Creative Business

September 9, 2019

How this Self-Employed Artist Makes It Work

The perception on social media seems to be that artists and designers (or anyone with a creative job) do one specific thing to earn a living. In reality, I don’t know anyone that does just one thing. And, while I can’t speak for everyone, I certainly believed I would be doing just one thing when I started out on my own! From connecting with other artists, it seems there’s anywhere between 2 and 7-ish avenues of income the average creative business owner might utilize.

I know, I know…that sounds like a lot, so let me list some of them out:

Online shop, commissions/custom work, wholesale prints, licensing deals, workshops, memberships, mentorships…the list goes on!

That is not to mention the countless other hats a self-employed creative must wear: social media strategist, e-mail marketer, marketing director, accountant, customer service, mail room….once again, the list goes on! This is not to overwhelm you, just to let you in on the big secret: it’s a LOT. But it’s worth it.

When I left my day job to work for myself, I started with a very clear niche: lettering artist. Over the years that has evolved into the broader title of ‘artist.’ In fact, the reason it has evolved is because is because I was neither happy nor successful as a lettering artist. I didn’t enjoy all that goes into managing an online shop, I wasn’t finding enough or ‘the right’ clients to do custom work, and—at that point—didn’t have the confidence to seek out sponsored work or brand deals.

Seven-ish months in, with little to show for my hard work, I decided to put on my teacher hat and created my first online class. This was one of the best decisions I ever made! It turns out I really love teaching and class creation in a way that I never enjoyed promoting my shop or shipping out orders.

So, online classes are the first piece of the pie!

Online classes account for around 50% of my income. Once upon a time, I only hosted my classes on a private platform, having to market them like crazy in order to make sales and earn a decent monthly income. Since then, I’ve moved focus to teaching on Skillshare where I am much, much happier. (There’s a lot of factors that go into class creation and deciding where your classes will live. If you’re interested in hearing more about this, check out my upcoming course, Crafting Online Courses)  A year from now, I hope to see ‘online classes’ taking up 60% of my income pie. I am so passionate about this area of my business, and I don’t foresee momentum slowing down in that area.

Unless I became an overnight sensation, I would not be able to thrive solely on my income in this area. After my first class launched, I was approached by a publishing company about writing a book. And this is where the next piece of the pie comes in! Trust me, I never thought I would say this, but my book has been a KEY player since it released in February of 2018! Everyone…and I mean everyone … told me ‘don’t write a book for the money.’ And I listened. I wrote my first book because I was truly excited and on fire for it! It was an amazing experience and one of the coolest and best things that has happened to me thus far. Since my book has been published, the royalties from sales have contributed greatly to my bottom line. That’s all because it has sold so wonderfully…so, I owe you a major thank you! Currently, I’m working on my second book…and I’m still listening to that advice I was originally given. I said ‘yes’ to this second book because I am excited about what will be the finished product. I understand that sales and royalties are not guaranteed…and that’s okay! I still know that my role as an author has contributed to me being able to continue on the path of a self-employed author and I’ll forever be grateful. Books don’t last forever. They don’t get reprinted past a certain point….so I’m savoring it while I can! My book contributes about 25% to my income.

Even still, in May of 2018, I saw a position for a contract product designer with Inked Brands open up. I can still remember where I was (at the St. Louis Zoo) when I got an e-mail about the job opening. It felt like THE opportunity I had been waiting for. Everything in my business was basically able to run itself. I knew I wanted more as a creative; that I wanted to grow my skill set, learn new things, challenge myself, and actually hold products I’d designed in my hands. This is exactly what Inked offered the potential of. I applied for the job and went through the interview process and thankfully, they wanted to hire me. What is so amazing about this position is that I am a contractor—this means I work for them through Kiley in Kentucky. Being a designer is a lovely extension of my business, and I have grown infinitely in my confidence and knowledge as a designer. 

Because of what I’ve learned in my time with Inked, I’ve become a confident (and busy) designer on my own. I usually get 2-3 design opportunities per month to work with small businesses or fellow creatives as a designer. In the past month I designed a book cover and a set of prints for two of my favorite gals to follow online. This week, I start re-designing the logo for a local salon. I don’t actively seek out opportunities, but I am always happy when acquaintances and biz-owner friends reach out to me with their ideas…I love how organic this part of my job feels. Since the success of my online classes has steadily increased, I now work only as a freelance designer for Inked, averaging about 5-10 hours a week. 

After that long spiel, my role as a designer takes up a special part of the pie at about 20%.

And that leaves us with 5% unaccounted for. This small slice is income I earn from affiliate sales and miscellaneous sales of products (like things in my Etsy shop). I don’t do much affiliating beyond Amazon and the occasional opportunity that will pop up to market for another creative. I Ideally, I will grow this area of my income because it can be considered ‘passive.’ Of course, there’s still a lot of work that goes into affiliate sales, and I always want to make sure I do it genuinely. As it is now, I make affiliate sales through Amazon (and my newly opened Amazon Store) from readers visiting my blog and clicking on links from there. I am happy with that for now!

If you’ve been counting, there are 5 areas of my work that allow me to do what I love. If you’re just starting on the path of self-employment (or maybe staring at the path, totally scared to take the leap), I want you to feel EXCITED and encouraged by this blog post. It could be easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless—If 2016 Kiley was reading this blog post she would be FREAKING. OUT. and in a panic sweat. But 2016 Kiley had no clue where the path was going to lead or how she was going to get there. Heck, 2020 Kiley still isn’t sure where this is all going, but I have been in the game long enough to trust that it’s going somewhere awesome.

The only consistent thing about the past three years is that I have kept going. Literally, that’s it! There have been several big moments in that time where I truly thought the path was coming to an end. Every one of those times, a new door opened, and I have walked through it with more determination than before. Right now, my reality looks like spinning a lot of plates, wearing several different hats, and trying to get it all done in a work day (I love my downtime. No workaholic tendencies here). I don’t believe this will be my reality forever. Future Kiley has more things figured, a narrower focus, and probably an assistant. Even though I don’t love the word ‘hustle,’ I’m definitely in my hustle phase right now.

Tell me what’s on your mind after reading this post! More than you expected? Less? About right? I would love to hear your thoughts and maybe even start a discussion about income as a self-employed creative and how it looks different for everyone. This topic is endlessly fascinating to me…how about you?

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