What To Do When Your Creative Business Isn't Making You Money

 

If you’ve taken a peek around Made Vibrant before, then you know my #1 priority is never money or “success” as it is traditionally defined.

I’m of the mindset that inner alignment and building a life that brings you sustained satisfaction based on your unique values is always the primary goal. I’ll never try to sell you the “six-figure dream.”

That said, turning your creative gifts into a full-time income can be an incredible way to live out your values in a flexible, impassioned, and impactful way, so this complex relationship between creativity and money is one that I feel compelled to explore with you.

That’s why I want to continue our conversation from last week about the survey responses I received from so many of you at the end of last year.

When I asked about the relationship between your creativity and what brings you income, only 30% of you currently said you have a business that provides your full-time income, yet 70% of you said that’s what you are working towards.

That got me thinking about ways I can help you close the gap and help more of you that want to have a full-time creative business, get there (on your own terms and in your own way, of course).

One of the hardest parts of being a business person AND a creative person is that you are often paralyzed by possibilities. Which ideas to focus on, how to structure your day, how to balance practicality and idealism… these are all issues that I continue to confront, even now as I approach my fourth year in business.

It can often feel like you’re in a complicated maze of decisions, like you have 20 buckets before you and all you feel like you’re ever doing is filling them up one tiny drop at a time.

But, after two strong and profitable years in business, working less than I ever have with more joy than I ever have, I want to share with you the exact process I engage in every time I discover my business isn’t making the money that I want it to be making (or every time it becomes clear to me that I need to make a shift in how that money gets made.)

The most distinct personal example of this is probably back in 2014, when I was just six months into starting Made Vibrant as a freelance design business. I seriously considered shutting it all down and getting a job again because I was bringing in just barely $1,000/month, which wasn’t enough to maintain the lifestyle I was living. Before I threw in the towel though, I wanted to know in my heart that I gave it my very best try.

The process outlined in the steps below is exactly what I did to take my business from a struggling crapshoot to a strategic, fulfilling, profitable business. In a matter of just three months, I was able to lift my monthly income to $4,000/month. Those shifts I made quite literally saved my business, and this process is how I’ve approached things ever since.

My hope is that by outlining some specific steps you too can take, that it will empower some of you to formulate your own action plan instead of staying paralyzed in the dark when it comes to your creative business. If making a full-time income with your creative gifts is something you envision for yourself, I truly hope that today’s letter will provide you with some ways to confidently move toward that future.

Alight, buckle up… here we go!


Step 1: Identify the core limiting beliefs that are holding you back.

You guys are one step ahead because we tackled this last week!

Just as no bucket can remain full if there’s a leak in the bottom, no business can thrive with an owner who is self-sabotaging. Many of you are solopreneurs or have small teams, which means your mindset and behaviors greatly affect every inch of your business operations.

If you’re not flourishing financially in the way you want, the first crucial step is to take a hard, honest look at what could be preventing your progress on a personal level. Once you find a way to start rewiring or rewriting some of those stories, you’ll find that everything else in your business will begin to flow more easily.

(I’d like to add that I don’t consider limiting beliefs to include things like very real health or mental health challenges, which require a different approach to treating and thriving. Limiting beliefs represent the false, invisible barriers we place on ourselves mentally, things that we have the power to flip the script on if we are willing to work at it.)

Going back to that crucial moment in my first year of my business, I had MAJOR limiting beliefs around my lack of confidence and my fear of rejection. These barriers prevented me from sharing my design work or art (which was an important part of attracting clients) and it led me to set my prices WAY too low, leading me to be overworked and underpaid.

Once I was able to confront these self-imposed limits head on, I could work past them, eventually sharing more of my work and raising my prices, which I know contributed significantly to the lift (and survival) of my business.

After you’ve take the time to reinforce the foundation, that’s when you can move on to the business itself.


Step 2: Evaluate revenue streams at a macro level.

Some of you out there may have one single thing that you create that brings you money. Maybe you sell jewelry or you are a freelance designer and that is 100% of the work that brings you income.

That business structure allows you to focus on one main thing, which may be an efficient use of your attention and focus, but it also leaves you incredibly vulnerable because the health of that one business line defines the health of your entire business.

My approach from the beginning has always been to diversify with multiple revenue streams so that the success or decline of any one income source won’t be the end of my business. (It also is a natural consequence of being a multi-passionate and curious person. I have new ideas and those create new revenue streams!)

While I believe this strategy is beneficial overall, it does also present me with a challenge, pulling my attention in multiple directions. This is why it’s incredibly important at regular intervals to check in and ask ourselves:

What do I want to continue to work on and what can I let go of?

Every time I’ve realized I’m at a road block with the profitability of my business, it’s usually because I’m wasting energy on something that isn’t quite working or I’m NOT giving my full attention to an opportunity that is ripe for the picking.

So, this step becomes about understanding what is working, what’s not working, and why.

Here’s how to make that deduction:
 

1. Start by breaking down every single source of income by product stream, and take a look at how much profit each one brings you monthly.

I still to this day do this on the first of every month. I export the data from my payment processors like Stripe and Gumroad, and I enter it into a spreadsheet where I separate the transactions by project, total them up, and add them to a master sheet that shows me totals for the year on all of my various courses and products.

salesdash.png

Thanks to spreadsheet magic, it only takes me about a half hour every month, but it’s incredibly powerful because it forces me to check in on a monthly basis and identify where my energy went vs. where my money came from at a high level.
 

2. Once you have your revenue totals, go project by project and write down your input vs. your output.

In other words, answer these two questions:

  • Output: What did I get out of this project?

This goes for money, obviously, but it also refers to other things. A project could bring you joy, creative growth, cultivation of a skill, collaborations with great people, etc. In my business, these are all things I want to take into consideration, though understanding that if financial lift is my primary goal, then that metric is what needs to carry the most weight at that time.

  • Input: What did I put into this project?

The same guidelines hold true for this question. You want to consider cost as well as other things. How much money did it cost you to produce that revenue stream? How much time? Energy? Did it take joy from you? Did it take patience from you? These are all things I write down.
 

3. Now identify your Power Player and your Dark Horse.

Your Power Player = the revenue stream that brings you the biggest profit for the the least sacrifice. (ie. Output is disproportionately larger than input.)

Your Dark Horse = the revenue stream that feels like it has the most potential, if it was cultivated properly.

That could mean it’s the one that is the most enjoyable but still isn’t very profitable, or it could mean the one that brings you a decent income but it’s taking too much from you and needs a process overhaul to be enjoyable and efficient.
 

4. Lastly, put each of these various projects through your “value filter.”

In other words:

What are the things you care about most, and does each of these projects align with those values? What do you want to be working on?

Keep in mind, there’s a balance at play here between doing work that lights you up, but also being realistic about what is working from a business perspective (we’ll dive deeper into this next week.)

Again, if you’re in a place right now where financial stability is your goal, you may have to cultivate the projects that aren’t the most ideal in terms of aligning with your values, but that can serve as a stepping stone to doing that bigger, more meaningful “heart work” after you’ve reached a more stable footing.

By this point, at the very least you should start to see a much clearer picture of what is actually bringing you money and what is not, as well as what is an opportunity and what is a time suck.

This exercise is what led me to start shifting away from client work in early 2015 because I saw that my online lettering course was bringing in almost double the income of my client work with far less time spent and far more joy.

By shifting resources away from a revenue stream that was a losing game for me to one that had great potential, I was able to use my very limited time a lot more effectively.


Step 3: Evaluate work processes at a micro level.

The top-level evaluation in Step 2 may be enough to illuminate changes you want to make right now in your business in terms of ways you want to allocate your resources. But, here’s the next logical question: What if you can’t just cut off an entire income source cold turkey? What do you do in the meantime as you transition out of it or as you redistribute your attention to new projects or opportunities?

What if you see a Dark Horse — an opportunity that could prove to grow into a Power Player for you if you just changed some things around?

The answer is in evaluating each revenue stream or product on a micro level.

It’s time to take an honest look at the product or service itself, your process, your costs, and your daily routines to see where you could be slowly leaking resources — time, money, or joy.

In my experience, there are usually three different issues at play when it comes to optimizing a revenue stream on a micro level. You can adjust the product, the promotion or the process.

Your goal at this step them becomes to:

1. Go through each source of revenue in your list from Step 2 and rate them on a scale of 1-5 in terms of each P: product, promotion, and process.

This will help you more clearly narrow down what it is about each individual product or service that's working or not.

By far the biggest hurdle for me in that bunch has been process, mainly because of the slow improvements I’ve had to make on my relationship with time.
 

Some thoughts about time

Time is sneaky little thing! If I was a betting woman, I would wager that mismanaged time is responsible for the majority of businesses that aren’t where they’d like to be financially. There are a few different lessons I’ve learned about how to cultivate better habits with time, and it’s improved my business significantly, so I wanted to dive into that one significant detail here.

When I was doing client work and only making $1,000 a month, Jason sat me down and very kindly but honestly asked me if I was using my time effectively. I was defensive, of course, claiming that I was using every hour I could and doing my best, darnit!

Still, he asked me to do a simple math exercise which really highlighted for me the fact that I was losing a LOT of time without even realizing it.

He said:

Think of every hour in your day as one block. How many blocks of actual focused work would you say you can do every day (not answering emails, checking social media, doing admin work… but actually doing focused, project-based design work?) 

I answered 5. 

5 hours = 5 blocks. 5 blocks a day, at 5 days a week means I essentially had 25 blocks a week or 100 blocks a month of potential “work time.” 

At the time I was charging roughly $75/hr, which meant the total possible income I could be making as a designer every month if I booked my schedule was $7,500 (compared to the $1,000 I was making.)

So why wasn’t that happening? Why wasn't I making $7,500/month?

Well, that exercise made me realize a few things. #1) I wasn’t estimating my projects very well (I’d quote a project at 20 hours and spend 40 completing it.) And #2) I wasn’t booking my projects in an efficient way (without the visual “block” reference, I was only taking on one project a month because I was afraid of not having time to complete it. However, now armed with a way to estimate my time and conduct my time effectively, I felt empowered to get out there and book more business to fill up my “blocks.”

I’ll admit, it felt a little restrictive at first, and honestly, humbling. Am I really not savvy enough as a business woman that I have to map out every single hour of the day to book clients? That’s how it felt. That is until I started seeing the monthly revenue climb. More projects, less wasted time, more confidence, less second-guessing… it turned into a snowball that was actually working.

After I started to notice that, I was more than happy to put up with more structure than I was used to and trade a little bit of flexibility for the peace of mind that my effort was paying off.

Here’s what we creatives need to understand:

Structure is essential to efficiency, and efficiency is essential to profitability.

I know it’s not sexy. I know it sounds cold, and boring, and not the exciting artistic impact that we all want to make on the world, but remember:

It’s much harder to make our mark on the world if we’re scrambling for income.

It’s much harder to make our mark on the world if we’re scrambling for income.

Time efficiency can be the (unsexy) ally of beautiful, soulful art.

If we reframe structure through this lens, we have a better shot at building thriving and sustainable businesses.

Aside from the time block method, I also try to use tools like Toggl to keep track of how many hours a single project takes, which allows me to really factor in the time spent as a cost.

It might take some mental effort, but evaluating the nitty gritty details of each project and business line will arm you with the information you need to make smart improvements to your business.


Step 4: Start by acting on your Big Brick Wall and your Big Cracked Door.

Now that you’ve taken a critical look at your creative business from a macro perspective and a micro perspective, it’s time to make some decisions about how to act on this information.

Prioritization is key here because if you feel like everything has to change at once, it’s likely you’ll start to feel overwhelmed and nothing at all will change.

That’s why I prioritize by looking for one Big Brick Wall and one Big Cracked Door.

These are two terms Jason and I discuss in our Make Money Making course, but they are my way of evaluating how to move forward when I feel I’m at an impasse in my business.

A brick wall = An obstacle you find yourself repeatedly bumping up against.

A cracked door = A sliver of opportunity presenting itself to you.

Your BIG Brick Wall is the brick wall that sticks out to you most. It’s the one challenge that you find yourself repeatedly coming back to most often. It could be on a macro level -- one revenue stream that just doesn’t seem to be working. Or it could be on a micro level -- a product, process or promotion issue -- that’s undercutting everything you try to do in your business. There are two ways to act on a Brick Wall, and that’s either to try and improve what’s not working or to simply let it go.

Your BIG Cracked Door is the opportunity that feels like it has the most potential. It could be an existing product that is performing better than you imagined and could benefit from more time and attention, like your Dark Horse from Step 2. It could be a promotion method that is working extremely well but that you haven’t set aside time to crank the volume up on yet.

You can even take the two birds, one stone approach here by simultaneously letting go of your Big Brick Wall in your business to divert your energy and attention to your Big Cracked Door.

That’s what I did when I transitioned away from client work over to products and courses. In doing so, I wasn’t spreading myself thin because I was eliminating one thing while replacing it with something that was a better fit for me, which is really what this entire process is about: figuring the best use of your limited time and attention to make the biggest financial impact on your business.


Step 5: Strengthen the communication with your audience.

By this point you will probably have an idea of how to better focus your resources, which is a great start. But it won’t matter how efficient your processes are, how amazing your products are or how well-tailored your revenue streams are if you can’t form a meaningful connection with your audience. That’s why I had to include communication as the final step of the process.

In the Better Branding Course, I talk about getting clarity around the 4 Q’s of your business, which will help you form clear and concise messaging on your website, your social media posts, your newsletter -- every single touchpoint you have with your intended audience.

Those 4 Q’s are: Why? Who? What? And How? (… and in that order!)

Why?

As Simon Sinek says, “start with why.” Why does your business exist? What is the underlying mission behind your work? Defining this and weaving it throughout your work will help you attract your ideal audience and it will help you stand out in a sea of other similar businesses. Speaking of your ideal audience...

Who?

Who do you want to serve? Who are your trying to connect with through your work? Who will pay for your products or services? Try describing this group of people not in terms of their age or gender, but in terms of what they believe and what they care about. Like two puzzle pieces fitting together, your WHO should be a specific type of person that will resonate with your WHY.

What?

What are you promising people? What benefit do your specific services or products bring to people’s lives? Think of this not in terms of any details about your products but in terms of how your products make people feel and in what ways you make their lives better.

How?

Finally, how do you deliver that benefit to them? Through beautifully designed jewelry or online courses or colorful art? This is where you get specific on the things you sell and offer your audience.

 

Once you can clearly and easily define these four things, you can weave the answers to these questions across every single aspect of your brand. As long as you are communicating these things clearlyauthentically and consistently (all three are very important!), you’re setting your business up for the best chance it has to achieve your financial goals.


I know there are a TON of moving parts to this puzzle, and a LOT of information I’ve laid out here, but that’s because it is the true reality of running a creative business with soul.

There are people out there that would like to pretend that running an online business is as simple as blogging consistently, delegating a few things, building an email list, selling an online course and watching the money roll in. They paint this picture because it is what helps them sell the course promising to show you how you can do it too in “7 easy steps.”

As for me? My goal has always been to show you guys my personal journey in business -- the complex decisions, the emotional hangups, and the messy evolution of it all.

In my experience, running a creative business is damn hard. It’s a constant battle with your own self-doubt, managing the ebbs and flows of the inevitable creative cycle. It’s sticking with projects long enough to see them through, but knowing when to let go of ideas that aren’t getting you where you want to go. It’s constantly holding on to what makes you unique, and it’s being brutally honest about your own strengths and weaknesses so you can carve out a path for yourself that is sustainable and authentic.

But it is also immensely joyful. And freeing. And constantly illuminating. This business has given me the financial fuel I need to live comfortably, yet also the flexibility I want to travel and make space to grow.

I hope the steps I’ve outlined above help you form a game plan if you’ve been stuck, and I hope it serves as a road map for what’s possible with effort and persistence.

Keep shining, keep making, keep working toward whatever vision you have for your life, and I’ll keep being here sharing what I learn along the way!