Finding the Venn diagram of the work that pays well and the work you want to do

The Autonomous Creative Incubator

Listen to more inspiring stories from ACI Alumni

    Listen to Stephanie’s story in her own words:

    After studying illustration in school, Stephanie Shafer stumbled into working as an art director. Although the job paid well, Stephanie felt frustrated and creatively blocked.

    “I took that job, but the whole time I felt like I was spending a lot of time making things that nobody was seeing. There was this end result that people were looking at, but there was just so much work put into it.

    [The company] hired me because they wanted somebody who was more creative to invigorate the publication and add more interest. But I was never allowed to actually do creative things. So it felt like I was just putting all this effort into doing something that I didn’t care about.”

    She quit her job as an art director in April 2021, saying, “I was pouring so much time and energy into this thing that wasn’t giving me any fulfillment at all as a person. There were just many things that added up and then it was finally just like, ‘Fuck this shit. I don’t need to keep doing this.’”

    After quitting, Stephanie bounced around with some freelancing and selling online, but was far from meeting her financial goals.

    “I didn’t understand how long it would take to make something work.”

    During the pandemic, Stephanie opened an Etsy cross stitch shop, where she sold digital downloadable patterns. Although she liked the work, especially because it wasn’t deadline-driven and she could dabble in cross stitch design whenever she wanted, she eventually realized that it wasn’t a viable creative or financial option.

    “The thing I ultimately realized is that I was pursuing the cross stitch, but it wasn’t my real work. It was adjacent to the work I wanted to be doing. I think I was doing it because it allowed me to procrastinate on the thing that I actually wanted to do. It would be cool to do this, but I don’t need to do it now and it’s just me putting off trying out my real idea.”

    When she would hit roadblocks with the cross stitch business, she would switch gears and pick up more freelance illustration work—but when things got boring or hard, she would switch back again. None of her roadblocks got solved because she was constantly distracted by other potential business ideas. She even picked up some transcription work at one point.

    “I spent a year saying, ‘What if I start a totally new, random business?’ I wasn’t really making any decisions about what I wanted my business to be, or committing to anything enough to see if it would actually work.

    The time frame you have to allot to something to find out if it’s really going to work is longer than what I thought it would be. So I would switch tactics before I could really figure out if what I was doing made sense. It seemed like nothing was working, but I think the reality was I just didn’t follow through on any of my ideas long enough to find out if they would work.”

    Stephanie gains much-needed accountability

    Reading the marketing materials for the Autonomous Creative Incubator made Stephanie realize that her missing link was full commitment to her ideas. “I realized I should choose one [business idea] and follow it long enough to find out if it worked,” she said, “because otherwise there’s no real way [to know].”

    She joined the Incubator because she wanted a group coaching program that was targeted at artists. Stephanie had joined other general coaching groups that weren’t a fit, because others in the group weren’t on the same path and didn’t share her goals.

    “I think working on art is a very different experience from a lot of other kinds of work. That’s a big part of what art school provides that’s hard to find later in life. It’s an audience of people who are equally as interested in pursuing job goals that are outside of what most people pursue. But I feel like art is more isolating than a lot of other kinds of career paths.”

    She signed up for the Autonomous Creative Incubator because she wanted a structure for building a profitable business, as well as a community of other artists who could propel her forward and help her gain momentum.

    “I was really looking for other people who were doing the same things at the same time in order to accelerate my own motivation towards doing those things. It’s so easy to drop money on a class that is not live and think, ‘I will totally do those things.’ And you feel that way for a few weeks or a month, but then you take a break from the class. And then all of a sudden it’s been six months and you haven’t done any of [the tasks you wanted to do].

    I was hoping that having other people around who were doing the same thing that I was doing would serve as a constant reminder to me—even when I inevitably ran up into a slump in motivation.”

    Businesses are built on relationships

    Thanks to her work during the Autonomous Creative Incubator, Stephanie now has a clear map of the steps she needs to take to build a profitable business as an artist.

    Her plan is to take on fewer clients with much larger projects, so she can make more money while leveraging her time better.

    Instead of using a scattershot approach to marketing her business, she now has concrete, actionable tasks that help her find more work as an illustrator.

    For example, she uses a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool to systemize her client contact.

    “I had been contacting people before, but I wasn’t keeping track of it in any real way. My method was sending out 50 emails in a panic when I hadn’t had any jobs for a while. That was pretty much the whole plan.

    I feel like that’s something that really actively changed how I think about how to be in touch with people. I know that a big part of success is relationship building, instead of sending out thousands and thousands of impersonal emails.”

    And it paid off.

    Stephanie used the relationship marketing techniques she learned in the Incubator to land a three-book publishing deal with a children’s publisher.

    She reached out to an editor who liked her work, and they worked together to propose a project that embodies Stephanie’s voice as an illustrator and is commercially viable for the publishing house. It’s a big win/win.

    She also secured two book cover jobs with Harper Collins, and a large book interior illustration project with Bloomsbury.

    The group dynamic of the Autonomous Creative Incubator also helped motivate Stephanie.

    “The whole group dynamic is a really important motivation and part of what I was looking for. I had tried to join other groups where it ended up being like a lot of people who were hobbyists, and then you’re kind of like an accidental mentor. So I didn’t really get anything out of it.

    Seeing what other people are working on and being able to have conversations with other people who are your peers, in terms of their level of expertise and craft—even if they’re not in the exact same field—I think is really important and also hard to find.”

    Thinking about grad school? You may want to reconsider

    If you’ve been doing the same thing for a while in your career, and you feel like you’re lacking direction or trying to pivot to something else, Stephanie recommends the Incubator program.

    “I think what a lot of people do when they feel stuck in their career—especially if you’re a creative person—is decide to go to grad school.

    It’s much cheaper not to go back to grad school, and traditional programs don’t even give you any sort of business training. Or any kind of help with how you would actually make that thing happen in the world. It’s all sort of exploring ideas with no practical answers to the question, ‘But how would you make money at that?’”

    When Stephanie was feeling creatively stifled in her career and needed more time to focus on her own work the Incubator helped her find a way to make that work profitable.

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

    The Autonomous Creative Incubator Program

    Let's explore how we can help you develop your profitable and sustainable creative service business.

    Click below to submit a super-quick application — It includes only the necessary information to see whether I can truly be of help on your journey.

    Submitting an application implies absolutely no obligation to join the Incubator. If you think the Incubator might be for you, you owe it to yourself to find out!

    Ready for more success stories from ACI Alumni?

    Start getting paid like the expert
    you are within six months

    The Autonomous Creative Incubator


    The Incubator is the artist-centered program where self-employed creatives design a sustainable, profitable business rooted in their creative expertise.

    The Autonomous Creative Incubator is not currently enrolling.

    You can get the same results working 1:1 with Jessica Abel on building robust business foundations and getting amazing clients who will happily pay to work with you. Click the red button above to explore your options!

    What happens when you design a creative business on purpose?

    Find out directly from our students!


    “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