How to Focus Your Time at Any Stage of Creative Business

Time management can be a bear. Today I want to talk about how (and where) to focus your working hours at any stage of creative business.

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I’ve coached hundreds of creatives, and a common complaint I hear is …

I never know what I should be working on or how to focus my time.

I can help! But first, I’d like to go over the 3 stages of a creative business’ growth because time management is different for each. You’ll be able to identify yourself in one of the following:

Stage 1: The Novice. This is where everybody begins, and hopefully everyone will grow out of. At this stage, a creative business owner either sees their work as a hobby or as a gamble (a lottery ticket that could win!).

We often start out online with a Field of Dreams mentality, believing that “if you build it, they will come.” We all quickly learn that that is not the case, and some people give up right then and there. Don’t be one of them! At this stage, you’ve created an online storefront and you’re probably expecting customers to find you and buy.

Stage 2: The Amateur. This business owner has better focus and a plan that they want to expand. At this stage, you have an online storefront set up, but you probably spend most of your time looking for instant gratification (aka “big break,” such as front-page exposure on Etsy or WordPress). The amateur is either naïve to, or in denial of, the necessary long-term build.

Many sellers get to this stage and quit or get stuck forever waiting for their big break. Don’t be one of them!

Stage 3: The Professional. This is my hope for each of you. At this stage, a business owner is all in and taking full responsibility for their business’ success. As a professional, the creative business owner understands the value of each brick they lay onto the foundation of their creative empire.

This is the stage where the rubber meets the road and you, as a professional creative business owner, put all your hopes and wishing into the action and effort that will create the results you want.

Depending on what stage you’re at in creative business, here’s:

What to Work On + How to Focus Your Hours

As promised, I’ve broken this down for each stage of business.


 

Stage 1: The Novice. You’re either in the dreaming, planning + researching, and/or very beginnings of online selling. I find creatives doing all kinds of things at this stage: taking courses, gathering information and resources, perfecting their photography skills, and actually opening up shop. It’s a scary time, and sometimes your first experience “putting yourself out there.” It can feel quite vulnerable, and if you’ve never been online publicly before, it will shatter your comfort zone.

Your current focus: If you haven’t already, your number one focus should be to (1.) Create an online storefront. If the online storefront is established, you’ve probably had your Field-of-dreams-busting realization, “Wait! I build it, and they still don’t come?!” (2.) Take some time to learn what makes a successful online storefront thrive. I have a true arsenal of information waiting for you in this series:

31 Days to Build Your Own Creative Business: Includes articles on product marketability, pricing, product photography, and more.

Once you’ve polished your online presence and perfected your shop’s cohesion, it’s time to (3.) Build an online platform. I’d like you to imagine the customers and fans of your business as an “audience” and your online presence as a “platform.” Your platform is an interconnected web: each website, social media or storefront that exists in your name links around to all of your other projects. For example, your blog drives traffic to your Etsy shop, the Etsy shop links to your Facebook and Twitter account, and your social media accounts link back to your shop and blog. Each site should link to the next as a connected circle.

There will be actual work ahead in this business: building inventory, a steady stream of orders to fill, researching and ordering supplies, etc. However when most people start out, that work trickles in as the business is in its infancy. Overall, look to invest your time at this stage into building a sturdy foundation where you can grow and build the company of your dreams.

Your pitfall: There are two real dangers at this stage, so be careful! The first danger comes with too much planning. If you have a product or information to sell, but no online storefront where people can buy it, that’s a red flag. The only way for a business to start growing is if it has a space where it can evolve. Having a product with no way to sell it is like holding a seed and waiting for fruit. You have to plant that seed to get started!

I wrote a whole article about planners vs. doers because the key to a successful creative business is finding balance between planning and doing. When planners set deadlines and implement what they’ve learned by doing, they get better results. When doers make a commitment to plan before they execute, they get better results.

The second danger comes when you “hobby” your new business. When you knit a scarf for your friend or paint a vase for your mother, that’s a hobby. When you list that creation online for sale, that hobby creation becomes business. Many handmade sellers fail to realize this. Don’t be one of them!

Your goal: Strong shop cohesion and a polished online presence. You’ll want to stop looking at this new venture as a gamble that could pay off, and begin to develop a consistent and professional rhythm to your days.


 

Stage 2: The Amateur. You have a shop up and running, you’ve perfected your online presence, but you’re not making enough actual sales to fill your time or validate your efforts thus far.

Your current focus: It’s time to  (1.) Think long-term. I often catch many creative business owners (including myself!) doing “the scramble.” In other words, we wake up today and ask ourselves: what I am I going to do today to get some sales already? And then the scramble begins:

Why, I’ll send an email! I’ll promote this post on Facebook! I’ll make four new items and list them in the shop, and then I’ll tweet each of them so everyone will come check them out!

See? I can absolutely promise you that creative business owners are the only small business owners in the world that approach business that way! There’s no method to the madness, it’s just a pure scramble for sales. Help us, Tom Cruise! (You better comment if you got that reference. 😀 )

Create a business calendar for yourself and lay out the next twelve months in advance. Schedule your list-building campaigns, your blog posts, your sales and promotions, your income-generating new projects, your time off, and your business’ anticipated needs. Then, treat this business like a business and follow that plan!

(2.) Build your email list. For the Energy Shop, I’ve found that every email on the subscription list is worth $1 in sales during a promotion. In other words, when there were 250 people on that list, a promotional email with a coupon code inside generated approximately $250 in profit. The same thing happened when there were 500 people on my list, and again when there were 750 people. The dollar amount I profited continued to increase with the number of people who subscribed. That is how valuable each subscriber for your mailing list will be.

When you’re at this stage in business, don’t wait until you absolutely need a mailing list. Start now, especially if you have an Etsy shop because it will be a slow-growing list (Etsy does not integrate an easy way for customers to opt-in). Sign up with an email list provider (Mail Chimp, Constant Contact, Mad Mimi, etc.). Through them, you can create a landing page and link where customers can opt-in for your list.

The only way to get Etsy customers on your list is by including a link to the opt-in page…

  • in the Etsy shop announcement (though the link is not live),
  • with your “thank you for your order” automated emails,
  • as a response to custom requests, and
  • on your own social media accounts and blog. (I’ll occasionally post the email opt-in page before a big private sale to entice more Facebook and Twitter fans to sign up.)

(3.) Strengthen your marketing muscle. Get comfortable sharing your products with the world! If you want them to be seen, it’ll be your efforts that help potential customers find them.

Your pitfall: There are two real dangers at this stage. First and foremost, your biggest challenge will be to stop looking for the elusive “big break.” I’ve had huge moments in creative business, such as when actor Aldis  Hodge wore my bracelet on the red carpet at the 2013 Golden Globes, or the day one of my bracelets was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. But those moments are just that: one second of elation in a long day of hard work.

The fact of the matter is, those notable moments never brought much business. I smiled at my accomplishment, shared it with friends and customers, and then got right back to my to-do list.

We often dream of a big break, but in reality, a business succeeds because of a long history of small wins. And trust me, if your business took off too fast, you wouldn’t know how to run it. Just keep putting yourself out there, watch for opportunities to spread the word about your business, and never stop creating.

The second danger at this stage comes with comparison and mindless stat-watching. Amateurs waste a lot of time doing both. Comparing your sales, salary and popularity with those around you is not only useless, it’s self-sabatoging. You can’t know what really goes on behind-the-scenes of any other business, and you certainly shouldn’t assume it’s all roses and daisies back there!

The same goes for stat-watching, which is only necessary on a weekly basis (if that). I can attest that, at the amateur stage, countless hours are spent watching others succeed and your own stats – unproductive activities blanketed under the header, “I’m working.” When instead it should be called, “I’m waiting for something to happen.”

Your goal: No more stat-watching! When you’re at work, ask yourself often, “If this moment were a dollar, am I burning it? Or am I investing it?”

Now that the shop is up and running, it’s time to start treating it like a real business with a long-term plan. The fastest way – the absolute best hack – to get from this stage to the next is to realize that making this business a success is your job. We often think working for the business is what are working hours are for, but no! You are the CEO of this company; your job is to go out and create a space in the world for this business to thrive.


Stage 3: The Professional. You gorgeous entre-prowess!  At this stage, your shop is selling, your blog sees steady traffic, and you’re turning a profit. You have climbed the mountain and achieved the initial goal you set out to accomplish: you’ve built your own successful creative business.

Your current focus: At the start of 2014, I kept hearing a message, and I heard it everywhere I went. It even appeared, in all caps, in the novel I was reading in January.  Here’s a quote from Oprah Winfrey:

“I say the universe speaks to us, always, first in whispers. And a whisper in your life usually feels like ‘hmmm, that’s odd.’ Or, ‘hmm, that doesn’t make any sense’ Or, ‘hmm, is that right?’ It’s that subtle. And if you don’t pay attention to the whisper, it gets louder and louder and louder. … What’s whispering to you now?”

(1.) Never rest on your laurels. That was the message that was being whispered to me. It can be quite difficult to keep the momentum going in your business at all times. At this stage, you’ll have to keep investing your time, energy and faith into the business’ success, even when it feels like no one’s watching and nobody cares. That, my friend, is challenging. It means never giving up on yourself.

(2.) Keep thinking long-term. More than ever it’s up to you to maintain and build on the business you’ve created. It’s nice that you can finally rely on it, but it’s still nerve-wracking when you’re not sure what to do with it next. Just as when you were a novice, create a business calendar for yourself and lay out the next twelve months in advance. Schedule your list-building campaigns, your blog posts, your sales and promotions, your income-generating new projects, your time off, and your business’ anticipated needs. Then, treat this business like a business and follow that plan!

(3.) Build a 5-year plan. Now that you’ve learned quite a bit about your best work and dream clients, focus your efforts in that direction. Build a 5-year, in-depth plan – as any successful small business would. Name a destination and decide your ideal: income, working hours, vacation time, employees, location, and mission.

Your pitfall: You’ve really stretched your comfort zone to get here, and the pitfall is in nesting in a new, but different comfort zone because you reached your major goal of having a successful business. Again, remember that this is the stage where the rubber meets the road and you, as a professional creative business owner, put all your hopes and wishing into the action and effort that will create the results you want.

Your goal: To stretch your comfort zone to a place of constant expansion. You’ll need to keep plugging away, open and vulnerable to potential failure. When your latest big idea doesn’t go as planned, it means trying again and correcting whatever might not have worked the first time. It’s time to design your career into whatever you imagine will keep your passion burning for decades to come.


 

Here’s the truth, no matter the stage

You think once you make it to a certain professional level, the road gets smoother. You think the money will come automatically. You think publicity will seek you out, rather than you always clamoring for it. You think that everyone on your subscriber list will open this email, to find that only 40% of them cared. You think that because you’ve finally learned the value of your time, others will respect it. You think the low points will go away.

The truth is, parts of this job never get easier. Your perspective will always be too close. A big rejection will still crack your confidence. A slow month will never fail to rattle you. The people you trust in business can still disappoint you. Your big, dreamy ideas can still sometimes fail. And you will always, always, always be responsible for growing the business and stretching your professional comfort zone. That will never go away.

In business, as in life, the best remedy is a healthy dose of perspective + the gumption to believe in big, dreamy ideas when it feels like nobody else in the world wants to back them. It’s saying:

I can get paid to do what I love. I can get paid to be who I am.

And believing it. It’s focusing on five dream customers, rather than five thousand. It’s about gaining presence and taking back control: what success are you going to create today? How do you choose to feel about your work right now? It’s about not focusing on your disappointments, but turning those disappointments into a lesson about your true desires. It’s about always being deliberately on purpose.

Here’s to your success,

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9 comments

  • As I read this, I realized that I was “the Professional” and yet I still feel like an amateur. This is a great article and indeed has made me reevaluate my focus. My little shop; CedarMoon (on Etsy) and my Flamingo Incognitos have grown over the last two years, as they say, organically – just like Jack’s bean stalk!
    I get your newsletter and read every word of market your creativity. And your re-make of the site is beautiful.
    One question though: how do I get to read otherss comments?
    Thanks,
    Kate

    • Hi Kate, I checked out your site – how unique and wonderful your products are! I love your art. I’m so glad to hear you like the new website design.

      As for comments, you’ll need to click the post’s title to ensure you’re on the actual page (and not the blog’s general stream= where no comments appear). Once you’re on the single post page, you’ll find the comments at the bottom.

      A great pleasure to meet you!

  • Lisa, I read you posts, and this was a great one. I am the professional, yeah! I get up every day and say “what seeds can I plant today to make my business grow”! I don’t look at google analytics to see traffice on my store, I rarely look at stats, only at the end of the day, I am to busy planning my next stratgey.
    I have had the recognition of a famous actress on the London stage wearing my jewelry, sold a piece to a famous queen, someone making a around the world flight, and I will be the featured artist in Beadstyle magazine. All moments of elation, but they are just moments. The greatest moment of recognition came for me when 2 ladies were at a public event, they came from different towns, didn’t know each other and noticed they both were wearing Blackberry Designs Jewelry–that was a ah, ha, moment! My jewelry was “branded”, and they knew it was from the same designer.
    I want the repeat customer, that posts on my facebook page, and tells all their friends. I also have had lines I have done that I thought would just take off, and they haven’t, other lines I have done that I thought may sell, and I sold out the same day. I re-direct to what the customers want. The biggest challenge has been that I can’t seem to have people sign up for the newsletter, any tips?

    • Beautiful jewelry + beautiful story! Congratulations on your success. It’s lovely to meet you!

      As for your current obstacle in business (newsletter subscribers – great direction!), I’m in the process of building a free, 7-day email list-building challenge that is sure to help you start gaining more subscribers. Be sure to stay tuned!

  • Hi Lisa, I love your new site!! Very pleasing and luminous:O). I took the BaBCB couse from you and Tim and have recently launched my new website. I changed my name from My Art and My Soul to Sally Hoffman Designs. I think this was a good move. I wish you much luck in your new adventure and as always – looking forward to your advise and encouragement!! Cheers, Sally

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