As of today, I’ve been in the art industry for more than half a decade. For the most part, I’ve been servicing clients who give their own direction for art and installations. We would be the solution providers for the style and direction that they envisioned. Blessed as we are, we’ve created over 100 murals and installations combined in just over 3 years. Our revenue qualified us to register for GST and also won us an award from Cradlefund.

As time goes by, I’ve decided to regress and take a step back. At one point, doing things that fulfil me became more important than doing things that make money. It may seem like a pompous first world statement but I kid you not when I tell you that I was sincerely depressed and demotivated. And for any creative individual without a passion, the artwork naturally suffers.

The game of the business is still similar and I just want to share some tips for anyone who wants to excel in the art industry. These advice are real and will save you time, effort and resources. Most importantly, you won’t be paying tuition fees in the form of business loss. These tips applies to those who are self employed or entrepreneurs.

Mind you, I’ve never given an entrepreneur talk or join any similar kind of events and I will tell you why.

#1 Fan Base vs 3F base

In any early business adoption, support comes in the form of the 3 F’s. Friends, family and fools. These are the people that are willing to buy your product, be it clothes or food or inventions. Now if you come from an affluent family, this will do you good. But if you are like me, who come from a broken middle income family with some REALLY chinese relatives from Kepong(you know what I am talking about), the 3F’s will do you no good.


That’s because the customer segments that affords art are not in your direct contact base. They come from the higher income earning class that I do not have access to. Which is why marketing to the 3F’s will not do because they simply cannot afford them. Make the mistake of doing that will only reduce the monetary value of the art you produce. Do you want to be selling one piece of art for 4 figures or 2?

My advice is, take the long road and push towards having a fan base. The easiest customer segment to approach are event companies. They are like the bridge between the affluent and the middle income. They spend the money that the affluent has. Meanwhile, expand your contacts and work towards having a fan base of the high income earning class.

#2 Good art is not enough

If you think that your awesome art is enough to get you a sustainable lifestyle think again. In the creative industry, you need to be in the top 5% in order to have a sustainable income. In order to be in the 5%, having skills in art is the most basic requirement. The next thing you need to do is to differentiate yourself from the competition.

Any edge would give you an advantage. Perhaps you have an influential Instagram account, or you have a pretty face. Maybe you have a knack for photo styling or collecting rare items. The image you craft for yourself as an artist or for your company determines the kind of clients you attract.

If you want to attract the mass audience, an approachable image with neighbourhood friendly service would suffice. However, you better be well dressed, well spoken and able to hold a decent conversation if you want to attract similar clients. Let’s separate customer segments by their income, low-mid and high. Your image and company’s image must look like they belong in the same segment you are trying to market to. Like they say, fake it till you make it.

This is also why I’ve never been to entrepreneurs talks or join events that requires me to spam name cards. Simply because, they are not the demographic that I am looking to attract for my business.

#3 No such thing as free work for exposure

If you have asked for free work from anyone in the creative industry in return for portfolio and exposure, shame on you. First of all, materials cost is high. Second of all, everyone in the creative industry sell time in return for money. An average graduate gets paid RM 6/hour if you take into account all the overtime. Ever wonder why they all look thin, with eye bags and torn jeans?

I think that it would be wiser to ask for pro bono once they are financially stable. However, artists get exploited and those with less talent and passion leave the industry. In a way, this culture inadvertently helped improve the quality of artists. So the next time someone ask you for free work in return for exposure, ask to be paid and promise to do something free in 5 years time.

For me, whenever my friends ask for discount, its a huge sign that they are not willing to pay the full price. Let’s face it, if a 20 hour job cost RM 2000 and the client is only willing to pay RM 200, I would rather do it free. It’s no longer a matter of monetary compensation when the difference are too far apart.

Only accept to do a project for free if there is a solid plan on publicising your brand. Suggest one if there aren’t any. Request for a article feature, interview, banners and merchandise placement. Just examples.

#4 Renegotiate when the scope of project changes

Sometimes, when you are returning favours, you might be tempted to give a time based package. Let’s say a year of services for x amount. Clients might not remember when the year has passed and they will not renegotiate the package with you. You have to be the one to account for inflation, taxes and increased costs.

Or let’s say, a project has been commissioned for a certain amount but along the way, the scope gets expanded. The artwork complexity increases, deadline is looming but production hasn’t begun. It is slowly becoming a ‘rush order’. You have every right to impose additional charge, provided you have already inform the client in the beginning.

Not everyone out there is going to take advantage of your time and resources. Sometimes, they are just misinformed and doesn’t know better. It is your job to inform, remind, warn and finally, impose price changes on them.

#5 Pricing strategies for artists

This is the golden question. One which is easy enough to answer. If you are a freelancer or just starting out your company, price your services high enough.

  1. It should be high enough so that if you are incapable of working on it yourself, the same price will be able to hire another talent that can produce artwork of similar quality. If what you are charging right now aren’t able to hire another talent from the industry, or not enough to attract your friends to do it, you are charging too low.
  2. It should be high enough that even if the clients ask for numerous reworks(quantity of total reworks and changes must be stated in invoice), you will not feel cheated and still be willing to give your best. The price should cover all these additional reworks if needed.
  3. Admin and selling expenses must be included. Yes, maybe you are a freelancer and a one man show. Why should you account for admin, sales and accounts expenses? Because in 3 years time, you might have an admin, sales and accountant. At that time, raising your price would be tough because you have already attracted a mass following of customer segment prepared to pay much lower. Remember, price can go down but its difficult to go up.
  4. Don’t worry about competition unless you are are interested in offering the cheapest services. There are some business models that thrive on offering the cheapest solutions. I will cover these business models in another article when I am free to write again. Your image, price range will attract clients that respond similarly. So, stick to it and do not fluctuate. When you fluctuate your price range, you will either be wasting resources or lacking at some point. Not only that, you will start to vary the quality of your services rendered and that will only destroy your reputation.

#6 Do not shit in your own rice bowl

There are many ways to sabotage your own business. It’s difficult to cover them all because they will only reveal themselves to be a bad idea once you have experienced them. So here are some things you should never do :

  1. Do not hire an asshole. It will be evident, your staff would resign one by one and clients would tell you about it. By then, you would have suffered substantial losses.
  2. Do not exploit your own company. I understand that paying less income taxes is the goal here, but claiming your expenses, your mom’s petrol, your friend’s entertainment bills and your distant relative’s hospital bills as your own is plain unethical. You can do that when your company are big enough. Doing that in the beginning is just a direct piss in the faces of the staffing that work their asses off for you. Plus, it encourages them to do the same.
  3. Do not take advantage of uneducated clients. Simply put, do not overcharge or give less value to clients who doesn’t know any better. Have a Standard Operating Procedure and apply that for every project.
  4. Do not betray clients. This may seem like a funny statement but sometimes a project has a complex hierarchy. It maybe a PR agency that hired you but the event agency that manages you, and another branding agency that pays you. On top of that, the main client is another multinational company that listens to either one of the agencies. Never bad mouth between companies or try to manipulate to get your way. It almost never work out well unless you are a great strategist.

#7 Backstage don’t have to look good.

There are many types of paints, cameras, brushes and tools for the artist. Most of us are shopaholics when it come to art or creative supplies.

Niche tools should be purchased regardless of price. Common tools should be purchased cheap. I was blessed(or cursed) with a team that was incredibly stringent when it comes to spending. They would save every egg carton and plastic cup to be used for projects. I had the exact opposite idea most of the time.

In hindsight, they were right. As creatives, we are trained and obsessed with making things look good. We want to give a good impression, branding and presentation. From logo, website to interior design and tools. Everything. This is the biggest mistake that we can make. Everything in backstage doesn’t have to look perfect. This means that everything that the client doesn’t see doesn’t have to look presentable. Just adequate would be sufficient.

The most important rule – keep expenses lean, profits fat. 

Our first studio had no carpet, it was plain concrete with glue streaks. There were paint splashes on the walls and floors. Plenty of tables and disposable cheap furniture. They were often covered in paint. Floor and wall space is very important to an artist. The interior design were functional, not bauhaus or contemporary. Those can come later.

Second most important rule – take care of the staff first, not the assets. 

Take care of the staff, impose the correct values on them and the assets would take care of itself.


#8 Want to be the best? Invest in yourself.

Sometimes this makes me boil. There are plenty of grants going around. I see people pitching all the time for grants and free money. Yet, they never have the guts to invest in their own idea or business model. This just shows how much trust they have in their own idea.

Yes, we all hear this – “You play with other people’s money, not yours”. The reason for this is because you want to conduct the business without being emotionally attached to the financial investment. If you yourself invest in the business, you might not be able to take educated risks because you are too attached to your own investment.

However, some people I know get grants for the fact that they are given a free try.

If you yourself are not willing to invest in yourself or your business, then you should never start. You would just be squandering other people’s hard earned money. The grant may be free, but they come from a source. It would equate to a form of stealing.

Getting grants and investments also mean that you are holding their trust and ultimately, your own reputation in your own hands. Never gamble with your own reputation.

As an artist, you need to invest in the following:

  1. Market your artwork. No matter how great your art is, it doesn’t mean that once you shared it in social media, it will be the next trending viral art. Even if it is viral, it doesn’t mean people will remember your name. Attention span are short these days.
  2. Always make sure people remember your name or your company’s name. Always always put a face to the artwork and to your company. Showing your face gives authenticity and originality to the brand, something that is easier to achieve now because of all the social media platforms available. You do not want your artwork to be faceless, signature-less and forgettable.
  3. Expand your talents and services. It is important to always catch the latest trend. Like I said, attention span are short these days. If you need to spend to learning, do it.
  4. Do not hire subpar staff to save cost. Hire appropriately according to the quality of service you want to provide. Never assume that you can save the day. If you need to do any saving, that would already mean a lapse in your leadership skills.
  5. Always invest in training staff. Spend time to train staff and teach them to properly service clients. Offer workshops and joint training programmes. Never assume that they will be loyal and stay in your team for long but make the best of out it.

#9 Community over competition

I have met all sorts of artists and the worst kind come with an ego. Here’s how they behave :

  1. They never let anyone touch or edit their work
  2. They never help others, and when they do, they do it sloppily because it’s not their own work
  3. They do not take suggestions or criticisms well.
  4. They boasts of small achievements because to them, it is a huge deal.
  5. Not punctual, delays services or delivery of products. They think they are divas.
  6. They feel offended when clients work with other artists.
  7. They micromanage and take the lead for the project, even though they are not equipped for the task.

Collective success gives the best gratification and satisfaction. An environment that encourage growth and skills improvement is necessary. I feel the happiest when people I work with have significant jump in improvement due to the collaboration.

#10 Collaboration vs Exploitation

If you are trying to build an image for yourself that is suitable to enter the entertainment industry(like how I did for myself as a speed painter) collaboration is a necessity. However, some collaborations can be toxic and especially difficult to navigate. This is true especially in cases where you are collaborating with people that are of a entirely different status compared to you. Unless you are born a celebrity, you are going to hit some walls.

Most of the times, by the time you realised you are being exploited, it may be too late to have a win win relationship. Therefore, it is important to be mindful and speak up when you are not satisfied with anything as early on as possible. Something you’re unhappy about for a day is easier to voice out compared to someone you are unhappy about for a year.

So here are some signs you are being exploited:

  1. There are no mutual respect. You are being treated nice only when the person wants something out of you.
  2. The benefits are not mutual or they are imbalanced. More often than not, this only happens when the resources and investment are also coming from one party only.
  3. Certain terms or information were kept from you. Be it prices, information about clients or project, you deserve to know about them if you are collaborating. The only time you shouldn’t know about them is when you are hired instead of collaborating
  4. Getting the worse end of the deal. Many things can change during the course of a project. Budget can be increased or decreased. Your compensation has to follow suit accordingly.
  5. You are being bound by verbal contract or harassment.
  6. You have neither freedom of negotiation, growth or collaboration with anyone else.

If you are being exploited, seek legal counsel or just leave.


Thanks for reading. Hope you like this article. I usually just write in one fell swoop without re-reading it again. I apologise for any bad grammar.