The 3 Critical Characteristics of the Creative Entrepreneur

In the last article we saw that the creative economy opens up a brave new world of opportunity – but a world that is also full of uncertainty and risk.

So how come Marla’s having such a ball? How did she get to be queen of the roost? And what does she know that Lou doesn’t?

Marla is the consummate creative entrepreneur.  She’s a bright creative thinker who follows through and gets things done.  Everybody loves her for a reason – she treats everyone she works with, big and small, as a valued collaborator and potential ally.  And her creativity is not limited to the artistic sphere – her entrepreneurial vision allows her to conjure new opportunities out of thin air, and she has the business savvy to make her dreams a reality.

Her success – like yours – depends on her ability to master three critical skill-sets:

  1. Creativity – generating new ideas, evaluating them effectively, taking action to turn them into new products and services.
  2. Collaboration – connecting and working with partners, clients, and other significant players in your network, which will probably be scattered across the globe and contain more ‘virtual’ relationships than face-to-face ones.
  3. Entrepreneurship – identifying opportunities in the marketplace and using business skills to turn ideas into products into profits.

Of course, entrepreneurs have always relied on their creativity to produce wealth, but the modern creative entrepreneur goes further. John Howkins defines creative entrepreneurs as people who ’use creativity to unlock the wealth that lies within themselves’ (my emphasis) rather than external capital.

The value they create lies not in their physical products (if any) but in intangible assets such as their brand, reputation, network and intellectual property.  They are adept at projecting a desired image and creating a personal brand, both online and offline. They also understand the principles of intellectual property law and use copyrights, trademarks, patents and licenses to exploit the full potential of their ideas.

Creative entrepreneurs are not freelancers. Freelancers earn a living by doing paid work for clients, usually charging by the hour, day or project. Freelancers think in terms of  ’getting more work’. Creative entrepreneurs think in terms of creating opportunities, producing results and making profits. This leads them to create systems and businesses that generate wealth and free up their time for their next big idea.

Mary’s Story

Once upon a time there was ’a young girl who just wanted to draw pictures’. When she was 11, her family created a ’studio’ for her by empying out a linen closet, where she would sit and draw for hours, no matter how hot it was in summer.

She grew up into a woman who wanted to draw pictures. She took a job at an ad agency and freelance commissions from clients – but she wasn’t satisfied ’drawing to order’ for other people. So she started licensing her designs to greeting card companies and saw her levels of income and satisfaction rise.

She branched out into other media and took on staff to help her. To this day, she still draws the originals of all her designs, before her staff ’reformats’ them for licensed products including cards, calendars, T-shirts, mugs, books and animated films. One day her fame and personal brand were so well established that she was able to launch a national magazine bearing her name – Mary Engelbreit’s HOME COMPANION.

Had she remained a freelancer or even become a contracted author, Mary Engelbreit would no doubt have made a comfortable living. But because she became an entrepreneur, licensing her art and building a business around it, she has achieved lifetime retail sales of more than $1 billion. She has also touched the lives of millions of people with her artwork, and partnered with the charity First Book to promote literacy by delivering millions of books to low income children.

Artist or Entrepreneur?

Conventional thinking sees art and business as worlds apart, with little or nothing in common. Here at Lateral Action we think this is a deeply uncreative way of looking at things. In Mary Engelbreit we see the Artist and Entrepreneur working together in harmony:

It’s an amazing degree of success for any company, but even more remarkable considering that it all began with a single-minded young girl who decided at age 11 that she was going to be an artist. And while Mary Engelbreit Studios has grown into a global licensing and retail business, that same girl still sits at its core, grown up now, but still drawing her pictures with the same sense of wonder, imagination and enthusiasm.

Or how about Caterina Fake, who started out as a designer, then later an Art Director at before she co-founded Flickr, the photo-sharing phenomenon. These days her business interests include sitting on the boards of Creative Commons and Etsy, speaking at conferences and universities, and advising startups. She also finds time to write fiction and poetry and make sculpture and art installations. Are her businesses really any less creative than her artistic pursuits?

Marla wouldn’t say so. She calls herself an ‘Artist in Business’, meaning both ‘an artist who is in business’ and ‘an entrepreneur whose business is a work of art’.

We’re All Entrepreneurs Now

As Lou is finding out to his cost, the steady job and predictable career path are now historical relics.  The only real security lies in taking an entrepreneurial approach to our own careers, by taking responsibility for developing our skills, building our network and reputation, and creating opportunities for ourselves.  Taking a job can be a great learning experience and a worthwhile investment in yourself – just don’t assume it will be there forever.

Of course this is great news to someone like Jack who values his independence and always has plenty of creative side projects on the boil.  He’ll get bored and move on long before he’s made redundant.  That blog he’s been writing in the evenings has grown arms and legs – as well as landing him a book deal it’s put him in touch with collaborators around the globe.  He’s convinced he’s on the verge of making it big… but he’ll need more than dreams to succeed.

Because the new economy is founded on creativity, it would be easy to assume we all need to get our creative thinking hats on and schedule a lot of brainstorming sessions. But there’s a little more to it than that – as we’ll see in the next article in this series.

Want to Become a Creative Entrepreneur?

We’ve created an in-depth learning programme to help you become a creative entrepreneur, based on our own real-life experiences and other examples. Sign up here if you’d like to be first to know next time the course is open to new students.

Over to You

Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?  Why?

How have the skills of creativity, collaboration and entrepreneurship contributed to your success?

Which of these three skill-sets come easiest to you? Which do you have to work at?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

The 21st Century Creative Podcast

The 21st Century Creative Podcast

Hosted by poet and creative coach Mark McGuinness, The 21st Century Creative podcast helps you succeed as a creative professional amid the demands, distractions, and opportunities of the 21st century.

Each episode features insights from Mark and interviews with outstanding creators – including artists, writers, performers, commercial creatives, directors, producers, entrepreneurs and other creative thought leaders.

Guests include Steven Pressfield, Scott Belsky, Jocenlyn K. Glei, Joanna Penn and Michael Bungay Stanier.

Responses to this Post


  1. Great goin…. waiting for more.

  2. What I liked about your article is the idea that you don’t have to do or be just one thing. You can find different ways to apply, repackage and market your talents.

    Today’s creative entrepreneur has lots of ideas and uses them to generate multiple streams of income. That makes for such an interesting life!


  3. Found you through copyblogger’s tweet.

    My mother-in-law struggles with this. She is an outstanding artist, but struggles with the idea of selling work… the business side. My brother is also highly creative but has a difficult time turning it into cash, so he’s worked a sh!t job most of his life so he had time to be creative on the side. My wife and I (who aren’t all that creative) are entrepreneurs, and try to help them, but sometimes I don’t think they understand what we are saying. It is like we speak different languages.

  4. Totally agree that the artist and the entrepreneur should work in harmony with each other.

    In these times the ‘starving artist’ persona should be a thing of the past.

  5. Thank you! You are doing a great job pulling together various concepts that have been a bit disparate for me until now. I really appreciate your approach. Thanks also to copyblogger for the tweet.

  6. I also found you through Brian Clark via Twitter. Excellent articles – I am working my way backwards from here 😉

    I recently attended the Portland Creative Conference and was incredibly inspired. I have been looking for a “title” that summarizes what I want to do from a work perspective after 10 years in software, and I have settled on “Creative” as my working title. . .I know it sounds naive, but I was not aware of such discussion surrounding the idea – classes and so forth. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Can’t wait for the next article.

  7. Interesting. I think it’s a something of a tautology to say that the 3rd skill of entrepreneurs is “entrepreneurialship,” but I get the idea (maybe the terminology could have been a little better). I’m just glad that bloggers are finally getting away from the “modicum of madness” theory that gets tagged to entrepreneurs. When we start getting business advice from Gary Busey ( there’s something really, really wrong 🙂

    Also — why can’t SOME freelancers be entrepreneurs, too? I started life as a freelancer. You’re right, I was always looking for work, but since everyone else with my same skill set was also looking for work I had to find (and/or create) niches and opportunities where only I could thrive. Granted, contract copywriting isn’t exactly the same as starting a business, but it required a lot of the same thinking. I have this theory that a whole generation of “artist” entrepreneurs are really failed freelancers (or freelancers forced to go small biz due to an overcrowded market). In any case, I think it’s a venn diagram of overlap rather than being either/or.

  8. I have considered myself an entrepreneur in the past, but now I might start thinking of myself as a “Creative Entrepreneur” thanks to this site.

    This stuff is right up my alley. I’ve been working from my laptop for the past three years, my friends and family don’t understand what I do or how I pay the bills, and it’s great to see that there are other people out there who are doing this and succeeding! It’s great to hear from like-minded people. Thanks… and keep up the great work!

  9. Thanks for the great feedback everyone.

    Susan – ‘Who can I be now?’ indeed. 🙂

    Fantabulous – I like the venn diagram idea, different identities overlapping. That’s kind of how it feels for me, at least in relation to my poetry and the rest of my work. I also started out as a freelancer and agree that the freelancer and entrepreneur share some of the same skills. But there is a fundamentally different mindset between the two – the freelancer gets paid to work on clients’ projects (with all the attendant hassle and loss of control) while the entrepreneur creates her OWN profitable business.

    Darren – Glad we’ve made a new convert. 🙂

  10. I am an entrepreneur, and my persistence is so far the apparent winner.

    But I will silently watch this blog and wait for you guys to mention ‘luck’ as one of the things that people credit for their successes. (some credit luck as the only factor, some give it a glancing glance! But luck is there. I am just waiting for it to pop up here. Why? Maybe I will get lucky and tell you then Hmphh)

  11. This is a superb series, guys, and I can see the fun you’re having (along with real work, of course). I think that’s such a big part now of communicating to others in a way that makes them want to come back for more. Hurray for the coming demise of the drearily “informative” website (and all other media), hurray for the emergence of the collective imagination, standing up, looking around, and pointing over there! and over here! I recognize myself!

    Exactly where I was going when I wrote “Little Shifts.” Now, to step over to my next creative plateau, where I get to collaboratively produce entertaining and soul-satisfying visuals that inform. What a tremendous time to be an artist!

    Looking forward to more,
    Suzanna Stinnett

  12. Yes, I consider myself an entrepreneur, both in my job and my business interests. As a professor, I’m a creative entrepreneur in how I present materials to my class. I need to be creative in how I share ideas so that the students will be interested and so that they will learn. I’m also an entrepreneur as I do things to grow the program I am responsible for. I look for ways to attract new students, retain the ones we have, and provide the best ‘product’ possible for all of the students.

    In my business I’m naturally an entrepreneur. I’m creative in the sense that I look for ways to help people achieve their goals. I’m creative in attracting those people to my business, and in how I work with them.

  13. I aplaud this blog! It’s about time that people started realizing that commercial success for an artist isn’t the death nell. It’s ok to be commercially successful…it just means that you have the business and marketing sense to get the word about your artistic talent out to the rest of the world in a compelling way. There are so many talented artists out there…what separates the Mary Engelbreit’s is the ability to successfully market and distribute her ideas to people who can and want to purchase them. Entrepreneurship IS creative…..Entrepreneurship does NOT kill creativity. I say this as an advocate for Charles Fazzino (, the artist my company represents….he’s incredibly talented, very popular, and often criticized by the classical art world as “too commercial.” I don’t believe there is such a thing…..

  14. I’m an entrepreneur because I see a fringe market in the Christian culture that recognizes the benefit of a passionate sex life within marriage. There is information on female sexuality that they (nor most people) don’t have knowledge of. If Christian men had this knowledge, their wives would be absolutely crazy about them. I’m betting my time, reputation, and money that men will love the results that such an education can produce in a wife. Seeing and acting upon the perceived opportunity is what makes me an entrepreneur.

    I use my creativity to connect experiences to ideas… ideas to experiences…ideas to ideas… ideas to people… and people to people. And I do it while telling a story along the way… a story about how an any regular guy can make himself into an extraordinary man for his wife… and become her hero. I’m not successful, yet, because I just started. I’m finding I LOVE learning about marketing. It’s just fun. Less than two weeks ago, I began learning how to use social media. I get a thrill from learning about and thinking about new possibilities for the future. Ideas, possibilities, and big dreams are like fairy dust to me. It’s makes me high.

    I’m more creative and entrepreneurial. My weakest skill set is collaboration simply because I haven’t done much of it, yet… in business. But I have a feeling that will change. In “real life”, I’ve found that helping other people succeed is a reward unto itself. I get joy from empowering others.

    Wow… Your post and your questions, at the end, really got me thinking. What a wonderful post and blog! Thanks for giving me the opportunity to answer the questions. You have a new follower on twitter.

    ~ John Cannon

  15. I really enjoy this blog a lot and can’t wait to see more. I feel that I struggle on the entrepreneurship. I have a lot of great ideas and ways to get people involved, but the driving force that seems to be the problem is money. Especially when trying to make a short film that has quite a large budget. I feel at times where do I start and how to begin when friends and family have been pretty exhausted. I would really like some more posts on working to find the money or how to build up those skills. Ideas are only idea until you made this happen and create something solid.

  16. Thanks guys.

    Momekh – “The harder I work the luckier I get!” Samuel Goldwyn

    Suzanna – Fun? Who, us?! 😉

    Melissa – We will have plenty to say about business skills…

  17. Of the three skills, the one I have the hardest time with is collaboration. I tend to want to sit at the drawing board or at the workbench all day and not tell a single person about my ideas. I have such a hard time collaborating.

    How do you improve at that?

  18. Great story about Mary, I remembered when I was young boy. I got into the hobby of drawing. I even joined contests and was the artist of choice for projects in our class. I never thought that I could earn from such talent that I forgot about it and focused on my studies. Hobbies do become great earners.

  19. Joe – You’re talking to an introverted poet here, if I can do it anyone can! 🙂

    Seriously, why are you spending all that time at your desk? Surely you want someone to see the end result? So you are never completely disconnected even when you’re working on your own.

    Have you ever had the experience of having someone who’s opinion you respect give you feedback that improves your work? Or had a really great conversation that left you buzzing with ideas? That’s what collaboration’s all about. Not so scary huh?

  20. I do consider myself a creative entrepreneur. But like most of us, I have way too many ideas and projects in my head to commit to one.
    I am LOVING your articles – they really are lighting a much needed fire under my butt to figure out “who will I be next”. It’s an exciting, although scary time.

    Now if I could get over this entrepreneur ADD!

  21. What a great post! It definitely went beyond the “characteristics” of the creative entrepreneur and expanded on what it means to be a creative entrepreneur. As someone who had a dream of being on Broadway for about 20 years, and who is now making the switch to become a career coach for creative types, I’m inspired by the stories you told. I believe that creative types make the best entrepreneurs, as they’re already used to rejection, an irregular pay schedule, & have built the ultimate business – themselves! Independence is also really important -I know, for me, that part of the reason I’m making the switch to life coaching (from a mind-numbing day job) is to allow myself the opportunity to do shows if & when I wish. We CAN have it all – it’s just in finding the balance and another passion that can make your heart sing.

  22. Sandra — that’s what we’re here for!

    WhenIGrowUpCoach – good points, especially the rejection and irregular pay schedule. 🙂 I seriously think you’re right, that there are many overlook similarities between creatives/artists and entrepreneurs.

  23. This should make a really interesting blog. All-Star cast is set… what’s going to happen?!?!?!


  24. You’ll just have to stay tuned to find out. 😉

  25. As a reality television producer who broke in by using creativity to spur action, I can’t tell you how refreshing your site is. I blogged about this post in particular, as it’s full of the kind of advice I find myself giving aspiring producers all the time. Great work, and I’ll enjoy following your blog from here on out.
    Biagio Messina

  26. Thanks Biagio, much appreciated. Here’s the link to your excellent post so that our readers can enjoy it:

  27. I am enjoying your work and the conversation it is creating here… I have been self-employed in the design business for 30 years and recently discovered that it’s never to late… although I had a successful career, my business was little more than a “Job”… I write about inspired success at

    one idea I would like to add for creative entrepreneurs:

    build your business around what matters to you and serves others… it’s really the best way to live life.

    Great work and I am delighted to share in your conversation Thank you!
    Thomson Dawson

  28. “build your business around what matters to you and serves others” – a great way to dovetail your passions and the interest of others.

  29. Nice thoughts Mark…

    True when you said that an creative entrepreneur should have all three skills…and these three skills are reinforcing each other. So if you get all of them, you would benefit from the creative sum which is always more than the simple sum of the three…


  30. Out of the three I would think maybe creativity is the most important. It is hard to purchase. I think maybe that’s why entrepreneurs place such high value on tapping their internal creativity and then moving to protect it.

    Great article and I like the concept of the blog.

  31. Barbara Saunders says:

    I think there’s a real need to distinguish the kind of entrepreneurship you describe here from the more familiar and mundane kinds: the first being the VC-go public kind; the second, the make-gift-baskets-and-sell-to-my-friends kind.

    Much of the entrepreneurial advice I see leads readers towards a badly engineered hybrid of those two models.

  32. i think all of them are very important for enterpeuner to have the creativity, collaboration and knowing somae thing about enterpreunership all these will make the enterpruener to make a success business so that he/ she achieve his/her goals.

  33. Hey Mark,

    I call myself a creative business artist. Good to know :0)

    I agree with you and John Hawkins… “within themselves”

    In regards to the three skill-sets, I humbly say – The three do come easy to me when I am in alignment with who I am.

    Unlocking the door within ourselves and fightning to keep it open is a constant fight. It’s hard work!

    We all know what makes us “tick”.
    This is what I believe makes each of us unique.

    In my opinion – We are Art.

  34. I’m not sure about the three skills listed as there are MANY involved. But did you know that creativity and innovation are both teachable and learnable and I think these mixed with a few basic success criteria such as determination and perseverance are more than enough for and “Creative Entrepeneur”?

    We have proved it with our training for some of the word’s most successful companies time and time again…

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