Monday, January 16, 2012

Sage Advice From the Gambler

by Jennifer Roberts

Like many artists who make a living from their craft, I have learned some hard business lessons over the years. There are days when I feel like I have made every mistake out there. And then I prove myself wrong and execute some new bone-headed move.

This year, I will be sharing some of those lessons with our readers. Too often, talented artists are forced into other fields to make a living, simply because they fail to manage their business affairs. We’d like to help increase the numbers of successful full-time artisans, so . . .

Lesson No. 1
Know When to Walk Away and Know When to Run

. . . from people and practices that are not working for you.

This is a tough one for me. I love creating new projects, new partnership, and new programs – not ending them. This is especially true when bringing a project or a position to a close means ending a business relationship. But I have learned the hard way, sometimes it simply must be done. Moreover, if you wait too long and let things become more and more dysfunctional, you reduce the chances that you will be able to end a business relationship with grace and without hurting people unnecessarily. This has obvious consequences for the people with whom you are dealing, but you may also be hurting yourself by foreclosing your opportunities for future collaboration.

I tend towards two big sins in this area. First, too often I take up for the business or person who has failed to meet expectations. They will do better next time, I just know it. Second, I cling to what a product or a partnership “could” or “should” have been, instead of what it is. So, I have developed a process for myself, one I have to actively walk myself through when I sense something isn’t working for us.

1) View the situation from a buyer’s point of view.

This is a great tool that one of my favorite legal mediators uses. It goes like this: We are playing Let’s Make A Deal. Behind the first curtain is your lawsuit; behind the second, the settlement proposal. Giving up curtain two (the settlement) is essentially “buying” you lawsuit for that amount. Would you buy your lawsuit for that sum?

In business, the curtains are the costs and benefits of product, person, or project at issue. The question is, knowing what I now know the costs and benefits to be, would I buy this situation again? If the answer is no, I move on the step 2.

2) Take a hard look at what isn’t working and do everything reasonably possible to fix it if you think there is still real potential value.

This is probably where I diverge from many business people who engage in the analysis, make a decision, and the cut the fat. Game over.

I tend to think that if you thought that idea had enough merit in the first place, you owe it to yourself and others involved to try to figure out where you went wrong and fix those things, if possible. Relationships matter in business. A truth too often forgotten these days and a topic for a future post. I believe that building strong and lasting relationships means that you are honest with each other and you fight for each other. I include the word “reasonably” because there are limits. If there is no reasonable way to make it work, you move on to step 3.

3) Call it quits with as few casualties as possible.

What does this mean? You may decide that there is no way you can continue to provide work for a gallery, but you can give them some warning so they are not left with empty shelves. You can tell a vendor that you can no longer use their services, but tell them why before you just go elsewhere. Often, vendors are more flexible that we give them credit for.

The hardest of all, if you have to stop using the services of a real live flesh-and-blood person, be clear. If they ask for second chance, set clear parameters and a timeline for measurement. And when you part ways, don’t mince words and don’t assume that they will interpret your silence as the end of the story. Save room for future endeavors if you like, but don’t lead people on.

My first job as an attorney was with an estate planning firm that had recently added a litigation department, of which I was a part. It wasn’t a good fit and it wasn’t working. They weren’t happy. We weren’t happy. When the decision was made to dissolve the litigation section, we were given plenty of notice and I wound up taking a case on a free-lance basis that turned out to be the most rewarding and fascinating case I ever tried. That little bit of time the firm gave us allowed me to search out my next chapter with an open mind instead of panic. It was the difference between a casualty and a success. It's not always possible to end a relationship on healthy terms. But, where possible, it can be in everyone’s best interest – e.g., I still refer estate planning clients to my old firm.

An important Note
Artists have resources available to them that many other businesses do not. In most states, nonprofits designed to provide free or low-cost legal and/or accoutring advice to artists can help you engage in this sort of analysis, while avoiding potential legal liability where applicable. This is particularly true when dealing with contractual relationships and when dealing with employees, who must be treated very differently from independent contractors, vendors, and customers.

When in doubt, seek legal advice. Always. You’ll thank yourself.

Disclaimer: The materials available on this blog are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of this blog or any of the e-mail links within does not create an attorney-client relationship of any kind.

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