Katie DeConto, one third of the creative force behind the Durham coworking/makers’ space The Mothership, has a theory about why more and more Millennials are deciding to become self-employed.
“It’s not because they have a problem with authority -it’s because a lot of jobs just suck.”
From the back offices of this newly re-branded hub for the creatively self-employed, Katie says that the number of people opting to pursue artistic careers and independent creative businesses -even if it means taking a paycut -is on the rise.
“You only get this one set of valuable working years where you can accomplish something,” she says. “And the fear of failure isn’t worth being unhappy.”
In 2013, Katie and her business partner, Megan Jones, decided to open a coworking space on Mangum Street, then called Mercury Studios, as a place where creatives were “treated like normal professionals, no matter what they’re working on.” By 2014 they had moved to the building on Geer Street where The Mothership currently resides, which happened to also have a storefront. Katie reached out to Krista Anne Nordgren, who at the time was running The Makery as an online local craft store, to see if she was interested in using the space for a brick-and-mortar location. And thus began their working relationship.
Flash forward to 2017 and the trio have taken their professional arrangement to the next level and merged their businesses into The Mothership -a combination communal office, meeting space, and storefront dedicated to helping self-employed, creative professionals thrive. And according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the US Census Bureau, The Mothership might indeed be part of a larger trend.
About 2.3 million people had primary jobs as artists in 2015, the most recent year where data was collected. That’s an increase of 185,000 from 10 years ago -a rate of growth about on par with other industries. However, another 271,000 workers employed in other fields also had secondary jobs as artists. And as the line between “practicing artist” and “creative entrepreneur” has become increasingly blurred, many young professionals now occupy a space somewhere between artist, artisan, and small business-owner.
Most relevantly to Katie and her business partners, all of these creatively-employed people are 3.6 times more likely to be self-employed than workers overall (34% for artists vs. 9% overall), according to BLS data. That adds up to a big, and growing, market for affordable professional services targeted at self-employed young creatives.
“If you’re wanting to develop an app, there are a lot of people who want to talk to you about it and help you,” she says. “But if it’s something different than that -not even an art-related project, but just something a little bit more out of the box -people struggle.”
The data would seem to back that up as well. In a 2015 survey of 140,000 art and design school graduates conducted by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, only half of respondents made over 60 percent of their income from just their art. And a 2003 Pew Research Center study found that a mere 7% of artists earn all their income from their art. Moreover, here in North Carolina, median income for performance artists, fine artists, and writers was $20,691 in 2014 -more than $26,000 less than the average for all professions, according to the North Carolina Arts Council. In the face of such numbers, the chances of making it as a self-employed artist seem daunting.
“We’re actually about to do an online content series about money this fall for this very reason,“ says Katie. “Because people are coming out of school wondering, ‘How does all this work?’ ‘How are people doing this, practically speaking?’”
Many young creatives are figuring things out by observing their more successful peers -most of whom document every twist and turn of their entrepreneurial endeavors on social media. In Facebook streams and on Instagram pages across the Internet, there are seemingly endless examples of successful young people starting businesses and finishing creative projects. It can seem at times as if every Millennial was born knowing how to effortlessly transition from idealistic college freshman to self-employed “artrepreneur” using nothing more than a Twitter handle and moxie.
The reality, of course, is much more complicated.
“We talk about ‘Instagram self-employment’ vs. ‘Real Life self-employment,’” says Katie. “People think what they see on social media is what it’s like to own your own business, when really, that whites-out a lot of the really challenging parts -the second jobs and the sacrifices people make.”
Ultimately, says Katie, it’s important to remember that there’s no one recipe for being self-employed in the arts or, for that matter, for starting your own business.
“People do what they have to do,” she says. “Some people are also nannies. Some people don’t do anything else, but make very little money -regardless of what their Instagram account looks like.”
“Either way, don’t make decision based solely on what you think you should be doing. Everyone does it differently.”
For more info about The Mothership, go here.