Lessons Learned While Building a Small Business

by Carolyn Edlund

Ten years in, here’s what I’ve learned about planning, hard work and achieving small business success.


Carolyn Edlund, founder of Artsy Shark


This month is Artsy Shark’s 10th anniversary! Since 2009, more than two thousand articles have been published, including artist features and art business topics. At the same time, my team and I have been building our own small business, right here.

Whether you are an artist, serve artists, or do something else, growing a business involves sound principles. It doesn’t matter whether you are selling a product or a service. What does matter is that you create a solid strategy, follow through with it, learn from mistakes and capitalize on wins.

Looking back, I can see how the strategies I’ve used in my business have a lot in common with the artists I’ve worked with who are building their own. You must know what you are selling, who you are selling to, and why they should buy from you. But it goes deeper than that. Every small business can use these strategies to get traction, thrive and grow.

Understand and share your value

From the very first blog post on Artsy Shark, I knew I wanted to provide services to help artists sell their work. My previous successful twenty-year studio business, plus years as a salesperson in the art publishing industry gave me the sales skills and business knowledge to write articles about art marketing and sales. That information has a lot of value for my audience.

I also knew that artists are looking for recognition, publicity and promotion for their work.

I set out to create a platform that would do two things: publish useful business articles, and present individual portfolio articles featuring each artist’s own compelling story. This model works because it serves the audience in several ways. The content inspires links, posts and shares that drive traffic back to this source.

As an artist, your work also has value. It should be seen, shared, and collected. Art and the creative process is not only fulfilling to the artist—it is essential to our culture, and the quality of life in our world. Sharing the concept behind your work and telling your story is a strong way to support your visual portfolio. Give your audience a deeper understanding of what you do and why. Help them experience how it enhances their lives, and they will understand the value.

Leverage your strengths

Leveraging is defined as “using something to maximum advantage.” You may leverage your body of work, your experience, niche, audience, network, or other factors to drive business and sales. In my case, I leverage my art business knowledge and expertise by creating online courses, offering business consulting, doing website reviews, and speaking at workshops and conferences. I’ve also leveraged this site’s popularity and reputation to offer featured artists an opportunity to reach a large, diverse audience.

Artists have many options for leverage. Will you leverage your knowledge and skills by teaching live classes, creating courses, or running retreats? You could leverage original artwork by offering reproductions, thereby making something once and selling it over and over. If your work fits the wholesale market, you might leverage your designs through studio production and grow a base of retail stores that sell your products. Or, you might leverage your work by licensing it for use by third parties. You can even leverage your collector base by reaching out to them frequently and encouraging them to purchase more of your work. The products and services developed are unique to each artist and vary depending on their market channel and personal preference.

Build your list and stay in touch

I learned long ago how valuable it is to collect names and address of people who are interested in what you do and reach out to them on a regular basis. Over the past ten years, I’ve cultivated a large email list that generally hears from me twice per month through updates in their inbox. This activity helps my audience remember me, brings them to my site for features and business information, and accounts for a large part of my sales.

Artists are in a perfect position to grow an email list of interested followers. Art brightens our lives, makes us think, and is of interest to many people who enjoy finding art in their inbox. Become memorable to those who admire your work, and draw them in by sharing what’s new in your portfolio. A lot of people idealize the life of an artist as creative and free, and they envy the talent and ability to make compelling art. Share the dream with them and help them become collectors of your work.

Cultivate and work with partners

We can’t do it alone. Working in isolation is bad for business, while building a network is one of the smartest things you can do. Over the years my own network has grown exponentially, to the point where I have an amazing Rolodex of contacts. You might be surprised that some of the most important connections I have are people who are actually my competitors. But instead of facing off, we work together to promote and celebrate each other’s successes, offer even greater value to our separate audiences, and leverage our contacts to earn income together.

An artist’s network is one of their greatest assets, and the art community is a place of strong support and resources. Artists should view other artists as peers and potential collaborators rather than competition. Know that there is abundance in the market and be confident in building these relationships. There is a great need out there for what you do, and there is plenty for all. How will you work together to present your work, build an audience, cross-market and promote?

Never give up

In my view, persistence is the most important factor in the success of any entrepreneur. Simply not giving up, even when the going gets tough or things seem impossible, is a common denominator in the stories of so many successful small business owners that I know.

This site publishes articles five days a week. Regular tasks include posting on social media, staying current with email, and a regular email marketing schedule, which takes a lot of commitment. That fact that I have simply stuck with it over so many years has outlasted others in my field who decided to move on or pursue business elsewhere.

Since this is what I’m passionate about, it’s not a hardship. Every morning I look forward to working. I know I share this trait with many artists for whom making art is as natural and necessary as breathing. Your persistence in creating artwork and sharing what you do can feed your inspiration and creativity. It can also build your following and presents your work consistently.

Growing a small business can be difficult and frustrating at times. It takes motivation, effort, and a whole lot of patience to realize the dream you have for your art business. But are you worth it? Yes, I think you are!


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  1. Congratulations on your tenth anniversary. I have appreciated being featured in your blog and love being introduced to new artists by you. Thank you for sharing your expertise and network.

    • Thank you Helen! It’s been a pleasure to know so many wonderful talented artists during the past decade, including you and your gorgeous watercolors!

  2. Congratulations! I first met you in western NYS when you gave a workshop with Wendy Rosen. I appreciated being featured in two of your articles. Best wishes for continued success!

  3. Hello Carolyn:
    Great News hitting Ten Years in the Art Industry, such a challenge, well deserved, happy for you and ArtyShark.
    I wish to send a thanks for accepting my bronze sculpture on your site. Hope to do more in the future.
    Happy Profitable New Year to all Artist.

  4. Congratulations, Carolyn. This is a very inspiring achievement. I hope that ten years from now, my husband and I will have made as much progress with our creative endeavors. Your experience gives me encouragement that we can do it.

  5. Thank you Carolyn for sharing your experience and caring deeply about all of us artists!
    With a Fine Art degree from the 80’s I went into Graphic Design back then and after raising my family I went back to fine art 9 years ago. Being a featured artist on Artsy Shark was an honor! Still struggling to make my business sustainable and now the latest challenge is marketing on social media! Do you have an opinion on the importance of Instagram as a vehicle?

    • Hi Joanne, and congratulations on your devotion to doing what you love! I do believe that Instagram is an important social media vehicle for artists…. The Hiscox Report ranks it the best platform for artists who are selling art. However, my primary purpose on Instagram is to drive traffic to my own site and gaining email subscribers, and I think that’s what artists should consider as well. Just this morning an artist wrote to me when her Instagram was hacked, then her account was deleted. She had 9,000 followers, lost. Hopefully, she had used this to build her mailing list, which she would own and be able to use at will.

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