Iris Scott, 34, makes her living finger painting. That might sound like nice work if someone else is paying your bills, but the Brooklyn artist—known for her impressionistic paintings of the natural world in psychedelic colors—is fully self-supporting. She broke $500,000 in revenue last year and will exceed $1 million this year, she says.
Thanks to her artistic talent, entrepreneurial spirit and creative use of social media to market her work, Scott is among a fast-growing group of self-employed professionals who are building annual revenue in solo businesses and partnerships to $ 1 million or more. The number of nonemployer firms—meaning those staffed only by the owners—that generate $1 million to $2.49 million in revenue rose to 36,161 in 2016, up 1.6 percent from 35,584 in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That number is up 35.2% from 26,744 in 2011.
It’s not easy to make a great living off of creative work. Among the 24.8 million nonemployer businesses in the U.S, there were only 829 independent artists, writers, and performers with revenue in the $1 million to $2.49 million range in the U.S. in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s nonemployer statistics. Another 108 brought in revenue of $2.5 million to $4.99 million, and 52 hit $5 million or more.
So how has Scott managed to make a great living from her art while creating work that has gotten her represented in galleries and covered in publications such as American Art Collector? She has designed her career on her own terms by putting in the time and effort make the most of her talents on a daily basis, assessing and acting upon the opportunities in front of her in real-time, having the courage to ditch the unwritten rules of the art world and its gatekeepers when they didn’t make sense to her, developing ongoing, two-way communication with her customers—and responding to followers’ suggestions. Here is some detail on the strategies she used, which will be relevant to owners of many types of ultra-lean businesses.
Create space in your life to do what you love. When Scott, a native of Washington State, earned her degree in art from Washington State University, she knew it wasn’t a ticket to a secure, high-paying career. “It was understood you get an art degree because you love art,” says Scott.
So, to be practical, Scott got a master’s degree in teaching from Western Governor’s University and set out to be a fourth grade teacher, paying for her education through work as a nanny. Still, she kept up with her painting and began posting imagines of her work on Facebook. When her followers began reaching out with offers to buy her paintings, she realized she might be able to earn her living as an artist but had to give herself the financial freedom to paint.
Act on your commitment. Aware of the importance of being consistent and disciplined about her work, Scott had soon moved to an apartment in Taiwan, where the cost of living was much lower than in Washington State. Reducing financial pressures from her life during the early days gave her time to devote herself to painting. “I settled into this really low cost of living,” she says. “I had internet. There were art stores. I began painting every day and posting what I was creating on the internet.”
Create a business model that works for you. Scott was pleasantly surprised when her Facebook friends started asking how much it would cost to buy a painting she had posted. But that seemingly simple question turned out to be a loaded one.
In the arts community, many artists are taught they should sell their work at the highest possible price to build prestige—and Scott had not escaped hearing that message. “Our society has a really bad habit of telling this story that people won’t think something is valuable unless it’s priced high,” says Scott.
However, Scott didn’t agree with that mindset. “It doesn’t really speak to the audience as an equal,” she says. She liked the idea of democratizing her art.
Plus, from a business perspective, she didn’t think focusing on an audience only of elite, wealthy collectors would work in the long run. “There aren’t enough sets of eyes on it to really create a sustainable growth,” she says.
So, during the early conversations that took place in the private chats on Facebook, she’d suggest, ‘How about $50?”
“I’d price it as low as humanly possible to make it still worth it,” says Scott.
She is glad she trusted her intuition on pricing. That allowed her to gradually build a market for her art. She was able to share in her social media posts that fans were buying everything she painted—because they actually were. While she wouldn’t name the people who bought the paintings in her posts, she would share some details of the sale, like what state they were from.
“The number one strategy for launching an art career is publicly creating this phenomenon that everything is selling,” she explains.
As interest in her paintings grew, Scott would post status updates on paintings that were not quite finished. This helped create steady demand. “People would say, ‘I want to buy this when you’re done,’” says Scott.
As orders came in, Scott set up a simple system for processing them. When she made a sale, she would collect payments on PayPal and ship the paintings to the customers’ homes herself. Those early sales helped her stay committed to the daily discipline of painting, without the distraction. “Once I was able to start covering my cost of living, I could pour every hour of every day into painting and continuing to post online,” she says.
Conduct small experiments—and double down on what works. Running out of clean paintbrushes one day in the middle of 2010, Scott didn’t feel like taking a break from painting to go wash them. She began finger painting instead and had soon created her first finger painted picture, using oil-based paints. Curious about how her followers would react to it, she shared an image on Facebook.
“When I posted that little finger painting online, I noticed a real spike in interest and likes,” she says.
As Scott made more finger paintings and posted them online, she saw the same spike in interest. She had never envisioned herself as a finger painter, but she decided to listen to her audience’s reactions to the finger paintings, deciding that others were much less biased about her work than she was. “Those were, by far, more captivating to the audience than paintbrush painting,” she says. (She wrote a book called Finger Painting Weekend Workshop showing fans how to try her methods themselves in 2016).
While that approach might make instinctive sense to entrepreneurs, it’s quite different from what many artists have been trained to do: make their art in a vacuum, regardless of whether people are responding to it. Scott sees it as very possible to make art that’s both true to her vision and salable.
“Your audience is very important,” says Scott. “I very much trust what they are saying. This idea that art is all about not listening, and your big artist’s ego, and ‘art for art’s sake’ and ‘price the work high’ is so outdated and boring. No one likes it. It’s icky.”
Know when to expand your market. In 2011, Scott’s mother noticed an online marketplace called Ugallery, which helps emerging artists sell their work. Scott applied to sell her work there and was accepted, which helped expose her to a bigger audience. Along the way, a couple of traditional art galleries in New York and California began to represent her, as well, and now do the bulk of her private sales. She still does private sales through social media, as well, charging the same amount that the galleries would ask for her work.
As her exposure grew, so did her career. She moved to New York and became part of Brooklyn’s thriving arts community in 2014.
Take the long view. Scott grew her business gradually, given herself time to become accustomed to working on bigger canvases. “The skill it takes to move from small paintings to big paintings is really a jump,” says Scott. “The number one problem is people bite off more than they can chew and lose momentum. There’s plenty of time to hone your craft.”
Scott introduced larger paintings slowly, raising prices very gradually to reflect the greater time they took to create. “I’d try not to sell a $200 painting until I’d sold a $150 painting,” she says. “I kept those prices going up super-slow.”
By 2012, prices for Scott’s paintings had gone up to $500 to $1,000 per painting. Today, one of her paintings, “Stormy Splendor Dragon Ember,” at 120” by 66” moody floral tableau is listed for sale for $45,000 at Filo Sofi Arts Gallery in New York.
“It just doesn’t take that long when you are making a lot of work for those 10% increments to add up to tens of thousands of dollars for one painting,” says Scott. Because the prices of her larger paintings now exceed the typical range on Ugallery, she has transitioned off of selling on the site.
Scott’s slow-and-steady approach worked for her. With each year she has devoted herself to her art, her revenue has grown. In her first year in business, she made about $7,000 from her art. In year two, she made $30,000; year three, $60,000, and so on, gradually growing her revenue until she hit $500,000 last year and a run rate that, she says, will enable her to break $1 million this year.
Diversify your revenue streams. One decision that really made a different to Scott’s revenue was finding a way to bring in passive income through work she had already done, by selling prints. At first she tried making the prints herself, but it took too much time and distracted her from her primary work. “Every hour I was pulled toward that print shop, it was pulling me away from painting,” she says.
Scott now relies on manufacturers such as icanvas to produce the prints. This not only protects her time but results in royalty income.
If you happen to be an artist, it’s worth noting that Scott now wishes she had waited a little longer to introduce prints. Because the royalties are based on a percentage of sales, it’s most efficient to sell them when your original art work is selling for $5,000 or more, she explains.
Foster a two-way dialogue with your customers. Scott isn’t shy about asking her fans for feedback when she’s wrestling with a creative challenge, down to details like where to add more red to a painting. “When I’m on the fence, I sure as heck listen,” she says.
One thing that has attracted serious art lovers who make great suggestions to her is building a Facebook presence that is completely about art—rather than musings about aspects of her personal life, such as her friends, food or travel. “It’s a place to go to escape, to be in an art studio,” she says.
Scott has paid close attention to how much her followers have shared the images she posts of each piece, both on Facebook and Instagram. “The most powerful thing on Facebook is the ‘share’ button,” says Scott. “People look at what other people are sharing. When you start having people share your work, your audience grows exponentially.”
Even with her revenue on track to break seven figures, Scott’s take-home will be lower than that, after taxes and expenses, such as painting supplies and hiring freelancers to help her with operational aspects of her business, such as boxing paintings, arranging photo shoots and research.
Nonetheless, she’s in a better situation than she would be if she’d followed the conventional wisdom in her industry.
“I know plenty of artists who would never let a painting go for $100,” says Scott. “They are now working in corporate America. They didn’t get to be full-time artists. They didn’t let the market tell them what their art is worth.”
Stay focused. Scott acknowledges that there are challenges that come with immersing herself in social media marketing. She’s had to rein in the temptation to constantly check Instagram to see what’s going on in the art word by limiting her scrolling and unfollowing sites that lure her into doing that.
Actually painting is what it’s all about, she reminders herself, even when she has to balance that with the practicalities of making a living.
“There are too many things I’d like to paint, and not enough hours,” says Scott. “The question is which one gets to be painted next.”
Elaine Pofeldt is author of The Million-Dollar, One Person Business (Random House, January 2, 2018), a book looking at how to break $1M in revenue in a business staffed only by the owners.