Based in Melbourne, Australia, Spencer Harrison (aka Spenceroni on Instagram and Twitter) is a graphic artist and illustrator. Behind his energetic and vivid creations is a playful imagination and a “fascination with daydreams, adventures, nature and fun.” Ever curious and never without a notebook, Spencer is perpetually immersed in a side-project, such as Rhythm and Repeat, inspired by his recent obsession with repeat patterns and textiles.
When he isn’t in his studio working on his first solo exhibition, Hello Play, you can find him cooking up a storm in the kitchen, adventuring with friends, flexing his green-thumb, or curling up on the sofa, reading a good book. Today, Spencer is joining us to chat about his evolving career, the dark art of pricing, following your gut and relationships. –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business?
My business has been through several evolutions over the past couple years, but I decided to start working for myself basically straight after graduating University, in 2011. There didn’t seem to be any jobs around in graphic design at the time, so I decided to just take the leap and go out on my own. I was lucky enough at the time to be accepted into [a program] run by the Australian government called the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme that gave me some initial funding and some basic business training to set me off in the right direction.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
As part of the NEIS I had to write a business plan, in which I outlined my dream business of a multidisciplinary design business in which I could balance client services with producing my own art and products. I had this dream vision in my head of this amazing light-filled studio space where I could paint, draw, screenprint as well as work on projects for clients. Over the next few years, though, the design services side of things took over and I found myself working from cramped desks in coworking spaces. Four years later, though, my original vision is finally coming around and I have my dream studio space where I work on my own art and products, as well as illustrations and textile patterns for clients.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
Keep your overheads low, don’t take on debt and make sure you put money aside for tax time. This has been the best advice I received, as being able to budget and keeping a little safety net of saved cash really helps when cashflow is slow and during holiday periods.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Learning to price my work and the dealing with copyright. Four years into running my business, and I still feel like I struggle with both of these (although I have learned a lot during that time). Having the confidence to charge what you are worth is difficult as a creative and nobody teaches you at university how to price your work or prepare quotes. Sometimes I wish someone would invent a magic formula or app that could solve the problem of pricing creative works! More recently, I’ve been entering the world of licensing with my patterns and illustrations, which has created a whole new learning curve, dealing with royalties, contracts and copyright law.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Relationships are everything! You really need to build a community around you of peers in your industry, trusted suppliers and, of course, loyal customers! I really would not be where I am without all of these and the community I’ve become part of in my hometown of Melbourne. The creative community in particular here is very supportive and anytime I need help or have a question about something, there is always someone out there generous enough to help. Looking after relationships with your clients is vital, as well as if they enjoy working with you, they will pass on your name to their friends — and word of mouth is the best marketing there is!
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
It wasn’t really a catastrophic failure, but I feel like I didn’t follow my gut enough in the beginning, which led me down a path I wasn’t totally happy with creatively and from a business perspective. To be more specific, for about two years of my career I thought I wanted to work in branding and run a design studio. I started a small studio with a business partner and did some really great work for some great clients but during that time, my heart just wasn’t totally in it and I felt something was missing. After work every evening I was going home to draw and make art and I realized that this is what I was meant to be doing; so I left the business and started again out on my own. I think during that time [the] fear that I wouldn’t be able to make a living from my art, and trying to fit into other people’s expectations of what a successful career was, held me back from doing what fulfilled me. These days, I don’t see the whole experience as a failure as I did learn a lot during that time, but sometimes I think [about] how much more I could have achieved by now if I hadn’t let fear hold me back in the beginning.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Probably my social life and/or love life at various points over the years. It’s hard when you are starting out (and on a tight budget to survive) to feel like you can freely spend money on outings with friends. Small things, like being able to shout your friends a round of beers or buy dinner for your date aren’t really possible, which can be a bit depressing at the time. Luckily, you can get creative and make the most of happy hours and cooking at home for your dates.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
It seems so minor, but just being able to have the lifestyle I dream of in Melbourne, being able to pay rent and being able to do what I love every day is my greatest success. It’s been a journey of ups and downs to get to this point but I’m just so grateful every day that I can do what I do and make enough money from it to be happy.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Show Your Work: This really great book by Austin Kleon is an essential guide for how to get your work out there and get discovered.
Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist: A really great guide for some different approaches to making a career as an artist/creative. It covers basically everything you need to know to be an artist in today’s age.
Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines: A good introduction to how to price your work with some good starting points for industry standards for prices.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Make sure you have a little buffer of savings to get you through slow periods in the first year.
2. Make sure you are involved with your community. Get along to small business seminars, networking events, talks, workshops and meet others like you.
3. Do you love what you are about to do? Starting a business takes a lot of energy and late nights, so you have to make sure you love it enough to get you through the tough times.