Whether you’re looking for a side hustle, hoping to find a new career, or just want a way to de-stress after work, there are many reasons to launch a creative project. Of course, the task of actually starting one can be daunting. One of the largest obstacles? Money. Investing a lot of it into an unproven creative venture isn’t always wise or even possible.
That said: there are ways to launch an ambitious project on a shoestring budget. Below, we spotlight three people who started creative projects without spending a lot of money, at least initially.
In addition to the cost, it’s important to consider how much time you are willing to dedicate to a project. This, of course, will depend on what your goals are: a creative project done purely for enjoyment requires a different level of commitment than a side hustle you hope will launch a new career. So before you begin, it’s helpful to define for yourself what you’re hoping to achieve.
The creative project as a hobby
Creative: Nikita Richardson, staff writer at New York Magazine
Last summer, in search of a new creative outlet, Richardson stumbled on ceramics. She took her first pottery class in June 2018 and was instantly hooked. The act of shaping clay on the wheel—of using centrifugal force to make it do her bidding—made innate sense. Richardson started visiting the studio between classes to practice new techniques. “I would be up late at night on Instagram watching an entire subculture of pottery videos,” she says.
That first eight-week class, which met from 7:30pm to 9:30pm, cost $390 and covered all the materials, including clay, glaze, wheels, and tools. She’s taken four or five additional classes since then. Altogether, she estimates she’s spent around $2,400—of which she’s made $1,000 back through sales on her online shop, which she started last year after her ceramics threatened to take over her small Brooklyn apartment.
She loves that people who appreciate her work can purchase it, but photographing and shipping everything—she does both herself—is time-consuming. At its most intense, she was spending 10 hours in the studio each week and a few additional hours sending pieces to buyers.
Richardson is taking some time off from classes so she can, as she puts it, have a social life again. Ceramics is something she’ll continue to pursue in the future—but deliberately as a hobby, never as a career. “If you turn something you love into the way you make money, it can become really stressful,” she says, morphing from an activity that brings joy to “an albatross around your neck.”
The creative project as one revenue stream among many
Creative: Ann Friedman, freelance journalist and co-host of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend
It was spring 2013 and Ann Friedman has recently been laid off. Thrown into freelance writing, she was publishing articles but didn’t feel as if they had a cohesive home. And so she started a newsletter, which could serve as a place to collect all her bylines and allow her to project an editorial point of view to anyone who was interested. “It seemed like a fun medium to experiment with,” she says.
At first, Friedman’s ambition was modest: publish the newsletter every week. In the best-case scenario, she figured, assigning editors would subscribe and maybe send more work her way.
In the beginning, the costs were non-existent. She used TinyLetter, a newsletter service owned by MailChimp, which was free for newsletters with fewer than 3,000 subscribers. Within a year, she’d hit that threshold—but TinyLetter, which liked to showcase her newsletter as a success story, let her continue to use the service for free.
By late 2014, however, it was clear she had to upgrade to a platform capable of reaching a larger subscriber base. For the first time, the newsletter was going to cost her more than the uncompensated time she put into it. “I am not going to provide this service at a loss,” she remembers thinking.
Making the switch from a newsletter as a hobby to a newsletter as a money-generating project wasn’t very fun; it required researching available email services and revenue streams. In the end, she settled on keeping the newsletter free but allowing fans to pay $5 a year for access to premium content. Brands, meanwhile, could pay to be featured in the newsletter via text-based ads. “There were a lot of hours figuring out the best way to make it easy for people to buy those ads,” she says.
Friedman was transparent about the number she needed to hit in order for the newsletter to pay for itself—$2,880 per year, at the time—breaking the number down for her followers. Between ads and paying subscribers, she quickly exceeded that benchmark.
As the newsletter has continued to grow, the percentage of paying subscribers has consistently hovered at 10 percent. Her user base—37,000 and counting—is now large enough that this alone represents a significant revenue stream. Add advertising revenue and the newsletter accounted for around “a quarter of my income last year,” she says. It’s more than enough to pay for all the tech-related expenses and the help of a part-time assistant, while compensating herself for the work she puts into the newsletter (three hours of actual writing, although that doesn’t include the time she spends scanning the Internet for inspiration and links).
Friedman still enjoys writing the newsletter each week. It’s work, of course, but it’s satisfying, often enjoyable work — a time in which she gets to reflect and process the events of the week by highlighting work she admires.
The creative project as a career
Medium: Graphics and illustration
Creative: Lisa Congdon, fine artist, illustrator, and author
For most of her life, Lisa Congdon, 51, didn’t think of herself as creative. As a child, she was a tomboy who loved sports and had no interest in art. After college, she went into education: first as an elementary school teacher and then at a non-profit working with public schools. Following a breakup, however, she signed up for an art class and fell in love with the creative process. “When I started out as an artist, I was really free because I didn’t have any expectations for myself, nor did anyone else,” Congdon says.
She continued to take a variety of local drawing and painting classes—the prices ranged from $30 to $325—and eventually began posting photos of her work online. Opportunities slowly began to present themselves, including friends asking if they could buy her work and stores showcasing her pieces, to the point where she began to consider, ‘what if I did this full-time?’
The transition wasn’t quick or easy. She continued to work—full-time and then part-time—for seven years after she first began drawing. It wasn’t until 2007, at the age of 40, that Congdon felt ready to leave her job to focus on her art and illustration career. Since then, she found success, through both personal and commercial projects (clients include General Mills, MoMA, Airbnb, and Harvard, among many others).
For those who are looking to turn a hobby into a career, Congdon recommends going about it in stages. “If there is a way in the beginning to work a couple of jobs, one being your illustration or art career and the other being something that can pay your rent and buy food—that’s really important,” she says. “The minute you put all of the pressure on your art career to feed you is the minute it becomes extremely stressful.”
She also believes firmly in the power of multiple revenue streams. Today, Congdon’s income comes from working with commercial clients, selling her art in galleries, teaching classes online, and publishing books (her eighth, Find Your Artistic Voice, comes out in August). Coming to painting and illustration later in life has perhaps made her less precious about using art to make money. “There are so many ways to monetize your art; there isn’t one right way,” she says.“If I enjoy it and people are interested in paying me for it, I’ll do it.”