Work in Progress: The Life of an Entrepreneur in Beta
This is a series dedicated to the new entrepreneur. Welcome to the life you’ve always dreamed of creating.
Ideas – What Are We Really Protecting?
As entrepreneurs in the areas of branding, design, event planning, marketing, public relations and a whole host of other creative, business related fields, we pitch our services to clients by creating proposals for their projects. But what is it that we are really selling? Is it our ideas? Realistically, can we even charge clients for ideas? Or is it something else?
Let’s take a look at the dynamics of information sharing. Many entrepreneurs with whom I work on a regular basis give their “secrets” away for little or no money via newsletters, e-books, webinars and workshops. We all share our ideas with prospective clients as part of our sales pitch. A certain number of recipients of this valuable material will feel empowered to take it and run with it. However, for many, the time it takes for implementation is more valuable than the money it costs to pay someone else to do the work for them.
The open source model of sharing information has really changed the landscape for service delivery. With the availability of DIY technology and thorough, behind-the-scenes documentation of nearly every facet of these industries, anyone who is sufficiently skilled and motivated can acquire all the tools they need to do their own work. However, if that’s the case, then why do any of us get hired?
The answer lies in our ability to deliver on the following things: expertise, labor, relationships and collaborative team building.
Expertise – Your expertise is based on the knowledge you’ve acquired either through formalized academic or technical training as well as hands-on experience in the field. You’ve got the skills, you understand the ins and outs of the materials and tools of your trade, and you can map out the steps required to go from concept to reality.
Labor – You and your crew are going to be the ones taking the time and energy to make things happen. You will be transporting and setting up the equipment, making the phone calls, drafting and sending the press releases, emails, posts and tweets, drawing up the plans, creating the checklists and following through on all the details. You understand timelines and deadlines. You do the work.
Relationships – In most of these fields, we are only as good as the people we know. It takes time to develop good relationships within our industries and outside them, as they are based on trust and confidence that can only be earned through experience. We need to have a go-to list of people who provide other resources and services needed to make our projects successful. Our network of business and professional connections becomes one of our most valuable resources when it comes to delivering to our own clients.
Collaborative Team Building – With so much innovation and information sharing, developing teams around specific projects can become a creative exercise in itself, as responsibilities are often shared in new and unique ways. Your ability to custom design a well-oiled machine, making the most of your and your client’s combined resources, makes you an invaluable player in their success.
When putting together a proposal, don’t be afraid to share your vision with a prospective client. Many people have good ideas, and yes, there are unscrupulous individuals out there who may try to steal yours, but they are worth little without the means to realize them. In the long run, reputations are built on the good experiences you’ll be able to deliver with the valuable assets you bring to the table.
How about you? Do you worry about sharing your ideas or do you just put yourself out there?
Work in Progress: The Life of an Entrepreneur in Beta
This is a series dedicated to the new entrepreneur. Welcome to the life you’ve always dreamed of creating.
Breaking Boundaries to be Creative in Business
Personally, I find it tremendously exciting to push boundaries. I was one of those kids who insisted on coloring outside the lines, questioning authority, and doing things on my own time frame. It’s tough growing up that way. Childhood is one big training for following the rules, going with the program, and learning to do things the “proper” way.
As a young musician, I was trained in theory and technique. I spent years learning how to play scales and arpeggios, practicing from pieces of sheet music and training my embouchure to blow air in a particular, focused manner across the hole in the mouthpiece of my flute. I’ll never forget the first time I was playing a fast piece of music, and I experienced the sensation of my fingers flying across the keys faster than I could visualize what they were doing. It was as if they had developed minds of their own.
Years later, when I began improvising, a whole new world opened up for me. It was as if all of the rules I had learned over the years were suddenly available to me as a grab bag of ingredients to indulge my smallest whims and my greatest fantasies. I could create music that danced around a melody or a familiar rhythm, and have a conversation with other musicians who were doing their own quirky dances in sound.
It was my earliest experience with collaboration.
Innovation in business is kind of like this. We spend years learning the rules, studying the most successful companies and learning their best practices and profitable strategies, until we can apply what we have learned in service of our own passion, our own unique vision. And sometimes we just follow a hunch, and we end up lucky enough to hit upon a formula for success.
If you really want to make a difference and shake up an industry, you have to be brave enough to follow your own vision. But business has rules, and many business people are hesitant to take chances when it comes to their own company. This becomes especially clear when looking for clients for new, innovative services. Unless you can really connect the dots and map out a clear path to the outcome they are seeking, others may be hesitant to explore new territory with you, until you can show them a track record of success.
This is where it becomes vital to understand a few basic things:
1) Find the right collaborators. They are out there – your team, your tribe. You just have to locate one another. Keep sending out smoke signals! Keep talking, writing, sharing your ideas and engaging others in conversation about your vision. When you find the kindred spirits who were meant to be working with you, trust me, you’ll recognize one another.
2) Be confident. It’s your vision, damnit! You can see it, you can feel it. Don’t let anybody knock you off our path. If you truly believe it can happen, then you will find a way.
3) Be flexible. Well yeah, it’s your vision, but it might not roll out in exactly the way you thought. Be prepared to adjust your methodology as you go along. When I was studying documentary filmmaking, a great filmmaker named Jennifer Fox taught us about the concept of praxis, whereby you start with a theory, test it through observation (shooting footage) and then revise your ideas to fit what you’ve learned along the way. It’s a perfect metaphor for developing your business vision.
4) Be patient. Things take time. You may need alternate sources of support while you are building your company, your team, your product. It’s OK. It will be ready when it’s ready. You can’t serve a half-baked souffle, so don’t try to launch your enterprise until it’s set the way you want it!
5) Don’t be afraid to be an innovator. The biggest innovators are always the ones who weren’t afraid to break the boundaries and make up a new set of rules to call their own. If you’ve done your homework, developed a solid plan, created a good team to support your vision, and are ready to think on your feet, then it’s time to go out there and make it happen!
How are you pushing the boundaries in your work? Are you ready to be an innovator?
Have you noticed that more and more people are now creating their own businesses? It’s not surprising, what with the virtual collapse of our economic system as we know it. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all happy and smiley about the wonderful opportunities that hardship can bring us, since I don’t want to invite a virtual smack in the head from any of you. They call it hardship for a reason. Believe me, I know this.
However, if you do find yourself in a relative state of hardship, and you are faced with a kind of sink or swim situation, and you are somehow able to dredge up some creativity and fuel it with enough courage to just go out on a limb and make something exciting happen, well then bravo for you. You’ve got yourself a potential success story.
This is where things begin to get interesting. You start your own business out of your kitchen, or from a laptop in Starbucks, or in your parents’ basement. It’s probably internet based. You’re selling something, or providing some kind of custom service. No doubt you have been waiting a long time for the opportunity to pursue your passion, and this is your moment.
Of course you know that you’ll need to have a strong social media presence, so you create a WordPress blog or a Tumblr page, and promote your posts on Facebook and Twitter. You do your research, and you dutifully post information that’s helpful to your prospective clients and engage in mutually supportive dialogue with other bloggers, sign up to receive one another’s RSS feeds and Like each other’s posts. Your community is building, and all is good.
Then one day, you hit Like on a friend’s snarky FB comment about Paula Deen and you insult a whole bunch of other friends from the South. And then one of your Christian clients is a bit put off because you cheered the federal approval of free contraceptive coverage. Oh boy, you’re in trouble now.
Or maybe a new client you’ve been courting caught wind of your uncertain comments on the Boy Scouts of America ruling and decided that you were too out of step with the times to plan his gay wedding. Or that branding account with PETA fell through because you were drooling over those bacon wrapped dates on your friend’s Pinterest page. Or someone read that gushing comment you made on Ellen’s site and figured you might be a little too risky to manage that church fundraising drive, or that piece of erotica you posted on that experimental fiction site made you a bad fit for those youth writing workshops you were going to teach.
Your life is on display. If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you don’t live in a remote cabin in the woods, don’t buy everything in cash and of course, do have a Facebook page. Your personal preferences are common knowledge. We know your political affiliations, what city you live in, your taste in music, your hobbies, and anything you’ve ever Tweeted, posted, commented, contributed or shared.
You know some of us are not going to Like you. You may even be the target of vicious attacks, if you speak your mind loudly enough. Get ready for it. This is the climate in which you are doing business.
Did you think I was going to tell you to be careful what you post? Nope. I don’t really care. And honestly, unless you are posting pictures of your nude or partially clothed private parts… wait a minute, scratch that. Isn’t Anthony Weiner now the frontrunner for the democratic candidacy in the NYC mayoral election?
There will be people who will love you for what you post, and there will be those that hate you. Try not to care so much. It’s a brave new world, and you’ll have to toughen up if you want to survive in it. Go on and brand your business, and be yourself. If you shine brightly enough, you will attract the people who really want to work with you. No matter what you’ve posted…
Oh, and that virtual smack in the head? Bring it on…
Hey, nothing is personal… No wait, it’s all about you.
Building a small, service-based brand is an inherently personal undertaking, yet it’s important to remember what things not to take personally when growing your business. Navigating the boundaries between business and personal as you create your brand can be a bit of a balancing act, but it is a skill that can be learned. Content branding is key, as a tool for developing your public persona and your business identity. However, for it to work, it has to have an original, personal twist.
These days, the key to building your brand is creating strong relationships around something unique that you offer to your clients. This entails putting a personal touch into everything that you do. When speaking or writing about your product, you want to make a genuine connection with prospective clients or customers. Passion speaks volumes – generic sales talk can be a real turn-off.
Telling Your Story
One way to develop these strong connections is to share some of your personal story in your presentation. “I grew up creating puppet shows for the kids in my neighborhood, so it was inevitable I’d end up being a party planner.” Tell us something about you that is unique. Let’s say you’re an event planner. If you line up in a row with ten other event planners, assuming you are all skilled at your jobs, what is it that makes you stand out from the rest of them? It’s your personality, your story, your unique set of interests and experience that will allow certain clients to connect with you more naturally than others.
Sometimes You Just Don’t Get the Gig
OK, you’ve connected with the client. You’ve come in with a good proposal. Your pricing is good, the pitch is clean. So why didn’t you get the job? Sometimes things just don’t work out. It doesn’t make you a failure. In fact, just as a writer expects to get an overwhelming number of rejection letters before getting something published, expect that a good percentage of your proposals will not end in jobs. Especially when you’re just starting out. The reality is that even though you put a lot of yourself into your work, in the end, people make business decisions, such as who to hire for a job, for many reasons, some of which may have nothing to do with you at all.
The good news is, the more you get out there and make genuine connections with people, whether it’s through the stories you share on your blog or the conversations you have at social events or business functions, the better you will become at finding your natural allies and potential business partners. Particularly if you work in a business that entails collaborating on projects over a period of time, folks are more willing to commit to extended working relationships with people that they genuinely enjoy being around.
These days, the key is to remain genuine and honest, and don’t be afraid to share a little about yourself as you learn about the other people in your industry. Some of the best working relationships have been forged out of unlikely connections and random pieces of common ground. If you don’t put yourself out there and have some fun with the process, you’ll never know what is possible!
In honor of Liz’s recent announcement that she’s quit her part time gig of many years to pursue her event planning company full time, I thought I’d share some of my musings on living life as a freelancer.
In the event industry, many of us are self-employed or work in start-ups or small firms where we enjoy flexible schedules, often working at home or at multiple, changing locations. There are pros and cons to this kind of freewheeling set-up, especially when you work completely as an independent contractor and most particularly, when you own your company.
I work as a freelance writer and independent consultant. Thus, I can sit here working at my dining room table, in my flannel pants, all day, and make tea when I want, and when the weather is nice, sit out on the porch for a spell when I need some air. If I get hungry, I only need to step into the kitchen and heat up some leftovers from last night’s dinner. Comforting sounds – the tea kettle, the rumble of the mail truck outside, the water pipes downstairs – bring me a sense of calm, peace, belonging.
However, on those days when I’m working at home, I also notice if there’s a sink full of dirty dishes, the piles of unsorted mail and the dust bunnies in the corners of the rooms. I am endlessly distracted by the clutter, and easily tempted to engage in some kind of cleaning or straightening up, because, I rationalize, THAT will help me focus much better on my work.
While there’s no one watching over me, I also have to maintain my own internal discipline, resisting the temptation to spend a little too much time on social media platforms, especially if I’m on deadline for an assignment. I have to set my own priorities and make a schedule outlining which projects I’m going to work on, and for how long.
I have a lot of creative freedom to indulge my ideas and inspirations, but I also have to bear the full weight of financial pressure related to keeping my business solvent and meeting my expenses. My ability to do so successfully is directly related to my own level of efficiency.
The most gratifying thing is to be able to pursue the projects and relationships about which I’m most passionate. How often, when working for someone else’s company, have you been in a meeting with a client or other associate, and had to bite your tongue because your impulses were not directly in line with that of your employer? That’s a tough one, especially if you are concerned (as you should be) with a sense of propriety and boundaries. Nothing says “warning” to future clients or collaborators louder than someone who is not loyal to his current boss or who does not recognize that timing is everything.
When you work for yourself, you have the freedom to explore relationships on your own terms, according to your own agenda. It’s fantastic. Just remember that with that level of control also comes just as much responsibility. The consequences of your choices will be yours to bear, and yours alone. It’s a sobering realization, but you’ve got to be ready to embrace it.
What I observe is that we live in a very changing time, with traditional employment situations giving way more and more to entrepreneurship, freelance assignments or the cobbling together of multiple part-time positions. There are many opportunities out there to make a living in ways you may not have already envisioned for yourself. It takes a little ingenuity, some patience and flexibility and the confidence that you can make it happen.
Here’s a song I love that always inspires me in this regard: State of Independence sung by the late, great Donna Summer.
I am all about collaboration. For me it’s the model for most of my projects. I even think collaboratively when it comes to notably solitary endeavors, like writing short stories. Once I finish penning my literary masterpieces (MASTERPIECES, I tell you…), I know I’ll need people to help me edit, proofread, sell and promote my work. I’ll want to work with photographers and graphic designers. I may even want to join up with other writers to create anthologies of our collective work.
It’s the same thing in the event world, even more so… Whether you’re creating a corporate event or a wedding, a conference or a birthday party, you are going to need a team of professionals to pull together all the pieces of your vision in order to produce the best possible outcome. The way you interact with your collaborators will determine much about the end result, but more importantly, about the process.
A word about process. To keep this from becoming too abstract, let’s just think about process as how it feels along the way to getting everything accomplished. Do you like the people you’ve chosen to be on your team? Do you trust them? Do you work efficiently and easily together? Are you comfortable spending hours and hours together during the long days and nights it often takes to get your event up and running? Because when all is said and done, particularly in a big event city like New York, there are countless planners, vendors, venues and volunteers with whom you could be doing business. The question is, can your team successfully work through the inevitable conflicts and challenges inherent in planning events that will no doubt arise somewhere along the way?
It’s best if you start out with a few general rules that will protect you and the integrity of your project during the getting to know you process with your collaborators, all the way into the solidifying of your relationships.
1) Take time to check each other out. We all do a lot of networking in this business, and it’s easy to be impressed with folks upon first meeting, because we’re all trying to put our best foot forward, right? The thing is, you’ll need to see how people operate under fire to find out what they’re really made of… Try not to jump into long term commitments with new collaborators until you’ve had a chance to weather a few storms together out in the field. There’s no rush.
2) Understand that in every collaborative relationship, there is a value exchange. This goes for whether you are working with a volunteer, an intern, a paid consultant, a full time employee, a co-producer or a charity partner. Your needs and goals will be very different from those of each of your different partners, and that’s to be expected. Just knowing that gives you the opportunity to evaluate whether you are willing and able to provide the necessary compensation to the other parties and visa versa. Does it feel like a good trade? Excellent.
3) Agree on the terms of your exchange up front. You’d best each know EXACTLY what it is you expect of each other going into your working experience. Make sure you put it in writing, so there’s no confusion down the road. Depending on the size and scope of the job, your agreement can range from a formal contract to an email stating your understanding of the job and each of your responsibilities and expectations.
4) Be generous. I can’t stress this one enough. If everyone were to infuse their work with a spirit of generosity, we would be creating an entirely different social landscape in which to conduct our business. If you don’t trust your partners enough to give them your all and then some, choose different partners. The investment you make in energy and resources will come back to you down the road. It’s good karma, and practically a law of physics!
5) Be flexible. Do what you can to work together towards your mutual goal. If you recognize the need to change terms or procedures midway in your process, go to your partner with your concerns and see what you can work out. You’re supposed to be on the same team here, so the rules go both ways. It’s most helpful to try and avoid antagonism and opposition during a creative process, and producing an event is nothing if not a process.
Once you discover who your people are, you are going to want to protect those relationships at all cost. By the same token, if you have a bad working experience with someone, it would be best not to engage with them on future projects if you can help it. Building a solid team is key to your success as a planner and a producer. When you enjoy spending time with one another AND you work well together, you’ll find yourself not only having fun, but providing the best services to your clients and creating kick-ass events.
If you’re involved in producing any kind of promotional events, then you know that there are people who make it their business (actually, I think it’s more of a sport) to attend as many free events in the city as possible. I’ve become convinced that this is an industry wide issue. It’s not personal, it’s just another aspect of our business.
Hey listen, I totally get it. On any given night in NYC, there are dozens (if not more) of free events taking place at bars, restaurants, galleries, nightclubs and other kinds of event spaces all over town. In fact, many of them are sponsored by companies eager to spread the word about their brand, a new product, or even an upcoming movie or television show. Party promoters are looking to fill up these events with as many people as they can, with the help of liquor companies providing free drinks.
But this is not the case with all events. Some of us are working hard to develop business relationships and strategic partnerships within a specific industry-based community. In other words, we want people to attend our events who actually have an interest in working with our other attendees, or learning about the product or technology that is being showcased. Translation: we are not just throwing a party.
So here are my thoughts. First of all, to the guests who may be getting the message here that you are not welcome at our events… please don’t take it personally. I’m sure you are very nice people, and probably a lot of fun to party with, but the food and drink served at our gatherings is not the main attraction. These are first and foremost business functions, and if that’s not part of your agenda, then you should be going somewhere else to get your drink on.
Second, I was recently forced to play bouncer. I did not enjoy being a bouncer. It felt really icky. I would prefer not to have to do it again.
So, to planners who widely promote their free events but are nonetheless concerned with this issue, here are a few practical ways to tighten up your guest lists:
- Make it a requirement to include certain pieces of trackable information as part of your registration process, such as company name, website, Twitter or Facebook account, and other types of industry specific identifiers.
- Make it a part of your invitation process that reservations must be confirmed. If people register whom you recognize as undesirable for whatever reason, do not confirm their reservations. Make sure you identify and keep track of individuals at your events whom you would prefer not return in the future.
- Consider charging a nominal entry fee as a deterrent.
- Consider using a ticketing service that offers an email specific invitation option, such as Event Farm. This type of functionality will allow you to pre-screen who qualifies to receive an invitation to your event.
In the events world, not only do we need solid itineraries, including pre-production schedules, show run-sheets and solid load-out plans, but we also have to be willing to scrap those plans at a moment’s notice should the need arise.
Scrap the plans?? Is she crazy?!?
Live events are a tricky business. Because they encompass so many moving parts, things can go wrong at any moment. Deliveries may not make it on time, staff or crew members can get stuck in subways (yes, it’s often used as a lame excuse, but people do actually get stranded without cell phone access once in awhile), talent can become ill at the last minute, trucks can break down, electrical service can fail, snow storms and hurricanes can hit… the possibilities for calamity are endless. And that doesn’t even take into account human error. From miscommunications to miscalculations, we have infinite ways of making a mess of our own events.
And sometimes, things just don’t work out as planned. Maybe certain aspects of your program don’t go over as well as expected, or not as many people showed up as you had hoped.
The good news is, in addition to thoughtful preparation, flexibility and awareness can get you out of most jams. If we are to be truly capable of creating successful events and meetings, we must not only have a good plan, but also be willing to respond in the moment to last minute changes and unexpected circumstances. I think this need is more obvious when you’re troubleshooting major problems, but more nuanced situations also require equal attention.
For example, an event you are planning may have several components – perhaps a casual, unstructured beginning followed by a formal presentation. You may have certain timing in mind for the transition, but you may have to be flexible on starting your presentation based on how many people have arrived, or the general mood and energy of your crowd.
Other decisions, such as when to start or stop serving alcohol, or when it’s OK to let your speaker go on for longer than planned will often need to be made depending on the circumstances of the moment. Certain situations will allow for more flexibility than others, but it’s always a good idea to stay tuned to the current state of your guests, and be willing to go with an alternative plan when necessary.
Be prepared to make mistakes. Some things can’t be taught, and you will have to screw up on the job once in a while to really learn what not to do. In fact, sometimes these discoveries are so valuable, they help you achieve better results going forward than if everything had worked out exactly as you had planned. In fact, staying with those uncomfortable moments can be as important and rewarding as enjoying your successes.