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MAKE BOSS: TIPS FOR TRANSITIONING TO FULL-TIME CREATIVE


Hobby to full time: Creative entrepreneurship

Hobby to full time: Creative entrepeneurship

Last year I quit my job to become a full-time sewing person. It was crazy, exhilarating and scary, and also the best decision I’ve ever made, short of growing out my hair after the ill-advised Winona Ryder Pixie Haircut Disaster of ’98. It’s been 9 months now and even though I’m working more than I ever did at my proper 9-5 career, (and have a mild case of Workaholic’s Insomnia and recurring incidents of Type A Lower Back Disease to show for it) I don’t ever look back with anything but relief and gratitude that I was able to go out on a limb and not fall out of the tree.

If you’re up half the night dreaming, scheming and hoping to make your creative work fill the daytime hours, you’re probably wondering how to do just that. A few folks asked for a post on how I made the transition to full time, so here is a non-exhaustive list of things that worked for me. This is a practical list; while having great ideas or new things to say is obviously important, just as crucial (if not more so) is the framework you build for yourself that allows your creativity to flourish. Structure is important. My experience is personal and subjective, but maybe something here will be of use to you as you consider the big scary of just going for it.

1. START SMALL

Unless you have access to funding for your business idea (cashing out an RRSP, crowdfunding, family or bank loans) most of us have to start small. Small, in my opinion, is good. Small is low commitment, low stress, low investment, low risk. Slow means you can continue working a regular job while you decide if there is a market for what you have to offer, and gives you a taste of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur without having to uproot your entire life only to discover it’s not really your thing.

2. TEST THE WATERS

Before you stage an explosive “I AM OUTTA HERE!” scene at work, complete with desk sweeping and double finger salute on your way out the door, figure out if your idea/product/service actually has legs. If you want to freelance, start drumming up side gigs now. If you sell a thing, do a trial release to see how people react. At the very least, invest in a little market research. Reach out to your blog readers and/or your social network to see if your idea is appealing to your potential market. If you’d like something more formal and anonymous, you can also pay for consumer surveys, like this service provided by Google. The depressing reality is that 80% of small businesses fail. Do as much legwork as you can to set yourself up for success before you go full hog.

3. GET OUT OF DEBT, IF YOU CAN.

One of the best things I did for myself and my business was pay off all my credit card debt while I was still working my old job. I knew that on a reduced income that credit card bill would be the death of me. Sacrificing now to pay off smaller debts means you’re freeing up some credit if you need it down the road, and maybe more critically, carrying no balance on credit cards makes you attractive to possible lenders if you need to borrow money down the road for your business. Obviously this may not always be possible (student loans, anyone?) but if you’ve been carrying around credit card debt that you could pay off if you set your mind to it, I highly recommend the sweet release of a zero balance. If you plan on applying for a business loan in the future, take a look at your credit products and cancel any extra cards you don’t need. You’ll take a small hit on your credit rating now, but lenders look at the total credit available to you when making a decision on whether or not to lend; even if you carry zero balance on 5 cards, in their eyes you could theoretically max them all out in the future and be unable to repay your loan.

4. FIGURE OUT HOW MUCH YOU COST.

Take the time to do an in-depth personal budget. Include your rent or mortgage, utilities, cell phone, vet bills, health insurance, gas, everything. Look at your bank statements to make sure you’re not forgetting the Netflix bill or your $50 pharmacy runs. Add it all up and take a good look to see what you can afford to lose. If you’ll be working from home, you may be surprised by how much less money you spend day to day; my living expenses have gone down significantly since I’m not accidentally shopping on my way home from work, taking public transportation every day or going out for lunch or coffee all the time. Once you have a bare bones budget, you’ll know what you need to be live on. Now take that amount and add 30%. This will cover your personal income taxes and give you a little wiggle room for emergencies. This is what you need to clear every month from your business. If you don’t think you can do it for the first year or so, you’ll need to…

5. BUILD A CUSHION

About 6 months before I actually quit, I was so fed up at work that I called my dad in a somewhat frenzied and manic state and told him that I was quitting at the end of the month. I had little savings to speak of and was still paying off credit card debt, but I was so miserable at work I wasn’t thinking clearly. My father, being the frustratingly practical and street smart man that he is, talked me off the ledge. He convinced me to suck it up for another 6 months, to save every penny I could so that when I did leave, I would have enough in the bank that I could actually focus on what I was doing instead of stressing every day about where the rent was going to come from. So I sucked it up, white-knuckling my way through aggravating client meetings and mind-bendingly banal architectural drawing sets, all while secretly working on Nettie when no one was looking. I built up a little cushion of savings that is 100% responsible for the fact that I’m still actually doing this thing I wanted to do. If you can, make a little nest of money that you can nip away at when you need to. That little nest will help you sleep at night. Especially if you stuff your mattress with it.

6. PREPARE FOR THE HUSTLE

Owning a small business isn’t for everyone, or it may not be for you at this particular time in your life. And that’s okay. I had two small businesses in my 20s that didn’t really go anywhere because I wasn’t at a place in my life where I could commit 24/7 to making them work. As much fun as a lot of creative entrepreneurs are having, most of them would probably tell you they’re working harder and longer than they did in more traditional fields. Businesses are like children; they are high maintenance, take up all your time and don’t really care if you’re getting enough sleep. Chances are you’ll have to really hustle for the first few years to make ends meet. If a healthy work/life balance is really important to you, be conscious that it might be a little out of whack for a while. Maybe forever. I don’t know too many entrepreneurs who have it really figured out. If you do, tell me all your secrets.

7. DESIGN A BUSINESS BLUEPRINT.

If you need a large investment to get your business of the ground, you really and truly need to write a business plan, regardless of whether you are financing your business from your savings or borrowing from a bank. When large sums of money are involved, its imperative that you sit down and really think deeply about what you want to do. This means doing a lot of market research, figuring out who your customer is, defining your mission, establishing pricing, identifying your business model and doing a lot of risk assessment. It’s a crazy butt-load of work. But it’s also a great exercise that provides you with an amazing tool to constantly refer to as your business evolves. I dragged my feet getting mine together and only wrote it in February, but it was so worth it; it’s like having a blueprint for the future. You wouldn’t build a home with plans; why approach the biggest financial decision you’ll ever make with any less regard?

I’m sure I could go on, but I think this sums up some important practical considerations to make if you’re considering going full-time with your creative pursuit. Anything you think I missed? If you’re already doing the entrepreneur thing, what helped you make the transition to full-time career? I’m all ears.

  • I love this series already! Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, and helping to ease the learning curve if at all possible.

    One question that might be answered in a later blog post – what resources did you use for the business blueprint?

    • That’s a good suggestion – I’ve added it to my list of future topics!

  • Thank you for doing these series, they’re helpful and interesting to compare experiences! That one on figuring out how much you cost is a great tip – one way to see it is to make a lot of money so you can afford the things you do/want, the other way is to cut down expenses so the threshold for being viable is not that high. One thing I’d add would be to realise there’s a big mental shift. You are 100% responsible for the succes of your business, and this can be a heavy burden. It will touch you on a much deeper personal level than most 9-5 jobs. And there’s a lot of uncertainty – not only financial but also figuring out your development process. You need to know how stress proof you are, and who you can rely on to alleviate that stress, to put things into perspective. It does get better over time though, this is only beside the other aspects that are really great!

    • So true Lisa! You know, I’ve been under (completely self-imposed) crazy stress the last few weeks because I’ve got a big deadline and all this work to do… I’ve been quite miserable to be honest. And then I woke up today and remembered I’M THE BOSS and can change the deadlines and mix up my workload and then I laughed at myself for forgetting that I control my own time, haha. It’s striking how much more pressure we put on ourselves… and also nice to remember we can lessen that weight whenever we want to.

      • I know, right! I have never been so stressed in my life at times now that I’m my own boss. And it’s stupid really, it’s not a sustainable way of running your business. So after a period like that I got the same realisation. Now I still work hard but not crazy hard. But I guess you’ve got to learn the hard way!

  • I think a lot of this is really great advice for ANYONE. Getting out of debt, developing a personal budget, and building my savings has freed up huge amounts of brain that used to be spent worrying about money. I used to obsessively worry about my car breaking down, or getting fired, or having to have dental work done, because I was constantly living right at or slightly above my means. Sacrificing a little for that peace of mind is worth every penny, and to be honest once you get accustomed to it, it doesn’t even feel like you’re sacrificing because you feel so free!

    I would be super interested to see a post with the details of the business plan, but I don’t know if that’s something you’d feel comfortable sharing. I feel like I literally have no clue how a business like yours would work–What are your expenses like? How do you determine your pricing? How many downloads does it take for a pattern to be “worth it”? etc.

    • I probably can talk abut the business plan in more general terms, but sharing mine as is would feel like showing the world my diary, haha.

      • That’s what I figured! Even just in general terms would be interesting, though!

  • K. Patrick

    I’m blown away by the generosity of you offering this kind of advice and experience, gratis! The sewing blog community really is the best!

    • Aww thank you! It’s my pleasure to share my story – hopefully somebody gets something out if it.

  • honigdesign

    Great tips and congratulations on taking the leap AND doing so well! Cheers to the future!

    • Thanks darlin! I’m still chugging/chipping/working away at it but I’m enjoying the journey, which is really all that counts.

  • Suzanne

    Keep the posts coming. Although I have absolutely zero interest in a creative be my own boss career I love to see the calculus that goes into these decisions. So your posts are interesting to all.

    • It does feel like calculus sometimes! What a great way to describe it. Thanks for the encouragement – felt a little weird to be so open about my own story but maybe it will be of use to someone else.

  • yes! 100% yes to all of the above!

  • A business plan essentially is a blueprint of a dream written on a spreadsheet. The first one I ever worked on was on that dead tree, lined green stuff, in longhand, before Excel changed the world (move out of the way kids, walker coming through!) of numbers. Change one numbrt, change the world.

    I’ve been privileged to participate in writing several of those dream blueprints; sometimes you find out that the business isn’t what you thought it was. Maybe it’s less; sometimes it’s more (and I work for one of those ‘more’ businesses now, lucky to be a part of it). Sometimes it’s a really fun hobby that pays for itself. But you have to dream it first to believe it.

    Dream big. Do your homework.
    Do your math. Start with small steps.
    Find your community. Work hard.

    And be prepared to let that particular dream die a natural death. Just don’t stop dreaming. Because there
    is Always Another Idea.

    • This is such great advice Stephanie! Deserves to be cross-stitched and framed over my desk.

      • Funny how writing something down gives you a new idea. My spouse was reading over my shoulder, read that and asked me how I came up with that. And I said “Heather made me think of it.” So give yourself some heavy credit there. Getting out my crossstitch font simulator (should be a thing…..)

  • I have so appreciated your transparency. Thank you!

  • Dude, you are amazing! I can’t imagine how difficult making this leap must have been, and must still be. So glad that it’s been worth it for you, and I’m finding these posts super interesting, so thanks for sharing.

  • Samantha Lindgren

    What a nice solid head you have firmly screwed onto your shoulders…! Congratulations on being a great role model for others. And you are doing a great public service by sharing this info! When people ask me about starting a business I always advise them to write up a biz plan. Most of the time they look at me like I’m crazy, but the ones who actually do it, usually come back to me and say it was totally worth it! Hooray for working for yourself (if it’s the right thing to do…)!

  • Taylor

    I love all of your reccomendations. Thank you for sharing. I work in the fashion industry, and I pick up tips and tricks for my own business every day. I know that today is not the day to start my own business venture but the plan is to start someday. I am keeping a stockpile of information and I am considering starting small. Seeing your advice to do just that is nice reassurance! Love it!! Sewsincity.wordpress.com

  • Sarah C.

    How wonderful that you are sharing your perspective. Frankly, your generosity is not a surprise. It shines through in all that you do and create. If I might be so bold, I might recommend a possible addition to the list: Define what concrete and realistic success looks like to you. Yes, of course, one should have dreams and goals, and a business plan is key — but the one sure thing about any business plan is that reality will be different from it. It may be better, it may be not quite as rosy, you may run into unexpected opportunities, or you may face unplanned obstacles. So what does concrete success mean? Is it being able to cover all of the bills from revenue alone? Is it not using a credit line? Is it being able to draw a salary equal or greater to the past? Is it having a studio outside of home? Is it just being able to cover costs because salary is not a driving factor? Is it… You get the idea. There are no wrong answers for anyone. Define whatever the appropriate metrics are for you, and the answers to those questions will help to drive decisions and to assess risks.