Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Machine for Making Money

58. A Machine for Making Money

Although there are machines and industrial processes used to create coins and banknotes I don’t intend to discuss that sort of ‘money making’ here. The money making machine that I want to examine here is your business, or any business venture for that matter. A successful business is not magic. It’s a variety of moving parts, some energizing activity, and a lot of design. It uses money, organization, and effort to earn still more money by adding value to some pre-existing set of conditions. Any business is really just a complex design problem under constant and imperfectly predictable stress. Most businesses fail. Yours doesn’t have to.
A typical business has a location, equipment, employees, production processes, price structures, and customers. A well-designed and well-operated business runs with the quiet cleverness of a fine clock. Other businesses, especially new businesses, often run like a snow-blind hippopotamus with one foot stuck in a bucket. From a safe distance it might seem funny. Up close, these clumsy businesses can get a lot of people hurt: employees, clients, creditors, and owners.
Nonetheless, you still want to try your luck at business. You want to be your own boss. You want to make some serious money. You want to stop being someone else’s employee, doing their work to meet their needs, making them wealthy.
There are two terms you should know, even though they don’t much apply to Art related businesses. The first is “turnkey,” and the second is “franchise.”
When someone buys a business on a “turnkey” basis that means that everything is in place at the time of the purchase. All the questions have been answered, all the supplies are in stock, and all the employees have been hired and trained. The business is ready to run, perhaps it has already been running for months or years. Yesterday someone else owned it, today you do. As owner you may literally have nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the business. You may not even have much to say about long term plans or shifts in focus. You may just read about the results in your quarterly reports.
If the business you bought is a good one you may not need to fiddle with it at all. The employees get paid, the product gets sold, the taxes get calculated, and you spend the profits.
“Franchises” are sometimes sold as turnkey operations. When I buy a franchise I am buying an exact copy of a business someone else designed and proved would work. A lot of our restaurants are franchises these days, in part because it’s safer to go into the restaurant business following a model that has already succeeded elsewhere. Success is not guaranteed even then. We’ve all seen franchise locations fail. But franchises have a system, an image, buying power, and advertising momentum. They come with a lot of advantages.
As a sole proprietor, setting up your own art business from scratch, you have very few advantages. You’re trying to design a machine to create and sell Art. You start with relatively low costs and a lot of freedom to make decisions. You are not bound to someone else’s ideas of how to proceed. I’ve seen turnkey pottery operations advertised for sale, but the only “Art” franchises I can think of sell prints in “limited editions” of moderate to low value. You can’t franchise originality.
You can derive some of the benefits of a franchise, however, by closely observing the existing business operations of other artists. Historically, of course, you would have done this as an apprentice and as a journeyman, learning the business from a master potter. Our university-trained potters are at a disadvantage in this regard, since most schools frown on teaching a profit-oriented approach to being an artist.
Even so, you can probably find a local ceramic artist of some sort who would be willing to bring you along to some Fair or Sale as an assistant. Notice how things are being done there, and ask questions.
Start selling your own work while you’re still in school. Learn as much as you can about selling your work before you put yourself in the position where your pots must sell in order for you to make the next rent payment. Try to avoid all ‘must sell’ situations. They’re bad business.
Be observant. Talk to other self-employed artists, to shop owners, and to gallery managers. Experiment. Learn to think of your business as its own work of art, a work in progress, constantly seeking to improve, to understand itself, to succeed. Be flexible. Ask yourself questions.
Do you need employees? Do you want employees? How much time do you want to spend on being an artist and how much on being a business operator? What are you hoping to achieve?
And when you’ve got your money making machine built just the way you want it, keep a steady hand on the pump handle. It’s your energy and creativity and standard for excellence that will maintain the flow of profits. Pace yourself for the long haul.
Success in business always means more than just how you did today. Someday your retirement may depend on your ability to sell your business as a turnkey operation to some future generation of optimistic ceramic artists. Plan for that possibility. Build the best machine you can, and try to enjoy the challenges you will overcome in creating it.

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