3 Stages of Business Growth for Creative Entrepreneurs

How is it that one creative entrepreneur can have "instant success" while another puts in years of effort with little financial success to show for it?

If that's a question you've ever asked yourself, you're gonna LOVE this week's episode! I've talked at length before about the myth of the big break, and the myth of "overnight success". I'll probably talk more about it in the future, too. There are different definitions of success, however, so let me be clear. Today I'm talking about financial success.

You can put in way more than 10,000 hours toward your craft and still not be financially successful. Even if those hours are "deliberate practice," there are a series of steps every creative entrepreneur must go through in order to turn their craft into a well-paying career. There are lots of options at each of those steps, so what you choose will likely look different than anybody else, but the steps themselves are static. Meaning, you can't achieve financial success until you accomplish these three things. Let Peter Gabriel, Dale Chihuly, Danny DeVito, and Thomas Kinkade illustrate:

The 3 Stages of Business Growth For Creative Entrepreneurs

This is one of the most interesting take-aways from the work I'm doing for my upcoming book. Every creative entrepreneur that finds financial success goes through these three stages of business growth. Every single one of them. Some move quickly from one stage to the next, while others struggle for a while at one stage or another. But every one of the creatives I've interviewed or researched (again, I say, EVERY ONE OF THEM) went through these three stages to achieve the financial success they desired.

Stage One: Find your real offer

What's that thing that you do best? Not "better than everyone else," though that can help set you apart faster. More like "better than anyone else in your circle of influence." You're not looking for the thing that only you can do. If you have that, cool, but so many creatives get hung up on being completely unique. It's actually better and easier to find the thing you do really well - even if someone else does it, too. Because then you can put your twist on it and still give people a point of reference. The point of reference makes it easier for people to relate to you. Being completely unique requires a lot of extra time and energy to educate your potential audience. Being similar, but different, makes it easier for people to "get" you.

Plus, when you're similar, but different, it helps colleagues and collaborators work with you, refer to you, and spread the word about your awesomeness. You're no longer an army of one, trying to do it all yourself. Instead, you've got a growing network of people that know you, like, you, and trust you, that want to collaborate, rather than compete with you. Collaboration makes almost everything easier, because you can share the load... something most creatives have a hard time doing, but when they do it, the rewards are often exponential.

Stage Two: Find your real audience

While it's fun to create for yourself, it's hard to make a living if you're not also creating for an audience. That doesn't mean selling your soul, being a "sell out", or taking on clients just because you need cash. Instead, it means interacting with your fans and followers, hearing their feedback, and responding to your audience in a way that works for you. It means cultivating relationships with people who appreciate the work you're already doing, want to see more of it in the world, and are willing to invest in your Great Work.

My first newsletter went out to 7 people, and I know at least one of those people is still on my list, some 10 years later. We've emailed, chatted on Facebook, and she's purchased from me a time or two. When she has something to say, I listen. I don't always agree, and I am still able to respect her thoughts and ideas. Sometimes I use them, sometimes I don't. I maintain creative control of my work, and I am not so arrogant as to think that my way is the only way.

Listening and responding to your audience isn't selling out, it's an act of courage that helps your business grow. (Tweet this!)

Stage Three: The right balance of systems and support

If I've learned anything working with clients in my Incubator program, it's that different creative entrepreneurs need different kinds of support. Some need very specific, detailed, step-by-step instructions, while others can do big things with a rough overview. One of my clients launched an online school (with two courses!) in less than a day, while another took weeks to build and implement a single marketing tactic. While the kind and amount of support you need may be different from the creative entrepreneur next door, you'll still need SOME kind of systems and support. Most of us need an email system. Most of us need some kind of time management and planning tools. You might need marketing support, or customer service support, or social media support. The key here is to uncover what you really need and get it handled without over-systematizing.

Believe it or not, too many systems can be a bad thing, and yes, you can try to systematize too soon. I see it all the time. Systems and supports are meant to smooth things out. Yes, they can be bumpy at first, while you're ramping up, but if your systems and supports are slowing you down unnecessarily, then you've got too many - which can cause your business to struggle in an entirely different way.

Consider this your 3-year plan

It takes about a year of concerted effort to handle each of these. A year to hone your offer, a year to build your audience, and a year to get the right balance of systems and support. Can you shorten this time frame? Sure. Linears tend to over-systematize, Chaotics tend to be more focused on their offer, and Fusions tend to obsess over their audience (take the quiz to determine your type). If you can get out of your own head, or if you've got a team or a coach to turn to with expertise in these areas, you can shorten that window to as little as a year, maybe less. That also means a lot of hustle. Not everyone is cut out for that kind of hustle, and I don't generally recommend it, because of the number it can do on your health and well-being. But most creatives don't want to hear that it's going to be another three years before they're making good money doing what they love, so if you've got the bandwidth and the intestinal fortitude, go ahead and shrink that timeline. Just be sure you can manage it without burnout, or you'll end up in a start-stop cycle of feast and famine that could drag on for years (this girl speaks from experience, yo!).

What say you? Where are you at in this 3-year plan? Have you been bumping into walls for a while? What did you do to break through? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments and be part of our Rising Tide!

Ready to get some support to grow your business? Enrollment for Accountability Club is now open, and we'd love to have you inside our hallowed halls!


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