A designing approach to fashion business

A designing approach to fashion business

10577056_10204667885922922_2324271359622129419_n[1]Folks, I think I’m going to go back to trying to post a blog every 1 (maybe 2) weeks. I am missing the discipline of the deadline.

Last week I worked as a trainer for the Moreland Fashion Industry Mentoring Program. This project was conceptualised, developed and project managed by designer and fashion industry expert Chitra Mangma. Her goal was to provide mentoring and training in business skills to young designers to help them establish their own new professional practice. Chitra was fortunate enough to obtain funding from Moreland City Council’s Community Grants program and venue support from Brunswick Business Incubator.

During the project participants (selected during an application process) had one on one mentoring with Chitra which focussed on developing their skills as designers in the context of finding a market or future career in the fashion industry. My contribution was to deliver three workshops that focussed on how to build a brand and a marketing strategy. The program concluded with participants presenting their marketing strategy to a panel that included Chitra, myself and Anthony (Manager of Brunswick Business Incubator). As a panel our job was to provide feedback and suggestions.

Although tiny symptoms of stage nerves were apparent (and, hey, this happens to the best of us) the participants presented really, really well. I was so proud of them. All of them are obviously hugely talented designers; during the program they revealed themselves to be delightful people – good natured and generous in their input – with a determined and grounded attitude to developing their future professional practices. Their presentations were lucid and clear, showing a good grasp of the marketing and branding concepts we had talked about in the workshops and mentoring sessions. They were able to lay out specific and practical tactics they could follow in the future, and showed a good sense of strategy. Chitra and I were thrilled with the development these guys had shown in just two weeks, and the amount of deep thought they had put into their participation in the program was very much in evidence. The feedback from the participants was great – it showed they valued the program, found it interesting, enjoyable and useful.

When I present any kind of business or project planning workshops to artists or creatives I try to take the angle that the creative and the business sides of their professional practice needn’t be at odds. Indeed, much about the planning process requires the sort of fluid, conceptualising, contextualising, envisioning mental skills that come so easily to creative brains. Marketing, a huge part of any business, is also a very creative process. Having worked for so long in the arts industry I also have a healthy respect for the self-discipline developed by artists in response to the demands of their vocation, and I absolutely believe that this gives them the discipline to cope with any aspects of business or project management that at first feel new or odd to them.

And yet there is a persistent myth in our society that creative people are wild and flakey, lacking in sense and pragmatism. I have seen this manifest in otherwise very sensible and organised artists as a lack of confidence in their ability to develop business acumen, despite the fact that their actual behaviours and self-management actions point to the fact that they do have the savviness and practicality to manage their affairs very well indeed. My own abilities in project and business management came out of what I call my ‘choreographer’s brain’ and my own initial experience in putting on my own shows. I hate this lack of confidence and think it is quite a toxic influence on the minds of creatives. What makes it even worse is that the arts and creative sectors can be difficult ones to make a career in – lack of funding, (depending on the art form) a lack of a clear career path, competitiveness, scarcity in markets (we live in a society that doesn’t like to pay people for their creative labour) are all factors. The stark reality is that creative people can’t afford to labour under the misconception that they are a bunch of nuff nuffs and that the world of business is Not. For. Them. If they are not going to spend their lives on the dole queue or stacking shelves they need to box mighty clever, and be confident that they can do so.

So it felt really, really good when our participants spoke of feeling “empowered” by the program; one said she could see how the brand building and marketing strategies could function as an extension of her creative practice. This was sweet. This is what I wanted.

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Background:

Chitra Mangma has many years’ experience as a designer, stylist, retailer and project manager in the fashion industry; prior to this she worked in advertising in her native country Thailand. Chitra is passionate about passing on her considerable knowledge of the fashion industry to up and coming designers and put together this program to help young designers to enjoy a smoother transition from fashion student to small business person. Chitra was able to obtain funding from Moreland City Council’s Community Grants Funding Program; the Brunswick Business Incubator provided in kind support by making a venue for the workshops available. Chitra was especially pleased to be able to present this program in the Brunswick area as she feels that fashion is a big part of the Brunswick community due to the presence of fashion retailers on Sydney Road, the fashion and textile courses at RMIT University’s Brunswick Campus, a number of fashion businesses in the Brunswick Business Incubator, and a healthy arts and creative scene in Brunswick. Chitra, herself, is a long time Brunswick resident and her own shop (only just recently closed) was itself on Sydney Road.

 

What do you give to the client who knows everything?

What do you give to the client who knows everything?

I overheard a consultant say in the office the other day; “went to see the client, and they knew more than me. How can that happen?” Put that one out on my Twitter stream and it caused much laughter. Surely people expect that a customer can go onto the Internet and read up in areas that they will needed to be skilled up in.” Tim Hughes, Social Disruption – Which Industry is Next?

A large part of my work is offering training and mentoring services to start ups in project, business and strategic planning. Many of the people I work with would not regard themselves as typical business people; among my clients I have more than my fair share of artists, academics, people who run community projects or who want to set up social enterprises. They are naturally creative and innovation (both ideation and implementation) comes easily to them. Many of them have had interesting lives and can boast portfolios of varied work experiences, cobbled together as they have bounced back and forwards between ‘love’ jobs that further their vocations but don’t pay well and other project work to pay the actual rent. If they didn’t start off as people who were highly adaptable and resourceful, then this career path (is path the right word? Perhaps ‘wild ramble’ is a better term) has made them acquire these characteristics.

These people are good at learning things and their creative brains enjoy handling new concepts. They have good instincts for realising when their information, or understanding of it, falls short. Their academic, community or arts backgrounds have instilled in them the habits of discipline and candid self-evaluation of their strengths and faults. When embarked on a new strategy or project their instinct is to rush off lickety split to Google to do research and to book themselves into a bunch of workshops. In general, many people nowadays do this, but I think that my little crowd of clients is hard wired to be super responsive to the learning challenge*.

A picture of the lovely people who came to my last workshop - interesting and varied backgrounds and skill sets
A picture of the lovely people who came to my last workshop – interesting and varied backgrounds and skill sets

And there is so much information on the internet nowadays; and plenty of free workshops and talks too if you know where to look. There is enough information out there to help anyone motivated enough to educate themselves as to how to chuck together a rudimentary business plan. But is this information, in the form of a series of online articles, fact sheets and templates, enough? What role do actual human beings like me have to play? I find that my clients may need me to do any of the following during mentoring or training sessions:

  1. Get them started – it is all very well to burble on about how much information a Google search can throw up, but you need to know the right search terms first. People who have worked completely outside of the business sector but who know they need a business plan often ask me what the hell they even have to think about. Coaching them through the rudimentary steps of planning a business can give them ideas as to what information they should be looking out for. Usually after just one session I find people tend to go zooming off to start their research and self-education. They then may come back to…
  2. Map out a context – information yanked off the internet one Google search at a time comes in digestible but piecemeal forms. The searcher will gather an article here, a template there, an online calculator somewhere else. But there is a danger that this could just remain a higgledy piggledy mess of stuff. I can be called upon to help the client map out this information against the context of what they want to do.
  3. Deal with a sense of overwhelm – related to the point above. There is so much information available that it can actually feel disorientating and overwhelming for some poor soul slaving away over a hot Google search. Even highly experienced people benefit from the anchoring effects of working through ideas and information with a mentor.
  4. Assess the value of and make decisions about the efficacy / applicability of information – Clients may indicate that, yes, they understood the information on such and such a website just fine but they didn’t understand how that information could be applied to their particular case, or even if it should. Not all techniques and strategies that can be found on the internet, even the best ones, can be applied to all types of business undertakings.
  5. Deal with different cultures – Because of my background in the arts, tertiary and community sectors I tend to attract other people from these sectors who are not really motivated by making profit, but by making a sustainable income while they do the thing they are passionate about. These guys may find the language, tactics and even ideas of hard-core business websites, and the assumptions and ideologies they suspect inform these things, to be alienating and even dubious. They read articles with titles like ‘The 7 characteristics of successful entrepreneurs’ and read about people who are very different personality types and feel disheartened (I personally think articles like these are nonsense; I like this one). They cavil at mechanisms like branding, associating this word with the most heartless and vacuous type of commodification of one’s values or purpose (author Alison Croggon, not one of my clients, seems to eloquently speak for them in this very good piece). While they do fully understand the necessity of maintaining a healthy cash flow (people who are used to low incomes often do! Funny about that…) it somehow feels limited to talk about profit margins to someone who will measure the usefulness and prosperity of their professional undertakings in terms that may encompass the artistic, the academic and / or the social (why can’t we talk about margins of abundance?). My job, as I see it, is not to change anyone’s mind about any of this. Often I think they are onto something – that their concerns have some merit – and I do share a lot of their values. The approach I take is to strip back the information to its central idea, explain to the client what the person authoring that piece of information was thinking and what the conventional wisdom is. I then suggest that they decide whether they need a similar mechanism in their business to achieve their goals and how they might like to go about this. If they reject it, will there be consequences and do they care about these? As stated above, these people are born innovators – they take ideas, adapt them and try them out. It’s fascinating to watch them take soulless tactics and mash them together into a way of working that achieves practical goals and is a manifestation of a set of values dear to the client.

In my sessions with clients, I could not be less interested in droning on about information that a client can readily find on the internet or via a Meetup group; this strikes me as an exercise in redundancy. I would also feel a bit cheeky to charge money to impart information the client could look up for free. The proliferation of information on the internet is fantastic, the human race (well, those bits of it with access to the internet) has never had the opportunity to be so well, or rapidly, informed. This frees people like me to work with clients on aspects of their work that are unique, creative, values driven and personally meaningful.

I have started up an affordable weekly facilitated conversation around business or project planning for artists, academics, alternative lifestylers and community workers – I wanted something for those people who can’t afford a full consultant’s fee but who are bursting with ideas and need to get started. You can find more information about that here.

I am currently developing a workshop in the area of ideation as part of the innovation process. This will be suitable for people working in the business sector. If you are interested in this then please feel free to contact me via my contact page or leave a comment below.

My new workshop: Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise

My new workshop: Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise

Media Release – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise

A free workshop for corporate escapees who are contemplating the shift to a career in social entrepreneurship.

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Presented as part of the annual Changemakers Festival, the ‘Getting to the heart of running a social business’ workshop will help people who want to start a social business or community organisation:

  • understand the skills and qualities they can transfer into the community sector
  • gain clarification around their goals
  • get an introduction into legal and organisational structures and funding models
  • develop a hit list of what to do next.

Inspired by mentoring sessions and conversations with corporate escapees who were yearning to make a difference, business and strategic development trainer and consultant Meredith Lewis came up with the idea for this workshop, and felt that the Changemakers Festival was the ideal forum in which to present it.

Social businesses are springing up in a variety of effective, interesting and innovative models. Many people are drawn to work in this area because of the chance to right wrongs, address social imbalance, and of knowing that they have made a real difference in the life of others.

All of the above can be true, of course. But what can go unacknowledged is that setting up and running a social venture can also be challenging, complex, and risky. There are differences between the for-profit and not-for-profit cultures that need to be acknowledged and overcome.

Workshop convenor Meredith Lewis has over 25 years’ experience of working in the arts, creative, tertiary and community sectors including as a project manager and manager of a community organisation. She enjoys working with innovators, and specialises in helping people develop plans and strategies that anchor and promote creative thinking, humane values, and good business.

Naturalis Clinic (www.naturalisclinic.com.au ) is a new holistic health clinic and workshop space in Northcote that offers an array of services. As a business that exists to promote holistic health and wellbeing, it is an ideal venue for this workshop.

Details:

Date: Friday 24 October 2014

Time: 6-7.30pm

Venue: Naturalis Clinic, 9 Langwells Parade, Northcote, phone 03 0039 9662

Cost: Free BUT bookings MUST be made at Eventbrite here

For more information contact Meredith Lewis:

M: 0421 653 325

E: dangerousmeredith@outlook.com

B: dangerousmeredith.wordpress.com

Please also check out the Changemakers Festival Event page on this blog

On Problem Solving and Black Mould

On Problem Solving and Black Mould

“Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.” Henry Ford

It’s funny how the mind sometimes takes circuitous routes to bring us insights. While sitting up in bed this morning, eating bread and butter and honey(1), mucking about on Twitter, and feeling aggrieved over the state of my washing machine(2), I had an epiphany. I realised what it was that had gone wrong for me in a couple of my jobs, before this latest stint of freelancing and back when I was ‘working for the man’. In these particular jobs, I had whaled into my work thinking I was doing the right thing and, as I saw it, doing what exactly had been outlined for me in my position description and job interview. You can imagine my dismay (perhaps distress is a better word) when my efforts were met with hostility, overt and covert, and when I was upbraided by my employers for not being “nice”(3) to them.

This was not just nasty to experience, but surreal. I had tried to be a positive, hard-working and useful member of the team. I knew that I had made no false promises and had tried always to be diplomatic in my dealings with others, always keeping the focus on business, never ever being personal. In the strategies I was working to there were problems, big scary problems, problems that had not been alluded to during the job interview, induction or in the position description. But I was aware that I had described myself as a problem solver in my application (I always do as a matter of course because I am). So I assumed that the people who had hired me had done so, so that I could fix up these problems. Which I was happy to do because I’m good at it.

So the yells of dismay that erupted from my hirers when I pitched in and got to work were surprising. I was not the only one who was evidently in shock. The anger of my hirers was laced with a feeling of outrage and expressed in these bizarre complaints that I wasn’t being nice enough to them. It’s as if they wanted a surrogate Aunty or life coach, and not a professional (and unfailingly civil) manager or project manager cleaning up derailed and risky strategies.

But this morning I realised what the clash of expectations actually had been. I thought I had been hired to solve or fix problems. My employers had hired me to make the problems go away. I am used to thinking that these are the same things. But in the minds of some people who harbour unreasonable expectations(4) they are not.

***

To my mind there is a difference between A problem and THE problem. Most often people will be fixated on a problem – “Oh!” they say “If only we could have / buy / ditch / nobble ‘ABC’, then life would be perfect”. But actually, while ‘ABC’ is a problem, maybe even a major problem, these people fail to see that ‘ABC’ is actually caused by underlying problem ‘XYZ’. Even if they successfully manage to get rid of problem ‘ABC’ (and it will be difficult to do this if they don’t tackle problem ‘XYZ’) then good old problem ‘XYZ’ will manifest in the form of a new problem down the track, like a disease that manifests itself in one symptom or another. But you can have a devil of a time explaining this to people who have rusted on attitudes, or even selfish agendas, around blaming problem ‘ABC’.

Black mould. Get it in my bathroom once in a blue moon. Nasty stuff, and if left unchecked will spread, look like yuck, wreck the paintwork and even cause health problems. I keep it at bay by washing down my walls and ceiling with white vinegar every few months when it appears. Black mould is a problem, but it is not THE problem. The problem is that my bathroom is inadequately ventilated – has no fan and during winter it’s too damned cold to shower with the window open. And, layered below this, there is a further problem. I rent from a landlord who doesn’t want to spend money, so there is nothing I can do to improve ventilation. So, because I cannot address THE problem (i.e. lack of ventilation), I can expect to have to continue having to stamp out a problem (i.e. black mould) on a regular basis.

(1) REAL Yellow Box honey, bought from the man who extracted it himself from his very own bees.

(2) Broken and so, so ancient that it is beyond fixable.

(3) Yes. They used this word.

(4) And who perhaps have reason to feel a little guilty over their own work performances.

Announcement: Fashion Industry and Training

Announcement: Fashion Industry and Training

UPDATE: this program starts on November 17, 2014. If you would like to participate then please contact Chitra Mangma at chitra@chitrascloset.com.au. More information can be found here.

1797333_824420010941601_5192916668941722440_n[1] I am happy to announce that I have been retained to provide training services for a great new project that aims to help up and coming fashion designers develop their new design businesses. Highly regarded designer, stylist and entrepreneur Chitra Mangma has put together a great program of workshops, panel and mentoring services to help a select intake of newly graduated fashion designers:

  • Identify their target market,
  • Create a brand,
  • Plan their business,
  • Understand how to organise and plan their collections in order to work in with fashion industry trends and cycles.

Participants will be exposed to training and advice that is supportive, comprehensive, practical, and especially tailored towards their industry and creative personalities. The first run of this program of training will happen over a number of weeks in November 2014; we are grateful to Moreland City Council for providing funding for this November program which will take place in Brunswick and will be focussed on local designers. My part will be to provide three workshops that will focus on marketing, branding and planning. The program we run in November will be our first, but we certainly do not want it to be our last. Both Chitra and I are really passionate about working with young creatives; we believe that it is essential to help and encourage them to set up professional practices that can allow these new designers to sustain their vocations and contribute their unique creativity. We gain inspiration from working with emerging talent and enjoy the challenge of helping creative practices negotiate the business world. If you would like to know anything more about this project then check out the event page here.

Creative minds and accounting metrics

Creative minds and accounting metrics

I have been doing plenty of reading lately about innovation, an area which has long fascinated me. Over the years I have worked with lots of artists and creatives to help them realise their splendidly innovative concepts in tangible form. Along the way I saw innovative projects go swimmingly and some, er, not go so well. The various factors and issues that support or impede innovation are many and diverse, and getting the right mixture of conditions to support innovators is something that continues to, well, obsess me.

I happened across a nice article today called The Seven Deadly Sins of Large Company Innovation by Rick Smith published on the Forbes website.

The sins that Smith lists include

  1. One and Done (“… a sign of failure, and the project is dismantled”).
  2. Product Development Over Customer Development
  3. Death by Committee
  4. Reliance on Lagging, Not Leading Indicators
  5. A Culture that Stifles Entrepreneurship
  6. Poorly Aligned Reward Systems
  7. Custophobia (or a fear of interacting with customers).

This article is well written and interesting, and very well-worth a read. I felt that it pulled together a lot of good ideas and issues that I have either seen other people talk about or felt I recognised because I have seen them unfold before my very eyes. But the one sin that really made me sit up and sigh ‘Hallelujah!’ was actually number 4:

“4. Reliance on Lagging, Not Leading Indicators.  Companies typically rely on traditional accounting metrics to track the progress of their new growth initiatives.  But metrics like sales, profit and market share are lagging indicators in a new growth business.  These appear after the business has already been validated and is scaling (or not), providing little guidance from which to manage the project during the critical discovery phase. Looking backward at sales and profit are uninformative at best, and misleading at worst.

Alternative Approach: The key is to manage a project based on leading indicators – quantitative and qualitative data that can better predict the future. Metrics such as customer trials, usage of the product after purchase, and referral rates foreshadow whether a business is not likely to grow as expected, or has the real potential to scale. Unfortunately, the most appropriate leading indicators vary greatly from project to project, and are unique to each situation. But it’s well worth the effort – uncovering true predictive indicators of the future can dramatically impact the ROI of any growth investment.”

I don’t actually recall ever hearing or reading anyone say this (and maybe this is just an indication that I read the wrong stuff) but it is so true. I work with people who are either just starting up a new venture or with people who have been making creative work for a while and are very new to putting a business framework around what they do. The traditional accounting metrics mentioned above mean very little to these folks and they always assume that it’s because they, themselves, are nuff-nuffs and not because those particular metrics are not appropriate to their business practice at this stage of its development. It is so refreshing to see Smith unpack this and suggest alternative measures. Thanks Rick!

Importance of planning – Diary of a Start Up – April, May, June 2014

Importance of planning – Diary of a Start Up – April, May, June 2014

(A little blog about why it is important to write down your plans)

I am just writing a brief blog today. It has been so long since I have posted anything. This was partly due to my being extremely busy during April and May with work, and then being extremely ill during May and June.

Like many other folks in Melbourne at the moment, I have been battling a virus for nearly 6 weeks now. The thing just wouldn’t give up and go away! I am finally feeling much better. I can tell this not just because I feel physically well but because the gloomy, leaden, grey, exhausted mindset through which I have been peering out at the world is also finally starting to subside. The terrible fatigue the virus brought with it made my brain shut down, and I am happy to feel like my mind has come back.

Getting seriously ill is a big fear for many people who work by, and for, themselves for obvious reasons. It is unavoidable and can deplete resources (especially money), disrupt productive work and marketing strategies and generally throw a real spanner in the works. I will survive my recent bout of illness financially but my marketing strategy is in disarray.

But this is a temporary state of affairs. I am a planning freak, I have my overall business goals and strategies, and a marketing plan written down as part of my business plan. I actually emerged from my virus on the weekend feeling quite disorientated and disconnected from what I had been doing. But being able to go and read what I had written down has anchored me and today I feel much more positive about taking action.

Furthermore, I have actually enjoyed the opportunity to review my strategies over the last few days. I have been inspired with a few new ideas and have refined some of my initial goals. For me, one of the great joys of working for myself is the opportunity to watch my plans unfold and see how they have to adapt, change and develop.

So my challenge is to go on the bloody liver cleansing diet to boost my immune system, and to keep on developing my all important plans so that they exist to anchor and inspire me again in the future.