The Business of Lettering
Everyone and their mother, brother, dog, boss, work associate, or whomever you have regular interactions with has a "side hustle". We are truly living in an age where individuals value happiness in their work or at the very least having a creative outlet, which why not make some extra cash if you can? That being said, as a lettering artist, how do you go about starting a real business, and then how do you grow that "side hustle" into a full time job? Well, there's no one right path, but I am happy to share with you my experience in starting Letters & Dust, as well as using hindsight to tell you what I wish I would've done when I was starting out—and what I should be doing now...
SAY MY NAME...
What's your name? Ok no, not your name, but what do you want to call your business? Honestly I would say when you're just starting out, don't feel like the name has to be perfect—you can always change it as your brand begins to take shape, but you do need some sort of identity to work under. If you are lacking a catchy brand name, using your own name is acceptable, or your initials, and broad terms like "lettering" or "design" or "artist". Using these broad terms allows you the space to decide what direction you really want to go once you are established. One roadblock to naming yourself may be social media handles—you want a good, easy to identify handle, so seeing what's available may help you choose a name. My personal recommendation is also to get set up on social media before spending the time and money to create a web site, I get a huge percentage of my business from social media on it's own, and was able to get the usernames to be cohesive across the board. Once you get orders coming in to off-set the cost of building a web site, then add it on—or if you can build your own, that's great! I have built all my own web sites which has saved money and makes it very easy for me to make updates.
WHAT IS A BUSINESS?
Use your discretion for this next step—I didn't register as an official business until I was sure I wanted to commit to the work and was at least getting a few orders in. Different states have different processes for identifying a business, so even googling "how to start a business in (insert your state / country)" can help point you in the right direction. With L&D, I initially registered under an "Assumed Business Name", however to get my LLC, I had to first dissolve the ABN —so if you know anyone you can turn to locally for advice on this, or a local business resource center, I highly suggest getting help.
I JUST got my LLC, yep, like now in 2020...I have been very fortunate in that nothing has happened and realistically, I would find it very surprising if a client ever had a reason to take legal action against me—but it's not a risk worth taking! My greatest fear that motivated getting my LLC was the handling of rentals—some of my larger pieces easily weigh 50+ pounds, and who is financially responsible if a client falls and gets hurt while carrying a glass mirror? I'm all for my business being held responsible, but I do not want to risk losing my other assets like our house and cars, so having the LLC lets me sleep easier during wedding season.
GET OUT THERE!
After going through the nitty gritty of getting yourself set up as business in the most basic sense, start building your social media presence—even photographing personal projects counts, not just client work. Follow / friend other professionals in the industry you are wanting to join, what do they do well? How often do they post? What of their content seems to get the most engagement? For my own business, sign posts get far more interaction than invitation posts—I don't know why, but it is the reason I post far more sign photos. Also look at professionals in other industries you want to potentially work with—for the wedding industry this would obviously include coordinators and planners, photographers, florists, venues, caterers—anyone who could potentially be able to refer you to their own clients.
Now for the part that the introverts despise—networking. You are your biggest advocate for getting your name out there, and while industries vary state to state and country to country, chances are there are venue open houses, happy hour networking groups, online groups, wedding showcases and countless other opportunities for you to start crossing paths with others in your desired industry. You can also cold email other vendors to introduce yourself—set up coffee or cocktail dates to meet them in person and talk about the services you are wanting to offer, the worst they can say is "no". An even better opportunity is if you can get on board with some styled or inspiration shoots where other vendors will see your work first hand, and you will also get the opportunity to stretch your creativity as well as great photos (be sure you understand what is expected of you for the styled shoot, and further down the road having a styled shoot contract is a good idea as well).
HOW MUCH DO I CHARGE?
The age old question wherein we all undervalue our work as the sacrifice for getting any work coming in. I cannot stress this enough: do not work for free! As tempting as it may be to help "get your name out there" or "working for a friend", this is going to start you down a path of sleepless night and burn out. As someone who is a work-a-holic, I made this costly mistake starting out and deeply regret it as there was a couple years where I really hated everything about my business and was so burnt out I wanted quit. Working for free essentially tells people that you clearly do not value your time and effort so why should they? Let alone, if they are happy with your work, they may refer you to other businesses but tell them as well that you are willing to work for free or cheap, and suddenly those are the only clients you are attracting.
Attaching a price to your work seems like a difficult task, but let's approach it logically—what is the minimum working wage in your state? Great, that is the very least amount you should be making on projects. When I began making signs I would time myself to se how long they took to complete, and then assign an hourly wage. The more experience I gained as well as the more clients I took on, the higher this hourly wage number would grow. I finally reached a point about 4 years in where I was able to itemize my pricing, for example: a rental welcome sign is $75, why? Because typically this may be the only sign smaller orders want, and I need making this one sign to be worth the time I could be using for another client who has ordered 10 signs. Another tool I used was Etsy, you can easily find a frame of reference for what your product is worth by looking on Etsy at similar artists, and decide your price point from there.
On site work brings the hourly wage back into play, what number is worth that job to me? In the time I have to leave the house, travel to the location, do the work, and drive home I could have five signs done on another order that didn't require me to travel—so it has to be worth it to get me out the door. I started with $35/hr initially in my business, and this has grown upwards of $50/hr with a minimum of 3 hours work. Be confident in yourself, on site projects like murals are coming to you because people and companies want YOUR work and YOUR style, and they will pay for it.
CONTRACTS, CONTRACTS, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THNGS HOLY, CONTRACTS!
If there is one point you take from this post—let it be this: always have a contract! There are amazing legal services out there that can help you draft amazing contracts for all your services—yes you'll have to invest some money, but believe me the piece of mind is worth it. While your starting out, if you're not willing to shell out the money (I didn't), you at least need to spend the time to write out your own contract. I approached this as "what does this client expect from me" and conversely "what do I expect from them". Consider such headings as:
What is the agreed upon rate?
What is the timeline for this kind of project / service?
What materials will you supply, or what do they need to supply?
What if the project takes linger than originally quoted?
What percentage do you expect to be paid—50% upfront and 50% upon completion?
How long can they take to pay you before a late fee?
What if a product arrives broken or damaged?
What if the postal service loses a product?
What if there are extenuating circumstances (hello COVID-19) / force de majeure?
What if YOU make a mistake, how will you handle it?
What if the client loses or damages a rental?
...yeah, that's just a BASIC list! You need to consider every possibility of what can go wrong and protect against it. I am in no way a legal entity and am not an authority on contract writing, these are just a few of the topics that have come up as I have worked with clients, and every year I review my contracts to see if I need to add in any new clauses. One other clause I like to tell other letterers, especially if you work primarily with weddings—have a clause in your contract outlining who you will communicate with and who can make changes on the order. This has come up when families try to change design elements, quantities or add items without the couple's knowledge—don't fall for it. Detail in your contract that you will only work with the signee of the contract, or if they want you to work with another person, have them sign a section authorizing that communication.
Once the orders start rolling in, how are you going to manage them? When I started, I would keep notebooks detailing client info, project details, and then have them sign contracts. This was a lot of extra work on my end to track everything and make timelines, be on top of communication and payments—it was insanity, and things were starting to slip through the cracks. That's when I decided I needed a CRM , which stands for customer relationship management—this is software that will help you track your orders, keep you on schedule and also make contracts, invoicing and payments easy for your customers. I did a few free trials to find a CRM that was intuitive to me and decided on Honeybook—it changed my life. Having all my customers in one place, each in their own workspace with the ability to upload files, send messages, make payments and schedule meetings has freed up my time to do actual work. Most of the inquiry and paperwork process is automated now and the CRM tells me who has signed their contract, who has paid and who's project is finished and can be archived. As someone who can easily have 300 open projects at a time, it is important I have one space to see them all so I know how to schedule accordingly.
A CRM can also track your income, growth, booking percentages, and where your leads are coming from so you can be more strategic about your resources. I have been able to see that my two largest lead sources are Instagram and vendor referrals, so I know it is more valuable to spend time posting and engaging on Instagram and cultivating vendor relationships rather than running print or web ads that have little return on investment. There are also tools typically included in CRMs to help you when tax time comes around—because there is no scarier time as a small business owner! Basically your take away here should be if you can afford a CRM, get one, you'll be happy you did—and if you are interested in Honeybook, let me know and I will send you a referral link!
GOING FULL TIME...HOW?
I feel that the number one question I get across all platforms is: "how did you make the transition to full time?" This was a delicate balancing act for me—I do not like unknowns, and especially financially, I do not like taking risks. When I started lettering, I was working two other part time jobs and essentially began to realize as I grew my lettering business, I could quit the one bringing in less money. That baby step gave me an extra two days a week to work on networking, marketing, and growing my lettering business. When I truly made the leap to lettering being my sole income and doing it full time, was when I ran the numbers—I realized I was still not making the full amount I was making in my "actual job", but I felt that if I had the time, then I could grow it to that number (I also had enough money saved that if this venture failed I could support myself until finding another job).
You have to decide what the risk / reward is for you to make the transition to full time. Yes it is terrifying, and you are betting on yourself. I am writing this while quarantined during the COVID pandemic of 2020, and one other key element that makes me very lucky is having a partner with an income that during this break in my work, covers all our living expenses. I know this is not something everyone will have when growing their business. Having a safety net of money in savings was my key to feeling like I could go full time without (total) fear, and I highly recommend for you as you make the switch to full time.
Once I quit my other jobs, I worked non-stop to grow my lettering business and was quickly at full time status of 40+ hours a week and more like 60 hours a week during wedding season. These hours included actual lettering, spending time marketing and networking, refining my services, and exploring other pivot points for the off season as well as passive income. A word of caution—it is so easy to burn yourself out when you go full time, this is your business and you are doing all the things. Be open to scaling up and spending some of the hard earned money to get help. In my first year, a $40 / month CRM system was too much money—by me third year, spending that $40 / month was allowing me to take on hundreds of more dollars in work per week, you have to invest in systems that allow you to grow and to make your life easier. I was also able to hire a virtual assistant in 2019, which has given me more time to focus on the creative side of the business and less on answering emails and the administrative side of my business—it has been bliss!
In short, you will probably reach a breaking point where you know you need to go full time—balancing two full time or even part time jobs can be too much, and you will be able to make more money in your side hustle if you can devote more time to it. Have a safety net, and have a plan. Set an expiration, if you're not making a reasonable increase in your creative business within 3, 6, 9 (or whatever number you are comfortable with) months, maybe you need to pick up another part time job to keep your finances in order—you don't have to give up, just regroup.
This has been a lengthy read, and I plan on continuing these types of posts that look more at the business and management side of Letter & Dust, so check back often, but in summation if you are just starting your lettering business:
Come up with a name
Research how to set up a business in your state / country
Start networking and building presence
Set your pricing
Create your contracts
Get a CRM
...and then get to work! So much of this business has involved me just doing trial and error of how I want things to run, and then asking "how can I make this more efficient?" The internet and google are your friend, use them in excess—it is almost a guarantee someone else has had the same question or experience and has shared it. I always try to answer questions when I can, so feel free to reach out to other artists as well! There is plenty of work to go around and it is much better to be a community than to be competition, and above all be doing this work because it makes you happy, that in itself is the greatest payment!