Fear does not only mean there is a gun pointed at your head or some similar threat. In fact, physical threats are not the deepest fear we all face for the simple reason it will be over one way or another. No, the deepest fear is being seen, or worse, ignored for the essence of who we are even if the very reason the relationship exists is BECAUSE of this essence. This fear is pervasive and all too often never ending. For me, this is the genesis of most “isms” when it comes to creative business, the biggest being sexism (gender and/or sexual identity/orientation) and racism.
Intimidation and bias is baked in and becoming sensitive to that fact in an effort to improve the business of creation is always a worthwhile endeavor. We have to challenge what exists, sometimes (ok, often) break it down before we can rebuild it more strongly in an artist’s image. We have to move through “I am doing it wrong” to the place where we can definitively say the voice of the art is stronger because of the path paved by the business behind the art.
There is no emotion here and our humanity into the overlay of culture and its impact on all of us leads to consequences that force compromise. If you do not want to be perceived as “difficult” or “rigid” or “pedantic”, you shave off the edges. And the risk of you not being able to do your best grows. Literally, you silence the voice of your business that exists solely to be your champion. Like throwing down the shield to hope that the arrows will not hurt. No, no and no.
The wisdom of universal creation — faith that your ability to transcend the knowable with your art — is behind every single creative business I can think of. It must be honored if you are to find lasting success, both for you and your client. The fight today is to compel the intrinsic value that lies within universal creation so that it might become manifest. Today though, more than ever, we swim in the sea of creation with those who do not appreciate either the depth of the water or its ability to transcend. These are intimidating people and is a powerful basis for fear and a reason to hide in the “easy to understand”. COVID has forced our hand here though and demanded that we call out these bullies for what they are. “Getting to yes” sucked pre-COVID and is a disaster now. In the context of creative business, it means that, regardless of who you are as a person, your business needs to speak loudest of the truth it represents.
How we go about getting to the essence of why you and your creative business exist, ironically, is to honor the humanity in the relationship — the power within each of us to touch another with our gifts. To transcend the known. No doubt, some may not get there and that will just have to be. For the rest of us, be present to the relationship in front of you, frailty and strength all at once and hold the center for where it might bring us all. To be clear, this relationship is, by definition, imbalanced, you must earn the right to hold all the power, to extinguish authentic voice of your client beyond the idea stage and to move unimpeded in the journey’s path that your creative business alone has set.
Hard, mindful work is its own reward. My naïveté is that we can level the playing field to give all creative businesses a chance at finding those who care most about their work and vice-versa. If a black heterosexual female wedding planner is the best artist to handle the wedding of two white men, then my hope, my deep unbinding prayer, is that that is exactly what will happen. We have a long long way to go, no doubt. This is the work though and how we can do better tomorrow. Clients will have their own biases and that is on them, it is just that great work finds its own audience, most often bigger and broader than imagined.
Practically, though, it means that every creative business owner needs to do the deep, intrinsic analysis on their businesses first. Why should I entrust the essence of my very life — my home, my wedding, my building, my image — to your business if you do not know your own narrative, how to take me on the journey that I need to go on with you for me to experience the world as you would have me? I might be the subject of the story, but you are the story teller. It is not hard to do good business if you have the courage to own the story of your creative business as only you would tell it. And if you do not have that courage, please forgive yourself, ask to find it and, if not possible, just get out of the way for those that do.
As we tear down the biases and seek to heal the gashes at the fabric of our society, we will all want the placebo of saying look at what we are doing. That just is not good enough. No one needs a gift, we need authentic connection and real opportunity to express that connection across all platforms. This will take time and conviction.
There is no part of me that does not understand millennia of indoctrination of other as being superior and the systemic, powerfully cultural underpinning to perpetuate the imbalance of power and its awful consequence. As a people, I pray we move to find a way to dismantle this construct and will support anyone who works to achieve this goal.
However, when it comes to your creative business, you must let your business speak for you, plainly and true. It boils down to this: you and your art change the world when you are given the stage to do your best work. No client ever pays for your best under the circumstances. As you know your art is bigger than you, so to your business. If it is beautiful is when it is done, how you get to done is entirely up to you. That is your truth, your reality. Your clients have the choice to live there or not, they do not have the ability to change it. Let that be your North Star.
Here we are facing the darkest of winters in the United States. Ho ho ho, more than 3,500 people in the U.S. will likely die from COVID on Christmas Eve. Millions upon millions more will contract the disease between now and then. And yet there is hope that Spring will bring a rebirth like no other if we can put this horrible disease under wraps with a vaccine. Talk about doing what it takes to get to the other side. Darkest of dark before lightest of light.
So here is how the thinking goes. Make sure you price your work when the tide rolls back in to make up for all that was lost in the CF of 2020. Perhaps you have to honor delayed business but the new has to make up for all that was lost. Sounds logical right? If only you were selling toothpaste.
What if we fully grasped that the essence of our psyches has fundamentally shifted, that getting back what was lost is a fools errand since it is, in fact, lost. While you are busy looking in the rear view mirror to justify what tomorrow looks like, the Mack truck coming at you is just going to run you over.
Let’s do some simple math. If you lost two in 2020, you will need to charge four in 2021 and maybe 2022 to get back to where you were. Then what are you going to do, go back to two? Stay at four and ride the “getting back to square” train as long as you can? Or actually justify your value?
Oh and who said the end of a calendar year is a time to recalibrate pricing? Do you think that magically the world will change course on January 1, 2021? Just silly. If you want to adjust your prices for inflation every year, you go. That would be 1.4% as of this month in the United States. Anything more than that requires an explanation as to why exactly you and your creative business are worth more. Passage of time other than adjusting for inflation just says nothing.
If you were your client, why exactly would that make you feel good and valuable if you are going to go with the “making up for lost business” as a justification for four? If anything, you are rusty, as are your production partners and the risk of performance is higher than it was when you were running as a well-oiled machine. That is the thing about the fly wheels of creative business, getting started again is not so easy as flipping a switch. Let me get it straight then, you want your clients to pay more money for a rusty and/or likely overworked you? Good luck with that.
Instead, how about we erase the box? Erase the box means quit being derivative to what has come before as it has very little value with regard to what is to come. Yes, you will be doing events, performing, cooking, printing, etc. just as you did before. Except the world has fundamentally shifted. Think you will ever be able to ignore digital again? Engagement on a whole other level with opportunities abounding within that engagement. If you see value at say ten, then being limited to four just to get even prevents you from investing and shifting to manifest that value. Not investing has huge implications as it will lock you in to your old (dead) model.
So let’s get down to brass tacks. What part of your creative business do you love the most? What part do you know your clients love the most? How much do you charge for that love? What if you charged five times for that love (and if you do not charge for that love right now, what if you charged sizably for it)? What would you invest in to make that love stronger, richer, deeper for you, your client, your employees? What if you decided that the level of quality, talent and commitment you provide would be what your clients had to pay for?
I give this example a thousand times to Sunday. If you have a hundred dollars for labor and you have a choice to hire ten average workers at ten dollars or two rock stars at fifty dollars, almost every creative business owner I know would choose the rock stars. And yet the illusion of more is better persists (not true of design and not true of production) so clients might think the exact opposite. What if you could educate and justify the necessity of the rock star? Then you would have the rock star on your team. Erase the box because it provides the platform for value today and tomorrow regardless of what happened yesterday.
Last, let’s talk about value. Nobody buys anything because they expect less in return. You buy toothpaste for two dollars because you believe it will help you keep your teeth clean for the time you think it does. Awesome if it does even more because you will then go back and buy it again. If not, you will move on until you find a toothpaste that does.
For creative business the value is not in usage or financial return, it is in emotional satisfaction. Joy. Transformation. For your client, you must be cheap for the price because their joy has to outweigh what they paid your creative business to create and manifest for them. Otherwise, you have failed.
The relationship of price to joy is ephemeral at best, which makes it all about investment in ourselves. Your clients invest in you and your creative business to bring them to another place. They are simply asking what is it going to take to make that happen. Your responsibility is to look only forward and answer accordingly. Erase the box.
The idea of The Impostor Syndrome has gotten a lot of presence of late. You feel like no matter how much you have done with your art, your creative business, that you just do not belong. The table was not meant to include you. The feeling then goes that the intimidation prevents you from manifesting the fullness of your true self. Whether by self-sabotage or simply by keeping yourself and your creative business stuck in a familiar rut, the “next level” remains ever elusive.
Without being overly dismissive of the issue, I have another take. Without a solid foundation of a business that supports the art behind it, celebrating what you, the artist, care most about, you will be increasingly exhausted by your own creation. Literally, the bigger and stronger you and your art get, the more most creative businesses compete with both you and your art. Another way of putting it — the more you envision bigger, the more your creative business calls you a fraud.
No wonder you can never feel satisfied by the effort, nourished by the creative experience. Instead, your business is the voice in your head saying you do not belong since it is only by luck that you were able to accomplish what you did.
Instead, what if you started with intention? With an appreciation of the value you offer? With a deep understanding that you simply cannot build your business on the end result but only on the integrity of the journey?
To dive deeper into the integrity of the journey, a little review. Write down every step of your process from the moment a client comes in until the moment the project is done. Could be ten steps, could be a hundred. I do not care. Now group these steps into categories that matter to you — say design, production, installation, performance — whatever sings to you. With the categories and sub-categories in hand we can create percentages of value. First, as a percentage, how much is each category worth to you? Yes, it has to add up to one hundred percent. Second, how much is each step in the category worth to the category? Again, it has to add up to one hundred percent.
Now you have your actual value proposition. Not some in the air, get paid what you are worth sentiment, but a real statement from you saying what your creative process is worth at each and every point along the way. Time to get paid this way. Getting paid is not just money, it is also permanent decisions by your client, often both. With your value proposition in hand you have to make sure you are getting paid the value each big step (the category) merits with each smaller step (the subcategories) building to the ultimate payment.
Presuming you know what you need and how much you want to work, you can now have your business nourish what you care about. A straightforward example: You need ten thousand dollars. Your reputation is worth twenty percent, design forty percent, pre-production thirty and installation ten. Other than reputation and installation, if design, pre-production each have two equal steps, then you have it. Your deposit is $2,000, Design is $4,000 and requires two steps, Pre-Production $3,000 and requires two steps, Installation $1,000. Scale that however you want to given what you need for your art and your creative business.
My vision is that this has nothing to do with confidence or the ability to express your self-worth (i.e., avoid the impostor syndrome). Instead, it is about recognizing that the path matters and communicating the value of that path matters more. Sure you might hide from expressing your value this way for fear of being perceived as being different or being an outlier from the rest of the industry (local and/or national). Then again, you are an artist and isn’t non-conformity the whole point? There can be no debate that the value proposition I am challenging you to create (and then refine as you grow) is the truth of who you are as an artist and creative business. Call it what you will but anything else is a lie. While you might not consider yourself less than authentic, having no integrity to your value proposition sure does undercut the statement.
The chicken or the egg then? We have spent an enormous amount of time and energy to giving credence to the impostor syndrome, driving you to focus on capturing your worth, living your core values, understanding your why. All worthy efforts to be sure. How about we let our creative businesses speak first and for us for a change? Own the truth of what is most valuable and when about your art and your creative process and then allow the faith in yourself and your vision follow suit. If the truth will set you free, I, for one, would like to see where it takes you, your art and your creative business.