What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from the Business Successes (and Failures) of Artists

In business, there’s a common misconception that the world of the visual arts and the corporate world are diametrically opposed. Artists — so this misconception goes — work purely in pursuit of a passion without concern for financial gain. On the other hand, starting a business is all about financial success. 

a painting on the wall

© Carl Court | Getty Images

Yet visual artists (as well as other working artists such as musicians, actors, poets, novelists and others) face many of the same challenges as entrepreneurs do when building their careers. Many artists will frankly tell you that, first and foremost, they are an entrepreneur—and that it’s a cutthroat business.


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What entrepreneurs can learn from artists

Marketing, building a brand and creating a strong product for clients are all crucial for business success, no matter what your business is. It’s just as true for artists, who must develop a client base and a system for charging those clients, thereby defining their own worth. 

Entrepreneurs can learn a great deal from both the failures and successes of working artists. Wildly successful business owners share quite a bit in common with most successful artists. For just one thing, they are all extremely enterprising.

Examine the careers of great artists like Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, all the way back to Michelangelo and Caravaggio. You’ll see two more things many had in common: 

  1. A solid understanding of the business world in which they operated; and 

  2. A knack for offering their work (their product) as a precious commodity 

Even in this profoundly changed post-crisis world, entrepreneurs can learn some tangible lessons from artists — both in their successes and their failures.  

Related: How to Know When That Business Idea Is Good Enough to Pursue

Confidently seize new opportunities

Whether you’re an artist or an entrepreneur, self-confidence is vital to your success. Consider that the vast majority of artists get little to no validation from anyone for the first several years of their careers. As a result, they’ll take even the smallest opportunity — whether that’s quick-sketching caricature portraits in the park or selling paintings for $20 at a coffee shop — and try to make the most of it. 

It’s much the same for an entrepreneur.  As a business owner, you need to believe in your idea and your ability to communicate it to the world. You also need to hang on to that confidence in the face of failure. Your company may have to start out much smaller and proceed more slowly than you originally imagined. You may very well generate little to no profit in the first few years. However, it is crucial to stay motivated and seize every worthwhile opportunity, big or small.

Let yourself fail (productively) 

Many artists struggle for years, even decades, before developing their own distinct artistic voice. They experiment with a wide variety of approaches, tools, and principles. More often than not, these experiments end in failure. Yet the successful artists don’t view this process as a series of failures in the traditional sense. Instead, smart artists know that they are essential steps on the road to success. 

Small moments of success within these failures can provide valuable insights, as can a complete failure. As an entrepreneur, your first concept might not be a runaway success, but it is important to study each failing idea closely. Consider the why of each mistake you make, then search for successful alternatives that counter those obstacles. 

Related: Take a Break From Embracing Failure and Be Inspired By 6 Huge Business Successes

Seek out adaptation and innovation

Artists often crave a fuller experience of the world around them. Changes in society dictate not only how artists work as a practical matter (such as the invention of new materials, innovations in technology, etc,) but also in the conceptual relevance of  social, political and global issues to their work. 

As the world changes, businesses and entrepreneurs will need to adapt preemptively. Having an active interest in social, political and technological changes will expand the possibilities for your company and pave the way for innovative thinking. This helps position you to integrate new technologies and working styles into your company’s core operations. 

Think deeply and ask the right questions

Artists make work that is both personally meaningful and commercially viable through the process of questioning and investigation. They ask countless questions of others as well as of themselves, in order to understand their work more deeply.

Entrepreneurs can also use a variation of the Socratic Method to examine their assumptions and strengthen their strategies for addressing problems and constructing a business. For both artists and entrepreneurs, the process of questioning is important to both the work as a whole and the fine details. 

Entrepreneurs must deeply consider the big picture of what they are trying to build, as well as the day-to-day logistics of how to build it. Beyond formulating a business plan, however, the habit of asking questions becomes important for personal reasons as well. Success in any field requires both professional and personal reflection. 

The lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from artists are essential ones that can help you find your own path to becoming a successful and innovative business owner. 

Related: 5 Tough Lessons Learned From Embracing Failure


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