Welcome to Phase 2 of my year-long experiment in making art and traveling.
In Phase 1, I learned from a lot of early mistakes in attempting to “launch” my “art business.” Most of them involved paying nice strangers to try to get things done faster and better. And things then not getting done.
Then, I left Harvard and sang on the streets of Mexican City for a month.
The Mexico Study proved four things:
(1) Academia is not for me. A lot of people told me I was crazy—clipping my wings at best—but leaving Harvard felt so good. So right.
(2) I can make art anywhere. With anything. I don’t need an apartment, a studio, or even canvas. (In Mexico City, I painted on watercolor paper on the hostel roof, obvi.)
(3) Free advice from friends can be better than paid help from strangers. Especially when you have no idea what you’re doing other than learning from mistakes. I got fantastic information and help from nice folks in the hostel bar. Plus I got free room and board for sitting near the liquor talking to people.
(4) Always keep a Lifestraw in your go bag. Because you have to drink the water.
Bigger-picture, the Mexico Study was a pre-test of my year-long experiment. It worked. Expenses slashed, art made, lots of learning. Game on.
Last week, I announced the year-long life experiment in traveling and making art. I launched my new website and blog, plus an Etsy and Zazzle store to sell my art and art merchandise. So now I have art T-shirts like Keith Haring!
That will make me roughly $1/shirt. And has made me exactly $1. (Thanks, Ms. Fairweather. Fifth grade was the best.)
Any profit is good profit. But that’s not what I want.
So I should say what I want. Set a clear goal, say what I’m doing to achieve it, and when it’s going to get done.
I’m also doing everything Noah Kagan suggested in Tim Ferriss’s latest podcast. More on this later as I see how it works.
By 05/31, I want to have all my paintings gone, plus commissions and other services selling, all my Phase 1 business launch debt paid off, and funds to store my stuff for a year.
But 05/31 is when my lease is up for real. So to be safe, since moving is hard, I want to try to get it done in two weeks instead of three.
Look. All I’m trying to do is raise $42,200 in two weeks when most businesses don’t make profit in the first few years at all.
It’s just a moving sale. How hard can it be?
My lease is up at the end of the month. At that point, I plan to put everything I own in storage to cut living expenses and enact the idea that the world is my home while learning more, faster, by traveling.
I want to have sold all my art by then so I don’t have to pay to store it. That means selling hundreds of oil paintings I made since August. (I don’t have any older art because I gave it all away twice last year before the two cross-country moves my postdoc required. It was a gratitude exercise, it was great, but now I’m trying something different.)
In other words, nothing bad happens if I don’t raise the money. I store or otherwise dispose of the art and manage the Phase 1 debt. Maybe I do odd jobs traveling instead of running an online business that funds it. Maybe I do something completely different that hasn’t occurred to me or presented itself yet.
But I expect to meet my goal, because the work has that value.
Here’s the value break-down. I worked backwards from my fundraising goal, and I’m selling everything below market value according to thirty-party sources.
When I regularly showed and sold oil paintings between 2005 and 2008 in Virginia, my 16″ x 20″s went for around $300 and my 30″ x 40″s for around $1200. My selling base rate was higher than my competitors—although in the regional art business, that meant I still took annual losses. So when the art market crashed in 2008, I mostly stopped exhibiting to focus on grad school.
Forty-nine dog years and one PhD later, I have that much more painting experience and the art market is making a come-back.
But instead of raising prices above the previously established market value, I’m selling at less than half market value. Only for the next two weeks.
This means I’m selling paintings at materials cost times two (for labor) to avoid paying art storage costs, clean house for my new experiment, and get more people reading my new blog.
Pricing on that logic looks like this:
a. 9″ x 12″ paintings: $2 paper + $10 paint + .17 cent envelope + $5 shipping (domestic) = $17.17 * labor = $34.34
b. 16″ x 20″ paintings: $10 canvas + $30 paint + $4 shipping box + $12 shipping (domestic) = $56 * 2 labor = $112
c. 22″ x 28″ painting (I only have one of these in stock): $30 canvas + $30 paint + $50 box and shipping guestimate = $110 * 2 labor = $240
d. 24″ x 36″ paintings: $40 canvas + $40 paint + $50 box and shipping guestimate = $130 * 2 labor = $260
e. 30″ x 40″ paintings: $50 canvas + $60 paint + $50 box and shipping guestimate = $160 * 2 labor = $320
With my existing painting inventory, that means that if everything sells I should make about $27,000.
That’s misleading—part of the take is box and shipping costs. So I’m probably about $17,200 shy of my goal if “all” I do is sell 260+ paintings in two weeks.
Except now my Etsy store only has 233 paintings instead of 261, even though nothing has sold. Did I just lose two dozen paintings? No matter. The gap is basically the same whether I know my inventory and how to count, or not.
That’s where commissions and story-telling come in.
My previous commission work normed from $700-$1500. People like custom work, and I like doing it.
So let’s split the $17,200 difference between commissions and story-telling. That means my goal is to make $8,600 in painting commissions in the next two weeks.
But my time for performing services in that window will be limited. I need about three hours a day to pack and mail paintings, three hours a day to pack and do other move prep, three hours a day to manage other business stuff, and nine hours for sleeping and other animal things.
That leaves only six hours/day for 14 days for portrait and story-telling work—84 hours. So I have to charge $103/half-hour commission to make my goal.
That’s way below market value for 9″ x 12″ oil paintings—much less custom work.
Plus, my unwritten rule on commissions has always been that you only buy what you love. I only want people to be delighted with my art. If you aren’t, you don’t buy it, commission or no. So it’s risk-free for you to commission a painting.
This is #1 on my list of what I’m worth and have to give others. Primarily, I’m a writer. I write all sorts of things. I’ve published opinion essays in The Guardian, academic work in journals in like Testing, Psychometrics, and Methodology in Applied Psychology: The Musical, and poetry in The Georgetown Review. (I may have made up part of one of those titles.) I’ve written children’s books, a play, a screenplay, a dissertation.
But first, I’m a poet. You may wonder why I’m fundraising at all, since poets are well-known as being rich and famous. I’ll never tell.
I’m offering four types of story-telling services to make the remaining $8,600 of my two-week goal.
a. Website and online store design and building. Do you like my website? I made it myself. My Etsy and Zazzle stores, too. I could make something like this for you, next-day, for $600.
Market value of this service is more like $1200 and it usually takes three weeks. Then you usually get hooked in with hosting fees and stuff.
I don’t want to host your site. I don’t want to maintain it. I want to teach you to do it. It’s not that hard. And we both have better things to do with that time and money.
I’m only offering this service for two weeks, as part of my move sale/fundraiser for the next phase of my life experiment traveling and making art.
b. Social media management. Setting up a social media presence from the ground up is daunting. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, G+, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and whatever other thing is invented between the time I finish typing this sentence and the time you read it—which ones do you need? Business or personal, or both? I can get you set up to “be social” and manage the accounts yourself for $200.
There’s not an established market value of social media management services because the field is so new that nobody knows how to do it. This is why big companies keep making big social media mistakes. And little people keep making little ones and getting fired.
Get started on the right foot with consistent brand across platforms that establishes the right tone. It’s much easier to continue on that path than to stumble across it yourself, like I did.
c. Marketing. The ghost of Bill Hicks is blowing smoke at me right now. But I guess you could say I’ve done PR. For nice people when I like what they’re doing. (Pause for coughing fit.) Chill, Bill. I love you.
All businesses are art businesses. Talking with people about their art—what they make and give the world of their passion and labor to make people’s lives better—is fun. Marketing at its best is just about appreciating that omnipresence of art in commerce, and communicating that appreciation to others.
The median market value of a bad press release ranges from $750-$7500.
Most of the press releases you can buy are bad because they don’t involve any market research. That’s dumb. We live in an era when you can run a survey experiment in half an hour on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to assess what your market really values or how they respond to different press release options. Why would you not take advantage of that amazing opportunity to talk to your market and pre-test your materials?
To be fair, I don’t. But that’s because I’m busy running a bigger experiment with my life right now. I’m testing new things by trying them, and I’m trying them too fast to pre-test.
Anyway. I can design and run your market research and PR experiments, and write accordingly better, more evidence-based press releases than market leading services. I’ll do it for $300 per survey experiment or press release.
But only for the next two weeks.
d. Editing and submissions advice. I’ve done freelance editing work for academics, creative writers, and lawyers. I’ve published in dozens of venues including literary and academic journals. Editing is easier. So if you’re stuck, let me help you.
My normal editing service is $100/hour. That’s about market value.
I’ll drop it to $30/hour for the next two weeks. Because I can do editing work anytime as filler in the race to the goal. And submissions advice is just fun. Plus I love helping other writers. Plus I want to build a client base in services I can perform while traveling.
Maybe—just maybe—I’m spreading myself too thin for a change.
Because I definitely need to keep the blog updated with results of this experiment. Plus break out the paintings in featured blog posts by subgallery, to tell people about them. There are just too many on the Etsy store for them to otherwise be accessible. And when I chart out the sub galleries in blog post-sized chunks, that’s two weeks’ worth of blog posts right there. But if I don’t promote the services every day, I’m not going to get the business. Duh.
So I’m probably setting myself up for failure. But, perhaps perversely, I feel like I have to go for exactly what I want to have any chance of getting it—even if it’s not really reasonable, so I can’t possibly do it right.
It’s all a big experiment. And the most important thing I’ve learned so far about experimenting is to do lots of it and keep trying new stuff. Because the learning is in the mistakes more than anything else. As long as you’re really showing up to the mistakes. And you have to keep trying new stuff to keep making new mistakes.