Assessing, strategizing, and sometimes accepting the high risk of failure
One of the most sparsely found resources on the internet I can find is how to be successful as a creative. If you are the type of person that has endless ideas, you may know exactly what I am talking about. The type of person that would need immortality to see all of your ideas to fruition. The moment you have finished creating one of your ideas, you already have at least three more. You probably have also started one of those three ideas before finishing the first. But, you need to make money, and working at a coffee shop for even just a couple of hours to pay the bills is like choosing to let someone waterboard you for money. Poverty is usually a better option. Hence the starving artist stereotype.
A quick disclaimer before we dive in: My spellchecker keeps yelling at me for my use of the word creative. For some, it may make more sense to replace the word creative with artist. However, many artists like me use unconventional mediums like software/code which often seems like a contradiction to people of conventional cultural bias about words like coder and artist. This is why I say ‘creative’ rather than artist.
A quick rant about society accepting, even celebrating artists living in poverty
How fascinating it is that a stereotype such as the ‘starving artist’ exists. Yet we as a society cannot acknowledge that a creative like this has a form of disability. I should acknowledge that I sometimes place the limitations from my ‘actual’ disability on other aspects of who I am. However, I will put a big !OPINION ALERT! disclaimer to my disability to artist equivocation. Either way, my schizophrenia diagnosis makes my outcomes as a creative slightly less dire. Disabled people in progressive countries enjoy certain entitlements that the ‘disabled’ label grants them. Undeniably, living with schizophrenia is certainly not a desirable way to live. Even so, I have a great degree of compassion for creatives that do not have a physical or mental disability. Without the ‘disabled’ label placed upon them, society is not nearly as lenient with their true expression of who they are.
A creative’s profession is at odds with their opportunity for a positive financial outcome. Keep in mind, this is not a profession they choose. It is a profession deeply engrained in their physical being. A feeling as profound as gender identity, sexual orientation, or the desire to bear children. It is a part of who they are. Much like homosexual and transgender people, that way of being will make them an outcast to society. Certainly, the plight of all these groups looks very different from each other. The degrees of suffering vary wildly between them, as well as the individual. My point being, the common thread between these circumstances. Large parts of our society deny them a dignified living simply because of who they were born to be.
The difficult choice between conventional comfort and true self expression
More recently, I have become more comfortable with being a straight white man that has adopted masculine traits. Specifically, I have become more comfortable with the ‘white guilt’ shame that many progressives often face with this admission. Being such a painfully conventional eurocentric person can result in the delusion that such an admission translates to being racist. (Side note and spoiler alert: saying I’m not racist is the strongest expression of unknowing racism among progressives). This has led to more comfort around conversations like the one I had with my friend, a gay man. One of our conversations observed that many gay men express feminine traits more often than straight men do.
Being comfortable with my masculinity led me to own my various expressions of femininity. My friend and I made an anecdotal conclusion about why gay men have this same comfort. Our theory is that expressing homosexuality can be so dangerous, that a gay man expressing their natural femininity is inconsequential, comparatively. Much like my sharing a schizophrenia diagnosis makes the small ways in which I express femininity largely inconsequential. If someone has come out as gay – a part of their true selves – it leads to them being able to express their full true selves. Who cares if your parachute doesn’t deploy while skydiving if you have stage four lung cancer?
Most people don’t have a choice, just a variable duration leading to acceptance
When who you truly are has a profound negative impact on your safety and security outcomes like a transgender woman, or on your financial security opportunities like a creative, what do you do? Ultimately, the choice lies between denying who you truly are, or exposing yourself to tremendous risk and adversity. For some, denying showing who they truly are is beyond excruciating.
Fortunately for the creative, the best works of art can come from constraints. Regardless, this is why when a creative takes the risk of making their need to create their sole source of income, it’s important to know what you are getting yourself into. This is ultimately the purpose of this post. To share my experience and hopefully provide what fleeting guidance I can share.
Are you serving a niche, or are you creating one? Either way, the creative is at risk.
I have done a lot of foolish things in my career as an entrepreneur. One that really stands out to me is building a brand without really knowing what that means. Not only that but building that brand as an original, stand-alone brand. One that can’t use the glory or star power of another product or service. One thing a well-known and respected marker, Louis Grenier, says in his newsletter emails is to not create a niche. Serve a niche, sure, but do not manufacture one.
Of course, when I started my art project called Curious Markings, I was unfamiliar with Louis’ works. Even retrospectively, it was a forgivable mistake. Curious Markings is art, and art is almost entirely all about creating niches. Art is an ancient form of innovation. Creating a niche is a primitive way of identifying and serving a niche. Louis suggests not creating a niche because most of the time it is a one-way ticket to failure.
Success is not always compatible with the act of innovation
In the sense of aversion to creating niches, Louis is empowering his brand and reputation as a marketing guru by driving his audience toward success. They will become more successful than other people consuming other marketing guru content because the foundation of his advice drives his audience away from larger risks. The downside of this way of doing things is that he is unknowingly stifling creativity. I do not fault him for this. In his own way, he has innovated a way to communicate marketing much more successfully than many other marketing gurus. Most people learn marketing because they want to make money. They want to create or work for a successful business and to create success for themselves.
However, the unfortunate reality of someone like me is that I am not intending to be a marketer by trade. I am not even intending to be an entrepreneur by trade. I am creative. A true creative. From how I have come to understand what I know a true creative to be, it is not a career. It is a visceral need to understand the truth, beauty, suffering, and ugliness of the world through the act of creating something. I am an innovator through the act of creation.
Being a creative isn’t a choice, it is a biological need.
The reason I have chosen to do marketing of any kind is that my visceral need to create is so all-encompassing that I cannot reasonably balance my act of creating with my other needs. Needs such as earning income, exercising, or sometimes even feeding myself. I am marketing my innovations to sustain my needs. My innovations are largely creating niches, not serving them. If I am lucky, they will do both.
So, what happens when my innovation is only creating a niche, not serving a niche? Well, that is exactly the experience I had when creating my Curious Markings project and attempting to market it. It was a massively uphill battle. I was doing social media, paid advertisements, getting an article in a magazine, working 40+ hours a week on various aspects of the project. Over a span of two years, my primary goal was to get people to sign up for my website/app.
Accepting the failure of a business while honoring the success of a piece of art
I ultimately ran out of energy with the project. Any additional efforts always ended up being contrived. The project failed. It took me a long time to accept that. But, eventually, I did. What helped me get there was recognizing that the project itself was not flawed. People loved my works. It was simply something that needed an established brand for a sustainable business model, and that building a brand is not my chosen career. Creating is my career.
So, I put the project in an indefinite suspension with approximately 300 sign-ups. To say that I was ‘once burned, twice shy,’ with putting that much fervor into a project ever again is an understatement. A couple of years and several volumes of journaling and mental gymnastics later, I finally had the courage to do a project again. One with an extremely limited scope, and a clear beginning and end to my goals. This project eventually became to be known as Enderbook, the social app for Minecrafters.
Why many artists find solace in fan art
The entirety of my marketing efforts with Enderbook was a couple of posts on a couple of subreddits, plus a few links through messages sent in a few Discord communities. Within months of largely non-existent marketing efforts, Enderbook had just as many sign-ups as the mentally back-breaking efforts of two entire years marketing Curious Markings.
Was Enderbook more successful because it was serving a niche, rather than creating one? Maybe. To this day, I’m not entirely certain there is an existing niche for a social platform specifically catered to Minecraft players. Time will tell on that one. I do know, however, that leveraging the brand of a globally known sensation makes things easy. Minecraft is such a sensation. Because my creation was a Minecraft service, the task of getting 300 sign-ups felt effortless. It virtually was effortless.
I often found myself marketing Curious Markings not because I was trying to grow it as a business, but because I wanted to share my creation. I would say maybe 5% of my sign-ups were from sharing that personal excitement around Curious Markings. Sharing my excitement about Enderbook yielded 100% of sign-ups in a fraction of the time with zero dollars spent on advertising.
Are you truly a creative? Maybe you’re an innovator or businessperson
At the end of the day, your marketing strategy as an entrepreneur needs to be very clear on who you are as a person. Are you an innovator, a creative, or a businessperson? In my experience, being a creative can often be in direct contradiction to being a businessperson. While I am extremely proficient in both fields, my lessons over the past years have led to being able to discern which of my creations I should choose to be financially dependent on.
If you are a creative trying to sustain your visceral need to create, it is important to ensure financial outcomes. If your creation has a niche of unknown size, you are at risk of being a creator of that niche. The only reason I was able to survive Curious Markings was that I was also working parallel to my other business, Objektiv Digital, a more conventional business creating websites for small businesses. In my case, I got lucky. If you are a creative, starting a profitable, parallel business (or creatively inclined employment) should be your business strategy from the get-go.
Business models: Research & Development vs. Manufacturing
I originally had the concept of this post as being about how enormously easier it is to create a piece of art or technology that leverages the power of another brand. I also wanted to write about how difficult it is to create a brand from scratch, and how crushingly depressing it can be when a brand fails – even when your creation is well received by anyone that discovers it. Ultimately, if you are a true creative, focusing on a single product or service as a business model for your art is doomed for failure. Why? Because your job is to create many things. Many things that may be vastly different from one creation to the next.
If your career is creating these vastly different things, then taking one of them and turning it into a single product or service, you end up inadvertently prematurely ending your career. You find yourself locked into indentured servitude to your single idea that you had already created and moved on from. Imagine Picasso if he created a business from his Blue period and centered his entire career around manufacturing these works and growing his brand as ‘Blue’ artist.
A surreal alternate universe is created when creatives deny themselves
Through manufacturing, Picasso would have destroyed any possibility of exploring cubism, surrealism, or any other phases that made him the wonder that he is. By pigeon-holing his creativity into a conventional, largely capitalist business model, he ceases to be an innovator. Silicon Valley taught us that innovation and capitalism can play nicely together. We have clear evidence of that with Steve Jobs, the visionary CEO of Apple. What we often forget, however, is that without Tim Cook as Steve’s COO, the undeniable success of Apple may have come into question.
Then, you get a creative like me that has yet to find a co-founder, a collective, or enough capacity to collaborate with others in general. People like me have to be careful about how we make a living from our creations because there is only so much time in a day. I have said this before, but the visceral need to create is often at odds with other, more basic needs like feeding and shelter. We have to be extremely pragmatic with our time.
My point in all of this is that if you create a business with your creation, you need to do so in a way that does not hinder your capacity or availability to keep creating. When I graduated college, my visceral need to create was initially satisfied by making websites for small businesses. Much like Picasso has moved on from his Blue phase, I have moved on from creating websites to fulfill my creative needs. However, I continue to do it for now because it keeps me relatively stable with my finances. At least, more so than if I were continually trying to make Curious Markings a viable business model.
The lesson I learned in this entire process is that building a brand as a creative like me ultimately means that my brand is me. Sure, I created the branding for Curious Markings, Enderbook, Grindset Factory, etc. However, my overall brand strategy as a business, as a creative, must be centered around me. I have fought the idea for so long because of how narcissistic it seems to me. But, again, creatives like me need to be pragmatic with our approach, and especially with our time. The best way to utilize my time is to build the IRM brand.
It is as simple as that. I can spend 100 hours on the IRM brand. Or I can spend 100 hours on each of the brands of all of my creations. Throughout the duration of my career, that can be up to thousands of hours depriving me of my visceral need to create. That is unacceptable. It will starve you creatively, perhaps financially, and even literally as well. I wish I could say that being who you truly are will allow everything to fall in place as all the motivational gurus seem to profess. But, we both know that many artists suffer their entire lives and are only revered decades or even centuries after their death.
Based on my experience, not embracing your creativity will ultimately lead to more suffering. So set some of that creativity aside for surviving the reality of your existence.