8 Tips for Starting Your Own Creative Business
I will preface this by saying it was only a few years ago that I thought “Business” was a dirty word. And yes, capitalism does have its evils but if you can learn to navigate it, you can make a living doing what you love.
My floral business brought in almost six figures in it’s first year, however due to inexperience and good old trial and error I won’t likely see a real profit until my third year in business. I am writing this so you can learn from my mistakes and get where you want to go faster.
After all, in order to make a capitalistic system work for everyone, women, POC and LGBTQ folks need to be in control of their financial well being and get paid for the many ways they make the world better. Knowledge is power, and the more information we can share with each other the more powerful we can be.
1. Be true to who you are
When providing a creative product or service, you stand in line with literally thousands of other makers who may be selling essentially the same thing. But that’s also what’s wonderful about it—literally thousands of people are able to make a living selling that one weird thing that makes them happy. No two are perfectly alike and that’s how their customers find them in the crowd. So whenever possible celebrate what makes your work unique and try not to copy. Chances are if it feels right, it feels just utterly you, you’re on the right track.
2. Quit your day Job
When Bewilder was just starting out we were trying to be a subscription floral business. (So trendy at the time.) Essentially, I had no desire to work at yet another bucket shop and was looking for a way out. I tried this for months, dropping off bouquets each week to cute little boutiques in the city and making NO sales.
It wasn’t until I quit my job and had no choice but to make it work that I started booking weddings. Turns out couples were willing to give me their money based on my portfolio even though Bewilder as a business was still on wobbly legs. So we were off to the races and I was paying my rent. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Find your thing and FOCUS
Once you find something people are willing to pay you for, focus on that thing and that thing alone. Do that one thing the best you can. Keep reiterating, keep improving and don’t get distracted.
I often see small business websites that try to offer too much. As much as it would be nice to capitalize on all your skills and resources, it is confusing to your customer. And even if you are able to find clients for all of your offerings, it divides your focus in too many directions.
Take it from me, weddings are easily 99% of my business but when I began renting a shiny new studio, I added workshops and retail to Bewilder’s offerings. Between scheduling retail help and promoting classes, I didn’t have enough time for my wedding clients, aka the wonderful couples who actually were paying me to do what I do best. I ended up exhausting myself, and spending extra time and money doing too many things half way. Now that we have refocused on weddings, we have an opportunity to get really really good at just that.
4. Grow Slowly and Organically
As a young person here in the tech capital, you see other people your age get funding left and right, before they even prove they can turn a profit. But that doesn’t mean those businesses will ever turn a real profit, let alone produce a valuable product.
Jason Fried the founder of Basecamp writes in Rework about how “Limited resources force you to make do with what you've got. There's no room for waste. And that forces you to be creative.” And warns that if you grow too fast, you can actually skip over the right size for your business.
Bewilder jumped from paying for a space in a small shared studio to a much bigger ground floor retail space pretty much over night, tripling our rent. While I am so grateful for our beautiful studio, in hindsight this may have been too much too soon. I was looking at all these bigger floral businesses who had been around much longer and boasted such beautiful spaces and wanted to skip ahead to where they were. I did the math, figured we could afford it if we sold flowers at retail and went for it, completely forgetting that from the beginning we wanted to AVOID retail.
The take away here is not to get into a lease or hire an employee or take on any extra expenses that are not absolutely necessary to the core thing that you do. Only take those things on when you actually need them. Know that your business is capable of being profitable before investing too much time and money.
5. Charge what you’re worth
This is advice that I had read from other florists, but as soon as I coupes started hiring me I was so flattered that I bent over backwards to accommodate whatever budget they threw at me. And as a result, some of those earliest bookings were my least happy clients. I simply had not charged them enough to afford to make arrangements that looked how they imagined.
I do not come from a wealthy background, so from day one I haven’t been the most comfortable with just how much people are willing to spend on flowers. I remember being shocked at my first floral gig as a freshmen in college when customers would drop my whole week’s paycheck on a single bouquet.
It has taken almost a year to slowly raise our prices enough to confidently offer clients the flower arrangements of their dreams. Flowers aren’t cheap even when you are buying wholesale, and neither is rent and design help. And beyond that, doing too many weddings because your profit margin is too small isn’t doing you, or your clients, or your designers any favors.
So I guess what I’m saying is, it’s okay to give people deals when you are first starting and figuring out how things work. But the second you think you should be charging more, it’s time to start charging more. Being honest about how much things costs is better for everyone in the long run.
6. Schedule time off
When Bewilder was first getting started, I was so stoked that it was actually working that I did not rest. And I mean did not take days off, did not sleep or eat properly and was absolutely relentless. (My apologies to everyone who put up with me).
And that was fine until it wasn’t. It was sometime in March when I finally hit a wall after taking no days off for two months in the OFF SEASON. Something as simple as insisting on two days off per week (like normal humans) has made a world of difference.
Burn out is real and can sneak up on you out of nowhere. Especially with creative work, you can tell yourself you are doing what you love and make it into an excuse to never stop working. But you need to stop working, especially in creative industries, especially when you are doing what you love. Because before you know it, it will cease to be the thing you love and begin to be a chore. And then, not only do you hate your job (maybe this was the reason you started a business in the first place), but you no longer have that thing that makes you happy.
Go look at something else. Go on a trip, see some art, go to a show, catch up with friends, go for a walk, cook something delicious and TAKE TIME OFF. Both you and your clients will be better for it when you come back with fresh eyes.
7. Suck it up and get the Software (or the assistant)
Okay, so a certain someone I know and love very much makes himself sick finding the perfect software for every single business task. This can become a time consuming obsession and I am not advocating for that. However, if you do find software that can make your life easier it is usually worth the cost.
I have watched business owners refuse to pay the $10 a month for, lets say, a book keeping software and instead go crazy trying to figure it out themselves. What they fail to recognize is that their time is valuable, and they are not bookkeepers, they are designers. All the time that an app or program saves them is time they can spend designing amazing things and wooing clients, which is, after all, what they are here to do. The more time spent doing that the more money they make, and thus the software pays for itself.
(However, please refer back to #4 if you are thinking of buying any expensive software.)
8. Read business Books
As much as I have learned in my first few years of business, there is so much good advice out there. And although maybe you want to spend time doing something more artsy and less nerdy, knowing the basics of running a business can serve you for the rest of your life. Actually getting paid to do what you love is an incredibly validating feeling and I highly recommend going for it. Despite all the stress, you get to be in charge of your own life.
Photos by Justine Grajski