The Business Mind-Set by Ilise Benun

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“You get what you demand, not necessarily what you deserve.”
— Mikelann Valterra, Certified Financial Recovery Coach and author

Can you make a successful living doing what you love?

Yes, you can—but only if you decide to take it seriously and treat it like a business.

Let’s start by looking back. When you started your career, was money even in the equation, and how so? Was it love of the craft and creative expression that drove you? Did you assume money would take care of itself or you would figure it out eventually?

Most people who go into business do so because they want, first and foremost, to be a business owner. That’s not usually the case with creative professionals. You see yourself as a creative first, and you love the creative work. You’re in business, whether as a freelancer or running a larger entity, by accident rather than by design. You may have jumped or perhaps were pushed. If you’re lucky, with a combination of talent and excellent timing, you have ridden a wave of “success.” If you aren’t so lucky, it’s been a struggle, but you’re still here. Either way, there are aspects of the business that are not your favorite, and dealing with money is probably one of them.

Self-employment offers an opportunity to take control of so many aspects of your life, to become less dependent on one entity to provide everything for you. Being your own boss—whether you choose to be a solopreneur or run a firm of any size—allows you to take on that responsibility, in essence that freedom.

And yet, so few self-employed people are actually in control of their business. This does not come naturally to many creative professionals, nor is it taught in art school. And there is a lot to learn—especially about money—if you want to have a profitable and healthy enterprise with high-quality clients, interesting projects and a strong foundation that doesn’t collapse the moment the economy shifts.

See Yourself as a Business

Many creative professionals hang out their shingles or open their doors for business, then proceed to wait and hope: hoping clients will find them, hoping they’ll get enough work, hoping the client will pay the bill, hoping the checks add up at the end of the month so all the bills get paid. If you think about it, it’s a very passive position, taking what comes along instead of deciding what you want and pursuing it.

There is an alternative, and it is within your reach. You can replace the passive mind-set with planning and action. The first step is to re-envision yourself as a business. But what exactly does that mean?

At the core, it’s a shift in the way you see yourself, a small shift that can affect every little detail about how you do your work and especially how far you go.

Understand the Difference Between Spending and Investing

Whether you realize it or not, your personal perspective on money affects your decision-making process in business and, therefore, your ultimate success. In fact, if you have had no training in finances or business, it can be the difference between a prosperous and a struggling business.

One essential concept to understand is the difference between spending and investing. When you, as an individual, buy something, you are spending money. The more you spend, the less you have. Even if you spend your personal money as an investment—in your comfort, your happiness or your children’s education—the goal isn’t a tangible “return” on that investment, as it is in business.

When a business spends money—this includes your business—there is an expected return. When purchases are made with the express intention of making more money, the price paid is not as important as the return on the investment (ROI). Ideally, the greater the investment, the greater the potential return on investment.

This difference between spending and investing is also important when you make financial decisions for your business. Whatever your business decides to purchase should have a benefit (return) that outweighs its cost. For example, upgrades in computers or software should pay back more than their cost by enabling faster workflow, or by allowing you to attract enough new clients to more than pay for itself. Or, if you decide to invest between $5,000 and $10,000 to exhibit at a trade show, you should be able to project the potential return on that investment before deciding whether to do it.

Remembering the difference between spending and investing will also help when it comes to pricing your services. Your prices, whether high or low, are for services designed to help your clients achieve their goals, to get a return on their investment—by expanding their organization, enhancing their brand or increasing their sales. That means your price may not be the deal-breaker you imagine. Often it is only one of many factors in their decision-making process. You must be able to confidently make the argument that a greater investment (i.e., a higher price) can provide a greater return. When you have adopted a business mind-set, you will.

Be Objective About Your Work

Taking your business seriously also means being as objective as possible. But as a creative, your work is more than a “job.” You are probably emotionally attached to the work you do. You may even pour your heart and soul into it.

This can present a problem. According to Jon Weiman, designer and adjunct professor at Pratt Institute, “Creative professionals have trouble because they tie their ego and self-worth to the work in a way that is not businesslike. It becomes too personal.”

Know There Is No Absolute Value to Your Work

Many creatives complain about working with clients who don’t value their work. But the problem isn’t the clients or the work. You can’t force a client to value your work the way you do. You can only seek, and hopefully find, the clients who do value what you do. But that requires time and effort. They don’t always come knocking unbidden on your door.

There is much hand-wringing around the idea of getting “what you’re worth” or “what you deserve.” In fact, there is nothing objective about it. Value itself is both subjective and subject to change. What has value to you may have less or more value to a client. And what has value to one client today may have more or less value tomorrow because of any number of factors, including a shift in their priorities, in the economy and in what they perceive to be their options—most of this you don’t control or even know about.

With a business mind-set, you are aware of this subjectivity and fluidity. You learn about your prospect or client, you come to an agreement on price and you do your best work. When you make a mistake, you learn from it for the next time.

Get Out of the Financial Fog

What? You’re not a “numbers person”? Your head goes fuzzy when someone starts talking numbers? All the intelligence you exhibit in other areas of your life seems to evaporate? Somehow you can no longer do the multiplication you learned at age nine?

One of the reasons this aspect of your business may be confusing is because you have not been trained in the financial aspects of business like a business school graduate has. Which isn’t to say you need a business degree to run a business. But you do need training and guidance from professionals.

Creatives often say, “I’m not good with money.” That, more than anything, is a self-fulfilling prophecy, primarily of a psychological nature, and it’s important to deal with. Suffice it to say, you’re not alone. There is hope, as this fuzziness is not a genetic condition.

Also, there are few common financial definitions. In fact, the accounting field is filled with terms that all mean the same thing, and no organization has been successful in coming up with a standard glossary. Don’t get hung up on terminology and don’t throw up your hands in confusion. Instead, get educated and get help.

In reality, money is simple and logical. It doesn’t conflict with or corrupt your creativity. It’s math, after all, and most of it is not all that complicated. Numbers either add up or they don’t. If they don’t, there’s something wrong, and if you look closely, you can usually figure out what it is. But not if you’ve already decided you can’t or just don’t get it. That’s up to you. It just takes attention—focused attention.

“There is a lot of shame that surrounds issues of money,” says Mikelann Valterra, director of the Women’s Earning Institute. “It is as if we say to ourselves, ‘What is wrong with me that I can’t figure this out?’ It is frustrating, because we know we are intelligent. But why then do we fall into self-defeating patterns around money? The truth is that money issues go far beyond our intellect. Money taps into our deepest emotions and symbolizes what we fear, hope for and desire in life.”

Be Confident About Money

Your prospects and clients need you to be confident. They are looking for confidence in their vendors and resources. They want to be persuaded that they will be in good hands if they choose you.

But many creative professionals experience a lack of confidence, which usually has nothing to do with the quality of the work. Instead it seems to stem from comparisons you make between you and your competitors, who are sometimes also your friends and colleagues, which makes it tricky. You may feel “less than” if you are self-taught at your profession and they have a degree or some other credential that is perceived as valuable. Or perhaps you don’t feel comfortable calling yourself an “expert,” or, worse, you imagine yourself as an imposter and therefore can’t charge prices level with someone with more credentials. All of this may prevent you from reassuring your prospects and securing the projects you want.

Self-confidence is an element of taking your business seriously. It requires that you shift your attention away from what you imagine others think and refocus your attention on real-time actions—yours and theirs. It takes time, practice and experience to develop this confidence, so be patient with yourself. And as it develops, you might need to fake it a bit, speaking and acting as if you already possess it. That’s okay because confidence sometimes begets confidence. And it builds when you earn at your potential. Valterra says, “There is nothing that compares to the feeling of self-confidence and self-reliance that making money provides us.”

The Trouble with Money

So what’s the problem with money? Granted, it’s a complex issue and it’s different for everyone. But here are a few things to consider.

Money Is Taboo

Did you learn growing up that it is impolite to talk about money? That may be true in social settings but certainly not in business.

After all, we live in a capitalist culture! As a business owner, if you don’t talk about money, then you can’t ask for a client’s budget or negotiate a contract. You can’t raise your prices or advise a client that it’s going to cost more when their project’s scope starts to creep.

The fact is, clients appreciate it when you are straightforward about money. It conveys professionalism and confidence. Likewise, when you are cagey or avoid talking about money, it conveys amateurism and weakness.

That said, there is an art to talking about money. Sometimes it’s appropriate to be direct about it; other times, it’s best to put it in writing. The art is knowing the difference.

Money Is Emotional

Valterra writes, “Many of us are very conflicted about money in general—about having it, earning it and spending it. And many of us desperately don’t want to think about it. Money should just be there, not interfering with how we live our lives. But we need it. And some of us hate that we need it.”

In addition, creatives tend to practice “emotional pricing.” That means quoting a fee based on nothing but a “feeling” and without calculating how much real time and effort is actually required. “They sit in a comfy chair, close their eyes, think about their work and say, ‘Now what do I think I am worth?’” recounts Valterra. “And guess what—the number that pops into their heads is, on average, 20 percent lower than their true market value. Sometimes a lot lower.”

Emotional pricing is not “wrong,” it’s just not rational. You have much more sophisticated tools at your disposal. Yes, be aware of what your gut says, but don’t go only by your gut. When you make an emotional pricing decision and you realize later a better decision could have been made, take the time to investigate what drove you to make that decision so you can learn from those experiences.

money conversation tips

Money Conversations Are Minefields

Many creatives work alone. You may like it that way. You may need solitude or quiet to do your work. But business is social, and if you expect to earn a living then don’t ignore the social aspect or you may find yourself in more solitude than you bargained for.

Money represents—and forces—an exchange with those other people, clients, colleagues, vendors and more. Talking money is one crucial aspect of business and rarely the smoothest part. There’s usually some dissonance to deal with. You should expect that. Sometimes the client is shocked when you give your price, other times pleasantly surprised. Rarely are you “right on the money.”

You may experience these exchanges as confrontations, but they are probably not as antagonistic as you may imagine. And if you welcome these exchanges and learn how to communicate ever more clearly, things are likely to go much more smoothly.

Kit Hinrichs, owner of Studio Hinrichs and longtime partner at Pentagram, says, “Money conversations are minefields because they tend to be emotional for both the creative and the client. Not knowing what to say can stir enough anxiety to prevent you from having the conversation at all.”

If you’re going to run a successful business, you have to be a clear communicator, especially when it comes to talking about money. Not only that, you need to be willing to stay in the conversation, through whatever discomfort arises, to keep the conversation going as long as necessary until each detail is resolved.


Ilise Benun, founder of Marketing Mentor and co-producer of the Creative Freelancer Conference (, works with creative freelancers who are serious about building healthy businesses. Sign up for her Quick Tips at

Excerpted from The Creative Professional’s Guide to Money © 2011 by Ilise Benun. Used with the kind permission of HOW Books, an imprint of F+W Media Inc. Visit or call (855)840-5126 to obtain a copy.

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