I talk to many, many people for whom the Ultimate Dream is to quit the day job and go into business for themselves. Often they want to make and sell their art, but sometimes they have other dreams: entrepreneur, coach, teacher, designer. For some people, it’s still just a someday-maybe dream; for others, they’ve already started preparing. Because I work for myself, and because I’ve talked to lots and lots of other people who work for themselves, I thought I’d offer some things to think about before you take the plunge.
The very first thing you need to think about is whether or not you have the personality for it. If you want to work for yourself because you have the ideas and the skills and the drive and the energy and want to get in there and make something fabulous happen, great. But if working for yourself sounds good primarily because you hate your job and hate getting out of bed so early in the morning and want to have time to take a nap in the afternoon and hang out by the pool, maybe you need to re-think your life’s goals. Because let me tell you: if you’re heading out on your own and want to be successful at it, you’re going to be working WAY harder than you’ve ever worked for anyone else.
~~Are you a self-starter? Are you able to get out of bed and get to work without someone pushing you? We like to think of creative people as people without rules, and we imagine them sleeping until noon and then staying up all night to work. While this might be possible for some people for a while when they’re young, if you’re in it for the long haul, you have to be able to stick to a schedule. People have to be able to contact you during business hours, and you have to be able to produce work on a schedule–remember, we’re talking here about working for yourself, not doing this as a hobby. The most wildly creative people I know who are also successful artists? Not nearly so wild and crazy as you’d imagine. They have schedules, deadlines, routine. They take the “working” part of “working artist” seriously. You read their blog posts and status updates and think their lives are all about hanging with other artists and traveling the world, and, yeah: would you keep reading if all their posts were about sawing wood for 10 hours straight and how the check for the electric bill bounced this month? No–you see what they want you to see. Their lives may be glamorous, but they’re also a ton of hard, nose-to-the-grindstone work. That’s the part they’re not tweeting.
~~Do you have the skills you’ll need? If you’re terrible with money and budgets and never pay bills on time and can’t figure out how much you’ll need to get you through the next month, you’re going to need someone to help you with the financial part of your business. And if you’re just starting out and can’t afford to hire someone, what are you going to do? Maybe you can barter with a friend who’s a financial whiz, or maybe you need to take some small business owner courses at the local community college. Figure out what skills you have–you’re fabulous at organizing your time but not so great at marketing–and then take what steps you need to fill in the gaps BEFORE you take the plunge.
~~Working for yourself, you’re the worker, the boss, the PR person, the bookkeeper, the CEO–you’re everything. If you become really successful, you may be able to hire help. Until then, expect to spend at least half your time doing the business side of the job. It will probably be more than that. That’s why working artists work so many hours: there’s so much business-related stuff to do that they have to do the actual art-making in the hours left over.
~~Have a plan. Know what you want to accomplish and figure out what you’re going to do to get there. Do you want to work the art fairs? Do you want to teach locally? Do you want to open a working studio/gallery? Do you want to travel and teach at the big retreats? Do you want a one-person show? To be featured in magazines? Your own book? Online classes? Paid tutorials? If you don’t know what “success” looks like to you, there’s no way you can figure out how to get there.
~~Have some savings. They say you need at least six months’ living expenses saved. For someone starting out in their own business, this is probably not enough. You’re going to have expenses you haven’t thought of–your sewing machine will die, your drill motor will burn out. Plus you’ll have all the usual expenses. You know, food and stuff.
~~Before you take the plunge, you should know where your first paycheck is coming from. That means you should have some sales, a commission, some buyers lined up. Something. You should have been selling online or locally for long enough to know how it’s going. Sure, things change. Sure, the economy is uncertain. Sure, no one is ever really secure. But you owe it to yourself–and the people who care about you and will worry and, really, don’t want you to end up sleeping in their garage–to plan ahead as much as you can.
~~Realize that what you used to do for fun, at the end of a day of work, is now going to BE work. It will no longer be something you can do when you want, dabbling here and there. It will be something you HAVE to do, whether or not you feel like it. That may not sound bad to you, but think about it: if you’re used to waiting for inspiration before you work, well–read on~~
~~Making art will no longer be about being inspired and working after a visit from the muse. It will be about working even when the muse has been on a trans-Atlantic vacation for the last four months and you’re in your studio all alone, slogging through the mire of no ideas and no hope of ever having a new idea and questioning whether any idea you ever had in the past was a good idea, and. . . you get the idea. You have to be prepared to work and produce work even when you’re completely dry.
Striking out on your own creative life is a wonderful thing, and I don’t want to discourage you if you really want to do it. I just want you to make sure you’ve thought about what it is that you’re getting into because I’ve talked to so very many disillusioned people who made the leap into full-time working artist without really thinking through what it would entail, and after six months or a year or even two had to go back and try to squeeze themselves back into the job market, having discovered that the life of a working artist is mostly about working and only now-and-then about showing up and being An Artist.
Make some lists, do some thinking, figure out what kind of worker you are, and then? Good luck!
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