when you’re releasing a new product of your own, to know which artworks to put on them, and also for when licensing your art to other companies, who might want this sort of information.
So, what do you do when there is a product that sells really well, but takes WAY too much of your own time to produce?
Get someone else to do it. This is another area where having information on hand about your sales is very helpful. When you get work done through another printing company, often you will need to order in large quantities, and don’t want to be stuck with lots of printed stock you can’t move! Having a good idea of your sales numbers and most popular artworks can make ordering pre-produced stock much easier.
When looking for a printing company to work with, be sure to find one that uses Digital Printing Presses rather than traditional plate printing. Digital presses require no set up costs, and can easily accommodate multiple designs in a single print run, unlike traditional printing which requires expensive printing plates to be set up for every print job. Traditional printing can be much cheaper per item than digital, but only once you reach quantities well over 5000.
Simplifying Designs and Products-
Many artists also enjoy all things crafty. We just love making things with our hands, whether it’s beading, gluing, sculpting or crafting. A lot of great, saleable products can be made this way, and as one off items they can add a nice extra lump to your sales. But as volume grows, the crafty items you sold in the past start becoming a hassle.
As you move from creating one product, to needing to create in lots of 10’s or 100’s, you need to review carefully the time taken to create each product, and pay yourself accordingly for the time. If you can’t justify the time taken, rethink the product, or raise the price!
Example- I had a lot of fun at one stage creating a little product called “Poem Charms”. They were a plastic encased artwork and poem, hanging from a hand beaded string. But soon I found that the time taken making them didn’t fit into my order filling routine when volume went up. The price was high enough, but the time just wasn’t there. Instead of removing the product completely, I redesigned, to change the hand beaded string, to a simple and elegant tied ribbon, and cut the time each charm took by half. And remember, apart from meeting your shipping deadlines, less time filling orders is more time to paint!
Always try to do one job more.
When you’re working on filling orders, as long as you’re not rushing to meet a deadline, always try and do one extra job while you’re at it. It’s a good chance to stock up on a certain product or do some job that you might normally put off, or only do on demand, that could save you time in the future.
For example: My backing board for prints comes in large sheets that need to be cut down to size. Often I’ll just cut what’s needed for the orders I’m filling at the time, but when possible, since I’m already working on it, I’ll cut as many extra as I can, so they are ready to go for future orders. That one job on one day can save repeating the task over and over for every order that comes in for a few weeks.
Another example may be, if you print labels for prints or other product packaging, don’t just print one sheet, print 5, or 10. They’ll keep, and it saves doing the job again next week. Never do something every day if you can do it once a week!
Organize your digital artwork and print files-
This is another area where the “never do something twice if you don’t have to” rule comes in. Sort out all of your printing files in a manner that saves time and effort, and saves your artworks in digital format in a way that you will always have what you need. Here is my set up for artwork files that works well for me-
1. Keep one folder for your raw artwork scans. These should be in almost as high a resolution as you can scan, or your computer can handle! If you sell or lose an original artwork, these files are your original files.
2. One folder for cleaned and color corrected image files. Almost every scan, no matter how clean or good your s canner is, will require cleaning up and color correcting. Once this is done, these are the files you will always use for creating print files and products from, or sending to licensing companies or publishers to work from. If you ever do other digital work to a file, such as cropping out the subject from the background, keep this file saved in here as well. Cleaning and cropping are things you should only have to do once!
3. Finally, folders for all print ready files in each size you need to print. The same with any other products you produce that are print-on-demand.
On top of the files for printing, I also keep two other template files per product. One is the base product design template- a file that when I have a new artwork that I need turned into a product design, I can drop the artwork into the template, and it’s the correct size, and has any other necessary design elements for that specific product there already (bleed guides, barcodes, copyright fine print, etc). The other template file I keep for each product is the website image template. Rather than photographing every single product design, I keep one good “blank” product template which each product design can be dropped into in Photoshop. This saves a lot of time and effort for keeping your website up to date, and gives a good photographic representation of each product which helps sales.
Stock Storage-Alphabetical order is important! If you are storing any kind of product, whether it’s greeting cards from an outsourced printers, or prints you’ve done yourself, make an effort to keep them in alphabetical order. It can be easy to fall into the “all that product is over there in that box” work style, but the little extra effort to keep things in order will save loads of time when grabbing products for order filling.
Get smart about how you store stock! Ring binder folders can be a great method for storing stock. Whether you use simple full page clear page protectors as bags or 10 up clear plastic business card holder sheets in your stock folder, you can store a large number of products and related order filling items in a ring binder. For example, I don’t keep assembled stock of key rings and magnets around, as you never know which design will be ordered when. But paper is pretty cheap, and the designs are small… so I keep a ring binder with a full stock of printed key ring and magnet design inserts, in alphabetical order (of course!), that are ready for pulling out and sticking into the key ring blanks.
You can also keep your pre-printed sheets of stickers, business cards, sales slips, letter heads, print slips, whatever you use, in the clear pouches in your folder for easy access.
The other good thing about keeping a stock folder is you can see with just a quick flick through which items you’re low on and need to refill. I generally try to spend one day a fortnight simply refilling my stock folders- which makes order filling on days when I’m racing the shipping deadline so much easier!