Hobby to full time: Creative entrepreneurship
Creative Entrepeneurship, Ruminating

MAKE BOSS: TIPS FOR TRANSITIONING TO FULL-TIME CREATIVE

Last year I quit my job to become a full-time sewing person. It was crazy, exhilarating and scary, and also the best decision I’ve ever made, short of growing out my hair after the ill-advised Winona Ryder Pixie Haircut Disaster of ’98. It’s been 9 months now and even though I’m working more than I ever did at my proper 9-5 career, (and have a mild case of Workaholic’s Insomnia and recurring incidents of Type A Lower Back Disease to show for it) I don’t ever look back with anything but relief and gratitude that I was able to go out on a limb and not fall out of the tree.

If you’re up half the night dreaming, scheming and hoping to make your creative work fill the daytime hours, you’re probably wondering how to do just that. A few folks asked for a post on how I made the transition to full time, so here is a non-exhaustive list of things that worked for me. This is a practical list; while having great ideas or new things to say is obviously important, just as crucial (if not more so) is the framework you build for yourself that allows your creativity to flourish. Structure is important. My experience is personal and subjective, but maybe something here will be of use to you as you consider the big scary of just going for it.

1. START SMALL

Unless you have access to funding for your business idea (cashing out an RRSP, crowdfunding, family or bank loans) most of us have to start small. Small, in my opinion, is good. Small is low commitment, low stress, low investment, low risk. Slow means you can continue working a regular job while you decide if there is a market for what you have to offer, and gives you a taste of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur without having to uproot your entire life only to discover it’s not really your thing.

2. TEST THE WATERS

Before you stage an explosive “I AM OUTTA HERE!” scene at work, complete with desk sweeping and double finger salute on your way out the door, figure out if your idea/product/service actually has legs. If you want to freelance, start drumming up side gigs now. If you sell a thing, do a trial release to see how people react. At the very least, invest in a little market research. Reach out to your blog readers and/or your social network to see if your idea is appealing to your potential market. If you’d like something more formal and anonymous, you can also pay for consumer surveys, like this service provided by Google. The depressing reality is that 80% of small businesses fail. Do as much legwork as you can to set yourself up for success before you go full hog.

3. GET OUT OF DEBT, IF YOU CAN.

One of the best things I did for myself and my business was pay off all my credit card debt while I was still working my old job. I knew that on a reduced income that credit card bill would be the death of me. Sacrificing now to pay off smaller debts means you’re freeing up some credit if you need it down the road, and maybe more critically, carrying no balance on credit cards makes you attractive to possible lenders if you need to borrow money down the road for your business. Obviously this may not always be possible (student loans, anyone?) but if you’ve been carrying around credit card debt that you could pay off if you set your mind to it, I highly recommend the sweet release of a zero balance. If you plan on applying for a business loan in the future, take a look at your credit products and cancel any extra cards you don’t need. You’ll take a small hit on your credit rating now, but lenders look at the total credit available to you when making a decision on whether or not to lend; even if you carry zero balance on 5 cards, in their eyes you could theoretically max them all out in the future and be unable to repay your loan.

4. FIGURE OUT HOW MUCH YOU COST.

Take the time to do an in-depth personal budget. Include your rent or mortgage, utilities, cell phone, vet bills, health insurance, gas, everything. Look at your bank statements to make sure you’re not forgetting the Netflix bill or your $50 pharmacy runs. Add it all up and take a good look to see what you can afford to lose. If you’ll be working from home, you may be surprised by how much less money you spend day to day; my living expenses have gone down significantly since I’m not accidentally shopping on my way home from work, taking public transportation every day or going out for lunch or coffee all the time. Once you have a bare bones budget, you’ll know what you need to be live on. Now take that amount and add 30%. This will cover your personal income taxes and give you a little wiggle room for emergencies. This is what you need to clear every month from your business. If you don’t think you can do it for the first year or so, you’ll need to…

5. BUILD A CUSHION

About 6 months before I actually quit, I was so fed up at work that I called my dad in a somewhat frenzied and manic state and told him that I was quitting at the end of the month. I had little savings to speak of and was still paying off credit card debt, but I was so miserable at work I wasn’t thinking clearly. My father, being the frustratingly practical and street smart man that he is, talked me off the ledge. He convinced me to suck it up for another 6 months, to save every penny I could so that when I did leave, I would have enough in the bank that I could actually focus on what I was doing instead of stressing every day about where the rent was going to come from. So I sucked it up, white-knuckling my way through aggravating client meetings and mind-bendingly banal architectural drawing sets, all while secretly working on Nettie when no one was looking. I built up a little cushion of savings that is 100% responsible for the fact that I’m still actually doing this thing I wanted to do. If you can, make a little nest of money that you can nip away at when you need to. That little nest will help you sleep at night. Especially if you stuff your mattress with it.

6. PREPARE FOR THE HUSTLE

Owning a small business isn’t for everyone, or it may not be for you at this particular time in your life. And that’s okay. I had two small businesses in my 20s that didn’t really go anywhere because I wasn’t at a place in my life where I could commit 24/7 to making them work. As much fun as a lot of creative entrepreneurs are having, most of them would probably tell you they’re working harder and longer than they did in more traditional fields. Businesses are like children; they are high maintenance, take up all your time and don’t really care if you’re getting enough sleep. Chances are you’ll have to really hustle for the first few years to make ends meet. If a healthy work/life balance is really important to you, be conscious that it might be a little out of whack for a while. Maybe forever. I don’t know too many entrepreneurs who have it really figured out. If you do, tell me all your secrets.

7. DESIGN A BUSINESS BLUEPRINT.

If you need a large investment to get your business of the ground, you really and truly need to write a business plan, regardless of whether you are financing your business from your savings or borrowing from a bank. When large sums of money are involved, its imperative that you sit down and really think deeply about what you want to do. This means doing a lot of market research, figuring out who your customer is, defining your mission, establishing pricing, identifying your business model and doing a lot of risk assessment. It’s a crazy butt-load of work. But it’s also a great exercise that provides you with an amazing tool to constantly refer to as your business evolves. I dragged my feet getting mine together and only wrote it in February, but it was so worth it; it’s like having a blueprint for the future. You wouldn’t build a home with plans; why approach the biggest financial decision you’ll ever make with any less regard?

I’m sure I could go on, but I think this sums up some important practical considerations to make if you’re considering going full-time with your creative pursuit. Anything you think I missed? If you’re already doing the entrepreneur thing, what helped you make the transition to full-time career? I’m all ears.