Twelve years ago I started a Professional Practice class in the illustration program at CCA. In recent years I have been working with my colleague Adam McCauley to expand, refine  and update the class as it became mandatory for our students. We have also been working on a handbook to give our graduating students.  From an early draft, here are my  10 basic principles for illustrators starting a business. Note that these principles are very basic and deal specifically with the business of illustration, and others will have their own list.  This is mine:

1: Avoid unnecessary legal complications.

Lawyers make way more money than you do, so if possible, it is best to settle disputes without them. Better still, prevent or avoid disputes in the first place. Legal advice may be needed from time to time, for example to review a contract. Having a complex contract vetted by a lawyer before you sign it could prevent expensive litigation at a later date. Do not confuse seeking legal advice with legal complications. Sometimes seeking legal advice helps to avoid future complications.

2: Avoid Debt

A 19th century Debtors Prison. Little has changed since then.

Compound interest either works for or against you- in our field it is best to maximize all the variables in our favor, so have as little debt as possible. Credit card debt is the worst and should be the first to be discharged. You should avoid carrying credit card balances forward and pay the balance off every month. If you can’t do this, you may be living beyond your means.

3. Keep overhead low

Who could forget MTV cribs?

Reducing overhead makes all kinds of sense, optimize your spending priorities to help you do your work. Consider the opportunity cost of all expenses.

4:Play the Long Game

Master of playing the Long Game, the Count of Monte Christo, illustration by Meade Schaeffer

Make decisions around a set of long term objectives, such as career sustainability. To do this, you need to set some long-term goals- then you can decide if your day to day decisions are bringing you towards these goals.

5:Pay unto Caesar

You have to pay taxes, acceptance of this reality allows you to plan objectively. Wishfull thinking in terms of tax law and the consequences thereof are, for illustrators, a potential time bomb.

6: Do not get behind on bookkeeping

It is well documented that failure to keep up to date records is the number one reason that businesses fail. You can’t make informed decisions about your business if you don’t have objective facts at hand.

7: Sales Taxes are generally applied only once, to the end consumer.

The government prefers to collect taxes on materials once you have made them more valuable.


8 :Contract law is the foundation of American business.

It’s as simple as this: Never, under any circumstances,  sign a contract you do not understand.

9: Compound interest is the second most powerful force in the universe (after gravity)

Have it work for you, never against. It’s always going to be one or the other.

10: The Golden Rule:

The Golden Rule by Norman Rockwell

This, of course, is the only rule you REALLY need. In the long run, everything comes around. Be nice, kind and supportive to others around you. Be generous to those who are doing worse than you. Do your best work, not only because it helps you but because it helps your clients, colleagues and helps your fellow artists. Understand that you have a symbiotic relationship with your clients, colleagues, and the world as a whole. It will all come back to you.