This interview is a transcription of the podcast, Corwin Hiebert on Living the Dream: Putting Your Creativity to Work (and Getting Paid).
Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel: Well, I’m here today with Corwin Hiebert, author of the new book Living the Dream, Putting Your Creativity to Work. It’s a beautiful, practical book. Congratulations Corwin.
Corwin Hiebert: Thanks Nancy. Thanks a lot.
Nancy: So what inspired you to write the book and who did you write it for?
Corwin: Well, I wrote it for creative people that want to get paid! There’s so many talented, amazing people out there that are putting their hopes and dreams on their creativity who want to pay a few or all of their bills with their ideas and their inspiration and their craft; and I thought, you know, I want to help them. I want to do whatever I can to give them the tools that they’re looking for so they can take this idea, this I-want-to-have-a-business and they want to do something with it, so they can take it to the point that they feel more confident and they can actually start charging money, more money, start doing the things that help them feel like they’re actually establishing something great--something that is a business for them.
Nancy: Which is very scary stuff when you think about it, especially for creative professionals who have a hard time knowing how to value your work. You put a lot of time and effort into a section in your book, I know, of helping people decide what to charge, and I think you have something called “the seven pricing methods.” Could you share with listeners what some of those tips are that you have--how to decide what to charge for your work?
Corwin: It’s probably one of the most frequent questions I get asked as a business manager. You know, how much should I charge? So often creative people are kind of looking for someone to give them the answer. Like, how much should I charge? As if there’s a number that’s out there. Like, oh well, clearly you do this so you should choose option B, which everyone else in the world knows except for you, and correlation of that can feel quite mysterious. So, the seven models of pricing was given to me by some specialists in the U.K., Mark Guinness and Sarah Thelwall, I believe, and they kind of outlined them in such a way, they kind of say you’ve got to keep it flexible, you know, you’ve got to put a number out there and then work with it, and not just let it sort of stagnate. And if you can assign value to your hours, if you can assign value to your contribution, if you can assign value to the long game of what you are offering someone, that you make a selection, you assign a number to it and then you see what the response is. I’ve heard people say “this is how much I’m worth” and then they don’t make any money. And then they feel that they’re still worth that much but the market must be confused because people aren’t giving enough money. So it’s always important to make a step, it’s a little bit of testing, a little bit of experimentation, and it takes a little bit of confidence to put it out there and see what kind of tweaks and changes you need to make.
Nancy: What if you’re just starting out as a freelancer and you find that you’re getting all these great pro bono offers from friends and colleagues and so on? At what point do you draw the line? At what point is it good for your portfolio and at what point is it starting to be bad?
Corwin: Well, “free” is the new F-word and “cheap” is its trashy cousin! That can be a very difficult thing, and usually when it comes to that type of situation, if it’s truly an opportunity, if it’s actually something that whether it’s a client or as a project it really represents something that, whether it’s for a portfolio or sort of some experience, that it would really benefit your future opportunities; that you can say with confidence “well this is the work that I did, this is the project I did, here’s who I worked for” and then you feel like you’ve gained something in return. The problem that a lot of people have is they take on projects that the person asking them for the favor is telling them, “Oh this will be great exposure for you.” But if you didn’t pursue that, then it very likely isn’t as great as that person is telling you it is. If you pursue that opportunity and you kind of say, “You know I’d love to work with you. It would be an honor. This work that we’re talking about would be an amazing benefit to my portfolio. If we can work out some terms that are as advantageous for me as possible, that I’m happy to do it for this price or for free or whatever.” It’s really about who’s asking. If you’re asking, then I think free or cheap is a totally, much more beneficial approach. If someone else is telling you that it’s a good idea, then maybe not so much.
Nancy: Right, so your advice would be to try to negotiate something out of that relationship, not necessarily walk away, but see what can come of it.
Corwin: That’s right, and sometimes it’s just simply the terms. You can say, “Hey you know I’m happy to help you. I know your budget is really, really small. I’m happy to help you, but these are my conditions. I’m only available to work with you at this time; or you know we’re going to have to make this last a little longer because I can’t do this in a hurry because I have other work to get done.” You sort of put things on your terms a little bit more. And then it seems a little bit more, you know, manageable. But again, if you were the one pursuing it, then clearly you’ll be much more motivated to go the extra mile.
Nancy: Right, right. No, that’s a great piece of advice too. The life of a small business owner is feast and famine, so you might have periods of famine where, hey, you could slip in some of those kinds of jobs just as long as it’s not on a timeline. So – great advice. You know, you have a section on marketing and, of course, that’s very important, generating demands for your services, and yet you’re brand new and nobody knows anything about you and you call it “creating a marketing plan that doesn’t suck”. And I got such a kick out of that. So what are some of the elements of a plan that doesn’t suck?
Corwin: Well first of all, a plan that doesn’t suck is one that is doable. Too many people, they look at their business planning, especially their marketing planning, and they come up with very grand ideas and sort of best-case scenarios, almost like lottery-type items. They really want to accomplish this or that, and the problem is that if it’s not doable and if it’s not set up in incremental steps, you can chip away almost on a daily basis, then you’ve come up with a marketing plan that you’re just going to frustrate yourself with. Or, you’re going to spend money that you don’t have. Or you’ll spend energy and time you don’t have. Or you’re going to tap on relationships that you’ve kind of done prematurely and you’re going to miss an opportunity. So, as far as I’m concerned, a marketing plan that doesn’t suck is definitely one that is doable and I think, for example, one of the things that I get the most excited about is when I hear about creative people putting together a collaboration. I think that creativity within the context of community is probably the most untapped marketing opportunity that’s out there. People are stuck doing stuff by themselves and they’re making noise about themselves because they think they have to be self-promoters when reality is no one wants to talk to or listen to a self-promoter. It’s irritating. But when someone speaks on your behalf, when someone is like “oh I’m involved with Bob and we’re doing this really cool project and Bob is so talented you wouldn’t believe what he’s doing for this project that we’re working on”, a collaborative effort is an amazing tangible marketing idea that in fact, as far as I’m concerned, it not only makes people curious but I think that there’s need for people to stand out in a crowd. I think a collaborative project is a great way to attract a crowd, which I think is a little bit easier on people, especially the artistic sensibilities of when they are there, they are like, I don’t really want to rattle the chains and sort of push a collaborative project to really be attractive.
Nancy: Interesting. Well you talk about some collaboration around just coming up with ideas, as well, just creative ideas. I was intrigued because I noticed something that you do, or have done, with one of our other authors, David duChemin, who is dear to our hearts here at Peachpit as a best-selling author, and I know you have worked with David for many years as his business manager. Is that correct?
Corwin: David and I have worked together for a number of years. I am his business manager. He focuses on what he does best and I take care of the rest, though that sounds like a really bad bumper sticker! We do a lot of work together and, you are referencing our business planning activity, which we call a “think and drink”, and it’s an organized, structured one- or two-day, depending on our schedule, one- or two-day get together where we present to each other our business ideas, marketing ideas and we sort of have a bit of a give and take when it comes to feedback and pushback and questions, and also some percolation time and just, like, when we’re going for a walk and, you know, we’re dealing with something that David’s working on and we’ll just literally take, it might be a long walk to the pub, for example, but on that walk we’re just brainstorming, hashing stuff out. We’re not sitting in front of computers. You know, we’ve done our Powerpoint, we’ve done our whiteboard stuff earlier, and it’s just sort of like hey let’s just hash this stuff out. Obviously, we have a great friendship as well as our work together, which is really rewarding, but we trust each other and we rely on each other’s insights to our businesses.
Nancy: So basically what you’re saying is your think and drink idea sessions are really just getting up away from your desk, collaborating with others in your office or external, whether they’re clients or colleagues, and just kicking ideas around. So, any advice for how to get something like that started and who to choose as that idea partner?
Corwin: Yeah, I definitely recommend that creative people find someone else who is also an independent business owner or operator or emerging freelancer, someone that kind of gets the M.O. They don’t have to be like a really creative friend, you know, they might be involved in other kinds of business, but if there’s a good connection there, there’s some trust, and they kind of get what it’s like to be your own rainmaker. So definitely that is probably the best sort of setup from there. If there’s a friendship, I mean, I benefit from having a great friendship with David and we were friends before we started working together, but I know other people that have done sessions like this and there has to be that little bit of camaraderie, where you feel like your humor is the same or your outlook on life is a little bit the same, that you come from similar places in life, or there’s enough connecting points that you’re not feeling anxious or worried that you feel like, okay, you can trust this person and I can divulge things. You know David and I will talk very candid about well here’s how much money I made last week or last month or last year. Here’s how much money I would like to see come in in the future. Here’s how I want to make that happen. Here’s where I’m at with my expenses. So right down to the nitty gritties and we’re popping up numbers and graphs and exposing ourselves to each other in that financial planning or scheming or whatever way we can do.
Nancy: Interesting. So, there are tons of books out there in the market right now on starting your own business. What is it that makes it different for a creative professional and why reading a book like yours is really smarter than just reading any book on how to start a business? What defines the difference between a creative professional small business and a non-creative?
Corwin: That’s a great question. Well first of all I know that there are a lot of resources out there from a small business perspective that really focus people on stories and situations and examples of other businesses that don’t actually correlate very well to creative work. So, for example, when I’m reading a book and I’m thinking about the creative person – I’m reading a business book – and I see yet another example of Apple’s ideation process, right, or I see another example of Microsoft’s CEO of the Gaming Division as if he’s got some insights for business owners, that might be well and good. But for the independent or the freelancer, they’re going “I can’t relate to that, I can’t relate to someone who has a $400 million marketing budget. That just doesn’t work for me.” They need more tangible examples. So I think that creative people are hoping when they say “ok, how can I grow my business,” they’re looking for someone that’s a little bit like them. They want examples of people that do what they do in photography or design or illustration or a creative field like that, and then go “ok, that’s what that person has done”, like Jessica Hische, the illustrator, who’s now based out of San Francisco, and other illustrators looking to her and going “oh, the last few years, this is what she’s done, this is how she went about it”. She came up with the term “procrastoworking”, which is where she would ignore client-oriented work so that she could work on her own personal projects, and then work 16-hour days as a result of it. But you know it’s what creative people do, and I think creative people need those examples. So throughout the book I’ve featured independent, freelance creative people that are doing it, that are living the dream. They’re putting their creativity out there. When you’re talking about the difference between a creative person and some other business owner, creatives are putting themselves out there and, in fact, when they are promoting their businesses, in a lot of ways they’re actually promoting themselves. It’s not a product, necessarily, it’s a service, but it’s really driven by one person and it’s one person’s ideas, one person’s talent, and that is an extremely difficult thing to do. What are you supposed to do, just walk up to someone and tell them how awesome you are? You know people don’t respond well to that. And just when it comes to organizing your business, it’s very personal. It’s an intimate experience, and for those that are putting it on the line there’s got to be other ways to talk about it. There’s got to be other ways to digest it. So from the work that I’ve done over the years with other creative entrepreneurs, I just thought let’s put some of these things down and see if I can help.
Nancy: Wow, that’s a great answer. I completely agree, and I love Jessica’s phrase “procrastoworking”. I’ve got to put that one in my vocabulary. That’s a new one. You know, when you were writing this book, I heard from a little birdie, your editor, that you got very little sleep because not only did you get the book out on time, but you were also launching a new business, and was that your new ideation conference business? Can you tell us about that?
Corwin: Well, you referenced two things there. One is my wife and I from 2009 to 2011 hosted, in Vancouver here, an ideation conference called Creative Mix. At the time, when we started it, events like Pedex, events like Pecha Kucha, other creative community events weren’t really in full steam, and we really felt there was a gap that we felt like creative people, both in the professional-- people that have professional jobs in the creative industries--and then especially freelancers and artists and independents, that there was this lack of connection. There was a lack of community and a lack of shared ideas. The reality is that we can all learn from one another. So we filled a big space, a big theater, with chefs, photographers, designers, marketing executives, actors, music executives, fine artists, people that in their fields they know what they’re doing, they know how to talk about what they do, and we just thought, you know what, an illustrator can learn from a chef, a photographer can learn from an actor because, when it comes to creativity, when it comes to that connection as someone who is inspired or who works to be inspired and works to share or sell it, there’s a lot of commonality there. For three years we put that out in Creative Mix–a really rewarding experience. We had a lot of fun. Currently it’s a project that’s on hold. It’s a personal project of ours and we’ve put it on hold because we just finished launching our new company, called Taendem Agency, and we’re exclusively focused on providing business management for creative entrepreneurs. So we help them with their business. We’re managers for the freelancers. We do management work for people who are putting it out there.
Nancy: How interesting. So that’s the new business you were hatching while you were also involved in Creative Mix. Well, is there a URL you’d like to give folks to learn more about your business?
Corwin: Yeah, our new company website is Taendem.com, and it’s slightly alternate spelling. It’s T-A-E-N-D-E-M dot com.
Nancy: Great. All right. Well Corwin, I just want to thank you so much for spending time with us today. I know that you’re sleep deprived and have been living the dream of writing a book and now you’ve written it. So now you’re on to your next dream and it sounds like it’s pretty darn exciting to be starting your own business. So I wish you all the success in the world and, for folks listening, please run out and you can get a free chapter on Peachpit.com of Living the Dream. Check it out and I’m convinced you’ll want to have this as a very important business book on your bookshelf. So thanks again Corwin.
Corwin: Thanks Nancy.