Unicorns vs Workhorses

Mar 31, 2023 | Business Basics, Wellbeing

By Monica Davidson

I invented the ‘Unicorns and Workhorses’ analogy many years ago now, as shorthand for one of my clients who was struggling with trying to work out the balance between her creative work that paid money, and the artistic work that she valued for more than its financial benefits (thank you, Kate!). It’s evolved into a concept that our clients and workshop participants love, so I thought I’d share it with you.

I believe that every creative person who wants to make money from their craft needs a variety of income sources to help spread the financial risk of self-employment. Diversity of work also ensures that we don’t get too bored with any one thing in particular. We need a stable of creatures to help us navigate those sources as we run our businesses, and those creatures might be classified as either Unicorns or Workhorses.

I know, it’s bonkers, but hang in there.

Doing different things with your business and having multiple sources of income as a result, is healthy. It’s even better if those money jobs are a nice mix of regular and irregular payments.

However, not all the work we do will generate income. Sometimes we also need to focus on our ‘Unicorn’ Work. Unicorns are wonderful creatures, so shiny and fabulous and spiritual. They are valuable to the people who love them because they create spiritual and artistic value. 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, the story we have to tell.

Creative people need to pursue Unicorn Work. It’s the thing that 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 have to do because it’s the work that expresses our creativity.

Unicorn Work is vital, because it helps us to understand our creativity. It also stretches us and challenges us, and improves us as artists.

However, Unicorn Work doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. 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 Unicorns make money, they usually don’t make money until after they’re finished. You certainly can’t generate much income from them at the time that you’re making them. More to the point, if you want your Unicorns to make money, or need them to, you will change the nature of the creature. A Unicorn will also be a fragile and magical creature whose value is more than money. Like anything truly valuable, a Unicorn is priceless.

(A side note here – I am aware of the fact that a Unicorn could also be a person who is willing to join an existing couple to form a polyamorous triad, or a privately held startup company with a value of over $1 billion. That’s not what we mean here, but each to their own!)

Like most creatives, I have my own Unicorns. Mine are independent documentaries, the films that I want to make about the experiences of real people, like my feature film Handbag. I have not been paid to make the film, even though you may have seen it on Amazon or SBS On Demand. Quite the opposite I’m afraid—it’s actually cost me money. 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, telling stories on film. It stretches me and challenges me and it’s a part of me.

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 from Unicorns is best spent on pretty shoes or other fripperies because Unicorn income is a happy accident and not a deliberate business choice.

If you don’t have any Unicorns in your life, you’ll be sad and creatively unfulfilled. If you only have Unicorns in your life, you’ll be poor. You need another kind of creature, one that can sustain you and keep you financially stable.

Workhorses are those creatures. Workhorse projects are still part of our creative array of abilities and skills, but we do this work for the money. Not exclusively, however. This is not the same thing as slinging beers as an undergraduate until your real work comes along. We have to love our Workhorses. We must, because they deserve our care and our respect in order to pull that heavy financial load. Workhorse projects are not work that we hate, but they’re also not as sexy and spiritual and fabulous as our Unicorn projects. What our Workhorses lack in excitement, however, they make up for in financial strength. Workhorses have very broad backs and can carry the full financial weight of themselves, us, and all those magical Unicorns. It’s their job to make money and feed us 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, it was still work I enjoyed, and maybe it was a bit less challenging but what it lacked in sex appeal it made up for in dollars. It also helped subsidise my Unicorn Work—and still does.

In a society that doesn’t 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, as an artist.

The balance between art and commerce is something that every creative person struggles with, we just don’t talk about it—except for George Clooney, who has freely admitted that he makes coffee commercials in Australasia for lots of money so he can direct his own films for minimum wage (he was publicly lambasted for this ‘admission’, by the way). Do you really think that Cate Blanchett makes perfume commercials for the ‘craft’?

If George and Cate can keep a stable of Unicorns and Workhorses, then so can we. I will never apologise for learning my craft as a filmmaker and writer through commercial work. I fed my family by making ads. I paid my rent with copywriting. I didn’t become a less-talented creative as a result, and I didn’t sell my soul. I did good work that I was proud of, and I got paid. That’s business!

So, love all of the creatures in your stable. Understand what their roles are, what their strengths are, and tend to them lovingly and equally. Never apologise for maintaining both. You will be joining the growing ranks of professional creatives who are happily figuring out how to make money from their creative Workhorses, while still making time to frolic with the Unicorns.

For a deeper dive, tune into our Unicorns and Workhorses webinar.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash


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