Tired hands, quiet minds. By Big Cartel.

What It Means to Compete As an Artist

There’s an art to competing in a world where everyone is their own business.

When I was first starting out, it was inspiring to see many people running their own online businesses. It felt like a whisper of encouragement: Surely if all these people can do it, I can too!

That chipper tone didn’t last long. After launching a project, our initial fanbase bought from us, but soon after sales dried up. Knowing there were so many others like me trying to sell stuff online now became a source of worry. How am I going to compete against all these people?

If you’ve ever stressed about how you stack up against the competition, good. It’s an important question. But it’s a pretty hard one to answer. For one, it’s not easy to make direct comparisons when competitors’ offerings are ever so slightly different - different materials, different marketing, different aesthetics. Worse still, in a world where thousands of others are selling similar things, comparing yours to theirs can be emotionally daunting. If you’re like me, it’s enough to make you want to crawl back in bed.

Compete 1

To deal with this, I had to come up with another approach. Call it the art of competition. Artists are acutely aware of struggle, and competition is struggle par excellence. If the phrase is to mean anything, it’s the struggle to find an artful approach to competition, one that would allow us to pay attention to - and even benefit from - what others are doing without letting it become a burden.

Where I was failing before was that I was focusing on what everyone else was doing, when what I should have done first was look at myself. In this way, the art of competition begins with an honest assessment of yourself and what you’re selling. What matters here is not how good you are or how unique what you offer is, but the belief that what you’re doing is valuable, period. Everything else comes later.

If you’re not 100% sure you believe this on a fundamental level, then this is a good place to stop and reassess.

Compete 2

Know yourself

Here’s an exercise. Try for a minute to ignore everyone else, forget the competition, and just examine what you sell. Obviously your art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but pretend it does. Now answer this for yourself: What do I find valuable about it? Search around until you find an answer that feels honest, and don’t be afraid of overshooting. You can’t be wrong - this is your assessment, not anyone else’s.

If you can put it into words, do it. At the very least, see if you can finish the following sentence. What I’m doing is valuable because:

You don’t have to go all spiritual and make a mantra out of it, but you do need to know it’s there because you’re going to use it.

Compete 3

Know your competition

Being more acutely aware of our own value puts us in a stronger position, allowing us to withstand a deeper incursion into competitor territory. Now you can ask the same question of them: What do I find valuable about the things they sell? See if you can make a list. Make a big honest list about how great your competitors are. Go on, get it all out.

My list ended up showing me two things. The first thing I realized was that it had basically turned into a wish list for myself - this person kept a beautiful blog showcasing their process, that person charged twice what I wanted to charge. I want to do that! The other thing my list revealed was that it was full of assumptions. Just because they have a gajillion followers on social media doesn’t mean they’re crushing it. Just because they’re charging double doesn’t mean they’re making twice as much money.

All this showed me something else: that my competitors were in some ways not real at all. They were blank canvasses on which I painted my own desires and baseless assumptions. My hopes and fears! How classic.

But of course the competition was a blank canvas. Until it’s been given a specific form, it’s nothing - an idea. The art only happens when you give form to the idea.

Compete 4

Know what matters

Competition, brutal thing that it is, is at heart a struggle between opponents; how I initially envisioned it was me versus everyone else. But in the world of online sales, our competition is largely made up of people we don’t personally know and brands we may never even encounter. It begs the question of who we’re even struggling against, and indeed whether we even are at all. What you choose to do with these ideas is where the art of competition becomes more about the art than the latter.

Ask yourself: Am I really competing against other people who sell things similar to mine? If so, find a way to give form to that idea. Talk to those people, do an interview, find out real answers to your burning questions. Collaborate with them! Start a collective and break the internet with them! Hell, make voodoo dolls of them if that’s your thing. Transform the relationship into something that feeds you, that spurs you on.

For me, the process of assessing my business and everyone else’s has turned into a form of art itself - a dialectical struggle between thesis and antithesis, each time bringing me to a new synthesis that restarts the cycle. Each time, I find some new thing to add to my business. Each time, I find something to change in myself. My relationship to the competition feels less like a fixed thing and more like a process - a creative process of its own. Some days it’s stressful, yes. But more often than not, I find it inspiring, like a whisper of encouragement.

Melissa Mesku is a developer, writer, and founding editor of New Worker Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter.