Day: February 16, 2022

‘Unicorns vs. Workhorses’: follow your heart, but make sure the bills get paid

Bicycle decorated with unicorn papier mache, leaning against a brick wall

I devised the ‘Unicorns and Workhorses’ analogy many years ago to help people understand the creative business experience. It’s a concept that clients and workshop participants alike have loved and connected with, so today I’m going to share it with you, too.

Diversity for security, and to keep things interesting

Every creative person wants to make money from their craft. But many don’t recognise the need for a variety of income sources to help spread – and minimise – the financial risk that so often accompanies self-employment.

In addition to risk minimisation, diversifying the types of work you do will also stop you becoming bored from working tirelessly on one thing in particular. Ideally, you build and manage an entire stable of creatures to help you navigate that variety of income sources as you run your businesse/s. For creative folk in particular, a blend of Unicorns and Workhorses will ultimately prove the most fulfilling.

I know, it sounds crazy, but bear with me.

Doing different things with your business, and having multiple sources, or streams, of income as a result, is healthy. And it’s even better if those income-generating jobs are a nice mix of regular and irregular payments. However, and here’s the clincher, as creatives, not all the work we do will generate income. And that’s OK. Sometimes we also need to focus on our ‘Unicorn’ Work.

What is Unicorn Work?

Unicorns are the stuff of legend; wonderful, magical creatures, shiny and fabulous and spiritual. Unicorn Work is the kind that feeds our souls and expresses our creativity. It’s the song we have to sing, the poem we need to write, the dance we simply must do, and the story we have to tell.

Creative people need to pursue this kind of work. It’s what makes us feel like we’re doing what we’re supposed to do. It’s that compulsion to sit in front of the canvas in the middle of the night, or it’s the weird time shift that happens when you start writing and suddenly realise you’ve been at it for eight hours straight.

It’s the work we’re called to do.

Show me the money

However, Unicorn Work won’t always pay the bills, especially in the early days of your creative journey, or practice. It can, but that’s not a Unicorn’s job. Unicorns are designed to be magical and spiritual and cool, but they’re too fragile to carry a heavy financial load. And even if – or when – Unicorns do make money, often it’s not until after they’re finished (think an artwork, or a novel, or song). So it’s not always going to be feasible to expect they’ll generate an income for you during the creative process. More to the point, if you are focused on wanting your Unicorns to make money, or you need them to, you may change the nature of the creature altogether.

My Unicorns? Independent documentaries; the films that I want to make about the experiences of real women, like my feature film Handbag. I have not been paid to make this film – on the contrary, it’s actually cost me money. It takes up my time. It’s not a sound business pursuit in any way. And yet I love it. 

Handbag is the work that makes me feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, and that is telling stories on film.

I’ve made other documentaries in the past, and some of those Unicorns have made money, but they didn’t pay me anything at the time. They certainly wouldn’t have been able to help me feed my kids. Any money made is best spent on pretty shoes or other fripperies, because Unicorn income is a happy accident and not a deliberate business choice.

So what’s a workhorse?

Workhorses are the other kinds of creatures in a creative person’s stable. We still love our Workhorses; it’s not work we hate necessarily, but it’s also not as sexy, or as spiritual and fab, as our Unicorn Work.

What our Workhorses lack in excitement, however, they make up for in financial strength. Workhorses have very broad backs and can carry a heavy financial load. It’s their job to make money and feed us, or pay the bills, right now. Maybe we don’t talk about them at parties, maybe it’s not the work that wins awards, but it’s the work that keeps a business afloat.

My workhorses in the past were corporate videos, commercials, branded content, and advertorial writing. It paid well, and, while it was probably a bit less challenging, it was still work that I enjoyed doing. What it lacked in sex appeal, it made up for in dollars.

It also helped subsidise my Unicorn Work – and still does.

The curse – and blessing – of a creative life

In a society that doesn’t intrinsically value the work of The Artist, in an economy that still thinks of us as outliers, in an education system that is constantly telling us we need a backup plan, creative people are expected to live on a very narrow continuum between ‘starving artist’ and ‘sell out’.

Neither of those states reflects reality for the vast majority of the creative clients I work with – or for myself. The balance between art and commerce is something that every creative person struggles with, we just don’t talk about it…except perhaps for George Clooney, who has freely admitted that he makes coffee commercials in Australia for LOTS of money so he can direct his own films for minimum wage.

If George can keep a stable of Unicorns and Workhorses, then so can we. I will never apologise for learning my craft and feeding my family by making commercials. I didn’t become a less-talented filmmaker as a result. I didn’t sell my soul to some imaginary commercial ‘devil’. I did good work and got paid well to do it. That’s business – bam!

So, love your creatures, all of them. Understand what their roles are, what their strengths are, and tend to them lovingly, equally, and unapologetically. If you can find, and then nurture, both, you will be joining the growing ranks of creatives who have figured out how to make money from their creative ability, and who still have time to frolic with Unicorns.