Whole Wide World  

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How big is your world?  

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One thing I've been doing while I've had some time off is to think about the world I want our business to sit in. This comment on an earlier post helped me to crystalise this.

Right now, we sell, or potentially sell, in various contexts:

  • Fashion - we're mentioned often in places that have nothing to do with esoterica
  • Art - some of our work is viewed as art as much as its design (we were once asked to repaint some images on canvas and sell them in a gallery - hmm)
  • The tarot community
  • The "cats" community - actually, we are almost invisible as yet in this one and should probably be more involved
  • The wider "New Age" interest groups
  • Czech design - again, we are not yet really part of this. Perhaps it would be distracting if we were - and could change our work in ways that wouldn't be good.
  • "Alice" fans
and so on. And, from a slightly different perspective:
  • On our own shop as Baba Studio (where we're often seen as larger than we really are)
  • On Etsy - which has entirely its own aesthetic and where we do not fit with the amateur look that's preferred by the admin there. We fit, but we are not "in" this group in the way that some sellers are.
  • On Trunkt - it feels like we fit quite well there - but then, what IS Trunkt exactly?
  • On Notmassproduced - again, another aesthetic. Very sweet and designery but virtually invisible as yet, so we don't try to adapt to fit in, though we're happy to be there.
it could go on and on - we're at lots of other online and B&M venues.
Plus we are seen as European, Bohemian - we are geographically in the old physical region of Bohemia, Prague-based, English-language based (but Russian buyers know we speak Russian and accept payment by Western Union)...

Perhaps it would be best drawn on a chart rather than simply listed, as several of these interact or overlap.

All these define a world - or maybe in Seth Godin's terminology a "tribe" that we to greater or lesser extent fit into. Part of my focus right now is deciding which of these we want to be more involved in, what new contexts we need to consider and - and this is quite important - which limit us and which expand and enhance our work.

It's vital to know where you fit right now, and where you want to fit. It's also important to look at where you are now, how you are influenced by those groups and contexts and to ask yourself if any of them are holding you back. I see sellers on Etsy time and again becoming obsessed with becoming known and liked on Etsy. But changing your business to fit with an Etsy trend may be disastrous in the long-term.

I also see people in other worlds limit themselves in a broader way - tarot designers that end up doing nothing but that, when they could be moving into other work - illustrators that become so much recognised as "cat artists" that they can't try anything else. Jewellers that get stuck in one type of look and medium, even when you wonder if they should experiment with new ways. Writers and musicians defined by a genre, rather than defining it.
I see designers focused so much on being "cool" or "alternative" or - the new fashion - "handmade" that they end up looking like everyone else in that tribe.

Of course, the need for a clear brand tends to propel you into a niche - and being identified with a well-defined niche or tribe can really help your business. But what I'm saying is, be clear about where you want to sit and understand that you need to take control of this, not let it take control of you.


16. If you find yourself nodding off while talking about your work – either you’re up far too late or you’re doing the wrong thing.  

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I used to nod off in meetings. Well, nearly - I had to try all sorts of tricks to keep myself awake and to stifle the yawns. At one point it got so bad that I seriously wondered if I was developing narcolepsy. Except I was aware that it just about only happened in meetings.

Finally I realised that it must be that I found meetings boring. Stultifyingly dull. Nowadays I never do meetings unless they are essential.

If you find that there is some aspect of your work that inevitably makes you feel tired and bored - try to cut it out. If it's boring you that much you won't be doing it well in any case.

  • Hate paperwork? Make it an aim to get most of it done by someone else - or at least invest in software and setup so that you can spend a lot less time on it.

  • Loathe phone-calls? See if you can do more of it by email.

  • Find building websites a total bore (how could you?) Find a good, reliable web person - perhaps you can even trade with them in some way - and have your site set up so that it doesn't need masses of maintenance by you.
and so on - you get the idea.

Then again, it may be the entire job that bores you to tears. If so, now is the time to begin to plan to do your own thing. Or to change what your "own thing" is. I went from corporate design consultancy to designing cards and bags. And found that this is work that truly engages me - these days I don't nod off.

(the picture is two of our cats sleeping in a box on my desk - I have a permanent box there these days).

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times  

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This is a time of change the like of which we haven't seen in the West since the 1960s. It's going to be hard - and it's going to be wonderful. Even in the middle of the tough periods, remember that this just could be the time that allows you to do your best work, the work you always dreamed of doing.

15. It usually takes years – don’t merely accept that, welcome it and love what time brings.  

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Building a good, solid business is usually not quick. It takes time to learn what works and what doesn't and to decide what to focus on, what to build and what to drop. Not all ideas will take off and you won't be able to see all the good opportunities and possibilities at the very beginning. A great business tends to grow step by step - and sometimes it can feel like two steps forward and one back.

I am an impatient person and in the past I've found this frustrating. I came to Prague seven years ago. Alex and I began working together six years ago and it really took four years before we were taking out more than we were putting in - simply in hard financial terms quite apart from time. That was a stressful period at times when I kept saying, "Next year we'll be in profit," and in fact it took three of those "next years".

But I'm glad now that it did take that time. I look back and I laugh at some of the ideas we had then, but I'm also amazed by how many things did come to fruition - eventually. Because it took time, we now have a better business - financially, organisationally and maybe, most important of all, in terms of doing what we love, rather than being forced to make compromises.

If you are just starting out, try to begin with at least enough money in the bank (or a part-time job) to survive for some years, not just months. Particularly at the moment. If you haven't enough, then seriously (seriously) consider doing what I did - which is to move to a cheaper place to live to buy yourself time. Time is precious, you may have to trade off some other things in order to get the time you and your business need.

If you are already running your own enterprise, try not to rush it unless you really need to. Take some time to experiment, to dream up new products, to take a few risks. Also, simply, take some time to learn where you can - and want to - take your business.

Don't forget to have fun  

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Okay, we are now officially heading into a depression rather than a recession, it's going to be harder running any business (though as you know I think smaller businesses may have the advantage of being able to respond quickly) and we're all going to have to:

  • Market harder
    Price keenly
    Cut costs
    Come up with new products that are desirable and affordable
    Work on keeping customers
    Be prepared to put in more hours


and it's all going to be demanding and at times draining.

BUT - in the midst of all this, please remember that you're running (or starting) a creative business because this is what you want to do.

Years ago, I allowed my design consultancy in London to become nothing but a burden. I worried about it constantly, it felt like a weight on my shoulders and if at any moment I wasn't over-worked, exhausted, flu-ridden and miserable I felt it just showed I wasn't working hard enough. I suppose this attitude showed a lack of real confidence - or maybe I just didn't really want to run a corporate design consultancy, however successful. Maybe I wanted to design - which is not the same thing.

This time around, I love what we are doing with Baba Studio. This autumn/winter I am hugely enjoying getting all the new designs ready for next year. I sat the other day blissfully going through old Bohemian folk ribbons with a new idea in mind. I refused to be dismayed when I realised that one large bale of silk I bought on the internet has a gold medalion pattern that's too large scale to be used - they will make fabulous curtains and perhaps a party skirt for me. I didn't get flustered by the saga of two large parcels (one to us, one from us) that were both sent "express" and both got delayed - it all worked out.

However hard it gets, don't lose the love for what you do, and the enjoyment in building it. Take some time out to revel in your materials and tools, whatever they are, to take pride in your skills, to indulge in the most sensual and affirming parts of your craft/art/artisanship and generally to keep in touch with why you decided to do this in the first place.

Today I plan - slightly irresponsibly - to spend a bit of this afternoon away from emails and postage and invoices (which make up most of this time of the year - in spite of recession) doing some design. The kind of design I really like, that feels good to do, and that makes me happy.

Oh - and the picture is, by the way, Alex wearing an old Bohemian folk costume (kroj) hat - that hat is pure joy.

The seductive trap - of cowls and fingerless gloves  

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People who are newly starting a small business run a real risk of thinking, "What can I make?" rather than, "What's really wanted?".

The overwhelming number of cowls and fingerless gloves on Etsy provides a wonderful example. When did you last, honestly, wear a cowl? When have you found fingerless gloves preferable to ordinary gloves with fingers?

The reason for this stuff is that it's far, far quicker to make than full-sized scarves and conventional gloves. It uses less yarn too. So you can sell it for a much lower price - within more people's budget. AND it can look spectacular in a photograph. Seductive for a maker, no?

But... it's a trap not to fall into. Ultimately, these products are - in person rather than in a flattering picture - not all that practical or desirable. Okay, make them beautifully and photograph them well and you may well sell a few. But do you honestly expect to sell many? Do you think there will be repeat customers for something as quirky and niche (and maybe not in a good way) as this?

When you are planning your products, ask yourself first and foremost what customers really want. If it's something you can't make to realistic timescales or budgets, consider if there is another way - maybe you can use some ready-made components? Perhaps you can get lower-cost (please not lower quality) supplies? If there is no way - move on and think again.

In the end, you can't compete by offering people something they don't really want. You CAN compete by offering your own beautiful, unique or better version of something that there is a real demand for.
__________
Small disclaimer. This is not aimed at any particular Etsy sellers, including those shown in the screen shot. It's intended just as a general observation and comment.

The wonders of the web.  

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web-based social promiscuity is definitely the way forward. Facebook and MySpace were used with devastating effect by the Obama campaign. So, too, his own beautifully-designed website. Its organisational and money-making power were extraordinary and election-changing.

Barack Obama has become the commander-in-chief by being the social networker-in-chief. If Jack Kennedy was arguably the most telegenic presidential candidate that America has seen, then Mr Obama is surely its most web-genic.

From BBC analysis of the election



In upcoming posts I'll be saying a lot more about using the web - and using it well -for your own communications.

The intimacy of the web  

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This US election has shown ways of using the internet for political communication as perhaps nothing has before. There has been a strange merging of the old ways - town hall meetings, stump speeches et al - and the new - such as wonderfully expressive youtube videos made by "ordinary" people , Twit voting and of course thousands upon thousands of blog posts.

I realised about a year ago that Obama actually understood the web. He felt like "one of us" in that way - and that was entirely new. It was a Youtube interview I saw him do that shocked me into the realisation that he understands how the web works and he understands, above all, its intimacy. Look at the way he turns to the camera at the end and talks directly to the viewer, it's only a moment, but it's an immensely telling one - McCain would never know to do this. When I saw that I realised, for the first time, that Obama might actually win.



A few hours away from the results this evening I still think that if - no, let's say when - he does win, it will be in large part due to his understanding of the way new technology works - not as technology, but as a messy, amusing, outspoken, immediate and popular way of communicating not to people but between them.
There's a huge amount that a small business can learn from this. I'll soon be talking more about what I've personally learned from the way Obama has been able to touch us - right across the world - and how even a very small business might benefit from emulating his extraordinary campaign.

14. Don't judge your own work and business by others' successes  

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Perhaps what I really mean is don't be intimidated by the apparent success of others around you. Of course, other people's success can be inspirational and encouraging, but it can also make you feel "Why bother to start? I'll never be able to emulate that." Don't fall into that attitude, it can become an excuse for not making even the first small moves in building your business.

For some years now, I've had regular Skype conversations about design, marketing and - well, life in general - with Monicka Clio Sakki. One of the things we tend to do during and in-between those conversations is to swap online finds - "Have you seen what these people are doing?"- accompanied by a barrage of urls.

Michal Negrin is one company we've discussed quite often - not because we particularly like the design (it's a bit too sugary for me and I think way too sugary for Monicka) but because we are both a bit awestruck by the way Michal Negrin has taken her company from a market stall selling jewellery to an international franchise.

I doubt we - as in Baba Studio, I can't speak for Sakki-Sakki - will ever be anywhere close to this kind of international operation - although I would like to build up more and more worldwide distribution and perhaps eventually do some of the things that franchises do. Meantime, there's a danger in looking at others who already done this and telling myself things like:

  • She had amazing financial backing and advice, I don't. So things are possible for her that aren't for me.
  • She was lucky. I may not be.
  • She started at the right time. It's far harder now.
  • Her work is more mainstream. Mine is "edgy" and therefore won't attract a wide audience.
  • She's driven. I want to have a life.
All these points may or may not be true. But what's vital is not to allow yourself to use them as "get outs". Your business is your business. If you constantly compare yourself unfavourably to those who seem to have achieved way more than you (and note, all may not be as it seems - in the dotcom era I well remember seeing companies that appeared far more successful than mine go out of business overnight) it can quickly become an endless source of excuses.

Just get on with what needs to be done. Use others for inspiration and role models by all means - keep swapping those examples with peers and mentors - but focus on growing your own business in your own way. That way, one day soon someone may be sending your URL to a friend and saying, "Wow, have you seen what these people have achieved? I remember when they were tiny."

Video of John Doerr Giving 10 Tips for Start-ups to Avoid the Econalypse  

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These points mainly apply to those start-ups with angel or venture capital funding. Which, let's face it, does not include many creative studios.

But it's still worth taking five minutes to hear what's said. In a later post I plan to reinterpret this for our own kind of small business. For now though, this advice is useful and at times quite thought-provoking.


The Entire Video of John Doerr Giving 10 Tips for Start-ups to Avoid the Econalypse


As we finally move on from 20th century branding and gloss...  

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...it's time to realise that the work you produce IS your brand - you can't just put expensive lipstick on a pig (or a poor product) and expect to make it into anything other than a pig. As someone somewhere recently pointed out.

You'd think it would be blindingly obvious to say that when you're in a creative business the first and foremost matter you need to focus on is the quality of your product. If you're a musician, are your performances/recordings good enough and original enough to draw a following? As a writer, how do you stand up against the best around in your field? If you are an artist, do your images stand out, are they beautifully realised and emotionally moving, do they have the kind of meaning that audiences respond to? And - close to my heart - if you design products, are they distinctive, well-made and both fit for purpose and desirable? Do they last and give pleasure beyond the first flush of ownership?

All the time I see discussions - on blogs, forums and other on and offline venues - in which presentation, branding and promo/marketing are the focus and the actual product is ignored. Maybe this is because I mostly follow design and craft conversations - perhaps it's different in music and literature (if so, I'd love to hear your comments and experiences). But again and again I read and hear advice telling people to promote more, take better photographs, work on their logos and brand style, think more about their packaging... almost anything but "look again at your product".

Is this because it's hard to critique someone's work without causing offence? Yes, to a large part this may explain it. It's a lot easier to tell someone that their photos are poor than to tell them that the world really does not need, for instance, yet another piece of badly made beaded jewellery. But I suspect it's also because we live at a period in the world's history when presentation really has taken precedence over content and substance. You see it everywhere - from the US Republican campaign decision to run with Sarah Palin because of her "story" to the belief that what many countries need right now is not so much real change as a rebrand - hey yes, that'll fix it.

But maybe, just maybe, we're coming to the end of this odd obsession and swinging back to placing more value on the thing in itself, rather than the way you show it and market it. If so (and I hope it's so) then it's a particularly good time to look at what you're producing and ask yourself how you can improve it. Simple, obvious, but now more true than ever.

Why is marketing like chocolate?  

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Because enjoying a small piece each day is far better than bingeing through the whole box of tricks in a single session.

Marketing and promotion needs to be a habit that you do, almost without thinking, each day. A great big advertising push followed by nothing for months is particularly useless on the web, where everything gets out of date so fast.

Marketing works best when it's something you actually enjoy, rather than a chore you have to force yourself to perform. I suppose that should be obvious, but all the time I hear writers and designers complain that they want to do their creative work, and only put time into marketing because it's necessary. Many people even seem to see their hatred of marketing as a badge of creative authenticity.

Well, if you want to loathe doing your marketing and communications that's up to you. But as it's got to be done, it's surely better all round to make sure that it's an activity you actually enjoy.
This is more likely when:

  • It feels authentic. No-one enjoys either doing or receiving "hard sell". Just do the kind of promos that you honestly do relate to and that feel like the real you, even if it seems quite gentle stuff compared to the blare of some of the big brands.
  • It's interesting. I'm not suggesting you jump all over the place and try everything. But sometimes doing something you haven't done before is more fun than "same old, same old". Today I made my first ever Facebook ad. A modest little thing to be sure (there's not a whole lot you can do visually with a Facebook ad - well, maybe I haven't come up with anything more dramatic yet) but I'm genuinely excited to see how it does. It's energised me.
  • It's not too much of a strain. Don't force it to the point where it's exhausting. Do something small each day and go on to some other activity (like your main design/writing/music/art work) once the marketing stuff stops being fun.
  • It's creative. You don't have to ape the big brands to be an effective marketeer. In fact it's usually much better if you do something that's fresher, different and more "you". Find a tone or a style or a format that isn't the same as everyone else's. Use your imagination and your ability to make something new and distinct.

"It's pure crap" - excuses for xenophobia  

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I've just been reading yet another post on the Etsy forums about Chinese manufacturers. Of course, it's fine to criticise people selling items that are not handmade (in Etsy's terms handmade means also hand-assembled, hand-altered but still, pure factory-made does not qualify). But what makes me wince about these threads is how quickly they degenerate into racism and excuses for not buying from "them". Although on the upside, it's reassuring also to see how many people recognise this and counter it.

The basic arguments made by the anti-China lobby always focus on four accusations:

  • It's crap - stuff made in China/Asia/overseas is all rubbish. 90% of the time if you check the Etsy shop of the people saying this you'll find they are using Chinese components/fabrics/material in some of their work.
  • It's dangerous - "these people" put lead in children's toys (er, actually if you read the Mattel case you'll find that it was at least as much the fault of Mattel as the Chinese manufacturer).
  • It's immoral - "these people" make children work in sweatshops. Yes, there are sweatshops in Asia. There are also sweatshops in London and New York. Many of the modern Chinese factories have good worker conditions.
  • It's unfair - "these people" are taking "our" jobs. Hey? What makes you think the West has some immutable right to the jobs? And isn't global trade creating jobs also?
I understand these points. I am even in a way sympathetic with the confusion, defensiveness and sheer fear that's often at the base of the attitudes shown. There is some truth in some of the accusations - but some of them could be levelled at other countries too, and in the rants I've been reading, there is usually a lot of exaggeration and generalisation based on anger rather than logic.

But without going into a whole long argument about all this, what I want to say is that if you're running a small, creative business and feel angry and threatened by "overseas" producers, you really need to get over it. For the sake of your business quite apart from your peace of mind.

Globalisation is not going to go away, it's going to increase. The internet makes global communication hugely much easier than it's ever been. Xenophobia, protectionism and racism are not only nasty - they aren't viable and they don't work (you can read one of my earlier posts on this if you'd like to - and I'm sure I'll post on this topic again). There is no moral superiority in only buying/trading with your own local area or people of your own nationality or race. The only argument in its favour is one of saving resources on shipping etc, and even that argument is by no means all that clear.

Open up. Embrace the rest of the world. Learn to work with it - by sourcing materials, work and other things you need from the best place to find them. Learn to work for it by selling all over that same world - nowadays it's not just your home-town or your country that's your market - it's anyone, anywhere who likes what you do.

Of course you should apply your code of ethics to this - we buy from people we feel comfortable with and we get as close as we can to the actual makers of anything - it doesn't guarantee that no sweatshops are involved, but it makes it much more likely that we'll spot them and be able to take avoiding action. You should also make sure that your creativity and quality is enhanced, not undermined. While I have no objections to people simply buying mass-produced products in Asia and reselling them on a shop or website, that's not designing. If you're running a creative business, which is what this blog is about, then use the resources of the world to enhance and support your own, unique creativity.

I'll no doubt post much more on this. Meanwhile, I have to leave myself a note that tomorrow I need to chat to Mr Hau - who runs the Vietnamese workshop that we are now using for our "base" bags - about the beautiful scarves that he's just offered us. We may perhaps be able to adapt them to an idea I've had - so that not only will they be more gorgeous, but also more original.

This man knows his fabric, and his sewing techniques and is enthusiastic about his work. He's just like "one of us" in fact.

13. Avoid all the people who would rather pull you back. If you can't avoid them, hum loudly while they're talking to you.  

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When things are going well, or even when they just begin to look up, you're going to find some people who are jealous, spiteful or - and this is more common - simply uncomfortable with seeing you taking risks that they have avoided themselves.

We're all human and we've all felt envy for others, or wanted to hold them back in our own safe world instead of watching them move out into something broader and more risky. I'm not saying that someone who does that is bad or malicious or even necessarily all that conscious of the way they're trying to hold you back. I'm just saying that it happens and it's a hazard to look out for.

Year ago, I formed my own unofficial, independent little group of user-interface designers right in the middle of one of the major tech research labs in the UK. At the time I just wanted to get on with some decent work with good people. Nowadays, I recognise that I did what Seth Godin would describe as building a tribe. The tribe we made in that place was amazing - for a couple of years we did remarkable work that changed things. It's notable how most of the people involved went on to quite glossy design careers. We learned, we worked - with passion and fascination for what we were doing - and we did things beyond what any one of us could have done alone. In work terms, I still look back on it as one of the most productive periods of my working life.

So how did people at "the Labs" (I won't give the actual name of the corporate but if you know the telecoms industry in the UK you'll easily guess) respond to this? Well, to my surprise at the time, they mostly criticised, challenged, tried to form their own carbon-copy competing groups and, in the end, managed to have us dissolved. They took a brilliantly functional, efficient and innovative group and - deliberately destroyed it. Makes them sound horrid, yes? Well, they weren't. There were some genuinely nice, well-meaning, clever researchers among them. But they saw the building of something that not only didn't fit, but that also worked amazingly well - and their reaction was to tear it down. That's not uncommon.

Noticeable success - especially if it's done in a whole new way that doesn't "fit" - can be threatening. Many people will react to that by throwing hurdles in your way -and occasionally worse. Your fun and your satisfaction may be someone else's threat.

So - decide now that as your small business grows and thrives (okay, maybe slower than it would without this financial crisis, but let's be confident and say that it will thrive) influence from people who want to prevent your success, even for the most well-meaning reasons, are not what you need. Learn to avoid them. If you actually work with them or - God forbid - they are family members or close friends - learn to ignore them.

A small post - about small thinking  

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I just read this on Seth Godin's blog

"The media and the tech blogs glamorize businesses that act big. They write about the big checks VCs hand out and they lionize the organizations that make a splash. The untold story is in the organizations that are close to the customer, close to the product and close to each other. Thinking small always pays off."


It's well worth reading his whole post.

I used to worry in London about being too small - at its largest my company employed 35 people. Now quite frankly I will be worried if we ever employ more than six (right now it's us two and Halina employed part-time). Small can be great. Collaboration, co-operation and focusing on what you really know how to do with excellence is the way to go.

A pause for reflection  

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Today I got up feeling better and more energised than I have for a few days and settled down to plan our bags for the next six months or so:

  • I counted a final 2042 tarot bag prints - which have taken a month to produce. There are more than 100 images in all and it was a lot of work. But exciting.
    Never before have we done even as many as 200 bags in a batch, but by working this way we think we can considerably cut costs and so keep final prices down. This will be important next year. But doing so many at once has felt slightly crazy. Maybe it's another sign we are growing up as a studio.

  • I designed a new wearable pouch. More on this over the winter but the intention is to go ahead quickly with this one as it will be beautiful, useful but also priced well below $30. Again, this is the result of thinking for a couple of months now about how we can offer some very affordable designs while actually improving quality. It will very quickly be available in ALL the tarot bag prints too. This is good I think.

  • We discussed Alice, animal toile and other cushions. Now whatever we do, these can't be low prices - though they will be way lower than, for example, cushions like these - and I think at least as good in design and quality. But we have done what we can and now we will go ahead with a smaller batch than originally planned, just to test the water. They are gorgeous, quirky and special. I think we'll be fine with these.

  • We confirmed the way we want to go on the shoulder bag saga. For nine months now I've been trying to produce a new shoulder bag to have in addition to our current one. Finally we are getting there though this one has been a continuous story of two steps forward, then one back. Now at least we have an agreed plan.
Two takes from this:
  1. Find ways to keep your costs down. I've said it before and I'll probably say it endlessly through this "crisis". At the same time though, don't drop your quality whatever you do.
  2. Think about new products that provide really great value. Use your creativity and your abilities and see what you can come up with. Test out your ideas and then - get going.

Advice from an "incubator"  

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I came across this on Fred Wilson's blog. I admit to a caution about VCs based on some of what I saw in London in the dotcom boom and bust but his blog is a good read and I find that I relate to many of his opinions and attitudes. I suppose at heart I'm a liberal capitalist - more or less.

Anyway, although this advice is aimed at the kind of company that incubators take on - start-ups that are expected to grow rapidly and maybe IPO or be bought out, it's also relevant to the enterprises that this blog is focused on - small, personally-run, creative companies that aren't particularly interested in getting huge and corporatised but intending to make a decent living.

Here is the piece in full with my take in blue -

It's counterintuitive, but during an up cycle people accept conventional wisdom, and during a down cycle people challenge it. That's good. Very good. And the cycle will winnow competition.

A lot of what we were told was "true" about market capitalism turned out to be a mirage. It feels like the world turned upside down. Scary, but also thrilling. Now is a great time to think outside the box. NO - in fact, don't even THINK of corporate terms like "outside the box". Think quirky, think outrageous, think of what you dream of. Think "why not?". What we were told was "silly" may not be at all. Think daft and think hopeful.

"Yes we can" Okay, that's a modern cliche now, but you know, there is a whole world shift going on that's about daring to do what you thought was not possible. It's in the air.

And if you need to make cuts, make them now. Don't cut 10% now and then another 10% early next year -- make the change in one fell swoop. Piecemealing your way through change kills momentum, hurts culture and the team and is a chickenshit way to run a business.

Yes, this is just good sound advice. But it's something that's easy to ignore because at difficult times, it's easiest to deny and put off. Personally, here at Baba Studio Headquarters (hold on a second while I move the cat off my desk) we have been cutting swathes through some of our plans and reconsidering others. If something has to go, it should go now.

There will be a flight to quality; this always happens. But this time I think it's going to be more than that. For TV and print this has been an unusual year: The shift to online has been stemmed first by the Olympics and second by the election. But year-over-year growth in ad spend has been down across the board (see slide 32 of the sequoia deck, linked below). Expect the next year to be ugly and different. I think spend will move online, very fast, and print may right downhill. And people will look for ROI -- real measurable results. Monetizing social media is hard. Much to do here, much money/share to make/take.

There will also be a flight to individual and meaningful - and simply gorgeous. And lasting. Especially lasting. Now that might sound totally naive. I know that financially people will rush to quality in monetary terms. Quality like Lehmann's and General Motors and...
See what I mean? In a world where it won't be at all clear what's stable and what's not, there will be a desire for products that don't have that depressing "this looks fine now but it's poor material and poorly made and I know it'll look awful after the first wash" feel that many chain-store items do. People will want something that has some material and emotional quality to it. Small and medium-sized (and micro) businesses are in a much better position to provide this. With authenticity.

Openness. I think this cycle is going to drive another significant shift in how open and interconnected the Web is. This is good news for you, and this is bad news for the Facebooks of the world, who tried to replicate the walled garden strategy of Web 1.0.

Think about what happened through the last cycle. Start with AWS. In the 1990s, Internet companies had to own everything top to tail. Today you can use Amazon and other services to pop up a new box for hundreds of dollars, if that. Thats a huge shift, and it's also a shift towards interdependency.

We are all now dependent on the Amazons of the world for parts of our infrastructure. I think this turn of the cycle is going to drive a lot more openness. This in turn ties to the market figuring out how to rapidly establish bottoms-up standards. This is about working with others and figuring out how to do things without having to do all the work.

As a very small business or start-up, you have to use what's out there. We are looking more and more to building a very good, personal relationship with one or two workshops. Our graphics and printing we do ourselves (how terribly uncorporate of us to be so picky, but the quality of the images and printing is everything to us). But our sewing is being done by a few places that we like and trust.
More broadly, we're using everything out there for blogging, showing off our pictures, building our shops and so on. When you're a very small business, you have great flexibility in trying out all sorts of services quickly and then deciding to run with them or not according to your experiences. Large business has far more trouble with doing this in a meaningful way.


Main piece by John Borthwick.

Links, networks, tying it all together (or - gasp! - is it just cross-selling?)  

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Weird week this week. And that's just HERE never mind the DOW and the FTSE.

Anyway, I had a burst of energy and tidied up some of our websites. I can't decide if putting a large Etsy display on our Victorian Romantic site is too commercial. I hope it isn't just a sign of mild panic. But it did seem like this might be a good time to make sure that people at least know we have a shop. This after two enquiries this week:
1. About if we have plans ever to do a tarot deck (this from a really lovely Etsy buyer)
2. If we wholesale our "deck" - singular - from someone who found the Victorian Romantic site.

This tells me that if I can get the network of links working better it will be both more useful for customers and generate more business for us.

But IS this going too far? I'll think about it more this weekend.

DISASTER! Or is it?  

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Yes, I know that there is not enough money in the WORLD to pay off the derivatives market. I know that Will Hutton is right when he says that we are sitting waiting for the approaching hurricane to strike, and all we are feeling now is the head-winds.

But.

But when money tied up in debts has become so crazily virtual that it no longer has any meaning, then I actually think it may end up having less real power to hurt than we think. Is that naive and ridiculous? Probably, and I'm not enough of an economist to put this argument coherently. But my hunch (and I tend to be good at hunches) is that this is a hurricane that will miss the levees, and veer off to dissipate itself relatively harmlessly.

Meanwhile, we make more bags. LOTS more bags, because we believe that they will be wanted. When you're talking gadzillions of trillions, what's $22? I think many people will have much the same attitude.

Why small business can do better than large business during the financial meltdown  

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There, I made myself type that phrase, "financial meltdown". I'm not sure if that's what it's going to be - which is I suppose an inane comment as who is sure? But assuming that whatever happens, things are going to get worse not better economically, here are some of the ways that it's better to be running your own business than working in a large corporate at a time like this -

You have control and know the real facts and figures about turnover, profitability

You can change things quickly. Far, far more quickly than any large company can

You know your customers better - and are much more genuinely connected with their needs and choices

You are not saddled with huge overheads and debts.

On that last point, if you are going to start a business now, by choice or by part-necessity, whatever you do don't take on debt. I'll post more about that.

A few words for those who have no choice  

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I began my first business - more than ten years ago now - because I was sacked. I was sacked partly because I didn't know the rules of small companies (having just moved from a large corporate) and partly because the person who wanted my job - and for a time, got it - was a brown-noser par excellence and pretty unpleasant with it.

I don't feel at all defensive or embarrassed about being kicked out. What I do feel a little ashamed of is that the truth is that without that, I may not have had the guts or will to begin my own business. I used to think how wonderful it would be, but I could never summon the courage. Only when all seemed lost (it wasn't of course, but it seemed that way for a couple of days) and I realised that in fact I had a lot of the basis of a business already in place - then finally I took the jump.

Whatever the reason, being sacked is traumatic and can leave you feeling vulnerable and lacking in confidence. Nowadays, even if you know the rules, do not have a colleague shoving knives in your back and no matter how well you are doing the job - you may be fired. Things - let's face it - are not looking so good now, particularly in the more recession-sensitive fields.

If the worst does happen, put the situation to the good and consider the possibilities of beginning your own business. USE the trauma to shift yourself outside your normal comfort zones.

Okay, for some reading this it will just not be practical - perhaps you need a secure income, in which case a new business in a precarious climate is not such a great move. But if you have flexibility, maybe a bit of redundancy package or some existing clients or some established reputation in a creative area, now may be the time.

Taking some simple steps  

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Assuming that we are at the beginning of what may be a long-term economic downturn (and not going into all the ifs and buts and interesting consequences of that) here are two simple steps to take right now.



Look at your costs

Can you find ways of buying your supplies more cheaply without compromising quality? Can you cut down on expenses that aren't necessary? - maybe using Skype more rather than landline phone-calls, making less short trips, turning down the thermostat a bit? I know these things are all boring, but they add up.

What are we doing? Well, mainly we are busily switching most of our actual bag sewing to an Asian workshop that we like - they do beautiful work. The small workshop that we've worked with for some years here are being partially closed down in any case (owner - a fashion designer of some repute here - is retiring) and we have more than enough "special" work to keep Romana, our main sewing colleague, as busy as she wants to be.
More on the pros and cons of sending work out of the country in another post.


Look at your prices
I'm not going to suggest that you slash prices as sometimes that's quite disastrous. Depending on your margins, even a modest reduction in your retail cost could, in theory, halve your profits. So be careful about suddenly going into "fire sale" mode. I'll do a post soon on pricing but for now, my advice would be to look at the spread of pricing. In times when credit is tight, you may well find that some people are still happy to pay reasonable prices for quality, but others may be looking for smaller, inexpensive things either for gifts or simply as little treats for themselves. Can you produce some new items that are at lower price points? Under $20 - or 12 Euros - is probably the kind of price to aim for.

What are we doing? As our small drawstring bags are already only just over the $20 mark, we aren't sure we can make anything that will retail for less (though we are considering the possibilities). However, we are just about to launch new versions of the large drawstrings and the bucket bags which will be at lower prices than before. Again, sourcing from Asia helps us do this. Also we will switch to a high-quality silk mix rather than pure silk for the larger bags. The end result will be indistinguishable in look and feel - but it will shave some dollars and euros off the final retail price.

Both these steps are perfectly obvious. But the thing that counts is not to sit like a rabbit caught in the headlights of on-coming disaster. Begin both these changes now. You don't have to do everything possible all at once. So just start.

Oh - and see the positive side too. You know, it was only a sense of real panic some months ago that made me finally begin on the long and quite demanding task of finding an Asian workshop that we could form a good relationship with, and that understood quality. It took ages and I would probably have given up if it wasn't for a bit of real lurking fear about the way things were going economically. Once things pick up again (and they will) the changes that you make now will stand you in good stead long-term.

What to do, what to do?  

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It's an odd time to be giving advice on starting and building a creative business because it looks like the sky is in the process of falling in. As I'm typing this, the "bail-out" is being debated and the markets look like this:












and part of me just wants to hide under the quilt (with whatever I have converted into gold under the mattress - though it wouldn't go far) and hope it will all blow over. But it won't. I actually do think that we are seeing the end of extreme, unfettered market capitalism - and personally I had a hunch this was bound to happen when Soviet communism ended - somehow one ideological system had propped up the other. With any luck the outcome will be a softer, more humane type of middle of the road capitalism with a good dollop of gentle socialism thrown in. Er, if we don't just slide into fascism that is.

So. Is there any point in even trying to run a business that's selling anything other than the basics? Well, yes, there is. The world will not stop. People will still want some fantasy and beauty in their lives. And - if you think of the 1930s, these wild times actually can produce extraordinary art and design. However, it might be an idea to rethink strategy now - change demands change and you may well not be able to follow your own five-year business plan (assuming you ever had one - the futility of such plans may well become my "point 25" when we get there).

It's probably time to look at new ways of doing things. Some thoughts on that in my next post. Firstly though, I need to send a letter to our "base bag" supplier to say we have decided to change to using silk-mix rather than silk in some of our products. Thus taking a really big chunk off the final price while keeping the exact same look.

Let's face the music and dance  

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You may have noticed that I've been stunned into silence here by the incredible (well, not really - actually entirely predictable to anyone who can do basic maths) events on Wall Street.

So before I say more about this, here's a video that pretty much sums up my attitude right now (warning, gets very raunchy about two-thirds of the way in - a distinct touch of the Weimar.):


Why Russians are different  

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Or at least, why my Russian is.

One thing on which Alex and I differ hugely is in our tendency to ask others for help. He finds it truly amazing when I need help or advice, know where to get it, but don't want to ask for it. "Why?" he asks, and the cultural gap between us opens up and almost sucks me in.
"I just don't like to," I say, feeling a bit feeble.

Russians ask - well, in fact more or less demand - help from one another all the time. I think it's somehow a result of the whole Soviet thing. Not because they were all sunny, happy, communal and co-operative communists but rather because, as Alex explains it, under that system your chances of survival were just a lot less if you didn't have mutual support from friends, family and neighbours. They simply grew accustomed to needing one another.

I decided earlier this year that I very much wanted to combine embroidery with some of our prints (I once almost did the Creative Embroidery degree at Goldsmiths College - another episode in my patchy and eventful past - under the amazing Constance Howard) . I have found a way of getting the most beautiful hand-embroidery done for us, but I also want to try machine embroidery - a very different look that works especially well with metallic threads. One of our Russian friends then announced that he had bought a professional embroidery machine (he does make-up and costume for films). "Is there any chance he might let us try it?" I asked Alex tentatively, only to get a blank look and then, "Well, of course." In fact a beautiful bag embroidered with a splendid gold crest and Alex's name arrived from Moscow not long after - our friend is, apart from his nationality, simply a generous person.

Of course we will also be expected to help when we're needed - and we do. But the point is that there isn't the self-consciousness or anxiety involved in asking for quite major favours that I was brought up with.

A bit of that kind of Russian attitude is a great thing in a small business. Ask and give - you really are stronger as part of a co-operative network.

12. Find a few people you trust. Use them mercilessly - and let them use you just as much.  

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This is another big topic so again I'll split it across a couple of posts - and no doubt come back to it as well.

Running a business is lonely and scary and it can leave you feeling very exposed. It's important to find people you can talk to, and who may also be able to help you.

Weirdly enough, I learned this, at least in part, from a British Telecom management training workshop. When I worked for BT I used to be sent on lots of workshops and I honestly think it's the only thing I ever did learn from them. Oh, except I now remember that I did also learn (learning point number two as they say) that if someone on your team at a workshop faints at your feet, grab them quickly and volunteer to take care of them, preferably in a quiet room in the hotel (these workshops, at middle-management level, are nearly always held in places like Marriott Hotels). Sitting watching daytime televison and getting stuff in from room service and chatting is usually a much better way of bonding than actually attending the "teamwork" workshop. Which brings us back to the first thing I learned, which is that it's okay to ask for help.

At the particular ghastly workshop I'm talking about (not the fainting incident one), we all had to make videos that communicated the company values. I wish I was kidding, but I'm not, this happened. My team's video was pretty crap because we spent a lot of time bickering - or in my case, alternatively telling jokes and going into a huff because they wouldn't give me full creative control, HUMPH.

We also didn't have a clue how to make a video. There were two technicians there and we were told we could ask help from them, but somehow we felt we should only do that in case of dire need (not knowing how to switch on the camera etc.) At the final "wrap up" session one thing we were asked was why on earth we hadn't asked for the help available to us. A really good question.

So - I pass on to you this piece of learning from that experience. If you know of people who can, and may be willing to, help you, then for goodness sake ask them.

_______
Postscript. By the way, I was so utterly depressed by the video-workshop I'm describing that when they asked us a final question - what we would take home from the experience - I said something inane while clearly telling myself "That's it, I'm out of this job. These last three days tell me that I have to get out NOW". I moved jobs within a fortnight. There are times when I think that the main, hidden aim of corporate middle management workshops is to bore and depress the trouble-makers into leaving the organisation. Or am I just being paranoid?

So - if there are no walled gardens, what DO you do in the wild world?  

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This is carrying on from my last point (11).

I'll probably say a lot more on this whole issue as it's one of the main ones facing any business nowadays. For now, just some simple advice:

  • Face up to the fact that there is some very strong global competition in the world and it's not going to go away. Just don't hide your head in the sand.

  • Also - as the cliche goes - don't panic. Of course you can compete in this new, internationalised market. You just have to put some time into thinking how.

  • Realise that there are huge positives in what's happening. Asian producers are not just competitors they may also be suppliers - even if all you end up doing is stringing some Indian glass beads with Bali silver findings - or even better, collaborators. You can find people - in any culture or country - that you can work well with.

  • Be honest and be confident about your own skills, experience and abilities. What can you make that people will want? Regardless of competition. What do you have that's unique in some way?
Globalisation makes the competition tough, but it also opens out all sorts of possibilities that just weren't there before. We are currently buying silks direct from India, getting our inks from England, our paper and fabric to print on from Czech, our messenger "base bags" are made for us in China - to our own design and specifications - and so on. One day I'll write a whole post about this and maybe - for fun - make a map.

Then the finished bags (and soon cushions and other things) go off to our distributors in, for example, Australia, and to shops in Greece, Germany, Japan or the USA...

Ten or fifteen years ago this would all have been very hard to organise and we would probably mostly have sourced in one country (even if fabrics etc ultimately came from somewhere else), made in one country and sold in one country. Nowadays that often isn't the best way to do it - not just in terms of cost but also - and this is an important point - in terms of the range, depth and quality of what you can produce.

Okay, it still takes a lot of work (finding good people who love good quality as much as we do is never easy) but nowadays even a teeny tiny studio like ours can work globally. And well.

Yes We Can! Whoops, sorry, wrong post.

11. Don't expect someone to save you from the big, bad world. Protectionism has never worked.  

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This is something I've been wanting to talk about for ages. Globalisation.

Okay, all of you are yawning now and it all seems a bit blah,blah, blah, yes?

But go over to somewhere like Etsy and on the forums there you'll find endless anger, confusion and accusations about competition. And underlying most of it is a fear of being undercut by foreigners. You know, those people who run sweatshops and produce crap.

The fact that Etsy has been all over the place about its Terms and Conditions - one day you have to be a "collective" (what IS a collective?) and the next no problem, you can have employees, dithery, dithery, do - has not helped. But the fundamental issue is much more basic and goes much deeper. People are just afraid, at heart, that they won't be able to compete. That the bag they make by hand on the domestic sewing machine they have set up in a back room in their own home will not be a match for the one coming from a factory in China or India. And you know what, they're often probably right. The Chinese one may well be sewn better, look more professional, use higher quality fabric, be more fashionable - and yes, be a whole lot cheaper.

So they demand that Etsy, for instance, protect them. That it throw out anyone who is not making "homemade". That anyone bigger should move on because they have outgrown the site. That any "resellers" should be hounded off and, if possible (er, how?) hit with huge fines. Okay, I agree that resellers - those who are trading mass-produced goods rather than making their own - are outside the current T&Cs of the site and should not be there. But the fear of anyone who is bigger than a single person? The pleas that it's impossible to compete with anyone who uses efficient production techniques to keep their costs down? The expectation that Etsy will somehow put up a protective barrier -and presumably keep the buyers inside it somehow. Where does all that come from? It's fear, and a desire to be protected.

Etsy has its own, fairly unique problems based on the whole confusion and lack of think-through of its claim to be "the place to buy and sell all things handmade". Doubtless now that the VCs have taken over (however nicely they put it), that will change in any case. But to broaden this, these attitudes shown on Etsy are just one manifestation of the deep desire that I think many of us have in the West to be protected from what's coming. We feel that if walls are put up - with us in a nice walled garden inside and all that nasty, unethical and unfamiliar competition kept outside in the barren wastes, then all will be well. So we desire walls - no, actually we demand them and we attack anyone who isn't keen on building and defending those walls. We seem really to believe that somehow we can keep back this tidal wave of change that's rushing towards us. And, because we're afraid, a lot of the fear comes out in the form of racism, resentment, unfair accusations and a self-righteous belief that, God damn it, we are entitled to use the developing world but to be saved from having it use us.

Well, this can't be done. Nor do I think it's ethical to ask for it.

Protectionism has never worked. If you want to see someone talk in very "big view" technology change and historical terms about the reason that globalisation is here to stay - and a good thing - then take a look at Carlota Perez's lecture to IBM (scroll about halfway down the page to the white area and "See video of lecture in IBM Leadership Forum, Rome 2006" ). Or there is a good PDF here if you'd rather read than watch.

Or if you want to read something smaller, less ambitious and maybe a bit more immediately practical for small studio businesses, then read my next post when I want to talk about why and how you can compete. Or at least not get knocked over by the wave. What's coming is change and we need to adapt. But handled well, it provides wonderful opportunities for an indie designer/maker - it's not a disaster to be feared.

9. Don't cling to your day job. Those shackles are holding you back, not keeping you safe.  

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Well. Alright. I suppose I have to admit here to being totally irresponsible because the usual, sound advice is always, DON'T give up your day job until you have everything in place. And that's right - you can do a lot of preparation and planning while still bringing in a regular salary - and then when you do make the leap into independence it will be easier. If you've planned well you'll also have a good amount of money in the bank to tide you over the first difficult months and you'll have cleared as much debt as you possible.

However... I just know so many people who put off that moment of going out on their own, taking the risk, pursuing the dream. And finally, they utter those fatal words, "You know, when I retire I think I will..." and you know they most likely won't. Because it will be too late.

Alex has a belief - blunt and maybe not all that ideologically sound - that there is such a thing as "too old and too late". And it creeps up on you.

When I was very into Transactional Analysis - I recommend it - I had to answer one of the classic TA questions, "What do you want to have written on your gravestone?" My answer was very obvious to me - "She was never boring." But I wonder if what I really meant to express was, "She rejected boredom."

Have a look at that poem (below) again. If you keep clinging to your boring, deadening job as though you are clinging to some flotsam in a shipwreck, what's going to happen? You won't go down with the ship, but on the other hand, you won't actually do much except cling.

Anyway, there is my piece of advice number 9 and I'm aware that it's not sensible and that, if followed, disaster could strike.

But... at least you would have tried. And I just have a hunch that following the dream is actually easier than it seems and more likely to be successful - once you let go of that seeming security (and it's usually illusory nowadays in any case) and begin to strike out on your own.

Okay, on that note I am off to eat some of the chocolates we've been photographing. In a salaried job no-one would ever decide that I had to photograph a large number of high-end, gorgeous chocolates, would they? So risk can bring its unexpected rewards.

8. Think. Even a little bit, but regularly.  

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Now, this one seems very obvious. But it's hard.

I'm serious.

It's actually hard work - and hard to motivate yourself sometimes - to step back and really think about how things are going - and where and how you want them to go. It's easier to just continue with what you're used to, especially as that's what anyone who has worked in a large company has been trained to do - to carry on, to of course discuss "innovation and creativity" but at the same time to understand that you mustn't actually do it. The message from most large companies is that beyond everything, for ****'s sake (and for the sake of your promotion), don't rock the boat. And thinking tends to rock boats rather a lot.

I used to work in the biggest telco research lab in the UK (actually probably in Europe) and each day to get into the main lab block, we had to walk under a large sign that read, "Research is the doorway to tomorrow." But the reality was that mostly the attitude there was conservative beyond belief and it would have been truer (and better advice for getting on in the organisational structure) if it had read, "Whatever you do, don't think." It was the dullest, silliest place you can imagine - with huge amounts of money being poured in the dullest silliest "research" it was possible to dream up - very little of which ever lead anywhere. Those who did think got out - quick.

In fact, one of the most interesting people I knew there was - quietly and on the side - using the powerful mainframes we then had in order to run his own business distributing gay erotica around the world. Nice guy (I was actually at uni with him) - and it was erotica, not porn, as he had some ethics. For all I know he is still there and still sitting calmly in the basement of that awful lab block successfully running his own thing. He was certainly someone who could think creatively - and see the funny side as well as the opportunities.

So - even if you are in a situation or job that's labelled "research" or "creative" or "academic" - there is no automatic guarantee that you'll be encouraged to think. You need to make yourself take some time to just draw back and ask some questions about what you're doing - and imagine some possibilities.

Right now, these are the things I'm thinking about:

  • What happens if the world economy really does implode? Is anyone going to be buying decorative design? Assuming yes, then who and where is our market?

  • How do we need to change? How do we make the work continually better value for money? Or do we focus more on making genuinely enjoyable bits of escapism - is that what people need now, some escape, some laughs and some comfort?

  • Assuming that there isn't going to be a meltdown (and the fact is, that even when times are hard, people still do buy nice things) do we want to be more in "New Age" shops or in design shops? Which way feels best for us? We feel as though we are at a cross-roads and we need to think carefully and decide which way we want to go now.

  • With all this worrying about the economy and turnover and whatnot, are we in danger of forgetting that this is all about doing the work WE want/need to do? How do we make space for the less commercial things that develop our own ideas? As Alex says, how do we make sure we don't lose ourselves?

And many more thoughts follow on from these. The trick is not to try to tackle all this in one day - if I did that my brain would probably give up and tell me to go and eat sushi - but to put some time aside once or twice a week and just sit and think. It's vital (in both senses) to notice what's going on in the world, and also closer to home in your own field/market. Be honest with yourself about the realities, and think about how to respond. All sorts of things will become clearer, and you'll also feel more in control.

7. Let some things go - that might include your own sense of your own identity.  

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Whenever you make a significant step - or even a great big jump - towards what you want to do next, you have to leave something behind. There just isn't time and energy for it all. Sometimes it even involves moving away from the way you identify yourself - or the way others identify you.

For many people, I suppose I am "that woman who does those tarot decks". But right now, we are thinking seriously about whether we will do any more decks, after the couple that are in the pipeline already. Oddly enough, we always intended, when we began, only to do ten in all, and somehow that still feels right.

You know, I actually want to do more of the Bohemian Cats work - but in a much weirder, wilder way. And that means really focusing on it for a while, finding where it needs to go next. I have a feeling that this means that in another few years I'll be, "that woman who used to do those tarot decks". In a way it makes me very sad. I love tarot, I enjoy all sorts of aspects of it, not least the people we've met through it.
But I want to get back to the Cats - and so does Alex.

6. Don't moan, don't blame  

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HAH! This is a hard one. I do moan, I do blame, it's true. I moan when I'm still at the computer at two in the morning because there's some snafu to sort out and it's not my fault - whine! I blame my insecurities and anxieties on being brought up in a household in which I was seen by my mother mainly as an intrusive expense. When I got pregnant while still in my teens I was kicked through the door (and off to a small, damp house with asbestos sheets lining one room, no heating and a hot water system driven by a coal fire which I had to get up and light each morning) with great glee and not even a moment's hesitation. It's hard not to look back and feel angry and full of accusations.

But - life isn't fair is it? As we all - yawn - know. Personally I've had lots of nasty, unfair things happen to me - and some very nice, generous and unexpected ones too. I've had some sheer luck - for instance I was for some years "adopted" effectively, by Jean Stockdale - an artist - when I was in my twenties. She was kind and cheerful, she'd also been through an early motherhood and had to struggle to even get to the point where she could find any time to paint. She showed me things. She encouraged me. I'm not sure if we were close exactly - but we were friends and she certainly put plasters on some of the more raw wounds I had emotionally at the time. She gave me a lasting love of Alice in Wonderland - the White Rabbit features in many of her paintings, always as a slightly fey young black man in a foppish cream suit. Which to her was the most obvious depiction. She also gave me hope.

Jean didn't actually become a full-time painter until she was forty-seven. Up to then she had done things like work on the assembly line at a button factory, in order to support her child. Having been a single mother in 1950s Southern England, she'd experienced being ostracised and ignored. But she just kept going - on and on and on in pursuit of that dream of being an artist. I have a painting of hers from one of her first exhibitions. It's painted on cheap hardboard, because that's all she could afford at the time. It's called "A Dream of the Fair".


She could be bitter on rare occasions, but mostly she wasn't. She got tremendous pleasure from things like just walking around the town in Kent where she lived, and a mischievous laugh from seeing the reaction of the neighbours to the huge hedges and sexually-explicit statues (made by Norman, the husband she eventually married) that made up the garden of her suburban bungalow. She wanted to be recognised as a serious artist - and in most ways, and God knows against all the odds - she managed it. One regret I do have is that I lost touch with her when I went to the good old Royal College of Art - of which I feel she didn't quite approve ("the establishment" and all that).

To really make something of your art - whether it's writing, design, painting, music, whatever (cooking? I forgot cooking) - you need to find some calm and optimism at the heart of things. I get terribly angry and resentful at times and it just tires me out. I get caught up in remembering the misery of my twenties, all my plans just taken away from me almost overnight. Feeling hurt and betrayed constantly - for reasons best not talked about here.

But then I remember that during that time one kind man met me in a bookshop and invited me to come to his lectures on fairytales - which I did - and eventually arranged for me to meet the admissions tutor at Kent University. I remember three years or so later another equally kind man - the careers advisor - sent me a beautiful postcard with an Erte illustration on it wishing me all luck with my post-grad application to the Royal College - an application that the day before I'd told him was useless and impossible - and which I also told him was the one thing I really wanted.

For all the blame, then, there seem to be things also to be thankful for. Sometimes even amazing things - events and people and opportunities that just appear at the right moment. I can't find an uncliched way of saying this. But I think that gratitude and pleasure and hope usually gets your art further than resentment and hurt.

I perhaps ought to insert the Obama video here again - but I have some shame.

Hints and Tips - oh look, they're back!
Don't get pulled down into thinking too much about all the reasons, and all the bad luck, maliciousness or sheer wrong decisions, that have stopped you getting where you want to be. Things aren't predictable, and maybe some of those things had to happen to get you, not where you want to be, but where you are now. Making strides forward and getting there, even if it's by a route that doesn't feel ideal.

There's a strength and energy that comes from letting go of a lot of the blame and anger.

5. Forget the “exit strategy”. If exiting is that important to you, maybe you shouldn’t have gone into it in the first place.  

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It's become conventional wisdom - hardly even questioned - to tell anyone starting a business of any size that one of the first things they need to think about is the "exit strategy". Some advisors say that this should be done when you do your initial business plan. You're supposed to decide if you plan to sell the business, give it to your children, IPO it or simply close it down. Then you're supposed to focus the business towards that eventual exit. Of course.

My reaction? How the **** should I know what my exit strategy is? Look, it takes five long hard (see post below) years on average to even get a business to the point where it makes a profit. Another five probably to establish it to the point where anyone would remotely want to buy it. Another five - at least - to get it (assuming it's big and ambitious, which most non-IT, non-financial services businesses are not) to gear it up for going public. I once had the reality of IPOing explained to me by a very likeable client - who did indeed sell and make a lot of money eventually, but who said that the years leading up to it were at times hellish in their sheer stress. Okay the truth is that I was very impressed and a little intimidated to find him on the front page of the Financial Times around the time we were having this conversation. I assumed that for him the years of hardship were worth it. And the exit must have been welcome. But then again, he was in one of those classical IT businesses that does this kind of thing.

The reality of the world right now is that things are changing - and changing faster, less predictably and in a more volatile way than ever before. In the six and a bit years I've been here, the Czech Crown has moved from being only 42 to the US dollar to being 15. That alone has shifted a lot of things hugely. Flats in the centre here have moved from being cheap to being - even in the trendier outskirts - at not that much under London prices of a couple of years ago. They now look like moving back to relatively cheap again. Streets that used to be quiet are now choked with traffic. Little local shops in the centre are vanishing and being replaced by chainstores. Marks and Spencer is everywhere and Starbucks (OMG) is moving in.

Those are only local changes. In the bigger, badder, wider world look what's happening. In 2000 did you read constantly in the media about Islamic fundamentalism? Did you imagine oil heading towards $200 a barrel? Did you expect to find out that we've killed off 25% of our world wildlife in a few short years?

I'm not trying to be doom-laden about this. In fact, on good days I feel perversely optimistic about the world. But I find the idea of planning what I'm going to do with the business when we want to get out of it (and as Alex is considerably younger than me this is indeed a long way off) just a waste of time and effort. Exit strategy? I am in this business because I love what we do and couldn't think of anything more fulfilling than doing studio work. Even if I wanted to think about exits, I'm in no position, until I learn to use my crystal ball a good deal more accurately, to imagine where an exit might be in years to come. Exit? I'll plan it only if and when I can see that the need for it is both imminent and clear.

4. Work hard. Then work harder.  

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"Now I think the other thing we need to recognize is Picasso's tremendous ambition. And it was coupled with what his biographer, John Richardson, calls 'a reasonably gifted person.' A person who had a phenomenally visual memory and could then ransack art history, drawing from all sources, especially Spanish sources, and turn that through hard, hard work into his own style."
http://picasso.thinkport.org/practiced.html

__________________________

I don't want to advise (even if I could) about how many hours a week you should work. Alex and I work around 70-80 hours a week, every week and would doubtless be diagnosed as workaholic by most. However, our work situation is unusual: we work mostly from home, so anytime we feel like stopping to watch the news, make some food, even have a bath or fifteen minutes on the treadmill (yes, we have one - I think it's probably an essential if you work at home) then we can do it. The flexibility and relaxation of the set-up stops it from being as stressful as those hours would otherwise be.

But what my point four is about isn't so much the hours you put in each week, as the persistence and stamina you show over time. Time matters. Some things just don't happen fast, or mature fast or come rapidly to fruition (fruition is a good metaphor here). I talked about beginning small and often not as good as you'd like - because that's just how it is when you start something new. And if you look at that small achievement and feel so disheartened that you stop there, then that's where things will end - more or less where they began.

W.B. Yeats (who produced some of his best work towards the end of his long life - his command over what he did and his willingness to take risks grew over years) wrote:
Poet and sculptor, do the work

Your work is nothing if it stays in your head or remains only part of your plans or hopes. You have to DO it, get it out there, accept its limitations and then develop it further. Keep going because steadily (well, fairly steadily, there will be ups and downs) it will get better - and more true to you. Put in the time and effort and keep going even at the times when you don't really want to. Making a living from your creativity demands a hard, determined attitude - be hard, work hard.



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See your work as a work-in-progress. Don't look at each individual piece so much as the progression and the sum total. Let each new project build on the one before and feel good about even small improvements. At least once every three or four years stop and look at what you were doing at the beginning of that time period and compare it with what you're doing now. You'll be surprised.




3. Accept you’ll be laughed at. Welcome it as a good sign.  

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The post below on embarrassment mostly covered this one. Except it gets more so when your first one is in something esoteric, decorative, fantastical and/or "not cool" (I'll be saying more about coolness).

It would have been so much easier if I'd come here to Prague and said I was starting another corporate consultancy. I could have said that we were specialising in emerging markets and change management. No-one would have batted an eyelid. But instead... "Tarot?" Even someone I like back in the UK couldn't say it without a small snigger.

But then he didn't know - because I'd never found it relevant to tell him - that I spent about a year obsessed with ouija boards as a small girl. "Don't break the glass, will you dear," was my mother's remark on this constant need to commune with the spirits via an upturned tumbler and an alphabet written on small scraps of paper. (It seems that you'll inadvertently find out quite a lot about my bizarre upbringing by the time we get through all these points.) Or that I then went on to study traditional yoga in an ashram in Belfast between the ages of thirteen and fifteen - ? - Yes, really, there was such a thing, started by an idealistic Austrian man who was my first yoga teacher. While others at school were working on Latin, Geography, Maths and the usual stuff, I was also taking classes - once they decided I was serious and needed some real training - in levitation and traditional Hindu spell-casting. Of which more sometime. So all in all I took to tarot, all those years later, a bit like a duck to water. Actually more like a duck that had spent years in dry dock that suddenly saw the opportunity of paddling in a lake again.

But my old friends and colleagues in the UK - such as are left - mostly find it laughable. While I suppose deep down I find the idea of them still giving earnest advice on "brand differentiation" or "leveraging your brand assets" pretty hysterical too. Let's just say we agree to differ about what's humorous.

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Do what you've always been interested in. Because only a genuine passion will sustain you during those 80-hour weeks that are going to be necessary when you start a business. Follow your true long-term interests however odd or absurd they may seem to anyone else.

2. Don’t worry about starting in a small, modest and slightly embarrassing way.  

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"They think you're mad," a friend of mine said when I left London to come here to do... something. I laughed. There was a pause. "No really, they're not saying it in front of you but some of them do think you are mad." I realised he meant mad as in insane. I poured some more wine and took a stiff slug of it.

I used to do consultancy. My clients included Reuters (never ask me about Reuters) the BBC, Diageo, J&B Whiskey (ask me about them any time - lovely clients), BT, British Airways and many more. Now I run a tiny company in a backstreet in Prague and we, as my mother said vaguely recently, "Make handbags or something?" Which of these has proved more exciting, worthwhile and given me a higher sense of esteem and achievement? No contest.

When you leave something "proper" to do something far less proper - and let's face it, most creative endeavours are seen as pretty improper unless you're very established and have a bodyguard and an expensive outfit to prove it - people will be taken aback. Unable to understand it, and perhaps feeling even that it's a bit of a comment on their own very different choices, they will tend to make fun, sneer, and even tell you you're mad. Though with any luck not to your face. If you let this shake or upset you, or to dent your confidence, you'll never get past that first step. You'll quickly be scurrying back saying, as someone else in my family is apt to say whenever she even thinks momentarily about anything vaguely adventurous, "I must have been having a little nervous breakdown."

You're not mad, you're not having a breakdown. You're awake, aware and you just saw a break in the wall and beyond it a beautiful garden with flowers and bees and hedgehogs and ickle fairies and... okay, so you just maybe saw a glimpse of a life in which you didn't have to dread going into work. That's not madness, that's hope - and optimism.

So ignore the laughter - it comes from misunderstanding and maybe a little bit of fear. You may well have to begin with something very modest and it won't look impressive and no, you probably won't be attracting VC funding in your first year (and thank your guardian angel for that). You will most likely have to be content with small achievements to begin with and they may look like next to nothing to outside observers. We hardly even talk about our first project together here (Tarot of Prague was the second one). But building anything involves taking steps. The first ones are tiny, but later they get bigger.

And you know what? If you're at the very beginning and almost embarrassed to show people what you've done so far, enjoy it. I've built businesses twice now (kind of three times) and it's that first crazy, dreamy, "here we go" period at the very beginning that's one of the very most enjoyable. (Almost) anything's possible.

Hints and Tips
Do NOT borrow or in any other way raise money merely in order to make what you're doing look more convincing and of higher status to other people. If you're embarrassed by starting off in your own flat or in a teeny back room somewhere just get over it. Money thrown at glitzy premises that you don't need, or at equipment that won't get used is just money thrown away. The worst of all is money thrown at employees that you won't really be fully employing (employees are, as my accountant once explained to me, THE most serious and scary expense on a company's books - I mean, you can't resell them can you?) If you really can't stop yourself from doing this because your own ego screams for it - get yourself an Alex. One of the first things Alex did when we began working together was ask endlessly, "Do we really need this?" If you don't have a real person asking that then invent an imaginary friend.

Basically, if you don't need it, don't get it. Because every bit of money saved will buy you time - and what a new creative business needs above all else is time.