Navigating Personal and Business: Dashboards for Creative Entrepreneurs

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield advocates that young writers take the step from amateur to professional by writing a contract as though they were hiring themselves for the work. Dashboards for creative entrepreneurs help to navigate this tension between personal and business.

While it may seem unnatural to separate those roles, it is a balance small business owners already play whether or not they admit it. Externalizing this antagonism between the creative as producer and the creative as manager makes goals clearer and more measurable. It also benefits work-life balance.

A “dashboard” keeps the most important measurements within view. This post outlines how to create a personal and business dashboard, and how to get the most out of them.

The Personal Dashboard

A personal dashboard empowers the creative as an employee to build their work around fulfillment and well-being. To start, ask what part of creative work brings the most fulfillment. This indicates what values should drive a personal dashboard. It also builds clear expectations about why the business exists in the first place.

Generally, the categories of love, play, work, and health capture many of these values for most people. It can include family, friends, recreation, connections, career, money, mental or physical health, and more. Everyone finds a different balance. This dashboard should depict a fulfilling lifestyle that makes the hard work of entrepreneurship worthwhile for you.

Likewise, these are the categories that dip when we ask ourselves “is this worth doing?” or “are we doing this correctly?” This personal dashboard monitors the well-being of the small business owner as an “employee.” It enables more fine-tuned decision-making when the manager must adjust to promote better working conditions.

The Business Dashboard

Next, put on the manager hat to create a business dashboard. Step back and evaluate the many aspects of your business: production, finances, sales (marketing, relationships, networking), and administrative. Break each further down into categories that make sense based on the goals of your unique work.

Production should include hourly goals and targets for work. This is what is expected of the “employee.” Finances include targets for discrete periods of time (weekly or monthly goals). Sales may be goals related to new connections, events to attend, or managing marketing content. It could also include expectations for follow-up with existing clients. Administrative tasks are those tasks that seem the least important but help to alleviate stressors.

Where are you trying to land? These categories are unique to each business and should be accompanied by the big picture growth goals and how they are connected to production. With an annual financial goal and working time estimates, artists can better visualize hourly revenue targets (HRTs) that can be used for day-to-day management. 

A practical example of dashboards for creative entrepreneurs

An oil painter’s annual revenue goal is $50,000 (to cover their salary, cost of goods sold, other overhead expenses, etc.). They calculate that their average piece takes about 4 weeks to produce while painting for 20 hours a week (that’s 80 hours per piece). They need to sell about 13 “average pieces” at $3850 to meet the artist’s revenue goal of $50,000. At 80 hours per piece, the artist calculates their HRT is about $50. Now, they can use this $50 HRT, to evaluate the progress of each unique piece. 

They just sold a commission for $2000. To meet their $50 HRT, they need to complete this piece in about 40 hours. 10 hours in, they estimate the piece is more than halfway completed. In this case, they’re exceeding their hourly revenue target. The artist plans to put a portion of the projected profits into framing expenses as a gift to their client.

They are also working on another large piece that does not yet have a buyer. Previous pieces at a similar size sold for $7000. At this price they need to complete it in 140 hours to meet their $50 HRT. They are 100 hours in and not yet halfway. Assuming that rushing to finish isn’t an option, they must anticipate demanding a higher price to satisfy their hourly revenue target (and ultimately their annual goal). Can the piece be sold for $10,000? Is there other work meeting hourly revenue targets that should take production priority over this one?

Your dashboard should display the right metrics to easily view the most important aspects of your business on the fly. It will also help maintain positive cash flow. Identify these categories, then break down quarterly or yearly goals into actionable steps that can be tracked on a weekly or bi-weekly level.

The Power of Weekly Check-ins

Dashboards for creative entrepreneurs tell how this week’s work moves you toward this year’s goals.  Ask, “What can be done today to move toward the business goals?” Create space for weekly check-ins focused on assessing how the progress of tasks aligns with distant targets. In the example above, the artist used their hourly revenue target to check-in on production progress. The weekly metrics empowered small decision-making to achieve larger goals. Explore different structures for this. Some may prefer the beginning of the week, others may prefer the end.

Each weekly check-in should include an evaluation of the personal dashboard and the business dashboard.

Record how personal goals are being met. Take note of trends and reflect on them. The same goes for the business dashboards. If trends are negative, how can the work adapt? If they are positive, how can the same thing be achieved next week?

Ultimately, regular check-ins are the only way to know whether the business is moving in the right direction at the proper speed. Otherwise, there is no way to reorient work over time (especially considering the complexity of creative entrepreneurship). Instead, problems will only become clear long after you could have avoided them; and moreover, you’ll miss opportunities for growth.

Your dashboards should change over time. Dashboards help the work evolve and will evolve alongside the work.

Tools for Enhanced Productivity

The tool that works best is the one you will use. Whether this is a simple spreadsheet or a custom note-taking solution. Develop a cluster of instruments to make up your dashboard. It should be easily accessible and simple to update during the course of work without interfering with production.

Take advantage of outside tools that already offer useful reports.

  • Financials: Most bookkeeping software produces weekly or monthly cash flow reports. Even basic online banking dashboards have tools to create financial reports and categories.
  • Production: Inexpensive hours tracking software offers the opportunity to better code and analyze how time is being spent week to week. Many of these run customized reports and queries that would benefit the production section of a business dashboard.
  • Sales: Email marketing platforms and social media are built to offer valuable analytic insights for existing content. Familiarize yourself with the analytics that matter most to your business: opens, messages, click-throughs, etc.

Even if a business dashboard pulls information from multiple sources, design something to consolidate and track everything in the same place week to week. A corporate board meeting pulls tons of data from all different sectors of a business, but it’s consolidated in a way that each part of the business can be analyzed in tandem.

You are your employee, manager, and board. Invest in a method that curates your dashboard for the benefit of the whole business.

Be Patient

Great data analysis opportunities require data. The more of it, the better. This takes time. If you have never set goals or just started collecting regular data on your own work, be patient. At first, it may not appear to provide many insights. However, after a few months or even weeks of tracking your productivity and accounts, patterns will emerge.

These patterns are the power of weekly check-ins. Next year’s round of goal-setting can be based on data rather than speculation. The production requirements required to reach revenue goals can be approached with reason and sensitivity to work-life balance. Ultimately, this practice of regular self-check-ins and structured goal-setting helps small business owners who must wear many hats sustain their work with better clarity.

If you’ve never engaged a group of creative entrepreneurs who juggle responsibilities in this way, attend a co-working session. Our free, monthly sessions give creatives a collaborative opportunity to share in others’ successes, learn from failures, and build external accountability of their work. Work on your business with others while facing the challenges of creative entrepreneurship together.