It was late 2019 and past me had just graduated from art school and was about to begin her career in ceramics. She was excited, she was optimistic but she was also very, very unsure of herself, a little naïve and a tiny bit terrified.
Starting your career after university, or starting a small business in the first place can be daunting and a lot of the time you learn on the job and from your mistakes. I still think of myself as being in the early stages of my career but I have definitely learnt a lot in the time since I graduated and started my ceramics business.
Here’s my advice for running a creative business for designers, artists or creatives just starting out their career or for established makers looking for another perspective.
1. Prioritise yourself.
You always have to come first.
Your physical and mental health have to come first.
The business has to come second to you and your health.
2. Choose your own path.
It’s very easy to look at other people and think they’re doing really well and they do X, Y and Z. I want to do well so I should also do X, Y and Z. But what works for someone else might not work for you. Whatever you make is very personal and individual to you, no one else will be able to make something the same way you do, so why should you run your business the same way someone else does?
Find your ‘thing’ and lean into your ‘thing’. By ‘thing’ I mean that topic or style or thing you do that makes you excited and makes you YOU.
If you’re not really sure what your ‘thing’ is think about what makes your work really unique or something that you really love as part of your practice. For me that’s lustre, making videos and more recently writing blogs. You’ll find your ‘thing’ by following your interests and leaning into the niche things you like.
3. Just make it! Perfection doesn’t exist.
Going from art school to the real world can be a big leap. You go from your every design being scrutinised and critiqued to relying on yourself to decide if something is good or not. If you’re anything like me you might be incredibly self-critical of your own work, so much so that you sometimes scrap pieces before finishing because they haven’t come out as good as you want.
Sometimes you have to get out of your own head and just go for it.
There is no such thing as perfect. And that is the beauty of handmade things! We are people not machines and all we can do as artists is to make to the best of our ability.
4. Don’t absorb criticism from people you wouldn’t go to for advice.
Constructive criticism from someone you respect and someone who knows how to give criticism is incredibly valuable. But unasked for criticism from, for example, some guy who watched one pottery video 3 years ago isn’t useful to you. You don’t have to listen to it!
5. Take breaks. And don’t feel guilty for it.
Burnout can still happen even when you’re doing what you love.
It is so easy when you are the sole person working for your business to work everyday, at all hours and to just skip days off. This is not good for you! Working yourself to the bone is only going to make you and your business suffer in the long run.
You have to take days off in order for you to actually rest and be your best self. Don’t feel guilty for taking your weekend off. You deserve rest.
The biggest mistake I have made since starting my business is working too much, taking too much on, and not listening to my body when it needed to rest.
Set some boundaries so that when you are resting you’re not disturbed by social media notifications or emails or thoughts of your to do list. I turned off my social media notifications, I set up my work email in a separate app so I can check my personal email at any time without being disturbed by a work request. Let yourself switch off during your rest time.
6. You can say no.
Not every opportunity that comes your way is going to be right for you. You can’t say yes to everyone sometimes.
This was the hardest lesson for me realising that just because an opportunity came my way didn’t mean that it was the right fit for me. There was a time last year when my business ramped up in a big way very quickly and I was offered a lot of opportunities all at once and I just physically couldn’t take it all on. It was only after chatting with some makers more established in their careers than me who told me you can say no that it sunk in for me.
You create your own path in your business, if something seems too good to true, the timing is off or if your gut says no, go with it and politely say no.
7. Find a separate creative hobby.
You might have started your career turning your hobby or passion into your business and some days you might end up hating it. It’s an unfortunate thing when you monetise something you love that it adds a level of stress to it and some days it might take some of the joy out of making. It’s not like that all the time, these moments do pass. I think it’s a good idea to take up a completely different creative hobby for you to do in your free time so you can still escape by doing something creative but there is no pressure on you to do it. If it helps keep your hobby to yourself so there's no pressure for it to be good enough for social media.
8. Nobody knows what they’re doing.
Everyone is just making it up as they go. It's ok if you feel like you don't know what you're doing.
My first market after I graduated I was terrified. I thought everyone who was taking part was amazing and so much more experienced than me and knew exactly what they were doing. Over the course of the weekend I realised that wasn’t exactly true, everyone is learning on the job and kind of making it up as they go. They all have their insecurities about if this will go well or if they’ll make enough sales. If you're unsure of yourself your fellow makers will be there for you and often are more than happy to share the things they've learnt through trial and error.
9. Networking isn’t exchanging business cards, it’s friendships with fellow creatives.
I used to have this idea that networking didn’t apply to me because it was for business people in their boring suits exchanging business cards over lukewarm drinks. Networking is actually fun and it’s just making personal connections or even friendships with your fellow creatives.
No one is going to understand your experience of running a creative business more than another creative business owner. The connections that you make with your fellow makers are going to be the thing that keeps you going on the hard days and they’ll be your biggest cheerleaders when you do well.
When you start out your network might be your classmates and people you’ve met online and it will naturally grow as you interact with more makers online and in person at markets and events. Find some people in the same field as you who you can go to for advice or support or to have a rant or just to chat about that one thing you love about glazing or whatever.
10. There will be ups and downs.
Some weeks you might not make a single sale and some weeks you might sell out. Some weeks you’ll love everything you do and some weeks you’ll question why you’re doing this. Some weeks you’ll feel super productive and some weeks everything is a chore. Ebbs and flows in a creative business are totally normal and everyone goes through them.
Sometimes we have to go through the tough times to appreciate the good times.
And that's my advice for you if you're just starting out or you're just looking for another perspective in running your creative business. I hope you find something useful in my advice for my past self and if you take anything away from this it's to take care of yourself! You are your business's biggest asset and you have to come first always.