I have worked closely with artisans and small business owners for 20 years and I witness firsthand both the joys and difficulties of pursuing creative careers while simultaneously running an creative independent business myself. Through supporting makers professionally I’ve gained an understanding of the realities faced trying to monetise art and hand-made goods in a fast, digital economy. Clients have recounted their struggles, from long hours to marketing woes and everything in between.
Social media can portray romanticised visions of creative entrepreneurs successfully selling their artisanal wares online. Beautiful product photos, tidy workshops and claims of quitting the 9-5 life to pursue a passion.
But behind the aspirational images, building a business as an artisan creator involves far more struggle and gritty work than you might realise. This is going to be a long read but if you make it through to the end and still want to pursue a creative carer welcome to the family!
01. Supplemental Income Can Become a Necessity
Social media often depicts artisans able to fully support themselves through their craft business alone. However, the reality is most find it impossible to make a living wage solely from their artisan work. Many maintain full-time or part-time jobs in addition to their artisan business just to pay the bills. Others rely on financial support from their families or partner and do not actually need to depend on their craft income to pay the bills. Without supplemental income streams or privileged backgrounds, earning a true living solely as an artisan creator is rare no matter how aesthetically perfect the online portrayal appears. The beautiful images typically only show the artistry, not the additional jobs or family wealth sustaining the maker behind the scenes.
02. The Struggle of Entrepreneurship
Artisans are often solo entrepreneurs trying to manufacture, market, and sell their wares single-handedly. Learning business skills like accounting, social media marketing, branding, photography, and selling requires tireless effort and a 9 – 5 can quickly turn into a 24/7. Pursuing a career as a creative also means launches your own micro-business from the ground up and some people find it difficult to find support. There are government agencies that offer advice for example The Small Business Development Corporation in Australia that offer good general advice. So research what’s available in your region.
03. The Imperative of Content Creation
To have any visibility selling online, you must also constantly produce social media content and blog posts showcasing your process and products. Photography, writing, video production, and branding representation of the artisan’s work and lifestyle becomes a whole second job. Self-promotion through daily content creation is becoming a non-negotiable to attract potential buyers.
04. Long Hours / Little Pay
As you are very much aware crafting goods by hand takes an immense amount of time and painstaking effort. Products that look effortless often demand days or weeks or even months of constant labor backed by years of expertise. While creators love the process, artisanal work can equate to long, unpaid hours before any sales.
After material expenses, be prepared to net $5-10 per hour of work once you begin selling. Be aware that limited production caps earning potential. Making a true living wage as an artisan is rare. Most need supplemental income streams. This is why you see many creative selling courses or offering workshops as these are great sources of stable revenue.
05. Taxing Physical Labor
Crafting work itself takes physical tolls. Repetitive motion injuries from crafting and artistry are a real thing. Eyesight and posture can suffer from the creative process also the endless screen time creating content and managing the business.
06. Loss of Creative Separation
Are you ready for your craft to become commercialised? Rather than creating solely for artistic passion, you now must consider customer demand, trends, and saleability when designing your pieces.
You may end up creating multiples of the same products that sell well rather than freely exploring your own creative instincts and impulses. With a small business there is immense pressure to stick with proven money-makers.
Over time, the constant focus on financially viable production can zap inspiration. Crafting to pay the bills can feel more like soulless manufacturing than passionate artistry.
Successfully maintain both artistic integrity and commercial viability in your work requires skill and experience. The overlap between money-making products and personally fulfilling pieces is a tricky balance. Most artisan creators lament the loss of unbridled creativity once their craft becomes a business. This lack of separation between art and livelihood is an immense emotional and spiritual strain for many artisan makers. Finding financial freedom while retaining pure creative purpose remains an elusive dream.
07. The Difficulty of Scaling Up
Growing an artisan business poses unique challenges. Makers often struggle to produce higher quantities without sacrificing quality, detail, and care.
Hiring additional staff or assistants to increase output is a big step. Finding help who meet your high standards is difficult. Hands unfamiliar with the intricacies of your craft may dilute the uniqueness and handmade appeal. Transitioning to a production of multiples can also diminishes the perceived value that comes from artisanal creation. So scaling up may harms your niche appeal.
Bringing on employees also adds immense financial stress. Being responsible for another person’s livelihood on top of one’s own is nerve-wracking. If business fluctuates, making payroll consistently can be extremely difficult for small creative ventures. Any staff overhead cuts into already tight margins.
Yet you may need to grow beyond what a solo maker can output. Finding the right balance of assistants who enable sustainable expansion without quality and profitability losses is a delicate art. Many creators fail to push past the one-person operation barrier. Those who do expand successfully tread a caucious financial path.
08. Pricing for Retail Markups
If you are interested in getting products into boutiques and galleries you face steep pricing challenges. Retailers expect to markup items 2-3x to account for their margins. So must you keep wholesale prices low? The intensive time and costs required to craft quality handmade goods says no. This often prevents setting low enough wholesale prices for retailers and makes retail impossible.
For example, if a ceramic mug takes 3 hours of work plus $5 in materials to produce, you need to price around $25 retail just to net $15/hour. After a store’s 2-3x markup, that mug would cost $50-75 – pricing it out of most retail viability. It’s a struggle to earn fair wages for time when keeping wholesale prices competitive for retailers. There is also pressure to offer bulk and repeat purchase discounts that further undermine profits. Navigating appropriate pricing is an immense hurdle if you hope to gain exposure through physical retail channels.
09. Navigating Client Expectations
Another reality is dealing with client expectations around handmade goods. Customers drawn in by polished social media portrayals often don’t understand the inherent imperfections in artisanal crafting. Variations in wood grain, dye lots, dimensions, textures and other natural irregularities can disappoint buyers who are used to uniform perfection. Despite contracts and education on the handmade process clients will inevitability want an exact copy of the product they see in your workshop and not understand the handmade process.
You must constantly educate customers that minor inconsistencies are inevitable when producing by hand rather than machines. Managing expectations and complaints adds further labor and stress to the process. Be prepared to tirelessly work on to achieve quality and beauty and still field critiques from clients expecting assembly line precision in artisanal goods with natural variability.
10. The Rising Costs of Quality Materials
Another economic challenge to face is the constantly increasing costs of quality materials. Consumers expect high-end materials like ethically sourced woods, natural dyes, precious metals, and premium leathers in handmade goods, which drives up production expenses. Mass-manufactured fast fashion brands have conditioned buyers to expect luxury touches at impossibly low prices. As an artisans you can’t cut corners and margins shrink further so you can maintain the integrity of quality materials. The expectation for exquisite yet inexpensive materials puts immense pressure to justify pricing while absorbing escalating sourcing bills.
11. The Challenges of Finding Quality Suppliers and Relinquishing Control
As your artisan business scales, sourcing reliable, high-caliber suppliers becomes critical yet difficult. You need partners upholding your standards to produce signature materials and components. But handing over part of your process to others means surrendering control, which can cause immense stress. The search for capable suppliers who you can trust with pieces of your creations requires a lot of trust, vetting and coordination. Once established, keeping operations aligned across companies takes organisation. However, locating manufacturing and distribution partners who truly comprehend your vision is essential for wholesaling growth. Although anxiety-inducing, cultivating an extended network united by your exacting requirements allows more people to experience the fruits of your artisanal vision. Just be selective in sharing your techniques… only with those who grasp the heart behind your work.
12. Part-Time Passion Vs Full-Time Job?
You wrestle with the question of whether to keep your creative pursuit a part-time passion or take the leap to full-time work. Maintaining artistry as a hobby allows freedom and joy without concern for income. Yet scaling up also provides potential business rewards.
On one hand, staying part-time preserves the craft solely for love rather than necessity. You can explore your interests without creative compromise. Your art remains pure personal fulfilment untainted by commercial pressure.
However, devoting full-time effort gives you the chance to truly develop your skills and product offerings. If successful, full-time crafting can become a viable career allowing greater dedication to your trade. But the pressure and headaches of business can destroy passion.
There are merits to both paths. Part-time crafting maintains freedom while full-time pursuit tests possibilities. You must deeply examine the priorities and relationship with your art form when deciding between keeping it a side passion project versus primary work. Your choice ultimately depends on which option enables a more fulfilling creative lifestyle while paying the bills.
13. The Positives of Pursuing a Passion
Despite the hardships, your craft gives you meaning and purpose. This sense of accomplishment from finishing a piece brings immense satisfaction and interacting with customers who treasure your work makes the effort worthwhile.
Beyond personal fulfilment, are their other upsides? Yes!
- Creative freedom to design items exactly as envisioned, unbound by corporate constraints
- Joy in working with your hands to produce tangible, high-quality creations
- Ability to infuse products with unique self-expression and identity
- Pride and confidence that develops from mastering artistic skills and techniques
- A flexible schedule allowing for life balance and availability for family
- Building a community with fellow artisans who appreciate the trade
- Potential to create a legacy business and family tradition if successful
- Travel opportunities to showcase wares at art fairs, markets and pop-up events
- Immense personal and professional growth that comes from entrepreneurship
Preserving Traditional Craft
Beyond personal rewards, you serve the critical role of preserving heritage craft techniques and cultural traditions that are at risk of being lost. Practices like blacksmithing, quilting, woodcarving, and weaving often trace back centuries and represent profound creative skills honed over generations. As mass production sidelines handmade goods, you are keeping these crafts alive ensure invaluable human knowledge gets passed down. Much like endangered languages, the specialised expertise involved in traditional craft risks disappearing without determined creators maintaining and sharing their mastery. Through steadfast dedication to time-honoured mediums and meticulous methods, you give future generations access to manual talents that reflect our shared past. Preserving irreplaceable craft knowledge is a gift ensuring society remains in touch with humanity’s rich creative history.
The autonomy, meaning, and preservation of traditional crafts can outweigh the struggles. While rarely easy, an artisanal livelihood centred around passion often proves profoundly rewarding in non-monetary ways. Sticking with a calling despite challenges.
Pursuing artistry as a career involves major challenges and realities, the immense personal fulfilment and satisfaction gained from dedicating oneself to a creative passion can make the struggles worthwhile.
Maybe some of you might be interested in this: I used Midjourney to generate the accompanying image in the article kind of as a creative experiment attempting to replicate my own drawing style. It didn’t completely capture, shall we say, the nuances of my aesthetic however I thought “why not use the image?” as I thought it evoked the theme and emotion of what I wrote. With AI advances in mind I believe the return hand-designed and crafted goods will take on greater significance and value as AI capabilities advance.