Business consultant and coach James Szuch just gets it. The O’More College of Design adjunct professor of business breaks down marketing and money in ways that make sense to creatives. As a key facilitator for the educational sector of the Nashville Fashion Alliance he teaches designers on how to turn their art into dollars. He empowers his clients and students to always put their passion first while also prioritizing the financial piece. On a daily basis, James proves to the creative community of Nashville that it is possible to make a living doing what you love.
How did you become involved in the fashion industry?
I’ve been teaching, coaching and consulting forever but everything really came together in Nashville. My greatest joy comes from working with individual artists, which I’ve been able to do through my partnership with the Arts & Business Council. My goal is to teach artists basic business strategies like how to write a business plan and figure out who their target market is.
What is your secret to framing business concepts in a way that resonates with creatives?
I am both right and left-brained —analytical and creative. I was talking to a woman the other day whose grandfather makes handmade, wooden rocking chairs. While they’re gorgeous I immediately asked her, “Why would someone buy a $3,000 rocking chair?” It’s very similar to asking, why would you hang that painting on a wall, listen to a piece of music or read your book? Art and fashion speaks to the experience. Through self-actualization exercises I help artists answer those questions.
And, as a result, hopefully stack some bills by selling their art?
(Laughs) You got it! I firmly believe that, while everyone might not like your art, there is always an outlet. I tell my artists, “Imagine what kind of person would like your product and the reason they would want it in their life.”
Do they find the assignment of writing out their ideal customer easily digestible?
My job is to make marketing and business palatable. As a friend of mine says, “Art has an economic value because it’s art.” I want to erode the dividing line between selling and starving to death.
In your mind, what is a decent living for an artist?
Artists as business people should have three types of goals: A) Financial B) Personal and C) Creative. The goal can be ‘I want to make X amount of dollars’ or ‘I only want to work X amount of hours per week.’ I tell people to pick the one that is most important, which helps you figure out where your priorities lie. It’s also important to allow them to shift over time.
I’ll go with B. I like my chill time. What do most people choose?
It’s definitely a mix. To me, the fun part is the conversation that ensues around making that choice.
A character in my book said, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Will one of these options lead to a more sustainable career than the others?
Getting the finances under control is extremely important. That simply comes down to budgeting and lifestyle choices. My son at one point said, “I want to be a park ranger” to which I responded, “If you’re okay with not driving a fancy car or going on vacations a lot, go for it.” The artistic world is about intersecting ability, expertise and passion to find the right opportunities. By understanding the market you end up throwing a lot less shit against the wall until something sticks. Artists should spend time thinking about what made their work successful in the first place and find those traits in other markets.
Yet, at the same time you have to allow room for happy accidents.
Taking my first business class was both terrifying and exhilarating. It rewired my brain to see that making money doing my thing is, in fact, feasible. Why are you so passionate about teaching business to artists?
To some extent, I am living vicariously through the success of the creative people that I work with. I love the connection that comes from recommending a piece of art to someone and saying, “I know that artist!” I also love witnessing the ‘aha’ moments when someone discovers something new about themselves in relation to their business. As an idea junkie, that’s my fix.