Noise Noise Noise

by seanlow on February 15, 2018

Fear is a powerful dream killer, bottleneck, myopia-inducing wall creator.  Fear helps us define the possible and live with the notion that “not for us” is good enough good.  I watch it happen over and over and over again.  Artists living with a feeling that what they want is just out of their grasp.  So they charge less than they should, work too much on projects that do not speak to them.  And when told there is another way, the answer invariably is a mix of incredulous, fanciful possibility, until the resignation of “not for me” takes over, sometimes with the indignation of you cannot possibly know what you are talking about when it comes to me and my creative business.

Then there are the well meaning “experts” who say charge what you are worth, be confident in yourself and your art, buck up bucko.  As if a pep talk is anything more than a sugar rush.  The “expert” feels great since they rallied the troops and “inspired” their audience/clients to go for it.

I, on the other hand, am heartbroken.  If you flip the keys to a Ferrari to a kid who just got her license, it is a thrill to hear the engine roar and the power of speed at your fingertips, that is right up until she realizes that it is far beyond her ability to really enjoy and appreciate.  The “expert” who only throws the keys to the Ferrari is hoping that those who love to drive will figure it out.  Of course, some will.  Most, however, will just be terrified and bide their time until they can get into any regular car that is not a Ferrari, capable of getting them where they want to go, reliably and safely without much fanfare.

Would it not be better for those who actually know how to drive a Ferrari to show and teach those who care enough how to actually drive the car?  To talk about the effort it is going to take to master what the machine can do?  The willingness to understand that driving a Ferrari is at once dangerous and expected.  Dangerous because the machine demands the operator to be on the edge, expected because that is what it was built for in the first place.

I know many will say that there are great creative businesses out there that are regular cars doing reliable, safe work that clients value.  To which I say, let us not mix metaphors.  All creative businesses are Ferraris.  They are meant to be dangerous and expected because what is to come does not yet exist, yet will come to life as you, the artist and creative business, intend.  If you live in the reliable and safe, certainly you are valuable, but you are not indispensable and that makes what you are doing NOT a creative business, but a business possibly in support of either a creative business or creative endeavor.  Those who sell art supplies to the artist are possibly creative,wonderful support but noone would confuse the shopkeeper with Picasso.  Ever.

I say this not to throw shade on those who consider themselves creative but celebrate safety and reliability, only to acknowledge the paradox and the contradiction.  And this paradox and contradiction is what bites so many creative businesses in the butt.  Instead of learning to drive the Ferrari by actively seeking out teachers, cohorts, communities that live to drive Ferraris, they come to see the simple, the practical, the digestible as the way.  Then these artists are horrified when technology comes along and replaces them; when “newbies” flood the market and kill any chance of making a decent living (so they have to have a “side hustle” to make ends meet); when clients do not understand all they bring to the table.  These artists want to believe those “experts” that tell them they are special snowflakes and then redo everything to tell a better “brand” story, focusing on their core values, blah blah blah blah buhblah.  All the while they bathe in the safe and reliable because they have no clue, no real strategy as to how, exactly, to define what they are worth.  When the sugar rush of the “new you” wears off, the reality of their non-existent, eroding foundation returns, as will the frustration, anger and resentment.  How I wish it were not so, but you do not need to look far in the creative business landscape to see how prevalent the sentiment actually is for so many creative business owners.

Life is a choice.  If you are in the business of safe and reliable, fabulous wheel greaser, live there.  Own the idea that you will be facing competition from everywhere — new entrants, technology, etc. – and you will just have to be better at being better. Volume, mass, the power of dilution.  You might command a premium to the market but please do not expect the rewards of driving a Ferrari, even if you talk like you do, since you do not, in fact, drive a Ferrari.  Appreciate the value of tried and true and make promises that fulfill that reality and none other.

Now, to those who wish to believe themselves to be driving Ferraris, do the damn work.  Awake to the changing world around you and know that your creative business has to be a reflection of the reality that you get paid, really paid, for what NO ONE (and I mean NO ONE) needs.  If what is coming out of your proverbial mouth does not match the story your creative business is telling, change the story.  Your clients have to want what you do — why, when and how – so much so that it becomes a need.  Make ever-growing radical promises and then keep them.  When you do keep your promises, get paid for them – every time. Rinse and repeat until you create and then manifest great art, all so you have the right and ability to do it again (and again).

Everybody is afraid, the question is what are you going to do with it.  At a certain point, you have to acknowledge to yourself whether you want to drive the Ferrari or whether that is just too much.

As I told my twelve year old daughter the other day, talent and a quarter gets you a gumball, everything else is a function of showing up and doing the hard work of getting better.  The age of platitudes, randomness, doing it because that is the way it has always been done (or, the other lovely, because that is what happens in my market) is dead.  Thank goodness.  Design can only be marginalized if the artist lets it be, willingly giving up its value for the sake of a sale. Nature abhors a vacuum and, the biggest risk to all creative businesses is if artists abdicate the value of design to the consumer and/or to technology.

How about we all agree that this is self-inflicted pain we should all collectively say a big fat NO to?  Good.  So today, not tomorrow, or next month, or next season – today – what are you going to demand (not ask, not inquire, not wish for – demand) of your clients to do better work for them.  The one thing that will change your world and theirs.  The one thing the client has to do to honor the one thing that matters to you, your art and your creative business.  Do that.


Controlling Time

by seanlow on February 8, 2018

One of the questions I often get asked is, “If I were your client, what is the first thing you would have me work on/change?”  Easy.  You have to control time better and the only way to do that is to have a business model that respects time in the way you want to control it.

We have to break it down though.  There are two aspects to time that matter: absolute time and relative time.

Absolute Time — It is what you think it is — the definitive length of a project.  For event businesses and all other creative businesses with a hard deadline, absolute time should not be an issue since there is a definitive date to a project’s completion.  For other creative businesses where the end is not so clear, say interior design, architecture, even graphic design, controlling absolute time is a very big deal.  The reason is straightforward: a dollar earned in six months is worth a lot more than a dollar earned in a year – twice as much.

The issue is not that projects extend, it is that they extend without additional compensation or without adequate compensation.  The simple statement above proves the point.  If your client agreed to pay you a dollar for six months worth of work and you did that work, how are you going to get them to pay you another dollar to do much less work?  And an important and obvious caveat, absolute time matters if you are not the cause of the delay.  If you are, you did the crime, you do the time.  If not, then you earn less because of someone else’s issue.  Should not and cannot be your problem.  But but but you say, how can I ask my client to pay my creative business the same amount for SO much less work?  Why can’t I just charge an hourly fee for the extra time I have to spend on the project?

Every. Single. Time. I hear this answer I realize the creative business owner in front of me has no idea about the difference between subjective and objective or the difference between profit and return. If you want a refresher on these concepts, have a listen to a podcast I recently did for This Week In Weddings.  Basically, though, it means that the idea that every project a creative business takes on is constrained by time and has to have a price to use the resources of the creative business for that time. A project has a dollar number associated with it.  Extend the time, extend the number proportionately, regardless of what work has or has not been done.

Practically then, for those creative businesses where absolute time is a risk, know how much a project needs to generate, divide by the number of months of the project, then multiply that number by 1.25.  This is the fee your firm needs to charge for every month the project completion is delayed through no fault of your own.  You are not going to like the number and your clients will think it is nuts.  A) I do not care and B) client, do not delay the finish date or think that you will not have to pay a creative business commensurately for the delay.

Relative Time — Relative time is far more subtle but equally as fraught with risk as absolute time.  Every creative business has an extended relationship with a client — some several months, others up to and over a year.  Embedded in the relationship is a process to get from idea to finished project.  Timeframes and deadlines for each phase of the project has to be established and stuck to for there to be a smooth ride to the finish.

If absolute time can shift, relative time can have some play.  However, when absolute time is set, relative time matters A LOT.  For most event businesses, the three phases are design, (pre)production and installation/manufacture.  If there are not definitive timelines and breaks in each of your creative business’ phases, you are asking for trouble.  Even more, if you do not establish the price/impossibility of going back to a previous phase, you are REALLY asking for trouble.  And just like hourly does not cut it for issues with absolute time, percentages do not cut it for relative time.

If your whole process takes six months from design to installation/manufacture, with design taking six weeks, installation/manufacture two week and (pre)production the balance (four months), then if a client wants to effectively redesign the event after design is done, then you will have roughly four months to do the work you originally had six months to do.  Your price for the constrained timeline should be what it would cost for you to do this work as if it were a new project.  For arguments sake, let us say that to do something in four months where you would usually have six is a thirty percent premium (forgetting for now the increased cost of production expense).  So if your creative business charged one hundred dollars for six months, you would need to charge one hundred and thirty for four.  If you are paid a percentage, are you really going to be able to increase the overall production budget by thirty percent to accommodate these changes?  Usually, the situation is where the client is seeking to save money.  Good luck with that.  Needless to say, the closer you get to the end, the more your rate rises exponentially, and the worse things get by making what you do on percentages.

If you have not done the work of laying out phases and not only what clients are paying for but when, time to get to work.  When clients can know benchmarks and the cost of not reaching or respecting them due to their own issues, they will appreciate what it means to allow you to do your best work.  They will also understand that if you have to reallocate resources to meet their needs, that you will do so on what is necessary as if the project was that in the first place.  Again, if the delay is due to your creative business, you did the crime, do the time.  If not, then you have to be all about making sure your creative business is compensated for the work it has to do to do its best work.  No client will understand or value why the investment in your creative business will skyrocket if they make changes after the fact.  That part is up to you.  And, yes, defending your value means knowing it in the first place.


Contemplating New Opportunities

February 1, 2018

I thought we would pivot this week.  I have spent a lot of time these last few months focusing on the distillation of your art and your creative business.  The work has been about developing everything you do around what you most care about and getting paid for it specifically.  Of course, we will return […]

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What Does Being A Gatekeeper Look Like Today?

January 25, 2018

Time was when if you wanted to know who to hire there were those who controlled everything and were the trusted resource for everyone associated with the project. Venue to wedding planner to wedding vendors.  Architect or contractor to designer to trades (or shelter magazine to designer to trades). The whole point was a trusted […]

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What Does Meaningful Conversation Look Like?

January 18, 2018

So let us get the elephant out of the room.  No potential client is at your door to be your friend.  They are there because they want you and your creative business to transform their lives. Full stop. That said, to do the work you are tasked with doing, you actually have to appreciate who […]

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Hyper-Local Does Not Mean Local Yokel

January 11, 2018

I hear it all the time: “Well, I am not a national name like [insert sacred totem] so I could not possibly charge what they do.” However, these are the artists that routinely take on and are sought after for projects that are at the top of their luxury market — interior design with square […]

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Two Commitments For 2018

January 4, 2018

Happy happy to everyone.  2018 is going to be a remarkable year. More than ever, there is an ability to see the reality of what was only a fantasy a few years ago.  Things like commercial space travel, 3D/Virtual Reality everything, renewable powered cars and homes, and on and on.  Go watch any 80’s movie […]

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Legacy and Evolution

December 21, 2017

So what if I came to you, one of  my existing clients, with this business proposition:  I want you to pay twenty-five percent more for a new version of my product, my tenth version. As with all of the previous versions, the new version improves things a lot but does not revolutionize anything. More cool, […]

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Why Podcasting Matters To Creative Business

December 7, 2017

People like us do things like this.  Seth Godin focuses all of his marketing efforts here and it is the basis of permission marketing.  Permission marketing requires empathy as to who the person is and what it is that they seek from you, the artist.  Of course, you do not have to be your client, […]

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Line Item Pricing Revisited And Changing The Dialogue

November 30, 2017

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity and deep pleasure of speaking to interior designers in Boston as part of Editor-at-Large’s Launch series.  I talked about pricing and client management as I have done in New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles several times before.  Everything centers around the idea that value and process drive […]

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