How artists can become inventive entrepreneurs

“What you need is a very broad skillset,” grins award-winning contemporary jewellery designer James Newman, who established his own company within a year of graduating and now employs six people at his studio and shop in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. “I know some really great designers who are rubbish at business.”

Newman clearly relishes being involved in every aspect of how his company runs – he even talks enthusiastically about spreadsheets. But understanding your own limits is vital too: he acknowledges that he’s “probably not a natural manager – I’ve had to learn, and I cope, but I’ve perhaps been too nice at times. And perhaps, as a result, people haven’t worked as hard as they should”.

As reported in The Guardian, what’s important is that this is a business problem Newman has analysed and addressed: he recently employed somebody else to do that job. It has freed him up to spend more time on strategic business planning, nurturing relationships with clients, some teaching, and – his first love – designing new collections and bespoke commissions.

There can be a lingering snobbery associated with the idea of commercialising art, possibly because some of the most revered artists were only discovered after they had died. It may simply be that these hungry geniuses were not all that great at marketing. Plenty of renowned painters and sculptors in centuries past did, in fact, make a very decent living working to commission for wealthy patrons, simply viewing it as another discipline within which to exercise their creative drive.

So how does an artist start to make the transition from creative to business owner? And is it possible that artists and entrepreneurs have more shared characteristics than we might think?

Graphic designer Mitch Cunningham who founded the online fashion retailer t-lab, says they do: “In common with entrepreneurs, creative people will often have a vision and a determination to make the vision real. Plus, running a business calls for lots of creative skills: how do I make my business stand out? How can I make it better? How do I impress my customers?”

At Brighton’s independent gallery Ink_d, director Dan Hipkin says commercialism requires skills that can be taught: “I’ve seen a few talented artists who have taken a very strategic approach to their work; their success didn’t happen by accident. They researched the market and had a very clear idea what they needed to do to ensure they could pay the bills.”

To turn their work into a business, artists first need to realise that what they produce has a monetary value – many struggle with where to pitch their price point or even how to cost it out. Undervaluing work is as bad as pricing it too high.

The next challenge is to get what you’ve created in front of the right audience. Then, of course, there’s boring old admin, and deadlines. Cunningham says: “Creative people are famously disorganised and don’t like to be tied down too much, but they will have to widen their talents away from just creating things and be more disciplined. Things like timing and budgeting will suddenly become more important.”

A significant challenge faced by creatives when starting their own business “is to think commercially about every decision”, says Rosy Greenlees, executive director at the Crafts Council. And there are some common mistakes to avoid, she adds. “One of the traps contemporary craft-makers fall into is trying to do all areas of the business themselves as opposed to being strategic and recognising when it is necessary to draw on others’ expertise.”

The balance between running a company, pitching for business, making the work and finding a chunk of time to feed your artistic soul can be very difficult to strike. The Design Trust says creative entrepreneurs should spend around 40% of their time creating, 40% on marketing, 10% on administration and 10% on professional development. That last bit can be very hard to manage, says self-employed textile designer Rhiannon Southwell, who used to be in charge of children’s print design for fashion retailer Monsoon.

“If I try to give myself a lovely inspirational day out, it always gets bumped down the list of priorities,” she says. “That’s because it’s really quite hard to say ‘no’ if the phone rings – not just to the money, but [also because] I’ve built up really good relationships with my clients and you don’t want them use someone else for that next [print] run.”

Assessing the “worth” of a piece of art is inevitably subjective. Southwell says she tries to offer clients flexibility: either suggesting a price for a job, or a day rate. After a year she gave herself a pay rise: “I worried about that; it was scary. But actually nobody ever queried it.”

Once an acclaimed embroidery designer, now a self-employed artist, Carne Griffiths typically sets a price for a piece and sticks to it. Sometimes, however, “that price will increase depending on the demand”, he says. A sliding scale can work well for customers too, for reproductions or smaller works. “I try not to labour over the process too much. Much like the work, I make an instinctive decision. Sometimes I get it very wrong, but it’s all a part of the learning process.”

Being world famous doesn’t insulate you from the need to be nimble and adaptable in fast-changing times – musicians also need to be entrepreneurs to sustain a career, says musician and singer-songwriter Midge Ure. “Back in the 80s I invested time, effort and money into building a recording facility, which would allow me to carry on making music long after the suits at the record companies decided my services were no longer required,” he explains.

“I taught myself how to record, engineer and mix music, which has served me well over the years. My entire new album, Fragile, was made in a glorified man cave the size of a potting shed at the bottom of my garden.”

It takes creativity and drive to explore and make the most of the new opportunities the online world offers: Ure says it not only has to be done, but artists can forge deeper links with their audience as a result.

Does being an artist with a focus on business involve uncomfortable compromises? Griffiths says he has felt some tension around how critics may perceive creatives who make their work a commercial success, but laughs as he observes that he may be simply be imagining such a tinge of purist disapproval.

“I have always been honest and truthful to my work but perhaps it’s been easier for me coming from a business background, rather than starting out from an ideal,” he says. “I’ve chosen to focus on portraiture because more people connect with that – if I only did abstract painting, then I’d limit the potential audience.

“The way I saw it, I could either get a part-time job and paint freely or create a business model that had a more commercial outlook, making some concessions, but allowing me to channel my energy full time into what I love.