Often, the most creative people lack the business smarts they need to make their dreams a reality. Nobody need roll over and accept failure, though. Sophie Andrews, author of The Creative Collection, looks at some of the most common business mistakes that creatives make.
Creative entrepreneurs often enter the marketplace ill prepared to deal with the business challenges they will encounter therein. The combination of fierce competition in creative markets and global financial insecurity has made it harder than ever to bridge the gap between inspiration and success without some degree of business acumen. Here’s the rub: though there are exceptions, creative business owners by and large enter the world of business without business-specific training – a creative with an M.B.A. is about as common as a leader of industry with a fine arts degree. This leads many creative entrepreneurs to enter the market armed with either generic business advice or a trial-and-error approach that, more often than not, means that the business stumbles on shaky legs rather than striding confidently abreast of its competitors.
What follows is a list of the seven mistakes that creative entrepreneurs most often make. Some of these apply to the earliest stages of business development and growth, but there are others that can dog creative businesses and their owners for years or longer if left unaddressed. In my book, The Creative Collection, I address in more detailed ways the specific habits that stand between creative entrepreneurs and success; this list complements the detail-oriented approach of the book; here, I focus on the mindset issues that are most often responsible for the bad habits I cover in my book. If reading this list feels like looking in the mirror, a mindset overhaul might be in order.
- See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
Turn a blind eye to issues (financial or otherwise) within your creative business at your own peril. Countless creatives have come to me with a laundry list of issues that, left ignored or unaddressed, have brought their businesses with a hair’s breadth of collapse. For many creatives, the end goal of going into business is the time, space, and financial independence they need to do what they do best: create. Too many creative entrepreneurs either sidestep or ignore staffing or financial issues when they are in their solvable stages. Whether you’re dealing with cash flow issues, an unproductive or counter-productive staff member, a problem client, or a dwindling or shifting market for your product or service, sensory deprivation only means that you’ll be further behind the eight ball when necessity demands a response. Few people like confrontation (least of all those who are being confronted), but seeing nothing, hearing nothing, and saying nothing tends to be a shortcut to nowhere.
- Undervaluing your work
Creative entrepreneurs often find their work deeply rewarding or fulfilling in ways that more traditional business owners do not. This can lead them to place a value on their productions incommensurate with what the market expects or will bear. It is undoubtedly true that, rather than financial rewards, a great many creatives prefer to be recognised for their achievements. Before putting your desire for acknowledgement ahead of your financial needs or desires, ask yourself if you’re not creating a false dichotomy. Prosperity and artistic integrity don’t have to be at odds with each other. At the heart of this issue is an attitude towards prosperity that many creatives struggle with. Intent focus on the bottom line has been – due in large part to the popular image of the struggling (not to say starving) artist – widely misunderstood as a form of ‘selling out’. It seems as though anti-capitalist dogmas have been taken in like mother’s milk in the liberal arts colleges where so many creatives receive their training. If you’re going into business, it’s a good idea to take a long, hard look at your attitudes towards wealth. Don’t sacrifice your financial security on the altar of your artistic integrity.
Creatives often view their business and financial matters as diametrically opposed to their creative efforts. Creativity is, by its very nature, flexible; it moves forward and backward in time and constantly rewrites its own rules. When planning for current or future business issues, too many creatives attempt to put a full stop at the end of what should always be an unfinished sentence, expecting business to flow in dependable ways through predictable channels. More rigid strategies are, indeed, more common in financial matters than they are in creative ones, but don’t drive your stakes too far into the ground. When market conditions change, don’t be unwilling to adjust your approach to new data. Whenever and wherever possible, make sure that you’ve got the wiggle room you need.
- Dreaming too big
There’s a Les Brown quote that has been making the rounds in business and self-help literature for decades: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars!” While there are countless examples of business owners who aim for the moon or the stars and hit their targets, this kind of baseless optimism can be catastrophic for entrepreneurs if it is not tethered to strong, reality-based financial foundations. Align your goals with what is possible given your resources and risk profile. Not every business plan is a good one, not every risk is worth taking, and not all advice is good advice. Be sure to surround yourself with people who inspire and uplift you, but critical listening skills are a must. Shrewd entrepreneurs are often those who have learned to distinguish puffery from insight. The highly competitive nature of creative industries means that the margin for error is thin, but this doesn’t mean that spectacular success is out of reach. By all means, dream big, but, whenever possible, sleep with one eye open.
- Dreaming too small
There aren’t as many quotes that will tell you to be more realistic (not to say pessimistic) in your aspirations, but the advice so many creatives get from well-intentioned family and friends often reinforces the belief that only a handful of shooting stars actually make a living in creative industries. Such limiting beliefs often dog creative entrepreneurs for their entire careers, making them success shy – prone to collapsing under pressure or refusing to swim out to the deep end of the competition pool. Be realistic, but don’t let naysayers or negative self-talk keep you from pursuing your dreams. Planting your feet on solid ground doesn’t mean you have to be mired in the muck; on the contrary, terra firma is springier than you think. The trick is to be at once grounded and ambitious. The one thing that separates world-beating creative industry leaders from the pack is their ability to see things as they are while, at the same time, driving themselves and those around them to be bigger and better. Setting the bar at a reachable level is definitely good advice, but every time you clear the bar, set it higher than it was before.
- Going it alone
Creative businesses often lean heavily or entirely on a single person’s vision or talent. Too many creative entrepreneurs see hiring and outsourcing as a last resort. While some inspired individuals – particularly photographers, musicians, and artists – are able to make a name for themselves on their own, a great many successful creatives have a number of dedicated professionals to thank for the success (managers, agents, marketing professionals, and the like). The important thing is to know when you’ve reached the limit of your expertise. Whenever possible, surround yourself with individuals who are like-mind – but not necessarily like you. As soon as your means allow for it, assemble a team of professionals whose expertise complements your own. Don’t limit your thinking to business partners or staff members; surrounding yourself with the right people also means getting the right advice from outside of the organisation. This can mean a mentor, a business coach, a board of advisors, or even a good bookkeeper or accountant.
- Not listening to your market/customers
Perhaps you have a single-minded vision for the future of your field or industry. Perhaps you feel that your creative project answers in some way a question that the market has been asking for a long time. You may very well be right, but your gut isn’t an infallible resource. Especially in the early stages of a creative venture, be sure to listen to market and customer feedback. To create a perceived or actual need for your product or service depends on a combination of timing and positioning. If your customers or the market at large are unreceptive or critical of your contribution, go back to the drawing board and refine or repackage your idea. Forcing a square peg into a round hole is a fool’s errand.
None of the problems I have listed above are irremediable. This does not, however, diminish their seriousness. If you ardently desire the life of a successful entrepreneur – and all that comes with such success – make absolutely sure that you’re not standing in your own way. Whether you’re dreaming too big or too small, refusing to bend or bending too much, listening too closely or not enough to those around you, the solution begins with learning to recognise the relationship between deep-seated mindset snarls and the more superficial business problems that you are struggling with. The roots of these snarls can penetrate deep, often to the very foundations of our psyche. Anybody who says that all you need to pull them out – roots and all – is one good yank is almost certainly selling you something.
The key to a successful mindset overhaul is not to try to rewrite your programming as on a blank slate; such a quixotic project rarely, if ever, produces the hoped-for results. More manageable by far is learning first to diagnose, second to understand, and only then to work to remove the mindset barriers that are standing between you and your entrepreneurial potential. Uniquely creative minds demand uniquely creative solutions, and the mindset issues that plague creative entrepreneurs are no exception to this rule. Knowing where to start, though, is half the battle.