And you don’t need an agent or a booth at a trade show.
June 26, 2018 9 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
As a creative person, I’ve always found the opportunity to license my ideas rather than sell them myself irresistable. Over the years, I haven’t wanted to run a business so much as I’ve wanted to come up with new product ideas. Becoming successful at licensing has meant I could focus on just that.
Indeed, I’ve ended up licensing my product ideas (including novelty gifts and toys) for many years because I’ve enjoyed being creative so much. This is why I believe artists should consider licensing as a get-to-market strategy. Take a look around you, artists! An artistic element exists as part of a seemingly infinite number of products. Art has the power to invigorate and differentiate common goods.
So, if you love to create artwork, consider licensing it to be put onto products.
That’s what Joan Smith — a long-time entrepreneur and former student of mine who loves to design art based on inspirational quotes — taught herself how to do.
After a few years of trial and error, Smith is designing exclusive artwork for the market via licensing agreements. She’s transformed her side hustle into a lucrative freelance gig, going from “dreamer to licensed artist,” as she puts it.
Art licensing is not a get-rich-quick scheme. But, if you’re creative, it’s absolutely something to consider.
How market feedback inspired Smith to focus on licensing her artwork
Initially, after Smith found out about licensing several years ago, she focused on licensing her ideas for new consumer products. On sell-sheets for a wine bag she envisioned, she added images of her artwork to images of the product (and to other products she envisioned). Turns out that a couple of the companies she contacted about the bag were more interested in putting her artwork on greeting cards.
Negotiations fell through, but Smith was encouraged by the validation. “I took it as ‘qualifying the market,’” she told me. “Making this art was fulfilling a long-lost passion, so I kept on making more.” She began pitching her artwork to companies she found on art licensing forums and attempted to connect with a licensing agent. Unfortunately, nothing came of either effort.
Why it’s important to invent for the marketplace
It wasn’t until Smith began creating artwork with a specific licensee in mind that she struck gold. Taking advantage of the fact that her art features inspirational quotes, she connected with a product supplier selling to Fortune 500 companies that want to reward and encourage their employees. The move worked: Smith was inspired to create works for that company specifically.
She began designing a new phase of artwork based on her responses from various companies she’d pitched and on her gut instinct about the perfect fit. She hired freelancers to format the artwork for digital submission. In the fall of 2016, after she’d submitted about two dozen pieces, a deal came together quickly, she told me. Suddenly, everything clicked.
In total, about 425 of her artistic pieces have since been licensed and are featured on a variety of products in the market, including charms for keychains.
“Sculptors, potters, seamstresses — makers of all sorts can take their creative passion or products and look for companies that can use them in a licensing capacity,” Smith said. “Instead of thinking, ‘How will I sell this in shops or boutiques?’ Think: ‘How can I license this to a company that will manufacture and then sell it?’”
She’s right. Last month, another of my students, Maria Yiannikkou, signed a licensing agreement for five of her block-printed textile designs. She hadn’t drawn for 15 years before she began working on her artwork in 2014 at night after her children went to bed, she told me.
But a chance encounter at a printmaking workshop resulted in a deal being offered to her (Full disclosure: My team helped negotiate the deal.)
When you focus on licensing, you minimize the risk of getting stuck with a lot of inventory that doesn’t sell — a huge benefit. As a young entrepreneur, one of the first lessons I personally learned was that in order to eat regularly, I had to to focus on creating something people want, and to offer it quickly.
Reasons to consider licensing your artwork
1. A vast number of products feature artwork. “People think: ‘Greeting cards, wall art,'” Smith pointed out. “But when you start paying attention, you realize art is on everything. When I’m out shopping and see things I like, I pick them up and write down the manufacturer. Think outside the box!”
2. You don’t need to be a fine artist. As art business consultant Laura C. George has explained on her site: “Licensing is not an industry where only the most elite, most skilled artists can succeed. It’s an industry that rewards professionalism and work that sells well so any artist can find their niche and make a wonderful stream of income from art licensing.”
3. You can live anywhere and do it. Smith is Canadian. When she lived in Florida for her husband’s job, licensing her artwork was no problem. There are no geographic boundaries to licensing. You can therefore consider licensing to companies in other countries.
4. You can make more. Many companies that license art have a standard policy of paying per piece. That doesn’t mean you can’t propose a licensing arrangement. Some companies won’t give you the time of day, but others might.
“Why not engage them in at least a dialogue about the potential of a licensing deal?” Smith propposed. “Especially if they seem quite interested in your style, and you’ve got a collection to offer them.” She said she’s learned not to assume anything. “The conversation that plays out in my head is generally not what I end up hearing from the decision-maker on the other end.”
Some of the companies she negotiated with seemed surprised when she asked for additional rights, leading her to believe many artists can be naïve. Treat this like a business, she advised. Determine how you will establish and maintain ownership over what you create. (Smith relies on copyrights.)
Also, consider that if your artwork sells well on, say, a poster, your licensee may decide to feature it on a mug. That’s a whole other stream of passive income.
DIY licensing tips for artists
1. Submit a collection of pieces. Patterns and sets of artwork are most often desired. This is what’s known as a style guide. “This is a standard thing in the industry. You can get licensing deals without having any style guides, but if you have one, you’ll look more professional and be more likely to get a lucrative licensing deal,” Laura George explained in How to Get Started in Art Licensing.
2. Focus on designing for your favorite companies. In my experience, once you jive with a company and it likes your style, your next licensing deal together tends to come together quickly. That was true for Smith. Initially, she presented about 22 pieces of her work to her licensee. “But, I noticed they had other categories,” she said. “So, when I finally got the right person on the phone and we were talking, and I felt good about the direction of our conversation, I asked: ‘Are there any other things you’d like for me to create in my style?’”
That was smart. Her contact recommended other categories to design for, and Smith ended up licensing an additional nine works. “They were so happy they didn’t need to go looking for another freelancer,” she pointed out.
3. Follow submission guidelines. In Smith’s experience, the dimensions companies desire are “all over the board.” So, do your homework. Don’t bring a 3-by-3-inch visual to a company that wants a design for an apron.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I recommend following the 10-step process I wrote about in my book One Simple Idea. And asking for help is imporant: Smith wasn’t hesitant about connecting with experts to help her reach her goals. When she needed help putting together her sell sheets, she hired someone and learned as much as she could about each step. Now, she creates her own sell sheets and negotiates her own contracts. She stays lean — the sign of a true entrepreneur.
She’s also gotten over her fear of pressing “send” on a pitch and over being direct, saying, “I’m an artist and I’m hoping you can help me.” This is her approach, and it works. Now, when she reaches out to a new potential licensee, she gets to the decision-maker nine out of 10 times, she said.
5. Familiarize yourself with industry standards, including royalty rates. Smith was offered from 3 percent to 7 percent to 7.5 percent. That might have seemed low, but she knew what to expect. A good resource about art licensing is Kedma Ough’s article, “5 Tips for Creatives to Profitably License Their Work.”
You can license anything
As a business model, licensing is far from limited to consumer product ideas. Just the other day, someone tweeted about having used my strategies to license a short film concept. The sky is the limit!
Smith knew this and refused to give up after being rejected. Now that she’s developed a strategy for licensing collections of her art, she too feels that anything is possible. “Once I understood the fundamentals of licensing, licensing art felt attainable,” she said. “I stopped thinking about licensing products. Now, I literally can’t go anywhere without thinking, ‘Do those have artwork — no doubt licensed — on them too?’”