How two makers carved out their own unique creative lanes
Making a creative living is more attainable than ever. Artists and makers can set up shop online, sell their wares, and build a community around work that’s both fulfilling and commercially viable. Part of being able to rely on a creative career is cultivating that dedicated audience, which is why many creators find success establishing a niche.
But when your job relies on imagination how do you decide what route to take? Because there are so many aspects to running a successful small business—from marketing to content, to sales, to accounting, all on top of making the work itself—it helps to be able to focus your efforts in one direction.
Focus can be hard to come by when the world is your oyster and refining your options can take time and effort. Working creators Lauren Strapagiel, a queer crafter, and Sherry Cheriton, a ceramicist, both found that narrowing their creative scopes opened up a whole new world of business. Here are some strategies they’ve used and some questions you can ask yourself as you determine your own personal brand.
Finding your niche
What do you love to do? Is there a market for it? How do you differentiate yourself? Carving out space for yourself can require a process of elimination. The closer we creep to a creator middle class, the more possible it will be to make a living creating what you love—that is, if you make something people want to buy.
For some, the niche is obvious because some brands serve to fill a gap in the market. Lauren Strapagiel’s business Really Gay Goods, a shop of handmade goods and stickers around LGBTQ themes, came from her own desire for queer representation in crafts. “For me, queerness is flamboyant—I wanted some flamboyance,” she said. “I didn't just want platitudes, and I want to help other people connect to their identities.”
The more you’re able to narrow your audience, the better you’re able to connect authentically with customers, and the more likely you are to build trust and loyalty. “You can tell when Pride merch was made in a boardroom,” says Strapagiel. “I get comments on social media from people who tell me, this is actually something that expresses who I am.”
Once you’ve authentically tapped into that audience, no matter how narrow it is, the genuine connection means you have space to spread your wings and take risks. “I think small creators do a great job of making much more creative stuff,” says Strapagiel. “If you're looking at the first things you see when you Google “LGBT,” it's not very inspired.”
The more you’re able to narrow your audience, the better you’re able to connect authentically with customers
Another way to help determine your niche is to let the market speak for itself. Finding your passion and talent is a major step in becoming a full-time creator. Sometimes it’s helpful to simply begin and see what speaks to people.
Sherry Cheriton is a ceramicist whose audience response entirely shaped her niche. Her brand, Sheramic, is known for its “Lady pots”—mugs and vessels inspired by the female form. “I was making other things as well, but it never had the same kind of reaction as when I make my ladies,” she says. “Everyone's always like, ‘Oh, I wanted a Lady’ and it made me wonder, why am I making all this stuff that no one wants to buy? That's kind of what pushed me into the niche.”
For some artists, creativity determined by commerce alone is too restrictive, but because Cheriton takes such a personal approach to her business, the customer reaction meant everything. “It's the reaction [from] people that I like the most,” she says.
“That keeps me building on my business.”
Can a niche hold you back?
It’s hard to survive as a maker. Balance must be prioritized to ensure you’re earning a living wage without also working 24/7. That may be why so many creators hedge working full or part-time jobs on top of their own passion projects (leading to working far more than 40 hours a week anyway).
A 2019 report based on U.S. Census data shows that over 300,000 workers hold secondary jobs as artists. But as the tides change, and more people plan to quit their jobs to become full-time creators, there is reasonable fear about making ends meet. While a niche can help you stand out, can it also box you out of making a living?
Sometimes Cheridon gets feedback that she should consider making items other than her Ladies. “Their reasoning is, maybe people will buy stuff without the boobs on it, too. And, you know, I think people would, but I don't think it would have the same type of scale,” she says. Running a one-woman business means time is precious, so understanding what does and doesn’t scale for you is a big indicator of how your time is best used.
“I'm worried that it would take time out of what I already have as my niche,” says Cheridon. “And then I have to work on pushing to sell the items that people don’t know me for.”
Understanding what does and doesn’t scale for you is a big indicator of how your time is best used
While diverting from a niche means the potential for a larger audience, it also means more competition. “It's tempting to do something more generic because you think, I'll sell more, and I can recoup costs, or have a moneymaker to support the rest of the business,” says Strapagiel. “But when you do that you're fighting in a sea of a million other people.” Search “LGBT” on Etsy and you’ll find over 150,000 results—staying generic can mean fading into the background. “It does feel like there might be a lot of you clamoring for not that many eyeballs.”
For Strapagiel, who works full time and runs Really Gay Goods as a side hustle—as many makers do—appealing to a smaller demographic and keeping the business small is also part of the plan. Getting buried in work after a day of work is not the goal for her. “I want to be a small business—I don't have any ambitions of taking this full time. I like that I don't rely on it for my main source of income.”
What small businesses know
Whether you’re happy with a small business side hustle, like Strapagiel, or like Cheridon you hope to make 100% of your income through your art in the next year, finding a groove that both ignites and supports you is key.
Creators start working for themselves not because they know how to do every job a business requires but because they have something to say. Having a focus for your work gives you a lens you can apply across the many tasks that fall in your lap.
“With the amount of content that’s out there, and without a huge following, I find I have to work really hard at social media. But my niche helps,” says Cheridon. “It helps me come up with content because I can see what's trending and how it relates to my products.” Body positivity is one movement that has inspired her work, noting that it’s been the very foundation of the art itself. It’s an authentic connection that for Cheridon is more than just a trending topic, it’s how her audience sees themselves reflected in her creations.
Being a small creator with a niche also means the people who put money in your pocket, and other makers in your art form can form a genuine kind of community. “I think the more niche you are, the more power you're going to find in community,” says Strapagiel. “I follow a lot of other small businesses and we hype each other up. It's good to have that community and support each other because then you can share those eyeballs.”
That more tangible connection to an audience is part of why buying from small creators makes such an impact. “It brings us so much joy. I still get so excited when I make a sale,” says Strapagiel.
“There's so much more care and uniqueness put into our products that you're just not going to get anywhere else.”