SWOT Analysis – What It Is & Why It Works

Summer 2016 Dublin, Ohio

Summer 2016
Dublin, Ohio

Sometimes knowing what you don’t do is even more important than knowing what you do. Articulating what we don’t do can save endless hours of metaphorical torture. Engaging in a bit of reflective SWOT analysis can help a creative individual decide when an opportunity is worth pursuing… And when it definitely is not.



SWOT analysis is a market research acronym meant to help companies identify their place within an industry and protect against external industry threats (a new competitor, a new technology, natural disaster, etc.). But it works for individuals as well.


Let’s start with the fun part: Strengths (S). What are your strengths? What do you do really well? What distinguishes you from your peers?


We’ll come back to the answer to this question frequently. Your strengths (or your competencies, or your unique value proposition) informs your pricing structure, the way you describe your work, and – above all else – the opportunities you choose to pursue as part of your creative career.


In articulating your own strengths, don’t be afraid to put them in writing and live with them for a bit. (We favor post-it notes listing core competencies, but really any system will work.) Asking a trusted peer or mentor for input can help as well. Borrowing someone else’s adjectives to describe what we do and how we do it can yield insights we might miss on our own.


After listing your strengths, think about what you omitted from the list: Weaknesses (W). What are your weaknesses? These can be weaknesses you hope to improve upon or those you simply embrace. Weaknesses aren’t bad. They are a realistic assessment of where you are – and are note—willing and able to deliver the most value to the world. What is the part about a project you always dread? What is the last professional project that made you cringe? What is your least favorite part of your process or your work? What do you secretly fear someone will ask you to do?


Articulating weaknesses is an important part of honing your creative career. As you examine each one, identify the weaknesses you want to improve upon, and include them as part of your goal-setting process. (Don’t forget to quantify the process of improving each one!)


Then, identify the ones you want to embrace, and articulate how you will incorporate each one within your creative career. There’s a good chance the first thing you articulate will be fairly negative. (And that’s okay.) If it is, work on reframing it as a positive part of your strategy, rather than a negative one.

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By focusing on your strengths and incorporating a plan to address or embrace your weaknesses into your overall creative career, it will become easier to decide whether or not to accept an opportunity.


And by the way, that’s the next part of the SWOT analysis: Opportunity (O). Unlike strengths and weaknesses, opportunities are external. That is, they exist outside of us. We can choose whether or not to pursue opportunities that may arise based on how those opportunities complement our strengths and weaknesses.


Sometimes we are tempted to say yes to every opportunity that arises, simply because saying yes is considerably less scary than saying no. And early on in a creative career, you should always say yes more often than you say no. Without a bit of experience under your proverbial belt, it is next to impossible to really articulate strengths and weaknesses.


But at some point that changes, and a bit of opportunity editing becomes crucial to growing a creative career in the most advantageous way. (I wish there were a perfect way to identify that point within a creative career. There isn’t. I’m sorry.) But once you’re at that point, you’ll know. In fact, you’ll probably figure it out one opportunity too late. That is, you’ll find yourself completing a project that all of a sudden doesn’t make sense for you any more. And you’ll use that knowledge to edit the next opportunity a bit better. And the one after that. And the one after that.


The last part of a SWOT analysis is the least fun of all: Threats (T). Threats are risks to our businesses and creativity that are often outside of our control. For some creative individuals, these are industry-level threats. (Think about wedding photographers who compete with all guests who have smart phones, fine artists whose customers compare their work to the output of “Wine and Canvas” events at bars and restaurants, and writers who compete with, well, anyone with a blog.)


As with any negative externalities, the strategy for dealing with threats is two-fold. First we acknowledge the threat (and we honestly assess its potential impact on our creativity). Then we deal with it, either by highlighting the ways our strengths distinguish us from threats, or by enhancing our weaknesses to better combat the threat.


But in all cases, by focusing on what we can control instead of what is beyond our control, we’ll be better able to respond to the changing world. That’s why we start by articulating Strengths and Weaknesses. As long as we’re clear about who we are and what we do well, we’ll be just fine.


Now What?

Want to learn more about aligning your strengths with opportunities? Check out Goal Setting for Portfolio Careers, a 3-hour self-study course to put these theories into creative action.


SS_GoalSettingGoal Setting for Portfolio Careers

You probably have a goal: To keep doing exactly what you want to be doing without going broke. But what if you could do more? In this course, you’ll learn why the traits that enhance your creativity are also fantastic for building tools to make your creative career work for you.

This course is completely self-paced, meaning you can read the materials and do the activities on your own time. But don’t worry. You won’t be alone.

At Minerva Financial Arts, we care about artists and the community… A lot. All our courses are distinguished from others by Elaine’s hands-on, supportive approach to coaching you through the material. Enjoy!


Business Tips You Missed in Art School


Boston, February 2016

Chances are, you missed some considerable business learning while you were in school pursuing a creative degree. So here, in no particular order, are the five most important business lessons you may have missed in art school.  It’s worth noting that none of these actually relate to technical business learning. These are the subtle lessons that business students naturally acquire… And they’ll serve you (almost) as well as an accounting class.


Your Chair is Adjustable

Have you ever taken a meeting in an office setting and been the shortest person at the table? This never happens in coffee-shop meetings, and it probably doesn’t happen when you meet with other creative professionals to collaborate.  But if you are meeting with a client in a corporate conference room, or if you are waiting for your attorney in her office, or if you are sitting across from a producer, flanked by your manager and agent, you may find that you are the shortest person at the table. And no one likes feeling like a kid at the grown-up’s table, especially when the feeling is personified so literally.


Business students learn that chairs are almost always adjustable. I don’t know when we learn this vital fact. Maybe it is because some of our classrooms are set up like conference rooms; or perhaps it is because we are “shown the ropes” around an office as interns (and our internships in cubicles are never as cool as yours).


In any case, when seated at a conference room table, we almost all instinctively reach down with our right hands to find the lever that is inevitably placed somewhere beneath the seat. Then we adjust our chairs so we aren’t the shortest participants in the meeting.  Sometimes it takes a few tries. Occasionally the lever is on the left instead of the right. Every so often it is a knob instead of a lever. But some sort of adjustment mechanism is always present.


Commas Are Good, Cents Are Not

For the love of all that is holy, add commas to numbers you present, especially if those numbers are expressing dollar values.  This doesn’t necessarily apply to anything you are doing creatively with the numbers (although I maintain it is still a good rule of thumb). However, if you designed your own font to show prices and commas don’t work with it, leave them off.  If you are making some sort of articulate statement about the futility of punctuation, commas probably won’t help your cause.


But if you are preparing a budget for a grant report, it must include commas. If you are citing statistics or market research in support of your position or quantifying any aspect of your work in a professional context, use commas. If you are preparing a proposal for a client, include commas.  I am ten thousand times more likely to spend ten thousand dollars on a project if I know immediately that the budget is $10,000. Having to count zeros to figure out if 10000 is $100,000 or $1,000 or even $10,000 makes me too angry to invest. (Hypothetically.)


Similarly, if I am thinking about investing $10,000 in your project, seeing $10,000.00 is just annoying. I don’t need to see the cents. I don’t need to see the level of minutia that exists behind your figures. I assume you are capable of managing your finances. You are, after all, a professional. Don’t tell me paper costs $174.92. Tell me your supplies are generally $200, and the rest is your commission.  Better yet? Tell me the selling price is $1,000 and talk to me about the high-quality paper you used, layered in an interesting way to emphasize the texture of the work.


Excel Is Magical

Have you ever watched a business guru use Excel? It is probably the closest an accountant will ever be to a ninja warrior. (Side bar: Why is that not a television show? Accounting Ninja Warrior.)


Excel is magical, and not just because you can use the grid for spacing and layout purposes.


Excel will do your math exercises for you. The “math” part isn’t the exciting or interesting part about financial analysis. The math is just the math. The exciting and interesting part is using financial information to tell a story, solve a problem, or change the world. Excel makes the math easy so you can put your creative brain to work on more interesting challenges. Like changing the world.


No One Wants a Widget

Every business student has completed at least one exercise involving widgets. Widgets are to accounting problems what “x” is to algebra. It is the default representation of something greater. It is totally irrelevant, except that a shocking number of classroom and textbook exercises use widgets instead of more interesting goods.


Sample Problem: Jane starts a business making widgets for $35 each. She sells each one for $85 and she has overhead costs of $10,000 for the year. How many widgets must she sell to break even?


No one cares about the widgets. Widgets are just a placeholder to get to the meat of the problem. If we were talking about a real product (even a fake real product), we may be distracted by irrelevant information.


Sample Problem 2: Jane creates beautiful oil paintings of western landscapes for $35 each. (STOP! She must not be using very high-quality paint. There’s no way she’s framing those works if they only cost her $35 to make. Which western landscapes is she interested in? Was her work influenced by the painters of the early 1900’s?)


The problem may still have something interesting to solve, but we have no idea what it is. We’ve been totally distracted by something that is not a widget. No one wants a widget. We want whatever is more interesting about the widget.


There’s a Market for That

Even if no one wants a widget, there is a market for whatever it is that you do. Business students learn that there are plenty of variables that go into a successful business model, and creating a something of value–a beautiful work of art, a brilliantly crafted work of literature, a compelling theatrical performance–is only part of the equation. In the arts, it is the most important part.


But it isn’t the only part.


Figuring out how to do whatever it is you do successfully includes a bit of successful community marketing, a bit of informed financial literacy, enough legal vocabulary to protect yourself, and critical thinking skills to evaluate opportunities.  It also includes enough grit, determination, and patience to persevere when marketing, accounting, financial, legal, managerial, and analytical tasks feel daunting.


My daughter joined me for a workshop I led in New York last week, and while we were there, she told me she enjoyed New York “way more” than Disney World. (Be still my heart.) I asked her why, and she pointed out with glee that in New York, you were allowed to write on the trashcans and mailboxes.


No business textbook will ever tell you that a graffiti artist’s target market is a six-year-old. And yet.


All creative processes start with the creativity. The graffiti comes first. Next we find the right market. We make sure our work is placed appropriately, in the right context, for the right audience. Then we monetize it. We use our creativity to figure out how to keep being creative.


And that, perhaps, is the best business lesson of all.