Been There, Done That: Avoid These Mistakes When Starting a Creative Business

Photo by Farrel Nobel on Unsplash


Is there another word or phrase that I can use instead of “creative business”? It’s just such a horrible phrase, and it makes me cringe. Anyway, as usual, I mean any business that involves making something, whether it’s written work or crafts or food or music. In this post, I’m going to share a few of the mistakes I made in the past when I started a jewellery business (currently on hiatus while I figure out a permanent address) so that you don’t have to.

Don’t quit your day job until you have to quit your day job.

Actually, if you’re happy to keep your creative business as a fun side income–which is perfectly fine, by the way–you shouldn’t quit your day job. Save that money! But for those of you whose goal is to work for yourself and don’t have unlimited funds to play with, a day job can mean being able to pay rent and bills while you build your business.

For me, I chose to take a flexible retail and marketing job that gave me enough time to smith. However, the problem was that the steady income made me too complacent about my business, and it didn’t matter if my business was making money or not. I had a job, I didn’t have to worry about rent, so I wasn’t motivated to look for clients or make stuff that was less time-consuming and labour-intensive.

It was only when the job itself became untenable (racism and sexual harassment every day) that I quit…only to jump straight into another flexible, part-time job. Instead of making the best out of my situation, I used it as an excuse not to treat my business seriously.

Value your work.

Pricing was always the toughest thing I had to deal with–actually, it’s still pretty tough to this day. We all know it’s not just the time and materials we put into our work, it often also includes creativity, skill, and experience, and how do you really put a monetary value on that?

Although it’s useful to look up your peers’ work to see how much they charge, ultimately, you have to decide on your own. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can charge low at first and then raise prices eventually. Studies have shown that people are susceptible to a type of cognitive bias called anchoring. If you start your business as the cheap alternative, you’re going to have a hard time shaking that off, and charging lower prices than your competition means you’ll have to engage in a race to the bottom.

I used to accept commissions, and one client in particular gave me a lot of work. But unfortunately, that came with her insistence that I charge her much less than I normally would (because she was a regular) for pieces that were quite labour-intensive, and often technically difficult. I’m not really exaggerating by much when I say that I charged her the same price as costume jewellery for custom-made work like this ring I made for her with real sapphires and sterling silver (please don’t steal this image):

Eventually, I had to turn down her commissions after she refused a price increase because the time I was spending on her stuff was really better spent on making other, more important things like my own collection.

Now, sometimes, it will be to your advantage to give away or charge less for your work if it can pave the way to more lucrative commissions or some kind of promotional advantage, but choose carefully and think strategically about it.

Don’t get ahead of yourself, know your limits. 

Not too long after I started smithing, I managed to land a one-year contract with a Hong Kong retailer to provide them with jewellery. It is one of the biggest financial losses I’ve ever had. First, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of product they wanted. I made everything by hand, and it meant that I was often stumbling into work dazed from sleep because I’d spent all night making jewellery.

Next, I had to invest in a lot of materials like silver and semi-precious stones to make the jewellery, except the retailer only wanted to sell at a lower price point than the whole thing was actually worth (see: Value your work) because again, I was making stuff by hand instead of cranking them out through a factory.

Finally, I had to keep making new jewellery for each retail season, and I had to take back the stuff that hadn’t sold, which wasn’t even really the kind of jewellery that I would make on my own so I couldn’t sell it to the galleries or higher-priced shops that carried my other work. In the end, I had to just melt them down.

So the contract, even though it seemed like a great thing at first, eventually turned out to be something that set my business (and bank account) back quite a lot. This is something that’s fairly common to a lot of small businesses–the amazing project that’s too good to turn down–but remember: know your limits. Know the scale of work you can realistically do. Otherwise, a good opportunity can easily turn into a bad decision.

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