Anti-Spam

Anti-Spam

Business

Technology has invaded our lives. Everyday we spend several hours checking social media and email. Personally I hate updates: all the background noises and flashy messages that pop up on my phone to alert me of things that I don’t really have time for. I’ve turned the majority of my notifications off. This is why I choose not to advertise using email. To bombard you with useless notices about something that you really don’t need – it irritates me as I imagine it does you.

If you search the Internet for marketing tips one of the strategies you will see is building an email list. It is the number one sales tool for companies because it gives you a direct pipeline to people’s private lives. It is also said that “conversion rate” or turning clicks into sales, is highest in emails, bringing a higher return than social media. This is why people are always trying to get you to sign up for email lists. They believe you are better primed to spend money and it’s these kinds of tactics that I have learned to dislike.

Therefore I have deliberately decided to meet marketers’ advice to shout as loud as possible at people to get their attention by any means possible with my own silence. In this one area anyway. I do advertise. I occasionally take out ads on Etsy. I publish pictures and notifications on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+ (although I don’t know why I bother with the last one). And I’m considering hitting up several businesses to drum up client work. Because how else will people know that I exist?

But social media is the kind of space where you have more latitude to control who you let in. And it’s momentary. Something pops up. Then it quickly moves to the bottom of the list, evaporating from view over time. Unlike the unending, never expiring mailbox. Social media can also be conversational, not just a one way shouting match, where you can talk to a real person and not just a corporate image. If my story is interesting enough I think social media should be sufficient for my advertising purposes.

A lot of this attitude is learned by working my booth at a craft fair or art show. I can see people’s immediate reactions when their faces and body language change after I try to start a conversation. Anything more than “hello” and people run away afraid of aggressive sales tactics.

I’ve talked about this before. Going to a small Sierra mountain community and being welcomed like an old friend was a shocking experience for me and my wife. We are so used to being hit up for money that we have become distrustful of strangers. And that is a sad state, but one that I’m intimately familiar with.

I used to be one of those aggressive salesmen in the mall trying to get you to sign up for credit cards you didn’t need. I hated being in that position. I felt awful and sleazy, but when your job depends on car salesman tactics you either comply or go hungry. Today, I take that life lesson seriously by trying to give people the space and freedom to browse on their own, because as someone who’s been around this aggressive sales culture long enough I think it is important to respect people the same way I would like to be respected. Maybe I can even capture some of that Sierra mountain friendliness and bring it back to the urban sprawl.

Being friendly, approachable, joking, taking the time to demonstrate and inform – these are worthy attributes that outweigh any benefits I might receive with an email advertising campaign that junks up your inbox. I want to be personable. Human. Not a salesman. And in order to serve that principle I will strive to be less invasive. To treat you like a friend which is easy enough since if you like dinosaurs and beer, chances are we have a few things in common.
 

Copyright © 2016 Robert C. Olson

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Reclaimed Wood Decor

Double Duty

Business

Busy. Slammed. Overworked and feeling like I might be on the verge of burning out. But I keep pushing forward. I can’t stop. Because it’s survival mode now. Nothing like a little pressure to motivate you.

I can’t really tell you what has happened over the last few months. Not just because my memory sucks – something I like to refer to as my beer soaked brain – but because I have been going pretty much non-stop. When I’m not working a full time job during the day as a tech for theater (building sets, hanging lights, cleaning up other people’s mess, etc.) I’m taking whatever free time I have to build up… well… what has become the family business. Which isn’t out of the ordinary. The biggest difference is that everything feels like it hinges on the success of our separate, yet jointly created ventures. Our feet are in the fire now.

Here are some things I’ve been working on behind the scenes…

Over the last three to four years I’ve been plugging away at this art business in a moseying pace. Sauntering in the way retired hobbyists do for pure enjoyment of a thing that keeps my human setting on tolerable instead of obnoxious. That was pretty much the course we followed when, earlier this summer, my wife quit her job. Now, urgency is how we operate. Like the way that a bathroom can be urgently needed when a bowel movement won’t wait. One savings account has been depleted and we are living on single mediocre income in the one of the most expensive counties, in the most expensive state, perhaps, in the world. Rent is about to go up. Probably will do again soon after that. Cost of living is steadily rising at the same pace as global warming and has a similar impending doom feel about it.

Still I’m not worried. Anxious. Tense. Sleepless – absolutely. But we’re not to the cliff’s edge yet. And we have experience in this sort of thing: post recession we tightened our belts and pulled together what we could to make ends meet. It was stressful, but I think weathering the storm made our marriage even stronger. Made us tougher people which will come in handy as the strain grows, and it most definitely will. We’ve only just begun to hit hard times.

In the last few months my wife has opened five shops under three brand names, posting two or three dozen products of her own. She’s been by my side at many of the flea markets, art walks, or craft fairs that I’ve attended this year and she has been working every day to work on building her product line.

Time for a plug here: you can see her shops on Etsy, Society6, and Redbubble under Come To California and I Love The Unknown. Or follow the links here: 

https://www.etsy.com/shop/cometocalifornia
https://society6.com/cometocalifornia
https://society6.com/ilovetheunknown
http://www.redbubble.com/people/ilovetheunknown

Sure I’m tired. However, without that tiny, minuscule earning we are earning the hard way we might not weather this storm. It’s our tiny life boat. A raft in the in cold, trashing ocean. Got to bail the water out. Or sink.

So when I say I have been busy it’s actually true. Not just something I say to blow off our friends, but an all out war against the lies that the economy is recovering. Over the last few weeks I’ve tried to not only ramp-up my efforts to put up new prints, but create things to help my wife’s business to gain some traction. I’ve made a Pop-Art dinosaur, some reclaimed wood decor, display tables and shelves. I’ve enrolled in fairs and markets as a partner to my wife. All while holding down a job that doesn’t necessarily have a constant schedule. I am one hundred percent business and we spend a lot of time talking shop when we are not working.

It’s odd to be here. I’ve heard the war stories from other creatives who say that when you don’t have a fallback you work harder. Well, now here we are. No Plan B. Without a safety net. Or at least, a safety net that looks a little threadbare. Maybe it can’t take the full weight of our fall, but it’s best not to think about that. Concentrate on reaching the other side. It’s with that determination that I keep working. Normally I would be too tired to keep drawing. This is the busy time of year for me when the day job takes up a lot of time and energy. Luckily there has been a little bit of space to breathe in, but I’ve had a few days here and there where I don’t feel like doing anything.

Then I pick up the axe and go right back to swinging. Dark bags under the eyes. Shoulders bunched up like knotted Christmas lights. Barely able to recognize mistakes. Which I’m making more of. Before this autumn I would have told you that I didn’t have the strength. That I would have let the flame die out. I’ve surprised myself.  My wife stepped up too. I knew she would. What makes it hard for her is that we keep hearing how the economy is doing better, but we’re not seeing it anywhere. Approaching one hundred applications to underpaying jobs and several interviews and temp agencies teasing opportunity only to pass on actually hiring through a gutless email. Pile on top of that a heap a lackluster sales and you might begin to understand the low feeling it brings. Can’t stop though. Not now.

This is the sort of thing people don’t really share on Facebook. If you looked at our photos and posts online you probably wouldn’t know that we are having a hard time. I don’t see us starving any time soon. We’ll get through this for now. Yet when times are tough you buckle down and dig in. You don’t quit. And I think that’s the thing that gives me hope. That by doubling down on our dreams we might be able to tunnel our way out of this mess. To feel the warm sunlight on our faces again as the storm clears. Stronger, better people for having survived. We are fighters after all, seasoned by a harsh environment and used to pulling double duty.

Rob's Hand Made Sign

Art Show Beginner

Business

Taking the business to the next level involves taking my prints to the people. So far I’ve had pretty good experiences, but I’m only three shows into my print career so I have a lot to learn. Nonetheless, here are my experiences at the Claremont Art Walk and the OC Weekly’s Artopia in Downtown Santa Ana.

Chronologically Claremont came first. It came to me by way of a friend-of-a-friend who has taken over the Art Walk. I’m not sure exactly when the whole thing started, but when I jumped onboard it was the first time that Rebecca had run an Art Walk. It was also the return of the walk from a brief hiatus. As I wrote about a month ago in my previous article the Art Walk had shakey beginnings. Now under the guidance of Janelle Rensch and Rebecca Ustrell it is on track for the first Saturday every month.

When I think about my night there it makes me think of a club house. A hangout for your friends where you can feel free to joke, share new experiences, and wonder about the future. Since the Art Walk is just getting back on it’s feet there wasn’t much fanfare to attract visitors. Although I did notice that between the time I lived near the area and now, a difference of four or five years, that the Packing House filled in it’s empty store fronts. That led to steady traffic throughout the night and since you have people waiting for their tables at the hipstery Whisper House restaurant, you have a chance to catch a few eyes from there. Passers by from other eateries like the amazingly delicious Eureka! Burger helped fill in some of that foot traffic as well.

Considering it was a free, juried* show the amount of cash earned that night was strictly profit. After three shows at this level my average sales seem to float around ten prints at a very, very reasonable price point. You can do the math on that, but until the show earns some more notoriety I would imagine that earnings for someone like me will stay kind of low. The other people participating that day didn’t seem to do as well (a guitarist, and high-end French gift basket vendor).

The Claremont Packing House was one of the first renovations to take place in the area and is one of the nicest places to visit. It’s had a hard time attracting business in the past, but when I visited for the show it was buzzing with activity which is good to see. Downtown Claremont is a little hidden from the world, which is how I believe the residents prefer it, but I’m seeing signs of growth. The venue itself is pleasant with reclaimed wood floors and dim lighting. It was suggested that I bring my own lighting and I’m glad I did. It was nice to be indoors too and while it looked like it might rain that day it luckily never did. During the summer months it can get really hot out there so I imagine that being inside will be helpful in future walks, but there is talk of expanding to the outside courtyard between the parking structure and the Packing House.

Overall the Claremont experience was nice and people were a lot friendlier than I have experienced in the one previous show that I’ve been a part of. Not that people were rude, just less engaging. Quite the opposite in Claremont. The Santa Ana art show on the following weekend would have some parallels.

When my wife sent me an ad from the OC Weekly hosting an art show the second week of May I was cynical about it. The annual Artopia, also held in LA and a few other cities I think, was a vote-for-your favorite kind of marketing scheme. If you’ve ever participated in a Pepsi school fundraiser where you have to get as many people you can to sign up on a website and vote for your school then you know what I’m talking about. It’s a way for the OC Weekly to build email lists and send you junk mail. Normally I wouldn’t go for this sort of thing, but I thought I might be able to piggyback off the OC Weekly’s promotion efforts and at the very least get my name out in the open.

I didn’t ask anyone to vote for me. I’ve tried my hand in a similar promotion years ago with the tee shirt company Threadless and met with awful results. Personally I don’t like being marketed to and I will walk all the way around something that smells a little bit like advertising, so I get it. People don’t want to go on Facebook and see that shit. No problem.

However, my wife is my biggest promoter and jumped on that wagon quicker that you can say “hold your horses”. That’s probably what got me through the door because she convinced a lot of friends to sign up to vote which got into the top ten out of thirty pre-approved artists. I’d love to know what the vote looked like because I’d be willing to bet that there weren’t that many votes and I probably defaulted in because I was one of the few that got votes.

In any case this was a pretty good operation. Plenty of communication, parking maps, wristbands, club lights, dj… the whole loft party package. Which gave it the feel of a mid-sized, exclusive event. The staff, led I think by Jenna Moothart of OC Weekly Marketing, was incredibly friendly and helpful. I really felt like they were there to cater to me and there were a lot of OC Weekly shirts to provide manpower. So even when there were some kinks, which I later found out was caused by unfamiliarity in a new venue, they were fast to respond, and really accommodating.

Although typically rented out as a wedding space the venue itself, The 1912, was nice. A contemporary upstairs take on the hipster packing house trend that is slowly taking over southern California, the wood floors and beams give it a warm feel with the old style warehouse windows letting in nice light during the day, and antique edison style lights with some small, moving, track lighting type dj lights and gobos (or patterns) for the night. It was really dark in my corner and my neighbor, by the end of the night, was living in shadow. So I was glad that I packed my lamps.

When I first set up next to the bathroom, the kitchen (or storage room of some sort), and a cocktail table there was pretty good lighting in that spot, but I was bumped for a photo-booth (maybe paid for by the event) and sent to the corner. It was a little odd, but it was better than being isolated in the alternative space, a room hidden around the corner that another artist briefly sat in until it she realized that no one would see her art. Also, I didn’t have to worry about someone hanging out by the cocktail table and spilling their drink on my prints or the terrible bathroom smell oozing into the space.

As details rolled in from Jenna I took note of certain things: one thing that I thought would have an effect on sales was the cover charge. Tickets were $30 online pre-sale with a discount code I could hand out lowering it to $20. At the door prices went up to $35. Toward the end of the event I talked to the staff who said that total tickets sold were about two hundred fifty tickets sold out of three hundred available. This is different than past Artopia events which the staff said had twenty artists (instead of ten) with around one thousand attendees. They wanted to go smaller, more intimate this year. Maybe to cut costs?

Who knows.

If you’re tracking the event’s numbers that means they’re getting between $5,000 and $9,000 before expenses which probably included bartending, dj, venue rental, staff wages, table rentals, etc, etc. All told they probably took a small loss on the event.

The only problem I had was trying to talk over the sound of the dj who always wants to get the party started by blasting beats. I liked the music he played, but having conversations with people who are interested in buying your art while there is a rock concert going on behind you is a pain in the ass. You only hear every other word and have to piece together their meaning through chunks of conversation that you repeat several times.

With somewhere between two hundred fifty and three hundred people attending I did a little better than my ten print average. Again it was a free show so one hundred percent of the profit goes to me and with a slightly heavier wallet I’m happy.

Between the Tustin Art Walk, the Claremont Art Walk, and the OC Artopia here’s what I’ve gathered about running a booth at art events:

As I mentioned, my average sales are around ten prints per show. This tells me that I need to offer a few more options to get people interested in what I’m doing. The price point seems good (you can visit my Etsy site if you want to see) and with a few lower price point options I think I’m catching a few people that might have walked away. One thing that I want to play with is raising prices. Claremont, for example, is a pretty wealthy community, so I can probably bump my better selling prints up a few dollars without scaring people away. Make a few more bucks.

I would guess that half of the people that stop by my booth are attracted to the display. The dark stained wood and slick orange lamps are all part of a package and I think eyes have been drawn to the light and overall aesthetic as much as the art it’s trying to sell. I’ve received a lot of compliments on the display and I like to joke with customers that it makes my crappy art look even better than it really is, but with the packing house architectural style being so popular right now I fit in really well among people with style. Which I think helps my art stand out even more.

Overall sales are a lot lower than I’d like and that might be a combination of things. One thing that I’m ready to try is to get into a paid show like Patchwork (which incidentally is going on this Sunday in Santa Ana). The Patchwork Show has notoriety and big crowds. I figure I can probably triple my profits by signing up for a half-booth ($150) on these one-day craft fairs. That’s totally doable right now and at minimum I figure I can break even.

On the other side of that coin I need to get some more product up. Some people like to say “Develop a style”, but right now I’m not seeing people demand that. With a couple of different series running people are choosing from all of them. Since these are things that I like, there’s a good chance that people will have similar crossing interests. What I’m not seeing though is that “Oh I have to have this” reaction from people yet. The closest I get is a long, smiling stare at my Yosemite print which is probably more the name brand than anything. I’ll take the compliment, but I’d rather have the money.

I have a few other tweaks that I want to do to the display – add more signage, build out as more product gets developed, make it more visible from a distance, make it easier to transport, and so on. There are a couple of questions that I get asked frequently, like “What is screen printing” and “Are you the artist”. Some signage could be helpful with this, but at least for now it helps me refine my pitch. The bottom line here is that art shows like these already make up the bulk of my sales.

Right now I’d say that compared to online sales, shows make up three quarters of total sales. That’s something that I’d like to change and I’m hoping to grab more show goers and pull them over to my Etsy site. But I think that just comes down to offering more and better product online. I did see a microscopic bump online from the OC Weekly event, but no sales to speak of. Yet.

If you are considering any of these shows I’d say that they are good testing grounds for newbies like me or maybe just trying out new ideas. All the shows I participated in are minimal in cost and if you have a winning product you only stand to earn. I can’t say what it’s like from the other side of the booth – the customer side. I think that one problem is that it’s hard to find out about these events. Other than everyone being so pleasant and curious, even if they are not handing over their hard earned cash, you are with your people at these events. Everyone that shows up is into what you are doing and probably has similar backgrounds to you. That makes it fun, like hanging out in the neighborhood club house with all your friends. So at the very least you get plenty of instant feedback, because people always have opinions – not always a bad thing – and you get to meet cool people.

 

*I’ve only learned this year that “Juried” and “Unjuried” shows make a difference. Juried shows are selective of the people who participate and are generally better in service. Unjuried tends to be a free for all.

 

 

Copyright © 2016 Robert C. Olson

Special Combo

Special Combo

Business

I love making sets of prints. It makes a lot of sense to get the buyer to want to complete the collection, but I’ve found that this doesn’t quite go down the way that I intended. I might have to change up my tactics a little.

My art is on the cheap side of the print world. Rock poster gods typically do larger prints for twice as much money – on the low end. So my pricing undercuts them by a lot, but I’m also not quite at the thirty to one hundred dollar class yet. My street cred is low and my talent needs shoring up in a few small places, but I figure in another five thousand hours I’ll start catching up.

In the meantime I’m hoping to build enough stock to bring in a steady stream of online sales and that might be purely volume based. That is to say: the more prints I offer the better sales will be. Right now it’s a small collection and the more popular earners on Etsy just have bigger collections.

In my head I think, “You can make up the difference by promoting sets”. Sell two or three at a time and it’s just as good as the higher end sales. Then I can keep building stock and have the previous prints pay for the new prints. Problem is, customers are only buying one at a time.

I’m not entirely sure why that is. Maybe they are only in love with a single print and not so much the rest. Or with shipping prices maybe they’re doing the math and thinking “I have to buy a frame too,” which adds to the overall costs of a single print. In any case people are not buying the sets so clearly my strategy needs some tweaking.

One problem is my inconsistent marketing. I’m still trying to get a feel for pushing product online and being socially awkward I’m not sure what to do or say other than be myself, which I think sometimes pushes people away. Nevertheless I need to a) take some social media dietary fiber and get more regular on my posting. People respond really well when I’m consistent. And b) be a little less advertisey. Recently I ran a bunch of posts that were heavy on the marketing lingo and I got ZERO reaction. Not that I’m surprised really, because I hate advertising myself. Lesson learned. Chill with that shit.

However, I don’t do a good job of showing the sets together and I need to start promoting the sets and not just the individual pieces.

Another issue could be that people are not quite impressed with my style yet – or maybe I haven’t fully fleshed out a style and people smell weakness. This will take care of itself in time, but I’ve seen worse things go out so I kind of think the problem lies somewhere else. Besides, I’m getting likes on my work, just not – what’s the word – conversions. Which tells me people like it plenty, just not enough to fork over cash-money.

One customer hinted that if there were framing options they might be more inclined to make the buy and that has been ringing in my ears ever since. I like to build crap with wood so if I can find a way to quickly and cheaply manufacture my own frames then I can sell the prints + frames as a package deal. I really want to believe that this will help sales, but part of me thinks it’s only marginal at best.

Ultimately I think it comes down promoting effectively. I loath advice that tells you need to chase down keywords and like and follow your way to the top. It feels sticky like car salesmen tactics and I get that it works, and if you want to make money… blah, blah, blah. It’s clear to me that going too heavy on advertising doesn’t work because people get turned off by it. You need to have a plain message that appeals to customers (which is still advertising) without sounding and looking like advertising.

One last thought: the stuff I’m making is pretty niche. I’m not sure how many people really like Cats with geometric shapes or 666 posters (which at this time has 1 view in the past 30 days – my worst performing poster to date – compared to my highest performer which has 43 views), so maybe I need to mix it up with a couple of prints with broader appeal.

Be more consistent. Spell it out for people. Don’t be a car salesman.

Hey thanks for listening. Sometimes I just have to work it out.

Copyright © 2016 Robert C. Olson

Cats versus Dog

Cats v. Dogs

Random Thoughts

Cats and Dogs. They have always been a symbol for things that don’t attract. Don’t belong together. When someone requests dog art, what does a cat owner do?

I have a cat print up on Etsy and I got an odd compliment saying basically they liked it but if I had a Lab print (or maybe it was retriever) they’d be more willing to buy.

I don’t know what to say to this. Am I in the business of taking requests? This is the customer. And the customer is supposed to the be the end all, be all. Right?

In life there are dog people and cat people. We have drawn that line and I currently stand on the cat side. When he dies there is a good chance I’ll be switching sides and go with team dog, but for now it’s cat time. Still, making a dog print may not work for me. Not just because I don’t own a dog, but because people who own dogs or cats are usually all in. They don’t switch sides and they don’t want to see cat prints mingling with their dog prints just like they tend not to mix real life cats and dogs. There is only dog, or only cat.

Branding – and I hate this overused marketing bullshit, vomit word – is a real thing. When you choose to make dinosaur pictures people come to expect more dinosaurs from you. It’s that consistency that helps people decide whether or not to stick around and see what’s coming next. It’s like watching the X-Files: you come back to see Mulder and Scully do their thing no matter how cheesy it is because it’s familiar. It’s the same reason why Free Bird is the most played song in bars and why you’ll always order the same crappy Jumbo Jack meal after a night of drinking (or Del Taco if you’re like my wife). We like consistency.

So getting back to the cat and dog thing. As a businessman I can see the dollar signs in making a dog print. Dog people really love their dogs and anything that resembles that would probably sell. But. If I plant that print next to my cat print it might work against me. People will know that I’m an impostor trying to make a quick buck. Now that doesn’t mean that I can’t make a dog poster. It may mean that I have to wait until I sell out of my cat prints. Or maybe when we make the switch to puppy love I’ll take the cat offline and make the switch then. Or maybe I’m just over analyzing the situation entirely and people don’t really care that much.

To the customer that made the request: I might get to you down the road, but right now I’m going to hold out for a while before including dogs into the lineup. Sorry. Some things just don’t mix and it’s that black and white line between cats and dogs that make me timid. Then again, money is a pretty good motivator.

 

Copyright © 2016 Robert C. Olson

Disaster Design

Disaster Design

Random Thoughts, Reviews

In the 1950s we had movies that showed engineers tackling important problems with science and the future was bright with technology making life more manageable and comfortable. I love those videos because it was the heyday for people who daydreamed about endless possibilities. My favorite pass time. Fast forward to today and that kind of thinking is lost. We are a little less hopeful. A little more cynical. And we no longer rely on engineers to solve our problems. Today when you hear someone talk about building something whether it’s the sock in your drawer or your career, it’s typically prefaced with the title “designed”.

We have elevated the design world to almost godlike status. Just look at this new documentary out about big names in the design industry: Design Disruptors.

This is a highly commercialized vision of design is nothing new. It has its roots in the way engineering was marketed. We could probably come up with a few examples from back in the day when engineering used to be the catch word for everything from toys to washing machines. Over the years the language of modern marvels went from “superior engineering” to “well designed” and it has little bit to do with how we have changed our views over the last century or two.

Let’s bring in Foolproof, a book by Greg Ip which takes an interesting perspective on some of our recent catastrophes like The Great Recession and hurricane Katrina. Explaining that as a society we have become overly cautious in a way that allows small problems to balloon into more disastrous problems, the book looks at the battle between two concepts of problem management that has erupted within the last one hundred or so: Engineers versus Ecologists.

By early 1900s ways of thinking, we believed we could control every aspect our world through scientific knowledge. Whip nature into submission. Hunt the last buffalo and reap the endless natural resources in the name of progress. Ip called these people engineers. These are the people who conquered the West taming wildfires or building tremendous dikes and canals so that settlers could use the land more efficiently. On the other side of the table are is a relatively new school of thought that natural processes serve as a control and by interfering we ultimately cause harm to the entire system. These ecologists have fought within the last fifty years or so to allow nature to take its course and you can see it in periodic controlled burns that are supposed to reduce wildfire risk, mimicking smaller naturally caused fires. Under this filter you can start to see a tension throughout recent history as policies become split along this divide with different attempts to address problems of our day either by whipping or nurturing.

In thinking about Ip’s analogies it occurred to me that by midcentury American society was getting high on science and technology. You used to see all kinds of articles, movies, magazines, comics, and TV shows promoting the miracles of modern science. Engineers were working to solve everyday problems and make life better for every man and child.

That language has gone away and probably represents a sea change in crises management thinking, but out of the fight has birthed this idea that life is “Designed.” We have Graphic Designers, Website Designers, Robot Designers, Landscape Designers, Fashion Designers, Furniture Designers, home decor is designed, and cars are designed. We design rocket ships and dams – all jobs that used to belong engineers.

With recent technology and commercial success “designer” has also become a generic word for people who make pretend things that only exist in computers or on the Internet. We draw pictures, we create data files, we plan out events, but we don’t actually manufacture things any more. Since the economy has moved on from production to more imaginary things we needed a new term to describe the things our economy does. It’s the new economy. A new way of doing business that just has shitty words to use when describing new jobs.

Today the term designer encompasses so much partly because it offers commercialized success by making all things sound more expensive. But it also connects the two worlds using the skills and knowledge of one realm with the wisdom and foresight of the other. It interests me to think that Ip’s engineers and ecologists have merged to make designer babies (which a scary thought for a different article) hybridizing these once separate fields.

Once upon time I worked with the U.S. Green Building Council which promotes environmentally conscientious building standards. In this nonprofit is a collection of literal engineers and builders coming together to balance construction with ecological concerns. The perfect melding of control freaks and nature lovers that previously would have been impossible. In this world of people getting all Al Green and blending the engineer and ecologist DNA we tended to use the word design. If only to help lay people understand what the hell we were talking about.

In Foolproof Ip spends a lot of time on the financial crisis saying that the body of policy that is built on old-school engineer thinking is going to create larger problems for us down the road. Unless we can find a way to bleed off some of the pressure. Foolproof gives us the example of the Dutch who have started to move away from the canal systems that are so iconic in their country to more natural designs. Instead of trying to fight nature, controlling water flow by building ever bigger canals and dikes the inevitably break and cause larger and larger chaos, they have started building parks that can be used as natural flood control areas that release the pent-up pressure accumulating in their system. It is a compromise reached with an understanding of how the two worlds intertwine both protecting existing populations and working within the confines natural physics.

With so much bickering in the world right now, especially in politics, it’s heartening to think that there is progress in the world. That we don’t have to be cynical all the time. As a control freak myself I can relate to the kind of thinking that leads to a flattened, standardized world. Yet I know that in the war between man and nature we lose every scenario. What we see in the presidential race I think reflects a worldwide epidemic. There is pressure that has built up and needs to be released before it grows so big that it wipes out entire cities. It’s the blending of ideas that will help us to better manage crises before they happen. Or should I say, “We can design a better world”.

***

Greg Ip’s book is a quick read and talks about historical disasters that you might not have known about. I especially like how he addresses the management styles in relation to the crises we have faced, but I do wish he dove a little deeper into a couple of chapters. The full title is Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe. Check it out.

Photo by Stephen Radford

Copyright © 2016 Robert C. Olson

Take Chances

Steps Into Darkness

Random Thoughts

My beautiful wife has started setting aside time to work on herself lately – I’m so proud of her – and recently she has been thinking out loud about how taking risks is an important part of growth. I agree with her that risks are a part of life and the people that I see growing the fastest are the risk takers, but neither one of us is really a daredevil. So what does that mean for us?

I’ve known for a long time that I wouldn’t fit into a certain mold. I’m not a wheeler-dealer, or fast talker. I’m not able to sell the pants off a chimpanzee or bring people together locked in kumbaya arms even for free hamburgers and beer. At one time I thought I could pull some tabula rasa shit and force myself to become a different person and I actually had some success. Although it was a lot of work and I just ended up feeling like crap and fraudulent. I’ve decided that it’s time to pull back and focus on the things that when distilled, boils down to that brown-black, crusty essence of Rob that’s left after all the water burns off. In a way the riskiest bet you can make is to lay down your identity. That thing that gives you a Spiderman origin story and helps you bind together all the mismatched jigsaw pieces of the world that forms your perspective. If you lose that bet you’ve gambled everything you’ve ever known about the world sending you silently screaming into in a psychopathic dissociative meltdown. Quite a lot to risk.

Generally speaking I think the United States has become culturally risk averse. I hear a lot of talk about crime and there seems to be an abundance of anxiety about it, but when I think about it I can go outside right this minute and freely walk in places that twenty years ago I might have been shot or mugged in. We have warning labels on things that should be obvious. We worry about the tiniest details to the point where young people are now becoming defensive for other people, whether it’s needed or not. People fear government overreach even though nobody has really threatened anything that drastic – well, nobody currently in power that is. The future is uncertain and it’s almost as if we don’t know how to be happy unless we have something to be worried about. In reality things have never been as good as it is right now. It might feel like desperate times, with Paris, San Bernardino, and now Brussels under attack. My heart goes out to Brussels, so I don’t mean to make light of their suffering, however if you ask any Syrian refugee to compare their lives to ours I’m pretty sure you’re going to see a huge dichotomy.

In a previous post I talked about having good people around you and more than a few times I’ve found that to be true. I was born with more bone in my skull than brains so it can take some time before lessons get hammered into my head, but keeping good people around is one condition that has saved my ass time and again while taking risks. Without that firm ground to stand on, without the confidence of being able to retreat into a safe place, and without a cheer-leading section to keep your momentum up it can be difficult to grow.

For those people that I count among my friends all of them live with varying degrees of risk taking. Some have gone more or less solo, chasing down that dream of being your own boss. Something I aspire to. Others are locked in jobs that make them feel like their life is a waste. Something I’m sympathetic to. The best of us find hobbies and interests that make us real people outside of work instead of cardboard cutouts that get propped up in cubicles and storefronts. Wasting away. Trapped in the chains of the economy. Public policy. “Synergy” and oceans of pointless vomit, piss, and shit built up over the centuries and sold as gold bricks by previous generations. We all crave something better, but it can seem daunting to take on massive institutions.

If I look at people who have built a solid business they don’t look like me. Outgoing, gregarious, smart with money, well invested, and well planned. I don’t really see those qualities in me. Others might, but impostor syndrome is a real thing. What I’ve realized though, after a couple of years in the working world, is that no one knows what the f**k they are doing. We are all just making this up as we go. That realization was an empowering moment. It’s as if I was given permission to learn by screwing up, which really is the best way for a thick-headed ape like me to learn, because everyone else is screwing it up right alongside. So when risk goes from something that keeps us up at night to transforming into a life lesson in disguise then it develops into an important tool for growth that you can kind of manage.

Fear, and fear of failure, is a significant factor to overcome especially if you are like me and risk averse. The wife shared an Instagram post with me from designer, Nathan Yoder of Yonder Studios, who points out that sometimes that fear might just be laziness, or as he says, “… sometimes I’m merely too tired to even try failing.”

View this post on Instagram

Lunchtime sketch in the park. The other day I was thinking about the whole "fear of failure" idea. It struck me that, though at times that fear is very real, sometimes I'm merely too tired to even try failing. I think at times we can get so caught up in the stresses and burdens of our days that we don't even allow ourselves the first steps towards something worth fearing to fail at. This can come from past failures which have caused us to become tiresome and cautious or simply from our obliviousness to all that we are capable of. There is so much in life to be thankful and excited for. I don't know about you but I think a world of excited people sounds like a more fun place to be a part of than one filled with pessimistic people and I don't want to be one of the later bringing down the first. I hope that if you haven't found that thing that gets you jazzed that you will soon and, if you find yourself tired of trying, I hope that you will find once again that childlike curiosity that sees the best in others and constantly wants to go, ask, try, and do.

A post shared by Nathan Douglas Yoder (@nathanyoder) on

It’s worth noting that fear might be hiding under the guise of stress so that if you are running from place to place, plugging holes, barely keeping your head above water, its is very, very hard to justify the necessary risks when you are draining your resources on other things. You only need to go as far as the nearest poverty stricken nation to see what desperation does to taking risks. But this rings true for us as well since we work full time during the week, fighting for space to work on side hustle projects.

The United States government and Small Business Administration like to say that it takes five years for a business to sink or swim. I’d be willing to bet that you can tell in three. In the first year you are going to lose money. Just plan on it. The initial investments alone are going to set you back more than you’ll earn. I’ve had to put money down on a press, some screens, ink, paper, websites, Etsy fees, shipping costs, advertising and on, and on. So far I’ve spent more money than I’ve made by a margin so wide it probably makes the Grand Canyon resemble the G.I. Joe sized rivers I made in the backyard with a garden hose when I was a kid. Until my Mother would come out yelling at me to turn off the damn water. The second year you break even because you’ve figured a few things out, but are still learning to walk. In my case I now have a stockroom full of work that I can sell either in person or online. By year’s end I expect to break even after a few sales, recovering from previous purchases. By year three you can actually turn a profit because you’ve developed into a mature business with your shit kind of in order. Hopefully all the ground work that I’ve laid today will translate into stability going into the future that will allow the business to support itself. So that’s what financial risk looks like. Not too bad if you think about it.

Fear, time and lack of energy, all gang up against your hopes. I don’t think it’s hopeless though. If you can schedule an hour a day, a couple of days a week then you can start building steam. That’s something you can decide to do right this minute – one hour during lunch, or after dinner, every Wednesday. Commit to a schedule and do the work whether you feel like it or not. If it’s something you enjoy then you’ll probably turn your mood around anyway, just by taking the first steps. Sometimes I don’t want to draw, but if I force myself I find that I don’t want to quit because I’m having fun. Don’t stop there though. You have to put your work out there. Post it on Facebook and watch people’s reactions. You’ll probably be surprised at what people appreciate and while it’s implausible to please everyone you might find the confidence to take another step further out onto the stage exposing yourself a little more each time. That’s how I did it. And from that seed grows the knowledge that risk is nothing more than a teaching tool to make life better. Because every time you push out a little further, things become more exciting. Packed with potential. We can train ourselves to push the limits, not because a motivational poster told us, but because we have found the intrinsic and extrinsic values of being in control of our lives.

Over time that step out into the darkness will feel less like an abyss and more like an adventure.

Podcasts

Looking For New Podcasts

Creativity

Background noise makes everything better for me and lately I’ve been searching for new things to listen to. Podcasts have been my go-to while I’m grinding out work, but my appetite for new shows is growing and the catalog choices are looking kinda shitty. So today I bring you Sampler, a new podcast that does the searching for you.

I’ve dropped the dime on Adventures In Design a few times here and I still stand by it as a good listen while I’m toiling away. But that’s only an hour long (two if you’re a paid member) and I have a pretty long day to fill.

Music is great and I keep my playlist up to date, but I love podcasts for the free information they provide that can help upgrade my life. You get to hear from people who have struggled to make things work and learn about shortcuts that you can deploy in your own world. The problem is that there is a lot of crap to sort through.

Not that I know so much about making a great show or anything, but as a picky consumer I’m excited about Sampler because I can now outsource my search. Host Brittany Luse has that “make you feel awkward” humor that cuts to the chase and her first episode brings a trio of shows, two of which sound bad ass: Bodega Boys and Dead Authors. You’ll have to listen for yourself, but even if you aren’t interested in the podcasts she picks for interviews the show itself is pretty amusing. So that’s a plus that might make you add this to your playlist.

I’ve had lots of recommendations and the toughest part about keeping my interest is largely personality based, so take my advice with a grain of salt, but if you can show me something I haven’t heard before I’ll probably come back for more. The best shows are the ones that open a new world for you and force you to change perspective. Hopefully Sampler can do that. Check it out.

I’ll be back with more recommendations to save your sanity while slugging it out on the job, but let me know if you have any hidden gems worth checking out.

‘Till then good listening!

 

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

copyright © 2016 Robert C. Olson

Shit Advice

Online Advice Sucks

Business, Random Thoughts

For a couple of years now I’ve been chipping away at creating a business with some minor success. Although I’ve never… let’s say allowed myself to become fully independent, it’s partially the fault of crappy internet advice. When I was getting started my initial thinking was, “I can Google anything and learn.” Now I know better.

Used to be that I would absorb everything that people wrote about freelancing and graphic design. Online advice was useful for telling me that I needed a formal agreement and that I should have a process and tons of other 101-type shit. Yet when it came to delving deeper into subjects there was either no information to be found or it was hidden behind a paywall. More and more I found myself becoming distanced from what people said.

Everything that I was coming across was built on the clique-ish idea that you can build off of your previous career and attend magical conferences for hundreds if not thousands of dollars. To me it was like the rich elite telling me how great and easy their life was and that anyone could achieve this lifestyle if they just copied their model of living, morals, and philosophies.

My needs, hopes, and dreams are completely different from that. In a way I feel like the working class of the design world and the closest thing that I can call My Tribe are people taking cues from DIY and Punk aesthetics that have created their own space. I’ve found inspiration from others who have bucked the system and found their own path which I am now starting to take control of and develop in my life.

But it’s taken a long time because I put my faith in people who probably have something to offer for a certain group, just not for me. Since there is so much shitty advice in the world for people like me I feel like I should offer a tip to people who maybe feel some sympathy pains,

Finding your own way is hard because no one else has done it and no one else can tell you how to do it. Stay the course. Follow the things that interest you and you will find people like you and work that fits your personality.

That’s it. That’s all I have to offer. I’m not saying I’m qualified because I’m still trying to get off the ground myself. However, for people like us I know that all the other advice out there sucks because we are tinkerers, flipping things around, testing, probing, asking questions. This is a constant work in progress that will always create a desire to invest in yourself and your interests. These things will change over time as you develop and get better. And it will get better if you follow the one person who knows you best: yourself.

If you are like me taking the slow road to getting on the self employment train then you probably have the same start up cost concerns. You are probably trying to figure out how the labyrinth of business regulation works and still uncomfortable with your style. All of the “Top Tens”, “Quick Tips”, and “How To” articles suck for people like us because they are not meant for people who have to start with essentially nothing. There really isn’t anything there that applies to us. So when people write about working harder (like this article) and how life is actually tough – it resonates with me, but I don’t see working my side hustle as hard. I see it as enjoyable and challenging. I want more of it. I feel addicted to it and I’m willing to push myself further, not because I have some deep burning passion that I discovered at a seminar, but because I just like drawing.

Life doesn’t have to be hard. There is resistance from time to time and I am happy to bitch about how things are stacked against us. However you and I are still doing our own thing that we probably won’t quit doing. We will figure out what works for us. Customize it. Evolve or get out of the game because it’s not what we thought, but then it morphs into something else since we are not happy with just standing still. The most dangerous thing about reading articles that tell you these life truths is that you can fall into the trap of “I’m not like these people and I probably will never be.” It prevents you from even trying in the first place and the best thing you can do for yourself is to test it out. Just dip your toe in the water and if it sticks go with it. Don’t worry about following the rules or doing things the “right way”. Just do it and figure it out as you go.

When you are building from the ground up – when you don’t really have the resources to jump in – the only way you are really going to learn anyway is by doing it little by little, setting one stone on top of the other. That’s probably the best way too, because now you can learn while you earn. Have people pay for you to hone your skills and talents. Plus with your ass on the line these lessons will stick with you long after you have forgotten stupid, pointless articles like the one you are currently reading.

So the best thing to do is to ignore all that shit that people try to tell you and follow through with you ideas. Make mistakes. Get better. Start with nothing.

Side Hustle

Competing Against Nothing

Random Thoughts

Living in California you almost have to have a side hustle. It’s expensive here and pay hasn’t exactly kept pace with living costs. Check this out: if I want to buy a house near where I live in Orange County you have to come up with, on average, $600,000. With 20 percent down for typical loans that’s $120,000, more than the average income in the state by about double. It’s a small chunk of what it costs to live in paradise, but it just goes to show that if you’re going to make it here you have to earn some extra scratch.

One of the things I like about living here is that a lot of people have that side gig and it’s not just to make money. We’re dreamers striving for happiness – hedonistic to the core. Not too long ago a couple – friends of ours – went off the grid. She went freelance locking in video work with a pretty stable company and he reconnected with a former job to negotiate a work-from-home deal. This is the perfect example of turning that dream of making your side-gig into a full time job coming true and I’m really excited for them.*

The funny thing about all this is that the very things we are pursuing may be eroding the ground our dreams stand on.

Almost a decade ago now I remember getting really excited over stories of how people were creating these great, collaborative, social projects to help people and make the world a better place. Things like Wikipedia have been an incredible free resource built on people’s good will. And when people couldn’t find it for free they would steal it through sites like Pirate Bay.

Now, I’m more hesitant. How do people make a living doing this kind of stuff? And how do we side-hustlers compete against the growing pool of free resources?

An interesting take on this whole free/sharing economy comes from Dan Pink, speaking at RSA, who points out that people are seeking fulfillment in their off hours and participating in projects and hobbies that create a sense of purpose rather than a steady income. Drive, it would seem, supersedes financial reward which explains why we are seeing seemingly contradictory behavior of giving away work for free.

The video is worth watching:

In an interview article from Vice Paul Mason talks about how social and technological trends are undercutting capitalism. Economic value has become detached from actual production costs and refocused on social impact. We are more concerned with reducing environmental pollution and achieving work-life balance than profits (at least, outwardly). Additionally companies are turning to more automation. Amazon’s pursuit of flying delivery drones and Google’s self driving cars will cut deeply into the delivery industry which employs a lot of people. It’s as if, Mason points out, we are living in a world where the goal is zero.

There are still Googles and Facebooks in the world that are making more money than the governments of some mid-size countries. And as far as my circle of friends demonstrates no one has given up employment altogether. Most are still working full time on top of their hobbies and side-jobs. So I don’t see the “End of Capitalism” as Mason describes it. At least not in my lifetime. But I do see that there are trends that will affect my side hustling people.

Take for example Miya Tokumitsu who recently wrote “Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness”. Pretty dismal I know, but her claim is that companies have caught on to Dan Pink’s idea: that people will work to create meaningful projects without pay; then encourage the behavior on behalf of the company’s profits.

Home-based business, soloprenuers, freelancers, crafters, and makers are a kind of return to pre-Industrial Revolution cottage industries where households used skills and trades to make income through various channels. People have taken up the call for homemade, handmade, bespoke, and other interests in part out of fascination for a bygone era of industry, but also to fill the gaps left in our economy.

As a side hustler I am forced to compete with free things all the time. If this trend deepens it could spell disaster for a part of our economy that serves to bring the amenities of life within reach. Then again it’s in my job description to convince you to support me and come up with new creative things that make you “ooh” and “awww” and hand over the cash. Isn’t it?

*Side note: my friend’s freelance gig crumbled, but forced her to pick up the slack and dig into solo-hustle mode.

Photo Credit Todd Quakenbush

 

copyright © 2015 Robert C. Olson