biz ladies: how to be part of the 10 percent

Today’s Biz Ladies post comes from illustrator Megan Eckman. Megan runs Studio MME, her illustration business, from her new home in San Jose, California. When she’s not inspiring people to be kids again, she enjoys reading, playing with antique cameras and having adventures. Today she offers some advice on setting yourself apart from the competition and being part of the 10% that make it work. Thanks, Megan, for this inspiring post! — Stephanie

Read the full post after the jump . . .

When I chose to pursue an art degree, the first thing my professors told me was that only 10% of art and design students go on to make a living from their work. Ten percent — that’s it!? Out of the thousands who earn degrees in theater, film, writing, music and art, only a handful make it their livelihood! The odds terrified me, but like all the students, I told myself (and my parents) that I would be part of that 10%. Two years out of college, I’m proud to say I succeeded!

Now, I won’t claim to be living large. Currently my studio is the dining area in my one-bedroom apartment, and a vintage bicycle is my means of transportation, but I’m fully supporting myself on my work. It’s been a huge learning process, since most creative degrees push you out the door with all the artsy skills in the world but not a business thought in your head. Over the last two years, I’ve relied on two very important things to become one of the 10%.

Would you like to hear them?

Professionalism and ambition.

I’m guessing that’s not what you expected. You probably thought I’d mention Twitter, a solo show in New York, a celebrity endorsement, a break on Broadway or becoming an outrageous artist who makes tapestries from cat hair. I’m sorry to disappoint you there. While all of those are helpful (sans the feline tapestry), they’re not what propel you to self-sufficiency.

Every art student leaves school with a solid portfolio and formidable skills. So why don’t they all succeed? Why isn’t our society full of writers, dancers and singers? Because only a few have the ambition to thrive in this capitalist society and the professionalism to look like a real artist, no matter how much they’re making (or not making).

When it comes to appearing professional, a common saying is, “Fake it till you make it.” While that’s true, your “faking it” should present your clients, customers and fans with the artist you want to be 10 years from now so that you can become that artist. Like a mirror taking its reflection from real life, your life will change to fit the face you show the world.

But what do I mean by professional, and how does this slightly older you present herself in a way that is compelling and awe-inspiring? How does she convince venues to carry her work? How does she turn her fans into collectors and clients? How does she garner 15,000 Twitter followers?

That older you, the professional one, more than likely has these things up her sleeve:

  • A professional website at her own domain
  • High-quality product photography
  • Product descriptions that include the “WHY” behind her business (and no, her “WHY” is not to make money so she can feed her tapestry-producing cats)
  • Business cards
  • A CV or stellar press kit that she flaunts to the press
  • A work email address that doesn’t end in gmail or hotmail
  • The eagerness and ability to talk about her creative work as her only profession (that other gig at Starbucks or the accounting agency belongs to her twin sister)
  • An executive-looking portrait

You might be wondering why this “appearance” of being a full-time artist shipping out tons of orders is necessary. Wouldn’t it be easier to be honest and say you still work as a secretary for your local law office and make jewelry on the side? Wouldn’t it be easier to save on a professional photo shoot and just use your iPhone for all your photographs? Yes, it would be easier, but the road to the 10% is anything but easy.

Galleries and craft fairs love to show work from someone who appears established, just as customers love buying from someone who appears to be selling a ton of their work. This professional appearance invokes trust. Think about it: Would you rather shop at an established website or one that looks like an 18-year-old made it during study hall? In addition to trust, a professional appearance builds your reputation. People love to buy things from artists who appear to be on the rise because buyers want to be part of the action, to be able to say they knew you before you were famous. Similar to high school, your fans want to be up on the cool-kid topics and part of the “in” crowd. So let them think you’re making a million dollars because someday, with their help, you will!

Professionalism helps your reputation grow, but that alone can’t get you into the 10%. You also need ambition. Ambition to come out of your bedroom each morning with marketing guns blazing! In all honesty, lack of ambition creates the 90% who keep wishing for a creative break. I know many former classmates who could turn the creative world on its head, but they don’t put themselves out there! Instead, they sit back and wait for that lucky break, that one email, that phone call from Steven Spielberg or the philharmonic orchestra. Why wait for those things when you can run out and meet them halfway?

If you want to make a living from your creative work, you must be prepared to contact every gallery in your tri-state area, every boutique within a 100-mile radius and every TV or news station in town. You must learn to love pitching blogs, magazines, publishers, galleries, coffee shops and fairs. You need to embrace marketing. You need to meet artists in your community to stay up-to-date on juried shows and contests.

This is hard to hear, I know. These aren’t easy tasks that you can do overnight between your day job and movie night. Instead, it’s a journey toward self-sufficiency, a bit of fame (or maybe lots of fame) and a lot of fun! It’s about presenting yourself as a thriving artist, interior designer, jeweler or musician and then plastering your work everywhere.

Whenever I talk to my mother, she tells me I’m the most ambitious person she knows. While that may be true for her, I know a whole slew of ladies (including you!) who are just as ambitious. We all have those big, beautiful dreams, and it’s only through giving it our all that we get there. So if you want to be part of the 10% who turn their creative degrees and yearnings into creative livelihoods, go out there with ambition, showing them the professional lady you want to be and thus will be.

  1. Amanda says:

    This is going on my TO READ often LIST!!! xo

  2. So simple, yet so profound! I’m definitely going to adopt the “fake-it-’til-you-make-it” attitude :)

  3. Jane Hall says:

    Great advice. I started out in the design field 36 years ago, and I have always followed my passion. I have achieved national recognition , but there have been lots of ups and downs. The important thing is I always learned from my mistakes and I never gave up. I could never let go of the love of I had for what I did and settle for a life of conformity. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book the Outliers described what it took to be exceptionable at what you do. He called it the 10 year rule or the 10,000 hours of practice. If you really want it, and want to be the best at it, you will work harder at it then anyone else. And with that your talent will grow as will your success.

  4. Scott says:

    Im a guy, and the quality of the advice given on these Biz Ladies articles are always of a high quality.I have been applying most of the tips in the last few posts and my productivity and confidence has increased tenfold.
    Thanks for the empowering content.

  5. Annika says:

    Thanks for being totally frank about this, Megan. Running your own business is often glamorized but truth be told, despite all the high points, there are a whole lot of challenges and road blocks that knock the best of us back on a regular basis.

    The willingness to dig in and push through the No Thanks emails (or emails we never get a response to!) is what separates the 90% from that upper 10%.

    I’ve found in my own business and the quiet creative aspirations I don’t tell hardly anyone about, my greatest progress comes when I create a system that weeds out the distractions and keeps me focused.

    I know for many artists the word ‘system’ makes us cringe, so find whatever word doesn’t make you want to hurl, but the truth remains that we’re either going to show up as pros or as amateurs. Pros create structure (however loosely) and follow that formula relentlessly until eventually,Voila! A sale. A new client. A new house!

    Instead of rejecting systems outright, we each need to create our own version of some sort of organizational magic that keeps a steady flow churning out. Marketing hard on Tuesday and then not for another 2 weeks will get us nowhere.

  6. Jen says:

    Great advice, thank you!!!

  7. Lynn says:

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom. You honestly is appreciated and so very helpful!

    I am thankful that I have the drive to create. The challenge is knowing what to do with it and no school prepares you for that.

    Well, I’d better go set up my new email address :)

  8. Cristhel says:

    Thank you! Simple & real. I agree with the Fake it till you make it, as well as being professional… Now I only ask where do I sign up to get a new email? Suggestions anyone!

  9. Melissa says:

    Thanks for that little kick in the butt this morning.
    Great article with useful advice and things I didn’t think of.
    And I’ve always had “Act As If…” plastered above my computer– for sending emails, answering clients’ calls… pretending or not, it definitely helps.

  10. Jeremy says:

    I’m not a lady, but this is a fantastic!!!! I wish I wrote it! : )

  11. Great article! I’m in tears. It’s always nice to hear from another gal who’s working and working and working on her dreams.

  12. Naomi says:

    Let me see how this paragraph was exactly what I needed to here….”When it comes to appearing professional, a common saying is, “Fake it till you make it.” While that’s true, your “faking it” should present your clients, customers and fans with the artist you want to be 10 years from now so that you can become that artist. Like a mirror taking its reflection from real life, your life will change to fit the face you show the world.” That is being printed and will stay in my goal journal…that’s a sure way for me to see it every day! You rock star, you!

  13. Emily says:

    This is just what I needed to hear. Thank you for your inspiration!

  14. Lauren M. says:

    Great advice! You’re right, one big thing that’s missing from my business becoming succesful is that I don’t put myself out there as much as I should. Also, when people ask what I do I mention my business, but my day job as well. I should just stick to saying my business and nothing else! Thanks for this post!

  15. Lisa says:

    Amazing post, so inspiring! Thank you Design Sponge and Megan!

  16. Osas says:

    Thanks, for the post, i needed it, i am sure i have been changed.

  17. Kathryn says:

    Very inspiring and motivating. Thanks for the great post!

  18. Tarryn says:

    I saved a link to this article when it came out and have just read it now. Wow, what an inspiring post, I’m glad I held on to it but only wish I’d read it sooner. Thankyou!


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