For creatives, making the switch from making art for themselves to trying to sell it can be a shock to the system. Suddenly your design decisions, craftsmanship, and pricing are all up for scrutiny. If you stick stubbornly to your own vision and ideas, you risk losing sales. If you give in to demand, you sacrifice some creative control.
However, these business and creative challenges haven’t dissuaded many makers from taking the leap into commerce, judging by the uptick of independent merchants using e-commerce platforms. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of Etsy sellers increased by 62.8%, from 4.7 million to just under 7.7 million. On Shopify, another e-commerce platform, the number of sellers nearly doubled between 2019 and early 2022.
Although these platforms have made it possible for creators to reach a larger audience, they’ve also exposed how audience feedback can impact a creative business.
In 2021, Etsy introduced the Star Seller Program, which promotes sellers who meet certain criteria, including having 95% of reviews at five-stars. For small sellers—the independent artists Etsy claims to exist for—this meant that even one four-star review could jeopardize their Star Seller rating, and limit how many people saw their products. From April 11 to 18 2022, approximately 17,000 Etsy sellers went on strike, partly to protest the Star Seller Program.
Opening an online store is easier and more popular than ever. But as sellers have more access to buyers, buyers have more opportunity to publicly review and criticize sellers. And some platforms are giving those reviews enough weight to impact sales. Here’s how two creative business owners walk the line between pleasing customers and expressing their artistic instincts.
Creative business owners have to learn to distinguish between helpful advice and negativity for the sake of it.
Distinguish between constructive versus unhelpful feedback
For many, the point of starting a creative business is to take control of the art you make and sell. However, owners can’t totally ignore all customer feedback—not if they want to make money. Navigating between what you want to make and what the customer wants to buy requires boundary-setting, self-awareness, and learning what makes you happy.
Although collaboration can drive creativity, a rude or mean-spirited comment can kill your confidence. Creative business owners have to learn to distinguish between helpful advice and negativity for the sake of it.
Lauren Rad is a knitwear designer in Southern California. As a former lawyer, she’s had plenty of experience managing conflict. It’s what pushed her to quit her career in litigation, in favor of teaching law part-time at a high school alongside starting her knitwear design business.
Rad collaborates with her customers on her Instagram to see what they think of her design ideas and any tweaks they’d like. “We refine designs together,” she says. “That's driven some of my most successful designs.”
However, she says that there is a stark difference between helpful, polite feedback and negativity for the sake of it. “I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid the worst of the trolls: I don't really get comments saying, ‘Your work is terrible. These are boring, ugly designs,’” she says. “I know that's not always the case. The knitting world is huge, so you get the full spectrum of human behavior—the good and the bad.”
Haley Hamilton Berger agrees. By day, Berger works in marketing for a financial services company. By night and weekend she runs her own embroidery business. When she receives feedback, she says, “The first thing I have to think about is, ‘Is this constructive?’” For example, if someone asks her to add a different type of needle to her embroidery kits, that could improve her product. In contrast, something along the lines of “I can’t afford this” isn’t necessarily helpful.
If Berger isn’t sure whether a customer request is worth incorporating into her business model, she’ll try it out and see if it works for her. For example, when she started her business in 2017, she experimented with making custom orders—only to quickly realize that they took too long to be financially worthwhile. “I got clarity that I don't really enjoy doing that type of order, and I don't feel like it works for me,” she says. “I’ve added that knowledge to how I do my business going forward.”
Listen to your customers—and know when to ignore them.
Know what keeps you interested and define your boundaries
“I created my own rule: If I wouldn't buy something myself—if I don't absolutely just love it—I don't make it,” Berger says.
This isn’t mere self-indulgence: it makes practical business sense. As a small business owner, you physically can’t make enough products to sell to everyone. By defining a niche around what you love you’ll attract other people with the same tastes or, “Advocates who love your work and will support your business,” Berger says.
She’s developed an instinct for sussing out projects that get her excited. “I'm at a point where I can feel whether or not I want to pursue something almost immediately when somebody reaches out,” she says. Rather than overthinking for weeks, it comes down to gut reaction. “If someone contacts me with a project I'm really excited about and can't wait to create, that’s a yes. But if it's not something I feel super excited about, or it's not really my style, it's OK to say no.”
In contrast, Rad is guided by a specific design ethos. “My motivating philosophy behind my designs is that I like them to be complicated enough that they're interesting to work on, and not so complicated that you can't memorize them,” she says. Despite these different approaches, both agree that it takes time to really understand exactly what it is that you like to make.
Defining your own boundaries makes it easier to do the thing many small business owners struggle with, especially early on: saying no. Berger says that she’s reframed “no” as a positive, explaining that, “Saying no to this one request enables me to say yes to something that I'm really excited about, or gives me more time on stuff that could actually move the business forward.”
'Saying no to this one request enables me to say yes to something that I'm really excited about.'
Charge your worth
One of the toughest aspects of running a small business is setting prices for your goods and services.
Faster and cheaper shopping experiences have warped our understanding of the time, energy, and money it takes to make these things on a small scale. (Not to mention obfuscating the ethical and environmental impacts of these industries.)
Owners of small creative businesses are caught in the middle. They understand as well as anybody the importance of having access to art. But they do not have the margins needed to offer their work at prices that can include almost everyone.
Rad says that she would like knitting to be more financially accessible. She offers occasional discounts and sales on her patterns. But as an independent designer who needs to make a living, she still has to charge based on an honest assessment of what her patterns are worth. “I think that the position that anybody who charges for their work has to come to is that it will be out of budget for somebody,” she says. “And that's fine. I'm happy to let everyone have their own priorities.”
Berger also wrestles with being financially inclusive while charging her worth. When she realized that the true cost of custom projects was more than most people could afford, she added less expensive options. She started selling embroidery kits with the idea that people could learn the art for themselves. It became a significant part of her business model. “I'm so glad I took that step. It was something I'd been thinking about for a long time, and people really loved it,” she said.
Creators will always have to navigate the tensions between charging their worth and sharing their art with as many people as possible. Rad says there’s no one answer to this: “Different people have different ways that they try to address that issue. Even if your solution is not the same as other people's, it’s better than not thinking about it, and not trying to do anything.”
Make social media work for you
Customers aren’t the only ones whose opinions can throw your creative business ambitions for a loop. Or a hoop, in Berger’s case. Social media platforms have become key marketing tools for small business owners. But riding the whims of the ever-changing algorithms can be exhausting as your carefully crafted content is buried under other posts.
“It's very frustrating, because it's so out of your control,” Berger says. Ultimately, you can only do so much. “I just try to create content that I would enjoy looking at, and whatever Instagram is going to do it, it's going to do,” she says.
Rad—a self-described “internet old” and an Instagram user since 2012—recommends following best practices and accepting that you can’t do any more. For example, on Instagram, she limits the number of hashtags she uses and both she and Berger say that those videos get more traction.
Self-awareness about how you use a platform, and which platforms you feel more comfortable with, can save you a lot of stress. “A lot of people are realizing that in order to have boundaries in their business they need to figure out how to engage with social media platforms,” Rad says. “How to say, ‘I'm going to do this much and no more.’” That might mean posting the same content on several platforms, or focusing exclusively on one or two.
For example, Rad focuses on Instagram as a place to connect with her customers through polls and comments. In contrast, Berger is moving more towards email as a way to bypass the algorithm and communicate directly with her customers.
You can easily fall down a social media rabbithole as a creator as well as a scroller. Treat these platforms as tools and work out which ones you wield best and which might do you more harm than good.
Treat these platforms as tools and work out which ones you wield best and which might do you more harm than good.
Hold on to the joy
One problem with turning your hobby into your business is that when the workday is over, the activity that once helped you switch off from work is now your actual work. That’s if the workday does end. “Every time I'm stitching something now, I've got to have my camera going so I can put it on TikTok,” Berger says.
She’s been struggling to justify doing embroidery that isn’t directly related to her business. For example, she says that since she got married in 2021 she’s wanted to make an embroidery design of her bridal bouquet. She’s made some for other people (they are beautiful), but hasn’t got round to her own yet. “I don't create time in my schedule to play around with new techniques or new stitches, or a different art form that I might love,” she says.
Not every creative business owner struggles with this dilemma. Rad says she still loves knitting—she was casually knitting a pretty lace hat during our video call. “Most of the time, it’s a sample for something that will be turned into a pattern at some point but the fact that it is technically work doesn't mean that I'm not still getting a lot of enjoyment and rest out of it,” she says.
One thing that has helped Rad keep the fun in knitting has been exploring other hobbies. These include tending to her magnificent rose garden and learning more about knitting’s cousin, crochet. “Learning about crochet has been nice, because it is adjacent to my work but it's not work,” she says. “I’m not selling any crochet. If it turns out ugly or it doesn’t fit, that's OK.”
Making your hobby a significant source of your income necessarily changes your relationship with it. It’s no longer just for fun or just for you, and that introduces new considerations, often based on other people’s input. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it anymore. You probably started a creative business because you found a type of art that made you so excited you wanted to do it all the time. Hold on to that joy in your business.