How to Not be a Starving Artist: Part 2

In my first post, I outlined three requirements for not being a starving artist. I said you need to be visible, open for business and professional.

As a quick review, being visible means sharing the fact that you are making and trying to sell art. People must know you and your product exist! Your endeavor needs to be visible to the people that you regularly interact with – friends, family, coworkers (as appropriate), your kids’ friends’ parents, people at church, etc. You also need to be visible online and out in the real world at shows and events.

This post goes into detail about being open for business.

Post three is here.

Legal

Don’t let the headache of dealing with legalese be an excuse for not getting started. When you are first making and trying to sell art, you might not need to get a business license or form an LLC (limited liability corporation), but the sooner you get yourself properly set up, the better. I have no legal training or knowledge, so don’t consider anything I am saying to be professional legal or accounting advice. The laws and requirements in every state are different. You will need to conduct research for your city and state to determine whether and at what point you need to get a business license, whether you want to be a sole proprietor, partnership, LLC or other type of entity, and whether you need to collect sales tax. The Small Business Administration is a great resource for this type of information.

While attending a small business workshop, a friend of mine learned that every small business should have a “BAIL team” – a banker, accountant, insurance agent and lawyer. I have a full roster.

Yes, hiring professionals can be expensive, but you hire them because they have expertise that you don’t. Sure, I probably could have done all the research to form an LLC myself, but I would have put it off forever, it would have taken me a long time (time that I would take away from painting, because I can’t hire someone to do that for me) and I would worry about whether I had gotten everything right. For me, hiring a professional was worth it. Same thing with doing my taxes.

In the town I live in, there is a technical school that provides a lot of resources for people starting businesses. I have also heard of an organization called Lawyers for the Arts, which provides pro bono legal assistance. Look around. There is a lot of information and help you can access for free.

Branding

What is a brand?

Your brand is comprised of every little thing you put out into the world, whether you realize it or not, and whether you are intentionally creating a brand or not.

Each interaction a customer or potential customer – or anyone – has with you is called a touchpoint.

It’s whether you choose to use your whole name, one name and an initial, or something completely made up to identify yourself as an artist. It’s what your logo looks like. It’s whether you man your booth at a festival in lipstick and curls or your paint-splattered jeans. It’s the hashtags you use on your Instagram photos. It’s how you wrap and package the art that you ship. It’s whether and what you send as thank you gifts to your best customers at the holidays. It’s whether you have all your shit together and look and act polished or are a complete, hot mess. It’s the check-out experience on your website and how quickly you respond to email inquiries. Every public utterance shapes and defines your brand.

Just like with a massage, one fingertip touch might not individually have a big impact, but that is all a massage is made of – tiny, brief, fingertip touches. And they all matter.

Why have a brand?

You can’t not have a brand. As we’ve just discussed, everyone by default creates a personal brand. If it’s a good brand (thought through and well-developed), your customers and potential customers can understand it and you. They will know what to expect of you and your product and will more easily be able to understand and envision how your product fits into, and enhances, their lives. This makes it easier for them to buy from you and to share your story and products with their friends.

This is a chicken or the egg situation. You don’t want to get too hung up on creating a brand before you even know what you’re selling, but at the same time, it is definitely helpful to be moving in the right direction and to be deliberate about what you’re putting out into the world. The fewer things you need to undo in the future, the better. 

Deciding on your business name is one of the first big decisions you will need to make. Once you decide this, you can secure a URL for your website and create social media accounts (using the name you choose). Before you have your heart set on something, it’s a good idea to make sure nothing you’re considering is already trademarked or taken as a URL.

Once you have a business name and logo (if applicable, and more on how to develop both of those at a later date), you’ll be able to create business cards, other print materials and your website.

Executing a brand

After you have developed your brand, it is imperative that you execute it consistently across all the platforms you use to engage with prospects and customers; this means both visual consistency (logo, colors, typeface) and consistency in your messaging and actions – the way you interact with customers, the types of events you participate in, the snippets of your personal life that you choose to share on your business-focused social media accounts, etc.

Pricing

You need to set your prices before you try to sell anything. I have a post about how I set prices here. Whatever your prices are, you need to be confident in them. I hate overhearing another artist be asked about the price of a piece and then respond with a question. “One hundred and fifty?” The buyer doesn’t want to feel like they’re getting jipped and you don’t want to unintentionally open the conversation to negotiation. Your price is your price. Say it loud and say it proud.

And, potential buyers shouldn’t even need to ask you how much something costs. If you are set up at any type of art/craft fair/festival, every item should be clearly marked. People are often shy and embarrassed and may assume they can’t afford original art. Many people will just walk away instead of asking how much something costs.

Some artists don’t put their prices on their websites. I don’t know why. They make you contact them for details. Even I don’t make that extra effort. Price your damn paintings and allow people to purchase them off your website.

Making sales in person

If you are out and about trying to sell your work (being visible), you need to be prepared to make sales. I accept cash and credit cards and, in some instances, checks. You’ll need to determine your own comfort level with accepting checks. Make sure you bring small bills with you to make change. All my items are priced in dollar increments, but sales tax changes the total, of course. I don’t want to fuss with bringing coins with me, so I just tell the buyer I’ll cover the change for them and round their total down to the nearest dollar. That’s just my preference.

I use a Square reader to take credit card transactions. The readers are smaller than a box of Altoids and connect via Bluetooth to your phone. They cost about $50 and you buy them through Square. After you buy the reader, you will set up an account with Square and link a checking or savings account. This allows Square to automatically deposit the money, less a 2.75% fee, into your account within a couple days of making a sale. You can set sales tax rates in the settings of the app so Square will automatically charge sales tax. To make a sale, you use an app on your phone and then insert the card into the reader.

Square has pretty extensive additional features – coupons, payroll, email marketing – but I don’t use them.

PayPal also makes a credit card reader, as do many banks. I have only used Square and I have been happy with it.

Making sales online

Website functionality

There are many platforms you can use to build a website – Squarespace (unrelated to Square), Wix, Shopify, Wordpress, the list goes on. I use Squarespace. It has several different plans, including very basic ones that don’t offer any transaction capabilities.

I use the basic commerce plan. It costs more per year than the business plan, but there are no transaction fees. If you would pay more in transaction fees than the cost of the plan, getting the more expensive plan (which has more features anyway) is a no brainer.

Squarespace partners with a third-party company called Stripe to safely process credit cards. You will need to create a Stripe account, and link it to your bank account much like I discussed with Square, and then link your Stripe account to Squarespace. This allows you to take credit cards on your website and then have the money show up in your bank account.

Squarespace also has an integration with PayPal. This allows website visitors to pay via PayPal and you to receive money in your PayPal account.

Big caveat: If you sell your work through a gallery, your relationship with them will dictate whether and what you can sell on your site. Don’t do anything to jeopardize your relationship with your gallery.

Website design

Aside from the actual logistics of enabling transactions on your website, if you want to sell work online, you need to build a website that looks like a place people can – and want to – shop. Many artists don’t have websites like this. Many artists’ websites look like portfolio sites. They feel academic and prestigious and like an exhibit at an art museum where you need to whisper. This is fine if their objective is critical acclaim. My objective is selling paintings. I want to sell a lot of paintings so I can continue to be an artist for my job, so I can go on nice vacations and buy what I want at the grocery store.

Instagram

I sell a lot of work “through” Instagram. The app doesn’t have a transactional feature, but you can post photos of art, along with the piece’s size and price, to generate sales. A lot of artists do this and I see a ton of sales happening this way. This is the common practice, with which users are familiar:

  • Photograph the piece of art you want to sell.
  • Write a caption that includes the size and price, along with whatever else you want to say about the piece of art. At the end of the caption, include “Comment ‘SOLD’ and DM me your email to purchase.”
  • A user will comment “SOLD” on the photo, signaling to other users that the piece is no longer available.
  • Then, the same user will send a direct/private message to the artist with his or her email address. This is so the artist can email them to discuss the transaction or just email a PayPal invoice directly. Sending the private message allows the purchaser to only share his or her email with the artist.
  • Once the PayPal payment has come through, the artist will sometimes update the caption to indicate that the piece is sold.

Aside from the process I have just described, which I have employed multiple times, people also see paintings on Instagram and then go to my website to buy them or come to my events to see them in person. The point is: think of Instagram as your look book/catalog or another storefront.

Facebook

You can use the same process I described for Instagram on Facebook. However, selling on Facebook can be even easier. A huge benefit of Facebook over Instagram is that Facebook allows you to put links in posts; Instagram does not. So, if you have a new painting to share and you have created a listing for it on your website, you can post a photo on Facebook, say a little something about it, and then include the link to where people can buy it on your website. That way, they can buy it directly and you don’t have to do anything to facilitate the transaction.

Etsy

When I first started selling online, I sold through Etsy. I haven’t closed my shop, but I no longer have anything available for sale there; I have an announcement telling people to go to my website. People weren’t often discovering me through Etsy; the people buying from me were people I was sending to Etsy to make the transaction. So, because it wasn’t really a source of customers for me, I decided that I would rather have complete control of my brand and the sales experience customers had with me.

Think of it this way: having an Etsy shop is like having a booth at an antique mall, whereas having your own website is like having your own storefront with your own address. Your booth in the antique mall will look exactly how you want it to and your items will all look great together, but you have no control over what the person next to you is selling or the overall experience of shopping at the antique mall and your brand is a sub-brand of the antique mall. Now, Etsy is a well-oiled machine, provides a great shopping experience and has a good brand, but I wanted my own destination online.


Thanks for reading! I'd love to hear your thoughts and what's working for you.