When and how to hire help for your creative project

Pink podcast microphone wearing headphones and a sign that says "Help wanted please" filming on a webcam

We live in an era of incredible DIY possibility. Anyone with an idea and an iPhone can record a podcast or make a YouTube video; with an internet connection, you can put that work online and let the world see it. But at a certain point, as the project gets bigger, doing everything yourself stops making sense. That’s when it’s time to figure out what you can offload so that you can make sure you’re able to attend to the heart of your work — the part no one can do but you.

Usually, that means paying someone to help out. But who do you hire, and when? We consulted Karen Atkinson, an artist who’s been helping other artists figure out how to create sustainable practices for themselves since the 70’s. She currently runs Get Your Sh*t Together, or GYST Ink, which provides information and technology to artists looking to streamline and professionalize their work.

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Figure out what you can afford

Artist Karen Atkinson

Karen's first piece of advice? Make a budget. You’ll never know what you can afford if you don’t know how much you’re spending in the first place. This budget should include the obvious — hosting costs for a website, or a subscription to an app like Descript, for example. But you might also include other elements, such as your own time. If you’re spending hours every week filing receipts, that’s time you can’t put towards pushing the creative side of the project forward. “You can say, ‘this is how many hours I'm spending on this. If I want to make more money, I need to do this,’” Karen says. So ask yourself: “Can I hire somebody to do the remedial stuff?” (If that feels too expensive to contemplate, she offers some options below!) 

After you budget, you’ll want to make a priorities list of what you like doing and what you’d love to have taken off of your hands. It may be that you love handling the accounting, actually — it’s editing, or sending scheduling emails, that feels like a soul-crushing grind. In those cases, you’d want to prioritize hiring an assistant or editor instead of an accountant. “If you look at your own practice, you're gonna realize what you need,” Karen advises. 

Choose your tasks wisely

Another aspect to consider is the consequences for messing up a particular administrative task. As much as you might hate sending those scheduling emails, they’re relatively low stakes. But signing a bad contract can become a burden for the rest of your career. There’s a reason we often hire professional electricians and plumbers — because those tasks are too delicate and important to trust to what we can manage on the fly or learn from a YouTube video. You might think of hiring someone to help you out with legal and financial aspects of your business in the same way. 

Look for help in creative places

Once you’ve decided what you need, it’s time to find the right person for you. Cost is an important consideration, as it always is. Karen encourages people on shoestring budgets to get, well, creative: “You don’t have to hire someone full time,” she says. “​​I am a big believer of going to the local universities and finding a student who's kick-ass in what they do and hiring them. You don't always have to go to the professional that's $1,000 an hour; there might be somebody in the photography department or the video department that is just excellent at what they do.” 

Sites like Fiverr can also be helpful in finding young professionals eager to pad their resumes and whose rates aren’t yet top of the market. You might also offer to barter a skill for a skill — helping someone write a resume in exchange for their photography, for example. 

Karen encourages creatives to consider whether they need to hire someone on a continual basis or if they can get a one-time lesson that will help them work more efficiently in the future. A single meeting with an accountant who tells you what kinds of records to keep and write-offs to look for can be a valuable stopgap before you get to the point where you can afford to have that accountant run your payroll all year long. 

But whoever you pick, make sure they have expertise not just in their field, but in your particular area of it. Find an accountant who specializes in self-employment taxes, or an assistant who’s experienced in organizing audio files. For money matters specifically, Karen recommends looking into Brass Taxes, which offers free resources directed at creatives. There’s also the appropriately named Taxes for Artists. If you’re looking for someone local, your own network of friends and colleagues comes in especially handy. And of course, there’s always Karen’s site as well, which includes advice on a wealth of topics, from goal setting to marketing negotiating contracts. 

Whatever you do, don’t cheap out. We live in a culture that encourages us to think of creative work as fundamentally selfish, a hobby that a lucky few get to turn into a career. But that’s not the case, or it shouldn’t be, anyway. Making creative work is just like everything else in this life: it won’t grow if you don’t tend to it. 

“My favorite quote for an artist is: invest in yourself,” Karen says. “Pay for a workshop, so you know what you're doing. Know how to light when you do a video — and if you don't know, hire somebody that will actually talk about what they're doing. It’s figuring out what you're willing to do for yourself, and what you're willing to invest in.”

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