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Portrait painter doubles her commission income with the right marketing tools

The Autonomous Creative Incubator

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    Listen to Sarah’s story in her own words:
    Sarah Marie Lacy

    For several years, Sarah Marie Lacy had run a successful art school, but when the pandemic hit, things changed—in-person classes halted and the building she’d been using was slated to be demolished. Sarah closed the doors to the school.

    She decided it was finally time to focus on the work she was most interested in, but that has taken a backseat for years. She said, “I’ve been doing portrait painting on the side for 15 years. But it was inconsistent. I’d realized it was something I wanted to dedicate myself to.”

    Although Sarah’s school had been a success, she found the pivot to portrait painting challenging. It was hard to develop a plan. She felt like she was “throwing spaghetti at the wall” to figure out how to find enough clients to make a consistent income. 

    People had lined up for her painting classes, but Sarah had no idea how to communicate the value of a portrait.

    “A portrait is a less tangible product,” she explained. “I had no idea how to tackle expressing the value of that to people, or even how to consistently find people who wanted portraits.” 

    Her challenge in expressing the value of her work also showed up in her pricing.

    “I really didn’t have confidence in my pricing, or that I could charge what I actually needed to live sustainably, to pay myself a proper salary, even with all of my overhead.” Sarah continued: 

    “What kept happening is that I’d finish a project and think, Oh cool. I paid myself $10 an hour after expenses. 

    That’s not a long term plan. But I really struggled with the confidence to feel like I had the chops, I had the reputation to actually walk up to someone and say, Look, I’m worth this many thousands of dollars. That is just what my services cost.”

    In the past, Sarah had hired multiple marketing consultants—but none of them actually knew anything about the art world, and so their recommendations were unhelpful. 

    “I just kept getting useless feedback, like ‘Press on their pain points.’  But there just isn’t a pain point. Nobody gets a portrait because they’re in pain.” 

    “If I don’t do this, where will I be 12 months from now? Not that much further along.” 

    Sarah has friends who are artists but are not interested in the business aspect of art. She also has friends who are self-employed, but not artists. She needed a space that offered an intersection of her two worlds. 

    When she learned about the Autonomous Creative Incubator, it “felt like the right thing at the right time.” Not only did the material seem timely, but Sarah also “wanted accountability and a sense of community, around building out what I was doing.” 

    Also, the information page for the Autonomous Creative Incubator resonated with her. She said, “[Running a portrait business] felt like a mystery. I felt stuck. I needed guidance. I wanted accountability.” She yearned for a strategic approach that she could then apply to define small, practical steps that felt very doable, that went beyond useless generic advice like, “get more clients.”

    When she saw my background, she thought, 

    “Here is someone who understands both the art world and the business world. I can come with my specific set of problems and not have to explain all of the backstory of what the art world is like and why your nice tidy solution won’t work. 

    And you weren’t pushing traffic marketing. That was the other thing— I was getting burnt out by social media. I was getting burnt out by just feeling like screaming into the void.”

    Sarah had a very busy schedule at the time, including a few current portrait clients and a grant with an upcoming deadline. But she quickly realized that she needed to decide what was most important. 

    To help with her decision, she also ran some “worst-case scenario” numbers that helped her see that although there was a lot going on in her life, it would never be the right time. “When I looked ahead, I thought, okay, but if I don’t do this, where will I be 12 months from now? Not that much further along. I just decided to make it the priority, to make it work and figure it out.” 

    The power of a strategy—and not just marketing tactics

    As the Incubator began, Sarah felt very excited: “I was starting to see all of these strategy pieces that I had been hoping I would finally get. And there was stuff broken down… all these things I’ve never thought about before.” 

    “I’ve been self-employed for almost 15 years. I’ve run several businesses and learned tons about marketing. Marketing is really hot and sexy, so we talk about it a lot. But no one has ever really talked about the strategy of business as much. It’s just not quite as sexy of a topic to be honest. And I really was craving a sense of structure behind my decision-making processes, so that I didn’t feel like I was just guessing every day. 

    To know that I’m taking this step today because this is building towards this long term goal. And I will take this step tomorrow. And this step the day after. And I just keep taking these steps. And I’m not wandering into a forest. I can actually see the signposts. I’ve built those signposts and I’m moving towards those signposts.”

    “People are probably more willing to pay your price than you think they are.” 

    Instead of focusing on “screaming into the void” with social media, we developed a relationship marketing strategy to help Sarah start building her business. She started by reaching out to former clients and asking for referrals. And it worked. 

    “I was sending out these letters because I was supposed to do it, and I know it’s good for me. But I wasn’t really expecting anything to come of it. [Then] I actually got business from it and realized, ‘Oh, okay, this actually does work!’ I can actually just reach out to people and talk to them like humans and people will hire me.”

    One of Sarah’s biggest aha moments came when she discovered that she could have priced a project several thousand dollars higher than she had, and the client would not have batted an eyelid. She said, “I felt like I couldn’t charge that much and I docked the price… [I learned] to let the price stand. Don’t apologize for it. You actually are worth it and people are probably more willing to pay your price than you think they are.” 

    In addition to deciding to stop worrying about other people’s budgets, Sarah really valued the spreadsheets and worksheets that helped her evaluate the details of her business, including how many hours she has per year to create her work—and how that impacts what she needs to be charging.

    Moving portraiture from supplementary to primary income

    Sarah’s dedication and hard work have paid off exponentially. 

    “After the Incubator, I now have a six month waiting list. I have a waiting list for the first time ever. That feels huge.” 

    She has also seen a 250% increase in income from commission work, which is partially due to her increased prices, but also because of the additional commissions she has in queue. She had her first $10,000 commission, and finally feels like her income and work is more consistent and predictable. 

    Sarah also applied the information she’s learned in the Incubator in other areas of her business. During the Incubator she released a small collection of still life paintings. She said, “everything came together so easily because I knew how to put together a plan. I had the information I needed and so I made the plan and executed it. It went really well and smoothly. It was one of the best launches of my personal artwork that I’ve ever had and it felt so clear.”

    Sarah finished the Incubator with a sense of the entire structure of her business and a plan for how to continue to build it. She can make better choices and decisions in all aspects of her business using the strategies she’s learned in the Autonomous Creative Incubator. 

    The community was also a huge aspect of Sarah’s experience and supported her in shoring up the foundation of her portraiture business. 

    “I had all these people cheering me on, celebrating my wins, and commiserating when things were hard. It made the whole journey so much less lonely. That’s a huge thing as a creative—it can get so lonely. I had these people around me that I could come to with whatever I was struggling with or whatever I was celebrating or what I needed to think through. And they were there and super supportive.”

    Tired of throwing spaghetti at the wall? 

    I asked Sarah who she’d recommend the Incubator to, and she shared that she’d recommend it to anyone who “feels stuck and alone in their creative business” or as though “the marketing world sold you a lie and none of the strategies work—you’ve been trying to get famous on Instagram, you’ve been trying to make dances on TikTok, but nothing is working and you don’t have consistent income.” 

    The Incubator helped Sarah eliminate the feeling of throwing spaghetti against the wall and design a business getting paid well to do the work she loves. 

    “If you want to build a business that feels like it’s got a solid foundation and can support you and your creativity,” she said, “the Incubator is for you.” 

    Be as proud of your business as you are of your creative work

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    “By the end of the year, I should be able to pull in enough to run the house on just my money.”

    “I was feeling very guilty about not being able to bring in what I felt was really just my market rate. I'm not even asking for a lot. I just wanted to be paid for the skills that I had. And even that was not happening.
    Now I'm at a place where I can very easily see that by the end of the year, I should be able to pull in enough to run the house on just my money.”

    Avantika Hari-Agrawal

    Filmmaker and marketing strategist

    Sarah Marie Lacy

    From $10,400 in 2021 to $24,000 in 2022. And the year isn't over yet.

    “In 2021 I booked somewhere around $10,400 in portraits. This year I'm in the $24,000 range. And it's only the end of August, so who knows what the end of the year will bring.
    I have a plan for my business now and that sense of... control isn't the right word, because control feels really tight, but a command of this information that I can use to make better choices, use to make better decisions, use to create strategies.”

    Sarah Marie Lacy

    Artist and portrait painter

    Deirdre Colgan Jones

    From needing help with studio rent to fully funded through the end of the year

    “My studio rent will be paid right through the end of this year, which is just mind blowing for me. I have gone from this slightly humiliating position of having to ask my husband, can you put money in my business account because I have to pay my studio rent? To that business account actually having funds coming directly from my clients. That's never been the case for me before, so it feels really good. I'm finally growing up, making a living.”

    Deirdre Colgan Jones

    Artist, mother, and coach