Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Quick Shout Out for Goo Goo Clusters!

Recently a friend and I were bemoaning the fact that over the counter chocolate candy has gone way down in quality.  The treats we savored growing up now taste cheap and waxy, though we had to admit we weren't sure if this is because companies are cutting production costs or our taste buds have matured (we suspect it is a bit of both).

Generally I don't buy a lot of snacks, and these days my cravings tend to go toward home baked rather than prepackaged goodies.  In fact I only buy candy at Halloween or when I go to the cinema.  My friend and I agreed that Reece's Peanut Butter Cups are still holding their own (my usual choice at the cinema concession stand) but that was about it.

However, I have to take a moment to give a shout out to Goo Goo Clusters.  What are Goo Goos, you ask?  Well, Goo Goos are individually wrapped, nougat-y, goopy, caramel, nuts, chocolaty goodness.  Here is the description presented by wikipedia.

I used to pick up a box of Goo Goos on my way back from a visit to my grandparents in Tennessee (Goo Goos are manufactured in Nashville).  Bringing them to the natives of New England I enjoyed watching my friends' faces light up with their first bite. 

A package arrived at my place yesterday via UPS, and as soon as I saw the Goo Goo logo on the side of the box I started grinning my head off.  In honor of Goo Goo's 100th (!) anniversary, my parents had ordered me a commemorative tin filled with yummy clusters.

 
I have to say Goo Goo has put a lot of extra care and attention into their 100th year.  The enclosed candy tasted better than it ever has.  The quality made it taste like the homemade treats your grandma (or in my case, my grandpa) used to make right in the kitchen.  I love that these candies are created  here in America.  And I especially love that-in a time of cutting corners on quality and customer service-Goo Goo has stepped it up big time.
 
I encourage you to visit their fun and informative website for all things Goo Goo.  And I hope you'll incorporate Goo Goo Clusters into your holiday celebration before the 100th anniversary celebration is over!

Smoke & Mirrors....Or Are You Just Blowing Smoke?

This topic is an extension of my most recent post.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this one lately and I found the ideal introduction in Mark H. McCormack’s book, On Communicating.  Mark H. McCormack was the founder of I.M.G (International Marketing Group).  He is also the author of What They Don’tTeach You at Harvard Business School, among other helpful books on business management.

I was once invited to dine at the offices of an executive I had known off and on for many years.  The luncheon was served in an elegant room next to the executive’s office.  It was an inordinately formal four-course affair, served by a chef attired in a white jacket who would enter with each new course from a hidden door. The conversation was intriguing.  The meal was splendid.  The whole experience seemed choreographed to soothe guests and impress them.

I know I was impressed-not only by the executive’s hospitality but by the fact that he seemed to have a full-time kitchen at his disposal.  He had come a long way since I first knew him.

At the end of the meal, as the chef refilled our cups of coffee, the host reinforced the impression.  He praised the chef on the richness of the meal, patted his stomach, and jovially added, “I’m glad I’m not eating here this evening.”

A nice touch, I thought.  He made sure I knew he had a chef on staff day and night.
I later learned that the meal was, in fact, brought in by a catering service and that the chef worked for the caterer.                                              On Communicating page 67-68


Managing your own business requires, especially when you are first starting up, a bit of “smoke and mirrors”.  You want potential customers to be impressed with your product or service, and to feel confident that doing business with you will be a rewarding experience.  In order to draw people in you try to pay close attention to presentation and marketing, maybe fudging a few details here and there in your favor.  There’s nothing wrong with this, provided your business can live up to the expectation you have created.
It’s when the smoke clears and your product doesn’t adequately resemble the images and description you presented, or your services lack quality and care, that alerts a customer to the fact all you were doing was blowing smoke in their faces.


A well-known owner of a chain of local spas was once quoted in a magazine as saying, “You have to fake it to make it.” I don’t disagree. Her “faking it” brought her to as close to the top as one can go in her industry.  Let’s face it; the masses beg to be easily persuaded.  They want to be told what to buy/do/think in order to fit in.  So her persistent insistence that she was the way to go brought in a lot of revenue.  In her heyday I decided to give one of her locations a go to see what all the fuss was about.

Nothing I experienced lived up to the mystique of the brand.  It wasn’t that the staff wasn’t nice or the service weren’t okay.  But I quickly realized I could have had just as good-if not a better experience-elsewhere and at a lower cost.  The staff openly talked, including my stylist, about their prior jobs at Super Cuts: a low budget national chain of hair salons.  This is the last thing you want to hear when you are paying what I was for my color and cut.  The stylist’s lack of sophisticated training was obvious.  I left feeling underwhelmed by the end result and never returned.
As time has passed and more and more of her spas have closed, it is obvious the illusion could only be managed for so long before the public grew wise.  This is often what happens with businesses both large and small.  If you aren’t backing up your brand-the image and message you are putting out there-eventually people will stop believing the hype.

So how do you make sure you have substance beyond the enticing aura?  Here are a few suggestions:

1)      Only make claims you can keep

This may seem obvious but it astounds me how often businesses boast about products or services they cannot possibly produce.  Don’t proclaim that you are the only vendor of a certain type of item if this isn’t true.  Don’t announce you are the top rated fill-in-the-blank if this is a lie.  Don’t tell a customer you can get their custom order made and delivered in three days when it will actually take a week.  In the end you are only hurting yourself when you can’t live up to the empty promises.
 
2)      Delegate. Diminish. Delete

I teach the “Three-Ds” in my time and business management workshops.  As you are trying to build a new business you are ideally trying to build a reputation for being dependable, professional, and personable while offering a stellar product or service.  It is all too easy to follow too many tangents which can only serve to dilute your core mission.  Sit down and develop a business plan.  If there are certain attributes to your business that you know can be better managed by someone else, bring the right people in to handle those tasks.  If there are certain products or services you offer that pull the focus (both yours and the customer’s) off of your primary mission, either diminish the importance of those products and services, or get rid of them all together.

3)      Saying “No” Doesn’t have to be Negative

If a potential customer is asking for something you know you cannot provide, it is better to say no than to half-heartedly say yes and disappoint the customer.  However, saying no doesn’t have to mean your relationship with that person has ended.  There are positive ways to say no.  Try, “I don’t offer that sort of product or service, but let me see if I can find you someone who does.”

Taking half an hour of your time to research and locate some alternatives for that customer will go a long way in your favor.  As you hand off the information, say, “I really appreciate you approaching my business first with this inquiry.  I hope we can do business together in the future.”  Even if you don’t ever hear from that customer again, you have won by staying true to your mission while giving someone a great impression of your business.

 A little smoke and mirrors never hurt anybody, provided one doesn’t choke on the smoke or cut themselves on the glass.  It is up to you to create the depth and consistency of a successful enterprise once the public has been drawn in by the glitz and glimmer of your brand.  Don’t ever make a claim that can be quickly and easily deciphered as misleading-if not an outright lie like the example I opened with.  By giving customers exactly what they expected plus a little extra you forge strong commitments and lasting relationships.

 

 

 

 

Monday, November 19, 2012

If You Think Big, Your Customers Will Think Small

I maintain a list of topics I plan to cover in this blog, but more often than not a subject will come up that I feel needs priority.

We are well on our way into the crunch of the holiday season.  Mailboxes are being stuffed with catalogs and inboxes are being inundated with emails.  Everywhere you look big businesses are offering big incentives, enticing consumers to blow the entire holiday budget on their wares.
As a small business having your voice heard above the din can seem almost impossible.  Sure Small Business Saturday (this year: Saturday, November 24) makes some annual waves, but it is tough to retrain the brainwashed masses to look beyond Black Friday when it comes to holiday shopping.

You can’t compete with big businesses’ massive price cuts and free shipping since you only have so much inventory (especially if it is handcrafted) and so many hands (if it is just you=two).  But if you truly hope to toss your hat in the ring then you must offer on some scale what the bigwigs do, plus a lot more. 
The type of customers who use their heart and soul to determine where to spend their money are already actively searching for ways to shop local and buy handmade.  It is your responsibility to ensure that their experience of doing business with you is just as easy as it would be to shop at a chain.  The “a lot more” you offer are those extra touches you provide to make shopping with you a positive, personalized experience.  

I am writing this post because I think we are all in need of this simple yet dire reminder.  As a small business you are not just representing yourself, you are representing all other small businesses.  When you turn off a customer for one reason or another you make it less likely they will ever “think small” again.
This just happened to me this past week, on Tuesday (November 13th) precisely.  I check my bank account every day and was concerned to see an odd (but significant) amount of funds withdrawn by a company that collects rent in California.  As a homeowner in Boston I assumed this was a fraudulent charge.  I phoned the company to get more information and the customer service representative told me they indeed collect rent payments for various properties and are based in California.  However, she also mentioned they collect payments for vacation homes.  I began to wonder if this company had withdrawn from my account to cover a night I had booked at a bed & breakfast in Virginia (I’m driving from Boston to Asheville for Thanksgiving).  I told the customer service representative that I would phone the b&b owner to verify this before reporting the charge to my bank.

I phoned the b&b owner, who happened to be on vacation.  She said yes, she was the one who withdrew the money from my account. 
Now here’s the thing: when I booked the reservation I asked the owner if she wanted to process my card while we were on the phone.  She said no, that she charges guests on the day of their arrival, in my case that was to be November 20. 

It became immediately obvious that the owner had decided to process the charge to add to her vacation fund.
This alteration in what was supposed to happen gave me unnecessary stress, took up an hour of my time making phone calls, and cost me a $35 bank fee for overdrawn funds when another business tried to process a valid transaction.

Anyone who knows me knows I try-as much as possible-to think small.  Because of this I book nights at inns and b&bs when I travel.  But believe me, this experience made me rethink this practice. In fact I plan to reserve a room in a chain hotel on my return road trip. 
That same day, I had to make another phone call to a local restaurant.  I had purchased a gift certificate as a holiday gift.  Within minutes of purchasing I decided to buy it for a larger amount.  I phoned the restaurant to ask if this was possible, and they told me no, I would have to start from scratch; however they would refund the first order.  According to the woman on the phone she cancelled my first gift certificate.  I then purchased another one.

So here we are on Tuesday, November 13.  I look at my account and nothing about this transaction appears to have been refunded.  I call the restaurant back, and learn from another woman that the initial gift certificate was never cancelled.  I ask why, given the fact I was told it was.  Her response, “I don’t know.  I wasn’t there.”
With that sort of attitude, with this kind of incompetency, how can small businesses bemoan the fact they are losing to the national chains, to the commerce monsters?

When teaching I often tell my students (small business owners and creative entrepreneurs) to think like Amazon.com.  What I mean is that they have to offer that type of straight-forward, dependable service with the personal, relational touch Amazon.com will never have.
Let’s look-from a simple consumer perspective-at Amazon.com and use that company as a model for what we need to strive for in our small businesses.

It is Easy for Me to Shop-Easy to Find What I Am Looking For                                                           
Amazon is relatively easy to peruse despite their overwhelming inventory.  For those of us who create what we sell we can’t hope to offer millions of products, but we can designate the time and energy necessary to maintain a significant amount of options (using limited edition merchandise and high-quality prints to supplement) and we can design user-friendly ways to shop with us.  Whether it is our own website, a commerce website like etsy.com, or scheduled events (galleries, weekend craft shows, artist coops, etc.) we should make sure items are presented in a clear, easy to locate manner. 
I Know Exactly What to Expect

Whenever a creative coaching client of mine says they want to start up a small business venture, or take their career to the next level, I advise them that the first thing they need to do is sit down and outline their business.  This includes what their mission is, who they are and what they offer that no one else does.  It also includes the rules of their business: what they do, what they don’t do, and what the exact steps are for a transaction with their business.  The reason why setting parameters first is so vital is because you then have a concise vision of what your company is all about.  The clearer you envision what your business is, the clearer you can articulate this information to potential customers.

Unfortunately we live in a world where consumers are always looking for the lowest price and the least amount of effort on their part.  I tell small business owners to dot every “i” and cross every “t”.  Customers are going to look for the loopholes, the details you overlooked.  Make sure your communication is as precise as possible; otherwise you will find yourself giving more of your time/energy/inventory away than you had expected while losing money.  For example it amazes me how loosely a client will intentionally interpret a special deal I am offering.  Time and again I have learned to clarify the discount and close any gaps before presenting the incentive to the public.
We’ve talked about the importance of communication on your end; now let’s talk about it from the angle of the customer.  When I make a purchase on Amazon.com, I know exactly how much it costs.  I am given an approximate date of delivery.  If there are any issues with my order I am notified.  In other words, nothing is left in the gray when I shop with Amazon.com.

As a small business it is your responsibility to respect the customer’s time and money.  They have invested both in you, now how are you going to demonstrate your gratitude?  I just had to contact a seller from etsy.com to find out when the items I had ordered on October 24 were going to be delivered (I contacted the shop on November 18).  The shop owner got back to me saying that the package had been returned to her due to issues with customs but that she had resent it about 8 days ago. 
Because I had not been contacted when this issue apparently occurred makes me wonder if the story is true.  If it is true, why wouldn’t the shop owner have enough respect for my investment in her business to take the initiative to email me?  It would have cost her no more than two minutes to do so.  Because she chose not to I plan to never shop with her again.

I Get Exactly What I Paid For                                                                                                                         
Here is the most important factor in why the masses flock to the mall or leap onto their computers, credit card in hand.  When you shop at a chain, when you buy mass-produced items, you know what you are getting.  There are no surprises.
This is where an attention to detail is also obligatory.  Make sure you have communicated thoroughly about your product, your services.  Make sure images (if you have an online presence) bear a keen likeness to the actual items/services you sell.  And because you have an edge on Amazon.com and the like, make sure you add those extra special touches when delivering your product or service.  Make working with you a memorable experience-one that customers want to have again and again.

Here’s an example.  In September my husband and I went to a bed and breakfast in Vermont for our wedding anniversary.  I knew from looking at the website this was a no-frills operation.  It was a working farm, nothing fancy, and the room rates reflected that.  However, when we got there I was disappointed to see that our room could have used a good solid cleaning.  It was clean in the sense that the linens were fresh and the bathroom was neat, but dust covered almost every flat surface and the room had more than its fair share of spiders.  I am terrified of spiders so though my husband did his best to decrease the population I did not sleep peacefully either night we were there.
To add to this was the fact the hot water was turned off in our room.  After waking the first morning my husband had to get dressed, go into a packed garage, make his way to the back, and turn it on.

Now you may think, “Wow, this is awful!  What a horrible experience!” but when we checked out, we left knowing we would be back.
What the bed and breakfast owners lacked in attention to detail, they more than made up for in hospitality.  We left feeling like we had spent time with family we didn’t even know we had.

I’m not saying flaws can be overlooked.  If this small business wants to remain viable then the owners need to get on top of the details.  If they are deficient in the ability to keep on top of everything, either cutting back their operation or hiring additional help is in high order.  But they understand the heart of small business, and that is to provide that personal touch so that relationships can be fostered.
You are not Amazon.com, nor will you ever be.  But by offering simple ways to shop, ample inventory, clearly communicated services, and personalized attention, you can be much more than Amazon.com can ever hope to be.

I’ll close with this: how should the two experiences I mentioned been handled?
The bed & breakfast in Virginia
Looking at the website it seems the owner has a set of rules so that the customer knows what is expected of him/her.  Just like there are rules the customer must follow there are rules the business must follow.  If I, the customer, was told money would not change hands until my arrival then that is exactly what should have occurred.  At the very least, BEFORE charging my account, the owner should have phoned me to tell me she wanted to process my reservation early and ask if this is okay.  I then should have received a paid invoice via email letting me know how much had been charged (we never discussed room rates on the phone). The invoice should have included the name of the company that had made the withdrawal (so I wouldn’t think the charge was fraudulent).  In her case, the owner only has three rooms in her bed & breakfast, AND she has a property manager-so really there is no excuse.  The unfortunate thing for her is that I drive multiple times a year to visit family.  What could have been an opportunity for her to begin a relationship with loyal customers has been squandered.

The gift certificate from the restaurant                                                                                                             If the initial employee did not truly know how to cancel my order she should have been honest about it.  A simple, “I am not really sure how to do this, so let me have a manager handle this for you” would have been fine.  Even if it couldn’t have been resolved the moment I called I would have hung up knowing it was being taken care of.  Having to make another call is ridiculous, and the second employee should have acknowledged that.  At any rate, I won’t be patronizing their business again.
Think Big
Yes, there is a tremendous amount of detail to take into consideration, but you know your limitations.  If you have other obligations and can only do so much (and this is the case for most of us) curtail your small business to what you can handle.  Your ultimate priority is to have happy customers spreading the word about the wonders of doing business with you.  The more pleasant the experience of shopping small, the more people will find the experience superior to shopping big.  And the more people prefer shopping small, the more they will encourage others to do the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, November 5, 2012

My Monday Morning Chuckle

Here I am bright and early this morning, getting a laugh over this article.  The writer describes me to a tee.  How about you? Are you meant to be an entrepreneur?

12 Surprising Signs You Could be An Entrepreneur

I hope this reading will inspire you to take a few steps closer to that dream of creating your own business and being your own boss.

Happy Monday!

Monday, October 29, 2012

My Memories Review-A Great Alternative Design Software for Those of Us Who Need A Little Help

I can’t speak for other fine artists, but whenever someone tells me they scrapbook my stomach turns.  Don’t get me wrong, I have met people with mad scrapbooking skills and I respect their pursuit of creatively preserving the moments they and their loved ones share.  But telling a professional artist that you scrapbook is the equivalent of announcing to Yo Yo Ma that you recently took up the ukulele.

When I was asked by MyMemories.com to try out their scrapbooking software I decided to take a much different approach than using it to do mostly what it was designed to do.  As a small business owner and manager, a significant portion of my time goes into designing marketing materials for my original artwork and professional services as a consultant and a creative coach.  I have a confession to make-one that no respectable fine artist should ever make- my comprehension of Photoshop is nominal at best.  In fact, “Learn Photoshop” has been my top New Year’s resolution since 2008.

Finding software that can help me design marketing images while making the design process as straightforward as possible is really appealing to me.  I often use Microsoft Publisher, but admittedly it can be rather limited in design options.  So I decided to play with My Memories Suite and see what I could accomplish quickly while relying primarily on their templates.

The digital scrapbooking software was easy to download and the website was very user friendly.  I noted that the template packages they offer online are amazing, and one can purchase them for a song.  Just the digital papers alone were enough to get me salivating, especially when I began to peruse the Halloween themed sets-my favorite holiday.

Once I had My Memories Suite downloaded to my desktop I started to toy around.  The basic software contains templates for photo albums and greeting cards.  Anything you design can be professionally printed.  This is appealing to me since I occasionally create professionally printed photo albums of my archived artwork, and I have made a few books for friends and family. 

Creating a page was incredibly easy.  Each step was simple to walk through, and the software provides a ton of options in layout, color scheme, fonts, and overall design themes.  One can tweak images, add special effects.  There’s even a video and sound component. 

In my case I made two jpegs.  These would be used by me in eblasts, newsletters, social media, on my website, or in printed marketing material.

 
For this image I changed the background pattern and color.  To make single page images, simply delete the additional album pages.  You can convert your image into a jpeg in the Share Album options. 
This is a good example of how you can create announcements and invitations using the preset templates.  I simply altered the colors, and added my own images and text.  Once you have saved your work as a jpeg you can use this image again and again for consistent branding and marketing.
 
Obviously these examples are very simple-you can create something far more elaborate, but I wanted to demonstrate how easy the software is.  Both of these jpegs took only about five minutes to create. 
 
If you are looking for hold-you-hand software for marketing shop at MyMemories.com.  Right now they are offering a deal: $10 off the purchase of the My Memories Suite Scrapbook software and a $10 coupon to use at the MyMemories.com store (so you can buy that kick ass digital paper I told you about).  My special code for readers is: STMMMS14164. 
 
 
And if that wasn't enough: MyMemories.com is offering a FREE software package to the first lucky reader who contacts me via email with the line, "Give me my Memories!"  Email me at anna@a2n2.net for your chance to win!
 
 

 
 
 
 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Mind Your Business: Remembering What Your Social Media Presence is. Knowing What Your Social Media Presence is Not.

I recently un-liked a client’s business page on Facebook because she was using it to post her political views in a rather extremist way.  My decision to disengage had nothing to do with her political leanings, but everything to do with the fact her business page was not an appropriate forum for posting personal opinions.

These days there is a fine line between what is private and what is public.  If you use social media to market your small business you have to be especially careful about what you post, even on profiles you have designated as personal.
I use LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook as my three primary ways beyond my website (www.a2n2.net) to share information about my services as an educator, small business consultant, creative coach, and professional artist.  On LinkedIn and Twitter, I never share personal opinions. Instead I use both as a way-station for information I think my followers will find interesting: articles, etsy treasuries, links to my newsletter and business announcements, etc...  I recently signed up for Pin Interest.  I use this website as a visual means of passing along items from both of my etsy shops, and the things that inspire my creative life.
I believe-more than any other social network-that Facebook can get especially murky for most professionals.  It is extremely important that you know exactly what you want out of your relationship with Facebook, and why you are on Facebook, before joining the Facebook masses.  Going into it with a clear set of boundaries will potentially save you from damage later on. 
I know entrepreneurs who-despite having a personal page in addition to their professional page-never post images or updates about their family.  I know entrepreneurs who are very intentional about who they friend on Facebook, and if any of their friends post items they deem inappropriate they disconnect from that person immediately. 
You may think these methods are a bit extreme, and perhaps you feel you have found a happy medium between business and pleasure in social networking.  But it is much too easy to lose sight of what your involvement was all for in the first place.  Going back to the client’s business page; she and I had set it up as a means for her to share her wisdom and expertise as a healer so she could attract new customers.  We had discussed her loading up relevant articles about her industry, her writings, blog posts, videos, and the like to demonstrate why her services were better than other local competitors.  Yet, recently all she has posted are personal rants.  How does this convince a client that he/she will gain health and balance by working with her?  How does this advertise her business in a positive way, or for that matter, in any way at all?
I had another client recently post on her personal page that she was having a tough day as a business owner.  DO NOT DO THIS!  Even if you have been careful in arranging your settings on Facebook, and friending only people who have absolutely no direct connection with your business (and let’s face it, you probably haven’t been as careful as you should be with your settings, and you know you have some employees and clients in the friendship mix) this is absolutely not the appropriate venue to vent your grievances.  It is all too easy to connect the dots between you and your business.  Before you know it, your staff, your clients, and your competitors are going to see things are not as successful as you would want (and need!) them to believe.

So please, proceed with caution.  Delete questionable posts.  Remove from your personal accounts people who have no business being your friends because they are your business.  Get back to why you created your blog, your business page, your networking accounts.  Use them all as a way to share WHO YOU ARE (in business), WHAT YOU OFFER, WHY IT IS DIFFERENT FROM YOUR COMPETITORS, and ultimately WHY CUSTOMERS SHOULD CHOOSE YOU.
Here is a helpful links on how to use Facebook successfully:
http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/improve-facebook-engagement/

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What Are Your Ah-ha Moments?

I love ah-ha moments, even painful ones.  They are the moments in your life when the light bulb pops on, casting a glow on your current circumstances, and showing you the way you should go from this point on.  All they ask is that you have a mindfulness to be on the lookout for them, otherwise they can be easy to miss.

Ah-ha moments are the guides that can help you save time/money/energy.  If heeded they can prevent you from wasting your resources on wrong commitments to people, places, professions, and preoccupations.

So what do I mean by ah-ha moments?  Let me tell you about one I recognized but essentially ignored; much to my regret.

I graduated from art school into an uncertain economy with very little life skills.  After floundering around for a while doing jobs that did not require a high school degree, much less a college diploma, I saw an advertisement posted in a newsletter from my alma mater: local artists were needed to work on an independent film.  I scheduled an interview.  During the interview the film's art director basically brushed me off, telling me I could do some menial jobs that would normally be handed off to a production assistant.  I was offended, and for one of the few times in my rather unassertive life I stood up for myself, reminding her that I had just completed four years at one of the best art colleges and the country, and that I wasn't going to give her my time/money/energy for anything less than real work and a credit on the film.  After huffing out of the interview I got a call with an invitation to be her assistant. 

During the two months I worked on this film I learned a lot about myself-my work style, my strengths and the type of job I am suitable for.  I learned I do best being my own boss: creating my own schedule and organizing and managing my own list of tasks.  I was asked to make all of the artwork for one particular character in the film and to design all of her art-related sets.  This required tons of self-motivation as I had to do in-depth research, paint the work on my own, and supervise the teams building the sets.  My efforts were met by and large with praise; the team could not believe they had left someone so young in charge of such an important task and that I had succeeded.  Several higher-ups, most of whom were established in Hollywood, asked me if I would be interested in continuing in the industry.  They told me they could introduce me to people, set me up with more work.  And do you know what I did?  I turned them down, saying I was relocating from Boston to Atlanta to get away from a horrible boyfriend.  Yes, I let a loser and my lack of foresight derail me from what would have been a dream career for me.  I absolutely love film.  Blessedly, life tends to make adjustments to your (often poor) choices, so I simply took a different path and moved on.  But I do often wonder what my life would have been if I had simply said, “yes” instead.

Flash forward a year or so.  I was living in Atlanta and teaching children's art classes (one ironically in film-making) on the weekends.  Oh, and I had a new horrible boyfriend.

I had just found out that the new horrible boyfriend had cheated on me.  That same day as I was opting to feel sorry for myself rather than kicking this loser to the curb, I got a letter in the mail.  It was from a little girl who had attended my recent photography course.  She wanted to tell me how much she had gotten out of my teaching.  She said I inspired her and that she was thinking of becoming a photographer when she grew up.  While I was tuned in enough to appreciate the dichotomy of positive (you have value) versus negative (you do not have value) I did nothing further about it.  I didn't use this as an ah-ha moment to get rid of what wasn't working in my life, and focus on what was.  Soon after that I stopped teaching.  For years I held onto the horrible boyfriend

Forward to now.  At this point I have been a small business consultant and a full-time artist for over a decade.  I have been developing and teaching professional workshops for creative entrepreneurs since 2008.  And because people often need the benefit of undivided attention and guidance I have offered creative coaching since 2010. 

For quite a while now I had been discontent in my work as a small business consultant.  While I have gained a lot of important wisdom through managing businesses-wisdom I then apply to my own art career and to my lessons for freelancers, I feel my time is too divided.  It is easy to allow ensuring the success of others to overshadow ensuring my own.  The desire of my heart for a while now is to dedicate myself completely to my own art career, which I feel the teaching and the creative coaching are extensions of.  As a Christian, I love Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”  I feel God has been telling me- gently at first but then more overtly-to focus on my art.  Now in this economy my natural response back has been, “With all due respect, You are crazy.” 

Once I began ruminating on this desire, once I felt I had the “green light” from God I began to recognize ah-ha moments all around me.  Like the palpable excitement amongst my workshop participants as we shared ideas and supported each other.  The expression on their faces as they exited the classroom feeling empowered to make some big, positive changes in their lives.  I got a gift from one of my creative coaching clients, along with a card sharing her gratitude over how much I have helped her.  Another creative coaching client made me a collage expressing enthusiasm over what she has gained from working with me and anticipation for where her path is leading to. 

As of this week I changed my schedule so that my art career is first priority in my work life.  It was scary; making this alteration, realizing that with it there is the loss of a dependable, significant portion of my income.  But I pinched my nose, squeezed my eyes shut, and took the plunge.

In the past four days I have earned from art sales and creative coaching as much as I bill for two weeks of business consulting work.   And as I write this an email has come in from a company that supplies original art for corporate work spaces, asking me if I would be interested in working with them.

So, what are you ignoring in your life, a message that keeps appearing to you but that you turn away from because of your anxiety of change,  your fear of the new?  Have several friends or family members told you the same thing lately?  Have your eyes fallen on the same word over and over again?  Have people been genuinely, consistently touched by a certain talent or ability of yours?  Do you find yourself stuck in a rut, repeating mistakes, dealing with the same kind of circumstances over and over, interacting with the same types of individuals? 

Looking back at your life, do you recognize moments that presented you with crossroads?  Were you open to taking the right path or did you keep your face down, stare at your feet, and just shuffle ahead?  Are you brave enough to look up, to listen?  What is your heart saying?  What is your soul singing?  What is your mind envisioning?
Here is some reading for inspiration:
 
 
 

 

 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Good Morning, Entrepreneur

I have crawled and clawed my way to the end of what is always the craziest month of my year-good ole' September.  This means I am now scraping myself off, and at least starting to sit upright at my desk again.

I know it has been too long, and for that I apologize.  But I promise October will bring with it at least one (hopefully) insightful post.

In the meantime, please enjoy this:

9 Life Lessons Every Entrepreneur Should Know

Monday, August 13, 2012

No Seriously, Take Yourself Seriously.

As I and a lot of other local artists prepare for autumn’s round of various neighborhood Open Studios, I think this topic is worth a post.  I’m sure we can all relate to visitors who treat weekend art events as bargain bin sales, no matter how much effort you put into presenting your work in a professional, visually appealing manner.  Just like those scams where someone contacts you to purchase one of your most expensive pieces, these folks are banking on the assumption that you are a starving artist desperate to part with your work for a song, just for the sake of unloading as much inventory as you can by Sunday. 

If you’re like me discussing money makes you uncomfortable.   Instead of recalling all the hours of labor and costly materials I have invested, I tend to consider how this poor person is about to part with a portion of his or her hard-earned income.  This is why most artists would gladly have their work in a gallery where someone else can handle all the business transactions.

Does this discomfort only happen to artists?  No.  I find it happens to the self-employed in all fields of work.  In fact this example is not an artist, but a friend who does consulting on a freelance basis.  He was recently bemoaning the fact that his clients take their sweet time paying their invoices.  We discussed the most obvious reason: our economy sucks and most of us are just scraping by.  However as we continued the conversation another reason became clear. My friend will do the work and then not bill them until days, if not weeks, later. 

I explained to him that by delaying the bill, he is diluting the appreciation for the work he does.  He is essentially communicating: Hey, this was no big deal to me, so it shouldn’t be a big deal to you either. This friend does amazing work.  He really knows his stuff, and as a result, he has saved his clients’ butts time and again.  But by not invoicing in a timely manner, he is discounting the skilled labor, the expertise and the solution-finding wisdom he brings to a job.

So let’s go back to you standing there at the art show.  It’s been a long weekend with very little return.  Circles are creeping in and surrounding your eyes.  Your smile and shoulders are slumping.  Guess what, the bargain hunter has detected all of this and here he comes.  Before you know it, you’ve agreed to sell him three paintings for a little over the price of one.  As he gleefully skips away laden with some of your finest work, you start to feel queasy. 

How do we buffer ourselves against these weak moments?

Be Passionate, Even When You Aren’t
Let’s face it.  Art events are exhausting.  One must talk to countless  people, answer ridiculous questions, listen to asinine observations about the artwork, all for hours-if not days-on end.  Due to this, a show with little payback can be especially disheartening.  But do not grow faint hearted!  Why?  Because you believe in who you are and what you do.  You know your brand: why you are unique and what you have to offer that no one else does.  So as the vultures begin circling, you can, with great pep and confidence, explain your process, the materials you use, the benefits of your product, and why it is priced the way it is. 

Know Your Pricing
It is shocking how few artists keep track of their investment of time/money/energy when it comes to owning and operating a business.  And by the way, if you are creating and selling a product, you own and operate a business. 

Keep records of material costs, and how long it took you to create something.  Just like any other job, you deserve to get reimbursed for your costs, and compensated for the work you do.  If you are knowledgeable about your investment, your voice will not waver as you’re discussing price with potential buyers.

Offer Customer-Friendly Solutions
There’s a big difference between someone who is treating your display like a miniature Filene’s Basement and someone who is genuinely interested in your work but simply can’t afford it.  Be sure to offer inventory that covers a wide price range.  That way, while a customer may be unemployed at the moment, she can still afford that print, or that t-shirt.  Eventually when she has a job, she may be back for that big piece she fell for, especially since you provided a way to start collecting your art without ruining her budget.

Remember, It’s About Relationship
Your goal in any interaction is to instill confidence in your brand.  You want people to initially feel comfortable approaching you and then as they speak with you, excited about what you do.  That’s how you begin to forge relationships.  If someone approaches you with an interest in your work, and would like to purchase more than one piece, offer them the added incentive of a discount.  It has been my finding that customers who got a break on their first purchase always come back for more.  The objective is to be appreciative and engaging, not foolishly stand by hard and fast “rules”.

Every Moment is An Opportunity
To invite people to get to know your brand.  To entice people with your product.  To encourage connection and collaboration.  Having a slow weekend?  Make the most of it in another way!  Set a goal of meeting a certain number of people and getting them to give you their contact information (more people to reach out to for the next event!).  Plan to distribute a certain number of business cards.  Don’t allow the situation to get you down and divert you from the path you are on: to take your business seriously, and have others take you seriously as well.

When the bargain hunters come around pull those shoulders back, smile, and be prepared to skillfully share why your work is worth every penny.  If they’re still stuck on getting a deal, offer them a post card for $1.

Here are a couple of helpful resources:
Learning Charisma
Set Pricing That Benefits Everyone

Thanks to Kate Lewis Design for putting it so eloquently!
http://katelewisdesign.blogspot.com/2012/05/i-am-artist.html

Monday, July 23, 2012

New Social Media Strategies & Tips

I thought it might be helpful to pass along a few informational articles I've found on Social Media.

The author of this article on Pinterest, Ahmad Suhendra says that just like every other form of Social Media, Pinterest is about developing relationships before selling.  Unfortunately I am too busy to use it in any other way than to post items I find on Etsy that I like, or items on Etsy that I am selling.  However, my method does seem to be working on at least a low level of outreach.  Others have been repinning my work, and I always make sure to connect with them when they do.
How to Use Pinterest

Social Media can be overwhelming and seemingly useless.  Keep on track with this helpful article written by Tarun Gehani :
Easy Steps to Social Media Marketing Success

I easily fall into allowing Social Media to become a major time/energy/money suck without a lot of payback.  So last but certainly not least, here is a great guide on how to create a Social Media schedule, and stick to it by John D. Leavy:
How to Develop a Social Media Schedule & Stick to It

These sorts of online resources are infinite. Locate a few articles and blogs to use as your class on how to properly handle Social Media.  Stick with those guides to stay focused.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How Good is Your Team?

As a small business owner we know we can’t go it alone.  There are certain tasks that need to be handled with aplomb, certain skill sets we know we lack but desperately need for success.  For those of us who tend to be Type-A personalities, sharing the responsibility of growing a company-especially if it is our own-can feel risky, if not outright terrifying.  But in order to meet our customers’ demands, expand our availability in products and services, plus find and maintain ways of keeping our brand in the public eye, we can’t do it alone. 

This post started germinating in my mind at the end of last year, when I was teaching a professional workshop for creative entrepreneurs on marketing.  I asked my co-instructor how work was going.  She is a free-lance PR consultant. She told me how her latest project was going horribly awry.  The people she had brought on as teammates to share the load were undependable and erratic.  She felt they weren’t taking the project as seriously as she was, and she was worried their unprofessionalism would damage her reputation, thus harming her career.
Managing a team can often seem like herding cats.  The employee who wowed you with her can-do attitude during the job interview is now M.I.A.  Another team member is dealing with domestic issues while sitting at his desk.  Another’s perpetual “cup half empty” attitude is bringing everyone down.

Some of you might think, “Well, that’s just a few people.  We’ve got others who are doing a great job.” Here’s the problem.  Perhaps you own a company in which the bad seeds can be shuffled into a corner where they have absolutely no negative impact on productivity or customer service, but I seriously doubt it.  The smaller the business, the more there is at stake.  You have a limited budget of time/money/energy and it has to be invested very wisely.  For example, your budget only allows for a small team of workers, so even one can cause serious damage to employee morale, customer service, and company reputation.  I used to teach art classes for children on the weekends, and it always amazed me how it took only one or two misbehaving kids to create a mutiny.  Even the students who were invested in the class, who wanted to learn, got caught up in the wave. 

Which brings us to the “others are doing a great job” group: it isn’t fair for you to expect the good to overcompensate for the bad and the ugly. My father, a Harvard Business graduate and former business professor at Emory University, once said to me, “The worst thing a company can do is not acknowledge their best employees.”   He said this in reference to a reinsurance company I was working for at the time.  I had been initially hired simply to sit at the front desk and answer the phone, but when they realized I had a brain, they started having me do all the word processing, and some of the accounting.  Even though my work load had tripled (their Word Processor-and yes, in the nineties this was a job position-had quit when she had a baby) my pay did not.  It was so low I was teaching art classes on the weekends (see previous paragraph) and selling my art to make ends meet.  I got fed up after two years of going nowhere, and left the company for flight attendant training.  When I gave my notice, the CEO said, “Oh, that’s too bad.  We were just going to promote you.”  Yeah, right.

Your good employees, the ones with a consistent work ethic and strong moral compass who care about your company and its future, will either get burned out or so disgusted with their work environment they’ll go elsewhere.  Setting boundaries and taking action against those causing problems will send a clear and powerful message to everyone: you care about your business. 

In my professional workshops for creative entrepreneurs I teach that you have to sell your passion. I tell my students time and again that the type of person who invests in small businesses (They buy local as opposed to going to a chain store.  They support artisans, farmers, and craftspeople.  They care about the impact they have on their community, the environment, and society as a whole.)wants an experience not just a product or service.  Problem employees damage that experience.  They taint the impression your business is making in your community.  Whether you like it or not, this is your business, so ultimately everything associated with it, both positive and negative, reflects on you.  By not stepping forward and taking control you are telling your community, your customers, and your team that this company doesn’t matter to you.  With that projected message, you can’t then be surprised when the community seeks its business elsewhere, customers drop off, good employees leave, and your company eventually goes belly up.  And just as you have to sell your passion to your customers, you also have to sell your passion to your team.  When employees are simply working for a paycheck , you have a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

So how do you take the reins?

Treat a job interview like a first date. 
Now, hear me out on this one.  If you own a small business, you automatically have a far more intimate setting than a huge corporation.  You have to get along with your employees, and they have to get along with you and each other.  That doesn’t mean they all have to like one another, but they absolutely must respect each other as coworkers. 

When I look back on the romantic relationships I’ve had, I can honestly say the reason why they ended was apparent even on the first date.  The same is true with jobs.  For most of my career, I’ve worked in small business environments, and that first meeting with the company owner made it very clear what would sooner or later “break us up”. 

Use your intuition during a job interview the same way you would on a first date.  Are there any red flags, any gut reactions?  I don’t care how desperate you are, don’t hire that person. You’ll only regret it in the end.

What if you inherited the “problem children”?
If you are coming in as the new owner of an already established business you need to let the team know, respectfully but firmly, there is a new sheriff in town.  If the prior owner hasn’t divulged where the weakest links are, you’ll find out during that first meeting.  Schedule to meet privately with those individuals (if they didn’t already grab their things and run for the door) to hear their grievances and ask for their suggestions.  With an “I’m here to make things better” attitude you may turn them around.  Give them a deadline (you can share this deadline with them or simply make note of it for yourself) to get their act together.  If it doesn’t happen, let them know you don’t think you’re a good match for their work style, and show them the door.

But I wanna be the good guy!
Guess what?  You don’t get to be the good guy.  You don’t get to have everyone like you.  Why?  Because this is your money/time/energy/reputation/future/etc. we are playing with.  Having everyone think of you as the “coolest, nicest boss ever” is not nearly as critical as fostering a strong, viable business.

On the flip side
I was once hired to assess a holistic healing facility and let the owners know where there was need for improvement.  It was owned by an older couple and while they were largely out of touch with contemporary business practices and policies, they had done something very right.  Their employees were intelligent, invested, hard workers who came to the job with a lot of great experience.  The problem was the owners didn’t recognize it.   

Due to lack of communication and appreciation the employees were becoming unhappier by the day.  I told the owners they had everything in place to update and grow the business in the form of these two young women.  Both had the credentials to make wise decisions and both cared about the future of the company.  For whatever reason, the owners were stuck on the negative, complaining to me about trivial things like the volume one of the employees was using when speaking.  (I never felt she was loud, but they kept telling her there was something wrong with her.)  I suggested a more open route of communication would be helpful, that perhaps a weekly meeting would be in order.  Instead of taking this on, the owners had me come in weekly to meet with the staff.  Regardless, this had a positive effect.  The employees felt heard.  They felt like they were contributing.  Morale was boosted.  Unfortunately their input was ignored by the owners.  They lost the employee they accused of having volume issues.  They then phoned me to say they didn’t need my services anymore.  As soon as they let me go, the other employee quit.  She phoned to say she couldn’t work in an environment with no hope, and when they let me go, all hope was gone.

What is the moral of the story?  Listen, respect, value input.  In other words, engage your team.  Get them invested in your business.  Fire them up with your passion.  Let them know they are a valuable component.  In fact, they are the determining factor in the success of your company. 

You gotta be there
I don’t care how much sustainable day-to-day structure you think you have in place.  You can have the best office manager in the world.  That does not mean you can get away with not being there.  Owning a small business goes hand in hand with understanding that for better or for worse, this is your life.  Your personal obligations will have to take a backburner.  After all you are the one with the most to gain or lose so you are the one with the most clout.  Teetering employees will soon get their act together with your eyes upon them.  You would be surprised how many issues can be resolved just by you being present.

 The right team can help your company organically flow and grow without draining your time/money/energy.   Here are a couple of articles for further reading.