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Top Reasons Artists Fail at Business (and What to Do About It)

    Failing at Online Business

    There is an elephant in the art business room.

    In the United States, about twenty percent of business startups fail in the first year. About half succumb to business failure within five years. By year 10, only about 33% survive. (Source: US Small Business Administration)

    The statistics for artists are just as grim. In a survey conducted by Creative Independent, nearly half of artists attribute less than 10 percent of their income to their art practice, as opposed to just 17 percent who make 75 to 100 percent of their money off their art.

    So you might be wondering why do so many artists fail at the business of art?

    Artists usually fail at business due to a combination of factors. It’s rarely one small thing, but a blend of these top reasons:

    Lets talk about each of these obstacles, and what to do about them so that you can protect your art business from failure:

    Not Treating it Like a Business

    The moment you decide to sell your artwork, you’ve decided to start an art business.

    Many artists are resistant to thinking of their art practice as a bonafide business as if it somehow demeans the meaning of the art itself. This type of thinking undermines your efforts.

    Realizing that selling your art is a business is much more than accepting you will have to do some administrative tasks like creating a website and committing to accounting tasks. If you have difficulty selling your art in a regular brick-and-mortar shop, you will have the same obstacles selling your work online.

    You must understand your own artist identity well enough to figure out how to attract an audience of collectors. As you progress, you must come to understand your audience well enough to create art or other products that they want.

    Setting up a website does not transform you into an instant super salesperson. You will also need to commit substantial time to market, promote and sell, just like any other business owner.

    Remember that the survey mentioned above? Creative Independent confirmed that most artists only make 10% of their money from their art practice. But it makes sense because the survey also revealed artists spend about an hour on the business aspects of the creative practice. The ones who treat it like a real business do far better.

    Solution: Seek to become a better business person all around by studying basic business practices and applying them to your desire to sell your art. Focus on exploring the intersection between your own artist identity and what your audience of collectors wants to buy. Remember, you will get out of your art business what you put into it.

    Your Mindset is your Worst Competition

    Business is a competition, just like sports. You don’t go out to the playing field assuming that your team will lose. You don’t let a few setbacks sour you on the entire game. You give it your all until the umpire blows the whistle and the game is over. Then, there is time for regret, but until then, the game can always be turned around at the last minute.

    Having a positive attitude when you market your art online is essential, just like it is when you are competing in sports. If you think you will fail, you will. If you take every setback as a sign that your art business is a failure, it is.

    Solution: Be open to the idea that your art business is an art form of its own. Commit to learning from the inevitable setbacks you will experience. Limit the negative people in your life that think they are “just helping.” Your art business will take you on a journey if you let it.

    False Expectations Can Disappoint You

    There are many, many lesser-known artists that make a six-figure income selling art online. And you can too.

    Will you make it immediately? While some artists appear to have done so overnight, the truth is that they have gathered those skills over time until, one day, it all came together for them.

    If you think that all you have to do to sell art online is put up a website and wait for people to show up, you have a set of false expectations that are completely unrealistic.

    In fact, the art business is a journey of self-discovery – much like life. When it seems you have everything figured out, things change and you find yourself adjusting to a new environment.

    Solution: Be open to a constantly changing business environment. Think of deploying new strategies and learning new skills as part of the challenge. Also, understand that business building takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your art business.

    Not Understanding Your Collector Audience

    Many artists build an online presence with a shotgun approach. They post all the art they’ve ever made, hoping just to attract people. Any people. Then, when sales do happen, they never stop to think about who just bought their art, and why they bought it.

    It is true that you can sell some art this way. But, you could quantum leap your sales by understanding what motivates your collector audience.

    When you understand your collector audience, you can target more of them through the language they use, their interests, and by making more of what they want.

    Solution: When you have small successes, take the time to analyze what worked so that you can repeat those efforts. Create relationships with your buyers and feel free to ask questions. How did they find you? What do they find most appealing about your art? Double down on what’s working in your art business.

    Underestimating the Learning Curve

    Selling your art online is an exciting field to learn. Learning to combine your passion with your business can seem like fun and not like homework.

    The learning doesn’t end with figuring out how to how to put up a website; that’s just the start. You will have to learn how to get traffic to the website and then have the right offers to create income from the website.

    It’s not just the technical aspects of setting up a website that takes time to learn. You will have to earn marketing, sales, and business administration.

    Solution: Expect that there is some work and time involved. Don’t be discouraged that you will spend time learning the ropes before you earn a steady income.

    Not Following a Strategy

    Many artists make art, list it for sale online, and sell it from time to time. As encouraging as this may be, random sales are not a strategy. If you want to be able to repeat the process, you need to employ a strategy.

    An art business strategy consists of having a clear vision of what you are offering, who you are offering it to, and how you will get your message to them.

    Solution: Dig deeper into your art business than just having an online shop. Seek to have a clear artistic vision and understanding of your collector audience. Then craft and deliver a marketing message that takes these two factors into account.

    Setting Conflicting (and Changing) Goals

    Artists can have conflicting goals, but not even realize them.

    The most common conflict of goals relates to outside influence. On the one hand, we want to make art at our own pace, to our own liking, with no outside influence. On the other hand, we’d like to sell that artwork to adoring fans.

    While these two goals can co-exist, it’s important to acknowledge that they conflict at times. Sometimes our collector audience wants a small tweak to what we are offering. We have to figure out whether we can (or are willing) to accommodate these requests, without losing our artistic integrity.

    Sometimes artists take on projects just for the money and come to regret it. As you build your audience, they will look to the work you made in the past to understand what to expect (or request) in the future. There is no point in building a portfolio of work that you hate or regret.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, some artists are unwilling to adjust to market demands. These artists become miffed when they have difficulty selling work to an audience that really wants something else.

    Frequently changing goals is another common issue. One day we want to build a huge social media following, the next, they just want to make art without influence. Later, they just want to sell our art because they need to make some money. Next, they don’t want their art to be influenced by monetary sales. Changing goals frequently creates a scattered art business presence, which confuses collectors.

    Solution: Understand that creating and success in your art business will require a balance of both flexibility and boundaries. You need to be clear in knowing what your want out of your art business. You must be willing to create art and products that people want to buy, but also know how far you’re willing to go so that you stay within your own artistic values.

    Trying to Do Too Much At Once

    When we first make the decision to earnestly pursue our art business, it is easy to overdo it. There are so many things to do! Between all the different shopping platforms and social media outlets, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. If you spread yourself too thin, you are less likely to see results. And, if you’re overwhelmed with work that does not bring you the result you want, you’re likely to quit.

    Solution: Accept that it will take time to build your art business. It is best to focus on one project at a time and avoid pursuing every idea that comes your way. Instead, keep notes of all of your marketing and business ideas. When you’re ready to expand, choose the one that is most likely to bring you results.

    Trying To Be Too Perfect

    The first thing you have to remember about the Internet is that you don’t have to be perfect to start making progress with selling your art online.

    You just have to have a solid understanding of what you have to offer, who you are offering it to, an online presence to make your offer, and traffic that is targeted to your chosen demographic. That means that, as much as a fancy, colorful, and perfect website is nice to have, it’s not as important as your art and your marketing.

    Solution: Instead of spending thousands of dollars putting up a very complex site, think in terms of creating a simple, fast site that you can put up quickly.

    Going It Alone

    The worst thing a budding artist can do is to go it alone. Whether it’s trying to do everything manually and not using tools to make the process more efficient, a lack of networking or a failure to listen to the experts who went before him/her, going it alone is a sure recipe for distress and high disappointment. There is a steep learning curve, but there are so many tools, forums, and experts out there to help lend a helping hand.

    Solution: Look up art business websites and coaches and sign up for their newsletters. Sometimes an article will have just the right insight or inspiration you need to move forward. Join your local art center and consider starting an art salon. It’s important to surround yourself with like minding people who can help you find the resources you need when you are feeling stuck.

    Not Listening (Or Researching, but Failing to Act)

    It is easy to get stuck in an endless loop of research and analysis. But spending all of your time reading about how to sell your art will not get it done. You can become paralyzed with too much information.

    Solution: Be willing to test art business strategies until you find one (or two or three) that work for you, your art, and your audience.

    Go where the experts are and listen carefully. (You’re already in a great spot!) Follow artists that are getting the results you want and study how they are doing it. Don’t just listen, but also do. Go out and implement some of what they’re saying and see if it really works or not. Some things will work for you and others won’t. There are several art business strategies, and not all of them are for you.

    Everything you hear has value, but you will be the one to decide exactly how it can work with your art business. By carefully discriminating between what works and what doesn’t for you personally, you keep tight control over the information out there and learn to sift the gold out of the sand very quickly.

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