Yesterday we looked outwards. What are we selling, who are the likely customers and what kind of message is likely to attract them? Today we turned the spotlight on ourselves What do we expect to get out of the business?
We could start by writing a mission statement to build stakeholder confidence and commitment, just like big companies do. Something like:
Stop right there! That’s not what we need at all. Let stop kidding ourselves that we’re bigger than we really are. This is still just an embryonic business, and what we need right now is to make sure we make it through the first month. When we get that far, we’ll look three months ahead. And provided we’re still going along well, maybe then we’ll be able to predict the future with a little more certainty than a long-range UK weather forecast.
At each stage, we’ll update and refine the mission statement. But there’s no need for anything fancy just at the moment, while there’s only the two of us.
If it was just me, I wouldn’t bother with a mission statement at all. Not yet. I’ve defined my vision, so now I’d just want to set my 30-day objectives. They’d be very simple, and completely measurable … measurability is something I’ll keep coming back to in this project, as you’ll see. I’d define the maximum I can afford to spend. The minimum money I can afford to make. And the maximum number of hours I’m ready to devote to the project. That gets me to base camp. We’ll figure out what looks like the best route for the climb tomorrow.
But it’s not just me. There’s Chris. He’s a stakeholder in this, because it’s his writing we’ll be using. Later there’ll be other writers – and they’ll be stakeholders too, because their input will be critical to keep the business going. We’ll want to keep them happy.
In a small business it’s easy to find out what your stakeholders want. You ask them.
When Chris mailed me back, he told me:
- He’d like to see more of his work published. He feels that although he’s recently published a novel, some of his best work has never been seen.
- He dreams of having his work selected to appear in anthologies alongside other established poets.
- Getting into print, in a traditionally published book, is his real ambition. Electronic publishing doesn’t give the same sense of validation.
- He’d like to make money from writing; until now the publishing industry has made money by selling his own work back to him.
- He’d like readers who enjoy his work to know where to go and find more.
I’m sure there are thousands of talented writers out there who would have replied exactly the same. Perhaps you’re one of them, and feel you could contribute to this project. If you are, hold fire, because I’m not ready for you yet. Give me a few days, and I’ll describe exactly what I’m looking for, as my own thinking takes further shape.
So now I knew what Chris wanted. For the rest of the day, he found out .. the hard way .. what I wanted, as emails flew back and forth between us.
From the work he’d sent me a couple of days back, there was one poem that jumped out at me, called The Coral Tree. It was a longish piece, but there was an image in the last 10 lines that I felt was perfect for ‘words of inspiration’. With a little rejigging, the lines could be visually interesting too, perfect for a wall display.
Now came the hard bit. As a sometime writer myself, I’m grateful when people help me to correct mistakes, and I take well-intended criticism in my stride, but I’m prickly when someone suggests changing something I’ve written. If I wanted to write it differently, I’d have done it in the first place. How would Chris respond to my tinkering with his poem, cutting over half of it, and suggesting a slight re-arrangement of the rest? I asked how he felt about ‘creative criticism’ as I sent my ideas for a rework.
‘I don’t mind comments on my poems. I think I take suggestions well [If I like them, that is.]‘
Honest … and obliging. He’d already rewritten it, in the visual style that I’d suggested. Just one problem. It was too long. If we’re planning wall-displays, the impact needs to be immediate. The words must be easily visible from the other side of a desk, and I’d like it to be possible for the reader to absorb the content in seconds, not minutes. (And then want to go back again repeatedly and find new depth in the words.)
So I reworked it. Chris didn’t like it. He reworked it – and now it’s just about OK as far as length is concerned … but I still like the stark imagery and brevity of the original version – the last 10 lines – better. That’s where we’ve left it for tonight.
This is the age-old dichotome between the creative artist and the market-oriented publisher – and it’s unusual for me to find myself on the marketing side of the fence. The artist’s first concern is the integrity of the work. The marketer is interested in what will sell. And they’re not necessarily – perhaps not usually – the same thing.
It’s important that we’ve had this discussion now. To make this business work, we both need to understand and respect the other’s point of view. I need to communicate my requirement more clearly. And in the end I think it’s important that we shouldn’t publish anything unless we’re both entirely satisfied with the piece. Compromise will leave one or both of us unhappy, and that’s not what the business is about.
To wrap it up, let me define those measurable objectives I talked about at the beginning, in the light of where we’ve reached today. In the first 30 days:
- I’ll commit myself full-time to the project (unless anything dramatic and unforeseen comes up with a client in my other business).
- I won’t allow the cashflow to go more than £200 negative. (There’s a reason for this: I want to demonstrate that it’s possible to set up a viable business on a shoestring – this is intended as a startup model.)
- At least 200 people will have purchased our writers’ works.
- 50% of the net income from the sale of each product will go to the writer. (This is a principle, not a promise at the moment – I’ll be working on detailed figures as the project develops.)
- By the end of the period, the project needs to have generated enough revenue to pay me a salary of at least £1000 after all other expenses have been paid.
Not particularly ambitious – but these are minimum targets.
And then in the longer run, to meet the writers’ expectations (as expressed by Chris), these new ideas have emerged:
- The project website should feature more of the writers’ work than the items we publish as ‘words of inspiration’, allowing readers to sample and purchase directly from source.
- We should consider publishing our own annual anthology – as a printed book – featuring the best of our writers’ work.
Finally, I’d just like to thank all of you who have been commenting here on the blog so far. You’ve been full of good ideas, and we’ll certainly use some of them. Keep them coming!
Postscript: An idea from Nanette Levin (in the Comments below) has just sparked a new insight. If the website features other work from our poets, this allows us to offer customized, personalized versions – in any number of formats. Imagine, for example, setting a short extract as a miniature, in a locket. Or less extravagantly, offering audio downloads with the poet’s voice. The possibilities are endless.
And that puts a new spin on ‘words of inspiration’. From the writer’s point of view, the wall display is a first exposure to their work. A marketing tool to gain attention and to attract interest. From this standpoint, the placard doesn’t necessarily need to be the complete poem: that’ll be available on the site.
It’s a wonderful illustration of why it makes sense to involve your potential customers in your new business at the earliest possible stage. Their input can often help to shape your products and services in ways you’d never imagined – as long as you’re careful to stay true to your goals.