How I Successfully Grew an Arts Business Over 10 Years

At about this time in 2008, I quit my salaried job to become a full-time artist. I make it sound romantic, but it wasn’t as simple as I make it seem. I feared I’d made the worst mistake of my life in resigning, as it turned out to have been a premature move. For a few months I worried so much about paying rent and buying food that I couldn’t make any art. It soon became apparent that to survive, I needed a platform, some kind of arts business, and so I pulled myself together and on 31st October 2011, I finally registered a company. This month, I celebrate ten years in business and I want to mark the moment with a series of blog posts on what worked for me. Perhaps you’ll learn a thing or two that will help you succeed as a creative entrepreneur.

Oh. In another blog post I gave here a lot of tips on How to Successfully Become a Full-Time Artist, so I won’t repeat much of that in this article. This is mostly an emotional take on the process (whatever ’emotional take’ means!).

On growth and success of an arts business

In the arts, ‘growth’ and ‘success’ are pretty much subjective, and for me I had to define what these terms meant for me. In the neoliberal kind of system that we live in, there is always an emphasis on ‘growth’, a certain pressure is applied on startups to ‘keep growing’, to set targets and objectives and deadlines within which to achieve these goals. I believe this pressure might contribute to failure. Or feelings that you have failed. If, say, you set out to grow by getting ten new clients every year, and you get only five, you’ll think that you’ve failed. Or if your target revenue was 10m, and you get only 5m, you’ll feel bad. Perhaps you made decisions on what office space to rent and what staff to hire based on your targets, and when you fail…. well, you end up in debt.

When I set up Dilstories, I was not really looking at a conventional company. Not one with an office and staff and goals and mission and all that nonsense. Well, not exactly nonsense, but you get what I mean. I never said I want to have this number of clients or this much money by this time. I’m an artist. I create art. I wanted (still want very much) to make a living from my art and not have to worry about bills and a salary, so the arts business I created was purely for that. To commercialize my art. See? The company name is an abbreviation for Dilman’s Stories. With this kind of goal, I could spend a whole year (actually 2012) without a client and still not feel like a failure, because I’d have created the art I wanted to in that time (Re: The Felistas Fable). Sometimes I’d get only one client a year, and that would be enough to keep my pockets happy for a while. I never stressed for anything beyond that.

Ha, of course at some point, I went out to search for clients and created works that were not really my stories. I’m talking of corporate videos and NGO documentaries. I still look for this kind of business every once in a while, when things are a bit tight. They can be very lucrative (once, I got paid eight million for a job I did in two days, and someone whispered that I could have asked for twenty million), and it’s easy to stop thinking about what you really want to do and only chase these kinds of deals, but I never wanted to get stuck there. I wanted to create films like What Happened in Room 13 and Kifaro and make a living off them. So for a long time I lived a kind of bohemian lifestyle, making just enough money to be comfortable, and spending my days idling in my bed and waking up at 10:00 am and traveling whenever I got a chance to go see new places…. I’ve been to seventeen countries and I want to make it at least fifty before I die.

So I was there, feeling good about the easy life I’d created for myself, thinking that’s how I’d spend the rest of my days, until strange things started to happen from around 2017. I started getting a lot of gigs and it forced me to reconsider the nature of Dilstories. What is it, what do I want it to become? Yeah, some people look at my track record and imagine Dilstories is a big company. I wonder what they would think if they know that my office is actually a spare bedroom in my ka rental, and that most of the time I’m the only staff. Perhaps they’d scream “Briefcase Company!” but with any arts business, I have come to learn that track record is way better than office structures and stuff like that. So all the while I was churning out films that didn’t really pay, some people (who matter) were noticing.

A filmmaker holding a camera, filming, while in a canoe, on a lake.
Filming a travel documentary in Lake Bunyonyi, April 2013, with the Canon XF100

On becoming a boss

That made the gigs to flow in more regularly (once you establish your arts business and regular put out stuff, it becomes a little easier than when you were starting out), and I now employ people on longer term contracts, not just the one week or one month things I was used to. (Before 2017, I think the longest I had employed people for more than a month was while making Love Makanika.) Thing is, I normally hire people when I have a project, and so when these project became long term, some, like Mobile Film School, running for years, I started to keep people on payroll for longer periods, and these people started to look up to me for a livelihood, and I was like, “Oh shit. What is this?” Some of these people, I had trained them, often jokingly, or to pass time, but they became good at whatever I gave them a chance to do, and then after we had finished a gig (to some it was their first employment ever) they would say to me, “But Dilman, you want us to go back to being unemployed now?” Yes, I panicked, for now I had more responsibility than just being a creator. Somehow, people were depending on me (or so I made myself believe!).

And then, even worse things started to happen, for people started to call me ‘sir’ and I was like, “F*$?! that!” But they insisted, saying, “You are our boss, we have to respect you.” Idiots. Don’t they know that in an arts business there is really no boss? I used to think some were my friends, and those hurt the most. (Yeah, never hire ‘friends’ if you want to maintain the friendship!). When I gave them the job, they dropped the Dilman and it became ‘Mr. Dilman’. Yiiyiii? And then, they would go and hangout and not invite me to join them, yet we used to (sometimes) hangout back in the day, but they’d now say, “You are now our boss, we can’t let you see us getting drunk.” And I be like, Ngrrrrr!

That saying, “lonely at the top”, is very true, I’ve learned, and it’s not fun. You sometimes can’t even tell your female employee that “Let’s go have lunch at Cafe Javas” because you don’t want to send the wrong picture….. urgh!

In 2008, first major gig, making a documentary for UNICEF in Moroto

On the future of Dilstories

Okay, well, I’m now at that phase where I have to let go Dilstories. Uhm, not give it up. Just let it take a life of its own, to become an arts business beyond what I imagined it to be. It’s no longer just about me. Every decision I now make, I have to consider that some people rely on it for a living. On addition, I guess I’m not the artist I used to be. Things have changed. You could say that my ambitions have changed, and I’m now hungry for success at a much larger scale than I was comfortable with. So I need more formal structures to support me, and one of these is a film studio. Yeah, finally I’m saying that out loud in public. I’m building a film studio. It should be ready for use in about a month or two, and then I’ll talk more about it, but for now, it’s all about keeping fingers crossed and hoping that money comes in for me to complete it before the year ends.

Building a studio, and interacting with emerging filmmakers who perhaps have the fire and energy that I had when starting out, has made me to think hard about what I want Dilstories to become. Perhaps I could transform it into some kind of platform that would support other filmmakers, help them get off their feet without having to hustle too much like I did. I’m still working it out, but well, it could end up some kind of film collective. (I’m already working with one such individual, she’s only 19 and well, quiet a writer. Hopefully, next year, I’ll help produce her web series)

Yes, I want to make money, but I don’t want it to be just another business. I want it to be an arts business, one which puts emphasis on the art more than on the money. That’s the thing that has kept me going all these years; sticking to what I love doing. Science fiction, humor, good stories. Even back then when I was told that African science fiction doesn’t really sell, that no donor would take on such projects, I stuck to it, and the same people who told me donors don’t touch sci-fi look at Akoota and say, ‘How did you make Hivos fund this project?’ Ah, yes. Focus on the art. Focus on why you are in the arts. Not the money. The money will come by itself if you are good at doing what you do. So yeah, even as I build a studio and look forward to making a bit of money, I want to keep that in mind. Always. Perhaps in ten years time it won’t be me writing this article, but someone in Dilstories, for maybe it would have grown into an institution of some kind. Even then, I hope it will still be known for the great stories that have made it what it is today.

Now that you are here, I have a small favor to ask. I regularly make science fiction short films and I’m looking for your support. It’s very difficult to make it as a filmmaker in Africa, where there is virtually no market to encourage big film investments, and so any dollar you can spare will go a long way into changing things. Please pledge on You only pay after I make the film, and you can stop payments at anytime. For other options, like donating via mobile money or PayPal, please go here

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15 thoughts on “How I Successfully Grew an Arts Business Over 10 Years”

    • Oh I’m glad to hear this! The moment will come when you have to close your eyes and take a leap of faith, and when it does just trust in your instincts. ;-))

  1. Wow this is encouraging .and thank you for always labouring to teach us .
    It’s quite a tale and sure so much more of where this comes from.
    Looking forward to reading more of it.

    Welcome back Sir 🤝

  2. For better for worse.Ohhhh mentor thanks 🙏🙏 so much for the great work and being strong up to the winning 💪💪💪 point ☝️☝️.. continuous blessings from almighty God 🙏🙏


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