The most common stereotype of someone who chooses to do creative work is of the “starving artist” who can’t make ends meet…
It’s become so ubiquitous that most people assume that it’s impossible for a normal person to make a living doing art.
Many parents of creative children encourage them to choose a career path that is more “sensible” that they can “make a living doing” and keep their art as a hobby.
Nobody ever said “I want to get rich. I know – I’m going to become an artist!”
Why such a strong stereotype, when we all know that when creative people do well they tend to do very well? Look at famous musicians and actors, film directors, and even people like Steve Jobs and Coco Chanel. These are household names, but people tend to write it off as lucky and/or unattainable.
I’m going to take you on a journey – this is what happens to most young creatives including myself.
In my world, everyone starts out as an amateur. We begin our craft for the joy of it. Nobody tells us we have to do our work – We just start doing what we love.
After a while, it becomes clear that there isn’t enough time or money to continue doing our craft at the highest level. There are thousands of dollars of equipment needed. Day jobs are taking up too much time. The hours outside work are filled with other things.
We begin getting tons of compliments on our work, and our friends keep telling us, “Man, your work is amazing! You should do this for a living!”
One day we decide to go for it. We set up a website, and maybe we even register a business name!
Everything feels so official and exciting… but then things start to slide downhill. We realize that we can’t get enough clients. When we do get clients, we can’t get them to pay enough.
We are faced with the business part of running a business.
First we have to deal with insecurities. Fear of failure leads us to justify the push back we feel from potential clients, especially where money is concerned. Maybe our work really isn’t up to the standards it should be. Maybe we don’t deserve to be charging full price since we are so new to the industry. Maybe we are charging too much.
We also struggle with the collision of art and commerce…
As a creative entrepreneur, are you sharing your gift, or selling your soul?
When it is a gift that you desperately want to share, it’s difficult not to make bargains and cut prices in order to share it.
Ignorance plays into this as well – We creative types generally know nothing about running a business! “What?, you’ll hear us say – I owe how much for taxes?” or “What is this “cost of goods sold” thing?”.
How do you set your pricing when Bill down the street charges only $25 for a session and Sally charges $5000?? Somewhere right in the middle? Maybe closer to the low end if we’re feeling particularly insecure?
How can you feel confident asking for money when you don’t understand why your price is set there in the first place?
This inexperience combined with insecurity makes us easy prey for people who want the maximum value for the minimum cost – in other words, the “market”.
The kicker is, this inexperience in business does not necessarily mean our product is lower quality. The value is not lower, yet the insecurity and inexperience leads many of us to accept far lower amounts of money for our work.
And most of the time we have so little business education that we don’t even know if we are being underpaid.
Let’s take a quick moment to go over the basics of setting your pricing. Before you can operate a sustainable business, you’ve got to run the numbers.
You start by working backwards from your target annual income. You add money for taxes, health insurance, transportation, equipment and supplies, phone bills, postage, and all the other little extras specific to your business.
Once you’ve come up with a final number, you can figure out how many items you can sell, which leads you to how much you need to charge per item in order to end up with that number at the end of the year.
Here’s what the equation looks like, in case you’d like to run your own numbers in a very rudimentary way.
If you have not done this exercise, it is truly eye-opening.
I’m going to get pretty transparent right now for you, because I believe in paying a given price for a rational reason, and I want you to understand that although my prices may seem arbitrary they are fully rational – designed to make sure I am able to feed my family through the running of my photography business.
For me, I’ve decided that in order to give my clients the attention they deserve and really build relationships with them and give them the highest quality products, I can handle no more than 3-4 new sessions per week.
Each of those new sessions requires at minimum 12 hours of my time spread over a couple of months when all is said and done.
This includes planning, actual session time, editing, showing them their photos and helping them choose products, designing those products, ordering, packaging, delivering…
There is a lot of time invested. And that personal attention is a big part of why my clients love me!
But since we often have no business education, and because creative business owners often have no business training, the instinct when determining fair pricing is to say “well, what would I pay for this service that I’m offering?”
Obviously this is a huge mis-step. I am not my target client.
When I was just starting out, my business wasn’t yet successful and didn’t bring in a lot of discretionary income. At that point, I might have said “well, I would not spend any more than $200 for family portraits”. Asking for even $200 feels like a stretch to most creative types. But if I took 3 sessions per week at $200 each that would be a total of just over $31,000 annual gross income.
Subtract 30% for taxes and I’m already down to about $22,000. I could make that working at Walmart. And that is before paying any of my expenses including the raw cost of the products I sell, studio rent, equipment upkeep and purchase, transportation, utilities, web hosting, insurance, etc.
By the time all of that is taken into account, most new creative business owners end up literally working for free or even paying their clients.
But they keep doing it, because even if they’re struggling they’re doing what they love.
After all, being an artist is supposed to be hard.
And they don’t know just how bad it is because they don’t know how to calculate their loss.
Unfortunately, over time this confusion educates the market.
Folks start expecting creative work for cheap or even for free. The market is flooded with offers like “We’re a non profit, and can’t afford to pay, but we really need your services to help our organization move forward.”
Or one of my favorites is “It will build your portfolio! You’ll get credit in our brochure that goes out to hundreds of people!”
To that I say, I’m sorry, but credit and warm fuzzies are not going to feed my family.
But again, because of the insecurity and inexperience, there’s always somebody who will take the “job”.
I came across an infographic outlining some of these ideas at fotoseed.com. They put it well when they said, “As more and more new photographers enter the market completely unaware of the realities of running a business, they find themselves jumping onto a sinking ship. and as the ship goes down, things get desperate not just for them but for everyone in the industry. Competitive cost-cutting to appeal to the uneducated market makes it feel (to professionals and clients alike) like dogs fighting over a bone. ”
What started with love, turned to money which led to problems and confusion that educates the market and leads to professionals feeling burned. And when new photographers enter the industry, they have been educated by the last wave of new photographers to believe their work is not worth anything. Thus the cycle begins again.
So next time you are shopping for a creative service, whether it is graphic design, handmade craft, web design, photography or something else, make sure you think about the person you are hiring and ask yourself “How do they make a living doing this?”
We don’t mind asking this of real estate agents or financial advisors, but when it comes to creative services we’re so used to undervaluing that it doesn’t even occur to us to wonder.
Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.
“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.” she said.
So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used only a few pencil strokes to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.
“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”
“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.
“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”
To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.“
Remember that, although it seems simple, a creative business is just as complex as any other, and require just as many expenses if not more. Even if we only appear to be selling you our time, we are selling you more than just the hour you spend with us.
We are selling you the decades it took us to learn our craft.
We are selling you a unique point of view that will help set you apart in the market.
We are selling you a creative instinct that has been honed for a lifetime.
We are selling you something you literally can not get from anyone else.
And, by paying a fair price for our work, we need you to help us understand it’s valuable, because we’ve been taught that it is not.