Crazdude’s Art Biz Crash Course (Advice MEGA POST)

TL;DR: A little bit goes a long way and a tiny bit more goes much farther. Value yourself, treat your business like a business, stay organized, and communicate respectfully with your admirers and customers. Also, pricing is hard but you can make a profit if you calculate costs and do your research.

Many young, aspiring art entrepreneurs believe that having an art business or “doing art full-time” means doing art for money and nothing else. They are sadly mistaken. Art as a full-time business means managing a business (offering a product, finding customers, keeping established customers) with art as the focus of the offered products and services. On that note, let’s talk business. What exactly do I mean by business? Thankfully, you don’t necessarily need to attend college courses in finance and marketing to rock your independent/freelance art career but you should take a few basic elements into consideration when establishing yourself as an art professional.

 

CUSTOMER SERVICE

Surprisingly enough, art is not your most important asset to yourScreen Shot 2016-06-08 at 5.02.00 PM business. You can create amazing art but you will struggle if you are not courteous and respectful of your clients. If you respect them, they are more likely to respect you. Also treating customers (and potential customers) as you treat your friends will give you bonus points; not only is it a way for them to get to know you, it’s a way for you to get to know them! That means knowing what they like so you can offer them a custom commission that is tailored to their interests and personality which makes for a very special experience and product. For Sarah Cat commission (right.) Instead of just coloring the shirt a solid color, I asked if she had a preferred color or design for the shirt. I illustrated a design based off of an actual shirt she loves to wear which helped to add a special touch that made this badge one of her new favorite and frequently worn badges. Due to the resulting artwork, she is one of my strongest promoters. Thanks to the positive commission experience, she is also a great friend!

Your business is not a popularity contest but having favorable reviews circulating about you (even from people who haven’t commissioned you – like how you were humble, informative, and didn’t snap at them for asking questions) are always welcome! When art and social media overlap, there is such thing as bad press. The more positive things that people have to say, the better it is for your business. Keeping drama to a minimum is always advised. No flame wars, no insults, no negative rants… Just be nice, make a great product, and awesome people will gravitate toward you.

Once commissioners start rolling in, keep an organized queue (I recommend Trello – here is my commission queue as an example) so that you don’t get distracted by new commissions, overloaded, or completely forget a customer in the shuffle! As the work progresses, communicate clearly and often. I like to offer up a chance for critique at the sketching phase because my goal is to work with the customer for a perfect commission and it is easier to make changes at this point in the process. If you are unsure of anything, always ask the question; better to get the commission done correctly by asking “silly” questions than to make easily avoidable mistakes through assumption. At the beginning of the commission process, I often give a time frame of when I plan to start working on their commission. If for any reason, that time frame is altered — delays or if you start sooner than expected — a courteous message to your customer will help your customer to know what to expect and when.

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 1.54.26 PMIf you are unable to work for an extended period of time, this is crucial: keep the customer in the loop. Not just one mass post to your followers; those can be missed or overlooked. If your queue is widely known and located at one web link, that can be a good place to leave a message (see my announcement Trello board in my commission queue at the left.) It is extremely important that you contact each commissioner directly as they should know what is going on. Always assume they want their work immediately (or at least on time) but understand that they will (more often than not) be open-minded and supportive so long as you are honest and give a time frame for completion. There’s a fine line between constant excuses and honest updates; the more you stay ahead of the customer’s concern, the better you will stay in their favor. If the customer has to bother you for an update, this is when even legitimate reasons start to sound like excuses. Lack of communication leads to concern, concern leads to complaints, complaints lead to poor reviews and lost business. There are instances when a customer has unrealistic goals but a proper level of communication will help to reduce issues.

Delays happen to everyone. To make up for delays and mistakes, bonuses (like stickers) or extra TLC with their commission (more details or upgrades like gem stones, holographic effect) cost less than the perceived value from the customer. With only a few extra minutes or $1 of supplies, the crisis is averted!

 

QUALITY

When producing your work for commission as a beginner, you may be using whatever supplies are easily attainable or cheap. As you expand your business and bring in more commissions, (assuming you are charging enough to create profit) the influx of money should allow you to upgrade your tools and improve your quality. Over the years I acquired prettier papers to accent my artwork, sharper scissors to cut smoothly, a badge clip hole puncher to give a neater appearance, and my own professional grade laminator so I could provide thicker lamination for a more durable product.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 2.17.17 PMDrawing papers, pencils, and coloring supplies all make some difference in quality but what you put into your finishing shows skill and care as much as your art does. Imagine a polished, brilliant cut diamond vs a diamond that is left rough, dirty, or cut sloppily. Jagged lamination edges, crooked borders, holes punched through the artwork or too close to the edge so that the badge tears or gets lost at a convention. These are issues I’ve seen with badges I’ve commissioned (they make me wish I offered to laminate it myself) and are easily avoided with a little extra time, care, planning, and a $11+ hole puncher from Amazon. As you offer more care/time/supplies, you should be compensated; always access your prices in relation to what you offer and what the value means to the customer.

To illustrate this concept, compare artist laminating a con badge vs having a customer laminate it: the actual task of laminating a badge at OfficeMax costs about $2 but for the customer to take the chance that the non-laminated badge gets ruined in the mail or at their own hands after driving to the OfficeMax, that is closer to a $5 value-added service. Same for shipping. Value is added when it isn’t just shipping but also careful handling; ensuring the commission doesn’t get bent, wet, or scratched. It’s not just the cost of postage and an envelope – it’s far more: it’s quality, care, and customer service.

 

BRANDING AND MARKETING
photo (1)One of the first things I did when bringing new life to my art business was to create my logo and develop my brand image. It’s important for people to remember your work and remember how to find it. A logo or watermark helps to tag your work and put your name, website, or social media handle in the minds of your admirers.

When acquiring new customers, using hashtags, cross-posting, and posting often are your best assets. You need to be seen by everyone who has interest in what you are selling, discoverable by potential followers and remembered by fans. It’s not necessarily a competition but it can be. The more you are seen, the more you may stand out as an artist that people want to commission! There is always an appropriate balance between posting too much and not enough. This article has some great advice on refining your social media presence.

After you have sold a commission, that relationship with that customer isn’t over and your ability to advertise may have spread. I always mark my artwork and prints with my website/social media handle. Especially with convention badges, many customers will get compliments on the badge you made for them and will share your information with those interested people; it makes it easier for them to refer you if your information is clearly printed or written on the back of the badge. Congrats! Now those interested people are potential customers!

Additionally, when sending my traditional commissions, I make sure I include a note (with my logo on it — see image at left) thanking them for commissioning me. It’s always good to keep you and your business in their mind and in their favor! That special touch may mean the difference between a one-time customer and a life-long customer. The badges shown above are the first commissions of two repeat customers!

Thinking of taking your business on the road at convention artist alleys or even at art shows? Keeping a consistent image for your table or booth often means designing informative documents and signage. With my logo and ideal color scheme, I created a durable banner, informative business cards, and pricing signage to help customers make an informed decision when viewing my artwork. Clear and detailed price lists along with references for size, quality, style, and content are your greatest weapon when selling in an ocean of other artists. Convention goers are busy absorbing all of the action and trying to figure the best option for spending their money. If prices are easy to figure out and you have a display that shows the array of available options and your abilities, they will be more likely to stop and at least snag a business card to commission you later! And conventions are a great place for repeat commissioners to promote you to their friends! I got a few commissions at artist alley thanks to loyal repeat commissioners like Munch (pictured with me at the right.)

 

MERCHANDISING, CONSIGNMENT, AND INVENTORY

What items do you want to offer? Who is your audience? What do they want? Maybe you want to get into greeting cards or stickers. You may have ambitious goals but starting with a small quantity (10-20) helps you to determine what is a fan favorite vs a weak seller. Keeping a record of your inventory (what you ordered vs what you sold) will help you to determine what you need to purchase more of. You can always order more if you can’t keep product on the shelves.

Greeting Cards for ConsignmentSpeaking of shelves, if you are selling greeting cards and prints, you may want to try consignment in your home town with gift shops that support local artisans, like the Fairport Pharmacy where I sell my greeting cards. You usually need to sign an agreement that the shop will take 20%-50%+ cut of your sales to cover display and exchange of money while your product resides in their shop. Since each shop usually takes a cut of your sales, this is all the more reason to charge enough for you to turn a profit. If a greeting card costs you $1 to produce and package, selling it for $3 at a shop that takes 60% cut of your profit will result in your work barely breaking even; not worth your time. Always figure out if it’s worth your time and energy by calculating Profit (Price minus Cost plus Consignment fees.)

When preparing for an art show, I spend hours and sometimes days just preparing and monitoring inventory. Ordering and preparing prints (matting or packaging them), packaging greeting cards, making sure I have enough supply for the show, and framing originals. The more art I make for the show, the more originals I have to frame and update the website as new prints arrive. An artist’s work is never done!

 

FAD FOLLOWING OR TRAIL BLAZING?

How do you want to design your offerings? Are you going to Refill Optionstake a bite of the Pokemon craze and make some Evee evolutions buttons? Or are you going to make your own recognizable, eye-catching style so that successfully sell well and advertise YOU? Maybe a mix of both? Go with what you feel will get you noticed but always remember that many times, there are collectors of Pokemon, superheroes, and so on; all they want is art of that particular character; fan art may cause you to blend in with the crowd rather than stand out. Making a popular product is good but your goal is to be remembered; you want them to come back for more. If you make your art a commodity where you attract collectors that want to collect YOUR work, you’re golden!

 

PRICES, PROFITS, TAXES, OH MY!

Then you get into the money. Getting paid is great but are you making a PROFIT? That may depend on your prices. If you are selling prints, profit is price (i.e. what you charge customers) minus cost (i.e. what you paid to get your prints produced and packaged/matted/framed.) Profits are a little easier to see with a product like a print, button, or sticker sheet than with a painting, plushie, or other hand-made custom craft. Obviously you use materials, time, and skill, but not all supplies are one-time use like canvases and paper. If you are coloring with markers, the whole marker set isn’t being used for this one project and the markers will only be partially used for this project (they will last and can be used for many future projects.) Pricing could be handled in such a way that you compensate for marker by calculating cost of one replacement marker into the price of the commission. The same can be said for software, brushes, colored pencils, and other materials that are used for multiple projects. A great article on pricing your art can be read here.

Pricing is hard. Standing up to price complaints is also hard. Pricing is that element of business management that makes you look at your work and evaluate the worth of your art and yourself. When we think of the cost of art, we are aware that we should charge for materials, tools/software, time worked, but many artists neglect overhead costs (rent, electricity) and even more artists forget to pay themselves.

13641145_1168919603171241_7023684854284341444_oEspecially when living on your own and supporting yourself, you don’t have to be a starving artist and, heck, you should be able to take a vacation once in a while! You are the CEO, Financial officer, manager, marketing executive, IT specialist, and product engineer. Companies and corporations charge enough to pay each person, cover their health benefits, and give them vacation time because they are a value to the company. In your art business, your business doesn’t exist without YOU. So what makes you or any artist any less deserving of a paycheck, health care, and vacation? Because you enjoy making art?  *BUZZER* FALSE! If you want this to be your main source of income, start treating this less like a hobby and more like a business. We can enjoy our work but it is work. Professional sports players are paid millions of dollars and their work is also considered play. Fun and enjoyment is important for us to keep passionate about the work we do but it is not a disqualification for being paid a living wage.
Now you understand that you aren’t Trade decline messages“just an artist.” You are a business owner. No freebies. No trades.  You are here to make a profit. But just because you’re trying to earn a living doesn’t mean you turn people down rudely. A person that asks for free or “cheap” art could end up being a future commissioner if you respectfully decline and explain you are a full-time art business owner with commissions and other responsibilities.

And on the subject of “Cheap” and “Expensive”, these are relative terms. For example, $1 is “expensive” for a toddler who has no income. Conversely, a $600 meal at a restaurant is “cheap” for the super rich.

Cheap is relativeThe people who use these terms usually do not mean for you to take offense; give them the benefit of a doubt. You may be able to enlighten them and in form them that stating a comfortable price range is more informative than “I’m interested in commissioning you. Something cheap.” They are in charge of their finances and you are in charge of your prices. And since you are a professional, you should not take these requests or complaints personally. A restaurant offering a $600 meal doesn’t worry about us seeing it as “expensive”. There is always someone willing to support you at the price you charge.

Admittedly, there are instances where you may find you are overcharging (this is a rarity in the furry art community.) If you notice an influx of complaints or cannot sell any of those items at that price, you can compare your product to what others of your caliber are offering and alter your price from there. Never change your prices without researching and re-calculating your profit vs cost and price. For instance, I originally calculated cost of greeting cards to be twice the price that I offer them for now. Before I decided on the price, I thought it was a bit high for a greeting card. I retraced my steps and found that I included in the cost of the original artwork by mistake. Oops! Mistakes happen. When we are just starting out and aren’t sure how to calculate prices, pricing issues are common. Once you feel like you have a good rhythm to the commissions and/or product sales, you may need to increase price to keep up with demand and change in material costs. Being overwhelmed with commissions could mean your artistic style and product are popular but it can also mean you are offering custom art at bargain prices. For a long-term business plan, this can be exhausting and you may lose passion for it if you are underselling. Always revisit your prices when you start feeling burned out.

Somewhere down the line, you may be interested in becoming “legit” with the government and start taking sales tax. It sounds scary but it does have its benefits if you have an organized record-keeping system for money-out vs money-in. When you are spending a lot of money on supplies in order to sell a lot of product, tax deductions are your friend. Everything from convention attendance fees when you sell in Artist Alley to your art supplies, from travel expenses to your clothes (what you wear when you sell/work) – these are essential to your business and your ability to make money. Since you charge tax when you sell your work, just about everything you bought to make that sale possible is tax-deductible. Don’t forget website fees, mileage to get to a con, display materials, packaging, signs, business cards, and more are also relevant!

 

I hope that you found this informative and inspirational! Remember that this is just a crash course and not EVERYTHING was covered. Please feel free to leave a comment with other ideas or questions! Also, if you felt like this article was worth sharing, feel free to share a link to this blog post on social media!

One Response to “Crazdude’s Art Biz Crash Course (Advice MEGA POST)

  • Wow, what an informative, and well thought out article! Thank you for sharing all of your insight and experiences. While I’m not selling artwork, I still feel as though I can use a lot of what you shared as I explore a handmade business!
    Thank you!!

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