biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies: how to be part of the 10 percent

by Stephanie

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.

Suggested For You


  • Great post, Megan! Thanks for the great advice. You are totally right about how us creative types leave school with a lot of skills but not one business thought. That is definitely the area in which I’ve had to invest the most time. It’s so easy to push aside the aspects that we don’t like but are necessary to achieving our dreams and your posts highlights just how important they are.

  • Megan, you are also a very good writer. (Btw, I “found” you through one of the embroidery sites, which just goes to show how well your diversification plan is working!!)

  • Megan, I don’t have a degree in the arts, I have taught myself the skills I use to make my products. Your information is a great motivator and I will definitely put some of your suggestions into my marketing strategy. I am just starting to understand how important that part of the business is to success.

  • Thank you for the high quality, concise and action-oriented post. Thinking about what our customers see and who our customers want to buy from is an important point of view that we can all understand as consumers. This post also reminds me not to sell myself short just because I’m a small one-woman operation. I deserve to have a professional appearance that communicates my skills and abilities too! Thank you!

  • This is such a great article! Even trying to present what I do artistically can get tough, but I love hearing about how to make it. I am definitely lucky to live in a place that loves handmade and finds uniqueness a definite draw as well.

    I think the first step is definitely confidence. If you can have faith in yourself and find the willingness to put in the work, anything is possible.

  • Megan, this is one of the best posts I’ve ever seen on what it really takes to be a successful artist, designer, or creative professional.

    Every day, I work with creatives who are struggling. If they memorized your post & did every single thing you said, every day without excuses, then they’d be 80% of the way there.

    The part about acting “as if” you were the 10-year-more-successful-you is absolutely key. And if you don’t know what that looks like, then find successful artists/musicians/freelancers/whatever, and study them. Read biographies of successful artists, show up on open studio days, take classes, and ASK.

    It’s so wonderful to see someone who is clearly part of the 10%, and well on her way to accomplishing all of her dreams! Thank you.

  • Great article. Very motivating! I was just thinking about what you said about the 10%. I remember some of my professors saying the same thing. I want to prove that I am part of that 10% and make a RISD education worth it. Thank you!

  • You’re absolutely right, this was hard to hear but I also needed to hear it. Thanks for the reminder that I can’t sit at my computer all day, every day and expect people to find me. It’s hard for most of us to put ourselves out there but I’m excited by the work I do and I should be excited enough to meet people and pitch myself with confidence and enthusiasm!

    Thanks again – If I could crawl through my computer and hug you for telling it like it is I would!

  • What a great post, and applicable to anyone starting up on their own, regardless of industry (like this girl right here). Thanks for the advice and encouragement!

  • So many times I see guidance that is vague, or isn’t actionable (“just try your hardest”). These are REALLY great, solid example and tips! Thank you!

  • Oh my goodness, you are making me cry! I’m so happy you enjoyed my post! I’m glad it resonated with each and every one of you.

  • Awesome post! And when you do start to gain momentum, don’t loose the ambition and sit back thinking you’ve “made it”. Keep working hard and moving forward. It’s posts like this that remind me to KEEP coming out of the bedroom each morning with marketing guns blazing, even if I already have lots of customers. Gotta keep gaining momentum! Thanks for the kick in the pants. :-)

  • This is so true and so scary! For years when I needed a job I looked on craigslist for what jobs were available, rarely did this have anything to do with my art. Now I’m trying to change it up and figure out how to find the job I actually want, a job where I can spend my days being creative and making things I love. I’m just starting to put myself out there and it is terrifying every day, but also kind of exhilarating. Thanks Megan for reminding me I’m on the right track.

  • Loved reading this! It feels good to know I’m doing everything right. I graduated with my first degree knowing that I wanted more than to just work for someone. I wanted to do this for my self and create a design empire. I have had my freelancing business for 3 years now and I keep getting more and more clients each month all word of mouth. I am a very ambitious designer and I do every thing mentioned, it feels good chasing my dream and making it reality. And now I’m almost done with my second degree in design, which will just add to my rep! The only thing to do is change my email! I honestly had no clue about that! Thanks again for the amazing post !

  • Well written and exactly the thing I’m dealing with right now. Especially the “sell-yourself” thing is so hard for me. But this post shows that you just gotta go and do it. Thanks Megan!

  • What wonderful, true advice-but for me knowing these things and actually doing them is so difficult….but it’s wonderful to have a cheerleader here to help us get there. Thank you for this.

  • Thank you so much for writing this today! I have tears in my eyes because I decided to start my own business (for real) 3 weeks ago after 40 years of working for other people. I can’t get an interview because even though I look and act much younger, Google ungraciously provides my real age. I pursued a pet manufacturer in my town for 2 years, free-lanced for them designing 30 fabrics for them to get the door cracked a bit and still couldn’t land a job. The business end is the hardest–designing I do in my sleep. Look out, here I come!

  • Megan, thank you so much for your forthright advice. It’s really nice to hear some other tips than to get 100,000 followers on twitter (although I just tweeted your article,,,)! I’m excited about your super clear action points and can’t wait to start working on some that I haven’t attacked yet!! Brav- o!!

  • I woke up today asking myself if anyone really cares about what I do, is it worth the work? Then I opened this email and WOW!!! It’s the KICK IN THE PANTS advice I need to hear. No more excuses for procrastinating and second guessing myself and my designs. Waiting around or things to happen. I am going to BE disciplined to be professional & have ambition without questioning!

    A perfect quote comes to mind, “Discipline is what we must have to make us do the things we should do in order to have the things WE SAY WE WANT TO HAVE!”
    – Joyce Meyer

  • Excellent advice! I’ve seen it time & time again, in many industries, those that get ahead, except for the very rare, extremely lucky individual are those that use ambition to their advantage & behave as if they have already made it to the top & put in the work to get there. Thank you for this well written & insightful article!

  • Megan, thanks for your sage words of wisdom!! I’m such a fan and so thrilled to see this post on design*sponge. You’re really an inspiration.

  • Definitely needed to hear this today! Thanks for reminding me how badly I want to succeed as an artist and that I’m the person who needs to make that happen!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 :)

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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!


  • 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!