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Don’t get stuck in the commission trap

with Emma Giacalone

 

Getting caught in the trap of pouring all your time and energy into commissions is easily done. It feels like you’re doing what you love and making a steady income, but if you really look closely, are you creating the work you want to, or are you still just working for someone else – this time your customers?

The ‘commission trap’ is something that textile artist Emma Giacalone is all too familiar with. 

‘I realised that if I carried on working that way, I couldn’t go any further. I couldn’t earn any more, I’d reached a plateau. I had to change something if I wanted to make it a sustainable business.’

Emma is an embroidery artist who creates artwork based on her interests, such as typography and people. She worked in aerospace and defence for over ten years before having her children and discovering free machine embroidery during maternity leave. Fast forward a few years and Emma is a key figure in the creative small business community, and in 2019 her husband quit his 9-5 to join the business! So how did she break out of the commission trap and create the work she truly loved to propel her business forward?

Having been creative from a young age, Emma didn’t go down the arty route, instead doing ‘all the things I was supposed to do’. Finding herself adrift after leaving university, she began temping at a local engineering firm and moved into project management when someone noted she was ‘very organised.’ 

‘I realised that if I carried on working that way, I couldn’t go any further. I couldn’t earn any more, I’d reached a plateau. I had to change something if I wanted to make it a sustainable business.’

‘I didn’t mind it. I like working with people and it was quite interesting, but I didn’t go home and think, oh, wow, you know? It was that classic job where you had fun at the weekend and then it was back to work on Monday. Then I had my son Oscar and going back to work after that, it just became a lot more difficult to do the job.’

But it wasn’t until her second child, Amelie, was born that she discovered her love for sewing, and not until Amelie went to school did she consider it a way for her to make money. It was in these early days that Emma found herself in the ‘commission trap’.

‘When Amelie started school I was getting orders all through word of mouth. It literally was people going to somebody else’s house, seeing one of my pictures and asking where it was from. I’d then get messages requesting one off pieces like that all the time. And so I was really busy just doing commissioned work, but people were saying, well, can you make me a picture like this? Can you make me a picture like that? And that was great, but I did it for about a year and then I thought, well, I’m never going to be able to go wider than this because I haven’t got time to make anything I can sell. And I’m also still not being creative because I’m still not making what I want to make. I’m making what people are asking for each time.’

But how do you break that cycle? Once you’ve built up a steady stream of orders and income it can be hard to stop and redirect yourself into the work you really want to make. Emma took the cold turkey approach…

‘I closed my order books and I stopped taking any commissions. I knew I had loads of ideas, so I just thought, let’s see what I can actually do. So I gave myself three months of not earning anything then I went away and just worked on things I wanted to make and really that was kind of what propelled me forward.’

Whilst it might feel a bit counterintuitive to stop taking orders in the early days of building a business, it’s a crucial step if you find yourself stuck in the commission trap, or equally just creating what you know sells. The whole point of starting your own business is to create the work that you love, that sets your heart on fire.

‘I closed my order books and I stopped taking any commissions. I knew I had loads of ideas, so I just thought, let’s see what I can actually do. So I gave myself three months of not earning anything then I went away and just worked on things I wanted to make and really that was kind of what propelled me forward.’

‘It was the best decision I ever made because it’s what allowed me to define my brand, myself and what my interests were, and make sure that I was working for me rather than what other people were saying to do. Otherwise I was in the position where I was doing something a bit more what I wanted to do, but I still wasn’t doing quite what I wanted to do. And I was always thinking it’s got to be something that I love or else I know I could go back to doing what I was doing before I was a mother.’

If it’s too much of a leap to stop taking commissions completely, think about ways you can work your way out of the safety net gradually. Not only will this be less of a shock to you, but it will also allow you to manage your customers’ expectations and help them adapt to your new offering and remain with you, as you move into a different way of working.

Build up your war chest

Stash away a little bit from each commission, fair or sale (even from your part-time job if you still have it!) until you have enough emergency funds to give you the breathing room to press pause on the commission income and transition to creating the work YOU want to.

Gradually reduce the amount of commissions you take on

Even accepting one less commission a week will give you some time to work on what you really want to be creating, and the gradual decrease in income is much easier to manage, especially if you’ve built up your war chest first.

Replace your commission income stream with product lines

Creating the work you truly love doesn’t mean you’ll make less money. In fact, once you’ve created a product or collection that you are passionate about, it should be easier to sell this in larger volumes and fill the income gap that used to come from commissions, eventually making you far more profit than a one-off piece ever could have.

If you’re stuck in the commission trap or just starting out and want to avoid it, be clear on the vision you have for your business. Find your unique vibe and put it out there, otherwise you might find yourself working for your customers, when what you really want to be doing is inspiring them!

When to let go with love

The hardest won lessons are often the most valuable long term. Holly openly shares one of her own in this article about how to spot when an idea isn't all you thought it was going to be.

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