Unicorns vs Workhorses

May 12, 2018 | Business Basics, Wellbeing


I invented the ‘Unicorns and Workhorses’ analogy years ago, as shorthand for helping people understand the creative business experience. It’s an idea my 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 Unicorns or Workhorses. I know, it’s crazy, but bear with me.

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, shiny and fabulous and spiritual, and 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 this kind of 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.

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.

My Unicorns are 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 the film – quite the opposite, 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, 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.

Workhorses are the other kinds of creature in a creative person’s stable. We still love our Workhorses, it’s not work we hate, but it’s also not as sexy and 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 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, 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 back up plan, creative people are expected to live on a very narrow continuum between ‘starving artist’ and ‘sell out’. Neither of those states reflect 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 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, and did good work and got paid. 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 and equally. And never apologise for maintaining both, you will be joining the growing ranks of creatives who are figuring out how to make money from their creative ability and still have time to frolic with Unicorns.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash


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