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Lessons From a Failed Art Business

Photo of many colorful greeting cards I designed sitting on a table. Two say "Love" on them. One says "holiday," and one says "star." Behind the cards are two boards with royal blue frames and pink backgrounds. The larger of the two boards has three colorful postcards and nine stickers pinned to it. The stickers say things like "enjoy your trip" and "inspirational quote." The three postcards all say "love," with varying colorful designs. The small of the boards says  "HELLO FROM JAY SUMMER ART."

I opened my Etsy shop in September of 2021. After 166 sales, 45 reviews (all five stars!), and just over two years, I closed it down this weekend. I'm making some career changes that require my full attention, so I'm putting the idea of an art business on the back burner.

Still, I wanted to reflect on what I learned from these endeavors. My art business was a "failure" in the sense that it never turned a profit. But, I learned a lot from the experience and have no regrets. I feel like I can clearly see why my business failed, and what I'll do differently next time around. I thought I'd share in case these lessons can help others.

Lesson One: Have a Clear Plan

When I began the business, I was making art every night. My only "plan" was to have the art I liked most printed onto merch I'd then list in an Etsy shop.

I felt resistant to developing a more detailed business plan. Similarly, I felt resistant to thinking much about branding or my ideal audience. I even felt resistant to limiting myself to certain themes or color palettes in order to develop a cohesive style (which is funny, because I gravitate to the same themes and colors over and over anyway).

I resisted making a more detailed plan, because I feared it would feel limiting. I'm drawn to art-making because I feel so creative and free while doing it. I worried that setting a plan or parameters would change my art-making practice from something fun into something forced. Rookie mistake. I no longer think it's all-or-nothing, but instead, about balance.

An art business is still a business. Businesses thrive when they make clear plans, focus on a defined audience, and present a recognizable brand.

I wouldn't want to be overly rigid about a plan, but I do think they are necessary to make substantial progress forward when building a business. Otherwise, you're just creating a bunch of disjointed things and releasing them in a haphazard manner to…whomever. Knowing what I want to make and who I expect to buy it will be key next time around.

Lesson Two: Invest Money Into the Plan

Again, an art business is still a business. Like any business, investing money into it will help it succeed. If I try to launch an art business again in the future, I will first save up a certain amount of money and open an account expressly dedicated to the art business. I will also create a budget and plan for how to spend and manage that money. I'm sure this is all business 101, but it's not something I did prior to launching my Etsy shop.

Instead, I did things piecemeal, taking $50 here and $100 there out of my freelance writing paychecks to buy merchandise and other necessities, like a shipping label printer and colorful envelopes. That meant I felt less organized, more stressed, and always a little behind or like I was falling short of what I wanted to do. When I'd come up with an idea, I often lacked the funds for it, which felt frustrating.

Lesson Three: Buy Ads

Advertising works. Early on, as I immersed myself in whatever I could find about art businesses, I heard other artists share how advertising worked for them. I even saw ads for artists I followed and admired. Yet, I ignored this piece of advice. Another rookie mistake.

I think I avoided buying ads for three reasons. One, spending money on advertising felt like a waste when I could instead spend the money on buying more merchandise or art supplies. Two, I dislike capitalism and consumerism, and it's hard for me to view advertising as anything other than part of those two things. Three, I still believed in the idea that a person who creates something of value will just naturally rise up in popularity based on merit or the usefulness of what they create.

I now see that these thoughts were limiting beliefs that aren't objectively true.

Spending money on advertising isn't a waste, because it's an investment. If you do the advertising right, you'll make much more than you spend, and that money can then be used to buy more merchandise or art supplies. It doesn't make sense to keep buying merchandise and supplies if your existing merchandise isn't turning a profit.

The idea that advertising is all bad is a myth. I've found many brands I like and trust through ads before. There are definitely many downsides to advertising, which I won't go into here, but it's not 100% bad. At some point I realized viewing advertising as evil isn't going to bring down capitalism, but it is going to bring down my own business efforts. If I were doing this over, I'd experiment with all types of ads — Instagram, Google, and probably even print.

The idea that people who create good or useful things naturally rise up in popularity without doing any promotion is largely a myth. It's an oft-repeated myth, but it's a myth nonetheless. People gain popularity by creating something good or useful and by pursuing an audience.

I'll say it again: Almost everyone who has a large audience has worked hard to grow it.

I've noticed that many people with large audiences love to act as if they are just so inherently great that large numbers of people flock to them unbidden. Meaning, they act surprised by their audience size, or talk about their audience as if it just arose unexpectedly out of nowhere. But when you dig a little deeper, it becomes obvious that is simply not true.

Most people with a following did a lot to get that following. Their art may also be beautiful or beneficial, but on top of creating it, they put in immense effort to get their work seen by large audiences. Meaning, they promoted their work, even if they don't talk openly about that promotion.

Unless Oprah or Taylor Swift share the first piece of art an artist puts online, almost no artist is magically "discovered" or has a profitable business fall into their lap. That's just not how it works, and I've grown to believe daydreams to that effect are harmful and a waste of time.

Lesson Four: Do Marketing

Just as I eschewed advertising, I also eschewed marketing. When I post on social media or write blog posts, I like thinking of it as me sharing something genuine and meaningful, not as me sharing with the ulterior motive of hoping my audience will grow or give me money. Authenticity is important to me, which is why I've stayed away from marketing. But I'm finally growing to accept that marketing is necessary and doesn't have to be inauthentic.

I've had a lot of inauthentic marketing leave a bad taste in my mouth: the influencer who follows me only to unfollow once I follow them back, the brand that likes ten of my photos or posts without following me, the total stranger who sends me a message because they think I'd just love this product or musician, the journalist or comedian who incessantly replies to celebrity tweets in hopes of catching stray likes, follows, or a viral tweet. It all reeks of desperation to me. I've viewed marketing as for people who desperately crave something, usually popularity or sales, and can't even passably conceal that craving when they try to.

But, there's another option. I know this, because I've seen it in action when watching how the artists, makers, and other small business owners I admire conduct themselves online. It's possible to only post, comment, and like in ways that are genuine and help grow an audience. I am not at all skilled in this arena, but I want to learn to be. I've accepted that any business I create moving forward will require marketing, because that's just part of it.

Lesson Five: Find Support

Unfortunately, throughout the two years I ran an Etsy shop, I never developed a real relationship with anyone who has a profitable art business. When I participated in an art fair, I met some people who make a living from art fairs and spoke with them, but these were short, one-off conversations. I think to create and sustain a profitable business, I'd need ongoing relationships and support from people doing something similar.

From what I've read and heard in podcasts, artists and other small business owners often find support in both peers and mentors. In any business efforts moving forward, I'll try to do that as well. If I struggle to organically find or create supportive relationships with people who have similar businesses, I'll pay to join relevant groups, receive coaching, or both.

I want to note that I have many supportive friends and family members. I'm grateful to the people who have regularly allowed me to prattle on about my various dreams and ideas. Those relationships are definitely valuable to me personally and at times have even helped me make decisions related to art and business.

But, someone who isn't doing what you're doing, or even trying to do what you're doing, isn't going to understand your perspective. If they give advice, it's arbitrary, inexpert advice. Not only is their advice not the advice of an expert, it might not even be comparable to market research, because they might not be part of your intended audience.

So, I've learned it's best not to ask friends and family for art or small business advice or use them as a sounding board for these types of ideas. I tend to take what those close to me say to heart, but that's pretty irrational in this arena — I mean this in the kindest possible way, but their opinions simply aren't relevant here. By asking for their thoughts, I opened myself up to being influenced by arbitrary factors that really shouldn't have been considered at all.

Lesson Six: Create a Dedicated Space

If I ever reopen my Etsy shop or another online art shop, I will first have either an entire room with a door I can shut dedicated to the business, or at the least have one of those large craft station/desk/shelving units with doors I can shut.

I've learned I'm very sensitive to visual clutter. Even though people only placed orders from my Etsy shop every week or so while my store was open, my mind went to the shop much more often, because there was evidence of it all around me.

I did buy small storage units that kept me organized, but my merchandise was always visible. I saw it when I emerged from my bedroom in the morning. It was always in view while I worked on freelance writing work. A scale and shipping label printer sat on my desk always, whether I used them or not. Some people might not be bothered by that, but I learned I am.

I realize that having my art business encroach on my space in this way turned it into something that felt more overwhelming and stressful than necessary. Out of sight, out of mind. By being constantly in sight, my art business took up more mental space than was necessary, and felt like something I rarely received a break from, even though I didn't spend much time on it in comparison to other work.

Lesson Seven: Designate Dedicated Time

Similarly, if I were to launch an art business again, I'd designate dedicated times to work on the business side of things. I enjoy spontaneously doodling and art-making whenever the desire arises. I don't enjoy having a constant, pervasive feeling that maybe I could or should be working on my art business when I'm doing other things.

Just as I allowed my art business items to encroach on my space, I allowed the mental load of the art business to encroach on my time. If I'd delineated clear blocks of time dedicated to the art business, that would've freed up my mental load when I was "off the clock." Instead, I let the art business, which honestly didn't take up a ton of my time, feel like it did, because I was rarely free from it mentally.

Related: Etsy pushes you to mail items out within 24 hours of when an order is placed, so I mostly did that. I don't think I would in the future. That practice added to my stress and overwhelm. Even when packing and sending an order would only take 5 or 10 minutes, it felt disruptive and stressful if the order came in on an otherwise busy or stressful day.

Instead, I'd dedicate one day of the week to mailing out orders and clearly state on my shop profile that all orders go out on that day. Then I wouldn't feel a bolt of worry when an Etsy order came in, because I'd know I'd be taking care of it on Friday at 10 a.m. or whatever.


Attempting to create an art business on the side of my freelance writing business over the past two or so years was fun and educational, even though I spent more money than I brought in. Hopefully, I'll do it again someday, but with a vastly different approach using all of the lessons I've learned.

If you've tried something similar or are thinking about it, I'd be interested to learn your experiences in the comments!

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