Working the dream: How artistic entrepreneurs scale a creative business

There are a number of important considerations creative professionals need to take into account when scaling their artistic endeavors into successful businesses

Deciding to run an art-driven business can be fraught with risks, especially for creative types who often don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs. However, industry leaders say creative types can thrive in business if they put in the hard work and ask the right questions.

At the most recent in a series of Creative Conversations – a collaboration between UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture and Frost*collective exploring developments in the creative industries – host Vince Frost asked a panel of experts to share lessons from their own experiences scaling their creative businesses. There’s no one right way to be an artist and build a business, the panellists agreed; whether one is introverted or extroverted and aims for a large company or prefers to keep it small, entrepreneurial success hinges on the same things, including putting in the hard work and asking the right questions.

Mr Frost, CEO and Creative Director of Frost*collective, said creative businesses might be large or depend on a single person, noting that it’s not necessarily about scale for everyone. “You don’t have to grow a massive business for the sake of growing a massive business,” he said. He explained that when he was “starting off as a young designer – or, trying to be a young designer at that point – I never even understood what business was, necessarily, or that what I was doing could be a business”.

The subsequent crash course in the “business of being a creative person in business” was interesting, Mr Frost said – he soon realised he “knew nothing about business, and I was seriously failing quickly”. To make a career out of what he wanted to do, he designed as he went and sought a lot of advice.

Creativity and scaling a passion

Frederik Anseel, Professor of Management and Dean at UNSW Business School, said he studies creativity and innovation in management because business schools can teach many things, but not creativity per se.

“We will talk about how you structure your company, how you can scale, how you put in management layers, how you finance things, how you build an audience or customer base and supply chain. Everything with the assumption that somewhere in there is a beating heart, an engine of energy, that creative vision," said Prof. Anseel, who added that this is the part that places like business schools often take for granted, and it’s “hugely interesting”.

He agreed that no formula or model exists for turning one’s art into a business. “But I do think that creative people have almost an urge to get that idea out there; for it to have impact, it needs to touch more people than just that one person. That’s where the scaling comes in," he said.

Building a successful business is also intertwined with the work creative entrepreneurs are most passionate about, which can add pressure for someone new to business. And Mr Frost noted that some people, of course, “never find that thing”.

Prof. Anseel added that urging young people to find and follow their passion can also be dangerous advice. “The other part that people don’t say out loud is that if you want to be successful and make a living out of it, you also need to be good at it,” he said, noting that this is where coaching or mentoring and community support are helpful for new entrepreneurs.

“Some people walk into the wall over and over just because they’ve learned they need to find their passion,” he said. “Not everyone finds that passion, and sometimes you have to create it.”

UNSW Business School Professor Frederik Anseel says that the potential to scale a business is important for creative businesses.jpg
UNSW Business School Dean, Professor Frederik Anseel, says that the potential and ability to scale a business is particularly important for creative businesses. Photo: Anna Kucera

Starting a creative business

Shelley Simpson, Founder and Creative Director of the ceramic homewares business Mud Australia, knew early on that she wanted to make a business out of her work but didn’t necessarily think of herself as a creative person or an artist. “I just found this thing that I loved and wanted to do it all the time,” she said. “For me, that meant employing myself.”

But, as many entrepreneurs find, that comes with a huge learning curve. “You also don’t know, when you’re stepping forward, what you’re stepping into,” she said. For example, Mud employs 140 people in three countries, each with its own legislation and rules.

“That in itself is a huge undertaking; I now know way too much about compliance for a creative person,” Ms Simpson said. “But the thing is, if you are the owner of the company, the buck stops with you; it’s not good enough to say, ‘I didn’t understand that bit’. You need to take responsibility for all of it.”

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, a renowned contemporary artist, never thought explicitly about his art as something that could be a business. “That was never something I thought I’d have the potential to scale in that capacity. In the end, for tax reasons, in a very banal, pragmatic sense, I run a business, and I have employees,” he said, agreeing with Simpson that the responsibility of running a business is enormous.

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Most professional artists have some tertiary training and thus are exposed to the “fairly conventional model of art pedagogy” that is the university setting, Mr Nithiyendran explained, discussing the conundrum artists in business face.

“When you’re going through art school, the ideas are the most important thing, and this proximity between art and capital, art and capitalism, art and business, is almost a tacked-on fantasy,” he said. “You’re thinking philosophically and materially and speculatively, and then you get thrown into the real world, and you don’t know what GST is.”

That’s what happened to Nithiyendran, and he said it’s not necessarily a bad thing – although it represents some of the pressures entrepreneurial artists frequently face. “It’s interesting to be so explicit about the connections between especially contemporary art and business, because it’s actually quite taboo for contemporary artists to talk about that explicitly and openly. There’s this almost cultural myth that if an artist is successful financially, they must not be socially and politically minded or might not have work that is cerebral,” he said.

“There’s an expectation for especially contemporary artists to be the moral beacons of the world – you need to speak up, you need to have anti-capitalist views – there are all these cliches around how contemporary artists should be and how they should practice resistance. As soon as money starts to go into the question, that’s when a lot of anxiety comes to the fore.”

Shelley Simpson, Founder and Creative Director of the ceramic homewares business Mud Australia (2).jpg
Mud Australia Founder and Creative Director Shelley Simpson (speaking) recalls that she wanted to make her business work, but didn’t think of herself as a creative person or an artist. Photo: Anna Kucera

Identifying strengths and weaknesses

Unfortunately, not everyone who wants to be successful in an artistic enterprise has creative ability, and that concept is hard to define. A lot flows from creative people’s innate ability, but there are no rules, Prof. Anseel said – creative people can be good or bad businesspeople, just like anyone else. In other words, the left-brained/right-brained distinction is a myth.

“If you’re a creative person, it could very well be that you’re also a great manager and can run your own business,” he said. “But it could also be that that’s not the case. So, an important task is to find out what your strengths and weaknesses are and have that self-awareness.”

However, as with art, practice can aid the quest for achievement in business – especially for the introverted creative who finds the social aspects of doing business daunting. “You get better at making ceramics because you practice; nobody is good at it to start with,” Ms Simpson said. “It’s the same with business – you’ve got to practice all these things; you’ve got to suck it up and try negotiating a better deal for yourself. You’ve got to practice putting yourself out there.”

Mr Frost recalled that he struggled with the social demands of starting a business, but “that fear of not surviving kicked in, and I had to step outside my comfort zone.” Now, he says he loves connecting with people through his work. “Before, I was scared of people because I thought everybody knew how the world worked. It’s cool to realise we’re all human beings here, trying to do our best, trying to make it all work,” he said.

Vince Frost, CEO and Creative Director of Frostcollective.jpg
Vince Frost, CEO and Creative Director of Frost*collective, says that when he started out as a young designer, he didn't understand that his work could be the foundation of a business. Photo: Anna Kucera

Collaboration for growth

Beyond providing support and guidance, the relationships an entrepreneur builds are crucial to the success of their vision in other ways. Mr Nithiyendran gave the example of the massive artworks he builds in public spaces, which require collaborative relationships with specific partners, fabricators, designers and technicians to upscale over time and build capacity. “I started doing that in micro ways that have now become macro ways.”

He said he’s never accepted the “mysticism around the idea that the artist is this genius that works alone and you can’t interfere with their ideas” and that he enjoys collaborating with curators and prefers them to be “intrusive”. “I’ve always understood that it’s actually about the relationships that you’re able to nurture and grow around you in unison, in tandem. That is what creates and builds your capacity to have a business as an artist,” he said.

Prof. Anseel added that the collaboration required to scale art as a business also means the pursuit of perfection can be fatal, which can be challenging for artists to accept.

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“That’s why, when venture capitalists work with creative people, they will often get to the point where they want to remove the creative person from the process and ‘get some professionals in there’,” he noted. “That level of perfection can kill a company as well – and it’s very stressful for the people involved, because you put the bar so high and it’s never good enough – it’s exhausting.”

‘Find out where you fit’

Meanwhile, technological advancements represent a double-edged sword for creative entrepreneurs in a world where everyone has the tools to make something and go viral. “If everyone is thinking that, it makes it extremely hard to cut through all that,” Prof. Anseel said. “So, in a sense, it’s still the same situation – we have more opportunities because of technology, but because everyone has them, it’s not necessarily much easier to do.”

He added that it’s easy to get deceived by news stories about people who have succeeded in monetising their creative pursuits. “Of course, this is survivorship bias – you don’t see the 99.9 per cent that never got anywhere.”

According to Mr Nithiyendran, this landscape underscores why knowing what questions to ask is so important, as is being able to self-reflect. “Often, to get the support you need, you need to know how to frame the question you’re putting forward,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean taking just anyone’s advice; he advises students to find a mentor with a career comparable to the one they might like to have and to seek values alignment. “Especially in creative contexts, there’s so much room; there are multiple creative worlds within different worlds,” he said. “You need to find out where you fit.”

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Prof. Anseel agreed that relying too much on mentors and coaching can present risks and benefits. “You can get too influenced by a coach or mediocre views, especially if you’re an original, creative thinker,” he said.

However, he noted that, on the business side, support is available for people with ideas, including incubators, accelerators and start-up mentoring provided by many universities. “If you have a great idea and you want to think about how to make that a business, you can come and knock at the door.”

Mr Frost again emphasised the importance of seeking advice from creative peers with more established businesses who have learned the entrepreneurial ropes themselves. “People are genuinely open and kind and generous,” he concluded. “I’ve never met anybody who hasn’t been open to giving that time freely and kindly giving insights on how they got to where they are today.”


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