Make small, quiet mistakes, not big, noisy ones.  


This week, Kunati, a publisher who did fiction and tarot decks (which is why I found them interesting) went out of business. It's a shame, but when they first started up, I said to Alex, "I give them about two years," and I think that was just about how long it was. Quite honestly, that wasn't so insightful - anyone in the industry who paid a bit of careful attention to what they were doing would probably have said the same.

On the surface, there wasn't anything particularly wrong with their tactics and strategy, and they did get lots of attention in the first year or two and even won awards. It all seemed great. But, look just a little more carefully and it was obvious that they didn't know the publishing business (or, for that matter, the marketing one, though that's another story), and were making most of the classic mistakes. How did I recognise this? Simply because we made most of those very same mistakes at the beginning of Baba Studio and Magic Realist Press. The difference is that we made them small, not big. Which is why we survived and still continue to grow.

When you first start out, you may choose to go into a business that you have experience with, or you may decide go into something that you're new to, but find attractive or promising. In the post below, I've talked about the dangers of doing exactly what you were already doing, but, at the other extreme, there are also problems with going into a business in which you have little experience. However bright you are and however much research you do, you're bound to get many things wrong.

So, what are the options? Well, you either start off big, pour in lots of money, make an immediate impact, charge ahead and assume that you'll learn fast and overwhelm some of the competition. Or you start small and cautious, feel your way, be prepared to learn, alter course and change direction and accept that you'll initially be ignored and eclipsed by the "biggies".

Most of the 1995-2000 dotcoms went the first way, they burned through money, got heaps of publicity, appeared to grow fast - and in the end went out of existence even faster. Having been through all that during my London dotcom days, when we began Magic Realist Press and Baba Studio I wanted to go the second way, small step by small step, happy to learn by our (small in financial terms) mistakes and to make many changes in what we were producing and how we produced it. When we were patronised or laughed at, which sometimes happened, it rarely bothered either of us. On the upside, the fact that we were so obviously willing to learn and adapt meant that many great people went out of their way to encourage us and give us sound advice.

Of course, if you have money behind you, it's very attractive to charge right in, get noticed, put out lots of product and attract attention. You could say it's the "look at me" way of doing things and yes, it can work. It's risky though, because if, when people do look, they find your product or service not quite up to scratch, or simply not all that appealing in the market, you've lost them - and thrown the money down a drain. And with your resources spent, you may not get a second chance. I assume it's something like this that happened to Kunati, and it's not uncommon. Think how many fashion or music brands make a huge splash one year and are gone the next.

On the other hand, if you start small, even discrete, then one or two products that don't quite take off in the market won't do much harm, and may even be tweakable to get them right. It's an odd fact that our Baroque Bohemian Cats' Tarot and Bohemian Cats picture book weren't a great success money-wise in their first year - but the deck, the pictures and the products based on them, have done increasingly well since, and now look set to become classics. It just took us a while to understand their audience and market - and we had that time to do that because at no point had we hurled large amounts of our limited resources at it.

Quiet, low-cost, careful and adaptable isn't especially glamorous. But if you want a business that's successful medium-term, and can survive the ups and downs of real-world changes, then make small steps with their associated small, recoverable mistakes. Over time, many little steps add up to a good-sized, sustainable business that feels comfortable in its own skin, and never has to scream, "Look at me."

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2 comments: to “ Make small, quiet mistakes, not big, noisy ones.

  • 10:23 AM, September 15, 2009  

    For the record - if Kunati had stuck to tarot decks, it's likely they wouldn't have gone under, despite the recession. I think the "I gave them two years" is a bit unfair - did you seriously see the global crisis coming? Pity you didn't warn economists at the time ;)

    The sales of the two decks they published were very good, and the returns-rate much lower than the books they published. The thing that really killed them was the requirement (in the US market at least) to continue taking returns from wholesalers and retailers at any time that a product is still in print. Given the recession, businesses are lowering their stock levels to keep their own heads above water. Truckloads of books have been sent back, and I think the only way a small BOOK publisher will be able to survive in this market is to go print-on-demand and only commit books to paper versions when a final sale is made.

    Kunati spent very little on marketing, which was a complaint from some of the (unrealistic) book authors they signed. They did more hands-on low-cost marketing - eg blog posts, press releases, you-tube book trailers etc. Entering and winning awards was part of this, and I think they did a great job of that.

    It's sad that they've gone under, but I feel better for knowing that Touchstone Tarot was a good seller with a low return rate, and I'm still very proud of the product they produced - the box and the jumbo deck with gilded edges was really lovely.

    I had a great contract, and as such have the right to buy remaining stock at a hugely discounted rate, so at least the stocks won't be remaindered or pulped and it will continue to be available for some time to come.

    Good to hear that Baba Studios have managed to circumvent the recession with your wide diversification of products. Having a direct relationship between the artists and the end buyer is the way of the future, and you're doing an excellent job at that.

    all the best,

    kat black =^..^=

  • 10:37 AM, September 15, 2009  

    But this hasn't really got anything to do with tarot decks. When Kunati began, they were doing fiction - and it's notorious in the industry that fiction is not selling and it's almost impossible for anyone to successfully do a fiction-based start-up publisher. It's that simple.

    By the way, yes, I did see the crash coming - but I called it too early, around 2002 - same as Soros so at least I was in good company! But publishing has had problems for many years, particularly fiction publishing, the recession just made it worse.