27 Things I Learned Starting a New Art Business

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Most people who work in the arts can say they moonlight in another profession to fill the coffers or fulfill their creative need. I’m no different, I started a studio business during the pandemic while pursuing my career as an arts journalist.

Making the decision to start a new business is largely never rational and often driven by passion, but confidence in yourself and your skills is essential to getting it right.

While some creatives choose to compartmentalize these aspects of their professional lives, there are also benefits to purging skills through career paths. Here are some of the lessons — and secrets — to tap into when starting a new creative venture, and how to turn those old portfolio career learnings into new gains.

New Business Learnings

1. Know why.
Don’t do this unless you can shake the elevator pitch without hesitation. It should be rooted in why you are getting into this business.

2. You don’t need a fancy business plan.
But you need to formalize your key vision and goals (year one, year two, five years) into a simple document. A new business moves quickly and can grow organically as it gets a foothold. It can be overwhelming at first. Don’t get caught up in doing things blindly. You have to stay strategic and on track, or adapt.

3. Don’t rush to throw or open.
Starting a new business is more than just having an ABN, a logo, and the keys to a space. You need to sort out everything from billing models, to how you’re going to package and ship your products, to changing resources on everything you sell – yes, you need to know how long it takes, how much it costs and how quickly you can reorder supplies.

4. Know your limits.
If you hate doing your taxes every year, then you need to be accountable to someone to handle the financial side of your business – an occasional accountant – before you open doors, because you’re having fun if you think you can get away with it.

5. Sort out your product line.
It’s not about a nice range of nice things that you like to do. You need to be sure that you can still deliver the same product in volume and in a timely manner.

6. Branding is everything.
The simplest ones we know are: company name, logo, color, aesthetics… but it’s so much more. Today, you are expected to use consistent language, messaging, storytelling – and be authentic.

Read: Tips for Artist Branding

7. Know your brand ethics.
Brand ethics are increasingly important to public perception today. Take a look at your suppliers and how they make things. Do you adopt sustainable practices or do you use carbon offsets? Do you recognize the country in which the company operates? It’s all part of the brand’s holistic messaging today.

8. Set your schedules.
Just because you’re a studio-based business doesn’t mean you don’t have regular working hours – set them and stick to them.

9. Protect your manufacturing time.
Customers expect to be able to visit you when they or they want to. Again, set your hours and stick to them. At first, I would greet anyone enthusiastically, at any time, because they loved what we were doing… ahem, no retail company does this, so why should you? Set your opening hours or the schedule of your open studio so that it is known.

10. Administration will take about a third of your time.
Correspondence, reseller and prospect research, shipping, marketing and social media, inventory tracking (in addition to billing and accounts) – they can screw you up if you don’t get the hang of it. Set aside a half day each week, or an hour each morning, and lock in that time. Put an alarm on your phone to get used to it.

Read: Advice from artists who run businesses

11. Treat your studio practice like a job, not just your business.
Be consistent and consistent in doing your work. But also be persistent in staying creative and finding new ways. You need to constantly stay on top of your stock levels and offers. Nothing will hurt your business more than not being able to deliver orders or looking outdated.

Work habits are essential for studio-based creative businesses. Shutterstock image.

12. Make a habit of cleaning your studio weekly.
If you’re a studio-based business, you need to be presentable to short-term clients.

13. Go to design shows, makers markets, art fairs.
When you’re a small studio business, you need to know your market – your competitors and your point of difference. It’s also a great way to fix display or packaging issues that you can’t figure out, by seeing how others do things.

14. Open studios are a great way to sell.
Every time we open our doors, we are always surprised by the volume of occasional sales that quickly add up at the end of the day. So why not schedule them regularly – seasonally, monthly – or play on nearby local events such as market days or mini-festivals.

15. You can’t always choose a buyer.
A great lesson learned while working in a gallery in San Francisco during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s – Okanui’s pockets can also be very deep.

16. The majority of visitors to your studio’s open house are first-time visitors.
Open studios are great for growing your support network. And surprisingly many new visitors will buy – but you have to give them a show. Schedule a demo or display, but most importantly, be prepared to give them your time and take them on your journey.

17. You can’t run a studio business without an online store.
If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that today people are embracing buying online, so maximize your profits and brand management and do it through your website.

18. Diversification of your business and your studio is essential.
Once you get started, remember to keep your website and social media up to date. Keep anticipating sales or themes around your product to generate new interest. Keep working on new product development on the side – schedule time for gaming and prototyping.

19. Remember to constantly check your business plan and goals.
When that first birthday rolls around and you’re totally exhausted, the question will arise, ‘Why the hell did I start this?’ Create a semi-annual calendar coffee date for a business wellness catch up. Reevaluate not only how and where studio activity is developing, but also your mental and physical state. Ask yourself how sustainable the requests are and what you need to adjust.

20. Test first, test early when it comes to packing and shipping.
It’s great to have sexy, desirable stock, but unless you know how you’ll present your offerings to the customer, whether in person or by shipping, it will hold you back. During the first few months we lost stock with shipping shortages. We also found inconsistent sourcing levels to maintain our recycling packaging philosophy. And knowing how much and when to invest in branded packaging can be confusing. The answer to all these startup problems is to test first, test early.

21. You need resellers to grow.
Your online store and studio are great sales channels, but they’re not enough to build a sustainable studio business. Just as an artist has a gallery to represent them, manufacturers rely on resellers to expand their product placement. Do your research and find the right match. Know how you will operate – consignment or wholesale – before approaching them. Know your payment terms, again before approaching them. Know what you think about product exclusivity and make sure you strike the right balance between geographic distribution and transportation costs.

22. You need supplies to craft. You need packaging to present.
One of the hardest things in the beginning is understanding your supply levels – too little; too much. There is also a financial burden on these. You order too much and you have to transport this load before unloading the stock. We recommend that you map it. Plan your usage, and know your needs for each item you sell. Maintain a base stock level in your inventory to fill orders and know your base supply levels to maintain that base.

Read: 30 things I learned while working in a gallery

24. Find the right time and offer workshops.
Workshops are also a great way to expand your offerings and create a new revenue stream and customer base, but only do this when your business is mature enough to support them. They require a lot of work; you need to be on top of your insurance and your SST – but they can be very profitable.

25. Display is an extension of your products, not just your brand.
If you’re opening your studio or doing trade shows (and even think about your dealers), display is essential for showcasing your wares. We recommend being consistent with your brand.

26. Reach out.
Upon opening our studio business, we were surprised by the level of community adoption and support. Look to your local tourism, municipal and information networks to communicate what you are doing. Reach out, and it will be treble to you.

27. If it stops being fun, then stop.

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