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Guide

How to turn your art practice into a business

A guide to building a sustainable business on top of your art practice, written and illustrated by Carissa Potter.
Prelude

I used to think that there was one right path—or one best way for things to happen—and I just had to work towards that. But over the years, I have come to understand that there are so many ways for things to work, you just have to be open to what they might be. This way of thinking is what has led me to feel good about creating a business out of my art practice, called People I’ve Loved—a workshop based in Oakland, California that makes prints, cards, and other kinds of objects.

Yesterday on a walk, a friend asked me what my life running an art-centric business was actually like. She is someone who makes the most amazing art, and who I believe in wholeheartedly. She’s now thinking about trying to make art full-time, but to do so, she’d have to leave her job at an art school. It’s a hard call. On the one hand, she has the type of job that everyone dreams about having, working on a college campus around inspiring people with really good health insurance. On the other hand, the job doesn’t challenge her, and her art practice has all but disappeared. She wanted to know what it’s actually like stitching together a livable income as a full-time artist—something I’m trying to do every day.

I didn’t set out to turn my art into a business. Instead, I ended up here by way of a winding path. But I’ve learned a lot on the journey, and as I shared my experiences with my friend, so will I share them here. This guide will cover how to prepare yourself to think about your art as a way to earn a living, how to go about setting up a business, and how to try to make it all work. I hope you find it useful.

Carissa Potter

Sections
Guide

Learning to think about your art in a new way

Unlearning some things you may have learned

Back in 2010, I had just graduated from an MFA program, at which I was taught the following:

  1. The end goal of making art is either to teach or show in galleries.

  2. Your art is not interesting unless it is conceptual and esoteric, or highly aesthetic in an innovative way. And critical. See Nothing If Not Critical, edited by Robert Hughes (which, in my opinion, has not aged so gracefully…).

  3. If you want to be taken seriously as an artist, you cannot talk about money. And you absolutely cannot want to earn money. We were taught that wanting money—aka wanting to earn a living wage and be paid for our work—was similar to selling out.

  4. Your work has to be either commercial or fine. There are boundaries to each, and approaching fine art from a business-oriented perspective is not ok.

While I was in grad school learning all of the above, I longed to connect with people. I found it hard, because it is hard. In my art, I looked for ways to push past boundaries to be able to feel comfortable. I started making small books and notecards to ask people out, or explore relationship possibilities with strangers. I self-published a book (it had so many grammatical errors that it was hard to read), and printed some cards with my art on them.

One day, as a way to connect with more people—and perhaps earn a few bucks—I brought them to a store near where I lived in San Francisco called Needles and Pens. It was scary to go into a store and ask a cool lady if she would consider selling my work on the spot, but Breezy (who co-owns the store) took what I had on consignment—meaning she agreed to pay me for the things that sold, vs. buying everything upfront. Consignment is a total drag, but sometimes it’s worth it, or, as it was for me, it might be your only option.

Seeing an opportunity to take a leap and learn some new things

A month after dropping my stuff off at Needles and Pens, I came back to find out that everything had sold. It felt miraculous. But back then, I didn’t see this project as a business venture. I actually didn’t start thinking about turning my art into a real business until I got fired from my job as a gallery assistant. This was a job that I loved and hated at the same time. It’s so crazy that we all work so hard to get minimum-wage jobs at “high-end” spaces, and then fight tooth-and-nail against each other to keep them.

After I got fired, my friend Emma was in town to take a business class for low-income people, and I decided to do it with her. I was scared out of my mind. I am never certain about anything. But the class turned out to be really helpful, as it immersed me in a community of people who all wanted to start businesses and develop some practical skills. But not only did the class teach me how business world people approach things like pricing work, market research, and how to make a budget—it was also a way to do some soul searching about what I wanted my life to look like. I started to see the possibilities of taking the thing I was good at—making art that helped people connect—and turning it into something I could use to feed myself. But more on this later.

My first experience starting a business

At the beginning, it can be good to say yes a lot

As it happened for me, starting a business was not a totally conscious decision—it was more like an evolution that happened as I continued to say yes to everything until something worked out. I started my first business with my friend and fellow SFAI grad, Luca Antonucci. It was (and still is) called Colpa Press. We created a press because we wanted to both share our work and to make opportunities for other artists. At the time, no one would show our work, so we had to make our own spaces to get it out there.

When we first started out, it was hard. I have always hated the idea of money, and I hated charging people (especially friends) for things, so I had to get over that. But we made a good team. Luca was really into big conceptual ideas, and I was really into people and relationships. In the beginning, we got a residency at Kala Art Institute and started printing books for literally anyone we could find. If someone was like, “Can you print blah blah blah?” and we had no idea how to do it, we still said yes, and figured it out along the way. Our stuff was not always good, but we always got it done, even if it took all night.

Friends as business partners and allies

Our network of art friends is really what got Colpa Press off the ground. Luca is super social. He would go to tons of events and charm people, authentically. Getting out there and supporting other people is a major part of starting a business. To this day, even when I don’t feel like being social, I push myself, because I know how important it is.

Often times it is really great to work with friends, and I totally think you should do it. But it’s also a good idea to openly communicate about what will happen should either of you want to move on. Luca is literally my favorite person on the planet, but after about two years, we both wanted to go in different directions—and doing so would have been a lot easier if we had talked about this possibility in the beginning.

When you start a new business, writing an official partnership agreement—in which you openly communicate about who gets what if you split up, what happens if you disagree about something, etc—is really important. Humans are so complicated, and reality is totally fragmented, so working hard to make sure you’re both on the same page is helpful in maintaining your sanity. Even though the conversations are hard and boring, it will save so much time and tension in the end. I promise.

In retrospect, starting Colpa Press with Luca was a lot easier than launching out on my own with People I’ve Loved, since when we made the decision to go for it, I had been fired and the market was down and it was hard to find a job in the arts (i.e. I had nothing to lose). Deciding to part ways with Luca to start my own thing was another experience altogether. But since I had already started a business once, doing it on my own was a little bit easier.

Translating your art practice into a business idea

What will your life be like once you’re running a business?

There is this ubiquitous question that life coaches ask people all the time: “What would your ideal day look like?” It’s a hard one to answer practically. If I could do anything, I would garden and draw and swim and read the newspaper and drink copious amounts of coffee all day. But right now, the reality is that most of my time is spent managing and emailing and organizing schedules. I love printing and making, but now that I’m running a business, I only spend about 5% of my time doing that.

As you think about starting your own business, it’s important to be honest with yourself about what you love doing, what you don’t mind doing, and what you absolutely will not do. This will help you imagine a business that fits with the reality of who you are and what you’re good at. How can you create a business that gives you the most time to do what you love? This is hard to figure out, and is something I’m still working on.

Who will support your business?

Another thing you’ll have to consider is: What is the value of your work? This question reveals the totally unfortunate reality that we have to think about when making new things in a world that already has so much stuff. Assuming you are interested in making something that other people would like to buy, you could ask yourself: What is it about what you do that seems to be most interesting or exciting to other people? Who do you want to sell to? What could you make that they might like?

I tend to have the best luck selling things to people who are similar to me. My main demographic is women, American, coastal, between the ages of 20-35. That just means that I have to keep them in mind when I am making things. What can I make that will mean the most to them? Since I am in that group, and most of my community is also in that group, I can authentically think about what I myself long for—and go from there.

However, this might not be the case for you. And that’s ok. Your work might attract people who are opposite from your demographic. Either way, it’s just good to keep your potential audience in mind when trying to sell things.

What will be the key idea or offering of your business?

Once you have an idea about what you like to do, and what you think you could make that other people would like to buy, settling on a business idea that you really believe in and are excited about can still feel hard. There will likely be at least a few different directions that you could see yourself pursuing. Ask yourself: Which seems to have the most potential? Which are you most excited by? When you talk to other people about your ideas, what gets other people excited?

Sometimes the only way to decide on a direction is to do a bit of research, see what resonates with other people, trust your gut, and then just jump in and try something. No matter how you conceive of dreaming up your business, being open and listening to how people react to what you do is a great place to start. Ask for feedback, and then really think about what people say and how they feel—then measure that against how you feel, and go for it.

Setting up a business

Learning the basics of business

Starting up a business is stressful. Once you have a solid idea that you’re excited to try out, there are some lame logistical business things you simply must do. They are overwhelming and distracting and it might be a good idea to ask your mother, your business-y friend, or someone else altogether to handle it. If you can’t do that, try SCORE—which provides free business mentorship—or, you can see if there are small-business classes in your community (often, there will be—google it!). These classes are always great to take. I took one with the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco. They were great on so many levels, and had a 12-week class with a sliding-scale payment option. The class covered the basics of writing a business plan, and also coupled me with a mentor in the same field as me, which was really helpful.

You can also simply google “how to write a business plan,” and spend some time learning about what it entails. There are tons of online resources that will help guide your thinking, and which can help you jump right into the process of setting up your business.

How to structure your business

If you’re starting your business by yourself, you’ll probably want to start out as a “sole proprietor,” which means that legally, there will be no separation between you and your business (all the money you make or lose will be part of your personal tax return). Or, if you’re working with another person, you could call your business a partnership. With a partnership, all income (or losses) are divvied up to the individuals in the partnership, and you’ll need to file your taxes as both a partnership and as individuals. It’s a bit complicated, but you can learn more here.

I started as a partnership with Luca, then moved into a sole proprietorship when I left Colpa Press to start People I’ve Loved. As I grew the business, I evolved it into an LLC—aka a “limited-liability company”—because an LLC enables you to get a tax identification number and open a bank account under the business’s name rather than your own. Once you’re up and running and feeling pretty certain that you’ll want to continue on with the business, setting it up as an LLC is a good idea.

At this point, we are an S Corp. I’m not 100% sure why we did this, but it has to do with taxes. There are a lot of tax rules I don’t understand, so after we got more serious as a business, we worked with a tax expert to help us make the right choice about how to classify ourselves legally. Unless you are a total tax expert or have a strong background in law, talking to someone who understands these things is a really good idea.

More on the importance of finding experts to help you

Once your business starts gaining momentum, you will need help. After working with a tax expert to set up the business, the next professional I really needed to hire was an accountant. This person was hard to find. As you seek out professional help, my best advice is to try to find someone through a personal recommendation. I tend to post on Facebook that I’m “looking for help with X,” and usually rely on recommendations from my network.

I was so broke for so many years, and through social media, Luca and I were able to find a friend-of-a-friend accountant who was willing to casually help out with our books in exchange for art. I thought this was great at the time, but in retrospect, we probably should have just sucked it up and paid for someone to really dig into what we were doing and make sure it was done correctly. I just didn’t care at the time. BUT I CANNOT SAY HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO FORCE YOURSELF TO CARE. Being tuned out from the legal aspects of running a business has gotten me in some real pickles over the years, especially during tax time—some of which I am still digging myself out from.

Start using business tools from the beginning

As you get going, it’s also a good idea to look into accounting software. If you don’t already use something, there are tons of free and low-cost solutions for this. We use Quickbooks, which I think is ok. It feels really expensive, but on the other hand, it’s nice that it integrates with our website and our bank and things like that. I basically have to use a calculator to do 5 + 7, so having software to do this has been a lifesaver. Since it makes things easy, we stick with it.

Also, I should mention, I didn’t figure out how to do the numbers stuff alone. I had my father’s help. He loves numbers and accounting, and he doesn’t mind helping my sister and me out with our books. So ask your dad, or your mom, your roommate, your ex-classmate, or anyone else around you for help. Statistically speaking, there has to be someone in your life who understands how these things work, and will be willing to lend you a hand.

Other annoying things to know about

In most states, there are a ton of different fees you need to pay to start a business. This is yet another reason why it is important to have a tax person on your side. They will help you figure out who you have to pay money to to keep operating.

Once you decide on a name for your business (this is so hard! But you can do it!), you also have to file something with the government called a “fictitious business name.” Each state is different, so again, ask your tax person how to do this. Often, they will be able to file this for you if you’re already paying them.

One important thing you get to do as a business is stop paying sales tax on things you need for your business. If you get a seller’s permit, or business license (depending on your location), this document makes it so you don’t have to pay taxes on supplies. This might seem small, but it is an awesome way to save money at art supply stores, or wherever else you’re buying the things you need. You can apply for a tax-exempt status with almost any retailer and save $$. Amazon even does it. (Not Ikea though. Bummer.)

When you’re starting out and are tight on cash and want to eat sometimes, finding ways to pay fewer taxes can really help you out, and is totally legal. So, one last reminder: work with a tax expert! They will probably pay for their own costs in the money they save you.

Making the stuff you want to sell

There are so many ways to go about getting something made, and it can be hard to know where to start. For People I’ve Loved, we have always tried to balance things such as ethics and cost. All the time, people ask me things like, “Why don’t you donate a portion of your profits to charities?” This is something I try to do, but I have to balance that with the reality that I want to pay a living wage to the people who work with me, and offer them things like health care and other benefits. It’s hard to do it all. First, you just have to care, and then try to do your best, knowing that you will fuck up all the time and that is ok.

With the above caveat out of the way, here’s how we make our goods at People I’ve Loved. We get all our cardstock from Waste Not Paper and Crane. Waste Not Paper seems to have a similar mission statement to us, and eco-friendly practices. They are not the cheapest, but I am somehow attached to them. We also try to do most of our printing and production in-house. We have two C&P letterpresses, and a bunch of random printing equipment to make it happen.

There are some things that we don’t do, however. For example, we cannot make enamel pins. We used to print all the socks we sell ourselves, but are no longer able to (plus the socks I printed were not the highest quality—turns out there are better ways of producing graphic socks than screen printing). I also used to try to have everything made in the USA. I still think that is a great thing to do, if you can do it and it makes sense for your business and practice. But I am coming to terms with the fact that we live in a global economy, and sometimes it makes sense to have things made in different places.

Overall, I am personally committed to producing sustainably sourced goods in places that treat their workers well. But sometimes I’m not able to work with the companies I’d most love to work with, because doing so would come at the cost of not being able to fairly pay the people on my team, or it would make the products cost so much that people wouldn’t be able to afford them. So again, it’s a balance, and it’s about making the right decision for you. As you research different options for sourcing materials and producing whatever it is you’re selling, learn about your options, and then go with whatever enables your business to feel balanced. And then be ok with your decision.

Selling your stuff

Pricing your goods

Here’s a fun business term: Profit margins. This concept is basically about the question, is what you’re making a good return on how much time and money you’re spending on it? Seems simple enough, but when it comes to art, the answer can be vague. You’ll need to learn about it, though, because understanding it will help you know how much to charge people.

I mostly sell my stuff wholesale, which means I sell a bunch of different products to different shops and they then sell the work to consumers. It’s kinda like the gallery model, but the places I work with are mostly lifestyle gift stores with a curated selection of objects. So roughly speaking, I have to be able to sell my work to those places for half of retail price (aka a wholesale price), so that stores can mark it up and also make $$ (stores need to pay rent, too).

As you consider selling your stuff wholesale, note that you’ll likely be making 50% of the retail price as your take-home earnings. It’s not 50% in all cases, but thinking along those lines is a good place to start when considering potential profit margins.

Here’s an example: If I make a card, and it retails for $5, I have to sell the card to the store at $2.50. $2.50 might seem like a good amount of money to make on one card, but to hand print them and buy supplies and then pack them all is pretty time consuming. Not to mention, it takes a ton of card sales for us to be able to pay the rent.

Balancing costs against pricing

To continue exploring the idea of profit margins, we need to talk about COGS (cost of goods sold). As a general rule I like to follow, continuing with the example of the $5 card that we sell to stores for $2.50, our COGS should be no more than 50% of the cost that we sell to stores at (50% of $2.50 = $1.25). So, to make a decent profit margin, I need to be able to produce my cards for no more than $1.25 a piece.

Here’s an example of how to calculate a profit margin:

  • It costs me $1.00 in raw materials to make one card
  • I sell it for $2.50 wholesale
  • Therefore, my profit per card ($2.50 - $1) = $1.50

To figure out the profit margin, you divide the profit ($1.50) by the amount you’re earning per card ($2.50):

  • 1.50 / 2.50 = .40
  • That means my profit margin is 40%

A standard profit margin to shoot for is 50%, so this example is on the low side (but not crazy). Overall, you want your profit margin to be higher, because this equation does not take into account your time or your overhead costs (such as print supplies, studio access, employee pay, etc).

Note: Honestly, watching the TV show The Profit is a guilty pleasure that’s also helped me get more comfortable with business strategy. Nestled within the reality-TV drama, Marcus Lemonis actually gives practical business advice. I also think he is kind of a likable guy.

Selling in stores, or through your own website

When I was first trying to find places that would carry my work, I would go into stores that I liked, or where I felt my work would fit in. Then I’d just ask their buyer if I could leave samples. To this day, I get asked all the time about the best way to get people to look at your work. I have found—and my stomach churns when I say this—that showing up in stores and actually giving your stuff to people is hands-down the best way, for me at least, to get into spaces.

While we mostly sell wholesale to shops, we also sell direct to customers through our website. When people buy through our website, we make more money, since we’re not splitting it with anyone. I like to think that we have kinda the best-case scenario this way—doing both wholesale and direct-to-consumer sales.

In order to sell things direct-to-consumer, you’re going to need a website with ecommerce integrations. We are so lucky to live in a time where someone like me can pretty easily figure out how to make a functional, enticing website. I am not that great with tech, but I made one website with Wix and one on Shopify. I love them both for different reasons. The Shopify website has been better for making sales, but the Wix one was a wonderful way to create a site on my own terms with no template.

To learn more about promoting your work and making sales online, I recommend reading *A creative person’s guide to thoughtful promotion, by Kathryn Jaller (and also published on The Creative Independent). It has some tips on how to approach e-commerce, how to use social media and email to help people discover your work, and ideas about defining your voice and overall “brand.”

In summary…

One last piece of advice I have is learning to recognize when something is over your head. Starting out, you might feel like you have to do everything yourself, and for the most part, you will. But there will come a time when something will be out of your wheelhouse, and you should know that you don’t have to drive yourself crazy trying to figure it all out. There are so many parts of the People I’ve Loved business, and I don’t really understand how they all come together—even though I’m the one who started the whole thing. Everyday I just try to surround myself with wonderful people, and hope for the best. When things go wrong, I have faith that I’ll be able to figure out how to get back on the right track.

Starting a business is hard. But you can do it.

About the Author

Carissa Potter

Visual artist, designer, entrepreneur

Carissa Potter is a visual artist whose prints and small-scale objects reflect her hopeless romanticism through an investigation into public and private intimacy. Carissa received her MFA from SFAI in 2010, and just published her second book, It’s OK To Feel Things Deeply with Chronicle Books. Carissa is also a founding member of Colpa Press and founder of People I’ve Loved. She lives in Oakland, California.