For a creative person, the appeal of being able to make a living from your creativity is the Holy Grail.  The idea of being your own boss and spending your work time doing something that you love is the ultimate goal of many creatives.  Time and time again, I've seen talented friends and acquaintances start a creative business with huge enthusiasm and energy, only to see it fizzle out within a year or two never having managed to fulfil the dream of 'giving up the day job' to become a full time 'crafter'.

So the million dollar question - is it possible to turn a hobby into a career?  And if so, how?

My experience...

I started out like many others, with a dream of working from home, spending stress-free days joyously painting and crafting while at the same time being able to fit work around the children.  I hated the thought of having to go out to a job I felt indifferent about, whilst paying through the nose for childcare and missing out on so many milestones, so I was determined to give it my best shot.  The reality?  Well, I have got there in the end but I made plenty of mistakes along the way and, honestly, the reality isn't quite the same as the dream...

Here is my advice to anyone considering giving up the 9-5 lifestyle and nurturing their creative side.

1.  Be honest about the money that you are really making

My first attempt at becoming a career-creative was to hand paint nursery pictures.  These were bespoke children's names, surrounded with little illustrations, beautifully framed.  This seemed to be going well - the reaction of family and friends was good and I started to sell a fair number by word of mouth, which really stepped up when a few local shops began to stock them too.  However, although I seemed to be hitting my target turnover, my bank balance didn't seem to be going up!  I realised that my focus on the turnover and the direct costs of production (the paper, paints and frames) wasn't telling the whole picture. When I took into account the fuel I was using to ferry orders to customers and shops, phone bills, postage, not to mention the cost of my own time, I wasn't making much more than £1 an hour.  I definitely had to go back to the drawing board.

2. Beware family and friends... and develop a thick skin

Whilst Auntie Mary might be the biggest fan of your recycled tea cosies, relying on feedback from family and friends can lull you into a false sense of security - they simply won't want to hurt your feelings.  As a vendor of your own creative output, you need to accept that your creations won't appeal to everyone.  To have a commercially viable product, it must appeal to enough people, and then you need to be able to gain access to these people.  Identify your target market and get as much feedback as possible.  This might mean a trawl of local gift shops (shop owners always give honest and sometimes brutal feedback!) or getting in touch with a group whose members would buy your products. Social media can be great for this kind of thing - people love to be asked their opinion and behind the veil of the internet, they are usually a bit more honest.  Don't be offended but do adapt your offering to be as commercial as possible.

3.  Identify your weaknesses

To run a small business, you need to be an expert in accounting and finance, sales, planning and forecasting, marketing, logistics, customer service, PR, HR, tea making, counselling.... the list goes on!  It takes on a whole new level as the business begins to grow and you need to think about employing people - this is not for the faint hearted!  Unless you are superman/woman (in which case, please send us your CV!) you won't have the same level of skill in all of these tasks.  Work out what you are good at and as soon as you are able, delegate what you are not good at.  At the very least, be aware of your weaknesses and seek advice and help to fill in the gaps.  This is probably the best piece of advice I was ever given as a fledgling business owner.  I have an amazing team around me and there’s no way I could have got this far without a brilliant business partner, Jack.  He is good at all of the things I find difficult or boring and we both find it essential having another person as invested (both emotionally and financially!) in the business to talk through ideas and problems with and to support each other when it gets tough.

4.  Is your product scalable?

Hand-making intricate origami picnic baskets may be your idea of heaven, but realistically, unless you are able to charge a huge amount for them, selling your average craft product will not be able to support you unless you are able to make it a scalable business.  Hand-finished cards are a classic example: - I have a friend who produces beautiful cards and sells them very successfully, but couldn't get past the laborious task of sticking bows, gems and jewels on the cards herself, often meaning that she was burning the midnight oil to get orders finished.  Your capacity for labour has a limit so unless the finances stack up to enable you to pay for these finishes to be done by someone else, you will never be able to grow beyond your own ability to stick and flitter.  If your product margins are so tight it loses money unless you do the labour for free, there is something wrong with your business model and you need to rethink your product or your pricing.  This is why it is key to include a cost of your labour in your costing analysis at the very beginning - this ensures that when you reach the right level, you can afford to get someone else to help you.

5.  The reality may not live up to the dream....

Running your own business can be overwhelmingly hard.  I feel a huge responsibility to every customer who buys something that we have created and if we ever receive negative feedback, or if people don’t like what we have done I feel it very personally and this can be draining.  I’m not a person who naturally loves the limelight (I originally called the business Wrendale rather than something like ‘Hannah Dale Designs’ because I prefer to be creating behind the scenes) and putting your work out into the big wide world for scrutiny is not an easy thing to do.  Thankfully the majority of comments are wonderful but it’s always the one criticism that sticks with you.

In addition, the idea that I would be spending all of my time painting was a total myth - during my working day, my time is easily absorbed in the day to day activities of running the business - I love all of this, but juggling this with the demands of a young family, I find it difficult to find time to paint.  This often ends up being between 5am and 7am in the morning, after 8pm at night and at weekends.  A fresh supply of new and inspired artwork is the lifeblood of the business and I can tell you I have to dig deep at 10pm to get the creative juices flowing.  It's definitely not what I had in mind!

6.  Be original

This one is simple.  If you think you can make start a business by making your own version of something you have seen in a shop, or borrow the style of an artist you admire... don't.  Just don't.  It's not fair and it won't get you anywhere - the market will recognise that it's not original and it is not only a waste of your time but deeply offensive to people who have had the inventiveness and creativity to get there first.  

7.  Love what you do... I mean really love it

If you are going to make a successful business from hand knitting jumpers for penguins, you have to be really passionate about knitting, jumpers and penguins.  You'll know everything there is to know about your product in a pretty short amount of time and it still has to get your juices flowing years after the initial spark.  A small business can be a parasite if you let it - it drains as much from you as you will allow it to take.  I guarantee that at some point you will end up dreaming of balance sheets, worrying about an overdue invoice, crying into your cornflakes about a customer complaint, responding to emails at midnight, (I remember taking an order from a customer while I was at hospital in labour - they never knew!)  In fact, it will permeate every waking minute and take over every aspect of your life and you really need to learn to cope with this or you are heading for trouble.  The flipside of this is that making a living from doing something you really love is both exhilarating, rewarding and challenging - and I wouldn't want to do anything else.

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