Photo by Matthieu Comoy .
I founded The Better Melon around the beginning of May this year. I pivoted into e-commerce with an interest in how products are so closely tied to a creative's career.
I used to be an information designer and made things that incorporated complex data. At the beginning of my career, I was experimenting a lot and having fun. I soon realized that a lot of my work was fleeting and I was eager to find ways to make them more permanent. I didn't want my work to be fun to look at, I wanted them to be useful to people. Too often, our charts are briefly glanced at without much thought. One day, I started to make cards that incorporated data. I had an idea to make physical things that you could use to help you understand the world. At the time, I was offering creative services to clients, I suddenly developed an interest in selling products to customers. Ever since, I have been obsessed with products. Selling products is not the same as selling services. In my field, clients typically expect standard outcomes for services they pay for, and functionality has a very high priority over design. However, customers are more lenient with their expectations and embrace uniqueness. Clients are typically allergic to risk, customers want innovation.
I entered the e-commerce space without much formal training in it. I have a lot of transferrable skills that I bring to the table, but not much theoretical knowledge and understanding of this field. It's easy for me to observe my competitors and use that to inform how I should operate. However, that means I will never have an edge because I don't have my own thoughts. To stand out from my peers, I needed to be different. Being different comes from formulating a unique perspective about something, and I need to do that for The Better Melon.
In November 2021, I was at a point where I already laid the infrastructure for my business. I had built my website, registered my business, and started to network with creatives in my city. It was time to lay the foundations of my thoughts. I came up with three general categories that I needed to study:
In this post, I'll focus on 1. Understanding creative entrepreneurs.
Where does one begin if they want to learn more about the career of creatives? I didn't want to read some blog online with a list of 5 things that motivate creative people. I wanted to read from people who spent time thinking deeply about the topic. So I turned to academic papers. I tapped into my local library and Google Scholar to access papers published by academics. I learned a lot and came across many interesting ideas.
As a heads-up, I have added author sources throughout this post. I use a style of citation called APA (American Psychological Association). You will generally see a name and a year in parentheses. At the very end of this post, you can find the full source of the paper I reference.
I am very interested in the cross-section of creatives dedicated to their craft while making a viable career out of it. It's a very complex tension to exist in. Money can be a tough topic to discuss if the goal of the creative is to focus on the craft, rather than make profit.
At the heart of every creative is an artist. That artist is driven to express something and is internally motivated. The tension arises when their art demands time and energy, but the work created may not bring an income.
"A career as an artist is often considered fraught with risk, personal challenges and insecurity. Despite this scenario, individuals with a pent for creative expressions continue to either pursue a career via independent learning, while many complete tertiary studies and gain a formal qualification." (Daniel, 2016)
You may have heard of the term "starving artist". Many creatives recognize the challenges of an artistic career, yet still continue to pursue it. Why? Daniel identified three themes of motivations for artists from a study with 20 alumni from north-eastern Australia (Daniel, 2016):
It's a common for people to convert their hobbies into their careers. Their hobbies gave them all of three outcomes listed above. This internal drive helped them overcome challenges, learn new skills, and create something to be proud of.
However, it seems that this internal aspect of creating art is at odds with making money, which is externally driven. I've found literature discussing this topic in-depth, and was particularly struck by this statement:
many people connive in their own ‘self-exploitation’ as they pursue self-actualization (Taylor & Littleton, 2008)
External drives of making art seems to be viewed in negative light. The phrase "selling out" has a negative connotation where creatives favour making money over making art.
"...art and money-making are discussed as incompatible and even directly opposed. Following this logic, creative or art work (especially when referred to as ‘fine art’) is sometimes defined in opposition to commercial or practical activity. An example would be the use of the term ‘selling out’ to refer to someone who sacrifices the artistic quality of their work in order to make money." (Taylor & Littleton, 2008)
This finding came from research done in UK by Taylor and Littleton. Researchers interviewed 29 post-graduate students at a top college in London. Although the number of participants interviewed is fairly small, the insights game me new perceptions of art and money.
The researchers note that the theme of art and money making are opposed activities creates a problem for artists. How are they supposed to make a living? The participants mentioned three resolutions to this:
I don't know about you, but reading these resolutions made me very sad. This research was conducted in 2008 so perhaps these findings are not very relevant today. Instagram was founded in 2010. Imagine how hard it must truly have been for artists to build recognition for their work without social media. I wonder if the researchers conducted the same study today, how the results would differ. Perhaps the fourth resolution is to be an entrepreneur and create products for a niche audience. This isn't a conclusion that students would come to, but it's a viable one and it marries career with art-making.
This next section surprised me to no end.
"McRobbie, citing Bourdieu, discusses a further extension of this relationship, that failure to make money can even be taken as a marker of artistic success, so that the young designers she studied ‘rationalise their own economic fragility by seeing their market failure as a sign of artistic success, or at least artistic integrity’ (1998: 6); however this was not a noticeable pattern in the talk of our participants." (Taylor & Littleton, 2008)
McRobbie's study was in the late 90's, so these ideas seem to be outdated. It seems that the general attitude towards selling art today is much more lenient and people understand the need for an artist to survive.
I came across this interesting paper that delved into Andy Warhol's relationship with money:
Warhol was much more enthusiastic in discussing the relationship between art and business. In an often-quoted passage, he declared that “Business art is the step that comes after Art... Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business - they’d say ‘Money is bad,’ and ‘Working is bad,’ but making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” (Galenson, 2007)
Let's take a step back. By default artists make things. Most of the time, these things are physical. This translates into a product. It might be more useful to reframe my question from why do artists starve to why do artists have a hard time selling their products? It might seem obvious, but one reason might be that they don't care about making profit.
"Scholars typically resort to Bourdieu’s ‘economic-world-reversed’ theory to show that artists ‘deny the economy’ in the short term by putting up with low pay, dismal working conditions and lack of benefits in exchange for attaining psychological rewards such as self-expression and self-actualization" (Alacovska & Bille, 2020)
The pay off to making art is the process and the intrinsic rewards. So this might be one reason why artists starve. Making profit is not a reward they are interested in, and so the implications of this is that they have difficulty getting by in life. Also, this idea of making art being the reward might explain why artists underprice their work.
For the group of artists who are interested in profit, they might struggle because they have a hard time selling their creations. A paper by Robinson and Novak-Leonard defines art entrepreneurship as:
"Arts entrepreneurship, specifically, has been defined as a process through which artists convert various means, such as resources and skills, to desirable ends" (Robinson & Novak-Leonard, 2021)
"Desirable ends" is a very important concept in the definition laid above. What does it mean to make something desirable? Scarcity? Price? Beauty? It's not easy to find people who would be interested in purchasing artist's work.
There is also a challenge of supply and demand.
"Other studies have empirically confirmed the prevalence of significantly higher levels of job satisfaction among artists than workers in other occupations, in spite of high unemployment and low income (Bille et al., 2013, 2017). Such work preferences result in an excess supply of artists (Bille, 2020). In this way, low average income becomes an inherent characteristic of artistic labour markets." (Alacovska & Bille, 2020)
What's interesting about this is that because artists have demonstrated higher satisfaction with their work, there are many of them who pursue this career. As a result, there is no shortage of artists on the market. This leads to fierce competition within the market for those interested in making profit.
I want to highlight that I'm not suggesting profit is a key goal of artists. Many artists view it as a means to an end.
"Motivations behind arts entrepreneurship may include the desire to profit off of talent or skill, to maintain creative control over the artistic process, to address perceived deficits in the cultural fabric of a community, or to involve community members in the creative process." (Robinson & Novak-Leonard, 2021)
An artist who pursues their art while also focused on profit to sustain their art end up in a tricky spot with regards to their identity and how they define success:
"As entrepreneurs, professional artists must reconcile their entrepreneurial identity with their artistic one by accepting that their creativity and skill in the production of art is intimately tied to feelings of satisfaction or fulfillment as an artist, as well as to professional and financial success" (Robinson & Novak-Leonard, 2021)
Artists have different values and goals, which will determine how they choose to maintain their art and the life they lead. I often hear about many service providers in my space sell their offers as a way to help business owners "scale their business". But, from the research I'm doing, it seems that profit isn't a major driver for creatives. All businesses wants to grow, but perhaps they want to grow in a way that's manageable and does well enough to allow them to make what they care about. I interviewed Becca , owner of Sadelmager Design House and she wasn't fond of the "scaling" her business. She was more interested in growing in a way that made sense for her:
"...But I’m not looking to be a monolith, I’m looking to be self-sufficient, to have consistency and stability. I’m not looking to grow and grow and grow. I’m not saying I would never be, but I’m not looking to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. My goal is to reach a certain point where people say: “I really want this bag, when are you making it again?”, and I’ll say: “I’m forming a waitlist”. I’ve had clients who have waited to save up for two years to have one of my bags. I know my clients are very dedicated for that level of artistry, attention, and the customer service behind it."
-Becca, owner of Sadelmager Design House
In a 2016 paper by Daniel, he interviewed 20 students from Australia and identified two themes of success factors. The first was having a network. Network was a way for creatives to find work and get referrals. One interviewee cited 'you do tend to work with a lot of the same people'. Word of mouth is a very reliable method of marketing. If someone is recommended a product by a person they trust, there is a very high chance they will buy the product. According to Nielsen, 92% of people trust recommendations from friends and family over any other type of advertising. The second theme was drive and persistence. At the heart of any small business is the business owner. If the business owner is not motivated to keep going, then the business won't keep going.
Another key factor to success might be knowledge. In paper by Kuhn and Galloway, they identified knowledge-based theory, which considers:
"knowledge is a primary resource that can positively impact the success of a venture's outcome and provide a source of competitive advantage" (Kuhn & Galloway, 2015)
This study surveyed 343 artisan entrepreneurs to understand how motivation influences the type of advice they valued and which they were most likely to offer others. This study looked at an online community space on Etsy.com. There are many communities on Facebook and Reddit where business owners exchange ideas, advice, and provide support. I spoke to a mentor of mine and told him that there are small pockets of communities where entrepreneurs share advice. To my surprise, he said "I wouldn't want to share information with a competitor. But, I can see how it would be beneficial if people shared advice". And he's right. If you just think about it, why would you spill the beans about how you make your sales if a competitor could copy that?
"At the level of the firm, the term “coopetition” describes situations where two companies compete in some areas while cooperating in others for mutual benefit." (Kuhn & Galloway, 2015)
"Research in coopetition, drawn from exchange theory, suggests that 'sometimes the best way to succeed is to let others do well, including your competitors'" (Kuhn & Galloway, 2015)
Ultimately, it seems that coopetition is overall good.
I thought this finding was very interesting:
"...reported friendship with other sellers and having received more constructive criticism of one's shop design from peers were significantly predictive of better performance..."
(Kuhn & Galloway, 2015)
"...constructive criticism of shop design was viewed as valuable, but most respondents reporting having received little, if any, of this type of peer assistance. This was also the only type of assistance where, on average, an entrepreneur reported having provided more to others than she herself had received. Knowing how to make an online arts/crafts shop more attractive and user–friendly for potential customers is a type of specialized knowledge only other artisans selling on e–commerce sites are likely to possess; controlling for other relevant factors, artisan entrepreneurs who had received more of this type of peer advice were more successful. This supports our idea that peer assistance may be especially beneficial when it involves sharing specialized knowledge."
(Kuhn & Galloway, 2015)
It's interesting that not many received constructive feedback of their shop design. I've seen lots of new shop owners ask for feedback on Facebook and Reddit, and they usually get decent feedback. People usually suggest taking better photos, improving the SEO of product names, or updating the logo. However, I see a gap in this feedback because there is always more room for more depth, and even thinking higher level about strategy. I am thinking about doing some videos critiquing shops, something for me to consider as content strategy in the coming year.
I read 9 academic papers on the topic of creativity and entrepreneurship (in this blog post, I only cite a small handful of the ones I read). I had a lot of challenges finding relevant papers, but I tried to make the most of it. I read the papers with an open mind with the intention to just learn. From the papers I read, I have a better understanding of what motivates creatives and why a career in this creative space can be challenging.
I learned that in general, people are attracted to art because of internal motivations, such as having fun, or being able to self-express. It's rare for someone to look at art as a viable career, and so money is rarely a motivating factor in pursuing art. From my personal experience, a lot of artistic people work at creative jobs, but they don't have much creative freedom. Entrepreneurship seems to be an avenue to attain creative freedom. But, that freedom is restrained by the market and its customers. Entrepreneurship is about creating "desirable ends" for customers, this means that the art that gets made needs to also fit with the market in some way.
A huge dilemma faces creatives in that there is oversupply of creative labour. Too many pursue creative careers because it's driven by so many positive emotional rewards, it becomes too easy to want to pursue art as a way of life. As a result, it is very hard to stand out from the crowd. To stand out and be different, the creative has to tap into what makes them unique. They have to search into themselves and pull that into the world. How do you observe the world? What do you think about certain issues? What matters to you? These are aspects that make you different. Keep in mind that not everything unique and different about a creative is meaningful to a customer. This is the role entrepreneurship plays, it's a lot of trial and error to identify what aspects of the creative's uniqueness matter to the customer. If a creative can figure this out, then they are well on their way to building a viable creative career as an entrepreneur.
Alacovska, A., & Bille, T. (2020). A heterodox re-reading of creative work: The diverse economies of Danish visual artists. Work, Employment and Society, 35(6), 1053–1072. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017020958328
Daniel, R. (2016). Creative artists, career patterns and career theory: Insights from the Australian context. Australian Journal of Career Development, 25(3), 91–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/1038416216670663
Galenson, D. (2007). Artists and the market: From Leonardo and Titian to Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. https://doi.org/10.3386/w13377
Kuhn, K. M., & Galloway, T. L. (2015). With a little help from my competitors: Peer Networking Among Artisan entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 39(3), 571–600. https://doi.org/10.1111/etap.12053
Robinson, M., & Novak-Leonard, J. (2021). Refining understandings of entrepreneurial artists. Artivate: A Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.34053/artivate.10.1.135
Taylor, S., & Littleton, K. (2008). Art work or money: Conflicts in the construction of a creative identity. The Sociological Review, 56(2), 275–292. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954x.2008.00788.x