How to Make It In the DIY Economy

Would you take your marketing lessons from an artist? They’re either starving, as the stereotype has it, or rely on their business-minded dealers to close sales. But for individuals and companies grappling with disruption (and that may be all of us, since 40% of Americans are expected to be freelancers by 2020), Steven Ladd may have found a replicable model of success.

Ladd, a Brooklyn-based artist, started the handbag and accessory company Steven and William with his brother 12 years ago, but the duo quickly realized they were fine artists at heart. Today, they’ve built an innovative hybrid business model that combines high-end museum pieces (“up to $250,000 for landscapes that can take many years to make”), haute couture (priced at $2000-$5000) and a line of accessories and pendants that sell for under $500 through their website. “Some of our greatest champions are people who can only afford to spend $19.95,” Ladd told me, “and we’d like them to be able to buy something.”

The high art world might scoff at the idea of creating a lower-priced mass product line, but the Ladd brothers have done things differently from the start. For one – despite having two major solo museum shows scheduled in the next year – they’re not represented by a gallery. “I’m not opposed to having a dealer, but having a dealer is like a marriage,” says Steven Ladd. “It has to be a great relationship.” Just as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis recently hit the top of the Billboard chart without a record deal, Steven and William have managed to carve an alternate path to professional success in the art world.

“I don’t think anyone faults us for finding an income stream to finance our art,” he says. “We have to sell, to make money, to produce our work. We have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce work, or else the opportunity is lost.” The vast majority of their revenue – he estimates it as 95% – still comes from high-end purchases. But the mass market represents a powerful opportunity. “We understand the long-term trajectory of what the lower end can do for us; we can do the math.”

Like many artists, Steven and William have done a Kickstarter campaign; they raised a solid $16,000 to produce a book for their last show. But what’s truly innovative about their business model is their combination of entrepreneurial hustle and simultaneous targeting of multiple audiences. Most unrepresented artists would hesitate to call up prominent curators and pitch a studio visit, but not Ladd, who reads magazines voraciously and cold calls collectors or museum executives he thinks would be interested in their work.

“All of the people you think will be so difficult to get in touch with often answer the phone, because so few people actually call them,” he says. (He’s found the phone to be much more effective than letters or emails.) He’s driven by confidence in their work and the conviction that his call will be welcome. “Institutions are there to provide something for the public, and often the best part for curators is to get to meet [artists] and interact with us, so I’ve never hesitated to reach out. I’m not wasting their time; I’m not contacting people who wouldn’t be interested in our work. I read things they’ve said, so I know they’d be interested.”

He’s also become far savvier than many artists – or businesspeople, for that matter – about targeting and meeting customer needs. “A couple of years ago, I realized the most important thing is relationships,” he told me. “Who are the people who love this work, and what are we communicating with them about? What are they buying? Why do they collect our work? What do they need?” As a result of this questioning, he launched an e-newsletter, which made it easier to notify collectors about new offerings and track (via clicks) what elicited the most interest.

Art and commerce haven’t always coexisted peacefully; some still find them an uncomfortable combination. “Once I moved into sales, you have to ask people to buy work, and it can change the relationship,” Ladd admits. But by understanding what the audience wants – whether it’s curators, high-end collectors, or regular fans – and being transparent, Steven and William have been able to build a successful enterprise. “It’s being really genuine about the fact that we need them to support our work, and not denying it,” he says. “I’m selling it and they know it.”

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on April 28, 2013.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.