Live Podcasting is Terrifying

Yesterday I did a short interview about Sweet Meats with Emily and Kyle of The Meat Show. They’re excellent hosts and interviewers and I was particularly excited to be a part of their  “Meat Inventions” episode but I was also very unprepared.

They called at noon to confirm a 3pm broadcast (unnerving in and of itself) but our phone connection was not great and our conversation sounded weird and stilted.  Was this how the interview would sound?  I gave them my home studio number to minimize connection problems for the actual show.

For an hour before they called I felt like I would throw up.  I’ve done plenty of live performance and even some on-camera interviews, but radio is different, especially when you’re not in-studio.  There are no visuals to help fill in for awkward pauses or inarticulate phrasing.  And it’s LIVE.  And unedited.  I’m not entirely comfortable with my verbal communication skills (this blog is heavily edited) and the thought of having to be informative and entertaining for ten minutes straight was terrifying.

When they called at 3:20, I said “hello?” into the phone but no one replied.  Instead, I heard Kyle and Emily finishing up their last segment.  Oh crap!  Did someone just hear my confused greeting in the middle of the broadcast?  No, you idiot.  This is how radio works.  They don’t turn on your phone connection until they’re ready for you.  How would I know when I should start talking?!  When they say “Hi, Lauren.  Thanks for being on the show.  How are you?”, apparently.

Luckily, The Meat Show feels extremely fast-paced for a guest, more so than you would think just listening to it.  Kyle and Emily never allow for dead air and always have great comments and questions at the ready (they really do their homework).  Everything is friendly and slightly rushed, so you don’t have the time or inclination to worry about how you’re doing.

In the end I think the segment went pretty well and I actually left wishing I had gotten to be on longer.  It turns out that if you have great hosts you can have a great show, even if your guests are peeing their pants.

The Six C’s of Branding for Creative Professionals

As a designer, I’ve a done a little branding for other companies, but it is WAY harder to brand yourself.  Though I know all of the steps, it can still feel paralyzing, so I’ve been forcing my husband to take me through them one at a time.  And just in case you don’t have your own branding-savvy spouse hanging over your shoulder, I’d like to help you through them, too.

First of all, let’s talk about branding for a second.  What is it?  A lot of people confuse branding with advertising, or think that branding is just for companies looking to cover up an unsavory reputation with slick graphics, but branding really boils down to one thing: customer/client experience.  Branding involves not only your letterhead and business cards, but your customer service, the quality of your work, your prices, etc.  When someone hires you or buys your work, is their experience fun, inexpensive and easy, or is it sophisticated, detailed and personal?  Your visual branding, (like your logo) exists to give people an idea of what kind of experience to expect from you, so that’s the part of branding I’ll focus on in this post, but it can be difficult to distill a set of abstract concepts and feelings into the color and shape of a few letters.  Luckily, you don’t have to pull it all out of the air or know a lot about design to brand yourself successfully.  Here are the steps to get started:

Step 1: Collect

To begin with, you have to describe the experience of hiring/buying from you.  What adjectives and phrases describe your art or design style? What’s it like to work with you as a professional?  I chose to include words that describe my current portfolio (very kid-oriented) as well as words I hope will describe my future portfolio (more sophisticated and diverse).  Here’s a partial list of what I came up with:  craft, sophisticated, irresistible, inventive, clever, whimsical, reproduction, intricate, clean, intelligent, joyful, original, non-traditional materials, requiring a second/closer look, professional.  There were more, but I’ll spare you.  The point is that this is the brainstorm step, so there’s no limit on the words and phrases you can come up with.

Step 2: Cull

Now that you have your giant list of words, it’s time to put them in order.  Which are the most important feelings to get across?  Is there a particular pairing of words or phrases (like “joyfully elegant”) that is unique to you and your work?  Put those first.  Next, cross out the words that describe every working artist on earth.  Things like “creative,” “original,” and “professional” are useless in visual branding because every creative professional in the world has these qualities.  People wouldn’t hire you if you didn’t.  When you’re done, circle the top 3-5 words or phrases left on your list.  Mine were: craft, sophisticated, irresistible and clever.  My husband also added “contemporary,” to define my style within a period of influence.  Lots of design these days has either a vintage or futuristic look and he thought it was important to distinguish myself from that.

Step 3: Compare

The good news about visual branding is that you don’t have to start from scratch.  You’ll get most of your clues from other companies who already did the work (and paid a pretty penny for it).  Take the first word from your list and come up with 3-5 companies or individuals that espouse it for you.  You can see some of the logo images I collected for various adjectives below.

 

Notice what some of these logos have in common.  Though they’re certainly not identical, the logos in the “clever” column all use thick, sans serif fonts, mostly capitals and primary colors.  Some of them also use circles or oval shapes.  The logos in the “irresistible” column, on the other hand, use mostly lowercase letters in addition to candy colors or shiny effects.  They use no frames at all.  The logos in the “sophisticated fun” column again use all caps and mostly sans serif fonts, but the letters are much thinner and there are two which use rectangular frames.

Not shown here are some of the craft logos I collected through Imgspark (you can’t copy them off the page, sadly), which is a fantastic tool for finding inspiring images and creating mood boards online.  Those logos made clever use of graphics to imply their particular craft.  A glass company used layers of transparent colors to imply a stack of colored glass bowls, a sewing studio wrote out their name in stitches, and a paper company used shadows to make part of their logo look like it was peeling off the screen.

Step 4: Combine

Now that you have some design elements to work with, it’s time to combine them in a way that makes sense.  I decided to go with a sans serif font in all capital letters, since that seemed to be the most common direction of the companies I looked at.  But I also wanted my logo to look irresistible and tactile, so I decided to put it in bright colors, and to add just the tiniest bit of shadow to make it look like it was cut out of paper, rather than typed on a computer.  To heighten the effect, I decided to use some peeling edges like I saw in the paper company logo.  See Friday’s post for my latest proof of concept for this.

Step 5: Create

This is the fun part.  Now you get to go to places like myfonts.com and try out your name in hundreds of different typefaces (search for fonts by tag, like “rounded” to narrow it down some).  You can also try out Color Scheme Designer 3 to put together color combinations.  If your logo calls for it, this is also the part where you’ll sketch out an icon (like Chronicle’s eyeglasses).  Once you’ve decided on the general elements, you can still play a lot with specifics (see my page on playing with type layering, for example) so don’t be afraid to try out all kinds of sizes, arrangements and effects.

Step 6: Come Back

When you’ve got something you like, put your design away for a few days.  See if you still like it when you come back to it.  This step is really excruciating for me because it means I can’t move forward with anything else (like my new web site), but it’s also crucial.  Your potential customers will see your logo with fresh eyes so you should, too.  As frustrating as it is to have the editing process drag on, I have never regretted sticking to this step.

To see a photo journal of this process from beginning to end, check out Jon Contino’s post about branding a new software company called Lussumo.  I hope this was helpful to those of you who find self-branding as difficult as I do.  If you have additional tips, please share them in the comments.

All logos in the image above are the property of the companies they represent.  They are reproduced here through fair use for the purpose of education only and should not be duplicated or used for any other purpose.

Making Making Things Better Better

I’ve been hearing a lot about crowdsourcing lately.  In general it’s a good idea, tapping the collective brainpower of your fans or customer base to generate ideas you might normally have to rely on hired professionals for.  It’s been around for a long time, (think Betty Crocker recipe contests, American Idol or the 2002 vote for the new M&Ms color), but the Internet has made crowdsourcing infinitely easier and the scale infinitely larger.  The X Prize Foundation did this in 2004 when they offered a $10 million prize for the first reusable privately-built spacecraft.  $10 million may seem like a lot of money, but it’s a fraction of what it would have cost NASA to develop in both time and money.  Why?  Because they only had to pay for success.  They got the trial and error of the other contestants for free.

In a slightly different vein, Apple recently began offering free iPhone App development courses through Stanford University and iTunes.  The cost to Apple is minimal.  They just open up the developers’ software and course materials, all of which already exist.  In return they get a huge influx of iPhone Apps, all developed free.  They post the ones they like to their App Store, and sit back while they collect their share of the profits.  Of course, the developers are getting a great deal, too.  They’re getting everything they need, from the education to the the global distribution platform, to bring a useful and potentially profitable product to market.

And that’s what can be so great about crowdsourcing.  It’s symbiotic, mutually beneficial, win-win.  It’s become so popular that there’s even a crowdsourcing project designed to make crowdsourcing better (everything good goes meta).  It’s called “The Better Project,” and while it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of feedback yet, if I know the Intertubes, it’s only a matter of time.

So how can you use crowdsourcing in your small business?  It can be as simple as sending a survey, holding a contest, or opening up a blog post to comments.  You can also produce idea collections, as books, zines, bundles of fabric or free downloadable art.  You can even build your entire business around crowdsourcing, like Threadless or Prickie.  Either way, as long as your customers are getting something out of it, whether it’s a prize, a commission or just better products, they’ll be happy to share their knowledge.

Epiphanous: Jeffery Rudell

How do you make a living off your art?  That, my friends, is the $50,000 question.  There are the standard models we all know about, but they’re all deeply flawed in the same way: in order to be successful, you need to spend most of your time on non-creative endeavors.

Take the typical gallery model, for example.  Unless you are sponsored by some incredibly well-connected patron, you need to go to graduate school, network like crazy, and then apply for shows, grants and residencies with the hope that you will secure one out of fifty.  All of this while maintaining some sort of day job.  Where is the time after all this to actually make art?

Then, of course, there’s the DIY/self-publishing model.  You can put up your own web site, or sell your art on Etsy, thereby bypassing the need to work within the establishment and their 50% gallery commissions.  But then you need to do your own publicity and promotion, not to mention shipping, web programming, bookkeeping, etc., still while likely maintaining a day job.  This can also often entail churning out dozens of the same (more affordable) product over and over, making you a manufacturer, not an artist.

Lastly, there’s the merchandising model.  Either through licensing images or having items manufactured, you get your designs into the hands of the public through mass-produced items.  This involves many of the same things as the DIY model, only you’re focusing more on sourcing manufacturers or licensors than you are on manufacturing products yourself.

I’ve been using a combination of the DIY and merchandising models for the past few years and while it is satisfying in many ways, it leaves me very little time to do creative work.  I spend most of my day on correspondance, order fulfillment, marketing and bookkeeping.

Then yesterday I read this article on CraftStylish by Jeffery Rudell and I had a revelation: here, finally, is the model for exactly how I want to run my career.  Mr. Rudell crafts for a living, and the actual creative process is what takes up most of his time.  Of course he networks and promotes himself — that’s unavoidable — but essentially he’s a freelance art-producer.  Magazines, stores, TV shows and other media commission him to create specific art pieces for photo shoots, store windows and tutorials, within variously flexible parameters.  This is very much like being a graphic designer (a route he came out of that I have also briefly pursued), but it involves working with your hands on three-dimensional objects much more often than sitting in front of a computer screen.

Okay great, so there’s a guy out there with a career I’m totally jealous of.  What am I supposed to do about it?  Follow all the steps Jeffery Rudell did!  Luckily for me, he’s a storyteller, too, so he couldn’t resist laying out his trajectory step by step:

Step 1: Create a gorgeous and variable portfolio while working a day job for money.  I just read about him yesterday and I’ve already drafted a long list of art-director-friendly projects to work on and I’ve applied for a part-time bookkeeping gig.

Step 2: Introduce your work to valuable contacts by sending them inexpensive, eye-popping “introductions.”  Send similar “thank yous” to existing clients so they don’t forget how awesome you are.

Step 3: Say yes to everything you can do or learn to do within the specified deadline, even if it seems difficult.  By embracing challenges you become a better artist and a more valuable asset.

Step 4: Value your work highly and price it accordingly, always remembering that people are paying you for your ideas in addition to your production hours.

Step 5: Remember that it is your job to communicate ideas, emotions and experiences, not just create a pretty product.  Mr. Rudell calls his promotional introductions “(souvenirs) of the experience people have working with me.”

I don’t really know what to call Jeffery Rudell’s job (prop-maker? production artist?) but I am determined to make it happen for myself.  More on my specific steps in later posts.

Overexposure

When I was first starting out, I gave away a lot of stuff to people in the name of “exposure”, because I kept hearing from other business owners how important it is to “get your stuff out there.” What they really meant, though, was “get your stuff out to your target market.”

Two days ago a random Etsy member asked me to donate 100 items to supply her wedding guests’ gift bags. In return, she promised to “get your product out there to a large group of people of varying ages, most of which have never even HEARD of Etsy.” (**For those who don’t know, Etsy.com is an online marketplace for handmade goods.)

This may sound appealing (poor grammar notwithstanding), but when you think about it, it’s as effective a marketing strategy as standing on a random street corner and giving away 100 of your products for free. “People of varying ages, most of which have never even HEARD of Etsy” are NOT my target market. They’re no one’s target market.  Even if they think your product is cool, Great Uncle Fred and 12-year-old Simon are not going to shop your online store. Why waste your time and budget on them?

My advice is to only give away freebies at events where at least 80% of the participants would be likely to shop from you. If you’re a crafter, gift bags at well-attended craft fairs are generally fine, especially if it gets you a spot in promotional materials or the fair is so big customers don’t make it to every booth.

Product-specific events are also good. Do you sell mainly to affluent pet owners? Then donating stuff to an animal rescue benefit is appropriate. Giving away freebies at the launch of a new fashion magazine is not. Yes, some of those fashionistas will also be affluent pet owners, but is it worth 100 wasted products to get just one new sale?

I’m not saying that those who ask for free stuff are bad people, but they are ultimately looking out for their own event/organization, and not for your business. It’s up to you to do that and to separate targeted, effective promotion from untargeted ineffective promotion.


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" rel="bookmark">The Fourth Times’ the Charm: My Emotional Rollercoaster Ride with the New York Times

About two years ago a writer asked if he could interview me for an article about plush food for the New York Times.  Naturally I said yes, and tried to make all my answers as punchy and fascinating as possible, while weaving in anecdotes from my iconic New York childhood.  I was still teaching at the time, and sewing my toys on the side, but this piece seemed to indicate to me that perhaps my small side business had the potential to grow into a full-time venture.

Two weeks later a photo assistant from the Times e-mailed to ask if I could send in samples of my toys.  The article was due to be a feature in the Sunday magazine—one of their quarterly “T” Style editions, in full, beautiful color.  I was ecstatic.  I told everyone I knew.  I reminded them a week before it was due to come out, and again the day before.

That Sunday I tore the magazine from the paper and flipped through it rapidly.  I didn’t see any plush food.  But there were two articles on stylish items for foodies, so I thought my interview might be part of one of those.  Not there either.  I checked the shopping guide, the back page, article sidebars, and eventually the Style Magazine’s web site.  Maybe it was a web-only article?  Nope.  The article had not run at all.  Anywhere.

I was crushed.  After enduring a week or so of painful conversations with confused friends and relatives, I e-mailed the author to find out what happened.  He said that the Times had cut the article due to space constraints and that they were considering running it in another issue, six months away.  Six months later, the entire process repeated itself, only this time, the Times didn’t shelve the article, they tossed it completely.  The author ran the interview on his own blog instead, which was a rather nice consolation.  Still, I felt spurned and embarrassed after having gotten my hopes up so high.

So when an editor for the Times contacted me again a couple of months ago, I was naturally skeptical.  They wanted a “glamour shot” of a meat medley to feature in the big holiday gift guide in the Home section of the paper.  I sent them a shot, but didn’t tell anyone about it other than my mother, my husband, and one good friend.  The following Thursday, the Home section contained several gift guides: what to get for friends who are hard to buy for, a “25 Under $25,” and so on, but none of them contained Sweet Meats.

I again felt burned and frustrated, despite having lowered my expectations significantly.  After all, it’s hard not to get your hopes up about the New York Times.   Besides the fact that it can cause an uptick in sales (one store owner in my neighborhood reported an additional $25,000 in sales during the month her store was featured), the New York Times definitely has a certain cachet.  Validation by the Times suggests that you have made it, that the experts on style and taste consider your product worthy of sharing with the world.  It’s an easy deflection to disparaging questions such as, “Why do you make these?” and “Who would buy such a thing?” and it’s a signal to every other media outlet that your business is worth paying attention to.

Two weeks later I received a call from a very strange number: 1 111 111-1111.  Telemarketer. Robo-dialer, probably.  I dismissed the call to voice mail.  Immediately there appeared a harried message from a fact-checker at the Times.  She wanted to verify my current prices for a shopping guide in the Home section.  Again?  Seriously?

I felt mildly encouraged that I had been contacted by a fact checker—a step I had not previously reached — but at the same time, I was totally over it, even slightly annoyed.  When would they stop toying with me?

The day the issue came out we flew back east for the holidays, and I didn’t buy the paper until we got to our second airport.  And what do you know?  There they were, in a “fun-loving” holiday gift guide on page 4.  They didn’t accompany an interview in a large-format magazine, and they weren’t part of a full-page color spread.  In fact, they weren’t in color at all (except in the New York City edition).  And okay, maybe they listed my phone number without asking, and maybe they incorrectly stated that Sweet Meats were designed to be children’s toys, but I got to list “New York Times” on my press page, and my mother got to brag about it at her Hanukkah party.  My distributor used it to tempt more New York stores.  My husband thinks the link might even raise my Google ranking.

The direct result was an increase in web sales for a day or two (about a dozen more sales per day than usual)—comparable to the effect of a mention on Cool Hunting two years ago.  I also got a call from another distributor, this time someone in the Midwest who sells mostly to restaurant gift shops.  The full indirect results remain to be seen.

The lesson?  Patience is a virtue, good things comes to those who wait, and don’t get your hopes up—unless a fact checker calls you in a hurry because they’re going to press tomorrow.  Then you can get your hopes up.  A little.

Float, Sink or Swim

A couple of weeks ago I attended a small cocktail party for my local merchants’ association.  People invariably asked one another how they were doing in the deflating economy, and everyone there responded in one of three ways.  Some, like the owner of a hair salon, said, “I’m doing fine. My business is recession-proof.  People still need to get their hair cut and dyed so I’m not worried.”  Others, like the owner of a high-end clothing boutique said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.  People just aren’t buying like they used to.”  Still others, like owner of a new gallery said, “I’m doing great. I was trying out new promotion ideas, and one of them worked out so well I’m doing better than before the recession hit!”

These three business owners are examples of what my dad would call “floaters,” “sinkers” and “swimmers.”*  When a bad economy hits (and it always does, sooner or later), some businesses are largely unaffected.  People in the medical industry, for example, will still see about the same number of sick and injured people no matter what.  They don’t have to make any changes to their business model to stay above water.  They are natural floaters.

Every other business has a tendency to sink during a recession.  If they do nothing, eventually they will hit bottom.  With a little effort and direction, however, you can stay above the surface.  And if you manage to keep yourself above water long enough to ride out the wave, you’ll find that your trip back in is even easier than when you started, because some of your competitors will have been “wiped out.”

I haven’t heard any predictions that the recession will last beyond 2009, so if you can make it another year, you should be good to go.  But how to get there?  That’s up to you.  Many businesses seem to be relying on the promotional discount this season.  I say, get creative!  Look around you for things you can use to your advantage. That gallery owner I mentioned above is taking advantage of the private school down the street. She’s offering free weekly classes to parents during the hour before school gets out.  It’s a brilliant idea.  She gets wealthy people in her gallery on a regular basis, where she teaches them how to appreciate what she sells — art. She’s literally taking people off the street and turning them into customers.  She’s never sold so much art in her life!

My approach recently has just been to put myself out there — everywhere.  I’m contributing to things right and left.  I’ve got pieces in art shows and silent auctions.  I’m selling at loads of holiday events — even ones that didn’t ask for vendors.  I contributed a recipe to an event program, a tutorial for a craft book, 500 buttons for a magazine party, and 350 items for goodie bags.  I’m doing an in-store in Brooklyn when I’m home for the holidays and a workshop at a local art college in the spring. I’m even collecting donations on behalf of the San Francisco Food Bank.  In return they add my events to their calendar.

All of my contributions have been narrowly targeted, but they’re low-cost and have often lead to bigger and better things.  For example, the buttons I donated to the magazine party say “I love you more than bacon” on them, and it’s a magazine all about meat.  But those buttons were ultimately responsible for my appearance in the Weekly Yelp.  They even got a mention on KQED radioSweet Meats are even supposed to be in the New York Times later this week.  I’m not sure what was ultimately responsible for that piece of PR, but the point is, you have to get your name out there so that people can find you.

So ladies, put on your brainstorming caps and start saying yes to everything that doesn’t cost you money.  The water level is rising and it’s time to start kicking!

*I don’t think my dad made up the whole “sinkers, floaters, swimmers” thing, but I can’t find the original source.  If you know it, please post it in the comments.  Thanks!

Call for Artists: Holiday Wreath Benefit

This fall, the Hayes Valley Merchants’ Association will be reviving an old tradition: the Holiday Wreath Benefit and Art Walk.  Bay Area artists will be creating wreaths to be displayed in Hayes Valley businesses and sold via silent auction. All proceeds will go to support Opportunity Impact.  Each artist who signs up to participate will receive a wreath wire frame (about one foot diameter), with total freedom to interpret the piece from there.

Verbal commitments from artists are requested by Wednesday, October 1st — that’s less than a week from today.  You will receive your wreath frame 1-2 weeks later, with the actual piece due to the Merchants’ Association by Black Friday, 11/28.

The pieces will go up for display and auction from 11/28 until the following Friday, 12/5, which is the date of the block party.  The auctions will close at 9pm that evening.  Every wreath site will have maps with all of the other wreath sites listed as part of the art walk.

Obviously, this a promotional opportunity, and not a paid one, but it’s a nice way to get another exhibition line on your CV while giving back during the holidays.  You only need to prepare one piece for it, and the merchants’ association goes nuts with publicity.  The last time they did this they even got a five-minute segment on the KRON4 evening news!  The Merchants’ Association is looking for approximately 30 artists and spots are steadily filling up, so if you want to be a part of this benefit, speak up (i.e. post a comment or e-mail me)!