5 Lessons Learned from Building a Creative Business in 2016
I’ve heard it said, creating your own business is like the biggest exercise in self development you can take on. And, I’ll admit, I am most motivated when I feel I am growing and achieving. I have to feel the increase of more lie or I get very bored. So yeah, classic type A over achiever type right here. However, that’s not the reason why I have built small or mini businesses and services. But I don’t have that I have to have a small business because “I’m just so unemployable.” I think I’m ridiculously employable. I started Fair Fit Studio in 2013 because I felt like I had specific skills, creative training, and pursuits I wanted to share with others, and there weren’t jobs for me that fit the training I in which I invested.
The economy of academia and the visual arts changed after 2008, and for many years I felt very confused as to what to make of my chosen career and profession. It was a discouraging time. I felt like because I couldn’t find a job where I lived, that at some level what I had to offer wasn’t wanted. I’m being super real here- being trained in the creative arts, I faced a lot of the stories of where and how you have to live to make a living as an artist or designer. And the stories were pretty limited. When I started Fair Fit Studio, I had come to the understanding that I had to make my own job. And now entering the 4th year, I’m starting to see 2016 as a breakthrough year.
In this post, I want to share with you some of the key lessons, situational takeaways, and solutions to problems that I learned in 2016 while growing a creative business. Because building a business is a creative act, just like building a shirt, building a wardrobe, building a family, relationship, or friendship. Its an act of making, and I feel like a lot of these lessons are helpful even if you aren’t running a small business yourself. They apply to any creative thinker, project or endeavor. People email me and tell me, “Hey Andrea, you know how to get things done.” Well, trust me, I’m not special or have some secret super power (or magic wand). I have strategies. Let’s dig into some of those today :)
1. Decide the kind of life you want to have first- “Don’t get so busy building a business that you forget to build a life.”
I think this quote goes to Dale Partridge- he says it a lot on his podcast, however, its a quote that gets tossed around in entrepreneur circles a lot. I think it applies to living a creative life and growing a creative business. When I was first starting out as an artist in my 20s, I had been told- “The only way you can have a career as professional artist is if you move to New York.” Everyone told me you had to be there, or at least Chicago, if there was any chance I would get a shot at pursuing a visual arts career. I completed undergraduate school one year after 911. New York was out, I did not want to move to Chicago and go to graduate school yet, so I decided to move to New Orleans. But when I announced my plans, I heard over and over again from my colleagues, “I hope you know there are no jobs down there.” But for some reason I had extreme faith and I just knew that I would be able to work on the creative practice that I was growing and bring it to another audience.
Fast forward to the present timeline, where now I live in Baton Rouge, about an hour from New Orleans. I meet people (even in Baton Rouge) who are blown away that I live here, and not NYC, Austin, or Portland, all of the places where artists congregate. But now I understand my core lesson - when I had been told I had to live and work a certain way to have a career- folks were only speaking from how they had already seen it defined, and existing known structures, institutions, and jobs that are under the visual arts umbrella. They aren’t speaking about the potential of what you can manifest from your own abilities and by creating your own job and new structures, which you can do where ever you please.
The big takeaway here is I just don’t expect it to look like what has already been defined and what I already know exists. I experience more creativity, greater freedom, and more social connection in my life now, than when I lived in major cities. But my definitions of how I want to live my life have changed. If I look at how I have to focus to grow our classes, write my teachings and experiences on this blog, creating new offerings like online classes, and staying on top of all the projects, lessons and growth of my students, I need space for that and especially time. And I want to live a very specific way where there is space and time for all that I mentioned, and the more that is to come, so I make sure I consider those definitions of happiness and how I can experience them where I live.
Before defining a business, or a project, or new endeavor, make sure you ask- “how do I define a great quality of life?” And really write out what that looks like. There were times in my life where I lived in certain places and in specific ways because I believed I had to, or was told I had to, to be able to have what I wanted, but not necessary live how I wanted. I wasn’t very happy then, so I make sure to consider this very important question every time I set new goals and expectations and make sure they fit the bigger vision of how I am living.
2. Decide the kind of business you are, and define your offerings.
When I started Fair Fit Studio, it was to offer sewing lessons and classes. It literally started with me hanging up a poster for a class and when it filled I was thrilled. But when you are starting something new, especially if it is heart centered and a service offering in the creative arts, and something very niche like a type of creative service or project, it takes a long time to grow it. A lot longer than businesses with services that serve a broad range of people.
2016 was a year of breakthrough support for Fair Fit Studio. I received a good deal of press, our classes filled up each session, and more students came for lessons this year than ever. I’m so grateful for all of the new people that I have had the pleasure to teach this year. And most of it was built on word of mouth, which means the world to me! However, its been 4 years in the making of consistently building and offering classes, and in the years when classes didn’t fill, of course I did other types of sewing services like tailoring, alterations, and custom design work. And sewed in the film industry. I’m grateful for that work too, the people I met, their support and what it taught me and how it helped me accomplish major goals like paying off all student loans.
But this year I had a tough challenge at the beginning of the year. I had to stop doing a lot of the other services and only focus on classes because I spread myself way too thin. Then, I had a big ah ha that Fair Fit’s mission is to teach the skills and share the skills so that others would have the ability to sew for themselves. Teach a man to fish! When I did sewing services, I wasn't helping people learn how to do the sewing, I wasn't sharing the skills. And by doing that, I was creating a separate business that was outside the original objectives of the studio.
I learned this difficult lesson that you can’t say yes to everything- especially if its not the service you have defined as your core offering. It was a big risk for me and it was scary to cut a source of income, but after I did a flood of new growth came through the studio. Now I’m very careful to keep sticking to the definition and mission of what I’m here to do and share in our classes.
3. Capacity is Everything
This gets me to the best lesson of 2016- building a capacity to complete the objectives. Because its December, my inbox is flooded with all of the new coaching programs, goal setting classes and challenges, planners, all the things the new year brings. And last year, I totally did all the things, making my plans, my huge goals of all that I was going to take on. How was I going to do it- no idea, but I certainly had no problem writing it all down, crossing my fingers, and saying a prayer for help!
I love the potential that a new year brings but what I didn't think about was - do you really have the capacity to do all that you are writing down? Certainly, we don’t know what we are capable of, and I don’t want to diminish human potential. But where I got in trouble- and by trouble, I mean I over worked and exhausted myself, and then critiqued myself harshly as a failure for falling behind- was again by following existing models and forcing myself and my business to keep up with goals and objectives that I don’t have the capacity to manifest at the speed of light. Because, um… maybe I had never done anything like it before? I needed to learn the path first, and not just expect that if I followed someone else’s plan it would all click into place and I’d grow at lighting speed.
There are a lot of people out there who will help you learn how to do something, me being one of them. But I’m super careful to inform my students about the commitment that sewing and fashion design takes, heck I write about it all the time. I feel like I’m constantly saying “focus and commitment”, lol. And not everyone is really sharing what they had to do to get to the levels of success that they are promoting, what the effect has been on other areas of their life, and their success path is not going to be mine, or yours, or else we would all have the same life, right?
I was talking to my friend Toni about it on a call one day, she is a soloprenuer and was growing her handmade product line big time in 2016. We both asked- are all these people who say they can grow their blogs and social media to these levels really sleeping? And in fact, we have no idea what anyone else is really doing in their business, what support they have or previous training, or capacity to endure at that level of growth. But what you do know, is if a step feels actionable. I do love to plan and dream. But when I feel stress or a collapse in my chest- like I did all last year when I set about building mega plans- I stop because its a sign I haven’t built that capacity.
Its not that I’m not going to take on the goal, its more about slowing down, and really considering it and mapping it out, if its something I REALLY want. Then I can see its true timeline, its levels of commitment, and really see if all that work is worth it and in line with my defined mission. If it is, then I follow the process I’m about to describe next.
The good news is, that even though you don’t quite have the capacity for it, you can build it. Where you can help keep yourself out of the stressors of overwhelm and fear of failure, is by understanding it might just take longer than you think. Great testimonials are a good indicator someone is on to something, I just no longer expect my path to look like someone else’s growth. I have my own learning curves as do we all.
4. Break your goals and milestones into 3 month objectives
After recognizing I needed to build my capacity for the new growth and projects, I realized also that you can’t do it all at once, which seems obvious but I certainly wasn’t getting it. I wanted to do everything now, and if I didn’t get it done, I assumed I could just wake up even earlier and make it happen. By setting too many objectives, I got very scattered, overwhelmed, and then took a huge step back where I stopped and questioned everything. And took no action during those months, because nothing felt right.
I had a break through in August after our family vacation. I decided that the only thing that has to happen in the next 2 months is finish the Beginner’s Sewing Online class. That’s it- no other objective had to be on my plate. And I mapped out from start to finish what I had to do to finish that class. And I finished it ahead of schedule and was able to finish Basic Patterns too!
What I have learned is that you have to build your existing capacity to be able to handle your existing tasks and weekly to dos with ease and routine, before you add more tasks and routines on top of them, let alone add a massive project to manifest to your plate. The singular one at a time kind of focus, has helped me get things done. I think this lesson really applies to our lives in general. Think about how hard it is to add an exercise routine when you are already stressed out and busy- that can be hard right? But when you focus and dedicate time to it, slowly it gets easier. Now imagine that you had not only added the exercise routine, but you also added volunteering at your kid’s school, practicing your sewing, and also hey, you decided on top of all that to build your own wardrobe from scratch this year? I can speak from experience, most of those goals won’t get accomplished, but if you slowly add them, throughout the year and focus on each one at a time, thats more sustainable and actionable.
5. Consider the question- Are you only working to support a version of success you think you have to have?
I had some dark years after graduate school and I’ve had to work to get to the levels of positivity I experience now. I was lost and afraid that I would not find a profession, and that the one I had invested so much in learning was not going to prosper me. That was a scary and sad time in my life- and I really have to work to keep that time from influencing the life I have now. And one of the things I have to be careful of is choosing models of success that only look successful- but aren't really my model.
What does that look like? When you start to achieve the small wins, the plans for new growth start to look like more of everything. Like employees, more space, commercial retail, bigger online presence, just to name a few things that apply to business. But we also do this with health, relationships, finances- when you accomplish some of your personal goals, then the other not so personal bigger goals start to show up, right?
I found this year, it was important to slow down, and be grateful and in the moment with the wins I was currently experiencing. Enjoy that win! And if you aren’t in a win, maybe its a time when you are stopped because something isn’t working- that’s important too. Folks will tell you to just press on and don’t quit, but those months that I stopped this year taught me more than the super manifestation months. Those uncomfortable times helped me have a breakthrough, even if it looks like I’m doing nothing and peacing out. Be in the presence of the goal you accomplished, rather than leaping to more accomplishing…. That just steals from the joy of that win.
I’m learning to honor each phase of the growth process I’m in. Sometimes, that’s purging and thinking, reflecting on whats working and NOT DOING anything but the important task of reflection. I used to feel a lot of pressure not to stop, but if you don’t let yourself be in each phase, like finishing the dress and wearing it a few times before making the next one, you then don’t get to reap the rewards of the project and apply the lessons from it to your next one.
thank you for reading!
I hope this post was helpful to all you over achievers like myself! I know it doesn’t quite fit in with the world of sewing, but I truly believe the business lessons that I have learned are life lessons, and like sewing, its another process to integrate into your life. Creativity has seemed to be separated from business because of the perceptions that business is somehow separate, removed, and not creative. But how can that be?!! To build is making, and we build businesses!