SUMMARY: I got together with blogger Stephen Smith in Concord, NH, to have an informal knowledge sharing session. I came away with a very clear understanding of how I could start to create better products from doing what I already do in a way that won’t make me feel like I’m selling out.
I’ve been looking for an improved sense of surety that my moment-to-moment actions are actually working together. Sure, I do a lot of things speculative that seem to have a nebulous future payoff (e.g. helping out a friend with some design work, reading an interesting book, or spending time making new acquaintances), and I do have the sense that it is all somehow cosmically related. There’s nothing like watching one’s bank accounts dwindle, however, to kickstart the desire for a payoff that is more immediate and concrete.
I have been laboring to understand the process of production as one means to create products that will generate revenue, but have continually gotten stuck on the specifics. For example, just what is it that I produce that is worth buying? I’ve gotten lots of excellent advice over the past few weeks from my buddies Alen, Duncan, and Gary, but nothing really helped me visualize what I could do that was a good match for what I wanted to do. The most important insights I gleaned were that I needed to own the means of production and change the way I assign value to my work. In short, I am in the process of shifting my mindset from that of a “Designer for Hire” to “Owner-Producer”. The difference in mindset is due, perhaps, to how one makes money in each role. As a Designer, making money entails a search for paying “gigs” that pay at a certain market rate. As an Owner-Producer, however, the design work I do is not valued at the market rate; instead, the design work is valued in its ability to shorten the time to money and lowering cost of production per unit through intelligent reuse. In other words, the design work does not have an implicit value other than being part of the production chain; ultimately, it’s sold goods that have value, not time spent making them.
With these insights in place, what was missing was an “on-the-ground perspective” of just how it could work for ME, and it was with these thoughts that I looked forward to a summit that Stephen Smith and I planned for last Thursday. Stephen arranged for a conference room at The Centennial Hotel in Concord, New Hampshire. I sent out the invitations to some local friends of mine for the informally-named New Hampshire Knowledge Exchange. We didn’t have an agenda beyond find out what people wanted to know and sharing our knowledge and experiences. I got a tremendous amount of insight in a very short time. Stephen’s generosity with his experience with using the Internet as a platform for an information and knowledge-based businesses was instrumental in my understanding of how the pieces could fit together. I thought I knew a thing or two about credibility, SEO, and working the Internet to create value chains, but Stephen has refined it considerably further and put it into practice. His independent business owner mindset, combined with his years of hospitality management experience, has helped him create an internet marketing machine that, for once, doesn’t make me want to take a shower to wash off the ick. I still have a bit of thinking to do as an artiste-writer-designer, but I finally see a way to make money without compromising the soul of what I like to do. Here’s the distillation of what I learned:
- You don’t need mastery to start selling something useful now. Instead, you can make a product that meets the more minimal needs of a prospective customer at a price point that is affordable. This is still valuable. As a fancy-pants techno-designer, I tend to think people want Space Shuttles, when bottle rockets are often just as useful and are a heck of a lot easier to launch quickly. Most people are looking for easy steps to address their problems, so creating products that help them get there simply are much more attractive than the somewhat meta-philosophical constructs I gravitate toward. That is not to say that there isn’t a place for those, but they are clearly different markets.
You can start with the price point, then design the product. In the past, I’d have started by defining a product. Then, I’d figure out how much it was “worth”, which invariably leads to the hunt for a market. It’s a lot easier to start with the price point, which helps to define the market much more succinctly, followed product creation that fits within that value range. Stephen showed me his tiered pricing methodology which he uses to help define products along a continuum of value; this was quite illuminating.
As an owner-producer, the value the design work is measured in terms of time-to-market, not at your “freelancer designer” rate. I’m used to thinking of my time as being with a certain number of dollars an hour, and this tends to be dampen my enthusiasm for doing the work if I’m not getting the rate I “deserve”. This is a poor attitude. The real point is to create a profitable product-creation process. This insight also affects the way I think about unpaid/speculative work like I’m doing with Agenceum: while I am not generating significant income from the small website client work, the work is a testbed for developing new product for a new market at a specific price point.
I can sell more design work if I let go of its preciousness. In the past, I’ve focused on delivering physical product such as the pre-printed Emergent Task Planner to “protect” my design work. If anyone wanted to access the source files themselves, I assumed them to either be priceless intellectual property OR valued at the estimated cost to develop them. In either case, the “preciousness” I have with my design work tends to price them high, because the formula I use is hours of production multiplied by hourly rate multiplied by some “preciousness” multiplier. The result: a mental price tag in the thousands of dollars. However, if I decoupling value and pricing from what I would expect to be paid as a designer, I can take advantage of the fact that the incremental unit production cost for providing a digital file is essentially zero. That means I can afford to price future e-products to be very affordable. That’s a very exciting idea.
p>So those are the main lessons I took away from Stephen’s Knowledge Exchange. In return I showed Stephen a few things about Adobe Illustrator, demonstrating how I would use the program to quickly lay out a form. You can read about Stephen’s impression of the KnowEx here.
Thanks for the insights, Stephen! Looking forward to the next summit!