Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Why I Admire My Friend

This last weekend, I spent a couple of days at a conference of local musicians. In that conference I had the wonderful opportunity to see, once again, a good friend that I hadn’t seen face to face in about 10 years. It was wonderful to catch up.

He spoke to us in his workshop about some of the experiences he’s had as he’s established his business. There are two stories in particular that I’d like to share with you, because they illustrate a couple of reasons why I admire him so much as an artist and an entrepreneur. They are great lessons for us all.

First, however, some background.

Chance Thomas had made a bit of a name for himself in the Salt Lake area music scene as a composer, arranger, and producer. Jingles and songwriter demos were much of the staples of his business. Being an independent entrepreneur, he was constantly scouring the horizon for the next project, the next contract, to keep food on the table and his business growing.

Then he got a steady job offer at a California computer game company. A staff position, with benefits and a salary, composing music to accompany the flow of the games. With a few years of experience at this and a lot of contacts, he went independent again. In the process, he picked up a project that anyone in his position would envy. A company was able to secure the rights to do a series of games based on the book version of Lord of the Rings. He was contracted to score it!

Game sound these days has come a long way from the days of “beep, beep, boink” of the Mario Brothers. As a part of this project, Chance composed several hours worth of music, and recorded them by conducting a full live symphony orchestra. It just doesn’t get any sweeter than that.

Anyway, two things I learned from him this weekend. One practical, the other, personal.

The practical one came to me years ago. I realized that at every sharp point in his career, I saw his name in the news. Over and over again. When he did the LOTR soundtrack, he was written up in gaming magazines and tech trades all over the place. I always thought he was lucky to have the press following his every move.

Not so. In the workshop, he said, make the press your friend, and they will follow your every move. His point? Whenever you hit a landmark in your business, send out a flurry of press releases. Soon, in your own sphere, they begin to recognize your name, and before long, you’re “getting ink”.

Now, I had realized this intellectually a long time ago. But it really opened my eyes to the power of it, especially to see its impact over a long-term career. He is now an “industry name”. Which came first, the prestigious projects or the ongoing media coverage? Who knows? Who cares?!

It works!

He also talked to us about a personal challenge that he’d had to face. As sometimes happens when you’re self-employed, there can come dry spells. And he hit a big one. For almost ten months he couldn’t get a project. Couldn’t get a contract. Couldn’t get arrested. He said that he and his wife began to sell of things just to keep their home and stay alive.

At the peak of this frightening time, he got a job offer. A sweet, sweet offer, in his words, that would bring in a big regular salary, benefits, retirement packages, security. After walking through the desert, they were offering him a permanent oasis.

The problem? A long time ago, as he was entering the video game and media music industry, he’d made a commitment to himself that he wouldn’t be a part of what he saw was a big problem: The emotional damage violent and sexual games and movies do to youth. When he met with the company in the final interview, after they had already offered him the job, he asked about their upcoming projects.

“Well, this game is one we’re working on, it’s pretty violent, rated ‘M’ for ‘Mature Audiences’… The next one, that’ll also be rated ‘M’. Then we also have a couple of contracts to do sound and music for some R-rated movies…”

With a heavy heart and great strength of character (and with no other prospects on the horizon), he turned down the job.

Now some people would be amazed that a person would step away from so much money and stability. But the one thing we’ll have at the end of our day here on earth is our integrity. And no amount of money is worth selling that.

Since then, the projects have returned, and my friend is busy again. Waves come and go. I admire my friend for being able to hold his head above the water. And I thank him for teaching me a couple of things as I swim by.

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Waitress, The Muse, and the Editor

Toward more creativity in business decision making

The other night I took my wife out to dinner. As I was looking at the menu of this particular restaurant, I remember feeling a little overwhelmed by the choices. With the waitress standing there, um… waiting… for me to make up my mind, I started to remember how difficult some of my choices in life had been.

As you’re setting up and running your business, you face a lot of choices, all of which require decisions. Some are small, some are big. Whenever you are faced with a decision, you often struggle with coming to a final choice. Often points of decision are made more difficult because there seem to be too few options, and none of them seem to be good ones.

Whenever I’m faced with a decision, the first thing I do is explore all of my options. The tricky part of that is that often I haven’t discovered all of those options at first. And that’s where brainstorming comes in. You have to let loose your creative mind and discover all the options you have. But how can you pick from a list that’s short? Or empty?

Often I hear people say that they aren’t creative. They can’t think of any ideas. But that’s not because they have no creativity, it’s just that their creativity is out of balance.

Let me tell you how it goes…

Inside yourself there are two, well, let’s call them people. I’m not talking other personalities here, but bear with me. They are named “The Muse” and “The Editor”.

The Muse is named after the greek goddesses (called “The Muses”) that inspired all creative and intellectual art and endeavor. Check out the article in the wikipedia for more details. The word “muse” is where we get the term “music”.

This is the part of you that inspires ideas. The creative side. It shares new and innovative ways to deal with things. Left to itself it would sit there in your brain spewing out clever ideas all day.

The other side of you is the Editor. In most people (who are out of balance) this is the voice in your head that says, “That’s a stupid idea! That would never work! Don’t even go there!” It seems to revel in destroying dreams hopes.

So, here we sit with ourselves, with these two parts of us fighting it out. Back and forth, and nothing ever comes of any of it. Before you start thinking that one is right and the other wrong, consider what life would be like ruled by either one. A person driven solely by the Muse would be full of exciting ideas and new approaches. The problem is, few of those ideas would be any good, most would be unfocused drivel, and even the good ones would never get implemented.

But in people ruled by the Editor, nothing gets done either. Why? Because nothing ever gets started. No idea is good enough to pursue. After so much persecution, the Muse finally gives up and shuts down. “He never listens to my ideas, so I’m just gonna shut up and sulk!” And the whole person comes to a dead halt.

In order to be truly effective these two have to work together. In balance. They each have their role, and they have to play it correctly and out of each other’s way. And to do that, they have to take turns.

The first to step up has to be the Muse. That’s because if the Editor comes in too soon, he shuts down the process. Let’s pick a simple task to use as an example: choosing the domain name for your website and your business.

The Muse is all about brainstorming. Coming up with possibilities. Begin by writing down every possible name you can think of. Anything that pops into your head, no matter how weird, silly, over the top or under the bottom it is, gets written down. I’ve heard people that were brainstorming say, “There are NO BAD IDEAS”. Hogwash. There are lots of bad ideas. It’s just that we’re not going to decide which ones are bad yet. I tell myself that the act of writing an idea down doesn’t commit me to acting on it, right? So I’m not losing anything by adding it to my list.

In many cases, it’s not a bad idea to let the list season for a day or two. Keep adding things to the list as you go about your day. The Muse is flighty and inconsistent. She doesn’t work your hours. She pops in when you’re doing the dishes, driving to work, even when you’re sleeping. So, carry the list with you and add to it when you think of it. Remember, the more things on your list, the more options you have, and the better informed your final decision will be.

After a while, you’ll start to feel like the list is getting complete. The Muse gets tired of the game and it feels like she’s given you all she can.

Now it’s the Editor’s turn. He’s going to come in and look the list over and help you decide which options are truly the best ones. I find the easiest way to start is a bit negative, but more practical. I start by eliminating the ideas that are not feasible, not workable, impractical, impossible, illegal, or that I just don’t like.

In our example of finding a domain name, the very first step I would do is to go to a domain name registrar and test which ones are even available. Forget which ones are good ones, first eliminate the ones that are impossible.

Then, with the list trimmed, I can look the remainder over and remove the ones that I don’t like so much. Maybe some have spellings that would be confusing over the web. Maybe one sounds too much like someone else’s trademark. It can be difficult, but gradually, the cream rises to the top. Pretty soon, you’re left with the best options, and you can choose from those.

The Muse has its place, inspiring the ideas. The Editor has its place, sorting them out and implementing them. If you apply them in the right place they both work very well together. Get either one out of balance, and they’ll mess with your life.

Now, you might find that after all that brainstorming that you end up back at the choice that you thought of first. “Why go through all that work?” you might ask. I feel that when that happens, I return to that idea with renewed confidence that it TRULY IS the best option, because I’ve explored all the others.

Now, I certainly don’t go through all that while the waitress is standing there. The solution is simple. “Can you give me a few more minutes to make up my mind?”

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Scale or a Tape Measure?

The other day I was glancing on the kitchen table and I saw one of my wife’s magazines. On the cover it had someone who was obviously struggling with her weight (that’s a nice way of saying she was fat!). The headline on the cover said, “Scale or Tape Measure”.

I knew instantly what the article was about. See, I’m another one that “struggles with his weight”. I’m fat, too! :-) I’ve been through enough weight loss programs with my wife that I understood the issue immediately.

It was this: Do you track your progress by measuring your weight on a scale, or by measuring the inches of your waistline with a tape measure? There are various reasons why one might be preferable to the other. They say that measuring inches is a more accurate way of determining your success. If you’re getting healthy by working out, you might actually gain weight because muscle weighs more than fat.

But then, weight is a more predominant gauge for your health. Are you “overweight” is much more common that “what’s your pantsize?”

But Wait.

What does that have to do with business?

Well, see, in business you have to set goals. And, if you’re going to be effective in following through on those goals, they need to be measurable. If I were to say, for example, that I wanted to set a goal to be happier, that would be a bit difficult to measure. How do you gauge happiness? How could I tell if I achieved the goal? Can I measure the width of my smile? Could I see that I yell at my kids and my wife less?

In the financial realm, I could say that I want to be filthy stinking rich. But just how filthy and stinking do I want to be? One million? Two?

So, the point is that the goal needs to be spelled out in terms that can be measured. What kind of terms would they need to be? Well, that depends a lot on what motivates you, and what you’re trying to measure.

A lot of people want to make a lot of money when they start their business, but they don’t really know how much or even why. So, when someone asks them about their goals, they often just throw out some astronomical figure of “a million bucks” or whatever comes to mind.

Stop for a minute. Ask yourself why you’re doing this. What do you imagine your life will be like when you complete this goal? Are you busy and stressed? Or are you relaxed and at peace? Are you traveling the world? Or staying put in a great home? Are you just accumulating money? Probably not. Amassing wealth is not nearly as fulfilling as using it. As you answer these questions, you’ll start to get a vision of why you’re doing what your doing. Then you can study that and measure the right thing.

For example, if I’m trying to document my fitness, would it make much sense to measure my hat size? Or even to measure someone else’s waistline? Measure and track things that are relevant to your goals.

Use a measuring system that motivates you, and works. For example, I once worked with a student that set, as his business goal, to make enough money to take his family on a particular vacation. He spelled out where they would go and what they would do. That focused his efforts, and drove his vision. Some random number of dollars wouldn’t have that power.

Stay consistent in your measuring systems, too. Changing midway through is likely to hinder your understanding of your progress. OK, I’ve lost this many pounds, but my waistline is now this. It doesn’t make sense.

Make sure that your measuring systems guide you toward a larger goal, too. Having seen the power of the mailing list, I’ve set a goal to increase my music site’s email list to a certain number by the end of 2005. Now, having a great list isn’t going to increase my money any. Having and using a great list will. But before I can use it to the fullest, I have to gather that list. So, I’m focusing on that goal, and then I’ll focus more and more on using it effectively.

So, should you use a scale or a tape measure. It doesn’t matter. Just keep measuring and keep it consistent, and you’ll be able to see your progress toward your goal!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Instant Recognizability!

I’d like to follow up on the Branding article I wrote last week. I’ll begin by re-iterating that it’s all about creating an image, an identity, and sticking with it. I’d like to focus on one certain part of that, step three, “Get a Logo”

I want to go there because I found a great article on logo creation and use, by Jared McCarthy. It’s part of a series, and it’s got some good information. It inspired me to share some of my own thoughts and experiences.

A lot of people misinterpret the nature and need for a logo. Some people blow it off entirely. The don’t see the value in spending a ton of money for pictures. Others seem to change their logos as often as they change their shirts. Neither approach is effective.

A logo is a graphic representation of your company, and your product. It’s an expression that will help set you apart from everyone else. It’s not your brand, but it’s a part of the branding process. It’s a big part of what makes people think of you and remember you.

Some examples of the power of logo branding: When you’re driving down the street at about lunchtime, you look up and you see a sign with two yellow arching humps, making the letter “M”. Instantly you think of McDonalds, and you think hamburgers.

When you see five interlocking rings, you think of the Olympics.

These logos work for two reasons. One, they are very simple. Two, we’ve all seen them a lot already. They are instantly recognizable, and they’ve been branded. They’ve been drilled into our consciousness by constant exposure.

Most beginning web businesspeople that I deal with haven’t yet thought far enough ahead to create a logo. And that’s OK. Because a lot of thought has to happen before a logo is made. If the preparatory decisions are not made, the logo could well end up being detrimental to the business.

If you’ll take a look at last week’s article, you’ll see that the logo was step #3. The first two were to get a USP (Unique Selling Position) and a name. If you don’t have those two, making a logo will be cart-before-the-horse stuff. Have a clear vision of what the company is all about, then you’ll be in a better position to represent it visually.

The McCarthy article stresses simplicity, and I can’t reinforce that enough. It has to be clear and simple. Shapes. Words. These things are instantly recognizable. It also needs to represent the products and the company. When I was doing music production full-time, a designer friend of mine created a logo for Hansen Productions. It was an angled letter H (representing the company name) with a musical note in the middle (representing the product). It was clear and simple, made of lines and shapes.

Simplicity also made sure that it worked effectively in many different circumstances. It worked in black and white on my letterhead. It worked very tiny on the covers of the cassettes and CD’s I produced. It worked very large, in color, on T-shirts.

McCarthy goes on and also explains the impact colors can have. Colors are often associated with various moods and expressions.

  • Black: seriousness, distinctiveness, boldness, power, sophistication, tradition
  • Blue: authority, dignity, security, faithfulness, heritage, corporate stability, trust
  • Brown/gold: history, utility, earthiness, richness, tradition, conservative
  • Gray/silver: somberness, authority, practicality, corporate mentality, trust
  • Green: tranquility, health, freshness, stability, appetite
  • Orange: fun, cheeriness, warm exuberance, appetite, speed
  • Pink: femininity, innocence, softness, health, youth
  • Purple: sophistication, spirituality, wealth, royalty, youth, mystery
  • Red: aggressiveness, passion, strength, vitality, fear, speed, appetite
  • White/silver: purity, truthfulness, faith, contemporary, refined, wealth
  • Yellow: youth, positive feelings, sunshine, cowardice, refinement, caution, appetite

Where can you get a logo made? There are lots of great designers on the net. Go to any search engine and look. You can end up spending a lot of money, though, so be careful. Another option would be to contact a local trade school or community college. Many of them have graphic design departments, and many students will do good work for less money in order to fill their portfolios with actual work experience.

Whether you hire a student, a seasoned professional, or even if you do the work yourself, a little knowledge can be a real benefit to getting what you want.

Remember, this is what you’ll be using to identify your business and your products for the rest of the life of that business. It’s not to be taken lightly

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Don’t Neglect the Branding

As advertising goes, there are few things that are as powerful in the long run as branding. If you do it right, you can make your company into a household word, a pop culture icon, a part of life so entrenched that you would have to make a pretty seriously major marketing mistake to die, or even to lose market share.

Let’s think for a minute of some examples. What are some of the companies that have become a part of our culture? McDonalds, Coca Cola, Ford and Chevy… The list goes on and on. These are companies that have achieved some deep market penetration. If you walked the streets of any city in the US, stopped someone and asked that person if they knew about that company’s products, they’d be able to tell you yes. They probably have bought one or owned one at some point. They might own one now. They might even be able to quote or sing you that company’s latest commercial.

Coke’s a great example: People are willing to pay them for the privilege of advertising their products. That’s a pretty great coup, isn’t it? How do they do that? In Coke’s case, they branched out their product line by offering clothing. T-shirts, sweaters, jackets, even purses and accessories, all with the Coke name and the swoosh. People buy them. They want to wear them. And when they wear them, they’re advertising for Coke.

But I have to warn you. In order to do branding advertising right, you have to aim for the long run. Don’t expect quick results. It takes a lot of long-term, consistent effort.

See, branding is advertising that doesn’t generate immediate results. It’s a billboard with a product name, but no phone number. It’s a TV commercial that creates a mood for the product, but doesn’t tell you where to buy it. It’s a magazine ad that captures a company’s image and logo. It’s a sharp radio jingle that sticks with you for months or even years after the commercial has stopped airing.

Here’s how to do branding:

1. Get a USP and a hook

First of all, what makes your business special? What makes you unique. Find that and you’ll have your USP (Unique Selling Position), then capitalize on that. Create a “hook”. Something catchy that people will be able to associate with your business and your uniqueness. There’s a company that will do a lube job and an oil change on my car quickly. That’s their USP and their hook.

2. Choose a name

You want your business name to reflect your uniqueness, your USP. You want it to sum up, in your potential customer’s minds, who you are and what you do. IBM (International Business Machines) is very clear. In the previous example, the company is JiffyLube. Pretty clear what their focus is, isn’t it?

3. Get a logo

Much of the world today is visual. People find it very easy to associate companies and products with logos. The “X” of the Microsoft X-box. The Nike “swoop”. As I mentioned before, the Coca Cola wave, and the 7-Up spot.

It might cost a little bit up front, but hire a professional designer and get a logo made. Simple, clear, and memorable.

4. Write any slogans or taglines

Some slogans are a part of the company for life. Others last throughout a single ad campaign. Back to JiffyLube, I can remember one of their slogans, “Some people want to change the world. We just want to change your oil”. McDonald’s “You deserve a break today” hasn’t been on the air in over a decade, but I can still sing it.

5. Put it everywhere

The key to branding is using it. Lots. Everywhere. Once you have an identity, use it over and over and over and over. The foundation of a good branding campaign is repetition. That means doing it again and again. Am I making my point here?

The only way people are going to start to recognize your brand is if they encounter it many times, so it’s vital to have it somewhere in every place that a customer interacts with the company.

6. Keep on doing it forever.

Like I said when I started, branding is for the long-term. Many people, when buying advertising, don’t see the value in purchasing ads that don’t bring in immediate business or customers. But there is great value in it. The more you advertise, the more you share your identity with the public, the more they will recognize you and come to you when it’s time to buy. Don’t neglect it.