Merging Creativity and Business: You’re Not a Hobbyist (Pt. II)

If you missed Pt. 1 of this brain-dump, you can read it here. We’re talking about the myths we’ve internalized over the years that can hurt our productivity, image, and professionalism. This post covers Myth #1: You’re a hobbyist, not a professional.

HOBBY (n): a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.

A lot of people do creative shit in their free time. They build, play, garden, paint, photograph… all kinds of things that give them expression. We need that breath of fresh air. I have friends who do some pretty cool stuff when they get home from work, and it’s frequent that they offer to do these things as favors for others.

We’re going to compile all of these friends of mine into one person. We’re going to call him Joe. And all those creative hobbies they pursue, we’re going to make them into one thing for the sake of conversation. Let’s make that thing carpentry.

So Joe is into carpentry. He’ll build anything. He’s pretty damn good at it.

Joe offers to build us some floating shelves for the corner of our living room, because he notices that all our books are crammed onto our mantel. “They won’t take long,” he insists, “and five or six shelves would look so good in the corner of your living room. Then I’ll come over for beers and help you install them.”

We’ve all been down this road before. Hell, we’ve all been Joe, too. Maybe he will go home, build us some beautiful shelves, and by the weekend our books will be organized on the wall. Great! Joe’s a champion.

But in reality… we know there are a few things we can expect:

  1. This project will never happen.
  2. If this project does happen, it will be many moons from now.
  3. We don’t want to bother Joe about it, because he is doing it as a favor after all… but damn do we need a bookshelf.
  4. When we get the courage to text him with a friendly “hey! So how ‘bout that shelf? You still down?”, there’s a good chance that he might not respond.
  5. There’s also a chance that, after having put it off for so long, Joe will grudgingly build said shelves and bring them over. And they might not be his best work.

These are things we expect when someone offers up their hobby as a service. No one sets out to let down their loved ones, we really do have the best intentions. We just can’t get the work done because, well… it’s become work.

When someone asks you what you do for a living, and your answer is something creative (i.e. design, photography, development, etc.) you are not a hobbyist. You’re a goddamned professional. You’ve got mouths to feed, a mortgage to pay, and an Adobe Creative Cloud account that isn’t paying for itself.

Professional Faux Pas

I had a client say to me, “ugh, creative-types — you just gotta know how to handle those people, you know what I mean? Really mastermind them to get them to do what you want.”

Maybe he forgot he was talking to a “creative-type”. Let’s assume that’s the case.

I’ve had clients talk about their trepidation in hiring another graphic designer, because their first experience went so poorly. They weren’t listened to, their designer didn’t deliver what they promised, or maybe they didn’t deliver at all. Or the process was so loose and confusing, six months went by and no one really knew where the project was. Or they needed someone who could translate their ideas graphically, but their designer had no imagination and wanted their hand held the whole time.

Of course, often times they’re only telling you one side of the story. Maybe they were a pain-in-the-ass client, or were too demanding, or didn’t respect the contract. Maybe it’s that they hired a friend who is a hobbyist, and then were upset that they weren’t getting the agency experience. It’s always healthy to take these stories with a grain of salt.

However, I’ve definitely known creative professionals who are guilty of these things. I’ve been guilty of them, too. And it’s not always about the quality of work we’re doing, either! Some common shortfalls in creative professionalism I have seen (and experienced, and committed) are:

  • Poor/unreliable communication
  • Acceptance of scope creep
  • Letting the client call the shots
  • Overly passive language during presentations or meetings with clients

When you’re experiencing baptism by fire, you don’t know what you don’t know and you learn through experience. But there should be a drive, a motivation to learn by watching and by doing. Talk to other creative professionals in your field, find out what their process is and how they handle clients. Even if you think your way is perfect, there’s always room for improvement, right? Always be editing your process, revising it to be more and more fine-tuned. And be willing to share your successes and breakthroughs with others.

I was embarrassed every time I committed one of these sins of business. Over time, I started recording what I was doing wrong and what I could do to prevent the misstep in the future. Sometimes it was something simple and pretty unique to that instance (“You know Joe doesn’t communicate through anything but phone calls. Be better about answering when he rings.”). Other times, they were big-picture fixes that applied across the board. Some solutions I have found most applicable in every-day business are:

  1. Contracts. Use them. Read them carefully. Make everyone sign one. Do not begin a project until one of these has been reviewed and signed by all parties.
  2. Deadlines. Set them, and stick to them. Deliver beforehand whenever possible. Underpromise, overdeliver. This applies to payment deadlines, too.
  3. Communicate. Don’t mince words with clients, or beat around the bush. Be polite, but direct at all times. You’re all there to do business together, so don’t pussyfoot around if there’s an issue. Be resolute when you speak — don’t say “I think” / “well, maybe…” / “I guess so”. Say, “Here’s what I propose” / “This is why we made this decision…” / “I have to disagree, and here’s why”.
  4. Lead. You are a professional. The client hired you to do something they cannot, that will bring value to their business. That means you call the shots. Be willing to lead with a heavy hand here — a lot of clients say they want one thing, and unwittingly sabotage themselves. You’re there to make sure that doesn’t happen. If you lay down and let them run the project, you’ve effectively told them that they know better than you do and you’re not an expert in your field.
  5. Set boundaries. Be a hardass about sticking to them. If you’ve carefully laid out your boundaries in your contract (because you wrote one, right?), reigning clients in when they start to wander is easy as pie. Clients like to feel like you know what you’re doing, so don’t be afraid to say “no” when they ask for something you didn’t agree to.

There are so many things that foster a sense of professionalism in a person. There are books on articles on opinions on books on the matter. The idea is, you don’t want to leave any guesswork as to what caliber you’re working at. You want clients to walk away thinking, “that was an amazing experience and I got great service.”

When that client works with another creative pro in the future, you want them to go in and treat that person as a professional, not a hobbyist because working with you taught them the difference.

And if that professional can’t deliver the way you did… guess who that client is going to come back to?

We’re all making it up as we go. There’s no single right way to do anything. But whatever you choose to do, do it well. Do it confidently. Don’t let your Imposter Syndrome show its face to your clients. Remember that more than anything else, you’re running a business and must act accordingly. If you can do that, you’ll have no shortage of happy clients and referrals.