Postbag • 7 November 2008 • The SnowBlog
A nice lady writes in to say "I love what you're doing with Snowbooks - they all look great, especially George Mann's new one. What's your background, have you got loads of design and editorial qualifications and stuff cos you're doing what I'd like to be doing but I can't afford to retrain! Can you offer me any advice?"
I get asked this sort of thing relatively often so thought I'd blog my response, so I can lazily point people towards it. The secret of my success, that is: great laziness. The poor lady asking her question probably only wondered how to get a job in design, so this reply is likely not to be very useful, as I don't know the answer to that. Here's an answer to a slightly different question, then: how to start one's own business.
First up - I have no training in anything, unless you count an archaeology degree and a large bunch of perfectly ghastly management training courses. I have, however, read many books, especially big thick ones on IT, and have worked in retail for the first ten years of my career, which learned me a thing or two. If you're striking out on your own, that's fine - you're not going to interrogate your own CV for qualifications. If you know you can do the job, that's all that matters. If, however, you're hoping to be employed by someone, I'd have thought a portfolio would speak louder than a training certificate. My approach to design has always been to fuse commercial realities with the knowledge of how to create artwork on a computer. It's less about artistic flair; more about hours spent reading the big thick IT books, practising for endless hours and having a clear idea about the role of cover design. That role, of course, is to sell books - not to indulge the designer's ego.
It's interesting with queries like this that people assume they want to be doing what I do. Erm, do you really? Personally, I love it, but then I am motivated as much by running a good company as by being a good publisher. What I mean is that I enjoy keeping the bookkeeping up to date, keeping the administrative side of things in order, working with good suppliers and customers and generally running a business. Sure, I spend a lot of time on cover design, layour, typesetting, editing and what not, but the majority of my day is spent making sure the business stays in one piece.
But if you are intent on setting up on your own, and starting your own company, here are my top five tips:
1) Be adequately capitalised for the scale of the venture you have in mind. If you have no money, then don't give up the day job and consider creating a POD company to minimise stock costs. Snowbooks cost nearly 100k to get started, and that was just about right. (As an aside, Rob sometimes asks me what I'd spend the money on if we suddenly got 1m to invest in Snowbooks. I have no idea. Probably put it in the bank. Or buy an old cinema.)
2) Do everything yourself. Even if you end up hiring skilled workers in over time, you should know how to do everything, from bookkeeping and accounting to cover design in Photoshop, from doing sales calls to forecasting cash flow. Plus every small venture should be obsessed with keeping costs low, and doing everything yourself is the best way to achieve this.
3) Remember that the most important goal you should have is to stay in business. That means turning down a book you might love if it has no commercial prospects. Can you bear to do that?
4) Ignore all advice. As long as you've thought through your business plan to your own satisfaction, and run some plausible forecasts of cash and sales, then I would advise you (heh) to ignore all the gems of advice that people will want to give you. They're never going to be in context; they're going to be people's opinions based on their own experiences and that's not necessarily relevant to you. If your venture is successful, it'll be because of how you run the business, how you behave, how you choose to act - it'll be down to your personality. No amount of advice is going to change your personality, so you may as well ignore it.
5) Remember that the customer is always, always right. Give the customer what they want.