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How to future-proof your business

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by Jes Egan

Anticipating what will happen in the future is difficult, however, it is something you may want to consider doing to protect and grow your creative business. By considering what future possibilities lie ahead, you might be able to minimise the effects. It may seem like an overwhelming thing to tackle when you’re in the throes of running a creative business, but a little thought and planning can go a long way toward keeping your business running and possibly helping it grow.

Plan
Having a business plan is a great place to start, but it isn’t something to “set and forget.” Your plan may need to change as your business grows, markets move, and audience evolve. In your business plan, set goals and don’t forget to track your progress.

Review
Don’t get complacent; always keep an eye on what you are offering. Can it be improved upon? What is the market doing? Where are trends going? What and where are opportunities for improvement? You may be onto a good thing now—and hopefully still will be in the future—but markets, trends, and audiences can change, so make sure what you are offering remains relevant and meets the demands of your customers and the market.

Ask your customers regularly what they think. You may think what you are offering is great, but does your audience still think so? Listen to them and watch their behaviour. Is there anything you can do better? Is there something they’d like that you are not currently offering? Ask them face to face, put a survey on your website, do follow-up calls, and so on, to get this information. You’ll gain great insights and can then apply those learnings to your business.

There may be situations when your customers cannot tell you what they want, especially if you are in the innovation space. Think about the iPhone. We didn’t know we needed a device we could use to make a phone call, take photos, play games, and do our banking, but now we need to do all of these things on our phone. Innovating a product that your customers don’t yet know they need is a great way to grow your business and open new market spaces. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they’d tell me a faster horse.”

Rethink your acquisition strategy regularly. Ways in which you’ve gained new customers in the past may not work for you in the future. Review this often so you can keep adapting.

Watch
Observe competitors and your marketplace, watching what is happening around you. Do this by following competitors’ social media feeds (both locally and internationally), reading blogs and industry publications, setting up Google alerts, and so on. If you already have your eye on your own competitive space, start looking at other industries, too, as learning from one industry can be adapted to another. Having an understanding of what is happening around you will keep you and your business on its toes.

Depending on what business you are in (but especially for creative industries), following trends can also be important—even more so if you are riding on them. Watch trend forecasts, keep in touch, and, if needed, adapt your offerings to keep riding that wave.

Experience
What can you do when others are offering something similar? How do you stand out from the crowd? Don’t just sell a product or service, make sure to give your audience an experience to remember. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; perhaps it’s the packaging for your product, or how you call the client after delivery to see if everything was okay. Customers are more likely come back if they had a good experience, and repeat business is always good.

Diversify
Don’t depend on one section of your business to account for all of your revenue and growth. Find ways to diversify your product folio. If you manage to diversify your offerings, the additional revenue streams can help support your business.

Consider risks
Identify and manage risks, both for now and in the future. You can’t predict all future problems, but consider potential risks and map a way to manage them if they do happen. Not sure how? Start with a simple “SWOT” analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) and go from there.

Your day-to-day creative business may keep you incredibly busy, but take some time to think about the future so you’re equally busy—if not more so—down the track.

Jes Egan is a “practical creative” and very busy lady, doing the business in a digital agency, being an artist and a university lecturer. Follow Jes on Instagram (@paper_chap).

Creative women at work: Rachel Devine, visual storyteller

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 7.19.58 pm by Julie Mazur Tribe

Rachel Devine is an award-winning photoblogger and professional children’s and lifestyle photographer. Her blog, SesameEllis.com, and Instagram feed attract fans from around the world with candid, compelling images of family life. She has authored and co-authored three books on photography, and last year, her project Within the Keep, featuring portraits of tween girls paired with words each girl chose to define herself, won both an Olympus Vision grant and a 2016 Bupa Blog Award. A native of Los Angeles, Rachel moved to Melbourne nine years ago and calls Australia home.

image 2 Can you tell us about your background and how you fell in love with photography?

I started when I was a teenager—self-taught, on film. I couldn’t draw well, so photography was my creative outlet. In 1995, I opened my business in Los Angeles, photographing kid modeling portfolios and headshots. My claim to fame was photographing Miley Cyrus! After moving to Melbourne, I met a woman named Simone Ryan, who represents kids’ clothing brands. That was my entry into the kids’ clothing world in Melbourne.

How would you describe your work and creative inspiration?

I take pride in the fact that you can look back at images I shot twenty years ago, even on film, and it’s hard to date them. With the clean lighting, true colours, and classic style, you would think I shot them yesterday. I love that.

Light inspires me. I am such a fan of light—and dark. When the light comes into my bedroom in the afternoon—especially fall light, the stripes of light through the blinds on the white wall—it’s just so pretty. I can see a photo just by looking at the light. That’s how I’m constantly looking at the world.

Do you have any simple advice about taking better photos, whether for social media or to sell products?

Learn how to photograph in balanced, flat light without it being dull, and also avoid “hot spots,” which are overly bright areas (as opposed to dark areas). You can find flat, filtered light in a doorway, just underneath a porch, or by placing your items next to a window with a sheer white curtain. Or, coat your windows with yogurt! If you use a roller to paint your windows with sugar-free low-fat yogurt (not no-fat, which is too milky), it becomes sort of a frosted window. You get light through it but you can’t see out. It’s amazing. When you don’t want the yogurt on there anymore, spray the window with water and wipe it down.

If you want to show something simply and beautifully on Instagram, there’s that slightly unsaturated look with lots of white—white backgrounds with one simple object in the photo—that works well. Just keep everything simple and have a clean, consistent look, whether it’s slightly unsaturated or neon coloured.

image 4Which social media channel has been the most effective for you, and why?

Instagram. For me, it has been about interacting with people. It’s not just putting my stuff up there and hoping they’ll show up. I find hashtags that I like and then click on them and “like” pictures that appeal to me. I just like what I like and engage as if nobody was looking. If you think of it as a community and not an audience, you build respect by actually interacting as a human being with other people in the community.

Do you have help running your business?

I don’t have physical assistants, but I have upgraded to systems. I pay for a program called Studio Ninja that I highly recommend. It’s a Melbourne-based customer management back-end service that does quotes and invoices, job tracking, all that. It makes my life so much easier. I also use CoSchedule for my blogging stuff.

Like many of us, you are juggling a creative business and a family. What is your favourite tip for “making it work”?

The best decision I made was saying that I work from 10–2, drawing the line at school hours. I’m lucky in that I can do the school run and be here in the evenings. I don’t feel that I’m working all the time when the kids are around.

Have you ever taken a risk or tried a strategy that didn’t turn out as you’d hoped? If so, what did you learn from the experience?

There are tons. Everything has a learning curve. What I try to remember is that every bad thing will pass—and the good stuff will as well. When something goes wrong, I take those moments in just as I do when something’s going awesome; I know it won’t last and I want to get everything I can from it. As painful as some of it might be, I can still learn from it and absorb life lessons.

headshotYou’re American but have lived in Australia for nine years. Has being an ex-pat shaped your art?

Being an ex-pat has had a huge impact on my art. While everyone here speaks English, it’s a different world. It’s similar to home but it’s not home. I’m always looking at things slightly left of center. Also, I have a slight sense of longing all the time, being far from friends. There’s a Japanese word for that bittersweet appreciation of time passing, and I’m constantly aware of that. It seeps into my images.

Probably the biggest issue I struggle with is that I’m not considered an Australian blogger photographer, but I’m not an American one, either. I consider myself more Australian than American—at least politically. I enjoy and celebrate the opportunities people have here.

What are you looking forward to doing in your business this year?

I’d like to take my Within the Keep project to a larger audience. I’m also working on a visual storytelling journal for kids to help them tell their own stories. I love how photography crosses nationalities, language barriers, intellectual barriers—all those things. It’s universal.

Rachel’s Quick Picks:

  • Favorite read: the Brain Pickings e-newsletter and the book A Man Called Ove
  • Favorite podcast: I have yet to find a podcast I can listen to!
  • Favorite Instagram feeds: Recent finds are @EstherHollywood and @Adele_Miranda
  • Designers, creatives, or brands: the kids’ clothing brand Minti; illustrator Bianca Cash; the landscapes of photographer Bill Henson
  • Favorite place to go for inspiration: the beach
  • Most inspiring friend or family member: My father, who passed away in 1999. He was the one who said, “Photograph. I’ll pay for the lab bills”—and look what he’s done. I think about him all the time, every time I pick up a camera.

Photographs by Rachel Devine

For more about Rachel, visit her blog, Facebook feed, or follow her on Instagram at @sesameellis. To join Rachel’s Photographing Happiness group, where she helps members document their daily moments of happiness, visit the group’s Facebook page.

Julie Mazur Tribe is an editor and book publishing consultant who loves working with authors, books, and creative ideas. She can be found at BrooklynBookStudio.com or on Instagram at @brooklynbookstudio.

Studio visit: Anna Walker, picture book author and illustrator

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by Jo Watson

Anna Walker is one of Australia’s most established and beloved picture book creators. She has published twenty-five books in a career spanning twenty years. Her newest book, Florette, has just landed in bookstores and is a beautiful meditation on how to become comfortable with change.

Florettecover

The cover of Florette, published by Penguin Random House

I met Anna in her studio, a converted shirt factory she shares with a printmaker, an interior designer, a tea importer, and a book designer. You know you’re talking to a visual thinker when she says, “I wish I could respond to your questions with a painting instead of with words.” But as you read on, I think you’ll agree that Anna’s words more than suffice!

Starting out
Anna had the good fortune of knowing what she wanted, right from the get go. “I remember looking at the illustrations in a book of fairy tales and thinking, ‘Those are so beautiful; that’s what I want to do when I grow up,’” she said. How did she turn that early inclination into a rewarding career? It was hard, she explains, and there were obstacles, but she would “try to find ways of overcoming them.” Anna is petite but possesses a stubborn determination, to which she largely credits her success.

After studying graphic design at Swinburne University (where “there were no illustration courses,” she said), Anna set up shop straight out of school. Her parents ran their own business, so working for herself felt more like a natural step than a leap of faith. Besides, she says, “I had nothing to lose.” At first, it was all design work. Whenever there wasn’t enough work, she would invent briefs for herself and treat them as real commissions. After a few years, all of her work was illustration-based. Gradually, picture-book illustration became the foundation of her business.

The importance of presentation
For illustrators still building their businesses, Anna stresses the importance of presentation and attention to detail. Small details—like a visual link between your website and your business card—matter. She also suggests finding ways to put your work in front of potential clients, both online and in hard copy. This might mean incorporating an illustrated element into your email signature, or sending out postcards, bespoke holiday cards, or, occasionally, original artworks. “People don’t get that kind of thing very often,” she said, “and they appreciate it.”

Studio Lounge

The studio lounge area

Giving work space and time
Anna and her character Mae in Florette have something in common. They like to be immersed in an environment that is beautiful and familiar. While Anna’s studio retains the exposed brick and pipework of its industrial heritage, she has transformed it into a bright, welcoming space. It feels like a loft, though it is actually a basement.

Anna at her desk

Anna at her desk

Her desk looks out through an arched window at street level. She enjoys watching the passing foot traffic, including a Greek neighbor who always bends down to wave hello and children who look through her window.

“I’ve always shared a studio,” she said. “I go a bit crazy working by myself at home.” Having others around provides moral support and an exchange of ideas, both vital to a happy work life. And from a business perspective, having to meet an overhead (rent) pushes you to find work.

Just as important as environment is time. Anna devotes a year to each book, a pace that allows her to let the work develop fully, take on select commissions to subsidize her picture-book work, and be present for her three teenage children.

Personal style
Anna uses a variety of techniques in her work, including collage, woodblock printing, etching, watercolour, and ink. She’ll sometimes redo an illustration twelve times before she feels it’s right. Regardless of the method, her illustrations always seem to strike the perfect harmony between detail and simplicity.

Anna suggests not worrying too much about developing a personal style.  “It was years before people started saying, ‘I recognize your work,’” she said. “You can’t have a style until you’ve got a volume of work behind you. Just do the work.”

The power of knitting
Like many creatives, Anna references self-doubt as one of her biggest challenges. She tempers those unhelpful thoughts by running three times a week, sharing a studio, keeping in touch with other illustrators, and…knitting. Anna knows she’s bringing too much work anxiety home when her husband says, “Now, where’s your knitting?”

Visual Diary

Anna collects her ideas in a (tiny) visual diary.

I asked Anna what she does with her ideas-in-waiting: ideas she’s had but hasn’t had the chance to use. Her response was golden. She thinks of ideas as little scraps of fabric. A book is like a sewing project: you assemble the bits you need, make a start, and keep going until it’s finished. “You don’t need to feel badly [about the ideas that] haven’t been used yet,” she said. “They’re just waiting there, ready to make the next thing.”

Meeting business challenges
For many illustrators, the biggest challenge is making a living. “Getting your folio out there and meeting with publishers is important,” she said. “When things are quiet, you worry about when the next job will come in. But that’s when it comes back to sending out postcards, freshening up your website, reminding people you’re here. If your focus is book illustration, joining the Australian Society of Authors is a must.”

Certain things, like cold calling and quoting, never get easier. Anna doesn’t have to do the former as much these days, but her motto when something’s difficult is: do it anyway. She suggests viewing cold calling, networking, or whatever “thing” you find difficult as just one part of your business.

If you’re not sure how much to charge for a job, Anna suggests talking to other illustrators. Take into consideration how the artwork is going to be used. Is it for one product, or multiple products? Will it be used locally, or globally? Also consider the duration of the usage license. Is it for one month? One year? In perpetuity?  “I don’t part with copyright for anybody,” she said. There’s a way to give the client what they need and protect yourself. As she explains, “An exclusive license has just as much weight as copyright.” Don’t be afraid to request amendments to your contract.

Florette back-drop for book trailer

Cut-paper backdrop to be used an animated book trailer for Florette

What’s next?
“I’m working on a book with Janie [Godwin, a long-time collaborator],” Anna explained, “and I’m also working on my own story about a walrus.” Anna often starts a project by crafting her character in toy form. She showed me a loosely stitched walrus plushy. “So far, that’s what I’ve got,” she laughed. Recently, the final step on her projects has become creating a book trailer using stop-motion animation.

“I’ve always believed in the picture book as an art form,” she said. “It’s important to me that every aspect is crafted to be the best it can be.”

For more about Anna Walker, visit annawalker.com.au.

 Jo Watson is a Melbourne-based screenwriter and artist. Visit her on Instagram (@diaryofapicturebookmaker).

 Photos by Jo Watson

 

Dealing with a creative slump: 9 ways to overcome a creative block

 

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By Christina Lowry

The moment I start thinking about designing a new jewellery collection, a part of my brain panics. “Nope!” it says. “You can’t do that.” And Creative Block comes to visit.

I stare at a blank page in my sketchbook. I over-think. “What if I really can’t design anything?” “How can I be original?” “What materials should I work with?” I find myself wanting to see the whole finished collection in my mind before I even put pen to paper. Eventually, something distracts me and I shut my book with a mental note to come back to designing later. But how long “later” takes depends upon how I deal with this creative slump.

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While there are plenty of ways to find inspiration—Pinterest, a trip to an art gallery, a new magazine—inspiration is not action. Feeling inspired is not always enough to break through a creative slump. You need to take action to deal with a creative slump. Different things work at different times, and I have created a list of actions that have worked for me.

9 actions to deal with a creative slump

  1. Don’t start with a blank page. Break the ice with a doodle. Sketch your coffee cup, draw the design of you balcony railing, try to draw a perfect circle. It’s easier to keep making marks once a mark has been made.
  2. Take away the expectation. Stop thinking big (“I need to design a whole collection that will sell”) and start thinking smaller: “If I were going to make myself a pair of earrings, what might they look like?”
  3. Make it a habit. You will have more success by picking up your sketchbook for a short period several times each week than for one long session per week. Keep pushing ideas that you have been previously drawing. Play with scale. Introduce texture. Bring in a new shape to complement or contrast the shapes in play.
  4. Take a shower. If you are trying to solve a problem or make a decision, have a shower. Something about running water and a few quiet moments often results in a string of ideas.
  5. Look back through old sketchbooks. Flip through your portfolio of finished work. Little kernels of ideas are most likely still waiting there for you. Looking at them now, you will bring new experiences to them and never know where they could end up.
  6. Make something different. Try a class in basket-making, pottery, macrame, watercolours, life drawing. Rip out pictures that speak to you in magazines and create a collage. Introduce a new material to your practice. Make something you don’t have to sell and it will help you design something you can sell.
  7. Fill your well.Listen to podcasts. Watch films. Read widely. It is all sun and rain for the seeds you are germinating.
  8. Step away.Know when to give yourself space from your work and relieve the pressure. There will be flows—creative highs and lows—and you are either on the way up or on the way down. Both are necessary for creation.
  9. You are not your work.I struggle with this, as designing and creating is so personal. If my work is no good I feel like I am no good. If my sales drop, I often wonder what I have done. Regardless of your work’s reception, good or bad, you are not your work. Make that distinction and smash the creative block that comes from that fear!

 

Christina Lowry is a designer and jeweller who creates fine jewellery for creatives. Her work is featured in several Australian galleries, as well as in her online store. Christina fell in love with jewellery making while studying a Bachelor of Fine Art/Visual Art. Each piece is lovingly made by hand in her Brisbane workshop, incorporating precious metals and gemstones, and using traditional metalworking techniques. Christina can be found at christinalowrydesigns.com, and on Facebook and Instagram (@christinalowrydesigns).

All images photographed by Trudi Le Brese Photography for Christina Lowry Designs