May 16, 2012

6 Reasons Why Artists Fail at Business

1) Artists want to create art, not run a business

Running a business has nothing to do with creating art. Nothing. Really, nothing. Do you want to create art for a living? If you do that is something you should come to terms with early on.

If that idea sounds horrible to you, don’t try to make a living being an artist.  I mean that, you will be much happier going to a regular 9-5 job and doing your art on the side.

If you have no interest in running a business, don’t run a business! You will fail.

This has nothing to do with you as a person, it only has to do with what you want as a person. I suck at basketball, like a lot. It is damn embarrassing how bad I am at basketball. I once saw a basketball on a court and I swear it started rolling away on its own just to not be around me.

I am ok being horrible at basketball, because I have never once tried to be good at it. That isn’t really surprising is it? Something I have absolutely no desire to be good at, I am not good at.

If you have no desire to run a business well, you will not run a business well.

You have a couple of options here: Get someone else to run your business, or live the life of a starving artist.

It is actually a good thing that running a business and creating art have nothing to do with each other. This means you can suck at art and still make a great living being an artist.

2) Artists fight exactly what they need to do

Most often in business and in life the thing you don’t want to do is the thing you most need to do in order to succeed.

I am an artist, and trust me, this sucks. I know exactly what I want to do all the time: I want to stay in my studio and make art. I want the entire world to come to me offering opportunity. I want models to miraculously show up at my doorstep and ask if they can pay me to take photos of them.

I know this is ridiculous, it would never happen in real life. Now comes in all of the things you don’t really want to do. You want to get a client to hire you? Well you had better get out and start meeting a ton of people who have budgets. You would do well to make them like you too.

I have faced this dilemma many many times in my career – the struggle between being a business person and an artist.

I took this portrait of myself in 2008, and things haven’t really changed. It is still a struggle between myself as an artist and myself as a business person. To be honest, I have always put being an artist on some sort of pedastool. Like ” I am an artist, I shouldn’t have to do all that business stuff, that is for lame business people”.

I thought that by becoming a “business person” that I would lose my soul. I would lose what made me ME.

Little did I know but that attitude can get you in a lot of trouble. It turns out that business really isn’t that bad. Being good at business is a lot like being good at life. You don’t have to be “That Guy” and try to convince yourself and others that you are something you are not. Just find something you believe in, and tell people about it, you will be the greatest salesperson in the world because all you tell them will be true.

You have done this before. When you really wanted to see a movie, and you convinced your friends to go with you. When you made some awesome cookies and you got everyone around you to try them. When you told your friends about dropbox so they could sign up and you would get more storage. Guess what, you just became a sales person for Dropbox. If you are willing to do it for them, why not be willing to do it for yourself?


Fear can be completely immobilizing. I am not speaking here of fear of spiders or snakes, those actually make sense. Having a healthy fear of snakes means you probably won’t be an idot and try to pick up a black mamba.

Most people have fears they aren’t fully aware of, and many of those people will never confront those fears. That is not really a problem if you don’t plan on pushing yourself, but if you want to make it as an artist and in business, one of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself is to identify and Face your fears.

In case you are reading this and saying to yourself “I don’t really have fear getting in the way of my success” you are either a total badass (think Blade or Marcel The Shell) or you haven’t really thought about it.

What keeps you from walking up to the hottest girl at the bar and introducing yourself? What stops you from giving the cute dude on the train your number? What stops you from eating yellow snow?

The same reasons may be what keep you from calling potential clients or sponsors on the phone and introducing yourself. The same reason may keep you from taking your life savings and investing it in your company. The same thing might be keeping you from quitting your day job to pursue your passion.

In the past year I have done all of these things, and they were ALL HARD AS HELL. Each decision scared me, and I spent a long time letting the fear control my Actions. When I finally made the decision to change my life and Face my fears, amazing things started to happen. Instead of me just thinking my life was going to magically get better on its own, it actually did get better.

One thing that has always helped me to Face my fears is to think to myself. – What is the worst thing that could happen?

If you ask yourself this and answer honestly, you will probably find that the answer isn’t that bad. For me it was something like this: I would lose all that I own, become poor and have to live with my parents.

Then I thought to myself “It would be just like I was 17 again, I loved being 17!”. It made everything better. Going broke doesn’t mean I would forget everything that I have learned, and I am pretty confident that if I started at ZERO today,  I could surpass where I am now in less than 1 year.  Jobs come and go, so do possessions and just about everything else in life.

“The worst thing that happens to you may be the best thing for you if you don’t let it get the best of you”

– Will Rogers

4) Artists forget about the little things (like taxes)

There are people who spend their entire lives learning how to start companies and run successful business and still fail. Don’t let your ignorance come back to haunt you.

Thankfully there is this great thing called the internet  (Al Gore is the man) with answers for just about any question you may have.

Here are some things you really need to pay attention to:

  • Taxes – If you are working for yourself you are not exempt from income tax. What does this mean? You just photographed a wedding and collected $3,000 for a job well done; you can pay your bills and have a little left over to celebrate. Not quite, you really just made about $1,800 – $2,200 depending on how you file your dependencies. Minus the depreciation and cost of gear/travel and you are looking at actually making $1,500. HALF. This is pretty serious, don’t wait until your taxes are due to figure this out, it will kill your business!
  • Business Legal Structure – Depending on how you are going to structure your business (LLC vs Inc) you have some work to do here. My advice is to hire an attorney and an accountant – these people will not work for free. If you are curious Phlearn is set up as an LLC. We have 2 accountants and an attorney. Who do you think wrote this Terms of Service– Me?
  • Bookkeeping – If you are planning on just using your personal checking account to run a business, please don’t. Open a second account, and handle everything that is business related through that account. Even if you are the only one getting paid by your business, pay yourself out of this account. This will make your life much easier when it comes to doing taxes.

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”

– Benjamin Franklin

5) Artists think they can do everything themselves.

The problem is that usually they can, but that doesn’t mean they should.

Artists are stubborn people, I know, I am one. When an artist puts their mind to something, they will figure out how to make it work. It is that curiosity that has made them an artist in the first place.

Here is a simple rule, live by it and you will find success:
Do what you are good at, and get other people to do the rest.

You don’t have to become an attorney to file all of your legal work, someone else is already an attorney. Do you really hate selling? Get someone else to do it. Hate brushing your teeth? Hire someone to Brush them for you. Just don’t think that by not doing it that it doesn’t need to get done.

The biggest mistake you can make is by spending your time getting good at something you shouldn’t be doing in the first place. Someone else is already good at that, pay them to do it.

Think of your company as an airline. You may be the person who builds the plane, you may be the person who flies the plane, you may even be the dude holding the flags on the runway, but you can’t be all of them. Run your company as it would make sense on a large Scale, figure out your role, figure out what other roles need to be filled, and go from there. Don’t have money to pay people? Get a loan or ask your rich uncle. If you are unwilling to do either of these things, you probably don’t believe in your own company.

6) Artists undervalue their work and skills/talent

You want to know how much your art/worth is worth? Exactly how much you say it is worth. If you don’t place value on your work, no one else will either.

Most of us started out making art because it was something we were passionate about, and we just wanted to create. I don’t know any artists who started out with money on their minds. For me personally, it was 2 years after first picking up a camera before I decided I was going to start charging for my art. This means that for 730 days, I was doing it just because I wanted to do it.

Most people see “work” as something they don’t want to do. In their heads “work” is worth money and “playing around” is not. This is why it is so hard for artists to place a price tag on their art, they would have done it even if they didn’t have to. Well I am here to tell you that just because that work you were doing didn’t suck, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t Count as work. If you have years invested into your art, it has value.

Why is Godiva chocolate 5x more expensive that Hersheys? It is not 5 times better; in fact I like Dove Chocolate the best. They charge more because they tell you it is worth more. They place little chocolates delicately in a box of gold, adding nothing to the chocolate itself, only to the experience. You think you are getting something of value, and you are ok paying more for it.

People only know what you tell them. Put a fancy bow on your art, charge accordingly.

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  • user image

    Excellent article, Aaron.  Great advice!! 🙂

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      I get the analogy, but saying there is nothing  different from Godiva  to Hershey’s or Dove except their marketing and packaging is just plain wrong. The difference in price is because,  in this case-the ingredients are of higher quality-better cocoa and cocoa butter etc. This stuff is premium, so automatically they have to sell at a premium price. You can taste the difference between good chocolate and that made with compounded vegetable fat. (And I also get that some people, after trying the gourmet stuff, do prefer what they are used to, no crime there.). 

      Fashion is another area I can think of–the blouse you bought at K-mart and paid 3 times less for than Laura Ashley might, or might not be roughly the same quality, but it’s more likely the Laura Ashley blouse has used a better quality fabric, and might have had to pay more for seamstresses to take more care putting it together.

      Your piece is excellent and gets home the point, but not every price point is about image; it’s a combination of carefully thought out elements by the men in the ivory advertising towers (and I”m a copywriter, so I’m not bagging them!).
      I’m still going to print your piece out to read again, though. 🙂

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    Helen Davies

    I also live by the ‘Whats the worst that could happen’ motto.  Your right, I would say everytime, its always more the fear of failure that holds back over the reality.

    I also like “Great love and great achievements involve great risk.”

    Excellent post as usual Aaron!XX

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    Aaron, this is really helpful to me man. I fail in every thing you said artists fail. I love photography, I want to make a living out of it but I am not very business minded and I struggle big time, I’m stuck man. And I try to do everything my self, I’m building my web site (had to learn a lot) because I want it done in a certain way (you know, nobody can do it well enough, as perfect as I would do it, hahahaha, delusional), and don’t have the money to outsource it, I’m doing the accounts, learning about marketing, sells, etc. and what I do the least of is actually shooting.
    Thanks for the tips, I’ll work on it.

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    Seth DuBois

    I’ve never considered myself a business person. However, at some point I do want to pursue photography full time, so it’s definitely something to come to terms with. I know my biggest downfall and tendency, as you pointed out, would be undervaluing my work. This article certainly helps to put things in to perspective, I appreciate it!

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    I feel scared just reading this. I am at the beginning of my business and I fear my business skills. I NEED to make this work as I can’t face the idea of photography being a sideline. I like the idea of hiring someone to sell for me. I especially love the idea about adding to the experience and adding a “bow”. That’s what I have been doing in the short time I have been in business. Thanks for reminding me of all the things I need to be doing. 

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    Brian Maiorino

    What are some tips yall have for meeting people with budgets that pay for photography, especially for those of us who have introverted tendencies? Maybe that’s the fear part?

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    Kimberly Bucki

    Artists are stubborn people, I know, I am one. When an artist puts their mind to something, they will figure out how to make it work. It is that curiosity that has made them an artist in the first place.

    Purely amazing- love one of your models/artists Kimberly

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    And again, thank you for always having the right info at the right time! You are like my personal teacher in photoshop, photography and now business skills.

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    “You are full of shit. You are neither a businessman NOR an artist. You have respect for neither, so you are neither. I’ve been living off my art for several years, willing to sacrifice — which you are not — and so, plodding through an impossible task, I begin to find the final rewards. Not kidding myself, like many do, that I might have talent with no proof. I have talent and should therefore try maybe to succeed. And I do, on small levels, shortly thereafter on bigger levels. I suck at business. But business is not what I do, and never wish to do. I  am an artist, so I laugh at and piss on the business lifestyle. It chases ME, not vice versa.  So some business schmuck can do that part for me, and make his living off my labours. I create well-thought-out artwork. With centuries of knowledge behind me, and nothing but disdain for your half-ass modern concepts. I will succeed by being a thinking  conscientious mindful artist who belongs to the history of art. While you will not be remembered one second longer than your internet article appears. Nor should you. You should either vanish from history now by suicide, or find something else to do. You don’t belong pretending to be part of the artist’s world.

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      Ohhh boo on you! You are just another one of those cliche-artists that are so full of both agony and themselves. YOU problably wont be remembered because of the overflow of your personality. Aaron has the talent of creating art and still be a kind and happy person who doen’t appear to take himself too serously. Something you could learn from. In a matter of days, no one will remember that you posted this. You should have shown your precious art instead of telling someone, that you are so much better. Bull. 

      Oh and telling someone to commit suicide? You are just an awful person and for that comment, I would never look at you as a talented person. Just a sad person who needs to let go of some anger. 

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      I agree with ‘TheHappyCamper’ especially about the suicide comment… you are just wrong on so many levels!

      as for the rest of your rant… comes across as bitter resentment triggered by faliure… altho i’m sure your actually being headhunted by all the top galleries really.

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    Janet Glatz

    Excellent piece! I couldn’t agree more. As an experienced entrepreneur/business owner as well as an accomplished artist, I know full well the value of practical “money” knowledge. Now that I am free to spend all my time painting and marketing, I’m seeing my career take off exponentially. 

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    Karl Craig-West

    I think you could have easily added “They don’t understand that MARKETING is essential”.
    I know a few artists who produce amazing work but struggle because they haven’t quite grasped and implemented the basic concepts of promotion and marketing.

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    Emily Mansfield

    A brilliant article! Aaron, you are such an inspiration (as always!)

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    Great insights/wisdom Aaron !  Love the article and self portraits. It is so important to surround yourself with loyal/capable peoples… Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak ! Cheers !

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    Your article is very true – you make great points! But I hesitated at your sentence, “Do you really hate selling? Get someone else to do it”  No one cares as much as you do about your art. Artists are often under the mistaken impression that they will simply get an “agent” who will magically market their work and hand them business. 

    Not only are there very few true artists agents out there (except for some spouses and business partners) but they cannot be expected to devote themselves to promoting one artist only. 

    The absolute best thing any artist can do is to become familiar with how to communicate about their work and understand their audience. Once you dive in a do that scary stuff that you mention, you expand your comfort zone to include marketing and business activities that are essential. It is empowering to artists to have these skills. And gratifying, when you can market and sell your own work successfully. Sounds like you have experienced this!

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    Yo Mama

    These insights make me proud to be your mother, except I hope you didn’t eat yellow snow! You are speaking about balance, one of the hardest of life’s goals.  Doing what’s hard vs. doing what you want is very complex and a constant struggle.  I guess the goal is to schedule both into your life.  By the way, yes, there is always the option of living with your parents-we are not too bad-we made you!

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    Sagar Heerani

    You are one awesome guy Aaron. Thanks

    I always sucked at marketing.So finally I started with my friend. He looks after what he is good at i.e. Marketing and I look after what I am good at.

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    You put into words that don’t include “wheras and towit” in them, so much easier for the artist to understand Bravo and I will check out some of your advise. I already have been asked by Getty to sell some of my work that alone got me to thinking my stuff ain’t that bad 😀 Keep up the great work or should I say passion….

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    Sums it up pretty good! I would add … being a photographer is not a “if you build it they will come” type of enterprise. It takes a lot of hard work, long hours, and dedication … and you have to have some talent. I often think of the Beatles as a good example. Their years spent in Germany (playing 3 to 4 shows a day, 7 days a week) really honed their skills and made them look like an overnight success in America.
    Keep at it Aaron!

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    Kim Newmoney

    Aaron, this is extremely tongue and cheek and I like it. Thank you. I’ve recently started the 52 week project and I’m now realizing that I’m now torn on how I present my work. This 52 week project has been getting plenty of attention, but I’m not sure if it’s in a professional way. For someone who shoot things like weddings and family portraits… I basically have photos that expose me as a person (I’m a pretty intense person).

    I guess my question to you is, is it that big of a deal that those things are together in one portfolio?

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    C. Edward Brice

    I work shopped with Joel Grimes and he was very adamant
    that you have to get out there and work your business. Every Friday he sets
    aside for cold call day as he said there’s a new 27yr old art director who doesn’t
    know anything about him. he also said don’t get hung up on “they are more talented
    than me” as he said that there are a ton of people more talented than he, but
    that hard work will beat out more talent every day. Another perspective he had
    was that if are a technician you will always earn a technicians wage. If your
    an artist your earning potential is unlimited. Allot of wisdom in your post

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    I think you covered all the reasons I work in technology and only do photography and digital art for myself. I’m not a go getter. I’m not a sales person. I certainly am not a marketing person. So, I save myself the stress, and design software for a living (and secretly watch Phlearn videos during business hours)… 😉

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    Sharon Smith

    This is a fantastic article!!! 

    I want to print it out & carry it around in my purse for when people ask me things like, “Why do you want to sell through a gallery? They’ll take half the money!” Yes, & it’s marked up accordingly. It also means *I* don’t have to spend all that time selling it myself & I can spend more time in the studio- that’s worth it to me. This is also why I’ve already arranged that if I ever do the full-on self-employed studio artist thing, my mother will keep the books. I do not get numbers, whereas she worked in accounting & payroll for 20+ years. She insisted that I still hire a professional tax person. For now, I’m going the MFA-to-College-Prof route, because I really enjoy teaching my art as much as I enjoy making it. Pricing is still hard, as I’m as bad at keeping track of time as I am with money, but I’m a metalsmith, not a photographer, so it’s a more (physical) labor-intensive, one-of-a-kind sort of thing & thus, a very different pricing structure.

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    adam raasalhague

    Great article Aaron! It really is something I needed to hear/read at the moment. At first I found it hard to admit the fact that ‘I can’t do everything’. Especially when it comes to doing wedding coverages etc. As much as I want to do it all my way, it just wasn’t possible. One thing I’ve learn along the way was that I’ve got to loosen up just a little bit and allow others to help me.

    “If that idea sounds horrible to you, don’t try to make a living being an
    artist.  I mean that, you will be much happier going to a regular 9-5
    job and doing your art on the side.”

    I totally agree (now i really do, honest! hehe).

    I can’t thank you enough for always being so honest and ‘in your face’ about the true colours of the photography world. Not a lot of photographers out there are willing to really share the harsh truth let alone their tips and methods like you did. 🙂

    Again… thank you.

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    I’m just in the beginning stages of starting a photography business. Good advice, thanks!

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    W Brian Duncan (aka IPBrian)

    You arent kidding…so much of any business is business part.  Regardless if you are a photographer, a hair stylist, a personal trainer…doesn’t matter, you need to be a business person first, everything else comes second.  Its one of the reasons (probably THE reason) so many business fail.  

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    The internet’s only daily photography and photoshop show. 

    Except May 17 and 18? 😉

    Hope you are ok Aaron!

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    “In the past year I have done all of these things…” You gave some cute dude on a train your number?!

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      Brian Zuzulock

      Pretty sure he was referring to “..calling potential clients or sponsors on the phone and introducing yourself. [..]taking your life savings and investing it in your company. [..]quitting your day job to pursue your passion.”

      But really… even if he was referring to what you quoted, who cares? Think you missed the point of the post

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    I think I see it an a different way. The problem here is that the article is suggesting that artists do a bit of business training and then can present themselves as a business person in the commercial world. But an excellent business person might also be an excellent “artist” but they are still fundamentally a business person. (They might also be a water skier…)
    A good business person can attract commissions for art, sell art, initiate art projects etc but none of these things require them to be an artist – artists need to remember that, because this is the competition.

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    Kevin Leung

    Great article!! Well said to the points of what i faced in the past.
    It really inspired me and changed my thought.

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    Thanks for writing this Article.You have some great advice here.
    I will be following what you said in the future.
    Take care

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    Arts is a fun like Music or writing, Young generation, kids they find this area can Benefit them even may become a job.