When is it time to stop daydreaming and start doing?
I don’t have an answer to share with you, but I’ve fallen in love with the question. Let me explain.
I started this blog to explore how people transform artistic talents and outlandish ideas into real, viable careers. I wanted to hear about business models and self-promotion, not to mention multiple revenue streams and how to balance creative exploration with paying the phone bill.
All these stories are fascinating – and I still think they’re helpful for anyone who’s reading, scheming and planning. But last Saturday, I was chatting with the owners of a two-year-old Pacific Northwest craft brewery. (Please stay with me; this has nothing to do with hipsters and everything to do with creative business). Between sips of winter ale, I realized that I had one big question for the couple behind the taps: when?
When did you know it was time to stop boiling hops in the basement or backyard and start a commercial business? When did you know you were ready? The tasting room suddenly filled up and I didn’t get to ask the question, but the answer, I suspect, is both personal and practical. Surely, it’s a complex equation with variables like money, timing, bravado, serendipity and boredom. That’s what makes it so interesting.
When new marketing tactics feel tired by Friday, the question of “when” is refreshingly stable. It’s constant. Because really, once you make the no-turning-back decision, you can figure out everything else. Log the endless hours and assemble the puzzle. After, that’s what mentors, sleepless nights and the internet are for.
Bottom line: I’m on the hunt for interesting stories of “when.” If you’ve got one, please get in touch. God knows I’m spotty on social media, but I’m quick to make personal connections. Send me an email. I’d love to hear from you. Oh, and these stories don’t need to feature lightning bolts or lottery wins; just real, true examples of knowing when the time is right.
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You all know that I’m obsessed with finding clarity in chaos. I still love a good creative mess, but clarity is my north star. I get ridiculously excited about patterns and structures, because they scrub away the grime and let your work shine through.
Clarity is also one of the “principles of awesome content” in my new ebook. To help you create with more clarity, I’ve made a five-step checklist.
1. Use simple language.
You’ve heard this one before. Unfortunately, when most people sit down to write, they try to WRITE with a capital “W.” Formality can defeat the purpose, which is to communicate clearly. Straightforward language with a dash of personality always comes out on top.
Here’s an example from Nest, a great company that makes thermostats. Sexy? Hardly. But they do a damn fine job of explaining how their product works, why it’s needed, and why it’s unlike anything else on the market.
From the Nest website:
“Most people leave the house at one temperature and forget to change it. So Nest learns your schedule, programs itself and can be controlled from your phone. Teach it well and Nest can lower your heating and cooling bills up to 20%.”
Now in jargon-y “business” copy:
“The Nest programmable thermostat includes robust controls that provide mobile access capabilities, significant thermo-electric cost savings and a market-leading ROI. Our innovative technology enables domestic users to adapt the wall unit according to their individual needs.”
My re-write is pretty over-the-top, but you get the point. Write as you speak, and as if you were talking to a friend. Then go in with your best editing eyes and tighten it all up. No excess words.
2. Use metaphors (carefully)
A metaphor states that two unlike things are actually the same. Metaphors promote clarity because they help the brain transition between a known concept and a new idea. Here’s a (fake) example:
“The RocketBean brewing system adds jumper cables to your everyday coffee pot.”
Sketchy proposition and not the most elegant metaphor, but it quickly conveys the idea of enhancing something familiar with a novel twist. Just remember; where there are metaphors, there are also clichés. Every tired, terrible cliché was once a fresh metaphor.
3. Anticipate your audience
Get inside their heads. Once you’ve written a description or an introduction, think like your desired readers. What haven’t you said? If this was the first time that you encountered the product, service or idea, what else would you need to know? What’s the next logical question, and how can you answer it before you readers even get a chance to ask?
4. Apply the party test
You’re mingling, cocktail in hand, when the host asks about your work. It’s time to explain your project in 2-3 concise, yet creative sentences. I know, you’re sick of elevator pitches (yawn). What I’m talking about here is using enough detail, yet enough mystery to spark someone’s interest – a raised eyebrow and the phrase “oh, really?” You want to elicit follow-up questions, not the conversational kiss of death: “That’s nice.” Now apply this principle to your writing.
5. Wrap it in a story
Facts can taste bitter, but they’re infinitely more palatable when wrapped in a story. Here’s another strong Nest example:
“We didn’t think thermostats mattered either. Until we found out they control half of your home’s energy. That’s more than applicances, lighting, TVs, computers and stereos combined.”
Oh, really? Tell me more.
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The first website I ever visited was a music database. After waiting 15 minutes (no exaggeration) for the page to load, I would pick my favourite band and gorge on all the info. It was exciting to have so many current details gathered in one place. There were photos, too, but they added another 30 minutes to the wait time. In those early days, many websites served as digital encyclopedias.
Around 1999, I pitched a magazine story about “weblogs.” New software had made it possible to publish writing in reverse chronological order (newest entries first) — and you didn’t need to know HTML to share your journal with the world. My editor declined the story. I think he had visions of lock-and-key cat diaries and rambling teen angst. Fair enough, but we all know how that turned out.
I’ve been working on two new content strategy projects this week, which has led me back to the basics: What is a website? In 2013, what is it for? Why do we have them? Here’s what I’ve concluded.
Today, websites (and their related apps) have 7 main purposes:
1 – Commerce. Buy, browse, exchange, claim discounts, ship and receive.
2 – Legitimacy. Portfolios, galleries, resumes and digital references confirm experience and gather work in one place.
3 – Editorial. Newsletter, magazines, blogs, journals and other hybrids.
4 – Service. Find a library book, book an airline flight, manage your bank account.
5 – Info aggregation. Weather forecasts, stock prices, travel research. Movie trailers and health tips.
6 – Communication & connection. Places to talk, meet, date, rant, chat, rate services and products, or express ideas.
7 – Advertising, marketing, cataloguing. Learn a company or a creator’s story. Check their prices. Watch a video. Research products or services.
Everyone who uses the web intuitively understands these functions. Many sites also blend several purposes. An artist, for example, might have an online portfolio (legitimacy) with a web store to sell her illustrations (e-commerce). She also shares behind-the-scenes photos and sends a monthly digital newsletter (marketing). An airline site includes commerce, service, information and marketing in a single hub.
I’m sharing this list not only to state the obvious, but to give you a clear lens through which to view your website. When clients say they need site copy, my next question is always, “what is your website for?” You have to clarify exactly what you want to accomplish online in order to be successful — and those decisions directly influence the design, writing, programming and functionality. It sounds simple, but very few people do it well.
I also want to encourage you to cut the digital shackles. If your site is purely editorial, make it an immersive and truly engaging experience. If it’s designed for commerce, make it ridiculously easy for people to buy what they want. Cut the excess. Break the rules. Express yourself and screw convention. And be grateful that 15-minute page loads are now a distant memory.
Have I missed any functions? Please let me know.
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I have a fun announcement to make today.
My first e-book, Create Awesome Content: Simple content strategy, writing and collaboration advice, is out of hair and makeup. All 101 pages are fully polished, primped and ready for their close-up.
Create Awesome Content is a straightforward guide to engaging your audience – whether you’re an entrepreneur, artisan, freelancer, consultant, small business owner or employee. You’ll learn how to develop a simple content strategy, write brilliant copy, and how to work with a writer if you start sweating when you face the blank screen (no judgment).
I wanted to demystify all the stuff that trips up smart people – from online storytelling to the difference between active and passive voice. In today’s noisy digital world, everyone needs awesome content to stand out from the crowd. This book collects all my best advice into a practical and entertaining package.
The book emerged from a conversation with my friend Paul Jarvis, who is a wildly-in-demand web designer (he built this blog and my professional site). Paul was writing his own e-book called Be Awesome at Online Business and suggested that I write a companion content guide. I filed the idea away in my massive mental “maybe” list (you know the one) and carried on with my day. A couple weeks later, Paul mentioned it again and I decided to start writing.
The book covers the most important lessons I’ve learned in nearly 15 years of working as a freelance journalist and copywriter. It’s fast-paced, informal and blends strategic advice about developing multi-platform content (including social media, newsletters, websites and articles) with a hands-on writing workshop.
Developing exceptional content is the single best way for creative people to connect with their audience. It’s part marketing, part storytelling, and part self-expression. It’s worth doing well.
So thank you for reading – and let me know what you think of the book!
Humans are visual creatures. Read me a statistic and I’ll forget it before I’ve finished my coffee. Show me a graph, an illustration or a photo that conveys the same point and I’m far more likely to tuck it away in my frontal lobes.
We’re hardwired to absorb ideas through images — and that’s why film is such a perfect medium for storytelling. Thanks to available bandwidth and increasingly inexpensive, high-quality cameras, more and more people are learning to harness the emotional power of documentary-style video.
A recent favourite is the Made by Hand series produced by the Bureau of Common Goods, a Brooklyn-based film and digital content studio. Made by Hand is “a short film series celebrating the people who make things by hand — sustainably, locally, and with a love for their craft.” The two videos currently available online feature Breuckelen Distilling founder Brad Estabrooke and knife maker Joel Bukiewicz, who launched Cut Brooklyn. There’s also a profile of beekeper Megan Paska in the works.
Lovingly captured in black and white, the films explore how Brad and Joel each began, and what drives their work. The images are absorbing, no question, but I especially appreciate how the creators address struggle and challenge head-on. We never assume that their businesses sprang up overnight. Joel failed, cut himself, and misjudged the market along the way. Brad fought to get non-believers on board, namely plumbers and cranky landlords. These details contest the tired “investment-banker-turned-cupcake-baker” narrative that emerged during the 2008 recession and still plays out in numerous publications (especially women’s self-improvement mags).
I understand that many corporate refugees find greater fulfillment by pursing a long-delayed, often handmade dream, but stories of instant transformation ignore two facts:
1. Working with your hands, while potentially satisfying, is still hard work. It will inevitably require repetitive physical and mental labour. In short, baking cupcakes might be just as mind-numbing as crunching spreadsheets.
2. As Malcolm Gladwell suggested in Outliers, it takes at least 10,000 hours to achieve proficiency in your craft. If you’re aiming for mastery, prepare to log many, many, many more.
The Bureau of Common Goods team hopes we’ll be inspired by these stories of handcrafted commitment. I think they’ve achieved that goal. This series should also remind storytellers (and dejected creators) that every great tale requires conflict. Without struggle, there’s no sense of achievement. And without failure, there’s no reason to keep pushing; no reason to wake up eager and hungry for more.
In late August, author Ewan Morrison shared his bleak forecast for the publishing industry at the Edinburgh Book Fair. His core premise: If you’re a writer, publisher, photographer, journalist or even a porn star – anyone who earns a paycheque by producing original work for a passive audience – your professional days are numbered.
Morrison begins by predicting that paper books have just a generation left until their inevitable extinction. When 78% of Gen Y readers consume all their news online, for free (according to Bertelsmann CEO Richard Sarnoff), it’s easy to imagine a paperless future. Books as interior décor is not an outlandish suggestion in today’s market.
Next, Morrison cites Chris Anderson’s Long Tail model of niche consumption and his book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Morrison lists eight products and industries that have begun (or nearly completed) the downward spiral to free: home videos, music, porn, computer games, newspapers, photography, telecommunications, and the Internet itself.
According to Morrison, “every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases, terminal decrease in earnings for those who create ‘content.’ Writing has already begun its slide toward becoming something produced and consumed for free.”
Instead of selling a product or content service, online businesses are selling your demographic profile to advertisers and sponsors. The content is simply what gets you there. Many business strategists now champion paywalls or subscription-based content (a model the New York Times is currently test driving). It seems everyone is filling their bar napkins with charts and scribbles, trying to flip longstanding production models and save the embattled content industries. Morrison, however, suggests all this brainstorming is just busywork:
“… ultimately, any strategy conceived now is just playing for time as the slide towards a totally free digital culture accelerates. How long have we got? A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.”
He says the only solution is to demand that writers and authors (and by extension, all professional content creators) receive a living wage for their work – a figure that’s entirely separate from how much they sell, to whom, and in what format. It’s a wage simply for doing the work and doing it well.
I hate that Morrison’s predictions will probably hit the bull’s eye. But, I just don’t know about the “living wage” argument. We’ve all become entitled consumers who demand top-quality free information and entertainment. At the same time, North American culture is increasingly polarized. People struggle to feed their families while we collectively pay the Kardashian family millions to get their nails done and plan blink-and-you’ll-miss-it marriages. It feels like there’s less cultural space to follow tangents, create for the sheer joy of it, or pursue niche pursuits – unless it will pay off in the free market.
So what do we want from art and culture? What does it mean to create? Who’s responsible for footing the bill? These are questions that keep me up at night.
Maybe it’s time to bring back the patronage system.
What do you think?
“Success comes from being the exception to the rule.”
These are words to live (and work) by, according to Megan Clark. A sought-after graphic designer and owner of three affiliated businesses, Megan lands firmly in the exceptional category. She’s also developing a busy sideline gig as a keynote speaker, and loves to share her hard-earned lessons about art and commerce. I was eager to get the lowdown on this inspiring woman from Vancouver, WA (the other, less riotous Vancouver, just up the I-5 from Portland). She didn’t disappoint.
When the ad agency Megan worked for suddenly went bankrupt three years ago, it was the kick in the pants she needed to turn her off-hours freelancing into a full-time design firm, Studio M, which she recently incorporated as Clark & Co. The studio offers branding and design services for startups and big-name clients including Simple Shoes, Disney, WebMD Health Services, Nike, Tourism New Zealand, Waggener Edstrom, Razorfish, Levi’s, Holland America Line and Travelocity.
Last year, Megan and Jen Mele also launched hi, friend – an online boutique featuring printed goods and custom stationery, all designed by Megan, of course. If that wasn’t enough, Megan recently unveiled her most ambitious project to date, The Exceptional Creative. Both a downloadable toolkit for designers and a brand-new online hub, The Exceptional Creative (TEC) is built on the principle that when all else is equal (talent, work ethic, etc), the most successful creatives have exceptional communication and organizational skills. They’re professional and they’ve got it together.
Megan’s got big plans for the EC community, but her first product is A Toolkit for Designers, which includes customizable templates, questionnaires, invoices, a client contract drafted by a business attorney, and more. She’s already done the legwork. For designers just getting out of the starting blocks, or anyone who needs to ratchet up their business tools, it’s a valuable package – and it makes you wonder, why didn’t someone think of this sooner?
And when does this woman sleep?
1. Tell me more about The Exceptional Creative.
I first came up with the idea last summer. I was co-directing a program for entrepreneurs, and we were focusing on products. I kept thinking about how I was working and what I could offer to other designers, and someone pointed out that I work differently from many other creatives. I’m very Type A, kind of a control freak, and pretty darn organized. Then I thought, “How can I offer what I do naturally and spent the past five years creating to people who are just starting out?”
I created a toolkit for designers – particularly entrepreneurial designers – that includes invoices and client contracts and other necessities. I developed the product first, but then I needed a way to introduce and launch it. I was asked to speak at a university and when I was working on my presentation, I came up with the phrase “the Exceptional Creative.” I wanted to share with students the idea that if you want to get ahead as a designer (or in any creative field), you have to act differently. You have to be exceptional and be the exception to the rule. That’s when all the pieces came together and it became a platform that I’m very passionate about.
2. What was the most challenging part of building it?
Just getting it done. I had a hard time staying motivated, and I think it was because there weren’t clients tapping their toes waiting for it. There was no deadline. So, I asked a couple people to create a core accountability team for me. I put together a timeline and asked them to hold me accountable. They didn’t have to review all the materials at each checkpoint, but I wanted them to keep asking me if they were done.
Simply keeping up the momentum from the first spark of an idea and that initial excitement through all the tedious tasks was really challenging. But, there are an increasing number of designers working on their own as free agents. The more that number grows, the more people are going to realize that they need to get their business tools in order. This really drove me to finish the toolkit.
3. How will you help people understand the need for these tools?
I’m offering a free download that outlines the client experience, and I think it’s really enlightening for designers to see the stages that they should be taking their clients through. It helps them realize that these tools can save considerable time and energy, given that they go through the same process with every single client.
Personally, I didn’t realize that I needed a lot of these tools and documents until I made mistakes because I didn’t have them – especially the client contract and some of the disclaimers in the invoices and estimates.
4. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?
Anyone who is working on a national level and has a publication, a speaking circuit of some sort, and still does studio work is intriguing to me. Someone like Seth Godin, who has created an empire for himself, is really inspiring.
Locally, there are some great people who fit that description. Frank Chimero is someone I’ve been following for a while. He’s a Portland designer who does illustration work for large corporations and magazines, but he also writes. He’s publishing a book, he’s got a fantastic blog and he also sells his studio art. That diversity is really smart.
People who have a diverse business model can express their passions in a lot of different ways – and it’s obvious that regardless of the medium, they have something to say and will find a way to say it. Those are the type of people who get my attention.
5. How many revenue streams do you have?
Currently, four. In my studio (Clark & Co.) I work on project and hourly rates, plus I’m often hired as a contractor for other branding and advertising agencies. Then there’s product sales from hi, friend and The Exceptional Creative. I also created some online business templates for INKD.com from which I receive commissions.
6. Tell me more about your passive income streams.
Building hi, friend took a lot of time upfront, but now the product sales can be considered passive income – except for customizing wedding invitations or any other personalized stationery design. Now that it’s launched, TEC offers straightforward digital downloads. That’s a completely passive stream. The business templates for INKD.com are also passive income. People can purchase the identity systems online and I receive a commission.
7. What is your bread-and-butter income source?
Ongoing clients. I work with a lot of startups at the beginning of their journeys that return to me as regular clients. I have a client who just spoke at a TEDx event in Silicon Valley and is featured in Wired magazine this month. We first worked together at a coffee shop a couple years ago. So, my bread and butter is people who’ve had a good experience working with my studio and decide to come back. It’s a lot more efficient to keep your current clients happy than it is to try and get new ones.
8. Talent aside, what’s been the secret to your professional success?
I really think it has a lot to do with being responsive. Everyone can learn how to be responsive. Acting differently from what people would expect from a designer is the biggest reason I’ve succeeded, in my opinion.
Acting differently? What does that entail?
Communicating well. Knowing how to write, how to speak, and how to pick up the phone when email might not be the best way to talk something through with a client. And if something does go wrong, which it will, you make it right – whatever it takes. Even if you make no money on the project, but your client walks away feeling like you treated them well, that goes beyond talent. It’s easy to be selfish and get wrapped up in your cash flow and forget that you need to be generous and selfless to stay afloat.
9. What’s not worth the time and energy?
I’ve been reading a lot of Seth Godin’s recent books, like Linchpin and Poke the Box. He describes how you can have the best idea in the world, but unless you actually execute it and let it out into the world, it’s not worth much. As designers, part of our training is to pay attention to detail and keep pushing a project until it’s perfect, but at some point you cross a line and the things you’re perfecting don’t really matter. It’s more important to get it out there – whether it’s for a client and a deadline or a personal project. Get it out there and let the world interact with it.
As Godin says, “Anything beyond good enough is called stalling and a waste of time.” Part of me is offended by this, but deep down I know it’s true and agree completely. In this mindset, perfection is what’s not worth the time and energy most of us spend working toward it.
10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate?
I have to make a living doing design and making money is the point of business, but the reason I do what I do is because it helps people. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. If helping people doesn’t satisfy anymore and I do it just for the money, I will have sold out. There are days I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of that line, but then I get a shout-out from a colleague, a thank you note from a client or have a meaningful conversation about the work I’m doing and I remember what it’s all about.
11. Any other advice you’d like to share?
Find a mentor. Whether it’s an informal relationship or it’s someone you hire as a coach, find a mentor. Mentors can make all the difference; I know they have for me. I also have a lot of colleagues that I consider mentors. I like to collect mentors.
Also, respond to every email – even if you don’t have the answer. Just say, “I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out for you.” I think people can hide behind their email. I consider unresponsiveness a sin. I think it’s really horrible. I make a rule to respond to every email, unless it’s spam. It’s a super practical detail that can have a huge impact. The times I’ve run into trouble with my clients is when I haven’t been in contact with them often enough.
My jaw hit the keyboard when I saw these stylish videos from Mission Workshop. Based in San Francisco (in The Mission district, naturally), this hip company creates gear and apparel for cycling, travel and urban designophiles. Their bags are sleek and can withstand the abuses of bad weather — or a little bad behaviour.
Check out this gem, shot on the streets of Paris, no less.
The objects, the music, the cast, the cinematography — they all communicate, wordlessly, the Mission culture and target customer. The video also presents a pretty appealing day-in-the-life. Oh, and it demonstrates how useful that messenger bag would be for spinning around town. This is a commercial, after all.
Strategic content shows the world what your work is all about. Pick a medium that intrigues you, whether it’s photography, video, blogging, social media, newsletters or some combination of several formats. Use it as a creative playground and tell your story, your way.
It’s almost March, but winter has its teeth sunk deep into the Pacific Northwest. True, we’re notoriously weak in the face of chilly weather, but this unseasonable arctic air is creating strange juxtapositions on the street.
Hope you’re having a warm, productive week.
– John Fraser leased a soon-to-be-demolished space in SoHo for a “temporary restaurant installation” called What Happens When. The lean bar is a mobile cart, chairs were bought on eBay for less than $10, and customers will set their own tables to keep staff costs down. Fraser is also funding the nine-month project with contributions from the microfinancing site, Kickstarter.
– Chicago super-chef Grant Achatz is leveraging the power of precise numbers to launch Next, where diners puchase advance tickets for a specific hour and a set menu.
– Manhattan chef Will Goldfarb has experimented with Picknick Smoked, a BBQ trailer in the financial district, and a two-day stint whipping up desserts in a borrowed SoHo bar space. It’s safe to say he’ll continue pushing the boundaries.
And the list goes on…
I celebrated my last birthday at an underground supper club, and it was a delicious, memorable night that ended with a fraction of the typical restaurant bill. The chef also provided advance wine pairing suggestions to enhance what could have been a jumbled BYOB collection.
Clearly, novelty and word-of-mouth buzz have the power to attract even the most jaded diners — especially if you’ve got the kitchen chops to back up your bravery. Pared-down dining makes sense, too, when people are still keeping a tight grip on their wallets. When restaurants eschew convention to focus on making incredible food, we all reap the benefits.
Cheers to creativity that goes beyond the kitchen.