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Taking the Lean Approach to Making Art

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Escape member Rob Hallifax originally studied engineering and spent several years working for a large multinational corporation. Since then he’s founded and worked for tech start-ups and is currently getting in touch with his artistic side. Mostly, he just likes making things.

I’ve always enjoyed making things – from handmade birthday cards to a double bed and all sorts in between. I like the idea of creating something truly unique, but my motivation also comes from not being satisfied with what’s readily available in the market. Sometimes I make things just because I’m being cheap. One way or the other I like to channel my constructive discontent.

I should probably say that for the purists, what I talk about here may not sound like ‘art’. For me, art is a process of designing beautiful things. It is not a calling from god. I make things that I want other people to like, and will adapt what I do if I think it will make it more popular or more commercially viable. I have a great reverence for art and creativity, but I’m looking at it here from a very practical point of view.

I’ve recently taken my creativity up a level and have begun to try and make some money out of it. This is something I’ve done in the past but never in such a deliberate attempt to scale and build a sustainable enterprise.

Previously, my most successful run of creativity from a financial point of view was about ten years ago when I sold some art in the form of photo collages.

It seems strange to think of it now but this was pre-Facebook and many of the other tools that now make operating online so accessible. The reason for the relative success back then was mostly luck. My circumstances gave me good access to a network of customers and this meant that a couple of initial sales quickly turned into more through referrals.

Compared with then, the internet has made a profound difference to how I run my little venture now.

Rob who?

As I said, back then I was lucky in that I was able to get some of my work in front of people who had money. Other than that, I tried to get work exhibited in galleries and shops with limited success. There was also the hope that family and friends would disseminate my message widely enough to attract sales. Broadly speaking, in order to get my work in front of prospective customers, the effort required to do so increased linearly.

Now, for almost no cost I have been able to create a website. This means that absolutely anyone who takes an interest in what I do can get a good look at my work with no marginal cost to me. Of course this is only half of the equation.

To generate that initial interest I have still, so far, mostly relied on word of mouth. The difference however is that social media has made the grapevine exponentially more powerful. For example, I am currently undertaking a commission with someone 6,000 miles away in South Africa who saw something a friend of mine posted about me on Facebook.

As well as my own website I have set myself up on the web selling platform Etsy. This further opens up my work to a staggering amount of potential buyers. Again the direct cost to me here is negligible.

Unfortunately, there is of course no shortage of other people with the same dreams and aspirations as me, so standing out from the crowd is tricky. And I’m competing with people in America, China and the rest of Europe. As barriers to entry are lowered, such online services are perfecting the market which ultimately benefits buyers more than sellers.

Even though most of my recent business has come my way via good old fashioned word-of-mouth, I believe that my online presence not only allows people to see what I do but also adds a certain professionalism and legitimacy to my endeavours.

Talking to customers and social proof

Ten years ago pretty much the only way to assess and discuss my work was to have seen it in real life and then talk to me about it. A second-hand account or testimonial could also be had but again only in fairly limited circumstances.

Now, someone can see a picture of a piece of my work on Facebook and immediately decide to like it or share it. This not only increases my exposure but also gives me some idea about the kind of things people have an affinity with. And then if they are interested in finding out more I can be contacted at the click of a button and a dialogue can begin. Similarly, Etsy offers the same advantages.

Show me the money

Other aspects of the small creative business that have changed significantly are on the transactional and logistical side of things.

Back then it was pretty hard to do business with anyone too far way. Payments were almost universally made by cheques (remember them?). Sales could be handled by someone else, but when I had work hanging in a locally gallery, the gallery would keep a hefty 50% of the sale price.

Etsy now can handle purchases with minimal hassle and risk, and when I sell direct commissions the buyer can chose to make a simple PayPal or online bank transfer.

The primary benefit of all of these things is that they free up my time to do the core value-adding work – the fun bit. Whenever I speak to creative people, or indeed anyone, running a small business the processes of building a website, invoicing, shipping and accounting are not what they enjoy doing. They are chores that need doing but are tedious at best and at worst downright painful.

Creation and bike shops

And it’s not only the boring bits that have been helped by the internet. As well as the fact that it’s enjoyable and extremely satisfying to be appreciated and discussed on social media by complete strangers, the actual creation process has been enhanced by online tools.

I am involved in groups on Facebook and a community on Etsy where like-minded people inspire each other and share tips and ideas. The life of an artist can be a lonely one, which is partly what put me off it in the past, but the sense of camaraderie fostered by online communities goes a long way to help.

As well as providing a sense of virtual togetherness in my solitary pursuit, the sharing of knowledge can be a powerful thing. Here’s an example. I was trying to figure out good, cost-effective, ways of shipping large, framed art to customers. Tips on the best methods of postage were easy enough to find, but a gem came up that I’d never have thought of on my own.

To source nice big flat cardboard for boxing up a bubble-wrapped frame, go to your local bike shop and they will likely be very grateful to get rid of the large boxes that bikes come to them in. Great advice, environmentally friendly, and a very pleasing synergy.

Obviously the internet also makes it really simple to find exactly the right pen or paintbrush required for a job. Or in my case, the specific edition of a 1961 map that I needed to complete a collage.

Lean

I generally think the whole lean start-up philosophy as espoused by Eric Rees makes sense. I don’t think it’s as revolutionary as some make it out to be, and the internet hasn’t fundamentally changed basic economics, but I do think the internet has radically changed the entrepreneurial landscape. This allows all sorts of lean principles to be applied to all sorts of fields in new ways.

Looking back at what lean originally meant in a manufacturing context half a century ago it was basically about reducing waste, whether that be materials, effort, time, etc. These things apply equally to art as they do to mass-producing cars or building web applications.

I could easily have spent hundreds or thousands of pounds on a bespoke eCommerce website, but I didn’t need to. Maybe I will one day but the point is that it’s not a requirement to get you off the ground.

I could have spent a fortune on frames and tried to get my work hung in a gallery. Now, I need only buy one frame which I can re-use in order to take photos for my website. When I sell a piece, only then do I need to buy another frame to finish the job. And then there’s the not insignificant absence of the gallery’s margin-eating commission.

It could also be the case that even if you do well enough to end up with a gallery full of your work, you may only then realise that no one really wants to buy the stuff. The lean way is to find out very quickly what people like by showing as many people as you can, as soon as you can. And you don’t even need finished pieces – it doesn’t matter if they’re held together with masking tape and a frame has been added in Photoshop. That’s the magic of the internet.

Get stuck in

Business has always been about offering people something they want at a price they’re willing to pay which is more than it cost you to produce it.

Many people I know have secret, if rather ill-defined, aspirations to become some sort of artisan. For a small-scale creative entrepreneur the power of the internet can now turn these dreams into reality.

Dreams are cheap. Follow them in the right way and it needn’t be the big, scary risk it appears. Chances are, your ambitions will end up gently crushed. But you’ll have fun along the way and, most importantly, you’ll live to fight another day.


What is Escape the City all about then?

Frustrated by climbing the corporate ladder, we decided to build a community to help people build meaningful careers doing work that matters – to them and to the world. We help talented people find fulfilling work by making big career changes, building businesses, & going on big adventures. We’d love you to come with us on this journey.

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