Over 10 Years, I've Sold My Art to Collectors Around the World—Here Are My Top 6 Tips for Making Your Side Hustle a Success

There's an art to a successful side hustle—especially for me, as an artist. Here's what you can learn from my success.

Lisa Ferber.
Photo by Meryl Tihanyi

There’s an art to a successful side hustle—especially for me, as an artist who sells her work to collectors around the globe.

At my 9-to-5 job, I maintain the rules of grammar as the copy editor here at Grow. After hours, I indulge my creative side as a painter, bringing glamorous scenes to life with oil and acrylic.

Since my first sale about 10 years ago, I’ve shown in a bevy of galleries and my work is held in private collections in Paris, London, Los Angeles, and New York City. That experience has taught me a lot about entrepreneurship, from pricing to time management to spending on tools.

Maybe you’re an artist, too, or a dog walker, or you’re starting a business that turns clearance items from Walmart into a profit on Amazon. Whatever your side hustle is, you can learn from my hits and misses. Here are my best lessons.

1. Don’t Base Big Decisions on Predicted Sales

I earn a steady income via publishing, which takes the pressure off my art income. That’s a good thing, since it’s somewhat unpredictable.

I’m still a newbie in the art world, and my sales have made up anywhere from 3 percent of my total yearly income to 7 percent. Most artists don’t live off their artwork, and I’m not gambling my retirement account on being among the chosen.

Years back, I sold a painting for $1,200—and soon after learned I needed some expensive dental work. While I regretted the harsh theft of my windfall, I learned that if I see this income as a wild card, I can appreciate it for balancing some not-so-great financial bumps.

So no matter how chic your handmade wine stoppers are, don’t factor them in just yet when looking to buy a home.

2. Prioritize Your Time

My art is a job, and I treat it as one, meaning I get my work done. As with many side gigs, I set my own productivity schedule: I paint in intense bursts where I’m completely immersed (think HIIT for art), and I rest for a day or two after a great session. I don’t count my accomplishments by hours worked, rather by how much I’ve moved the story forward. I eyeball my week’s calendar and allow myself open slots for creative output, which sometimes means saying no to tempting social plans. But be careful not to overwork yourself, or you’ll be too drained to enjoy any of that extra income.

"Lady Q Delights in the Sounds of a Thunderstorm" by Lisa Ferber.
Photo by Meryl Tihanyi

3. Respect the Value of Your Work

I made my first sale on my way to scan a drawing. A friend who looked at my piece said, “I think you really have something, and I’d like to buy it.” I said, “Sure, take it, I’m so touched you want it!” He said to name my price, and I said, “$14.18.” He told me to think about it and reach out when I had a real price. Ultimately, he cut through my lowball pricing and kindly offered me $100. Shortly after, a friend talked me into doubling my prices by saying that people are paying for a moment inside the artist’s mind, not whether it took a long time or felt difficult.

I remind myself that my collectors get to live with the joy the pieces provide, and that is worth way more than $14.18. Since 2011, I’ve doubled the value of my paintings, which keeps my investors happy. Whatever your business is, you will find various compensation offers for your services. Carefully consider the value of your time, your business expenses, what competitors charge, and other factors to come up with the right rate.

4. Keep Detailed Records

Smart artists know they’re not going over to the dark side by caring about business. I’ve learned the hard way not to hand over a painting without full payment no matter who the buyer is, and I charge 50 percent up front on commissions. I maintain a sales chart including price, subject, and how the buyer found that work. Listing how much you’ve earned per project, how your clients heard about you, and other details can help you track your growth and decide where to focus your energy. (Never mind that good records are important at tax time, too.)

5. Spend on the Right Tools

Buying fine linen canvas or the priciest brushes won’t help me tell my stories. My favorite brushes work for my needs. A 40 ml tube of cadmium red medium paint can cost under $10 or more than $50. I use some expensive paints, but once it gets past a certain cost, I’d just be funding someone’s ad campaign. A romantic backstory is great, but I can write my own for free.

"The Wenslebaums Agree to Leave at Intermission" by Lisa Ferber.
Photo by Meryl Tihanyi

6. Go Out on the Town

A conversation may spark a line of painted text; a new party pal might buy a piece of my art or become a gallery-hopping companion; a host’s charming pocket square might inspire a future artwork. Looking to teach music ? Hit a community-based music event where you might meet neighbors looking to up their guitar skills. Worst-case scenario: You make some new friends. When I approach the easel, it’s with a spirit of “Kid, let’s have a ball.” And as I tell my stories and put new pieces into the world, I balance that playfulness with staying organized, maintaining a sustainable schedule, and most of all, breathing.

More from Grow: Why Fudging Your Taxes Is a Really, Really Bad Idea Got a Side Gig? Don’t Make These Tax Mistakes Don’t Miss These 5 Most-Forgotten Tax Docs 3 Million-Dollar Businesses That Started as Side Hustles