Today's Creative Business Diary: It's Business
Around the year 2002, after running my own greeting card company for seven+ years, I decided to put my hard-earned experience towards an entirely new card line. I called my best reps, cranked out more than forty new card designs, figured out an in-house printing and packaging system, secured a booth at the National Stationery Show, and hit the ground running. The line burst through the starting gate, with reps and store buyers eager to put them on their shelves, and orders shipping immediately.
And then it happened - the crickets started chirping.
At the retail level, the cards weren't selling. At all. So just as quickly as I put this idea into action, I shut it down.
There are two important aspects to this story, but today I am only going to address one of them. The part of this story I want to focus on is the part where my card line tanked (like a boat anchor.) It failed. The cards didn't sell. Individual retail customers saw my cards on the shelves and they kept on walking.
Did this mean that I personally was a failure? Did I do something wrong? Did I create bad designs?
No, no, and no.
What that meant is that the cards didn't sell. For whatever reason, customers did not find them compelling enough to purchase amongst the wide array of other card choices they had.
This story illustrates the fundamental truth about running a business. It is, in many ways, a great big experiment. It is throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. It is doing the best work I can do, then putting it out in the world and letting it do whatever it is going to do, which is a process I cannot control. I must do the work of marketing and promotion, yes, but no matter how much effort I put into that end of things my creations are either going to appeal to customers or they are not. They will either sell or they won't.
What I need more than anything throughout this process is belief in my own work, my own voice, my own vision. Because most of what I do is not, at its core, wildly unique or earth-shattering. I started Swirly to create a line of inspirational stationery and gift items. Was that the first time that had been done? No. But it sold well because there was something about the illustrations and sentiments I created that appealed to a lot of people at a certain point in time. Was Eat, Pray, Love the first female-authored transformative/"finding herself" travel memoir? No. But it sold well because there was something about Elizabeth Gilbert's experiences, voice, writing style, and honesty that appealed to a lot of people at a certain point in time.
That's the way it goes. The market - meaning the customers - are going to do what they are going to do, and if I start trying to figure out that magic formula and create from that motivation, I'm doomed. I need to do my best work, plain and simple, and let go of two fundamental traps of the ego (two traps that totally contradict one another):
* The belief that the basis of what I am doing is so unique that I must stake some kind of proprietary claim on it. I do mixed media work and I write personal essays. I write about everything from relationships to the creative process to travel to inspiration. I still design greeting cards. I've sold my wares on Etsy. I teach workshops. The basis of my work - the art techniques, the subject matter, the sentiments, the ideas - for all of this is not unique. I am one of many people working with these tools, concepts, and media.
* The belief that the expression of what I am doing is anything but magnificently, beautifully, wholly unique. I pull inspiration from a wide array of resources on any given day, and from these influences, I assemble new imaginings, ideas, and creations. Even if other people are doing something similar to what I am doing, I don't need to feel threatened by that. I need to keep my head down and focus on doing my best work.
But here's the thing - my magnificently, beautifully, wholly unique expression of whatever work I'm doing may or may not receive a warm welcome from the marketplace. Customers may or may not buy whatever I am selling. That is the reality of running a business. An idea might work. It might not. But I won't know unless I try, and I won't have any chance of success unless I stay committed to my own voice and vision.
There is a sense of mystery in running a business, and my ability to embrace that unknown element expands in direct proportion to my belief in my own work and voice and creations. I don't know what will work, and just because something worked for me in the past, or works for someone else now, or worked 100 years ago doesn't mean it will keep on working. My business is about flexibility and change and re-invention and experimentation. Always has been - always will be.
"The person who gets the farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore."-Dale Carnegie