“But how can I write a business plan? I’m an artist.”
He was one of my favorite students in the class I used to teach on starting a business. He had a delightful way of challenging assumptions, occasionally on the basis that art, by its very nature, was above—or perhaps immune—to cash flow. As a student, he was engaged, intelligent, and eager to learn; so yes, he was one of my favorites.
“What, you aren’t going to sell paintings?” I responded. “You don’t plan to pay your rent and other expenses? You don’t care if checks bounce?”
He agreed, somewhat begrudgingly, that maybe an artist wanted to survive in the world like anybody else.
On reflection, he decided that he liked the idea of making a living without abandoning his art. In the end, he saw himself in a condition similar to the professional, like a bookkeeper or consultant, faced with the idea of doing what he loved, in conjunction with a plan.
In this case, being an artist meant creating paintings to be hung on walls. But “artist” can mean a broad range of related things, from fine art and (ugh, so crass) commercial art, to design, writing, acting, stand-up comedy, and even live art. I’m in favor of whatever works for you and in awe of people who actually manage to combine talent, passion, and hard word to make that work for them as a way of life. Hats off.
So how do you make a business plan and use it to optimize the business side of your art? Here are some suggestions.
The big idea—making money
The first big hurdle for the artist business plan is what they call the business model, or, if you don’t like the trendy buzzword, how you make money.
If you’re a performer, I assume it’s about gigs, managers, and that stuff. Or, it’s about selling your paintings, sculptures, or photographs. Maybe you’re okay with being the starving artist, but if not, it’s “show me the money.” Don’t discount the obvious—take a look at the results of a quick web search, in the illustration here, for “where to sell my paintings.”
Don’t completely discount the related businesses. Writers teach literature, painters teach fine arts. There are galleries. There are websites buying, selling, and collecting art. You can be as creative with the business model as you are with your art. Stand-up comedy is a tough career, I hear, but there are people getting around the gatekeepers using YouTube and downloads.
One of my personal favorite artist-with-a-plan stories is the story of Paul Anthony and Rumblefish. He was a talented musician—a drummer who built a business around selling music rights for films and ads. He started from his dorm room at the University of Oregon in 1996; he sold his company, Rumblefish.com, for $27 million in 2015.
Eventually, you settle in on how you hope to make money. Talk to people about it, search the web, sample websites, ads, displays, prices—get as much how-to information as you can and settle in on what you’re going to try.
That is the heart of your artist business plan: how you make money.
Strategy and tactics
Strategy is focus. It’s as much about what you don’t do as what you do. Figure out where you are going to concentrate your business efforts. It could be as simple as what kind of work you sell, to whom, through what channels. Or it might be what kind of performance, and how you reach the gatekeepers. Think about what makes you different, who will buy from you, and what you sell to them.
With strategy set, you need tactics to execute. Tactics are decisions you make about pricing, channels, websites, social media, managers, agents, stores, overhead, allies, and so forth. Make sure your tactics match your strategy.
For more on strategy and tactics, check out Strategy Is Useless without Tactics and Strategic Plan for Your Business, also here on Bplans. If you’re a LivePlan user, determining your strategy and tactics can be as simple and direct as filling out the pitch page in LivePlan, which defines market, strategy, tactics, and so forth. If not, strategy and tactics can be as easy as a few bullet points you set down and keep track of. You don’t have to include long eloquent texts to make a business plan for yourself. Just include what you need, and will use.
Milestones and metrics
Think through some manageable and measurable milestones—goals—you’re going to meet along the way. It might be your first gig; your first painting sold; your first painting available through some website; your first YouTube video posted, or the 100th; or maybe reaching 500 likes or 1,000 followers; or getting on the Jimmy Fallon show. Try to spell it out, though, so you can aim for it and work toward it.
The metrics help you track progress. Units sold, gigs, unique visitors, conversion rates, viewers, likes, follows—avoid having a plan full of generalities only. Keep it concrete and specific so you can use it to guide yourself and optimize your business.
For more on that, read Milestones Make Your Business Plan a Real Plan. For a personal view of metrics, with some suggestions, read my post on my blog here at Bplans: Magic of Metrics, Tyranny of Metrics.
Essential business numbers
Although a lot of people fear forecasts, don’t. It’s easier to do essential forecasts than to run a business without them. A simple sales forecast can be extremely helpful for your business later, as you track actual results, compare them to the forecast, and analyze the difference. What went right? What went wrong? Where were you off? If you don’t lay out a forecast first, you lose the opportunity to follow up with the management of it.
And yes, I know, you’re an artist, that’s not what you do. It’s hard on the self-image, but it’s good for the bank balance. You can do it, and it will help you succeed. Consider this previous post:
Do a spending budget linked to the sales forecast. A lot of your spending—marketing activities, for example—ought to have a direct connection with the projected sales that will result. For more on that, try my recent post on my blog here at Bplans: How to Do a Spending Budget. That’s part of a whole series I finished recently, on standard business plan financials.
And, most important, plan your cash flow. Make sure you have enough cash in the bank to pay your rent and other bills. Having enough sales is a critical first step, managing spending is next, and then make sure you have the full cash flow including things like loan repayment, buying inventory, and supplies. For more on cash flow, try this post: How to Forecast Cash Flow.
Remember: It’s planning that matters, not just the plan
The point of the business plan for most artists isn’t just having the plan; it’s using it to optimize your business. Expect your plan to change often. It’s a cycle that starts with the first plan and continues from then on, as long as you are in business. I call it P-R-R-R, as in the illustration here on the right.
Use it like a dashboard, a tool for checking your progress against goals, for tracking results, and doing regular course corrections. Think of it as a business navigation system, which includes destination, route, and—with regular review and revisions—real-time information to adjust the route as you go.
These days I suggest the concept of the lean business plan, mostly just bullet points, lists, and tables, which you do for yourself only. If you need to add descriptions and summaries for outsiders later, then you add those when you need them. Let your plan start with the essentials (strategy, tactics, milestones, metrics, and essential projections) and grow organically from that point.