Harshing The Muse
Earlier today, backer Kristen posted a comment, and one of the things she said was "...I appreciate the quality of your work. [The Gems] came together...perfectly....I can tell that they're not going to come apart. The thought that you put into the design and sequencing created a set that is clean and beautiful. Thank you!"
Needless to say, there's still a big silly grin on my face. I'm not repeating the comment here just to blow my own horn, though. This comment catalyzed something I've been thinking about for a few weeks now. As I've continued to work both on getting my current backorders filled, and been thinking about how to move forward, one of the things I've realized is that PennyGems aren't necessarily what they seem. They are (I think) very 'slick;' once assembled, PennyGems look like something that some mysterious factory, owned by a multinational corporation, would have to manufacture. However, that really is my 'signature' style, as much as I have one: I make things by hand that look as if they would have had to have been made by giant machinery in a big factory by the millions. (The parking stickers and the Deluxe Fanucci deck found at www.ImpObj.com are some examples. There's also artwork that cam be found at http://howell.seattle.wa.us/art .)
So it's almost completely unavoidable that most people will see PennyGems much like, oh, say, poker chips, or dice; although undoubtably somebody designed all these things, the reason they exist is because somebody expected they would be good for business. "We will make this thing with the expectation that we will sell at least quantity N at price point M, thus resulting in the company making a profit."
A slight detour at this point: I want to draw a distinction between "losing money" and "making a profit." When I was planning the PennyGems project, I included as part of the 'cost' the expectation that PennyGems had better bring in enough money to not only pay for all the stuff, but also pay me for the time it takes to make them. In effect, Improbable Objects has one employee whom it needs to pay to do the work. In the end (and totally typical for this sort of thing), I underestimated how much time I was going to have to actually spend. I won't know for sure until I'm all done filling orders, but I think Improbable Objects is not actually going to make any profit on the Kickstarter sales of PennyGems, because what I thought was going to be my profit margin is instead being eaten by my salary. I still get to spend the money on groceries and my ISP bill, so it's all good, but the "wholesale" cost of an unassembled PennyGem is currently calculating out at somewhere between $0.24 and $0.28 each. "Full Spectrum" backers paid 28 cents each, and Color of Magic backers paid 26. What this means in the long run is that if somebody calls me up and wants to order, say, 20,000 PennyGem tokens for their board game or such, there isn't a special "cheaper" rate. My Kickstarter backers are already getting the best rate I can reasonably offer.
What is not included in that cost is the time I spend posting comments, sending out samples, or other marketing, development, or customer service time. Which is okay, there's not heaping piles of that, but I've been an entrepreneur most of my adult life, and I know better than to just ignore that part.
And I'm being an entrepreneur again, right? No, actually, I am not, and that is what this update/essay is all about. Imagine two little versions of me standing on my shoulders. You know, like the little devil and angel characters that appear in so many movies and TV shows? Except one of these little guys is wearing a suit, and one is wearing a smock. The suit points out that it's pretty obvious I'm not really charging enough. Increasing the price would mean selling fewer PennyGems, but making more money on each order, and since it's taking me a month to fill just the first month's orders, I'm already maxed out with every indication that there's still a lot of people who are going to want their own PennyGems once they've seen them.
"And your marketing's pretty weak, buster. You've got no identifying marks on these things except for two tiny words on one side of one-eighth of the tokens, and it's not even one of the main colors. The name of the product itself doesn't appear anywhere, you've got no URL or Q-code or nothin like that, and you even let your customers talk you into shrinking that down and leaving it entirely off a whole bunch of them!"
"Hey!" says Mr. Smock. "What about giving the customer what they want? Isn't that a business principle?"
Mr. Suit leans back on my shoulder so he can look Smock in the eye. "And if he hadn't caved to the pressure, how many people do you think would have cancelled their backing?"
"Well, some . . "
"That," I say, picking them both up and setting them on the table in front of me, "is not the point."
Smock makes a face at Suit. "Told you so."
I drop clear plastic cups over the both of them, in order to get a little peace and quiet.
"As it happens, I came to deeply regret compromising on the insignia," Suit makes a face back at Smock, "but not for the reason you might think." I rap the top of Suit's cup to get his attention. "What does it say on my business card?"
Although slightly muffled, I can still here him say "Artistic Engineer."
"That's right. I've been a businessman for a long time. Progressive, innovative, sure, but still looking at my purpose from a business point of view. I don't regret that; a well-run business can be amazing. My shelves are covered with wonderful games that I would not have if dedicated businesspeople hadn't done the research, development, design, manufacturing, logistics, marketing, management, and support needed to keep those games coming out. But that's not what I want to be anymore. It's not what I am. What I am, is an artist."
Smock is dancing around his cup making 'neener neener' faces at Suit.
"If my primary intention is for Improbable Objects to be a business, then I would certainly support being customer-focused. Yes, it would be about making money, but as you both know, in the long run, you make money by making people happy, by giving your customers good value, by maintaining quality, by treating people ethically, by being nice."
Smock has settled down. I put the cups away so they can hear me better.
"But even though Improbable Objects looks like a business, it's not. It's a business-shaped excuse to let me sell artwork. Some artists are satisfied just with the act of creating itself. I'm not. For me, my art, whether it's a song (my college degree is a Bachelor of Musical Arts in composition), a strange clock, a trophy base, a serving tray, a T-shirt, or something else, isn't complete until somebody else experiences it. I create art because I want to share some of the beauty and fun that dances in my head, with others."
Smock leaps back to my shoulder and starts trying to peer into my ear. "It's a metaphor, dummy!" Suit sneers. "Which I'm illustrating," Smock replies.
Smock sits down on my shoulder and dangles his feet against my collarbone. "So when you compromised on the 'branding' of the PennyGems, what you really were compromising was your artistic integrity."
"I know. 'Improbable Objects' isn't on the silver Gem because it's an ad; it's there because it's my signature."
"So why isn't it actually your signature?" says Suit.
"Because even my signature has to bow to the demands of artistic integrity. A painter signs a painting because they're proud of their creation; we all care much more about the fact that the Mona Lisa was painted by DaVinci than that it currently hangs in the Louvre. However, they (usually) sign it in a way that keeps the signature unobtrusive. In the corner, not too gaudy. No, not every artist follows that approach, but it's pretty common, and it's definitely my approach.
"PennyGems are supposed to be beautiful, both in appearance and in function. A scribbled signature would look totally wrong. My 'signature' still has to look all slick and commercial and corporate-ish in order to look appropriate to the piece. By the way, I found a Chinese firm that I think could manufacture PennyGems for me at about 8% of what it costs me to make them myself. However, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't feel the same, and I suspect they wouldn't be quite as richly colored."
"But you could cut the price in half, sell way more than you do now, and still make more per sale, even if you lost a few sales because they weren't quite as nice to fondle as the ones you make now!" Mr. Suit protests.
Smock shakes his head. "You think he's supposed to sell artwork that he knows is not as good it could be? If the experience people have is compromised, the fact that lots more people get to experience that inferior expression of art doesn't make up for that. It actually makes it worse."
"Exactly." I shrug. "It's not surprising that this creates sort of a confusing situation. I even confused myself. You know I've always loved juxtaposing the machine-perfect mass-produced feel of modern life with the fantastic; the unexpected. Every time somebody goes 'What? There's a penny in there?' my heart does a little dance of glee. What could be more common than a penny? People don't even bother picking them up off the ground any more! But I've transformed them into something wonderful. How cool is that?"
"Yea, yea, cool, whatever," grumbles Suit. "Although I gotta hand it to ya, it's also very cost-effective."
Smock gives himself a little hug of joy, then turns to Suit. "But back to the insignia issue. Get it now? What you call 'poor branding,' I call 'taking your signature off your own work."
"Oh, come on. Nobody who ordered PennyGems with less writing was doing it because they wanted to deny him credit for making them!"
"Of course not," I agree. "We're back to the issue of how slick and commercial they look. I totally understand why people would rather have the clean un-text-y version. Artistically, I absolutely agree that they looked better without the writing. But some part of me was adamantly opposed to taking it off. I couldn't figure out why I hated the idea, though. Since I couldn't come up with a decent reason for keeping it, I agreed to let some people have the less 'branded' variant. I couldn't bring myself to just strip it off entirely, but like I said, it took me a couple weeks to really figure out why.
"Every time I picked up a packing slip that said 'insignia: partial' it was like getting elbowed in the ribs, because deep down, below the threshold of hearing, a little voice would see that and whisper 'they don't think you deserve to have your name on your work.'" Suit opened his mouth, but I interrupted. "Yes, of course I know that is not the message they intended. I've already admitted that. And once I dug that insidious little voice out of its dank little hole, it got a swift kick to the . . . well, a swift kick.
"Still, I came very close to just emailing everybody who'd selected 'partial' and telling them I'd changed my mind, and they could have a refund if they weren't willing to take the fully inscribed version, but I decided that it would be, hmm, I guess 'rude' is the best way to describe it. And it would have been a lot of extra work. So I just decided to call it a learning experience, and move on."
Suit's got a calculator out. "And if every backer who'd asked for partial insignia decided they wanted their money back?"
"I'm not sure, I haven't totalled it all up, but it probably would have been well over $10,000 that had to be returned. That wasn't an especially significant factor in my decision, though."
"Wait a minute." Suit points a tiny little finger at me. "If you're more concerned about making art than making money, that means you might just decide to quit making PennyGems even if there are still people who want them, right?"
"Pretty much. I mean, hey, if I'm making enough money, then I'll probably keep doing it just so I can afford to keep making other things too. But yea, if and/or when it gets to the point that PennyGems are only profitable if I spend all my time making and marketing them, or if it stops being fun, then odds are that PennyGems will disappear from my catalog of improbable objects."
Suit looks skeptical. "Okay, so how come you don't just throw these things in a jar, call it Art, and sell it in a gallery?"
"Because part of the intention behind this particular expression of artistry is that it's supposed to make some other art even better. Games are fun, and games with really good bits are more fun, and these are really really good bits. Thus: pennies are transformed, hand-made appears super-slick-manufactured, game fun is enhanced; it's all part of why I worked so hard to figure out a way to get PennyGems out into other peoples' hands. It just seemed tragic to have only one bag of PennyGems in the whole world, and PennyGems in a jar aren't doing what they're supposed to do. The same reason I'd hate to have a book that I didn't intend to read at least once."
Smock turns to look at me. "So the icons are all clean and simple because that's artsy, instead of being all functional?"
"No, they're clean because functional is artsy. It's kind of an artistic two-fer. Or lots-fer, or something like that."
"Artists," Suit snorts. "And has it occurred to you that this update of yours is way too long? You're gonna bore your backers to tears. Good thing it's too late for them to get a refund."
"Hey, he's also a talented essayist. Quit harshing his muse!" Smock pokes Suit lightly in the chest.
"Oh, please. You hippie."
* * *
It got pretty ugly after that.