Bet On Black

by seanlow on April 16, 2015

In the life of a creative business, you will have a choice: you can keep doors open to all possibilities or bet on black.  For non-gamblers, bet on black refers to going to a roulette table and choosing to bet on the little ball to end up on a black number not a red (or green) one.  Notice I did not say you had to bet on a particular black number, just black.  Betting on a single number is like hoping the one perfect client shows up every time.  Not going to happen often enough to build a business.  Keep reading.  You can be an icon and still be flexible.  You just have to start with the knowledge that you are actually an icon.

When you open your business, you want to do great work specific to what you stand for but there is a breaking in process.  You break in by laying it out there for all to see, sometimes in not the best (understatement) circumstance.  You take opportunity where you can to find your way and your reputation.  So long as you do great work, opportunities will beget other opportunities and, if you are fortunate, you will find yourself and your clients will find you.  No rocket science here, but this is usually four to seven years into your creative business’ life.  Some more, some less.

At this point, you have to decide if you are going to be the most important part of your clients’ lives or a nice accent.  You cannot be both.  An accent is the interior designer that does smorgasbord.  No real presentation, a feeling that it is the clients’ choice to decide how things go and the designer’s role is just to lay out options. Volume game, accessibility, work for work’s sake.  I have no problem if you decide this route, just know that you are treading into some fierce competition.  For interior designers, it is every big box higher-end retailer (West Elm, Restoration Hardware, William-Sonoma etc.) that offers design services as part of its selling effort. Same for any other creative business where piece product is available at retail.  You will be forever capped by way of price, project and clientele.  Sure, there might be outliers but they will remain there because you are an accent – important and nice, but not critical to the success of the project.

Or you can bet on black.

This is where you take a position, express your thoughts specifically and refuse to go the smorgasbord route.  Your process is honed and honed so that you are willing to put your money where your mouth is.  Presentation is everything and make sure your clients are focused on the subjective value you offer.  This is what separates you.  You drive value, not your clients, and come from a place of authority.  By definition, you close the door to those that see you as an accent.

Can you keep an accent business?  Sure, just not as part of your core creative business.  For the event world, think about Todd Events and how he approaches decor.  Todd has his core in Todd Events and his accent in Avant Garden.  Perfect – brand halo over everything with a completely different value proposition in each of Todd Events and Avant Garden.

And that becomes the hardest part of the transition to betting on black: there will, by definition be a “no fly zone”.  If you wish to maintain an accent business, you have to create a distinction between accent and bet on black and it has to be big enough that anyone can see that the two value propositions are completely different.  No matter the temptation, you cannot take business in the “no fly zone” as it kills value in both accent and bet on black.  Example, a stationer has a custom line of paper that starts at $100 and a pre-made set at $40. A clients comes in and says they want the pre-made with a few tweeks and will pay $75.  No, nope and nada.  Either buy the $40 or step up to the $100.  Two different experiences, two separate value points.  Doing the work at $75 cheapens the $100 offering and stretches past what the $40 is meant for.  Heads your client wins, tails you lose.

Nobody said it was going to be easy, just necessary.  You deserve nothing and you have earned it all.  If your aim and that of your art and your creative business is to be the most important part of your client’s project, at some point, you will have to refuse to do anything other than bet on black.


Your Core

by seanlow on April 2, 2015

I have just finished rereading Good To Great, Jim Collins’ awesome five-year study of companies that went from good to great.  He studied what made these companies great relative to their peers (and the market in general — the rock stars of business) and how they stayed that way.  Much too much to talk about in a single blog post, but I highly suggest (re)reading it, if only to glean the insight that having a core and a purpose matter.  A lot.  What was most instructive for me though is not that great businesses share successful core values (i.e., we are all about service, relationship, value, etc.), it is simply that great businesses have core values and never ever deviate from them.  What do you stand for?  What is your purpose?  Businesses evolve every day but the core is immutable.

For creative businesses, this is such a slippery slope.  You are all in the happy business so it cannot just be about creating joy.  That is the price of admission.  No, it has to be about creating meaning, transformation that envelops joy and takes it further.  What does further mean?  Further means you can be the best in the world at the transformation.  Note, the world is not the universe, it is just your corner of the sky.  Here is my take on Good To Great for creative businesses: if your core does not support you being the best in the world at the transformation you seek, stop now.  We do not need another florist, interior designer, architect or stationer to rise to the level of their client’s incompetence.  No, we need artists who strive to create businesses that mean something more to their clients than the art they are selling.  A centerpiece is never just a centerpiece unless you allow it to be.  And how sad it is when you do.

The words “core” and “package” cannot coexist in a creative business.  What you stand for has to be iconic, indelible, eternal.  Fashion brands have been able to build their empires because they did not have a choice on whether to stand for something.  Clothes are never just clothes.  Clothes represent the designer’s vision and, because they do, we trust that vision far beyond clothes.  Event designers and interior designers are the absolute experts in what a table should look like and how it should be adorned.  And yet, with incredibly rare exceptions, fashion houses are whom we trust when we buy the items that we use to actually adorn the table.  Why?  Not because of money, marketing, etc., but because fashion houses are better at living their core.  We know who they are and they never forsake that trust.  It is not that fashion houses are any more evolved than other creative businesses, it is just that do not have a choice if they want to remain relevant.

Ah, the rub.  Your core, the transformation you most believe in, what you know you can be the best in the world (your world) at, demands sacrifice.  If the opportunity does not fit or cannot be made to fit your core, you need to turn it down.  Turn it down even if the money would likely be better in the short term than what your core would offer, even if there is no core business on the horizon, even if you might have to shut the business.  The brutal fact might be that your core, your transformation is unwanted in its current form, at least at the level necessary to support your creative business.  You will then have the opportunity to move on to find out where it might be not only wanted but be a necessity.  Yours is the business of meaning after all.  If you cannot make enough meaning where you are, then you have to be relentless to find out where you can.  Paradoxically, it could be that you take yourself too seriously.  There is as much a place for silly comedies that will never win any “serious” awards as there is a need for compelling drama.  Great design has no defined price tag.  Your core has to be what compels you first, your art second, your clients third.  All three have to exist, sure, the order though is what separates good from great, craft to scalable business, money to mission.

Here is a practical exercise:  finish the following sentences – “We believe in [not more than 5 words].  When our work is done, you will see [not more than 5 words] in a way you cannot imagine today.”  What would life be like if everything you and your creative business did reflected the truth of those two sentences?  And if the truth could not be reflected, you would not do them?  The simplicity and challenge of living your core.  The best part of Good To Great is knowing that if you want to make meaning, if you want to be great, there really is no choice but to do the work.  No better day than today.


Your Clients Want What You Want

March 18, 2015

We all evolve.  Me too.  When I first started working with creative businesses, Preston and Vicente very much included, I thought that the work had to be to reach into the mind of a client and translate their vision into your art.  Focus on listening, then presenting, and ultimately creating for clients. While this framework [...]

Read the full article →

Empowerment and Process

March 11, 2015

I had the great pleasure to finally talk in person with Bill Baker last week after being social media friends for the last three or so years.  Ostensibly, we were talking about how I might offer advice on broadening Bill’s speaking engagements.  Sure.  As Bill is much further along in that endeavor than me, I [...]

Read the full article →

Into The Sun

March 2, 2015

The time to risk it all is when you have everything to lose, not when you have nothing.  When you have nothing, only one place to go – up.  There is a safety in that.  If you are wrong, who cares, you are at rock-bottom anyway.  But if you are right, there is the way [...]

Read the full article →

Integrity 101

February 18, 2015

When life is good, the tank full, bank account brimming over, integrity is easy.  Why?  You can tell yourself your creative business does not need to compromise.  So you do not.  Sure, you can become a diva or, worse, an a—hole, but mostly you can create the art you and your creative business were meant [...]

Read the full article →


February 2, 2015

What if you were the only one?  And customers had to have (or really really needed) what you were selling.  Say cold water at the beach where there was no other water allowed.  With limited supplies.  The ultimate monopolist.  How would you behave? Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely says [...]

Read the full article →

Pricing 2015

January 7, 2015

Tis the season.  The question I get over and over is, how do I price my work?  Here is the real answer, more than any number, concept (i.e., percentage, hourly, flat fee, etc.) or market convention (i.e., here is what we get for being florists in Chicago): value and process define price, not the other [...]

Read the full article →

It Has Been A Year

December 19, 2014

2014 has been a year of, let’s say, transition for me.  Heard this quote from Hazrat Inayat Khan recently, “God breaks the heart again and again until it stays open.”  I have so much to be grateful for and the end of the year is ending as sweetly as the beginning (and middle) was sour.  [...]

Read the full article →

The Right Kind Of Business

October 31, 2014

Ideally, every creative business should only take on projects that befit the stage the art is meant to be seen on.  Translation: only do good business.  Juxtapose this idea with the very notion that mouths need to be fed, bills paid and lights kept on.  Throw in the mix seasonality which almost every creative business [...]

Read the full article →