Business Planning for Creatives


​"You have brains in your head,

And feet in your shoes,

You can steer yourself

Any direction you choose"

From "Oh, the places you'll go", Dr Suess.

It may sound like a misnomer but it is possible to be a creative business with sound business planning principles behind you. In my field, there are many extremely talented artists who lack commercial focus and ultimately despite their passion, their businesses fail. It's terribly sad, as if they had been open to understanding some basic business planning principles and tools they could have fulfilled their dreams. Equally, there are many skilled business people who have a commercial crafty idea and take the market by storm but then as they inherently lack genuine creativity, their success isn't sustainable either.

I count myself as incredibly lucky to have a business studies degree behind me and a 10 year career in marketing before discovering my true passion and entrepreneurial flair. I can honestly say that despite many challenges and some setbacks along the way, I have never been happier and more fulfilled.

So, what's the key to business success as a creative entrepreneur?

Whilst I wouldn't go so far as to say business planning is fun, I love the Einstein quote "Creativity is intelligence having fun." So, as long as we are willing to embrace sound business planning principles, the rigour and focus applied will allow us to flourish. So in my language - use your business brains and your creative enterprise will rock!

I did a vast amount of research before launching my business and I'm glad I did. I knew my place in a hugely overcrowded marketplace and I knew what my unique selling propositions were. I was also rigorous in my financial planning - there were hefty set up charges to get going and working in precious metals, my material costs are high too. Despite my real passion, drive and enthusiasm, I had to face the reality that it would potentially be 5 years before I could draw any income from the business. You could argue that in itself meant it wasn't a good business proposition but I was willing to take that risk and play the long game. That may not be the case for everyone, but as long as you're brutally honest with yourself about what you want to achieve and what you need to survive whilst establishing your business, you won't go far wrong.

As it turned out, in year 3 I was able to start drawing a small income from the business as I had been conservative in my sales forecasting. I had some lucky breaks, good galleries and exhibition organisers behind me, as well as lots of press interest. These breaks are hard to predict and quantify and whilst my business plan was cautious in the short term, it was highly ambitious in the longer term. By that time, you have some value in the brand you've created and can leverage bigger opportunities. People are more inclined to take a risk with you if you have a good track record of delivering against objectives.

During the research phase, it is essential to be totally honest and upfront about your likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses as well as the opportunities and threats in your prospective marketplace. Not one successful entrepreneur I know loves or is talented at (or both!) all aspects of running a creative business. Taking myself as an example, I have a good business studies degree and am perfectly capable of doing my own accounts. Am I the best person for the job? No. Is it the most efficient use of my time? No. Is it quite easy and inexpensive to outsource? Yes. Decision made!

But what about marketing? I have 10 years industry experience as well as my academic studies. Should I do all my own marketing? Have I got the relevant skills? Being brutally honest with myself, partly! My experience is broad and relevant but there are better experts out there. I end up bringing it back to the only aspect of my business that absolutely has to be done by me is the designing and hand-crafting of the jewellery. As luck would have it, that is also the part of my job that I enjoy the most.

A note of caution - I am merely outsourcing these elements of my business to experts - I am in no way abdicating responsibility for them. So, I still find myself having to be somewhat of an expert in many fields despite not actually executing the roles. As an entrepreneur the buck stops with me. You need to be sure you have the personality traits to cope with this.

So when you're projecting sales and income figures for a creative business that doesn't exist yet, where do you start?

I would suggest having a forensic knowledge of your costs to start with. If you don't know them, you have no business model. As a creative business, allow yourself the time and resources to do some prototypes. Be painstakingly accurate in recording all costs. Be sure to include your own time. Yikes. Yes, I did just say be sure to include your own time. Take a deep breath and record every minute of your time devoted in any way to creating each and every prototype.

As if that's not scary enough, you now need to assign a monetary value to your time. A word of caution here - anecdotally - I reckon not charging realistically for your own time is the number 1 reason many talented creatives businesses fail. We're a humble and shy bunch by nature and not very comfortable promoting or valuing ourselves. But here's the rub - if we don't get over this and out of our own way - we can't make a sustainable future by doing what we love. Ouch.

So, be honest about the time commitment, value yourself and your skills (whilst being realistic about your space in your market versus the competition) and if the cost you end up with feels prohibitively expensive, it may well be. But will it feel this way to your prospective customers? The correct answer is you can't possibly know the answer so you have to brave putting yourself and your work out there and let the market tell you what you need to know.

This is the only way to accurately test the market. And remember, price is only one of the key variables of your product or service. Think of the offering itself - what is it that truly makes your offering different to others on the market? Now think of this in terms of consumers. Is this fact or feature relevant to them? Is it of value to them? How do you plan to tell them about it? How much will this cost you? It always bemuses me that despite all of us being consumers every day of our lives in some way, we seem to forget the consumers viewpoint when we want to sell to them. Remember how you behave as a consumer, what's important to you, how you like to be treated. Then do the same.

Whilst I'm a big advocate of business planning for creatives, I do believe there is huge scope for serendipity and it is important to stay open to new possibilities. If I'd rigidly stuck to my business plan, I would have missed out on numerous opportunities. Some created by me, others co-created and others completely random and left field. What I have done is re-evaluated where I am against my business plan on an ongoing basis and to me it is a live document or it's not worth the paper it's written on. When necessary, I effectively tear it up and start afresh. And that's ok. As entrepreneurs we need to be agile and able to seize opportunities.

But the key principles behind what I set out to achieve and the lifestyle I wanted to create for myself and my family remain solid. They are a useful barometer that guide my every decision and action. Then with every opportunity that comes along I can ask myself "does this take me closer to or further away from my desire to...."

So, in no way am I encouraging you to think or play small, I want you to grow, flourish and develop as creative businesses and in yourselves. What I am suggesting is that you follow your hearts but take your brains along for the ride of a lifetime.

Karen Dell'Armi