I have gotten a lot of things right on the first try; early in my career that means I got lucky. Now I can, sometimes, chalk-up first-try successes to having learned from important failures. I have always learned more from my failures and missteps than my successes. One can learn a lot by trying something and getting it right, but real growth comes from getting it wrong, making adjustments and trying again. Portfolios, interviews and resumes are all marketing. They convey and add value to a candidate, or potential team member, but most of the time they only tell part of the story. My approach to marketing is one of honesty and integrity. I believe in telling an honest story that people want to be a part of. And the truth is that no person, and no organization has never failed. I have failed a lot; I have taken risks, gotten out of my comfort zone, and found where my limits are. I also happen to believe that these experiences are just as valuable as my successes, and are worth highlighting. As Samuel Beckett said, I’m learning to fail better.
FIELDER | 2005
From roughly (very roughly) 2001 to 2009 I owned and operated a recording studio in my hometown of Quincy, Illinois. The story of the studio itself might warrant its own failures entry, but in 2005 I began experimenting with a model for bands to pay for my services and an initial pressing of their demo albums while breaking into the arena of concert management and promotion, and it's a model I first tried with the local band Fielder I had been recording. The model was simple: I would front studio time and capital for a small 100 copy pressing of the finished product, along with cover art and packaging. In exchange, the bands would play shows that I put-on, along with other local and touring acts, and allow their portion of the door to go toward paying their debt to me in studio time and CD capital. It was a win-win for everyone. A band got to record a CD, have a small pressing released and just show up to play a gig or two in exchange. I held the risk, and it was incumbent upon me to ensure bodies at the door, but it was a good opportunity to work on the craft of concert promotion with bands that weren't expecting to be paid. If the show flopped, the worst-case scenario is that it would be longer before I was fully paid for my studio work. It was my first real attempt at working out equitable solutions collaboratively. I was 23 years old when I had this idea, and I really fell in love with the concept and logistics of working together.
So where did I fail? In a single sentence: I didn't get the plan and its details in writing. My studio was named "Atavism Records," a nod to an older way of doing business, and I had made all these arrangements on a handshake with the three original band-members. But band lineups change, details get fuzzy as time passes, and nobody really trusts the guy holding the cash at the door. Sparing the operatic details, the salient particulars include accusations by new band-members with whom I had no rapport, tense negotiations over the phone, and a meeting spent critically pouring over the excel files detailing my expenses and revenue, after which we came to an agreement. I was still owed $125 for my time and a personal check was written to me for the remainder. It's a check I never cashed. Although I had operated with integrity and implied transparency, I failed to be pro-active in that transparency. I should have provided the band with detailed accounting of the earnings at the door for their shows, and a running total of how much was still owed. I should have made sure that everyone was clear every step of the way. And most critically, I failed to get it all in writing. I don't blame the band, it was a difficult situation; nobody likes joining a band and finding out they've inherited a credit balance. I could have cashed the check in good conscience, but preserving the relationship with the band was more important. Less than 24 hours after receiving the check for the final amount due, I let the account holder know I had destroyed it, and that I hoped the next time they need a recording engineer, they would keep me in mind. The situation taught me a lot, and it allowed me to exercise a philosophy I was imbued with by my father while still a toddler: relationships are always more valuable than cash.
QUINCY HYBRIDS | 2003
This was my first big project. After a long jog in 2003, an idea popped in my head to create a compilation CD featuring sixteen tracks from sixteen bands in West-Central Illinois as a way to promote my burgeoning recording studio Atavism Records. In many ways it was highly successful. It provided great exposure for my studio, it leveraged community partners like local radio stations and a mastering studio, highlighted and expanded the radius of many of the bands in the region, and provided me with an excellent product-in-hand to demonstrate that I knew how to get projects of this magnitude off the ground. I was just 21 years old and was proud to have been able to hatch this plan, raise the capital, and develop the brand for the project (Quincy Hybrids was a play on the numerous seed company signs dotting the Midwest landscape promoting their unique higher yield hybrid crop varieties), then market it though radio, newspaper and (at that time still largely unexplored) online avenues.
So where did I fail? In a town of 40,000 residents, and a median age of 39 years old (facts I’d not bothered to look up or consider at that time), I had determined that the market could easily support a first run of 3,200 copies. That’s right, I gambled that in 2003 a full 8% of the population would be interested in buying a CD of local bands, the median age for which was probably somewhere around 17 years old. I grossly overestimated my market. I had done the math and determined that I needed to sell 400 copies at a profit of $8 per CD in order to simply break even on the project. I did eventually break-even on the project, but it took relentless marketing, creative campaigns to send CD’s on the road with bands (sometimes with awkward and drama-ridden math/remittance issues), and a full 24 months of desperately trying to move inventory to cover initial expenses. In the end it was a benefit; I promoted my business, had a great learning experience, and learned to scale back my expectations for niche products. It was my first big project, and my first big fail. But I have never forgotten the many lessons of that experience and have used those lessons many times over in the dozens of projects I have spearheaded in the dozen years that have followed. I still have 1,800 copies in storage if anyone would like one or a dozen.