Episode 77: How to Remain a Creative and Grow Your Business

Growing a business is one of life’s greatest challenges. It’s not for the faint-hearted. There are millions of people, with business training, who have failed to accomplish this dream. If building and growing a business is hard for people who’s entire training was toward that end, what chance do we have, as creative entrepreneurs, without business training, to establish a growing practice? And if we do happen to succeed, despite our lack of training, will the demands of running a business take us away from the actual creative work we love—leaving all the creative work to others?

Are you ready to take the struggle out of finding new clients?

Creatives who manage to build a freelance practice into a growing firm are in for a rude awakening. We can get swept up by our own success, as we scramble to bring on help. Soon we find ourselves with calendars full of meetings, stressing over cash flow, dealing with HR problems, and having to find more clients to keep it all going. How in the world did we end up as business operators instead of artists. This is not the job we wanted—and finding a path back to the studio may seem nearly impossible.

If you’ve gotten yourself into this position, it can be hard to reverse course—but it is not impossible to regain your creative role. It will, however, take time, effort, and quite a bit of change.

In order to keep yourself in the creative role, you’ll have to hire intentionally. And in most cases, retaining your creative role will set an upper limit on how large your firm can grow. Generally speaking, that limit is usually well under ten employees—four to six being optimal. Companies larger than that can’t afford to have an owner that’s preoccupied in the studio.

As the owner of a growing business, who wants to keep your creative role, you’ll need to hire a few other creatives to help you maintain adequate capacity. But it’s not enough to simply find talent. In addition to talent, for another creative to thrive in a small firm, where the owner is also engaged in creative productivity, your employees will need to engage in direct client communication and exercise personal organization. That’s because the client facing role, typically filled by dedicated account managers in larger firms, will be filled cooperatively by your entire team. Not every talented creative thrives in that kind of environment. In fact, some are really bad at taking criticism from clients—and can become quite defensive about their work when reviewing it with clients. So if you want to stay in the creative role, you’re going to need a team of other creatives that have the ability to listen well, and hold back their reactions as they work directly with clients.

Additionally, your team will need to rely heavily on project management systems to stay organized. Managing time, and following procedures is important for the smooth operation of any business, but all the more when the client facing role is shared. But many creatives find systems and procedures antithetical to their creative process. So your target employee will have to have some unique skills and rare temperaments if they’re going to thrive in your firm.

Team account management does have some liabilities. For example, there will be a strong inclination to over-service clients, and under-estimate pricing. In a larger firm, separating the task of estimating from the client facing role keeps quotes and estimates objective and realistic. But when client facing creatives have to provide costs, the desire to please always puts downward pressure on pricing.

Of course at some point you’ll need to bring on someone who can handle new business and general operations. You may be inclined to combine both a client service function with the new business role. Especially since creatives would almost always prefer not to perform client facing functions. But client facing and client finding roles are actually very different. And account people tend to be good at one or the other, rarely both. And in most cases you’ll be better off hiring a client finder more than a client minder.

Carefully designing role distributions for your growing practice is essential if you want to keep the chief creative role for yourself. It can be done, but not without careful planning and deliberate organization.

Until next week: don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.