Business planning means identifying your strengths and values as a designer – to guide the choices you make professionally, including which skills and how you promote these skills to potential collaborators/employers. Making a business plan might seem pointless given how unpredictable our work often is, but making a plan can be a very useful way of managing this unpredictability, and of giving us a more objective perspective on our career path.
Your business plan is your road map to what you want to achieve, how you aim to achieve it, and in what timeframe. Refer to it frequently as a reference point when making decisions.
Your business plan should be a living document that is reviewed and updated at least once a year.
Your business plan could set out:
- What you can offer: your skills and professional points of difference
- Your current position: professionally, financially, creatively
- Targeted areas of skills development
- Professional goals – within established timeframes
- Other professionals you use as a ‘benchmark’
- Markers that help you recognise how close you are to achieving each goal
- Mission, Vision, Values
- Marketing plan – your website is crucial.
- Budget and cashflow forecast
- SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats)
Your plan can be quite simple, but it needs to set some clear goals, timeframes for each goal, and clear measurable indicators of how you are going in reaching each goal.
For live performance designers business planning indicators might include:
- Your income: this might be measured as an hourly rate against the hours that you actually work, or measured in terms of cash flow, or average fee per project.
- The number of interviews or reach-outs you make in a year that lead to a work offer
- The number of work offers received over a year
- The percentage of offers coming from sectors that align with your goals
- Whether your professional ‘benchmark’ has stayed the same or gone up/down
- Job satisfaction – the percentage of jobs that ‘worked for you’ – were satisfying creatively, emotionally… you might want to give each project a star rating so you can quantify this very subjective indicator.
Indicators should be measured within a convenient, consistent period of time – 6 months or 1 year, or 5 years for longer-term business planning. Document your goals and indicators as clearly as possible, so when you review the plan in twelve months you will be able to measure your progress.
- Strategyzer – Useful free business planning tools and videos
- Creative Plus Business will help you write and carry out your business plan
- Business.gov.au – Government support for businesses in Australia
- Guide to starting a new business – Australian Government site (business.gov.au)
- Auspicious Arts – this private arts company has good, user-friendly live performance-focused resources and a recommended newsletter for artists
- Creating New Income – a toolkit to support creative practice. There you will find guides and resources to help generate revenue for your creative practice. The Toolkit is designed for creative practitioners and small to medium organisations and Create NSW has taken a ‘how to’ approach to each topic, detailing steps needed to grow and develop income streams from sources such as philanthropy, sponsorship….
- Victorian Business Support – State Government support
- NSW Business Support – State Government support
- Queensland Business Support – State Government support
- South Australian Business Support – State Government support
- West Australian Business Support – State Government support
- Northern Territory Business Support – Territory Government support
Tips & Tricks
- ‘Work out who you are, and what you can offer that is authentic to your sense of who you are’
- ‘I have found it beneficial to have a longer-term business plan, but then break it down into 12-week action plans – 12 weeks seems more manageable to commit to’
- ‘Even if your first ‘business plan’ is just a few dot points with a date, it will give you a point of reference in six months or a year when you look back and are ready to reevaluate and plan the next step’
- ‘Consciously evaluate your career path regularly (every year) to see if you are heading where you want to go’
- ‘My first business plan was simple – just five columns: goals; indicators; where I am now; where I want to be in X months time; and how do I get there?’
- ‘Be prepared to diversify early – parallel and related careers sustain many designers and enrich their practice’
- ‘You are not alone – business planning resources have a lot of great information and are yours to use. You don’t have to invent the wheel yourself.’
- ‘Expect ups and downs’
- ‘It’s a competitive world, so I had to think about my particular skills and areas of expertise for my personal ‘business model’
Choosing the right work
The project that is ‘right’ will be different every time. Evaluate what is right for you based on your particular circumstances at the time. Sometimes we can not afford to say no. Sometimes it is a mistake to say yes, but we do anyway because we have bills to pay. Sometimes what seems like the perfect project can cause us grief. Or sometimes the one we were not sure about can be the best thing we have ever done, or at least a great learning experience that we can look back on with appreciation.
When you are thinking about your next move or offer ask yourself these questions:
- What are my goals – now, in the short term, and also in the longer term?
- Who do I need to be working with now to advance me to those goals?
- Will this project confirm my reputation, or open up new areas of professional growth?
- Will the project have good exposure, and will my work be noticed?
- If I do this project, what other doors might I be opening or closing?
Once all of the potential career moves have been considered check the vital statistics:
- Is the director/creative leader someone I respect and feel I can work with?
- Is the production manager someone I respect and feel I can work with?
- Does the production company have a good reputation for supporting designers? (Ask other designers who have worked with them recently.)
- Will I be paid appropriately/fairly/on time?
- Are there other reasons this could be a good project for me at this time?
If you answered yes to enough of these questions, try these:
- Can I actually do it? Can I fit it into my schedule without compromising my other commitments?
- Do I really like the script/conceptual territory (if devised)? Do I like it enough to devote 2/3/5 months of my life to the project? (This might be the most important question. You might want to start here).
If you decide to decline the project follow common courtesy:
- Let them know asap.
- Speak to the key players personally, especially the director if it was a personal offer from them.
- Clashes of dates are a way of saying ‘no’ diplomatically.
Tips & Tricks
- ‘You need to know when to move on – when you need to say ‘no’ to designing another co-op, or working as an assistant, or when your association with a particular artist or company has run its course’
- ‘If you are pitching to a company, make sure you like their work’
- ‘Volunteer for something: join your guild, a writer’s group etc. Opportunities often come from making these genuine connections’
- ‘For each new job give yourself one goal that you believe will make saying ‘yes’ worth it; for example, what is one thing you would like to learn from/on this job?’
- ‘Imagine your CV in 5 years – what would you like it to look like? How can you work to achieve this?’
Contracts and Deal Memos
The contract sets out the terms of your work and the mutual responsibility of yourself and the contracting party. The contract defines your role, responsibilities and key conditions of the project.
Use the APDG Live Performance Agreement. It is excellent! It is a contract written by designers for designers, and reviewed by arts lawyers. If the company issues their own contract, use the APDG Agreement as a comparison to inform your negotiations, or you might want to incorporate sections from the APDG Agreement that are missing from the company-issued contract.
Contracts issued by companies are written from their perspective, to protect their interests. Don’t expect their contract to protect your interests – it is your job (and your agent’s job if you have one) to make sure your interests are being protected.
Read the entire contract carefully, and don’t sign it until you know what every clause means and how it affects you.
Many contracts have all of the details specific to your project in an associated document called the schedule. Make sure you agree to all of these specific elements, including key dates.
Many contracts include lengthy sections on company OH&S and Environmental/Sustainability policies which you must also read, understand and agree to.
Some things to watch out for in contracts:
- Are your Superannuation and/or insurances covered? (see sections on Superannuation and Insurance for more detail.)
- Are future productions, tours and royalties covered?
- Check the cancellation clause – many designers were caught out by COVID cancellations
- Does the schedule of fee payments suit you?
- Are the design deadlines achievable?
Your contract should acknowledge that your designs are your intellectual property. In live performance practice you own copyright in your designs, unless the contract explicitly states otherwise.
Tips & Tricks
- ‘If I haven’t received a contract by the time I need to start work, I let the production manager know, and they will often make sure it happens because they need the design to be delivered on schedule!’
- ‘Even if I haven’t actually signed the contract yet, I don’t start work until I have agreed to the terms, or at least have a deal memo’
- ‘I read the contract like a hawk to make sure it works for me’
- ‘I look for ‘cut and paste’ clauses in the contract that have nothing to do with my role’
- ‘I have added a terms and conditions of employment link to my website, and I get the company to sign this before I start work’
Contracts are often exchanged late, and far too often well after we have started work. If you can not get a contract before you start work, at the very least insist on a deal memo (or letter of agreement) that confirms payment and key design dates. First payments may be paid under the deal memo, and you should make sure you receive first payment before you start.
- We have provided examples of deal memos, or letters of agreement. (LINK to sample DEAL MEMO)
- Try sending the company a completed and signed copy of the APDG contract if your employer is having trouble issuing a contract or deal memo.
An agent is someone who represents you. Most live performance designers start their careers without an agent, and some professional designers choose to continue to self-represent.
A good agent is worth their commission, and a good relationship with your agent is essential to making it worthwhile. Agents are not location-specific – the best agent for you might be based in another state or territory. Expect to be in regular contact with your agent – this may be daily when you are negotiating a contract. Even when you have an agent it is a shared responsibility to find, negotiate and secure work.
- When choosing an agent look at designers you admire and who represents them – it is good to be part of a strong cohort.
- Be aware that agents bundle their clients on projects when negotiating with companies, so you may be linked with particular directors or co-designers represented by your agent, or not linked if they are represented by a different agent.
- You can expect to be represented by more than one agent through your career. Don’t feel you need to stick with an agent if it’s not working for you.
- Agent’s fees are tax deductible. They’re an expense to your business.
- Add the agent’s fee to the fee you’re being offered. You’re aiming for their fee to be cost neutral.
- A standard agent percentage is 15% – 20% of your fee.
- You can negotiate for your agent to do specific administrative tasks for you, for example booking travel arrangements or arranging meetings with other creatives.
- Your agent will invoice for you, and follow up on late payments.
- If you’re having problems with the company or fellow creatives, you can use your agent as a professional confidante.
- An agent is especially helpful when negotiating non-traditional projects.
- You can feel alone when operating as an independent design professional, and an agent can be your partner in business.
Tips & Tricks
- ‘My aunt is a lawyer, so she checks my contracts for me, like an agent would’
- ‘For mainstage productions, if you’re not with an agent you may not be on the radar of theatre companies when they’re programming their seasons.’
- ‘I called a few of the designers I knew were represented by the agent I most wanted and had a chat about their experience. It was very helpful’
How to Negotiate An Offer
When you have decided you would like to do the project, give yourself room to negotiate. If you have an agent, include them in your thinking early. Most offers can be negotiated to give you a better deal – increased payment, more flexible design delivery dates, better conditions… The APDG Live Performance Agreement and the APDG Live Performance Design Guidelines will give you a place to start negotiating from.
- Give yourself time to think – you don’t need to say yes or no straight away. Let the client/company know that you will get back to them within an agreed period of time (at a minimum 24hrs is reasonable), This gives you time to think and make sure you have not simply been swept up in the excitement of the job offer.
- Have you got all the information you need to negotiate? Script, design delivery dates and production dates, fee, budget, director’s availability, co-designers, cast…?
- Before you start negotiating, work out your bottom line – what you won’t go below on any part of the contract.
- Work out your priorities – what conditions really matter to you.
- Is the fee in line with the demands and complexity of the project? If you really want to do the project you might be happy with a lower fee or less favourable conditions. Or not.
- Check if there are any special factors that will make this project more complex and time-consuming – is the script developed enough for you to start work? is the director available over the design period? Will there be complex cast factors? How much support will the company provide – for example is there a skilled production manager and appropriate department/s supervisor on-board?
- Benchmark your fee against other relevant professionals, or other people working on the same project. APDG Guidelines provides useful wage benchmarking guidelines
- Auspicious Arts Simple budget template provides Award rates for comparison artists and production roles
- Break the fee down into the number of weeks of working at your weekly rate, to check that the fee is viable.
- Negotiate on every point that matters to you. This might take some time. Try to not start working on the project while you are still negotiating.
- If you have an agent and they are negotiating on your behalf make sure they know your bottom line and priorities.
- And the golden rule of business practice: Don’t start work until you have agreed to the terms. You might not have an agreed contract, but you should at least have a letter of agreement (deal memo) stating what and when you will be paid and the agreed time commitment and deadlines.
Passion Projects/Profit Shares/Co-ops
Let us get one thing straight: the APDG does not endorse any designer working for free, or for less than what they are worth. The APDG advocates for designers being properly remunerated – at all stages of their careers.
Having said this, many emerging and established designers are asked to be part of co-ops and profit share arrangements, or to give/donate their skills and time for passion projects. You may also initiate the project with collaborators or on your own before there’s funding.
When contemplating becoming involved with such a project consider: what is the value of the project? Will it influence the direction your work takes, or open up new opportunities or collaborations? It is a moment to give back to the community? Different projects will have a different value to you – monetary, career progression, developing relationships, inherent social or artistic value of the work and so on.
When embarking in a co-operative effort or profit-share arrangement, be mindful of the following points:
- As there is no formal employer/employee relationship in a co-op, nobody has the right to hire, fire or dictate the workings of the group.
- The group should make decisions as a collective.
- Every party should be witness to a transparent budget and should all be aware of financial updates or changes to key parameters.
- All members of the group will be jointly liable for any debts incurred over the project, so financial transparency is paramount.
- All creatives and workers need to be aware that they are not covered under WorkCover and therefore the ensemble should consider taking out accident and injury insurance and, possibly, public liability insurance. Refer to the Insurance section of this document for further information. Always seek professional advice about Insurance.
- Always create a formal, written Agreement that all participants agree to and sign. (Include Written Volunteer Arrangement template – AC)
- This Kit from MEAA helps to engage productively in profit share productions and warns of some of the common traps.
Tips & Tricks
- ‘If the offer is beneficial to both you and the co-op it may be worth it. If it’s only beneficial to the other person/group, it’s probably not.’
- ‘Identify what support you require to deliver the expected design work e.g. assistance with sourcing, returns, budget management, scenic art etc.’
- ‘Be wary of the carrot, “once we start making money we’ll pay you”’.
- ‘Be OK when it is just a ‘money job’, and adjust your expectations’
- ‘Make sure to ask if the whole team is part of the co-op/deferred payments, or if some members are being paid or paid in advance. There may be room to negotiate’
Income Fluctuations: managing the peaks and troughs
It is important to have a cash flow strategy for yourself when there is no work available, or if you are unable to work for health or other reasons. There may be times when you earn more income than you need and times when you don’t earn enough. Consider opening a ‘rainy day’ bank account separate to your main personal and business accounts for times of need.
Work out how much it costs for you to run your business and manage your cost of living. Although these are separate factors, they are interconnected financial considerations. Then work out how long you can survive without an income. This knowledge will prepare you for future possible circumstances.
If you need help with this, a good accountant can assist you with working through the break-even point for your business and minimum requirements for personal living.
Consider a part time job to supplement your business income. This allows for some income certainty whilst still having the opportunity to work for your design passion.
Tips & Tricks
- ‘Work and cash flow should be part of your calendar planning. Know when you will be more or less busy throughout the year and how that will affect your ability to spend and save.’
- ‘Schedule time every three months to review your finances – this coincides with the tax scehdule’
- ‘It is easy to get so busy that you stop looking ahead, and are not thinking about your future income.’
- ‘When I can, I put my tax return in my rainy day account’
- ‘Many freelance live performance designers also have other income streams such as teaching; it is normal to have a casual or part-time job to supplement your design generated income.’
- ‘I suggest the app Rounded as a good tool to keep on top of tax/finances’
Standing up for your rights
There will be times when you need to validate your contribution and stand up for your professional rights. You do not need to feel that you are alone; there is support if you need it.
You have the right to:
- Be paid fairly and on time.
- Receive superannuation, when applicable.
- Hold intellectual property over your work.
- Be credited for your work in programs and media representations.
- Feel safe in your workplace, free from bullying and harassment.
- Ensure your mental and physical health.
- Be yourself and be respected for it.
- APDG Live Performance Design Guidelines has useful resources.
- CAST Respectful Workplace Policy (Confederation of Australian State Theatres – CAST)
Tips & Tricks
- ‘Join the APDG – your professional guild is here for you!’
- ‘Seek advice from more experienced professionals, use them as a sounding board or as a mentor to work through the grey areas.’ APDG offers an annual mentorship program for emerging designers: MENTORAPDG
- ‘By NOT addressing your concerns, you disadvantage yourself on the next job, and you disadvantage every designer coming after you’
- ‘Ask questions early, and ask specific questions that will improve your working conditions’