Why “Do What You Love” Career Advice Leads To “I Live In A Van Down By the River” For Creative Professionals

Jan 22, 2015

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand. To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube. JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

Why “Do What You Love” Career Advice Leads To “I Live In A Van Down By the River” For Creative Professionals

Jan 22, 2015

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand. To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube. JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

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career advice for creative professionals

I have been thinking a lot recently about the direction that I want to take my photography business, and this week I came across two really interesting ways of looking at career advice for creative professionals.

First, there is the “do what you love” genre of career advice for creatives.  Then, there are statistics.

For the sake of this article, lets call them fantasy and reality.

career advice for creative professionals

Photographer Jenna Martin recently did a great job of selling “the dream” in her recent post How “Doing What You Love” Can Be A Realistic Career Option.  It is an interesting article and definitely worth a read.  If you’re a cubically contained aspiring creative professional, or an unemployed millennial with an arts degree – I guarantee, you’ll love it.

The problem for me as a crusty old Gen X’r with a family and, you know – responsibilities – is that this kind of “do what you love” career advice is essentially encouraging people to pursue a fantasy.

In other words, the stodgy business guy on LinkedIn is bang on with his piece: “Do What You Love” is Horrible Advice.

Homer: If you don’t like your job, you don’t go on strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed – that’s the American way.

career advice for creative professionals

The Dream

If you’re a creative professional, your aspiration in life is likely some version of this narrative:

Sleep in till mid-morning.  Get up and go for a latte at your local hipster coffee shop.  Update your social media presence on your Mac device.   Meet your wife/girlfriend/husband/boyfriend for lunch at a gourmet cafe.  Plug away at some ridiculously creative personal project or go photograph some models for the afternoon.  Hit the farmer’s market and prepare a gourmet dinner with expensive wine and all local ingredients.  Relax and recover from your busy day with more wine and a novel.  Sit down at the computer to get some “corporate” freelance work done and stay up really late.

Don’t be ashamed or angry – I’m not mocking (much) – that honestly describes my ideal day right there (although maybe its a symptom of my pending middle-age that so much of my idealized lifestyle revolves around really good food and wine).

But, in the real world “the dream” costs money – and making money takes hard work and a viable business plan.

Marge: Homer, when are you going to give up this crazy sugar scheme?

Homer: Never, Marge. Never. I can’t live the button-down life like you. I want it all: the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles. Sure, I might offend a few of the bluenoses with my cocky stride and musky odors – oh, I’ll never be the darling of the so-called “City Fathers” who cluck their tongues, stroke their beards, and talk about “What’s to be done with this Homer Simpson?”

career advice for creative professionals

The Statistics

Which brings me to the real world statistics that show what type of lifestyle is (unfortunately) realistic for most creative professionals.

Yes, I am directly equating income level to lifestyle because unless you want to live your entire life relying on a precarious income stream, a comfortable lifestyle costs a significant amount of money.  Even more so if you have the responsibility of providing for your family.

The Government of Canada publishes financial performance data from various business sectors.  The reports are set up to measure business profit, not individual income, so it can be a little tricky to interpret the numbers as they relate to individuals.  However, there are still a number of fascinating trends that can be gleaned from the data.

And yes, this is Canadian data and will vary globally – but I suspect that the big picture trends that we can see in Canada would be fairly typical for most global markets.

As a professional photographer, I’m going to start with the photography industry.

Homer: And you don’t think I made any money. I found a dollar while waiting for the bus.

Marge: While you were out “earning” that dollar, you lost $40 by not going to work. The plant called and said if you don’t come in tomorrow, don’t bother coming in Monday.

Homer: Woo-hoo! Four-day weekend!

career advice for creative professionals

Creative Professional Reality Check #1

75% of all photographers in Canada earn an annual net profit of $30k or less.

These businesses spend a minimal amount on ‘Wages and Benefits’ and ‘Labor and Commissions’, so we can infer that they are largely sole proprietors and their net profit is essentially their personal income.

In other words three out of four Canadian photographers take home less than $30k a year in pay.

In comparison, the average cashier at Costco Canada earns around $40k a year – and has paid vacation, and a dental plan, and other perks and benefits.

However, if we look at the top 25% of all photographers in Canada – their net profits are roughly 4x, 3x, and 2x the bottom, lower middle and upper middle quartiles respectively.

Further, the top performers spend substantially more money on ‘Wages and Benefits’ and ‘Labor and Commissions’ than than the rest.  We can infer that a large number of these businesses would be incorporated, so a large portion of their labor expenses would in fact be salary that they pay themselves and (judging by the size of the business) maybe one or two other employees.

If we add the top performer’s ‘Wages and Benefits’ and ‘Labor and Commissions’ expenses to their net profit, they are earning somewhere in the order of $150k.  If you split that as $100k for the business owner and $50k for a junior assistant or part time office manager – the good news is that we’re into a sustainable career income level.

career advice for creative professionals

Creative Professional Reality Check #2

50% of all photographers in Canada earn less than minimum wage.

So…..you could run your own photography studio….but half of all the photographers in Canada are actually making less money than the high school kid at Bestbuy selling cameras….and he/she didn’t need to invest thousands of dollars of their own money to get that gig.

Ya, I didn’t believe this one at first either – so lets do the math.  Minimum wage = $11/h = $22k/year = working poor.  Net profit for bottom quartile = $14.2k = van down by the river.  Net profit for lower middle quartile = $20.7k = working poor.

Ok, admittedly, the person working for minimum wage would have to be working full time hours – or several minimum wage jobs totaling full time hours, and we are assuming that the photographers are working full time hours – but no matter how you look at it – this is an extremely low net profit for thousands of photographers.

career advice for creative professionals

Creative Professional Reality Check #3

The threshold to make it into the top 25% of Canadian photographers is a minimum annual revenue of $113k.  The average revenue for the top performers is $345k.

The statistics are pretty clear that only the top 25% of all photographers have any chance of earning a sustainable income.

So before you quit your day job and burn your bridges – unless you have the client base and business infrastructure in place to generate at least $113k in annual revenue right now – chances are you will be living in a van, down by the river.

And while we’re at it – what is your business plan to increase that to $345k?

career advice for creative professionals

Creative Professional Reality Check #4

Over 12% of all photography businesses are losing money.  The average annual net loss is nearly $20k.

While 12% doesn’t seem like too bad of a failure rate – especially when compared to restaurants which have a failure rate of nearly 40% – if your photography business does lose money, you stand to loose a pretty substantial amount of money.

For most creative professionals that means personal debt.

Given the investment in equipment needed to work as a professional photographer this is not entirely surprising.

However, I think what aspiring creative professionals can take from this is that if you plan ahead for funding gear purchases from your business income, slowly over time, there should be no need to go into personal debt to pay for it.

career advice for creative professionals

Business Efficiencies for Creative Professionals

Beyond profits and losses, there are some fascinating facts that we can learn about the expenses of running a creative industry business.

Again, lets look at photography.

First, excluding labor and wages, all Canadian photographers spend around 60% – or two thirds of their total annual revenue – on expenses.  These statistics match almost exactly with this article “How Much Should Photographers Charge Per Hour” where I suggested that photographers need to bill at minimum 3 times what they expect their take home wage to be.

For example, if you want to take home $30 per hour, you need to bill at least $90 per hour.

These expenses don’t take into account vacation or retirement savings so a billable rate of four times your take home rate is probably even more realistic.

“Operating Expenses” account for around 50% of total revenue – compared to around 10% for the cost of sales.  I don’t see any particular expense category that jumps out but this shows that if you want to increase the profitability of your photography business – the first thing to do is cut your operating expenses.

Next, the bottom 75% of all photography business spend a negligible amount on rent.  I’d interpret that to mean that they are mainly home-based businesses.

However, the top 25% spend nearly $20k a year on rent – meaning that they are paying for studio space.

To me that implies that if you actually want to make a sustainable living as a photographer – you need to get out of your basement and into a proper studio space.

Finally, the top 25% of photography businesses spend much much more on ‘Purchases, Materials and Sub-Contracts’ than the remainder.

To me, this shows that lower performing photography businesses do the majority of their work in house – while the top tier relies substantially more on sub-contractors to offload labor intensive tasks – freeing up time to generate more revenue.

It also indicates that they are investing a substantial amount into professional level equipment every year.  I guess if you’re working with the latest gear your work is more marketable and efficient – and therefore more profitable.

So, if you want to increase revenue, sub-contracting tasks such as post-production, accounting, book keeping, marketing, IT and social media seems to make good business sense, as does investing in quality equipment.

career advice for creative professionals

Other Creative Professionals

I am a photographer, so I am mostly interested in benchmarking my business against other photography businesses.

However, for comparison we can also look at the financial performance data for other creative professional industries.

The statistics for Individual Visual Artists and Artisans are very similar to those for photographers with slightly lower revenues but higher net profits.  Essentially it looks like it is less expensive to work as a visual artist than a photographer so the profit margin is better – go figure.

For Graphic Designers, the overall trends are also fairly similar to photography – with the exception that the top quartile of Graphic Designers generate slightly more revenue and earn higher net profits than photographers.

Its the same story for Motion Picture and Video Production.  However, in this case the top tier statistics seem to be skewed by a few outliers that must have lost a ton of money in 2012 (the year these stats relate to).

career advice for creative professionals

Realistic Career Advice for Creative Professionals

We all want to believe that “do what you love” will inevitably lead to “the dream”.

We like to point to black swans like the Naked Cowboy to justify our belief that – if that guy can be a huge success – how could I possibly fail?

(Read “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb if you don’t know what I mean – it is a great book).


Only 1 out of every 4 creative professionals earn enough money to maintain a sustainable career.

But, the point of this piece is career advice for creative professionals – not to crush dreams and condemn creatives to a soul crushing 9 to 5 corporate job.

Because the good news is that the statistics prove that it is indeed very possible to make a good living as a creative professional.  The only problem is that you have to be in the top 25% of revenue earnings for your industry to have any chance of long term success.

This trend seems to apply to all creative industries: photographers, video producers, visual artists and graphic designers.

If you are a young creative professional just starting out, you have the luxury of time and minimal personal responsibility.  With a sound business plan you can transition from starving artist to sustainable career at your own pace.  Its not a failure to have a day job to subsidize your creative ambitions – if nothing else the statistics should prove that a day job is a necessity.

If you are a corporate warrior dreaming of the day you can quit the rat race to pursue your creative passion it is even more critical that you plan a viable, realistic transition strategy.

To me there is no point in quitting a perfectly good job to pursue “the dream” only to struggle for a few years earning minimal income and accumulating debt then eventually return to the world you left…less a few years of career advancement.

Homer: Thanks for giving me my job back, Mr. Burns.

Mr. Burns: I’m afraid it’s not that simple. As punishment for your desertion, it’s company policy to give you the plague.

Waylon Smithers: Uh, sir, that’s the “plaque.”

Mr. Burns: Ah, yes, the special de-motivational plaque to break what’s left of your spirit. For you see, you’re here… forever.

[Smithers screws the plaque to the wall]

Mr. Burns: [reading] “Don’t Forget – You’re Here Forever.”

In other words, you need to have a viable part-time creative industry business in place before you quit – so that you can seamlessly transition to the top quartile of revenue earners.  That means learning the skills, developing the networks, building the client base and business presence needed to run a legitimate creative industry business.

Building a viable creative industry business part time will require a ton of time and commitment and will likely take years to accomplish.  That is advice nobody really wants to hear – but that is reality.

career advice for creative professionals

The Bottom Line

The funny thing is that I think Jenna Martin and I are saying pretty much the same thing – a sustainable career in the creative industry is a realistic goal.

All I am saying is that sustainable success in the creative industry is very tough to actually achieve – and you need a very well defined and realistic business plan to get there.

First off, I am thirty five years old.

I am divorced.

And I live in a van, down by the river.

Matt Foley – Motivational Speaker

What Do You Think?

Are you surprised that 75% of creative professionals earn less than a cashier at Costco?

Have you successfully transitioned from the corporate world to a top revenue earner in the creative industry?  What was your strategy?

Have you given up on the creative industry and gone back to a stable 9-5 job in a cubicle?

Did Matt Foley’s wife leave him because he quit his job and bankrupted himself while pursuing a career in the creative industry?

Leave a comment below and let us know!





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JP Danko

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand. To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube. JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

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11 responses to “Why “Do What You Love” Career Advice Leads To “I Live In A Van Down By the River” For Creative Professionals”

  1. stewart norton Avatar
    stewart norton

    Brilliant advice and honest information for anyone thinking of becoming a photographer… And for someone who has been through the pain and realisation, anyone who read this and was arrogant enough to think it does not apply to them…it does, believe me you Are Not that person who will buck the trend and fall into a life of shooting what and when you like for loads of cash and little of your time.As with everything the rewards are out there if you are prepared to work hard….Bloody hard ;-)

  2. mike Avatar

    “Do what you love” should not have to mean “make what you love your job.”

  3. Mārtiņš Vanags Avatar
    Mārtiņš Vanags

    You have missed the whole point with your statistics. It’s not about getting in line with wages dictated by society, it’s about getting away from it. It’s about Living, not getting paid. Life is not about minimal wages. Life is not about money. Life is about living.

    1. Ilya the Great Avatar
      Ilya the Great

      Life is about living? What am I doing at work everyday? O, yes. earning money so I can pay rent and feed myself and go on living.

      1. Mārtiņš Vanags Avatar
        Mārtiņš Vanags

        And when exactly do you do ‘living’?

        1. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
          Kay O. Sweaver

          Probably watching TV and getting drunk to cope with the tedium and futility of “work.” ;)

  4. Paganator Avatar

    “To me that implies that if you actually want to make a sustainable
    living as a photographer – you need to get out of your basement and into
    a proper studio space.”

    Or it could imply that people don’t rent a proper studio space until they make enough money to pay for it. If you’re earning less than minimum wage, it seems unlikely you would decide to start renting a studio.

    1. gs_790 Avatar

      I know that for me, in the first 4 to six years of my life as a working adult, adding skills and competency was easy, learning how to be a working adult with other working adults was hard.

      I also know that a lot of my peers had massive trouble realizing their expectations about lifestyle, salary, and influence at work were modeled by one or two adults that have already spent 20 and more years working adult.

      And this is just about work in general, not about establishing your space as in independent business.

  5. Scott Szakonyi Avatar
    Scott Szakonyi

    The thing you don’t mention… that hit me right in the face when I pursued a creative business… is that it’s not all in your control. You can build the plan and work it, and still fail. Other people have to decide to invest in your product/service, and you’re not in charge of their decisions.

  6. Jesse Leigh Brackstone Avatar
    Jesse Leigh Brackstone

    I’ve done what I love all my life and don’t regret a moment of it. Sometimes I’ve made a lot of money and at other times I’ve made none on purpose, in order to participate in projects that I felt were important, but I’ve never measured the value of my work by whether or not there happened to be a dollar sign in front of it. I’ve done benefit concerts – many. I’ve worked for decades as a missionary. My songs and novels are read by people all over the world, and yet I’m not a household name, and that’s just fine with me. I know my work has reached people’s hearts, and that’s what matters. I’ve lived in tents, vans, and even slept out in the open, and I’ve also lived in very nice houses for a year or two here and there. Touring as much as I do, I don’t live in a van down by the river, but most of the time I happily abide in an RV – with my husband.

  7. tom rose Avatar
    tom rose

    Then the challenge is to be in that top 25%. Is that so difficult? And as for “living in a van”, why so dismissive of it? It has advantages over being tied to a bricks and mortar property (and the mortgage that goes with it).