What You’ll Learn: To quote Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changin'” and never before has there been so much opportunity for creatives to earn a good living from their talents. Becoming a business doesn’t mean selling out. But it does require a specific set of skills that will help you build stability, revenue and stature… if that’s your thing.

Are You Ready?

“Learn the rules like a pro, break them like an artist.”

~ Pablo Picasso       

The world is in the midst of a seismic shift in the way economies work. The Information Revolution – where information and knowledge are available virtually anywhere and anytime – is giving way to the Creative Revolution, where all this information can be considered, reshaped, mixed and matched to create products and services that can be monetized in multiple ways.

While there are still creatives who are driven mainly by the need and ability to realize their artistic vision, there’s a new generation of creatives who are finding ways to turn their ideas into new revenue streams.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are more than 250 specific creative occupations, including some that may surprise you: mapping technicians, video game designers, microsystems engineers, 3D designers, projection mapping artists, sound designers and robotic engineers, to name a few.

Today’s creatives use technology to create, market, collaborate and distribute their creations. They may use local talent to realize their ideas, eschewing large urban centers to live and work in smaller, more remote communities. An internet connection has become the superhighway to commerce.

In many ways, the creative economy is the great equalizer. It has the potential to curb inequality, help local economies become more diverse, attract new investment and connect those in traditionally underserved communities to global markets. Perhaps more important, it may keep youth from fleeing to urban centers for work and provide new opportunities to showcase and celebrate cultural legacies and traditions.

My Own Journey

Before we get too far, let me establish some creative street cred.

I am Robb Zerr, Senior Managing Director of the Small Business and Marketing unit at the Department Commerce. I have worked as a creative for more than 40 years. Some of it was in corporate, nearly two decades was spent running my own creative services company, and the last decade or so has been in state government.

In 1994, I started my creative business. I didn’t really make a conscious choice to set off on this journey. I had just been laid off from Egghead Software as it began its downward spiral, and was living off unemployment. The woman I was dating at the time was laid off a couple of days later from the film production job she worked at because their biggest client was Egghead. One day, over a bottle of wine, we decided to start CommuniCreations, a creative services company. Its splashy headquarters was the dining room table in my apartment.

We didn’t have a clue what was involved in starting and running a business. We just did it, with about $2,000 charged on our respective credit cards. Things like cash flow, creditworthiness, taxes and intellectual property were foreign concepts to us, especially in the early days.

Now, I’m not going to bore you with my rags to riches story. But I will say that I’ve been lucky to have been paid to work in more than 45 creative categories over the years, including building sets, ghostwriting books for the rich and famous, performing on the beach at an all-inclusive luxury resort in Puerto Rico and designing something like 300 websites.

In the last years of running my business, I lived in a condo with a view of the Atlantic Ocean and Indian River in Florida, just steps away from the beach. That made starting my business and dealing with all its ups and downs totally worth it.

Long story short, I managed to do this by building a company that allowed me to monetize my creativity in its many forms. Over the years, CommuniCreations had some of the biggest names in the business world as its clients, and I still have to pinch myself when I think back to some of the things we pulled off and what we got paid to do it.


This Creatives Academy is designed to give you valuable tips and lessons learned so that you too can turn your creativity into a business. It can be art, music, programming, film production, writing, graphic design… the list goes on. It may end up being a one-time freelance thing, a part-time passion, or if you’re like me, you find a way to make a living as a creative because it’s so much a part of you that it’s like breathing.

By the time you make it through these lessons, we hope you’ll have a better idea of how to turn your passion to create into a business enterprise that can support and fulfill you. The goal is to monetize your ideas while making others appreciate the value you bring to the table.

This sounds simple, but you’ll need to master a lot of skills to make it work, including learning to protect your intellectual property, placing a fair value on your labor, and learning to market yourself, all without running afoul of Uncle Sam and those inquisitive tax collectors who want to know if that $5,000 Gibson guitar is a legitimate business expense.

Taking a Good Look in the Mirror

Before you lift a finger in turning your creative passions into a business, we recommend that you do a little soul searching. Running a business isn’t as easy as it is in the movies. There is paperwork to file, big decisions to make, accounting to be done, and you have to think and operate like a business person, not a creative who has a hobby. This means placing value on what you have to offer as a creative in the marketplace. Before we go down that rabbit hole, let’s do a quick self-assessment.

(If you’ve read through our Small Business Startup Playbook, then this will look familiar).

None of these questions are meant to dissuade you from realizing the dream of being a creative who makes money. They are intended to give you some food for thought so you know your strengths and weaknesses as someone who can be creative and run a business.

checkmarkAre you a self-starter?
You are the business, and the business is you. If you like to hit the snooze button four or five times before rolling out of bed so you can surf the Internet and post on social media, then you may not be ready to start a business. But, if you can bounce out of bed and be ready to take on the day, even if it means making a difficult call about that payment that’s months overdue, then you’re a good candidate for turning a creative pursuit into a full-fledged business.

checkmarkAre you a people person?
Running a business requires you to wear many hats. You will be an employer, customer service representative, accountant, collections person, consultant and janitor at various times in the life of your business, sometimes all in the same day. Running a business requires you to be part saint and part taskmaster. It can be hard to stand up to others, especially when they aren’t valuing you and your talent at the moment. How would you handle the different personality types and emotions people bring with them into business relationships? Do you have the right temperament to run a business day in and day out?

checkmarkAre you a good decision-maker?
Making tough decisions, often under pressure and without all the facts, is part of the game. Do you have what it takes to turn down a great gig because it pays peanuts or walk away from a contract because the other party wanted too much input into your creative process?

checkmarkDo you have the stamina?
Starting a business based on your creative talents is not a 9 to 5 kind of job. You may find yourself working well into the night and on weekends, at least in the first few years. Are you physically, mentally and emotionally up to the challenge? Can you take criticism or rebound quickly from a bad review?

checkmarkCan you create a solid game plan?
Moving your enterprise forward is not haphazard. Like any creative undertaking, it should have a plan, one that continues to move you forward toward your goal of making a living off your ideas and talent. Remember the moving staircase at Hogwarts? That’s your career. It will have many ups and downs, but ultimately, you want to keep moving toward that long-term goal, even though you may have to get there in a roundabout way.

checkmarkCan you stay focused and motivated?
Like a song with complex riffs or a piece of art that just isn’t quite there yet, running a business means you need to stick to it, even when it isn’t working for you at the moment. A business is a creative pursuit, and like any work, it’s not always going to be perfect. At times you will want to throw it away and start fresh. Going into it, make sure you have the ability to stick with it, even when it’s making you a bit nuts.

checkmarkWill your family and friends be supportive?
It can be hard to balance work, creativity and home life, especially in the beginning. As a creative, you may already be pretty good at stretching a dollar. But you need to make sure that your friends and family are supporting you when you need to spend a buck or two on your business. Are you and your family willing to make short-term sacrifices for the potential long-term gains? Are your relationships strong enough to weather the inevitable conflicts between work, family and play, such as when you end up having to work during a vacation or cancel it outright?

Testing! Testing!
You may want to take a few minutes and use a startup assessment tool or two to see if you’re ready to give your business what it takes to succeed. The Small Business Administration has an excellent one.

Twenty Questions

No, this isn’t the party game by the same name.

These 20 questions cover all the basics: why you want to start a business, what you are going to sell and who’s going to buy it. Before you ever get to your business plan, you’ll want to take some time to think about the type of business you want to start. You may even want to visit our SizeUp tool first to do some initial homework before you tackle this section.

Answer each of these questions as completely as you can. Feel free to use extra paper if you need it. It will come in handy later when you start to work on a business plan.

  1. Why am I starting/buying a business?
  2. What kind of business should it be?
  3. Who is my ideal customer?
  4. What products or services will my business provide?
  5. Am I prepared to spend the necessary amount of time and money required to get my business off the ground?
  6. What makes my business, product or service different from anything else on the market?
  7.  Where will my business be located?
  8. Will I need employees? What skills should they have, and what roles will they fill?
    9. What suppliers do I need?
    10. How much money will be required in the next 30, 60, 90 and 180 days?
    11. Do I need to get a loan?
    12. How long will it take before my products or services get to market?
    13. When will I start making a profit?
    14. Who is my competition?
    15. What is my pricing strategy compared to my competitors?
    16. What is the legal structure of my business?
    17. What kind of taxes do I need to pay and to whom?
    18. What kind of insurance will I need?
    19. How will I manage the business?
    20. How will people know about my product or service? Advertising? Marketing? Word of mouth?


Yes, there are more than 20 questions here. But every one of them is important as they will help you think more like a business and less like a creative.

Turning Your Talents Into a Business

In the following 12 lessons, we’re going to teach you some of the basics along with the secrets of turning your passion to create into a viable, profitable business. We’re not going to turn you into a “suit,” but we will teach you how to place value on your creative talents, find an audience willing to pay what you’re worth, manage your money and build a viable business that is part of Washington’s Creative Economy.