This Man Says He Has the ‘Secret Knowledge’ to Help Freelancers and Artists Succeed

By Nicole Dieker September 25th, 2014

Noah Kleiman knows a lot of people have enough talent to become freelance writers, musicians, and artists, but they might not have the necessary business and financial skills to be self-employed business owners.

So he’s decided to pass along the Secret Knowledge.

Secret Knowledge, Kleiman’s arts education nonprofit, has been in business since February 2014 and is currently running an IndieGoGo campaign to expand its programming. Although many of the classes are taught in Portland, there are some video seminars, such as Secret Knowledge of Poster Design, anyone can access.

I talked to Noah about the secrets of Secret Knowledge and why he decided to launch a non-profit agency dedicated to helping artists and freelancers achieve business success.

I’ve looked a bit at your website, but start out by telling me about your background. What, in your life, came together to help you create Secret Knowledge?

I’m a creative person myself, and having a background in both running businesses and being a creative person, and realizing that some of the skills I’ve developed in doing that were things that are not commonly developed by artists themselves, was really the impetus for starting Secret Knowledge.

But the story goes back a lot further than that. I had done a fair amount of non-profit work in my early 20s, including starting and running a non-profit music studio for teens in Portland, Old Library Studio. That project was all about creative empowerment for teens, giving them real tools to make music and seeing how powerful that was for them.

I’ve always been involved in helping to translate, as a teacher, things that creative people might not understand very well or might be hard for them to crack into.

So why Secret Knowledge?

I had some experiences that connected me very closely with real working artists and musicians—in particular, my partner Anna Fritz. As I got to know her and got a little more immersed in the world of working musicians, I realized they were facing some very specific challenges that were pretty solvable. These were challenges that could be addressed in a very practical way.

Some of these were technical problems, like needing to know how to lay out a poster. Musicians, when they make their own promotional materials, are very often working with what they have at hand, which is a photo editor. I realized there were some tools that I could share to help them with that, and I could also share a bunch of other tools too, like personal finance and marketing.

Seeing what Anna was struggling with, and what her working musician and artist friends were struggling with, I started to realize this is a thing where there is a whole set of tools related to creative business education that needs to happen.

You can’t just take business school lessons, like what you’d do if you started a widget-making business, and apply them to the working lives of artists. You need a business and technical education that recognizes the business of the creative person.

Playing on that stage that one time is not enough to feed yourself, or have a house or apartment, or all of the things that you need to keep a human being alive. I didn’t realize how widespread that problem was until I started going places and talking to people. So I wanted to put some resources out there to help people make their creative work a bigger part of their working lives.

You wrote at the beginning of your IndieGoGo campaign you were targeting “working-class artists.” It sounds like, from our conversation, you mean both working artists, as in artists who have to hustle for a living, as well as artists from working-class backgrounds. Is that correct?

I’m targeting people who are presently trying to figure out the puzzle, that puzzle that we all have to solve, which is: “How do I have a good life?” And you need some kind of work that sustains that life.

The workshops we’re doing are aimed at people who are trying to figure out how to grow their own music or art business. We’ve also done workshops that teach useful skills for creative people. There’s also a whole other side of our programming that we’re looking to start developing, what we’re calling “creative audiences programming,” which is a mix of teaching, concerts, and events that are geared towards developing audiences.

I am very well aware of this problem of how to support creative work financially, especially because I spent some time doing the musician hustle myself. So now I want to know: What are these resources? If I was going to take a class at Secret Knowledge, what secret knowledge would I receive?

I like to share very practical information. Stuff you can use to do something, that will help you in some way.

In general terms, we’ve been creating an ever-growing list of workshops, and we’ve been offering workshops since February 2014. The first one we did was Secret Knowledge of Poster Design, which was a workshop on how to use the open-source desktop publishing and layout program Scribus.

We’ve also done Secret Knowledge of Crowdfunding, and I’m presently running an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign for Secret Knowledge, so I did a lot of the research for that one by talking to people who had done successful crowdfunding campaigns. My own non-profit work also involved a lot of fundraising, so there are a lot of things I know from that world that are also applicable to crowdfunding.

And we’ve done Secret Knowledge of Personal Finance. I didn’t teach that one; that was taught by Cassie Russell, a credit-building and saving guru in town. She’s a really good resource for people who don’t have a lot of money or whose incomes are not steady. That’s the thing about artists—you can do a traditional course about personal finance, but as soon as you say “first, you take your salary…” you’re no longer talking to them in a way that is helpful. So Cassie teaches people that if your income varies and you can’t work off a monthly budget, you can use a cash-flow projection and use a calendar app to track it.

Portland also has IDA accounts, which are matched savings accounts for low-income people. Every dollar you put in is matched by three dollars from a mix of state and federal sources. This is intended to allow people to purchase assets and grow their businesses, and the savings can also be used for things like education, professional development, or home-buying. These programs are not well publicized, certainly not among the artistic communities. Making sure that they can access these types of programs is one of our goals as well.

You’ve been talking a lot about musicians and creative artists, but what about other types of freelancers like writers and designers? Can they also benefit from Secret Knowledge?

Secret Knowledge’s workshops are really useful for writers, designers, and other creative freelancers too.

Secret Knowledge of Personal Finance, for example, is a workshop anyone with a variable monthly income who struggles to untangle the Gordian Knot of savings, credit, and asset building will benefit from. Pretty much all freelancers share those challenges.

Here’s another example: Freelancers have a hard time focusing their marketing messages. They think, “Sure, most of my work is one or two things, but I also do all of these other different things, and people need to know about all of them!” Secret Knowledge of Clear and Clever Marketing is a workshop Secret Knowledge offers to address that problem. Freelance life gets slightly easier when the answer to “And what do YOU do?” is simple and easy to understand: “I’m a freelance illustrator,” or “I design and sell clever T-shirts,” or “I’m a cellist with a heart of gold.”

Do you think it’s valuable for creative artists to start thinking of themselves more through the freelance lens? That is, if you think of yourself as just an artist, you often think less about the financial aspect of your work. However, if you think of yourself as a freelancer or a small business owner or a solopreneur, suddenly finances become an important part of your everyday process.

The balance between thinking about yourself as a freelancer running an independent business and nurturing your creative being is the tightrope walk of anyone who wants to make an independent creative living.

Think of yourself as just an artist and you’ll have a hard time making it across; you won’t make enough money. Think of yourself as only a small business and the path of the rope won’t be one you want to walk on very long. You have to remember to attend to both the creative side and the business side.

It’s easy to mistake my advocacy for something it’s not. I’m not telling artists, “Go be a business person, do that a whole bunch.” Secret Knowledge is about offering some corrective balance. Artists, musicians, and creative freelancers usually have the creative side figured out for themselves already.

Image by Secret Knowledge
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