It is August. Hopefully, time for a breather before a busy Fall is upon you and your creative business. While you are moving a little slower, perhaps it is a great time to reevaluate, perhaps even redefine your foundation as an artist and creative business. What follows is a discussion of the pillars of the foundation under every creative business: The Outer Boundary, The Design Statement and The Value Timeline. It might seem like high-level work that does not really impact your day-to-day reality. As you will find out in my next post, a solid foundation defines your reality and that of your art and creative business.

THE OUTER BOUNDARY – The bedrock of a successful creative business is a firm understanding of the outer boundary. The outer boundary is how much to do you want to work and how much do you want to get paid to do that work. You can argue with me all day long about starting from the bottom up – i.e., if I charge $2 how much business will come my way and if enough comes I will be ok. However, the essence of creating art that matters is doing only your best, not your best under the circumstances. If circumstance dictates everything (i.e., how many clients may or may not show up given a price), you really have nothing. Instead, outer boundary first. How much do you want to work and how much do you need to make to do the work. Thirteen projects and generate $500,000 (wrong assumption for sure, but assume $100,000 in expenses so you take home $400,000). Then your price has to be $40,000 give or take. I do not care (here anyway) how you get your $40,000 – fees, commissions, etc. – you just need to be able to get there, which, of course, leads to:

DOES IT PASS THE SMELL TEST? If you can appreciate that you need to take home $400,000/yr. and only want to work thirteen times per year, the question is NOT whether THE market can support that level of work, the question is whether YOUR market can support that level of work. For interior designers, if 35% is a good goal and your average project is $120,000 or $60/sf on a 2,000 sf house, you are right there. Not so much if the price is $30/sf or $120/sf. Goldilocks – too expensive for the $120/sf project, too cheap for the $30/sf one. If you pass the smell test for your market, move on; if not, then reconsider the outer boundary. No firm outer boundary, no creative business. And I really do not care whether you have been in business for a hundred years or a day, you go nowhere without a firm outer boundary and so you need to do the work regardless of what has (or has not) happened thus far in your creative business. Also, the outer boundary is not static, it is dynamic. It moves. You should reevaluate the outer boundary at least annually if not semi-annually. February will be here soon enough.

THE DESIGN STATEMENT Presuming we now have alignment with the type of art you want your creative business to create (i.e., you know your cost of production and level of production), we turn to filling everything in.

The first practical exercise is to write a design statement. Design is a statement of your art – I create this for you. This statement applies to ALL creative businesses. Whether you decide to share it with clients, potential or actual, is of no consequence. You need to write it down as it is the basis for what is valuable about your creative business. If you cannot fully and specifically articulate your art – why and for who far more than how and when, why should a client believe in you, your art and your creative business – why should your client hire you. You are not a convenience you are an artist. To be an artist, you have to consider yourself expert at what you do and therefore have an opinion about how you go about creating. Note, your design statement is NOT a brand statement. It is how you go about thinking about creating art for a client. More “we consider the ceiling first” and less “we love modern ethno-fusion.”

THE VALUE TIMELINE At one of the earlier Engage! conferences, I happened on a conversation between Marcy Blum and Tara Guerard. Both Marcy and Tara, of course, have had great success at what they do. They were arguing though about whether the band plays during dinner. Marcy thought it absolutely necessary otherwise everyone would get bored. Tara, on the other hand, thought the exact opposite – dinner was dinner and then we move on to entertainment. Ambient music only during mealtime.

It is irrelevant your personal opinion on the matter. What is relevant is that if you were building the relationship with your client, how and when conversations go would most certainly be different for both Tara and Marcy. With your design statement in hand, you then must create a value timeline. How do you go from the bottom of the mountain to the top and what is each stage worth to you and your creative business? Take everything you now know about who you are as an artist and creative business owner, who you look like (or want to look like) and then assign hard percentages to each phase of your journey with a client. Begin with commitment to each other and end with the end of the project.

What is your design worth (and, again, ALL creative businesses are designers)? If there are stages to design, what is each worth? Do they grow in importance? When does design end and production begin? Are there phases to production? What is each worth? In a perfect world, you would simply multiply the percentage times your fee (here $40,000) and get paid at each stage. Of course, this might be impractical given too many value points (too few is not an issue). Then the exercise is logical groupings so that a client is not writing your creative business a hundred payments along the way.

Notice I said logical groupings. That does not mean half and half or thirds – that is random. You have to be able to defend the value point groupings as making sense to you and your creative business’ process. Erase any idea of a “right” or “accepted” practice and, instead, substitute what makes the most sense for your creative business process. Why? Your process is your own and payment (both in terms of money and decisions) is the only way your creative business can move things forward. To round out the example, our designer is fee based and charges $10,000 to engage, $20,000 for design and $10,000 for installation.

FAILSAFES – Ok, now we have the outer boundary, a design statement, a value timeline and possibly value groupings. The last piece of the foundation is what happens when a client (and/or employees, colleagues or vendors) challenges any piece of the foundation. In some instances, it is full stop. You do modern, they want classic. You work at $60/sf, they want $200/sf. In other circumstances, it might just be a course correction. They want to talk about hard shell (paint, flooring, fixtures) first and you are all about décor first. Course corrections cost money as you and your creative business have to endure pain that your creative business did not cause. The questions are how much pain is caused, how much pain are you willing to endure and what is the price for having to endure the pain? Finally, what happens if the pain continues and becomes full stop – translation: when does your best become impossible? Putting in failsafes brings a sense of flexibility and rigidity where appropriate, but in all cases reaffirms the power of the foundation.

I want to stress to you that hubris hurts A LOT. All pipes get gunk in them, all boats need barnacles cleaned off. Putting more water in an impeded pipe makes the pipe burst as much as it might lead to more water coming out. My guess is that you have never really honored an outer boundary because, hey, if that juicy project appears (or any project when you are worried if there will ever be one), you are off to the races. Probably, none of you have a design statement and, if you do, it is static with lots of words that really express no opinion as to why and how you create art. If you have done a value timeline, it is probably not based on the design statement and, therefore, likely an exercise rooted in nothing related to your actual creative business.

You defend pricing and failsafes with your design statement in mind, not the other way around. No matter who you are, have beginner’s mind and do the foundational work described here. More than anything, you will be surprised by where you will want to go once you have done the work. Of this I have no doubt: it will be much much farther than you have already gone. Happy Summer.


Incremental Change Is An Oxymoron

by seanlow on July 25, 2017

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if you want to fix it, you have to break it.

Every time I hear a creative business owner say that they are going to raise their prices ten or twenty percent a year and hope to make fifty percent or so more five years from now, I want to scream in my pillow. At the top of my lungs.  Aaaaacccccck.

Art is about breaking things – rules, standards, norms, culture, even laws. We, as patrons, so often want to be shocked awake, transformed by the experience. Sure, guilty pleasures, fluff, is a distraction and fun for all, but at the end of the day candy will never be a meal.

We live in the age of disruption where technology has changed just about everything from taxis ( to hotels ( to retail shopping ( Do you think the folks running these businesses thought that it would be a home run if they just tweaked the way taxis, hotels and retail worked. Of course not.

So why oh why are the most creative, innovative artists on the planet, owners of businesses capable of imagining a world we do not yet inhabit, act like timid little mice afraid of the big bad business elephant? It is just silly. You get paid to dare for a living. Please dare with your business.

Just because you cannot imagine charging three times what you do today or running a business ten times as big as the one you run now, does not make it any less possible. What does make it impossible though is incremental change. You cannot triple your price unless you can prove to clients (employees, colleagues, even spouses) why you are worth it. This means changing your model, getting paid for what you REALLY want to get paid for.

And that is the best part of creative business. There are no rules and the more you constrain yourself with the fiction some other (not very smart) creative business owner made up as THE rule, the more you live the lie you were never meant to live. Break the rules not because you can, but because they were never rules to begin with.

I love Blue Ocean Strategy as much as the next person. We should all chart our own course. However, what I am talking about is much deeper than simply a strategy to find uncharted territory. I am talking about being true to your soul as an artist, where there are no boundaries of possible only the imagination of what could be. What would your creative business look like then?

The beauty of the world we live in today is there is an audience for everyone. If you own your voice as an artist, a creative business owner, those who care will find it. Do not disappoint them by looking exactly like the next creative business in all ways except for your art. Be iconic as a business with the understanding that you actually do not have the choice not to be.

As if all of the above were the most insidious part of incremental change. No, the most insidious part of incremental change is it creates the illusion that change, even incremental change, is reversible for a creativ business when it is not.

If I raise my price ten/twenty percent, I can always lower it if nobody pays it. A) If your creative business is that price sensitive, you do not have a creative business, you have a commodity. B) if you are established, raising your prices incrementally without doing anything else, only legitimizes the competition below you. (Shameless plug: if you do not understand how B) works, you need to join The BBC Collective to find out). And C) if you raise your price incrementally, all you will do is anger those expecting your former price and create confusion as to what your actual value is. Hey, if $8 was good enough yesterday, why do you need $10 today?

You can charge a little more, tweak things, put lipstick on the pig all the way into oblivion. Or maybe, just maybe, you can look inside to the artist you actually are, the one who had the courage to start in the first place, and live that truth. Be fearless in the notion that, if you can imagine the possibility, it exists and will be valued as you need it to be. Live the fantasy we pay you to dream for us. In your world, let “creative” rule “business” in the context of creating your business. Be disciplined in the outrageous and confident in its value for your business above and beyond your art. Let this be your voice.

The place for incremental change is at the bottom (i.e, in the abyss) of your very own blue ocean. Leave it there.



July 21, 2017

As a rule, I am underwhelmed by the presentation process most creative businesses undertake. The willingness to ask a client to invest sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Pinterest-type mood board and simple samples astounds me. Shame on any creative business for letting clients believe that this is, in any way, acceptable. We all need […]

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Interior Design Archetypes

July 12, 2017

As a consultant and overall student of creative business, it is my job to understand and develop archetypes for the types of creative businesses I work with. I have been incredibly fortunate to have consulted with a wide variety of creative businesses from many different industries, luxury event and interior design in particular. So I […]

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The Power of Story And Client Management

June 27, 2017

I have touted Bill Baker here for years. All the links to my five previous posts about what Bill is all about and my thoughts on why he is just so so important to creative business are here, here, here, here and here. I just re-read all of them and each are still completely relevant […]

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What Is Luxury?

June 20, 2017

I have recently returned from Engage! 17: Grand Cayman, THE conference for luxury wedding professionals. At this point, if you consider yourself in the luxury wedding business and have not attended an Engage!, you are doing yourself, your art and your wedding business an incredible disservice.  I have also just completed my second post for […]

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Introducing The BBC Collective

May 23, 2017

The Highlights I get asked often – what comes next for you, Sean? A book? A video series? Something where creative business professionals can get a more pointed experience from you without having to go all the way to working one-on-one with you. No matter how hard I tried though, I could not get excited […]

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What Makes You Remarkable?

May 17, 2017

What makes you remarkable? So personal. Like asking, who are you really? Why do you matter? Why should I care? Do I believe you? Do you believe you? We all spend our time pondering these questions. At least we should.  We are meant to live remarkable lives. To live with purpose and drive; to bring […]

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Breaking The Model Vs. Redecorating

May 9, 2017

New website, new prices, new contract. Some creative business owners believe that when they embark on these missions, they are breaking the model, not just redecorating. They are wrong. The IPhone really is not all that different from cell phones that came before. Cooler and more functional sure, but not that different. Add in apps […]

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The History Of Whys

May 2, 2017

I had the very good fortune to spend some time talking with Vicente Wolf this morning. He was gracious enough to let me and a friend pick his brain about his thoughts on the current state of the interior design industry.  For those of you who do not know who Vicente is, he is a […]

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