Lesson 1: Thinking Like a Business

What You’ll Learn: Whether you’re a gig worker or busking on a downtown street corner, thinking and operating as a business has many advantages, from being able to obtain credit to taking advantage of legitimate deductions on your tax filings.

Thinking Like a Business

“Creativity is not the finding of a thing, but the making something out of it after it is found.”

James Russell Lowell, Poet and Diplomat


Before we go much further, let’s address the elephant in the room. Many of the most creative people on this planet were told at one point they weren’t good enough, that they couldn’t make a living as an artist, painter, writer, sculptor, web designer – or whatever your personal passion happens to be.

Society as a whole has done an excellent job trying to shove creatives into one box or another. Instead of making the best use of their unique talents, the working world tries to squeeze them into some 9 to 5 job that is filled with dead ends, low satisfaction and less talented (or untalented) coworkers or bosses who don’t really understand “those creative people” and what they do.

The Creatives Academy is designed to give you the tools you need to make a living doing what you love to do. This is not about how to be creative; you know that already. Rather, it is intended to teach you how to turn your creative passion into income, whether it’s a couple of extra bucks here and there, a side gig, or a full-time business endeavor.

Case Study: Meow Wolf

In 2008 a small collective of artists gathered together in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They all had one thing in common – finding a way to make their way in a traditional art world. They didn’t start out to be a corporate behemoth. It was just a bunch of folks from different creative backgrounds who wanted to create something cool. The very name of their business, Meow Wolf, was an exercise in creative collaboration. It was the first two names drawn from a hat of random words.

The initial goal was to create an immersive, multimedia experience that transported audiences of all ages into fantastic realms of story. Their first try netted them $125,000 in donations. Rather than blow it on a big party, as creatives often do, they funneled the money back into their little company, eventually mounting several new exhibitions in a converted bowling alley which is now a multi-use art complex.

Today, Meow Wolf generates roughly $12 million annually at their three installations – Santa Fe, Denver and Las Vegas. They recently raised an additional $158 million in 2019 to fuel expansion. The company employs hundreds of artists and supports the work of many more, prioritizing artists and narratives from underrepresented and underserved communities, including emerging artists, DIY makers, women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, seniors, and people with disabilities.

First Things First

Whether you realize it or not, your creativity has value. Not just to you, but to others. One only has to look at sites like Etsy to see how creativity is being monetized in the most unexpected ways. Amazon has an entire section dedicated to enterprising creatives who are turning their ideas into products.

Of course, it can be easy to dismiss your value in the marketplace. It’s hard to remove all the criticisms we’ve heard over the years from our parents, siblings, teachers, competition judges and audiences who were so silent when you finished that you could hear a pin drop.

We’ve all been there. But with the advent of the Internet and sites like Facebook, Tik Tok, Instagram and Pinterest, there is no better time to shift your thinking, reject all the feedback from the naysayers and soulless critics, explore your creativity and find a way to monetize it.

First, let me give you a fair warning. As a business, you are perceived differently in the marketplace. Suppliers are willing to offer favorable credit terms for supplies, lenders are more likely to give you better interest rates on a mortgage or car loan, doors that were previously closed may suddenly open, and the call from that “crazy artist” that used to go unanswered is suddenly put right through.

One only has to look around to see the truth in this. Just look at Dale Chihuly. Dale earned his undergraduate degree in interior design at the University of Washington. There, he gained an interest in using traditional materials in nontraditional ways. His pioneering work using gravity and centrifugal force to let molten glass find its shape organically changed the very face of the art world and led him to create several business enterprises out of his continual creative experimentation in glass, multimedia, ice and neon.

Sometimes the market finds you; other times, you find the market. Either way, being set up as a business, and more importantly, acting like a business, ensures that you continually create value and demand for your work.

Why is this important?

Everything being equal, would you like to spend more or less time fulfilling your creative destiny? Assuming you said more, doesn’t it make sense then to build a business that uses your talent and skills rather than working in another position that, at times, feels like death warmed over?

A business makes you legit. Whether it’s right or wrong in this world, owning and running a business elevates you in society. Even if you haven’t made a dime off your talents, you are instantly elevated a step or two above “starving artist” with nothing more than a business license and a business card. And depending on the business’s structure (LLC, corporation, etc.), you can move away from the stigma of being self-employed and enjoy all the perks of the largest megacorps.

That said, the purpose of this series isn’t to tell you how to get rich doing what you love to do. Rather, it is meant to spur ideation, show you options, help you open doors and have your work valued appropriately in the marketplace. We’re here to give you the tools and know-how to build a solid foundation for a business in the Creative Economy.

Building a Business Mindset

When people asked me what I did for a living years ago, I used to say, “I make things up and people send me checks.” I thought it was funny at the time, but looking back, it was also a bit snarky and off-putting. I would get a bemused smile, and the decision-maker I was pitching would move on. I would dismiss them as being a square and a bit of a bore. They didn’t get me, so why would I want to earn their business?

Boy, was I wrong. They weren’t boring; I was disrespectful. They had titles they had worked for all their lives, and I was Mr. Know-It-All or Senior Creativangelist on my business card. To them, it looked like I was mocking their status as a business professional. No matter how much talent I had, the door had already closed.

When I changed my title to President, it was as if they had never met me at a networking function just a couple of months earlier. Yes, I still made stuff up, but I had learned to be a business owner. I had learned the lingo and the importance of discovering pain points. The business community started to take me seriously, I was asked to speak at luncheons, and previously closed doors flew open.

Some would accuse me of selling out. I disagree. I was selling. I was convincing people who were content with vanilla and chocolate to buy the Tutti-Frutti instead. People wanted something different, but they wanted to be confident that their money wasn’t going into the hands of someone who wouldn’t deliver. They wanted a business, not a carnival sideshow.

You don’t have to sell out or even become one of them. But you do need to make them think you are one of them. The reason is simple. You need money; they have money. No matter how creative you are, though, a business isn’t going to hand you a big wad of cash if you’re a little too far out there. Business owners are risk-averse by nature, and the riskier you sound, the less likely they are to pay you what you are actually worth.

Again, you don’t have to be a complete sellout. You just need to learn and use the language. You need to sound more like a business person than a creative. For instance, you need to put your work in the framework of solving a customer’s problem. This means you have to listen intently to get to the very nugget of what they need. It may not even be evident to them; you may have to draw it out of them while guiding them to you as the solution. People don’t buy products or services – they buy solutions from people they trust. That is the foundation of selling. But more on that later.

This can be hard when you’re a creative. It can be hard to separate yourself from what you create. But you have to try. Ultimately, what you produce is a product or service that needs an audience, and hopefully, a paying audience. This may mean opening yourself to criticism and changes to your creative vision.

My associates in the creative world continue to ask me how I managed to take this all in stride. Changes used to bug me. I had a client one time who didn’t like pink on her website. She was in the beauty business, and it was one of the colors pulled from her own product line.

I finally made peace with it by telling myself and others, “It was perfect at the time I handed it over.” As long as the check cleared, I was good with it. It was my way of protecting my fragile creative ego. But I was doing myself and my client a disservice since I wasn’t delivering the solution they were looking for, which meant fewer referrals and opportunities to expand my client base.

Creativity On Steroids

If you think a blank canvas offers you unlimited creative options, try starting a business. Building a business is one of the most creative things you will ever do. Like a blank canvas, everything about your business is open to interpretation and expression. You not only get to decide what you’re selling but what the name of the business should be, how it is structured, the colors and typography of your marketing materials, the look of your website or retail space – hundreds of creative decisions to make.

You don’t want to get too carried away, however. There is a tendency for creatives to get so deep in the weeds designing their business that they forget to build the business. This is referred to as doing “busyness.” It feels like you’re working on the business, but none of the work brings customers, clients or revenue through the door.

Remember, nearly everything about your business will change over time. You don’t have to get it right from the get-go. Like many creative pursuits, a company has its own life to it. It is adaptable, can be shaped and re-shaped. It can morph into something unexpected, and if done correctly, it can live on long after the creative force behind it is gone.