6 Reasons Why Artists Fail at Business

May 16


1) Artists want to create art, not run a business

Running a business has nothing to do with creating art. Nothing. Really, nothing. Do you want to create art for a living? If you do that is something you should come to terms with early on.

If that idea sounds horrible to you, don’t try to make a living being an artist.  I mean that, you will be much happier going to a regular 9-5 job and doing your art on the side.

If you have no interest in running a business, don’t run a business! You will fail.

This has nothing to do with you as a person, it only has to do with what you want as a person. I suck at basketball, like a lot. It is damn embarrassing how bad I am at basketball. I once saw a basketball on a court and I swear it started rolling away on its own just to not be around me.

I am ok being horrible at basketball, because I have never once tried to be good at it. That isn’t really surprising is it? Something I have absolutely no desire to be good at, I am not good at.

If you have no desire to run a business well, you will not run a business well.

You have a couple of options here: Get someone else to run your business, or live the life of a starving artist.

It is actually a good thing that running a business and creating art have nothing to do with each other. This means you can suck at art and still make a great living being an artist.

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2) Artists fight exactly what they need to do

Most often in business and in life the thing you don’t want to do is the thing you most need to do in order to succeed.

I am an artist, and trust me, this sucks. I know exactly what I want to do all the time: I want to stay in my studio and make art. I want the entire world to come to me offering opportunity. I want models to miraculously show up at my doorstep and ask if they can pay me to take photos of them.

I know this is ridiculous, it would never happen in real life. Now comes in all of the things you don’t really want to do. You want to get a client to hire you? Well you had better get out and start meeting a ton of people who have budgets. You would do well to make them like you too.

I have faced this dilemma many many times in my career – the struggle between being a business person and an artist.

I took this portrait of myself in 2008, and things haven’t really changed. It is still a struggle between myself as an artist and myself as a business person. To be honest, I have always put being an artist on some sort of pedastool. Like “ I am an artist, I shouldn’t have to do all that business stuff, that is for lame business people”.

I thought that by becoming a “business person” that I would lose my soul. I would lose what made me ME.

Little did I know but that attitude can get you in a lot of trouble. It turns out that business really isn’t that bad. Being good at business is a lot like being good at life. You don’t have to be “That Guy” and try to convince yourself and others that you are something you are not. Just find something you believe in, and tell people about it, you will be the greatest salesperson in the world because all you tell them will be true.

You have done this before. When you really wanted to see a movie, and you convinced your friends to go with you. When you made some awesome cookies and you got everyone around you to try them. When you told your friends about dropbox so they could sign up and you would get more storage. Guess what, you just became a sales person for Dropbox. If you are willing to do it for them, why not be willing to do it for yourself?


Fear can be completely immobilizing. I am not speaking here of fear of spiders or snakes, those actually make sense. Having a healthy fear of snakes means you probably won’t be an idot and try to pick up a black mamba.

Most people have fears they aren’t fully aware of, and many of those people will never confront those fears. That is not really a problem if you don’t plan on pushing yourself, but if you want to make it as an artist and in business, one of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself is to identify and face your fears.

In case you are reading this and saying to yourself “I don’t really have fear getting in the way of my success” you are either a total badass (think Blade or Marcel The Shell) or you haven’t really thought about it.

What keeps you from walking up to the hottest girl at the bar and introducing yourself? What stops you from giving the cute dude on the train your number? What stops you from eating yellow snow?

The same reasons may be what keep you from calling potential clients or sponsors on the phone and introducing yourself. The same reason may keep you from taking your life savings and investing it in your company. The same thing might be keeping you from quitting your day job to pursue your passion.

In the past year I have done all of these things, and they were ALL HARD AS HELL. Each decision scared me, and I spent a long time letting the fear control my actions. When I finally made the decision to change my life and face my fears, amazing things started to happen. Instead of me just thinking my life was going to magically get better on its own, it actually did get better.

One thing that has always helped me to face my fears is to think to myself. – What is the worst thing that could happen?

If you ask yourself this and answer honestly, you will probably find that the answer isn’t that bad. For me it was something like this: I would lose all that I own, become poor and have to live with my parents.

Then I thought to myself “It would be just like I was 17 again, I loved being 17!”. It made everything better. Going broke doesn’t mean I would forget everything that I have learned, and I am pretty confident that if I started at ZERO today,  I could surpass where I am now in less than 1 year.  Jobs come and go, so do possessions and just about everything else in life.

“The worst thing that happens to you may be the best thing for you if you don’t let it get the best of you”

– Will Rogers

4) Artists forget about the little things (like taxes)

There are people who spend their entire lives learning how to start companies and run successful business and still fail. Don’t let your ignorance come back to haunt you.

Thankfully there is this great thing called the internet  (Al Gore is the man) with answers for just about any question you may have.

Here are some things you really need to pay attention to:

  • Taxes – If you are working for yourself you are not exempt from income tax. What does this mean? You just photographed a wedding and collected $3,000 for a job well done; you can pay your bills and have a little left over to celebrate. Not quite, you really just made about $1,800 – $2,200 depending on how you file your dependencies. Minus the depreciation and cost of gear/travel and you are looking at actually making $1,500. HALF. This is pretty serious, don’t wait until your taxes are due to figure this out, it will kill your business!
  • Business Legal Structure – Depending on how you are going to structure your business (LLC vs Inc) you have some work to do here. My advice is to hire an attorney and an accountant – these people will not work for free. If you are curious Phlearn is set up as an LLC. We have 2 accountants and an attorney. Who do you think wrote this Terms of Service– Me?
  • Bookkeeping – If you are planning on just using your personal checking account to run a business, please don’t. Open a second account, and handle everything that is business related through that account. Even if you are the only one getting paid by your business, pay yourself out of this account. This will make your life much easier when it comes to doing taxes.

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”

– Benjamin Franklin



5) Artists think they can do everything themselves.

The problem is that usually they can, but that doesn’t mean they should.

Artists are stubborn people, I know, I am one. When an artist puts their mind to something, they will figure out how to make it work. It is that curiosity that has made them an artist in the first place.

Here is a simple rule, live by it and you will find success:
Do what you are good at, and get other people to do the rest.

You don’t have to become an attorney to file all of your legal work, someone else is already an attorney. Do you really hate selling? Get someone else to do it. Hate brushing your teeth? Hire someone to brush them for you. Just don’t think that by not doing it that it doesn’t need to get done.

The biggest mistake you can make is by spending your time getting good at something you shouldn’t be doing in the first place. Someone else is already good at that, pay them to do it.

Think of your company as an airline. You may be the person who builds the plane, you may be the person who flies the plane, you may even be the dude holding the flags on the runway, but you can’t be all of them. Run your company as it would make sense on a large scale, figure out your role, figure out what other roles need to be filled, and go from there. Don’t have money to pay people? Get a loan or ask your rich uncle. If you are unwilling to do either of these things, you probably don’t believe in your own company.

6) Artists undervalue their work and skills/talent

You want to know how much your art/worth is worth? Exactly how much you say it is worth. If you don’t place value on your work, no one else will either.

Most of us started out making art because it was something we were passionate about, and we just wanted to create. I don’t know any artists who started out with money on their minds. For me personally, it was 2 years after first picking up a camera before I decided I was going to start charging for my art. This means that for 730 days, I was doing it just because I wanted to do it.

Most people see “work” as something they don’t want to do. In their heads “work” is worth money and “playing around” is not. This is why it is so hard for artists to place a price tag on their art, they would have done it even if they didn’t have to. Well I am here to tell you that just because that work you were doing didn’t suck, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t count as work. If you have years invested into your art, it has value.

Why is Godiva chocolate 5x more expensive that Hersheys? It is not 5 times better; in fact I like Dove Chocolate the best. They charge more because they tell you it is worth more. They place little chocolates delicately in a box of gold, adding nothing to the chocolate itself, only to the experience. You think you are getting something of value, and you are ok paying more for it.

People only know what you tell them. Put a fancy bow on your art, charge accordingly.