The Costs of Running Your Business
The usual overhead of startup businesses doesn’t always apply to those of us working on a smaller scale and in a creative space. We’re often the only employee, living rooms and kitchen tables can serve as the office, and we’re used to figuring out the DIY solution to all kinds of things. But to run a sustainable business, it’s important to have an idea of exactly what our costs are and where our money is going.
Every business is different, and there’s no one special formula for establishing the “right” amount of business costs. However, sitting down and mapping out what costs you have right now, as well as what costs you envision in the future, can help you to have a better overall picture and understanding of your business.
Make a budget
Some people love to make a spreadsheet, and others are not as data- or organizationally-inclined. Regardless of whether this feels like a fun project or a bit of a drag, making a budget is worth doing. Start by making a list of all of your current expenses, and then think bigger picture about expenses that you might incur in the future. If you need a starting point, the SBA has a startup cost worksheet. Many of your expenses may be monthly, but a few bigger yearly purchases may be in order. Figuring out your average monthly expenses can help you better establish what your operating costs are and what you need to pull in to make a profit.
What kind of expenses does a small, creative business incur?
What kind of expenses does a small, creative business not incur? All jokes aside, just because you’re small and independent doesn’t mean that you don’t have a lot of the same expenses that traditional businesses have. Here are a few that may be pertinent to you:
Consider this the catchall category for things like business licenses, dues, insurance, and other costs of keeping your business afloat.
Even if you run your business from your home, you may be in the market for things like a storage space for your supplies and inventory, or a coworking space to go to once in a while when you need to get out of the house.
There are all kinds of bookkeeping services out there, and while most people may recognize Quickbooks, there are others specialized in small business like Freshbooks and Xero, and even free ones like Wave and ZipBooks. Using bookkeeping software not only makes accounting and tax time easier, but it can also help you to have a better understanding of what you spend money on, how much, and what the overall percentage of individual expenses or expense categories are in comparison to your overall costs. You may also want to hire a CPA to help navigate taxes, write offs, and beyond.
Internet, cell phone, and beyond. If you’re working from home, there can often be a lot of crossover between what is personal and what is business use, so consider consulting a CPA on how to appropriately write these off.
Hardware and Software
What are the technological tools to run your business? What software do you need? What software would you like to have?
Marketing and Events
What money do you need to spend to get the word out about your business? What events do you need to be at, and are you going to need to pay to put together a booth in order to sell your goods? If you’re someone running an online shop and most of your business is shipping orders, are there things you want to include in your packaging that help to promote your business?
Supplies and Production
These are the hard costs of your business. What do you need to make what you sell? What supplies do you need to ship your goods?
If you’re shipping goods to customers, this is something you certainly have to consider, and you can use a site like Big Cartel to charge customers different shipping rates.
Is travel a part of your business? Do you go to events or craft fairs? Consider not just the cost of a car or plane trip, but what it costs to stay in that location.
Talk to an accountant to figure out exactly what you need to be putting aside for taxes. A good rule of thumb is about 25-30% which covers income and self-employment tax.
There are all kinds of things that could be expenses for your business, and it’s always worth considering not only where your business is currently at, but where you want it to be. It can be a useful exercise to do a “reality budget” and a “dream budget.” What are the things that you want to be doing with your business and what are the expenses required to be there? That might be an investment in a particular tool or machine that would allow you to do work in a different way, or maybe it’s just having access to higher quality materials.
Particularly if we have been in the DIY mindset, it can be easy to limit ourselves. Dream a little, and then do the numbers to see what it takes to get there.
Value Your Time
It’s easy in an independent, creative business to take the “I can do it myself” approach. This approach can be applied to everything from business cards (who doesn’t love a handmade business card?) to taxes, and it can help to keep costs low. But be mindful of taking this approach too far, and learn how to value your own time. Figure out when it’s worth it to pay someone else to help with a component of your business (particularly when it comes to professional services) and when it’s worth it to streamline and automate a certain part of your business. Without you, your business doesn’t run, but you don’t have to do everything on your own.
How Much Do You Want to Make?
We have been discussing some of the hard costs of running a business, but let’s also not forget about you. Are you paying yourself? What is the amount of money you want to make and how do you get there? Even if your business is making and selling goods, it can be useful to work through a freelance rate formula. This type of exercise is intended to help you figure out your hourly rate, but even if you aren’t invoicing clients, it can be very useful for thinking about things like time off. Take a moment to consider what your ideal salary is, and be sure to include vacation time in there!
Spreadsheets Can Be Straightforward—Our Relationship to Money Isn’t
We can outline bullet points and offer strategies for thinking about costs of running a business, but ultimately these straightforward approaches avoid one major component: our interactions with money are complex, and how we feel about it is far from straightforward. All kinds of emotions are wrapped up in money, and depending on our background and our privilege, there are a whole variety of barriers at play.
As a culture, we’ve embodied the idea that artists—and plenty of other professions—are underpaid, and it’s easy for us to play into that mindset. If you’re here reading this, I’ll guess that it’s because you want a little advice, but also because you’re interested in how to do things differently. After all, that’s what building an independent business is. Building a collaborative, equitable, supportive community that also values all kinds of work, as well as rest, social justice, and the environment? That takes work.
So let’s start by asking for what you’re worth. Because that doesn’t just help your business, it sets a precedent for everyone in your sphere doing a similar thing. This isn’t easy. I know, because it’s hard for me, too, and if you’ve ever questioned what you should or shouldn’t charge for something, find humor in this graphic.
Knowing your worth and advocating for it? That’s the sign of a smart business owner. And just like figuring out how to do good with your business isn’t always straightforward, neither is figuring out how much you spend and how much you make. If you need a little support, I often think of Rachel Rodgers’ advice in her book about figuring out what you think your rate should be and then double it. Unfuck Your Worth is also a good resource for anyone struggling with their mindset around money.
Advocating for yourself and your work isn’t easy, but it’s essential. There are so many ways to value ourselves that don’t fall under the traditional capitalist lens, and we all know that our work is more complicated than straight input and output. But if you don’t value yourself, your time, and your rest, you can’t run your business well. Consider yourself your business’s most important expense.