12 Success Tips for the Self-Employed - Christine Kane

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.

  • Mo

    One of the best written pieces – full of passion and substance – that I’ve ever come across. Thank you!

  • G. Lewis

    I paid money to DoMyStuff.com so I could Bid on a Task. My account with DoMyStuff.com show $0.00, but my Visa card account show posted payment to DoMyStuff.com. The telephone number on their website doesn’t work. They do not respond to my emails. There is no customer service.

    As it is, it is annoying as DoMyStuff.com claims to be a valid company. The bottom line is, I’m out of money from my Visa card and no service from DoMyStuff.com.

  • Brad

    Hi Christine,

    You’ve inspired a new post on my blog! It’s amazing how human nature binds us together. I’m glad you have that intuitive sense to find gentle ways of reminding us that there is always a way to evolve and open up to a whole new reality!


  • Christine Kane

    hiya andrea – i totally understand that one. to me, it’s the biggest challenge of being self-employed or owning your own business. you don’t have a boss telling you when to work and when not to. you only have you. and the biggest discipline is to allow yourself to rest and stop and outsource!

  • Christine Kane

    djuro – i think dreaming is just fine. If nothing else, it raises your spirits. i went through a time where i criticized myself for my “daydreaming,” but then i read some of esther hicks’s words about how this is totally fine because it keeps your energy high. thanks for the suggestion, i’ll work on releasing a single on defining success!

    hi mary – well, yes, of COURSE you should give me a finder’s fee! 😉 what a great story – and i’m honored to have contributed in some small way to your success in the world. (no finder’s fee required.)

    rebecca – the key thing with that is to make the time. set the intent and make the time. at first, it may feel like nothing is happening, but eventually, you’ll get ideas and implement them.

    hi lola – that sounds like what my brother is going through — doing it differently this time!

    hello kelli (did you ever get the note I wrote you about your music? it was a while ago!) yes, those crappy gigs happen every now and then – i’m glad you got such blatant messages telling you to keep on keeping on!

  • Andrea Hess|Empowered Soul

    Great post! Especially the “separation” part struck home for me. While I may separate my money out, my biggest challenge is working from home … work is always here, beckoning! It’s tough to leave it alone. I so resonate with hiring people. That’s hard at first, but once I allowed myself to hire out the stuff I really didn’t want to do anymore … aaaah! Thanks, as always!

  • Kelli King

    Perfect timing for me, too. On my way home from a less than terrific gig last night, I passed this marquee from the local goditorium: You are responsible for the effort, not the outcome. And then your beautiful post…

    thank you, thank you, thank you!!

  • Lola Fayemi

    Hi Christine

    Thanks for this article, it’s very well-timed for me as I am self-employed for the 2nd time but this time am doing it differently from a “power of intent” perspective and am currently feeling discomfort. Although, I know it will pass, this post has good tips for me to focus on. Now, I just need to let go of some old stuff and watch me soar! 😉

    In love, light and abundance x x x

  • Rebecca

    This post is a great reminder of things I want to be more pro-active with. The additional income sources and advice on incorporating is excellent: it’s time for me to provide this kind of structure to my practice as a structural bodyworker. Thanks Christine!

  • Mary


    I was sitting in my car waiting to go into a meeting that I was dreading yesterday–I’m a free lance writer, working primarily with non-profit organizations on newsletters, grants and fund raising material–when I started to laugh out loud (luckily, it was a pretty empty parking lot) I thought of your recent posts and said, “Get over yourself, Mary. You’re a professional, you know what you are doing, you’ve been doing it for more than 20 years and some will like what you do, some won’t and so what? So what’s next?” I held my head up, smiled at what a beautiful, blue day I had been graced with and just about floated into the meeting with a feeling that all would be fine, even if the client seemed so negative on the phone earlier in the day. Surprise, surprise, the client seemed to respond positively to my positive attitude, and as I was setting up my papers, another member of the organization turned to me and asked me if I had any time to write for her and would I be willing to take a look at her project! My first thought? I wonder if I should give Christine a finder’s fee!
    Mary in San Diego

  • Djuro

    Christine, this is one of the best compilation of advices I’ve ever read!
    Like a Best Of album!
    Please release some singles, too. I’d love to hear more about defining success.
    My achieved successes have all been unintentionally defined. I wonder how you do it and not call it dreaming.

    P.S. My best vacation are those when I’m in on the lake camping with a bunch of friends. Coming home after a few days of surviving makes my computer work seem like I can do it in my sleep.

  • Christine Kane

    hi all – thanks for the additional thoughts and wisdom! i’m glad this was helpful – and that it has inspired you to add your experiences!

  • Anne

    Hi Christine,
    I agree with Meg – lots of these are great for all of us whether we are self-employed or not. I just asked for an honorarium to give a talk outside of work…and they agreed! And also paid for an extremely nice hotel for me as well. All of these points are going to be great for me to revisit from time to time. Thanks again!

  • Meg

    Hi Christine, Like much of your offerings for artists and the self employed, these tips can benefit folks in middle management in corporate America, too. It is easy to let our company or our manager or business unit leader define what we are capable of achieving. We let our job or corporate title define us, as if it mean anything to the outside world. (i.e “field operations supervisor of the data processing division”). We forget that there is a world outside our offices. Some of us have been conditioned to think that having another stream of income is taboo. (I had someone whose efforts I manage apologize to me for not getting my permission before becoming an Avon rep. Why in the world would I want to keep someone from selling Avon to her relatives and friends? As long as it doen’t interfere with her job in my group, go for it – and enjoy the Avon discount!) I work with people who also think it is taboo to even think of looking for another job. This is work people, not marriage! It is not a sin to search for work that feeds your soul and maybe even provide for yourself, your family and/or your future a little better than you are able to today.

    Whether self employed, artist or other-profession, we can all benefit from these tips. Work doesn’t have to happen to us. If we are active participants (as suggested in your tips above), it doesn’t have to be so much work. And if it is, we can keep repeating the steps offered above until we find the right fit.

    Thanks for the wisdom!

  • Corinne Edwards

    One of the problems with the self-employed personality is that we have few hobbies. Work becomes our hobby. There is nothing else.

    This article was a massive wake up for many of us.

    Thank you, Christine. You are a gift.

  • Whitney

    This is a bit tangential, but I would like to add that many major public libraries have specialists on staff to help small businesspeople get on the path to incorporation or becoming an LLC. At the very least, they can help you in your research or connect you with local business development organizations who might provide assistance.

  • Susanne

    This came at the exactly right time for me. Thank you. Just yesterday I thought that I wanted to sit down and think about what kinds of students I’d like to teach and what other things I want to do for money.

    You’re especially right with the vacation tip.

  • Stephen

    Hi Christine

    These are all spot on! Having been self-employed all of my adult life, I’ve stumbled onto a lot of these over the years (extensive trial and error with an emphasis on error) but, as usual, you’ve perfectly encapsulated the tips. This is one of your blog entries that’ll be joyfully forwarded to my entire circle of friends and acquaintances who are self-employed and/or in the arts (you’re right–there are huge areas of commonality). Thanks!