To make it as an artist you have to be an entrepreneur
Nishant Jain and I discuss the tension between making art and making a living doing it - and the book The Minimalist Entrepreneur.
Nishant Jain is the author of SneakyArt, a newsletter in which he secretly draws the world and shares all of his thoughts about it. He also happens to be part of Substack's fellowship program with me where we've been engaging in long discourses about art and how we can make a living doing it.
As it turns out, we're both reading the same book at the same time - The Minimalist Entrepreneur by Sahil Lavingia, who founded a creator economy platform called Gumroad. We decided to use the book as a jumping-off place for our discussions about art, the creator economy, and how we can earn a living from our art.
Here's our conversation in full:
Elle Griffin: The reason I'm drawn to Sahil Lavingia's story is that he started his business in the traditional way: by getting VC funding and rapidly growing a Bay Area company - but then completely changing course because there wasn't a big enough market for his company.
I happened to join at the point of his journey when he got rid of his offices, told his investors he wasn't going to be able to pay them back, laid off all his employees, and moved to Utah - which is where I live - to take a writing class from Brandon Sanderson. At the time, I interviewed him for a story called "Having a minimalist business prepared them for the pandemic."
Now, instead of growing a company from the top-down (venture capital from the mega-rich → intention to 10x their investment by going public) he's growing a company from the bottom-up (small subscriptions from daily users → intention to provide tools for the small group of creators who need it.) And that has turned out to be a much more profitable strategy for him!
In other words, he's a great model for artists, like you and me, who might not be able to get 5 million people interested in gothic novels or ink prints, but who could feasibly earn a living from just 1,000 supporters using this same "creator economy" model. And that is deeply appealing to me because I would love to just write for a living, with a small community around me, and I'm hoping to be able to do that through my newsletter.
But then you're already doing it. Can you share a bit more about how you earn a living as an artist?
Nishant Jain: Thanks, Elle. We had a lovely discussion in the comment section of your thoughtful post, and I am happy to exchange more ideas stemming from my personal experience. What I appreciated most about your post was that it asked creators to think of themselves as start-ups or entrepreneurs. This is a title I readily take upon myself.
In Ep 29 of the SneakyArt Podcast, I spoke with the Dutch artist and YouTuber, Koosje Koene, about her work and her journey towards expressing herself through multiple art forms and media. We both liked the word "creative entrepreneur," finding it more suitable than the simple word "artist." To be operators in the creator economy, I believe every creator needs to think of themselves as a creative entrepreneur.
I didn't expect to become an artist. But one day I posted a drawing on r/chicago and someone asked to buy it. As I handed them the piece the next day, I thought about how funny it was that they were paying me for just a drawing. I had never thought that was possible. I didn't expect it to happen again.
But it happened again and again. I started to sell more pieces over Reddit. I drew hundreds of portraits on r/redditgetsdrawn and every now and then someone would ask for a print. I sold art in person for the first time after we moved to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In that small town in the middle of the Midwest, I registered as an independent business and booked a stall in the farmer's market. In the summer of 2018, I sold prints of SneakyArt next to vendors selling cheese, vegetables, and the occasional antique seller.
My work made a lot of people curious. And observing their behavior, I made some purely business decisions: My "market" was the few hundred people who came on Saturday morning to the Farmer's Market and they only had small change in their pockets and, it being central Wisconsin, my customers had lower spending power than their big-city counterparts. These factors meant that I needed to sell at a low price point ("Low enough that they don't think twice!") and the pieces needed to be small and easy to carry ("They're already carrying groceries!"). I began to sell at $5, $10, and $20 price points and sales picked up.
Another entrepreneurial skill I developed was making a pitch for my art. People were curious to see a bearded, brown guy in their little town selling little drawings. What was I doing there? Where had I come from? What were these drawings about? I repeated answers to these questions dozens of times a day until it became a reflex. I polished my words again and again until they shone. That summer, I sold over 400 prints of my drawings and by the end of the season, I had my next big entrepreneurial idea. It was sparked by a question: "How many prints will people buy before they run out of wall space?"
I realized I needed to make a different product - a book. I learned everything I could about publishing and spoke to a couple of literary agents, before deciding to self-publish SneakyArt of Eau Claire. The next summer, I sold new prints and stocked copies of SneakyArt of Eau Claire in my stall. I also organized launch events at local bookstores and cafes (some of whom had previously commissioned me).
At the farmer's market, every copy was sold with a free portrait on the inside page, which I drew while speaking with my customers. I sold over 100 books in the first month and, during this time, I was also covered by the county arts and culture magazine, and interviewed by WPR for a segment. Customers who bought prints and books would return to commission me privately for art. I did more than 50 private commissions that year.
I make art because it makes me happy to be an artist. But I'm only able to sell art because I think of it as a business.
This means I have the responsibility to understand my market and decipher what kind of products it will want. I cannot demand that people buy my work simply because I have put so much effort into it - I am entitled to nothing. My work and my effort is simply the supply end of the curve. To make a sale, it is also my job to create the demand.
Today, I sell art through private commissions and print and book sales. I regularly leverage Reddit and Instagram to reach potential new customers. Another set of revenue streams opened for me with the newsletter and the SneakyArt Podcast which I started in mid-2020. With every episode, I include a 45-second pitch for why listeners should "buy me a coffee" to support my work and it works well. I started the subscription model on the newsletter during the Substack Grow program in September 2021, and that is also doing reasonably well, all things considered.
The aspect of creative entrepreneurship that appeals most to me is the independence it implies. It invites me to think of my work as a business but on my own terms - unlike Instagram deciding to change its algorithms abruptly and forcing me to pivot. I pursue my art and writing with a creative drive that fulfills me. But crafting products from these creative pursuits that people will want to pay for is another kind of creative challenge. The game is a little different, but it is a lot of fun to play.
A question for you: how do you feel about the title "creative entrepreneur?" Would you use it? If so, how would you differentiate it from simply creator or writer or artist?
Elle Griffin: I definitely agree that making a living from your art requires you to be an entrepreneur. I work as editor for Utah Business and we recently interviewed the Instagram influencer Rachel Parcell for our cover story. Parcell earns $15 million a year from her influencer empire and when she was asked if she felt there was a lot more competition for influencers today, she laughed.
"I know a lot of girls try it," she said, "and they'll do it for a few months, and then they're like, oh my gosh, this is way more work than I thought. And then they stop doing it. I think they go into it thinking, 'Oh, it can't be that hard.' And then they're like, 'Oh, actually, it's way harder and more time-consuming than I thought.'"
I understand where she's coming from. People see her and think: I could be an Instagram model and make $15 million! But they're not seeing all of the business strategy that goes into turning an Instagram account into a million-dollar business. I'm not yet earning a living from my newsletter and I can already see that I can't just write and expect to earn a living doing it. There is a lot of business strategy involved. I don't think you can make it in the creator economy world without being an entrepreneur too!
Interestingly, that entrepreneurial angle has been what has fueled my own newsletter growth. A year in, I've realized that people value art, but they value the art form more. For instance: We are used to getting books at the library for free (like Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code) while paying for knowledge (like Dan Brown's MasterClass). That is true of my newsletter too. People won't pay to read my book, but they'll pay to read how I published it on the internet. Exposing that entrepreneurial part is the value.
Sahil illustrates this idea in his book where he talks about Nathan Barry, the founder of ConvertKit. Nathan started blogging around the same time as one of his peers Chris Coyier - only Chris was making money doing it and Nathan wasn't. In 2012, Chris decided to take a month off to redesign his website and when he did "he promised to record tutorials about the design process in exchange for a contribution to his Kickstarter campaign." He raised $87,000.
"I couldn't help but think how Chris and I had equal skillsets when it came to web design," Nathan says in the book. "We started at the same time and progressed at the same rate. So how did Chris have the ability to flip the switch and make $87,000… And I didn't have the ability at all? What was the difference?"
Sahil sums it up: They were both doing the work, but Chris was sharing the behind-the-scenes process with other designers while Nathan wasn't. "I realized I would take on a project, do the work, deliver the project and move on," he said. '"Chris did the same thing BUT before he moved on, he would teach about everything he learned doing that project.'"
When I read this, I felt like I was reading about myself. That's what I've been doing - only by accident! Yes, I wrote a novel, but I've also been figuring out how to publish it on the internet, and I've been sharing that process with my newsletter subscribers live as I go. And that has been the thing my newsletter subscribers value most, because we are all a community of writers and we are all trying to figure out the exact same thing.
Sahil even concludes: "If you're always learning, you'll always have something to teach others about their own next best steps."
This is the blessing and the curse of the creator economy. Because to make it in this world you have to be both the creator and the entrepreneur. And this creates a tension between making art and making a living as an artist. I could give up writing novels altogether and run a successful business talking about publishing - and certainly, there are plenty of people who have taken this route - but I have no interest in that whatsoever. Frankly, that idea terrifies me to my very core. But I could also give up on writing this newsletter and focus only on writing novels and never sell a single copy or have a single reader - and that idea terrifies me too!
I want to write the next great novel - I want to write a literary masterpiece and put it out into the world. And I want to write this newsletter and earn a living from my craft. But I think there's a tension between being the artist and being the entrepreneur. And I do worry about crossing it one way or the other.
As an artist yourself, who is making a living doing it, how do you navigate that tension between artist and entrepreneur?
Nishant Jain: I like what you bring up with the Dan Brown example, that people are more likely to pay for knowledge. In my experience too, I get a lot of enthusiastic feedback on posts in that vein. I guess this is because:
1. Content is abundant: the internet is full of free and paid content (e.g. YouTube and Netflix, respectively).
2. Knowledge is scarce: we still have a tough time finding the right resources to learn specific things.
I ran several Zoom-based art workshops last year. Besides being a good monetary strategy, it is useful to distill one's own understanding of a subject. A quote I heard sums this up: "Teaching is a way of aggressive learning."
To your question, the entrepreneurial side gathers feedback and generates ideas for the artist side of me. I believe the two need to be in that kind of symbiotic relationship for both to grow and thrive. This is not possible if we think of one as inferior to the other.
When I think of the entrepreneurial side, I think of the many roles that previously needed to exist in the immediate environment of a successful artist. Today, instead of being performed by other people, they are being performed by the artists themselves - and for the most part, I see this as a good thing, because I like having that kind of control. In fact, most of what we see as problems in the creator economy are really just a matter of perspective.
- Problem: Every artist has to be a brand manager.
- Different perspective: Every artist has the freedom to create a brand around their work.
- Problem: The artist has to do the job of building their audience.
- Different perspective: The artist is able to reach their potential audience directly, without gatekeepers.
- Problem: Nobody helps the artist make sales.
- Different perspective: With access to their own audience, the artist is able to make direct sales and get instant customer feedback which helps improve their work. And they keep 100% profits.
- Problem: The artist must handle their own promotion.
- Different perspective: The artist has control over their image.
- Problem: There is too much competition on Instagram.
- Different perspective: There are so many artists that being successful is not about being the best.
- Problem: There is no formula for success as an artist.
- Different perspective: There is no formula for success as an artist.
It is interesting then to think of what happens to our greatest ambitions when our efforts are divided into two distinct roles. You say you want to write that great novel, and so do I. The artist in me hasn't managed to entirely kill off the novelist. Just now there are two sets of great ambitions fighting for attention in my mind. (Yay.)
As an entrepreneur, my primary job is to create an environment in which the creator can thrive. In the newsletter, I center my creative products - art and writing - and nurture their appeal with my free and paying audience. I am very conscious of not straying so far in my entrepreneurship that the art is rendered unnecessary or after the fact. For this reason, despite having a fairly successful run of Zoom workshops, I am committed to not repeating them this year. Instead, I want to channel my efforts into improving my creative offerings.
I hope that in the near future I will be able to take time off from weekly commitments to work on bigger projects. I hope that the paying audience at that time will stick with me because they are suitably vested in my creative work. Pivoting in this manner may be crucial, and every person who performs the dual roles of creative and entrepreneur should work towards creating the environment where that can happen.
Elle Griffin: You bring up some good points - and I especially love your reframe around some of the "negatives" artists associate with the creator economy. And I agree! I think the entrepreneur in me informs the artist in me. In fact, my newsletter has become as much the art, if not more, than my novel.
One of the things I'm starting to realize is that my newsletter is like performance art or street theater - but for writing. I published a novel on Substack and documented the results. I crowdfunded a novel using cryptocurrency. I'm thinking about releasing a novel using TikTok. Though I hope that my writing is good, I'm actually turning the writing into performance art - where how I'm publishing the writing is just as important, maybe even more important, than the writing itself.
I'm going to talk about this more in future articles, but I love the idea you put forth in your article Would Da Vinci Make A TikTok Channel? Because those masters were using the mediums of their day, but we're still copying 150-year old book publishing methods that are grotesquely out of date. Maybe we need to be like Da Vinci and embrace the mediums of today. Maybe we need to be like those early innovators and take advantage of the tools they didn't have.
And maybe we need to come to terms with the fact that the future of the novel isn't actually a novel. And maybe that's the fun of it.