I never really used to understand it when people told me they were impressed with my performance just because I’d show up to a meeting on time or hit a deadline. See, I’m not 100% consistent on hitting deadlines. When you’re in development and working on projects with clients, sometimes there are delays. Sometimes it’s technical, or because the client lags on delivering crucial information, then doesn’t get back to you until you’re entrenched in another project. Sometimes, even though you may be doing the same thing day in and day out, you run across an error or problem you’ve never seen before, and researching how to fix it takes a lot more time than you’ve anticipated, pushing a carefully organized production schedule into disarray. Sometimes clients nitpick the details of a project in a way you hadn’t expected when you estimated the time output of the task. Sometimes random things happen, like last week when my router burned out on Thursday night and it took us all day Friday to get the situation remedied so we had working internet again. This week, I missed all my Friday deadlines; some were important, some were self-imposed timelines. I got up on Saturday morning and spent the day getting all those backlogged items crossed off the list.
So, I don’t actually always hit deadlines, and it always seemed disingenuous of me to accept that particular compliment from clients.
But then I started running a business, the entirety of which hinged almost completely upon artists getting their shit together and getting me materials in a timely manner.
I really and truly, finally understood the rarity of artists who show up.
One artist I was speaking with signed a contract almost a year ago. I have given her increasingly easy deadlines to meet, from “get me your art” to “get me twenty pieces of your art” to “get me ten pieces of your art” to “for the love of god, just return an email.” I’ve purchased multiple art pieces from this artist on etsy, and each time waited multiple months — in one case, almost a year — to receive my items. After speaking with her, it seemed her problem was she was too busy working a bunch of contract jobs to fulfill her orders in a timely manner, which made our arrangement seem like the perfect fit.
One artist I was speaking with was very pleased to speak about next steps. I sent her the contract (very basic, only says that I would not own any of her copyrights, and broke down the sales percentages she would receive). She messaged me back to say she was on-board, then when I told her I needed to schedule a 10 minute phone call — crickets.
One artist took no fewer than five months to upload fifteen pieces to a Dropbox folder that were already digitized and ready to selll (that already existed, in other words, in the format I needed).
One artist has sent in a contract and asked for endless help understanding how to format his files, and after answering literally the same question for the fourth time (I’m copying and pasting answers from an old email thread at this point), I decided I had to put my energy elsewhere.
Through all this, I’ve been showing up. I’ve been upholding my end of this agreement, and I’ve been losing sleep over how to make a group of obstinate artists follow directions when, ultimately, it’s up to them just to get their shit together and spend one day or less getting their art in order for me to sell.
It’s been on my mind a lot lately — what it takes to make a business like mine work. My inclination has always been to go it alone so I don’t have to deal with situations like the one with my deceitful ex-business partner, who ghosted after stealing a lot of my money and two years of my life, and desperately hurt my reputation as both an expert and as a small business owner who offers amazing prices for real expertise and amazing customer service. My business is entirely composed of referral business, and to lose two years of work that will never net referrals was devastating. What took me ten years to build was easily burned to the ground in those two.
Especially after starting over, it seemed like a great idea not to involve anyone else. The problem is, a business can only grow so much when a single person is involved. From billing and invoicing, accounting and project management, customer service to maintaining legal and professional licenses, and more, there’s a lot more work going into running a small business than just cranking out art and websites. It takes a lot of non-billable hours, not to mention the stress and mental bandwidth needed to store and process everything from paying bills to building a logo and all the little shit that falls between the two.
I’m at a place now where I’ve found a really excellent, small, lean group of people I trust with my time and clientele. In the space between when I got burned, I’ve done a lot of healing, growing, and learning about where my accountability lay in that old situation, and how to make sure that never happens again. That is to say, when you’re working with other people there are no guarantees. Following your best judgment, paying attention to intuition and overt red flags — hell, learning what the red flags even look like — covering your ass with good contracts (and *ahem* always remembering to use one), and myriad other self protection methods are all necessary components to avoiding bad business situations. Now I work with a really reliable team with whom I’m loosely allied, i.e. we work together, give each other projects, give each other referrals, share projects…but not as a single entity. And that’s great. I’m happy to spread the workload and stick with the aspects of my work in which I truly excel.
I’ve always been really good at running teams, setting up business systems, and advising my clients how they can increase efficiency and cut the fat, so it seemed pretty natural that I’d expand into something that involved working with other people to sell more product. My mistake was involving artists, who seem to almost categorically refuse to show up.
I’m rethinking all those times I brushed off the compliments from clients. I should have; it shouldn’t be a giant win for a client just to have someone show up when they say they will. But I won’t brush it off again, because now I’m too aware of the value. And now, of course, not being one to shy from self-deprecation, I wonder how many of those people were working with me because I was the only one who showed up.
I think about our post-wedding party in LA, and how, of the seventy-five people who RSVPed, only thirty came. They didn’t know that I was, alone, catering the party from salad to cake, decorating the venue, and doing all the planning and execution of the party. But I shouldn’t have had to tell them these things, because when someone says they’re going to show up, I expect them to. These days, most of the people I regularly come into contact with in my work over-promise and under-deliver. This is no way to live, to do business, to conduct friendships. I was taught that lesson by my friends when I was a flake and a bad friend. Who is teaching these people? Who is in these people’s lives, calling them out for bad behavior? Do we do that, as a society, anymore? My friends have never hesitated. I am grateful for that honesty; it shaped me.
The husband and I have been doing some pretty intense soul-searching for the past couple weeks, and have decided to abandon ship on the artist representation and art sales business. For those who have followed the front-end of the business, perhaps it seems like we’re only getting started, and maybe if we wait and are patient, the business will come together. But I’ve spent hundreds of hours working on signing artists and giving them tasks, trying to wrangle them into providing what I needed, and have miserably failed at inspiring people to show up. I don’t have it in me anymore to send a tenth follow-up message to these people asking them if they’re even still alive.
So we take a breath and regroup — again. We sweep up the broken heart pieces from the floor and shuttle them under the rug. We continue to show up and do what we can do, one step and one day at a time. The things that drag us down are reduced to background noise, and all we can do is breathe, move forward incrementally, maintain good work ethic, and remember to be grateful for the work we have, and for those precious few people we’ve connected with who are doing the same.