The list of business books I can wholeheartedly recommend to artists and creatives is sadly very short.
Most of them don’t take account of the fact that creative people are more interested in finding a way to earn a living that supports their passions and lifestyle than in becoming the next Richard Branson or Donald Trump.
So it’s great to come across a book like Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup, with the stated aim of showing you “how to lead a life of adventure, meaning, and purpose – and earn a good living” (note the order of priorities).
As the title suggests, Chris recommends you keep things simple – instead of asking your bank for a loan or venture capitalists for investment, see what you can achieve with a minimal budget and innovative ways of helping your customers.
It’s an attitude that will resonate for anyone who is used to creating things on a tight budget, and among Chris’s amazing case stories of successful micro-entrepreneurs are several artists and creatives (including John T. Unger, who will be familiar to long-term Lateral Action readers).
Chris was kind enough to send me a preview copy of the book, and to answer some questions on your behalf, about how the $100 Startup principles apply to creative professionals.
If you relate to the ideas in Chris’s interview, you’ll love the book – it’s inspiring to read so many stories of people taking an alternative route to success (I said to Chris that I almost felt normal after reading it, which is quite an achievement!). And he does a great job of drawing out the lessons we can all learn from their examples.
A lot of artists and creatives can probably relate to the ‘$100’ part of your book’s title – they are used to scraping by and making things on a tight budget. The ‘startup’ part might sound a little more daunting though – if it conjures up images of spreadsheets, business plans, strategy meetings and the like. But is business really that complicated?
Good point. The traditional view of “startup” does indeed conjure up a vision of moving to Silicon Valley and begging for money from various parties.
Fortunately, that isn’t the only view. The $100 Startup is the collective story of ordinary people with no background in business who created successful businesses that brought in a good income. In most cases, they didn’t set out to become “businesspeople.” The business came along the way, often unexpectedly. Most of them found their success by doing something that they loved – and then finding a way to make something useful.
Oh, and almost none of them had an extensive business plan.
Your book features some great case studies of creative people succeeding via unconventional paths. Can you share one or two patterns of thought or behaviour that distinguish them from the typical ‘starving artist’ stereotype?
I think the first thought pattern is one of curiousity. Many of the people I talked with were simply curious by nature – they asked good questions, and they pursued an opportunity where others might have passed it by.
One of the case studies was Sarah Young, who opened a yarn shop at the height of the recession in the U.S. I asked her why she thought it would be successful when she wasn’t previously an entrepreneur. Her answer was astute: “I wasn’t an entrepreneur, but I was a shopper. I knew what I wanted and it didn’t exist, so I figured I wasn’t the only one.”
Sarah’s store, Happy Knits, now has five employees. In the video book trailer she talks about the store’s first $1,000 day, when she called her dad on the phone and eagerly related the story of bringing in that much revenue in one day. We filmed that trailer a few months ago, and when I caught up with her recently she told me another story: Happy Knits had recently hosted a yarn festival, and the store brought in more than $10,000 in revenue in one day’s time.
So it seems that not everyone needs to be a starving artist.
“Follow your passion” is common advice for people looking to start up their own business, but you say that virtually none of your entrepreneur-interviewees agreed with it without reservation. Why was that?
Indeed, most people agreed to that concept in principle but usually with some caveats. The first thing to understand is that you can be passionate about all sorts of topics, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone will pay you to pursue them. You have to create actual value in your business, not only “do what you love.” Value is one of those overused business words, but basically it means helping people.
All of the businesses I looked at were very much focused on helping people. They had found a way to create happiness in the lives of their customers, either through adding something positive or removing something negative. One young entrepreneur who made custom wedding dresses told me, “My marketing plan is strategic giving.”
Sometimes artists say to me: “It’s all very well for you to sell digital products and Skype consulting sessions via the internet, but I make real, solid artworks. How does all this online stuff help me?” What would your answer be?
Digital products and social networks are just tools – the basics of running a very small business aren’t much different whether we’re talking about ebooks or painted canvases. No matter what it is you’re selling, the building blocks are three simple things:
- a) a product or service
- b) a group of people willing to pay for it
- c) a means of getting paid
If something isn’t working well, the answer is found in focusing on one of these variables, and then making adjustments or otherwise regrouping.
With artists specifically, I’m often surprised how difficult it can be to pay some of them. Many artist websites have great representations of their work, but little backstory on the artist themselves – something that is very important in building connecting with prospective buyers. Even worse, many artist websites have no PayPal buttons or other way to pay the artist. Don’t make buyers work for it! Make it easy.
We don’t have to look far for bad news about the economy these days. What would you say to someone who’s thinking “I want to pursue my dream but I have responsibilities. It feels too risky to give up my job and strike out as an entrepreneur”?
Well, first of all I’d never say “Just quit your job and everything will be OK.” Those responsibilities are real. Don’t quit your job right away, but do consider taking action to establish a side income however you can. Even if you love your job, wouldn’t it be great if you went in to your day job because you wanted to – not because you had to?
I’d also look more carefully at the second part of that statement: “It feels too risky to work for myself.”
What really is risky these days? Yes, entrepreneurship or creative self-employment used to be viewed as risky, because in days of old you often had to accumulate capital and wait a long time to begin. But these days, you can start quickly (The $100 Startup model advocates a maximum of 30 days to launch), and you can do so without spending a lot of money.
When compared to competing in an uncertain job market that offers little opportunity for advancement, where is the real risk?