I was originally going to call this post “Success Tips for Artists.” However, artists and the self-employed have much in common. So, these tips are the practical things I’ve learned over 14 years of working for myself and being an artist.
1 – Provide value
The core of success will always be about providing value. Deciding whether or not you provide value in the world is up to you. It might be a giant act of self-esteem to declare that you provide value, especially if you’re an artist. The “Who do you think you are?” voices can creep in at the strangest times. Providing value doesn’t mean that you don’t occasionally sit up at night and wonder if you’re a fraud. Providing value doesn’t mean that you walk around feeling holy and dignified in every situation. Let’s face it – some nights you just wish the audience had shown up. Feeling like this on occasion doesn’t mean that you don’t provide value. It just means that you’re human and still working on yourself.
So, here’s what you do. Wait til you’re in a peaceful frame of mind. Then, get clear on how you provide value, or how you would like to better serve the world. Not just in your paid work, but also in your personal strengths and in your soul. Then, keep coming back to this. Keep revisiting this. It will guide you.
2 – Define “Success”
What does “making it” mean? More importantly, what does it mean to you? Have you ever clarified this?
Too often, artists and self-employed people drive themselves into the ground because of some undefined idea of success. “Gigs.” “Sales.” “Customers.” “Clients.” None of these terms are clearly defined. If you just want “gigs” or “speaking engagements,” then you can fill an entire year with them. Same with clients, customers and everything else. Without definition, you can burn out because you keep taking on more. It’s easy to forget you have boundaries if you’ve never defined them. You’ll keep chasing some nebulous idea of what success looks like.
The best way to begin is to quantify and to describe. How many gigs per month? What kind? How many customers? What are they like? How many sales? Keep them do-able enough so that you can celebrate your small victories along the way to bigger goals.
3 – Question Assumptions
The idea of success comes fully equipped with decades of assumptions about your industry. None of them are the truth. “You have to know people in the music business to make it.” (Not.) “You have to get into a gallery in Soho if you want to be a great artist.” (Not.) All of it is up for questioning these days. Stop assuming that you know how it has to happen. Stop assuming anything. When someone says, “Yea well…” about your idea, question their assumption. When you think you know how it’s gotta look, question that belief. Open up to new ideas for how to do it best for you. If you’re wondering if there’s a better way to make it work – then there just might be. Find it.
4- Separate yourself from your business
There are many ways to separate yourself from your business. Some of them are psychological. Some are environmental. Some are financial. Let’s start with the financial stuff.
Many self-employed people have one bank account and just put all the money in that one place. It’s their money. It’s the business’s money. It all sits together in one account.
Do yourself a favor. Start paying yourself a salary. Create a separate bank account for your business. Even if your business is new and you only have $500 for that account and your salary is $50/month. Even if you’re not incorporated. Get into the mindset of the business owner. Separating yourself from your business is also a great step to help you stop taking everything personally.
5 – Give yourself promotions and raises
This is challenging, but necessary. How you promote yourself is up to you. For some, it might mean raising their rates. For some it might mean saying no to a certain kind of venue while pursuing the next. For some it means paying yourself a higher salary. If you don’t regularly let yourself know that you matter enough to be promoted, then no one else will. Yes, it’s scary when you start quoting a new higher rate to first time callers, but you’ll get better at it and then it won’t be a big deal. (Resist the temptation to explain yourself! Just tell them the new rate, and let them choose whether or not to hire you!)
6 – Start a Roth IRA
J.D. at Get Rich Slowly wrote a terrific in-depth article about Roth IRA’s. He also wrote one about how to start a Roth IRA. The advantage of a Roth IRA is that you fund it with after-tax money. Then when you’re 65 and you get that money, you won’t be taxed on it then.
Set up automatic payments from your bank account into the Roth IRA account over the full year. That way, you don’t even have to think about it. Get into the habit of putting this money away. I wish now that I had started doing this earlier than I did!
7 – Incorporate your business
This is a great way to separate yourself from your business. It’s a way of making your business an entity, and protecting yourself personally. It will also prevent you from getting hit with self-employment tax. I’ve been incorporated for four years. It was a little overwhelming to go through the process of incorporating. Now, I’m glad I did it. I know that many people prefer LLC’s. You can research to find which is best for you.
8 – Create multiple streams of income
I used to think that if all of my income didn’t come from my songs and my shows, then I wasn’t a real artist. I meet lots of artists who still have this antiquated mindset. I’m much happier (and wealthier) now that I’ve let that idea go. And I get to do more interesting things, and spend less time on the road. Creating multiple streams of income takes time – but in the long run, the patience and willingness pays off.
For instance, here are a few of the ways I make money: CD and t-shirt sales on this website. iTunes song sales. Product sales at shows. CD sales in stores and on amazon.com. Performances. Teaching. Creativity training for companies and the government. Donations from blog readers. Facilitating women’s retreats. Song royalties. Affiliate programs on my website. Investments. The amount of money each thing generates varies greatly. But I am less attached to my income source being me in a spotlight on a stage. Life is more fun now, too.
What other ways can you generate income? Can you try one new thing in 2008?
9 – Revisit your plans/desires every four months
Set aside regular times for thinking about your career. Spend the time moodling. Spend the time writing. Too many artists think of themselves as stuck. Recently, I was with some people who were complaining about burn-out and frustration with their entertainment careers – and they ended up shrugging and saying, “Oh well. There’s nothing else I’m good at. So I have to keep doing this.” I disagree. No one has to be stuck. There are lots of options for expansion these days. It’s not always easy to imagine, but there are options. Begin by getting in the habit of spending a day asking the question, “How could I approach this career that is sustainable for me? What options are out there? What would I just love to try?” Revisit your career every quarter. Keep checking in with yourself about it. This is honoring yourself.
10 – Create an Ideal Client Profile
My brother is a landscape architect. He has recently returned to running his own business after spending time away. We talked about how to attract clients that are perfect for him. Knowing what I know about the power of intent, I told him to create an “Ideal Client Profile.” Describe the ideal client in full detail – from how much they pay you to their mindset to the kind of work they want from you to the fact that they pay you on time and like you a lot as a person. (And that they dislike ornamental cabbage every bit as much as you do.)
I’ve done this. It works. Many years ago, a mentor advised me to create an Ideal Performance Profile. At the time, I was performing in clubs and coffeehouses – and I was tired of the smell of stale beer, and the attitudes of some of the club owners. So, my mentor guided me to use my imagination to describe the perfect performance situations. I’ve also created Ideal Employee Profiles for my office. Try it. You’ll be amazed at the new people and contracts you attract.
11 – Hire People
Make a list of the tasks you do that could be done by someone else. Then, hire people to do them. Post an ad on Craiglist. Visit DoMyStuff.com. Post an ad at a local campus for an office intern. If someone else can do it, learn how to let them. Micromanagers rarely succeed! I’ve paid people to walk my dog in the middle of the day when I was over-committed. I’ve hired Virtual Assistants for specific research tasks I needed to do. WebGuy does all my website work. AccountantMan does all my IRS stuff. And I happily pay for this stuff. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that’s where you should put your energy.
12 – Take vacations
It’s easy to forget vacations. There’s always so much to do when you’re self-employed. There’s always something to create when you’re an artist. For instance, I can always write a blog, answer emails, create workshop plans, fine-tune some of my teaching, write songs. It doesn’t end.
For a long long time, I didn’t take vacations. I told my husband that I travel all the time, and I just didn’t want to travel for my vacations. The only problem is that when I’m home, I can continue working for hours and hours. Even on days off, I can hear the siren call of the computer.
Here’s a little saying for you: The In-Box of Life will never empty out. You have to be the one to decide if you are going to take breaks, weekends, vacations, and evenings. If you’re on a budget, try Imperfect Camping. If you don’t have a week off, have an Adventure Day. Or go to a women’s retreat! Get used to taking regular breaks away from your computer and discovering who you are. It will make you a more successful business and a more fulfilled artist.
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