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How to future-proof your business

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by Jes Egan

Anticipating what will happen in the future is difficult, however, it is something you may want to consider doing to protect and grow your creative business. By considering what future possibilities lie ahead, you might be able to minimise the effects. It may seem like an overwhelming thing to tackle when you’re in the throes of running a creative business, but a little thought and planning can go a long way toward keeping your business running and possibly helping it grow.

Plan
Having a business plan is a great place to start, but it isn’t something to “set and forget.” Your plan may need to change as your business grows, markets move, and audience evolve. In your business plan, set goals and don’t forget to track your progress.

Review
Don’t get complacent; always keep an eye on what you are offering. Can it be improved upon? What is the market doing? Where are trends going? What and where are opportunities for improvement? You may be onto a good thing now—and hopefully still will be in the future—but markets, trends, and audiences can change, so make sure what you are offering remains relevant and meets the demands of your customers and the market.

Ask your customers regularly what they think. You may think what you are offering is great, but does your audience still think so? Listen to them and watch their behaviour. Is there anything you can do better? Is there something they’d like that you are not currently offering? Ask them face to face, put a survey on your website, do follow-up calls, and so on, to get this information. You’ll gain great insights and can then apply those learnings to your business.

There may be situations when your customers cannot tell you what they want, especially if you are in the innovation space. Think about the iPhone. We didn’t know we needed a device we could use to make a phone call, take photos, play games, and do our banking, but now we need to do all of these things on our phone. Innovating a product that your customers don’t yet know they need is a great way to grow your business and open new market spaces. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they’d tell me a faster horse.”

Rethink your acquisition strategy regularly. Ways in which you’ve gained new customers in the past may not work for you in the future. Review this often so you can keep adapting.

Watch
Observe competitors and your marketplace, watching what is happening around you. Do this by following competitors’ social media feeds (both locally and internationally), reading blogs and industry publications, setting up Google alerts, and so on. If you already have your eye on your own competitive space, start looking at other industries, too, as learning from one industry can be adapted to another. Having an understanding of what is happening around you will keep you and your business on its toes.

Depending on what business you are in (but especially for creative industries), following trends can also be important—even more so if you are riding on them. Watch trend forecasts, keep in touch, and, if needed, adapt your offerings to keep riding that wave.

Experience
What can you do when others are offering something similar? How do you stand out from the crowd? Don’t just sell a product or service, make sure to give your audience an experience to remember. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; perhaps it’s the packaging for your product, or how you call the client after delivery to see if everything was okay. Customers are more likely come back if they had a good experience, and repeat business is always good.

Diversify
Don’t depend on one section of your business to account for all of your revenue and growth. Find ways to diversify your product folio. If you manage to diversify your offerings, the additional revenue streams can help support your business.

Consider risks
Identify and manage risks, both for now and in the future. You can’t predict all future problems, but consider potential risks and map a way to manage them if they do happen. Not sure how? Start with a simple “SWOT” analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) and go from there.

Your day-to-day creative business may keep you incredibly busy, but take some time to think about the future so you’re equally busy—if not more so—down the track.

Jes Egan is a “practical creative” and very busy lady, doing the business in a digital agency, being an artist and a university lecturer. Follow Jes on Instagram (@paper_chap).

Art commissions: basic tips

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by Júlia Both

As an artist, in addition to creating work for exhibitions and your own projects, you may often be commissioned by businesses or individuals to make something just for them. Whether it is a piece of fine art, a mural, or a digital illustration, a commission gives you an opportunity to practice your skills, create new work, and reach new audiences.

Unfortunately, misunderstandings can sometimes come up along the way that cost you time and impact your client’s satisfaction. I’ve found that most problems arise from a lack of clarity in communication, and from not being on the same page about the expected result, timeline, or cost of the piece. Many clients will have never commissioned an artist before and may know little about art and the creative process, and it’s essential to keep that in mind.

Here are a few basic things to remember while doing an art commission to avoid most issues.

Always start with a brief
No matter how simple or straightforward the project, always develop a basic brief at the start. Talk to your client about what she wants from the art piece and what role it will fulfil in her home or business.

Assess the client’s expectations
When someone commissions you for the first time, talk to her extensively about what she expects from the art piece. Be skeptical of people who tell you that they have no expectations and that you can do anything you like. Usually, clients have seen a particular style of art that you do and want something similar. Show them pieces of your work and discuss what they like the most.

Get a deposit before you start sketching
A lot of people will ask to see ideas or sketches on the piece before they commit to working with you. However, they should be able to decide whether you are a good fit for their project based on your portfolio and past experience, without asking you to work for free. It can be frustrating if you spend a long time working on a design only to have a potential client cancel the project. Before you do any creative work, get them to pay a small percentage of the quote as a financial commitment.

Show your client a sketch before you start the piece
Once the client has paid a deposit, get approval of a basic design before you start the piece. This can be as simple as a rough sketch or as detailed as a presentation with colour palette, mood boards, and finalised drawings. The important thing is to agree on the main elements of your piece before you spend a lot of effort on it. If the client is unhappy with the final result, you can refer back to this stage to justify your choices.

Don’t rely on words when talking about art
The people commissioning you will rarely be artists, so you need to illustrate what they mean when using creative terms. When they use words such as “abstract” or “modern” to describe their preferences, ask for examples of what they mean. Similarly, when you describe your ideas, don’t trust that they’ll understand your description: show them. This will ensure everyone is on the same page.

Keep them updated on progress
This doesn’t mean you have to regularly send photos of the piece, but make an effort to keep your client posted on how it’s coming along and when you plan to finish. If you are running behind schedule, be honest about it.

Don’t forget to document your work
Get good photos or videos of each piece you create. A solid portfolio is the best way to quickly convey to future clients the type of work you do and what they can expect from you.

Júlia Both is a Brazilian artist based in Melbourne. Her work explores duality and the relationships between the macro and microcosmos, inspired by plants, nebulae, sex, and dreams. For more about Júlia’s work, visit her at artofboth.com or follow her on Instagram (@artofboth).

 

Studio visit: Anna Walker, picture book author and illustrator

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by Jo Watson

Anna Walker is one of Australia’s most established and beloved picture book creators. She has published twenty-five books in a career spanning twenty years. Her newest book, Florette, has just landed in bookstores and is a beautiful meditation on how to become comfortable with change.

Florettecover

The cover of Florette, published by Penguin Random House

I met Anna in her studio, a converted shirt factory she shares with a printmaker, an interior designer, a tea importer, and a book designer. You know you’re talking to a visual thinker when she says, “I wish I could respond to your questions with a painting instead of with words.” But as you read on, I think you’ll agree that Anna’s words more than suffice!

Starting out
Anna had the good fortune of knowing what she wanted, right from the get go. “I remember looking at the illustrations in a book of fairy tales and thinking, ‘Those are so beautiful; that’s what I want to do when I grow up,’” she said. How did she turn that early inclination into a rewarding career? It was hard, she explains, and there were obstacles, but she would “try to find ways of overcoming them.” Anna is petite but possesses a stubborn determination, to which she largely credits her success.

After studying graphic design at Swinburne University (where “there were no illustration courses,” she said), Anna set up shop straight out of school. Her parents ran their own business, so working for herself felt more like a natural step than a leap of faith. Besides, she says, “I had nothing to lose.” At first, it was all design work. Whenever there wasn’t enough work, she would invent briefs for herself and treat them as real commissions. After a few years, all of her work was illustration-based. Gradually, picture-book illustration became the foundation of her business.

The importance of presentation
For illustrators still building their businesses, Anna stresses the importance of presentation and attention to detail. Small details—like a visual link between your website and your business card—matter. She also suggests finding ways to put your work in front of potential clients, both online and in hard copy. This might mean incorporating an illustrated element into your email signature, or sending out postcards, bespoke holiday cards, or, occasionally, original artworks. “People don’t get that kind of thing very often,” she said, “and they appreciate it.”

Studio Lounge

The studio lounge area

Giving work space and time
Anna and her character Mae in Florette have something in common. They like to be immersed in an environment that is beautiful and familiar. While Anna’s studio retains the exposed brick and pipework of its industrial heritage, she has transformed it into a bright, welcoming space. It feels like a loft, though it is actually a basement.

Anna at her desk

Anna at her desk

Her desk looks out through an arched window at street level. She enjoys watching the passing foot traffic, including a Greek neighbor who always bends down to wave hello and children who look through her window.

“I’ve always shared a studio,” she said. “I go a bit crazy working by myself at home.” Having others around provides moral support and an exchange of ideas, both vital to a happy work life. And from a business perspective, having to meet an overhead (rent) pushes you to find work.

Just as important as environment is time. Anna devotes a year to each book, a pace that allows her to let the work develop fully, take on select commissions to subsidize her picture-book work, and be present for her three teenage children.

Personal style
Anna uses a variety of techniques in her work, including collage, woodblock printing, etching, watercolour, and ink. She’ll sometimes redo an illustration twelve times before she feels it’s right. Regardless of the method, her illustrations always seem to strike the perfect harmony between detail and simplicity.

Anna suggests not worrying too much about developing a personal style.  “It was years before people started saying, ‘I recognize your work,’” she said. “You can’t have a style until you’ve got a volume of work behind you. Just do the work.”

The power of knitting
Like many creatives, Anna references self-doubt as one of her biggest challenges. She tempers those unhelpful thoughts by running three times a week, sharing a studio, keeping in touch with other illustrators, and…knitting. Anna knows she’s bringing too much work anxiety home when her husband says, “Now, where’s your knitting?”

Visual Diary

Anna collects her ideas in a (tiny) visual diary.

I asked Anna what she does with her ideas-in-waiting: ideas she’s had but hasn’t had the chance to use. Her response was golden. She thinks of ideas as little scraps of fabric. A book is like a sewing project: you assemble the bits you need, make a start, and keep going until it’s finished. “You don’t need to feel badly [about the ideas that] haven’t been used yet,” she said. “They’re just waiting there, ready to make the next thing.”

Meeting business challenges
For many illustrators, the biggest challenge is making a living. “Getting your folio out there and meeting with publishers is important,” she said. “When things are quiet, you worry about when the next job will come in. But that’s when it comes back to sending out postcards, freshening up your website, reminding people you’re here. If your focus is book illustration, joining the Australian Society of Authors is a must.”

Certain things, like cold calling and quoting, never get easier. Anna doesn’t have to do the former as much these days, but her motto when something’s difficult is: do it anyway. She suggests viewing cold calling, networking, or whatever “thing” you find difficult as just one part of your business.

If you’re not sure how much to charge for a job, Anna suggests talking to other illustrators. Take into consideration how the artwork is going to be used. Is it for one product, or multiple products? Will it be used locally, or globally? Also consider the duration of the usage license. Is it for one month? One year? In perpetuity?  “I don’t part with copyright for anybody,” she said. There’s a way to give the client what they need and protect yourself. As she explains, “An exclusive license has just as much weight as copyright.” Don’t be afraid to request amendments to your contract.

Florette back-drop for book trailer

Cut-paper backdrop to be used an animated book trailer for Florette

What’s next?
“I’m working on a book with Janie [Godwin, a long-time collaborator],” Anna explained, “and I’m also working on my own story about a walrus.” Anna often starts a project by crafting her character in toy form. She showed me a loosely stitched walrus plushy. “So far, that’s what I’ve got,” she laughed. Recently, the final step on her projects has become creating a book trailer using stop-motion animation.

“I’ve always believed in the picture book as an art form,” she said. “It’s important to me that every aspect is crafted to be the best it can be.”

For more about Anna Walker, visit annawalker.com.au.

 Jo Watson is a Melbourne-based screenwriter and artist. Visit her on Instagram (@diaryofapicturebookmaker).

 Photos by Jo Watson

 

Tax basics for small creative businesses

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by Jes Egan

Just want to be creative and not think about your tax? So do most of us, however there are many administrative tasks to running a small business and sometimes they can get in the way of being creative and doing what you love. Unfortunately, most of these tasks are important and avoiding them can land you in trouble. Tax is definitely one of those things, admittedly one that a lot of people find the least enjoyable. Here are some tips to help you prepare for your tax.

Business versus individual
It can be really easy to lose the distinction between “your” money and “the businesses’s” money, especially when you’re just starting out or are a sole trader. To make tax simpler, ensure that these are clearly defined. A simple way to do this is to have a business bank account in addition to your personal bank account, and make sure all funds going in and out for the business are coming from here. It’s not a bad idea to have a few business accounts, such as a savings account, a credit card, and a GST payment account (if applicable) that you can transfer funds into as sales are made.

Be ready
Don’t leave it to the last minute; it is much easier if you prepare yourself as you go throughout the year. When it comes to your tax, you need supporting documentation. So instead of scrambling to find your receipts at the last minute, file them as you go. The ATO will accept electronic or paper receipts, so either scan and file them on your computer or put paper receipts into a folder. Find a system that works for you and is easily retrievable. The types of documentation that you are required to have are:

  • Sales receipts
  • Expense invoices
  • Bank statements
  • Credit card statements
  • Employee records (wages, super, tax deductions, contracts, etc.)
  • Vehicle reports
  • List of debtors and creditors
  • Assets purchases

Not great at filing as you go? Get a tray or plastic folder and just put them all in there. Then set yourself up a regular calendar reminder to spend thirty minutes each week or month doing your filing. That should be enough and will make tax time much easier.

Don’t forget, the ATO requires that you keep your records for five years, so make sure you keep your files once lodged.

Doing it yourself
If you decide to lodge taxes yourself, you can use myGov as this is now for individuals and sole traders (e-tax has been replaced). This is an easy, quick, and secure way to lodge. Once you’ve opened a myGov account, you will get access to a number of useful calculators and tools. (Note: if using a tax agent, speak to him or her first before opening a myGov account.) There is also an ATO app that will help you record deductions, access online services, find key dates and set reminders, lodge and track your tax return, plus many other useful things. Find it in the Apple app store, on Google Play, or in the Windows phone store.

Small business tax concessions
If your business is earning less than two million dollars (that’s gross income, excluding GST), you may be eligible for small business tax concessions, such as immediately writing off purchases under twenty thousand dollars. To see if you’re eligible, talk to your tax agent or check out the ATO website for more details.

Need more help?
Get assistance from a small business qualified tax agent for peace of mind. There is no harm in knowing when to outsource help. Each business is different, so get a specialist to help you or have a look at the ATO’s digital services for small business tools; they may be helpful.

Being organised throughout the year will help with most aspects of running your business, and will make tax time, especially, more seamless and less stressful, allowing your creative juices to flow freely without added tax-time stress!

Jes Egan is a “practical creative” and very busy lady, doing the business in a digital agency and working as an artist and university lecturer. Follow her on Instagram at @paper_chap.