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Back to Blog Home Why your practice isn’t making money!

How to overcome the most common challenge for creative professionals.

A designer friend recently said to me: “I love what I do… but I just can’t seem to make any serious money!”

And while her statement was a little tongue-in-cheek, there was a definite tinge of pathos and resignation in her voice.

As we talked, it became clear she had come to see modest financial rewards as a natural state for her business.

Like many architects, graphic designers and similar practitioners, for her it is simply the price to be paid for being creative.

But here’s some important news – it’s not!

At least, it doesn’t have to be.

In a recent article, “Practice – Passion or Profit?” I spelled out some of the reasons why there is so often tension between creative purity and financial success. 

As a follow-up, I want to share with you some valuable and practical insights into how this tension can be resolved. And, most importantly, how you can become seriously profitable, while maintaining your strong creative focus.

1.   Embrace change

The very first thing you need to do is develop a serious appetite for change. It always amazes me that creative professionals, who are so in touch with the bold, the new and the disruptive, are so reticent to innovate in the way they do business. You just can’t expect to see a different outcome unless you’re intellectually and emotionally prepared to change some basic things about the way you operate.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”   Albert Einstein

2.   Get a coach

But realistically, making change happen on your own isn’t easy. So invest in a business coach. And yes, you will need to make a significant financial investment. Which is all the more problematic when you’re not making much money. But if you see it clearly as an investment in your own future financial security, then it’s actually a no-brainer, and the ROI can be massive.

3.   Play to win

So many creative professionals do what they do because they genuinely love it. And that’s great! They’re playing to play. They do what they do so that they can do more of what they do. Which is fine – if that’s really your primary objective.

But then you want to do it better (which requires money). And you want to travel. Or buy a house. And have a family. And pay school fees for your kids. So soon enough, playing to play can’t service your other life ambitions.

As contrary as it can feel to someone who has altruism and idealism flowing through their veins, playing to win is the only ideology that can generate growth. And growth, in one form or another, is the only way to make more money.

4.   Plan – to scale, and to learn

There are two key forms of growth you need to focus on. There’s scaling (higher staff numbers, additional geographic locations, new customer types, etc.) and then there’s personal or professional growth, or learning.

One of the great ironies of creative practices is that while their product, or their process, or both, often involve high levels of planning, their businesses usually don’t. Business plans, strategic plans, marketing plans are rarely given much attention. But there is strong evidence that both forms of growth (scaling and learning) are usually achieved only where there is a definitive, clear and responsive plan to do so.

5.   Use technology

Part of any growth strategy must include expansion of both the capacity and the capabilities of your business. And both scaling and learning contribute to higher capacity and broader capabilities. But significant and rapid change in these two key areas can only be achieved with the support of leading-edge technologies.

If you scan your major competitors, you will frequently identify that the firms who are playing to win are also early and frequent adopters of new technologies, across many dimensions of their operations.  Avoiding technology – the “Oh, but we do it the good old-fashioned way” approach – is a sure sign that you’re playing to play, and that you’re simply not prepared to invest time, money or soul into real growth.

6.   Embrace failure

Of course, you don’t always win. Not everything works. Every strategy or plan doesn’t succeed. But not being prepared to fail, or to take calculated risks, is one of the major reasons creative businesses stagnate.

Both you and your team must establish a culture that celebrates failure. Not because you’re condoning ineptitude, but because no significant innovation or change is possible without risk. And by definition, not all risk-taking works out.

“I failed my way to success.”  Thomas Edison

7.   Create a team – build trust

Unless you’re an incredibly rare individual with an amazing story to tell and a totally unique skill-set, you’re going to need other people to help you on your journey to creative and financial success. But how strong that success will be is mostly a product of how effectively you all work together, rather than how many of you there are. And your effectiveness as a team will often boil down to one simple thing – TRUST. Without trust, there can be no permission to fail, no encouragement to challenge the status quo, and no motivation to do better.

8.   Say no

As well as building trust within your team, you probably also need to build trust in yourself. Have you ever said yes to a project you really didn’t want? Have you persisted with a client who’s just not on the same page? Have you agreed to a low fee, or no fee, just to get the job?

I’ve certainly done all these things in my career. And despite copious rationalisations – “maybe this project will lead to something else that’s more exciting” or “I’m sure the client will change” and “let’s think of the low-fee job as an investment in our future” – I should have simply trusted my intuition and said “NO.”

If you want to make money, the art and skill of saying no must be a fundamental tool in your approach.

9.   Understand the sales process

As well as believing in yourself, you also need to know your limitations. And one of the key limitations common to almost all creative professionals is that they know nothing about sales. Most professional courses teach little about business management, and even less about sales, so this knowledge gap isn’t a surprise.

But to make more money it’s a simple fact that you’ll need to acquire more, better and higher value clients or customers. And thus you’ll need to know how to create awareness, generate leads, nurture opportunities, convert or close sales and then maintain client loyalty. This process is commonly referred to as the ‘sales funnel’ and is generally well-understood among ‘conventional’ businesses of all types. Sales for most creative professionals, however, is more like “bait-less fishing” – simply dangling a bare hook in the ocean and waiting and hoping for some poor, confused fish to bite on it.

10.Create a network or join one

At the top of the sales funnel is awareness creation and lead generation. And one of the best ways to do both is through being part of a relevant network. And by ‘relevant’ I mean a network of potential customers rather a than a network of peers(which has its own value, but generally won’t help you make money).

You can either create a network – social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) provides ready access to literally millions of potential customers – or, if your customers have characteristics in common and have already organised themselves into a group, in person or online, join theirs. Or better still, do both!

11.Use design thinking

And finally, think creatively about your business. It’s amazing to me that people who have developed incredible creative skills in one aspect of their business (ie their product or service) can’t seem to apply that same creativity to the business aspects of their practice.

Indeed, ‘design thinking,’ which most creative professionals use in designing outcomes for their clients, has become flavour of the month among business management gurus. So, doesn’t it make sense to apply the same thinking patterns and logic you use to create buildings, landscapes, or graphic concepts to your business?

If you really want to see your practice satisfy both your creative appetite and your financial ambitions, doing any of the above will almost certainly help. Doing all of the above, provided you do so with commitment and intelligence, will definitely position your business to reap life-changing financial rewards.


Ross Clark is the founder of Melbourne-based business consultancy, WhyWhatHow. He has more than thirty years’ experience helping professional and creative businesses to innovate, grow and manage change.

Learn more about how you can seriously transform the why, what and how of your practice.