I was recently invited to contribute to this fab book; At The Sharp End;Advice and Tips from 60 real businesses. Now, I don’t profess to be a business guru; anyone who has access to my accounts and systems would see that at a glance. I STRUGGLE with business. But I decided to put that vulnerability and challenge into an article offering my experiences in running a creative business. Here’s what I wrote. Please, please buy the book; it’s raising valuable money for an extremely worthy cause, Cancer Research UK.
More than that, if you run a small business or are thinking of starting one, there is some incredibly useful advice in here, from finance, copyright, communications, marketing, branding… you name it, its covered. Seriously, it’s a great resource.
It’s well known that our brains are divided into two hemispheres, and although it’s a huge generalization to say each hemisphere is responsible for a different type of thinking, it is probably true to say that creative people use their right brains more than their left. This not a scholarly article on brain physiology and function, but a personal attempt to explain why some of us in creative industries find it so damn hard to run a business.
Many definitions exist to describe the curious traits of those in who the right brain is dominant. But so we are all on the same map here, let me describe myself so we can get a feel for the challenges of being a right-brainer. I’m a head-in-the-clouds over-thinker, emotional and slightly introverted, a fluff-brain idealist-creative with a tendency to fear and doubt, self-judgment, comparison, procrastination, distraction, denial, and a feeling that I don’t quite fit. In common with my right-brain peers, I tend to focus on how something is said rather than just the what. Thoughts happen randomly and haphazardly; there is rarely anything sequential about my thought process.
I have a love-hate relationship with money; it taints the purity of my artistic vision, darling. I won’t read instructions and my boredom threshold is low.
I’m intuitive rather than analytical. Whilst I love process and structure, I just can’t do it. My bookcases are ordered by colour not alphabet; there are at least half a dozen books at my bedside, corners folded, scribbles in the margin and underlined, all being read and annotated concurrently.
(Oh, and I have a strong belief that vulnerability is a means to growth, so I really don’t mind sharing that all with you.)
It’s not a black and white thing; my left-brain is clearly there and working perfectly adequately, but its muscle is weakened and intimidated by its bossy opposite. Occasionally she will rise up and slap the right hemisphere into place but I have to watch that ‘Right’ doesn’t run shivering into a hole. ‘Right’ may be mostly dominant, but she is a gentle and sensitive giant, a bit of a wimp and easily intimidated.
It’s my perception that there are a lot more left brains running businesses than right; the way we do business, culturally, is based on left brain principles; most business education is designed for left brainers. I am visually oriented; business books are not. Developing skills of financial analysis, business planning, even writing a to do list, if I’m not careful, challenges me to move out of my comfort zone and into fear. Over the years I’ve been running my business, I’ve learnt much about what works for me, and conversely, what is likely to propel me into a state of paralysing ‘stuckness.’ Here are my top tips for getting ahead in business as a right-brainer.
1. Understand that we may not fit into the traditional working week. Our bodies and minds eschew the 9 to 5. We are either ‘off’ or ‘on’; and when we’re on, it’s a wave we have to ride, even if it means an 18-hour day. We are all cyclical beings; our physiological processes and cognitive functioning vary with the time of day, month, and year. I’ve learnt when my most alert, productive, creative, and distractible times are; there’s little to be gained in trying to run at 100 % all the time. Even if your business needs you to be present 9-5, you can identify when you are best equipped to do different tasks within those hours.
2. Keep doing personal projects. This is especially important if you’ve developed your business out of a hobby, as I did with my photography. Keep that right brain stimulated and entertained and don’t let your passion wither on the vine. Your passion for what you do is your USP, a precious and finite resource, and personal projects will keep it nurtured.
3. Collaboration is crucial. It’s all too easy for us to feel isolated in our creative niche. Get out, network, find your tribe. Find a guide and a mentor. Give back to your community. Be open to connection.
4. A too-precise, ultra-focused set of goals and targets may leave little room for unexpected opportunity; leave yourself an open mind in order to welcome the serendipity that is the life blood of the creative life; once you open yourself to the possibility of synchronicity and serendipity, they will pop up everywhere. (Careful, though, that it’s not an excuse for distraction! Ensure these happy chances really do fit in with your goals and values. )
5. Do whatever it takes to keep you grounded, happy and whole; it might be yoga or mountain biking or digging the allotment; exercise nurtures your body and spirit. Good sleep, nutrition, and computer downtime are all vital. Know what feeds your spirit and what depletes it. Protect your energy reserves- remember the potential for building wealth is within you, not external to you, and your energy needs constant nurturing.
6. Accept that some sh*t is necessary; accounts have to be prepared, paperwork has to be filed; know where your own strengths lie, and get help for the other stuff. It will free up your time and your mind to do the things that will drive your business forward.
7. Remember to maintain balance. Passion can easily lead to obsession, and obsession to burnout. When you’re ‘in flow’ on the creative stuff, it’s easy to neglect the business end of things, which may result in you being taken advantage of… or going broke…
8. Don’t take it all so personally. Rejection is a fact of life. Don’t confuse your own personal value with the value of your work in a competitive marketplace in a depressed economy. Learn to protect yourself from heart break- but not by shying away from risk. Lean into the fear and do it anyway.
9. Get good systems in place. A nagging thought that you’ve forgotten something, or are avoiding it, can corrode your creativity and stop you from doing your best work. Use a productivity system to capture details, ideas and to-do’s so that you are free to move on knowing that nothing is going to slip through the cracks.
10. Face up to procrastination; the nemesis of the creative brain. Action leads to the risk of failure, criticism or ridicule, hence inaction is always easier. There are many methods to overcome procrastination; break big tasks down into ‘next steps’; make yourself accountable by saying what you’re going to do and when; chunk your time into bite size pieces (e.g. the Pomodoro technique); don’t delay tasks because you haven’t got the systems in place; understand when perfectionism is blocking you (95% is usually good enough.)
11. Embrace your eccentricity- you don’t have to be like everyone else. It’s easy to waste a lot of energy in trying to conform. Leverage your differences as part of your unique brand.
12. Develop your left-brain muscle too. Carl Jung advised us to strengthen our non-dominant brain in order to strengthen our skills overall. I know that when I’ve got the organizational side covered, it frees my creativity. It’s like athletes cross-training; it makes them stronger, faster, more focused overall.
13. Use your creativity to envision your dreams; use pictures, colour, glue, paint; whatever it takes to make a vision board illustrating your goals- pin it above your desk, and when you wobble, return to this vision, and get yourself back on track. Instead of sitting in front of your computer, use colour, shape, paper, post-its, pencil and pens to plan your work. (Right brainers need little excuse to buy stationery supplies) Get up and move. Draw mind maps instead of lists to help you think of creative solutions to your business problems.
14. Change your attitude to fear and failure. The most successful right brain entrepreneurs, designers and creatives have truly embraced ‘failure’ as ‘learning’. When we believe failure is an opportunity for growth, we can (almost) take the fear out of our creative lives.
15. Stop comparing. Daily, I’m exposed to the exceptional talents and creativity of photographers and artists around the world, and if I let it, it would freeze me into total inaction. It’s a fine line; inspiration is vital, but comparison is a creativity killer.
16. Consider multitasking as an overrated skill- choose to focus instead! It’s shifting gear between two different tasks that’s hard; the segue between the left and the right brain. Try and be fully present, in the moment with each task in turn.
17. Get over the money thing. Because it’s a passion, because it comes easy, the tendency is to undervalue it as a hard fought skill, to think there’s nothing special about you, and to not charge enough for it. Money is not dirty, it’s a necessity!
18. Remember that even if you are not, your customers may be right brainers. Consider how you market your product to them. Tell a story, use imagery, and tell them what a difference this will make to their life. Don’t just give them facts and figures.
Your aim is to secure their loyalty to your brand and to influence how your product is received; not simply to increase bottom line revenue.
19. Take a break- go for a walk, visit the coffee shop, do some retail therapy; remember as a creative entrepreneur this counts as work too, (just make sure you carry a notebook with you to jot down the inevitable random thoughts that will pop up when you’re not looking!)
20. Be open to new experiences, welcome the chance to meet new people, visit new places; work in a different environment- even though you may have a tendency to introversion or a feeling that you have to be tied to your desk/ studio.
21. Be grateful for the amazing and privileged position we are in. Getting paid for something we love to do- does it get any better than that? Surely learning to run a business built around a passion is so much easier than if I were in possession of a proficient business brain but struggling to engage some creativity into my business?
Ultimately, I do believe its possible to be an artist and an entrepreneur, to have artistic integrity and to create wealth.