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Tough Decisions

Regular readers will know of my plans to have a booth at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo in April.  Sounds like it’s far off, but it’s not.  In the past month or so, I’ve been doing a lot of research into what it takes to set up a booth at a trade/art show and I’ve been reconsidering.

There are pros and cons to everything.  I’m fond of saying that ‘fortune favors the bold,’ but the opposite side of that coin is that ‘fools rush in.’  Considering the latter doesn’t make you a pessimist, just realistic.  In the past 10 years, I’ve made a few business decisions that ended up making my life very difficult, one or two that took a couple of years to recover from financially.  Now that I’m in a better position,  I’ve learned the lesson, and I don’t care to repeat mistakes.

I’ve talked to a few people that have made very good money selling their art at shows.  For all intents and purposes, if your work is in demand, you can do very well at them.  Risks are part of the business, and I think I’ve got a pretty good track record for taking them.  Some have turned out less than ideal, many have turned out well, but I’m starting to recognize which are more likely to bear fruit and which have a greater potential to be barren.

I awoke on Saturday morning with this conundrum rattling around in my head, asking myself a tough question.  “Am I thinking of backing out simply because I’m afraid of this new challenge or are my reasons legitimate?”

Now, they say in business you should always be wary of your image, and put forth the persona of someone who is successful all the time.  I’m finding that feels a little too hypocritical sometimes.   I found out these past few years that many people whom I thought were wildly successful were just skilled at the image they project.  Good for them for managing that and I try to do the same, but on occasion, I wouldn’t mind revealing a little behind the curtain to help somebody else who might be facing the same struggles I did on my way up.  I sure would have liked to have seen some of the real world, instead of thinking I was lagging far behind all the time, when I really wasn’t.

While I do consider myself successful, it’s a relative thing.  I haven’t had to worry about paying the mortgage each month for a very long time, and when my car needs a repair or a big expense comes up, it definitely screws up the budget, but it’s manageable.  I make a good living, but we’re far from being able to have dinner out every night,  take a tropical vacation whenever we feel like it or walk in and buy an 80″ TV on impulse.  And I have a love hate relationship with my credit card.  Years ago, I carried a very nice size balance for quite a long time, and after digging myself out of that hole, I refuse to ever be in it again, so I rarely put anything on credit.

They say you have to spend money to make money, but the caveat should be that you have to HAVE money before you can spend it.  Racking up credit card debt and spending money we don’t have is the whole reason the world is in this economic mess in the first place.  Many businesses have failed because of a ‘spend now, worry about it later’ attitude.  Looking at my upcoming expenses for this Spring, alarm bells have been going off.

Let’s talk about some of the expenses involved with having a booth at a trade show, and I’ll likely forget a few.  There’s renting the booth, electricity, parking, hotel for two nights, credit card transaction software, hardware and fees, and meals.  Things I have to buy include banner and hardware, display hardware, wall racks, easels, and promotional material.   Then the largest expense shows up, and that’s inventory.  Talking to people I know who’ve done trade shows, they all say bring more than you need.  While I wouldn’t bring prints of all of my animal paintings, I would probably bring prints of 7 or 8 of them.  That’s small matted prints, large matted prints, 12X16 canvas prints and a few 18X24 canvas prints, framed and unframed.  Plus art cards and DVDs, which I still have to buy, too.  Canvas prints are expensive.  I would estimate that I would have to bring about 20-30 canvases for three days, not knowing which are going to sell or not,  and many more matted prints of both sizes and LOTS of art cards.  Some people (who don’t do trade and art shows) have suggested that people could just order one if you don’t have it on hand.  People buy at the shows on impulse.  Buyer’s remorse is very real.  I know because I’ve done it, and been there, and multiple sites I’ve read about art shows confirm it.  If you don’t have the product on hand, don’t expect to sell it.

So, while I’m not about to give you my whole art cost structure, let’s just say the cost here is now more than a few thousand dollars.  Here’s the argument I get from others,  “Yes, but think of the money you’ll be making.  You could make twice that.”

That’s true.  The other arguments are that anything I don’t sell, I just bring home and hold onto it for the galleries, and that it’s a great learning experience, and it could be wildly successful, and, and, and…

In the grand scheme of things, it may hurt for awhile, but that expense isn’t all that much, and an investment in the business.  I get that.  But here’s the other shoe.  My work is still selling well in the galleries, but these days, art is not flying off the shelves.  Despite what the stuffed shirts on CNN say, we’re still very much in an economic crisis, and art is a luxury.  Is this the right time to gamble a great deal of money on it?

It should also be noted that this expense doesn’t exist in a bubble.  I’ve also recently realized that I will need to buy TWO new computers this year.  A desktop and a laptop.  The current ones have gotten too old, and with Photoshop CS6 likely to come out this Spring, I’ll need hardware that can run it, especially given that I want to paint larger paintings.  On top of that, there’s likely a not-insignificant tax bill coming in April, despite the fact that I pay installments all year.  I’m also releasing four more paintings this Spring in limited edition canvases (both sizes) and matted prints (both sizes) and have to stock the galleries with those.  And finally, there are those expenses that show up that you don’t expect.  You can’t put out a fire if you’ve drained the well.

Do I think this show would be a valuable experience and benefit to my business?  Absolutely, but I no longer think this is the year to do it.  I’m unwilling to cut corners to save money and have a skeleton bare bones booth.  Putting forward the wrong image with my work would be worse than not being seen there at all.  I’ve spent too many years becoming skilled at my profession to look like a kid with a lemonade stand.

Timing is important in business, and unfortunately, there is no way to know if this is the right decision or not.  I believe in taking risks and being willing to fail,  I’ve done it a lot in the past decade,  but there is a difference between smart risk and foolhardy impatience.   Gut instinct plays a large part in business.  While it was that instinct that told me to take a chance on being a cartoonist and artist in the first place, it was also that which told me not to quit my full-time job until my business could pay my half of our bills.

I plan to attend more trade shows this year, but not as a vendor, so that when I am ready for it, hopefully this time next year, I’ll be armed with more information.  Sometimes the best way to keep moving forward is to not only knowing what to do, but knowing what not to do.  Right now, the timing for this just doesn’t feel right, and as much as I don’t like it, my instinct is telling me to wait.

With all of that in mind,  I’ve decided not to have a booth at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo this year, and I’m comfortable that it’s the right decision.

3 thoughts on “Tough Decisions

  1. After years of doing trade shows in my other profession (hairstylist) I can sympathsise with your doubts.
    It is REALLY hard work and needs some kind of assistance, if only to tout you as being the bestest and graet talent. Trade shows are not the place to be modest, & I always had a problem promoting myself to prospective buyers.
    And afterwards it took 2-3 days just to physically recover.

    They are NOT enjoyable events, at least in my experience, but seminars (which I also did) were at least rewarding in the audience responses. At a booth, you seem to spend all your time justifying your prices, or your talent in direct competition with the other exhibitors.

    Whatever you choose, more power to you

    derek (#1 fan)
    PS forgot to click on “submit” first time around

  2. We have looked at attending a trade show this year too, but the answer for us was the result of this question: do we need the added exposure to increase our workload, or are we busy enough already?

  3. I was just over at the house of some friends who have a photography business. We discussed different business ventures, including the idea of art shows, galleries and display booths. Very expensive up front with little to no guarantee of a successful outcome.

    As I’m now venturing into this field as a self-employed photographer, I can relate to your thoughts about it. I have a limited amount of funds and I’m willing to take risks, but I won’t take risks that are just wild gambles. Given the criteria you mentioned, I believe I would come to the same decision. You have an objective, but your self-assessment tells you that you’re not yet ready to do it at the level you believe is necessary to make an impact. I’d wait, too, and keep preparing for the right day to make it happen.

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