How to survive your first few months running a small creative business
In my most recent newsletter (you can subscribe to receive them every Monday morning via the form below) I shared that I had a really good week last week, and I am finally beginning to feel like I am getting somewhere with my business. As I said in this blog post, it takes a LOT longer than most people realise to get your small creative business off the ground, and that’s definitely been true for me! While I am in no way doing the money dance just yet (in the style of Anya in Buffy) there are signs of growth which is a real relief! Having said that, I am in no way out of the woods yet, and I’m sure I still have a lot of tough times ahead of me.
The first few months of running a small creative business are bloody difficult, for a number of reasons, and I’m not sure it gets talked about enough.
Firstly, you really don’t know what you’re doing half the time! Even with eighteen months of freelance work behind me, I’ve never felt as stretched and challenged as I have in the last few months. The week before I launched my podcast was probably one of the hardest I’ve ever had in terms of constant mental and emotional obstacles. How do you edit a podcast? Is there any way I can get rid of this horrible echo? How are you meant to actually get your podcast on iTunes? Everything felt fresh, new, and so far out of my comfort zone.
Then there’s the fact that your business is kind of lopsided at the start. If it is service based, and your marketing plan is content based, like mine and I think a lot of small creative businesses, then you are trying to produce regular content without the actual work to fuel and inspire it. You’re trying to write for your dream clients, when you’re not actually working with any of them yet, so it all feels quite abstract. I was fortunate in that I’ve had bits and bobs of freelance work – general writer-for-hire stuff – coming in and giving me something to work with, but it’s still been hard. I think it’s why I didn’t talk that much about my brand mapping process and brand storytelling generally much on here in the first few months as it felt disingenuous, when I wasn’t actually doing the work I would have been talking about.
And then there is the uncertainty. My god, the uncertainty. Is this actually going to work? Can I make a living from this? Am I doing enough? Will people actually want to give me money? Can I do the actual work once they do? The questions, are least for me, were, and still are, pretty relentless.
Anyway, if you are currently in the infant stages of your own creative business, then here are some things that have worked, and continue to work, for me:
Tell yourself you are farming.
This was the subject of my most recent newsletter, so to subscribers – apologies that I am repeating myself!
I’m not sure where this concept first came from, and Google isn’t enlightening me, but I heard about it through Being Boss I think, and Kathleen and Emily mention it in their book. The idea is that there are two ways to grow your business – hunting and farming. Hunting is hustling, basically. It’s going out and looking for clients or opportunities. It’s going in for the kill. It’s not something I’m particularly comfortable with, and probably never will be.
Farming is different. Farming is getting up every morning to plant seeds and nurture the soil. It’s not as fast, the seeds might take a month, six months or even a year, to germinate and flourish, but if you keep looking after then they will at some point, grow.
To me, farming is producing content – this blog, my newsletter, my podcast and my social, specifically Instagram. I’ve tried to see it as sowing seeds. And whenever it’s felt like it’s not getting me anywhere, I’ve told myself: “you’re farming. It takes time to grow things”.
Look for other signs of growth than your bank balance.
Your bank balance will probably be the last thing to show any sign of growth. It’s the teenager lagging behind, hands in his pockets, dragging his feet and looking at his phone! Yet there will be earlier signs that you can look out for – increased Instagram engagement, newsletter subscribers, more page views, people reaching out to say hello. Make sure you recognise and celebrate these small wins, they are signs that things are progressing and heading in the right direction.
However this does come with a warning. Don’t obsess over them. Ultimately, they aren’t that important! I know people with over 10,000 Instagram followers who are struggling to make ends meet, and people with under 1000 who are earning a decent salary from their creative work.
I made this exact mistake a few weeks ago. I started obsessively checking my stats – podcast, blog, Instagram, newsletter – desperate to see some indication that what I was doing was working, and it sucked me into a bit of a hole. Like everyone, I get bursts of growth for a day or two, and then it goes quiet. You need to take a longer view – 3 months at least – to see whether things are actually working.
Do not compare yourself to others online.
Every small creative business is unique, and every small creative business owner is unique. Everyone grows at their own pace, and in their own time. There is no schedule for success. Do not compare yourself to others doing a similar thing, or in the online creative space. Be aware that pretty much everyone fudges their figures, compresses timelines, talks about having clients before they have them, and acts more successful than they actually are. For most creative people online, social media (specifically Instagram) is a form of content marketing, and success breeds success, so you need to remember that.
Also one indicator of success isn’t always an indicator of another. As I said above, you can have lots of Instagram followers, but no clients. We rarely know EXACTLY what the state of another person’s business really is. Plus, its there business anyway. Focus on your own.
Offer a big discount to someone.
Although I was doing freelance work, I was desperate a couple of months ago to try out my brand storytelling packages, specifically my brand mapping process, so I offered a friend a massive discount (literally 1/3rd of the price), in exchange for giving me feedback on it. This really worked, not only because I got to beta-test my processes, but because it meant I was actually doing the work I want to do. It also provided inspiration for content, and gave me confidence when it came to pitching for full-priced work.
Don’t just sit at your desk.
When you don’t yet have the client work, or product sales, you are essentially running half a business. While I think it is great to use that time to create more content, or learn the skills you will need, it does get tiring. You’re doing a lot of very similar work, and I found that I was stretching this work out far longer than I needed it to be (I’m still producing the same amount of content now, but with an almost full bucket of client work alongside it, so obviously it didn’t have to take as long as I made it). So give yourself a break. You don’t need to be working full-time hours when your business is still in its infancy (or even after, I’m currently working 6hrs / 5 days a week, plus a few extra on Sundays). Set yourself tasks to do. Do them. And then leave your desk.
I really hope, if you are currently in the early stages of running your own small creative business, you find something in here useful. I think once people get their businesses off the ground they forget how hard the first bit can be (maybe it’s a bit like childbirth – you blank it out!). But, I want to end this in the same way as I did my blog post on the lessons I’ve learnt: if you are in still in the trenches then you are not alone. As my Dad says, KBO (keep buggering on).