content questions

Tommy Ton photo by Kurt Geiger

Women’s Wear Daily recently published an interesting article by Cate T. Corcoran about the blossoming relationship between clothing brands and influential fashion bloggers. The story suggests that these popular (and formerly DIY) sites now provide increasingly hospitable territory for big budget advertisers.

Companies such as Coach, Gap, Barneys New York, Urban Outfitters and JCPenney are testing new connections — and the idea of customer-brand “conversations” — with fashion bloggers that can include product references, design collaborations, videos, giveaways and contests.

– Is this smart business or corporations invading what were formerly organic online spaces and communities?

– Are fashion bloggers independent self-publishers or simply small-scale fashion magazines (which have always been supported by advertising)?

– How do you draw appropriate lines between editorial content and advertising? And who does the drawing?

The article raises these and other questions that apply not just to fashion scribblers, but also to anyone who’s developing content — and hoping to earn a paycheck from their work. Take a look and let me know what you think.

posted 8 Sep 10 in: business, fashion, media, retail. This post currently has no responses.

Roasting in PDX

The dog days of summer are here and I just returned from another quick trip to Portland, Oregon. I know I seem to write more about Bridgetown than my own home of Vancouver, BC, but there’s just so much creative, cool stuff going on in this city by the Willamette River. This time, one of the great surprise finds was Coava Roastery and Brew Bar on SE Grand Avenue.

We stumbled into Coava — Turkish for “green coffee” — after trolling the nearby vintage and antique stores. I’d finished an iced coffee just an hour earlier to fight the scorching heat, but the 10,000-square-foot space (yes, ten thousand) was so bright, open and downright pretty that we had to stop in. Why so big? Coava shares its counter and roasting area with the cavernous showroom for Bamboo Revolution – a collective of designers, product developers and bamboo craftsmen. It’s a brilliant cross-pollination of two very different businesses.

Coava was hatched in 2009, when Matt Higgins bought a coffee roaster from an East Coast church group café. He started by roasting small batches in his backyard to share with family and friends, and later sold the beans to local coffee bars. In early 2010, Matt’s best friend Keith Gehrke (a seasoned barista and roaster who worked in Seattle and the San Francisco area) joined the operation. The duo opened the Coava brew bar a couple months later.

Coava‘s focus on single origin coffees and educating customers on optimum brewing techniques will satisfy any coffee geek, but I have to confess that I was still gaping at the airy space while sipping the best espresso I’ve ever tasted — decaf, no less.

Coffee brewers have often shared real estate with other ventures, but I thought this combination was especially inspired. The Coava bar, walls and shelving are all constructed from bamboo and provide a fixed portfolio of sorts for Bamboo Revolution. They demonstrate what’s possible with this sutainable material. At the same time, shoppers seeking new flooring will quickly fall for Coava’s perfect pour-over brews and lattes.

Everyone wins — and gets fully caffeinated in the process.

posted 28 Jul 10 in: business, design, food, retail. This post currently has no responses.

a passive plan

photos by Jamie Beck

In every Inspired Outsiders interview, I always ask, “do you have a passive income stream?”

The answers have been as varied as the definitions of “passive.”

To me, it’s something you make once and then leverage to earn a profit multiple times over. It doesn’t require hands-on hourly work (other than sales and distribution channel upkeep and any applicable customer service tasks) and can literally sell itself while you sleep.

At this point, you’re probably either intrigued or repelled. The phrase “while you sleep” smacks of bad pyramid schemes, late-night TV gadgets and desperation. But passive income streams are powerful — and they don’t have to be cheesy.

Remember Jamie Beck and her lovely photo blog From Me to You?

Jamie and web designer Kevin Burg have just released a new blog theme called Southern Afternoon, based on the imagery of a hand-collected scrapbook. It sells for $49 to anyone who wants a nostalgic look for their blog or online journal.

Kevin gave From Me to You such a distinctive look that Jamie was constantly fielding design questions and flat-out requests to use her theme. The pair spent three months dreaming up a new, customizable template and now they’ve got a passive product that reflects Jamie’s charming visual style and extends her brand as an artist — without a hint of hucksterism.

Nicely done, Jamie & Kevin.

posted 13 Jul 10 in: art, business, interviews, retail. This post currently has no responses.

smart sampling

At the end of a Gulf Island vacation, my friends and I dropped in on the Salt Spring Island Cheese Company. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you’ve probably seen their pretty, petite chèvre rounds topped with basil leaves, flowers, white truffle, pepper, chili and lemon.

If not, well, I hope I had you at “white truffle.” The company also makes goat feta, sheep’s milk hard cheese and four surface ripened goat cheeses, including the addictive Blue Juliette.

Salt Spring started making handmade goat and sheep cheeses in 1994 and began selling them in 1996. They believe that “a better kind of food business is one that reflects both good community and good food, as the two frequently go together.” Agreed.

Visit the farm and you can watch white-coated cheesemakers through the viewing windows, take a self-guided tour, and get cozy with the goats, chickens and resident Border Collies (who will quickly convince you to play pine-cone-and-tennis-ball fetch).

The best part of the farm shop, though, is tasting. Every cheese flavor is set out next to a bowl of crackers with knives ready for spreading. Visitors chomp their way through the buffet and inevitably, purchase at least $40 worth of the homemade stuff.

It’s a small cost for the farm with a bigger on-the-spot payoff. Almost no one leaves without a white bag overflowing with fromage — and a stronger sense of loyalty to the homegrown company, which made me think about the power of sampling.

Luckily, this simple technique is not limited to food artisans and culinary businesses. I always sample music on MySpace before I commit to a purchase. Most people wouldn’t think about buying clothes or jewelry without trying them on first. And a first-chapter download is now a common marketing technique for authors and publishers.

But the sampling doesn’t have to stop there. Get creative. Let people try, test and taste your work and you’ll quickly get them hooked on what you do best.

posted 6 Jul 10 in: business, food, retail. This post currently has 2 responses.

the cheaper show

- 200 artists

- 400 pieces of art

- $200 each

That’s The Cheaper Show in a nutshell — and the ninth edition runs this Saturday, June 26th from 6 pm to midnight!

Even if you’re not in the Vancouver area, The Cheaper Show is worth noting. You can even watch a live stream of the action from the event website, filmed by ArtLive.Tv.

Originally called “Cheaper Than a One Night Stand,” the first show was launched in 2001 by Graeme Berglund, Steve Cole and Syx Langeman as a vehicle to promote talented, underexposed artists — and to sell their work at one affordable price. It’s now a non-profit event organized by the Emerging Arts Foundation and run by the Cheaper Crew — 12 artists from East Vancouver — and a team of over 100 volunteers.

The show has grown exponentially to become one of the hottest summer tickets in town (the afterparties don’t hurt, either). Last year, line-ups began snaking around the block a full seven hours before the doors opened and 5,000 people vied to purchase over 200 pieces of art in just five hours. Organizers are expecting 7,000-10,000 for Saturday’s festivities.

The Cheaper Show highlights the hunger for accessible art, introductions to talented new creators, and a lively forum to mingle, sip a cocktail (or three) and celebrate the local visual art scene. Talk about art meeting commerce in the most authentic way possible. It’s also a format that could be easily re-created in cities from coast to coast.

Any art-minded connectors and planners up for the challenge?

posted 23 Jun 10 in: art, business, retail. This post currently has no responses.

ink & peat

I was in Portland, OR all last week, working with the lovely Lisa Johnson, doing interviews for a new project, and making some big (and soon-to-be-revealed) plans for the Free Agent Formula.

I also had the chance to visit Ink & Peat — a beautiful store opened by Pam Zsori in 2008. The airy space features a lovingly curated collection of jewelry, candles, pottery, botanicals, glass, books, paper, blankets and sweets, with an emphasis on fresh custom floral designs.

After 15 years as a designer in the fashion inudstry, Pam created the shop to express her passion for home and floral decor. She also pens (types?) the design-focused Housemartin blog.

I arrived at Ink & Peat from the passenger seat of my good friend Amy‘s VW bug, and unfortunately, Pam wasn’t in the store during our visit. But, I still got to snap some photos and check out all the wares. If you’re in the Portland area, stop by this pretty shop and take a look.

posted 14 Jun 10 in: business, retail. This post currently has no responses.

meet matte stephens

all images courtesy Matte Stephens

Graceful, eclectic, traditional and cheeky — with a nice dash of impending doom. That’s the world of Portland-based artist Matte Stephens.

Born and raised in Boaz, Alabama, one of the most amazing things about Matte is that he’s never had a job. That’s right: no waiting tables or selling hardware while painting on the side. Straight out of high school, Matte (who’s self-taught) set his sights on a full-time art career. He painted like crazy, put on his best duds and approached all the galleries in a 100-mile radius of his town, asking them to exhibit his work.

As the Internet developed, so did Matte’s career. He was among the first artists to sell his work on eBay — despite the auction site’s less-than-glamorous reputation at the time — and launched his popular blog in 2004. He experimented, made connections, and most of all, kept on painting his expressive gouache-on-panel creations.

Today, Matte shows his work at Seattle’s Velocity Art & Design, Jonathan Adler, and Sebastian Foster. He also does a brisk business from his Etsy shop, sells wholesale prints to galleries around the globe, and takes commercial assignments for select clients including Herman Miller, American Express, Disney, NPR, the Boston Globe, Sunset magazine, Glow magazine and IBM.

In more than 16 years as an independent artist, Matte has learned a lot about business, staying creative and imposing constraints on your work. He’s got a charming southern drawl that’s punctuated by an infectious chuckle – and he generously shared his experiences in a recent phone conversation.

My one regret? That we didn’t have more time to talk.

1. What inspires your work?

I’ve always loved old English movies – Alec Guinness films, like Kind Hearts & Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, and lots of old European movies, too, like Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi.

European stuff attracts me more than anything else. It has that sense of impending doom mixed with humor, and a class system that doesn’t exist anymore and that was kind of silly to begin with, but people still seem to have fond memories of it.

2. How do you organize the business side of your life so you still have the time, energy and focus to paint – and to paint well?

My wife, Vivienne, helps me with the shipping and business duties. Otherwise, I find it’s just not that hard. If you get orders, you ship them. If you get commercial work, you make time to do it. Our lives are consumed with it 24 hours a day, but you just make time to do what you need to do. Sometimes if you’re busy, you don’t have a regular life – you don’t go to dinner, or to movies, or have a weekend. You just get the stuff done and you have to find ways to enjoy your life while you’re doing the work. It’s not like we walk in somewhere, put in our eight hours and leave. I’ve lived and breathed painting for 16 years.

3. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

Not necessarily. I started off selling my paintings on eBay in 1999, when I first figured out how to use it. There was an art section, so I thought, “I’m going to try this.” I’ve always just followed my own direction. In 2005, Velocity Art & Design picked my work up, and that changed everything for me. I’ve never asked anyone’s advice about marketing. I’ve just tried to do the work.

How did Velocity change everything?

I sold my work on eBay and made a living. I paid the rent and bought supplies, but there was no extra money. When Velocity picked up my work, it was a whole new world, because Velocity was – and still is, I think – a big deal. They had work by Amy Ruppel and Rex Ray and I already looked up to those people. John, who owns Velocity, bought one of my paintings on eBay for his son and asked me to show there, just out of the blue.

Mostly, it’s been luck. Jonathan Adler contacted me two years ago, and that’s helped a lot, too, with a sense of validation. When they say, “this is good,” it helps your business. And if they say it’s good, maybe other people think it’s good, too.

4. How many revenue streams do you have?

I do commercial work for clients like IBM and NPR, Chronicle Books and Disney. I sell paintings at Velocity, Jonathan Adler and Sebastian Foster and I also wholesale prints to galleries all over the world, as long as I like what they do. I make sure to keep control of it. Then there’s my Etsy shop.

My father had seven kids to support in his house, so he had a job, then at night he did woodworking and sold it on the weekends at flea markets. I grew up with a man who knew business really well and showed me that you can’t just depend on one thing to make a living – ever – because nothing is stable. I try to have as many things going on as I can possibly handle.

You want something coming in all the time, so if my Etsy shop is slow or wholesale is slow, then I’ll have commercial work. Something’s always there. The best advice I can offer is to do whatever you have to do. People don’t make that conscious decision anymore. They just think, “well, I’m going to try this,” and if it doesn’t work in a month, they quit.  I never had the option to quit. It was either do this, or work in a chicken plant.

5. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

Print sales through Etsy probably provide the bulk of my income. On average, I sell about 1,100 prints a year, with wholesale on top of that. Galleries will place an order for 30 or 40 prints at a time – wholesale at $60, cut in half to $30, and that’s still really good money.

People probably look down on artists who sell on eBay, but it was such an excellent start for me. I was also in a gallery that wanted me to paint 15 paintings a month. It taught me to be able to create quickly, which is important, and to have consistency in your work that is sellable and good, and it taught me the commercial aspect of art.

The other thing is that you can’t just paint whatever you want to paint; you need to have a connection with people to make a living. You have to find ways to connect or it won’t work at all. It’s the same thing with following trends. If you just follow trends, you’re going to hit a brick wall.

How have you learned to make that connection?

Over years and years of studying. I love movies, and when I was young, every extra cent of my money went to art books. I still study all the time. The European illustrators from the ’40s through the ’70s, for example, were so much further ahead of us Americans. It’s amazing. The stuff they did just blows me away.

English movies and early American movies, they also have a feeling to them. Jacques Tati is one of my favorite filmmakers. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle – I just love those films, and if you can capture a feeling in your art, people like that.

I put constraints on what I do, and that’s helped me a lot, too. I get most of my advice from a man named Irving Harper, who worked for George Nelson Associates in the ‘50s. He designed most of the clocks for George Nelson. He’s 93 years old now. We went to visit him in New York City and that changed my life – my ideas of what you should do in design and art, and how you should make your choices.

Constraints in medium are critical. The less you have to work with, the better you’ll make your work. If you limit yourself to a pencil and a piece of paper and five colors of gouache, you can do a lot more than if you have a computer sitting there with Photoshop, Illustrator, and inks and everything in the world. If you limit what you have to work with, you’ll be surprised by what you can do. They don’t teach that in school.

6. Do you have a passive income stream?

Oh yeah – Etsy and wholesale print sales. I wake up every day and check my email, and most of the time I’ve sold something, and that’s wonderful. That’s dinner or a trip to Trader Joe’s!

I’ve been on Etsy for three years and it’s not just the money; it’s the idea that people are buying your work. That’s fun. There are a lot of people on Etsy who do a lot better than I do, too. I went in with the idea of having higher prices. That may have hurt me in some ways, but in many ways it has helped me a lot. My lowest price is $35 for an 8.5 x 11 print. I wanted people to want them.

Artists really need to open their minds to several different ways of making money. That’s what most people don’t understand. Especially out of college, they’ve been prepped to believe that their art is really good and that they deserve a certain amount of something. So they get out of college, they have all this momentum built up, and they’re very excited to start their career, but it doesn’t go the way they expected.

You have to come at it with a different approach. I didn’t think I deserved anything. Art was something that I had to do, instead of something that I chose to do or that I went to college for. Don’t get me wrong; I totally believe in college. I used to dream of going to college. We went to Chicago several years ago and sat across the street from the Art Institute at a place where all these artist kids hang out and it was just depressing to me, because I didn’t get to live that life.

But a lot of students will come out of school and have no idea how to make a living at it. They’ll go straight into commercial work, and that’s a drag. Half of it is boring. I turn down a lot of jobs just because I don’t like the idea, or the assignment doesn’t suit me – and I have the comfort of doing that because of Etsy, original painting sales and the galleries.

7. What tools or opportunities do you think most creative pros fail to leverage?

I think the first thing they have to do is get their work noticed. If they’re doing fairly well and they want to expand, I’d say try to make prints and promote yourself on a blog, and get a Flickr account. Become buddies with the other artists around that are doing similar work to yours. A lot of times other artists can help you as much as you can help yourself.

8. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?

Velocity Art & Design, for sure. But eBay as well. Overall, there were several things that happened. I was featured on Design Sponge early on, and I’ve been on lots of blogs, like sfgirlbybay, and my work was in (the now-defunct) Domino magazine. Having a painting in Domino caused my Etsy sales to shoot up in a single day. The blogs really helped, too. Now I have 16,500 people who “heart” my Etsy shop. That’s amazing. It’s just unbelievable to me.

9. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?

Books. By far, books – and movies. Knowledge is the best thing that you can have. I collect design stuff, too, like old Herman Miller clocks. To be able to live with that quality of work, it helps you understand what they were doing.

Study and buy books and look at other people’s art and get inspired. Find things that you love about life – and it doesn’t have to be grand ideas. The simplest ideas are the best ones. It’s like when you’re a kid, you go to the fair and you want the biggest, cheesiest stuffed animal and there’s no way you’re going to get it. You want your art to be like that giant, stupid stuffed animal.

10. Where do you stand on the “selling out” debate?

Contributing to some horrific idea of American consumerism. That’s my idea of selling out. And working for big companies that don’t mean anything to you. Taking whatever jobs people offer you.

To me, the point is career longevity, to be able to paint what I want and to control what I do. You’ve got to be very careful, especially if you’re licensing your work. You just have to keep your integrity – whatever that is. I’m not interested in making money for corporations, unless I like the corporation. A lot of artists strive to do that kind of work, but I just never imagined it.

– – –

Thanks, Matte!

posted 25 May 10 in: art, business, inspiration, interviews, retail. This post currently has one response.

break it down: hussein chalayan

Still think you can’t honour your creative vision and find success? Clearly you haven’t met fashion designer Hussein Chalayan (well, neither have I, but that won’t stop us from analyzing his playbook).

Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 1970, Chalayan moved with his family to England in 1978 and studied design at London’s famed Central Saint Martins. He immediately raised eyebrows with his 1993 graduate collection, called “The Tangent Flows,” which included clothes that he buried in his backyard and later dug up to exhibit. Struck by the strange beauty of his vision, luxury London retailer Browns snapped up the whole collection and displayed it in-house.

The publicity spree continued when Chalayan won a fashion competition sponsored by design-forward liquor brand Absolut. The win meant that at age 25, Chalayan was given approximately £28,000 in financial backing to develop a collection for the 1995 London Fashion Week.

spring 2009 ready-to-wear

His reputation for avant-garde, intellectual, rigorous designs grew and Chalayn soon connected with the famously eclectic Icelandic singer Björk, who wore a Chalayan jacket on the cover of her 1995 album, Post, and donned several of his pieces throughout her Post tour.

For the next three years, Chalayan was a design consultant for New York knitwear label TSE. He also designed for Marks and Spencer, worked with Italian clothing manufacturer Gibo, and served as fashion director for Asprey, the British jewellery and luxury goods company, all while designing and showing his own label. He was also named British Designer of the Year for 1999 and 2000, and in 2006, Chalayan was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

fall 2008 ready-to-wear

What’s most impressive is that Chalayan has had serious low points to match all those career highlights. When TSE terminated his contract in 2001, it forced Chalayan into voluntary financial liquidation. He refused to go down without a fight, however, and restructured his company to design a comeback collection later that year. In the following seasons, Chalayan had to move his studio three times and at one point, he worked from home with his entire team before relocating to Paris.

Collaboration has always been a key part of Chalayan’s creative ethos. He’s designed laser LED dresses with Swarovski and in 2008, he was named the creative director for sports lifestyle brand Puma — just to name a few of his more famous match-ups. He’s now partnering with Susie Crippen of J Brand Jeans. And if you’re after more highbrow credentials, Chalayan’s work has been exhibited at London’s Design Museum, The Tate Modern, The Contemporary Art Museum in Tokyo, the Musée de la Mode in Paris, New York’s F.I.T., and at the 51st International Venice Biennale, among others.

spring 2007 ready-to-wear

The position

Chalayan’s name is synonomous with experimentation. He’s the futuristic designer who has sent models down the runway in self-undressing clothes and repeatedly pulls from world politics, science, culture and technology to produce creations that blur the lines between art, fashion, performance and culture.

The math

Talent and audacity

After spreading himself — and his finances — too thin in the early 2000s, Chalayan stripped his business (if not his designs) back to basics and refocused his brand. He continues to produce collections that challenge and inspire. You never know what to expect from Chalayn, and everyone from well-heeled fashion houses to sneaker companies are eager to leverage his modern, in-your-face creative attitude and technical skill to boost their own cool quotient.

Will he go too far with the commercial collaborations? That’s a matter of time and opinion. For now, Chalayn provides a terrific model of how to stick to your creative guns and still build a career that works. And if you fall down, return to your original vision and think hard about what really matters. Then get right back up again.

spring 2007 ready-to-wear

posted 5 May 10 in: business, fashion, inspiration, media, retail. This post currently has 2 responses.

food & finance

photos by Chiot’s Run

Even farmers and foodmakers are realizing that today’s market demands new revenue models. A recent Globe & Mail story titled, “Cash-strapped artisans turn to foodies for financing,” explored how savvy food producers are revamping their fee structures.

The highlights:

– Faced with an expired lease, artisanal cheese maker Ruth Klahsen is offering subscriptions to her Monforte Dairy. Cheese fans give $500 upfront to help her build a new dairy. She pays them back in five annual cheese deliveries worth $150 each.

In the last year, she’s sold 810 subscriptions and raised a total of $364,000 (some subscriptions were worth more than $500, some less) toward her $500,000 target.

– Ontario farmers Vicki Emlaw and Tim Noxon are battling the winter cash-flow crunch by selling Vicki’s Veggie Bucks. These are coupons that customers can trade for vegetables during the harvest season. They also offer a 10-to-15% discount for every $100 purchased.

Hungry buyers can use their bucks at the couple’s own farmstand or at the farmers’ markets they attend — eliminating the need to deliver boxes during the busy summer season and guaranteeing them a predictable income.

– Quebec microbrewery Boquébière creates beers infused with local maple syrup and honey. The company has started paying some of its suppliers in beer, rather than cold, inedible cash.

– Southern Ontario’s Creemore 100 Mile Store was launched with a funding party. Owners Jacquie Durnford and Sandra Lackie invited women they thought would be interested in a grocery store that sold locally produced food and shared their business plan at the soirée. That night, 17 women gave $1,000 each, which the owners have promised to repay (with annual interest) in five years.

The pair evenutally raised $47,000 and opened the store just one month after the party.

These examples are brilliant because they represent more than just creative financing; they’re also giving customers an invitation to participate in the business and a good story to share (i.e. “You have a chèvre subscription? They’re paying you in honey ale?”).

There are so many ways to earn money — and no rules that you have to follow tired revenue models. Think through your best attributes. If you’re offering something amazing and the demand is real, people will want to help. Get your customers or clients involved (and even invested) in your success.

$150 in cheese? Yes, please.

posted 22 Apr 10 in: food, media, retail. This post currently has 2 responses.

go indie

photo by Juanjo Gaspar

It’s not always easy being independent. The rise of click-and-ship buying has delivered a coordinated hit on neighborhood bookstores. Indie retailers need an iron will (and a bulletproof business model) to keep breathing in today’s market.

More than anything, they need loyal customers — people willing to step away from the screen or the big-box outlet and spend their dollars locally. It’s a vote for choice and independence, and nine-and-a-half times out of 10, you’ll benefit from staff and owners who really, really know their stuff.

This is where IndieBound comes in. It’s a community-based movement launched by independent members of the American Booksellers Association. From the IndieBound website, users can search for stores, add new locations to the ever-growing database, and connect with other community members. You can also download the new iPhone app, which offers book recommendations from indie booksellers and direct e-book purchase links. It also uses iPhone location data and comprehensive maps to help you find stores at home and when you’re on the road.

The movement began with books, but it’s expanding to include independent coffee shops, bike stores, movie theaters and more, across both the U.S. and Canada. IndieBound also produces a monthly Next List, billed as “inspired recommendations from indie booksellers.” This list formalizes the best part of shopping indie — connecting with a passionate, knowledgeable bookseller — and leverages that experience across multiple platforms and social networks.

Slick websites and smartphone apps will never replicate the experience of wandering among well-stocked shelves, hearing the wooden floorboards creak beneath your feet, but they’re strategic weapons in the battle against a bland, corporate shopping monopoly. IndieBound is using the techy tools of those mainstream competitors to promote its members’ key advantage: choice, diversity, character and an everyday love of great literature.

photo by Shelby H.

posted 24 Mar 10 in: books, business, retail. This post currently has no responses.

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