Hack Circus costs a bloody fortune. I am less than half way through what is, without doubt, the most expensive three years of my life so far. I think I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know why it would be hard. Still, if weren’t for a few strokes of exceptional luck and a lot of incredibly decent people getting involved over the year, it could have been a lot worse.
I made some hilariously bad decisions early on. I signed up to make 12 physical issues of something, with no funding, nothing – at staggering expense – and (laughing as I remember this) *I didn’t even have anyone lined up to design issue 2 when we were doing issue one*.
Have you ever heard of anyone launch a magazine with no money, no designers, no plan, nothing? Three years is an awfully long time to be spending money and not making any. It didn’t seem like a long time at the beginning! This must be how people in prison think. A few years, they think, I can do that.
But look: here we are, still. Just about.
Honeymoon over, and realising I’m in for the long stretch, I would like to make my prison a bit nicer. The biggest problem I am currently facing is that I do not exist in reality. I am not a sales person. I’m not a producer (in the sense a producer produces money). I’m certainly not a facilitator. It’s not so much that I *take* risks, more that the things I want to do are incompatible with risk, which involves consideration of the future and compromise. So when I make mistakes, I make big ones.
But there is hope. Someone just flogged a comedy business that sells envelopes of glitter over the internet for tens of thousands of pounds and I’ve been thinking perhaps, just possibly, we could be making money here. Possibly it’s time to stop making so many mistakes and do fewer silly things. Or different silly things.
So it is that I find myself thinking about sales.
I know very little about marketing, and whatever ideas I do have to market generally prove too contentious and niche. Watching expert sellers and marketers at work is magical – what a skill to have! But me? I universally fail to charm. I cannot even use the telephone. I find myself consistently able to serve no one else’s agenda, and after years of working across independent and commercial magazines, publications, radio, podcasts and more, have proved myself to be a flat failure at extracting either significant money or promotion from anyone at all.
And yet here I am, despite everything, spending almost all my time and energy trying to do a sales job, totally ill-equipped and confused and with my head somewhere else. I feel like Frank Spencer.
I’ve learned a few things about sales over a few years of throwing stuff out into the world. I have so far acted positively on precisely none of these learnings and I’m sure I will continue to ignore my own advice until the day I die.
All your ideas are belong to sales
I’ve recently begun to consider the possibility that – eventually – everything becomes a sales job. People always talk about Katie Price being “a great businesswoman” and I used to think: “Well, I’m pretty sure I know exactly the same two things about business that she does, I just choose not to use them.” But now I wonder if it’s more than that. The market is nothing but an ebb and flow of money, you can’t jump in and not be totally immersed in that fact. Without active selling, we disappear from the game. Our ideas sink or swim only on our ability to sell them.
Quality doesn’t sell itself
You can do something awesome, the best thing anyone ever did. You can be so bloody true to it that you dream about it and talk about it and attempt to bake it into a cake and eat it. And guess what? No one will care. Or at best, no one will care for ages. Internet geek musician Jonathan Coulton wrote and gave away songs for years before anyone took note. And I’m always moaning about how we gave dozens of people free PR for four years through free weekly and fortnightly episodes of Shift Run Stop (and what marvellous fun we had doing it) but it never occurred to any of them to invite us back onto their shows. If it was a fault, it was mine. We had unwittingly established a parody of the usual journalism dynamic, where we give out a lovely platform for everyone in exchange for – what? We didn’t get paid a penny for any of it. I don’t want to sound bitter because I neither regret nor hold anyone else responsible for any of it. The lessons were hard-won. I have them instead of money. They are interesting and worth sharing.
So we’ve learned that time sells better than quality, but be careful because:
You’re always selling something, whether you realise it or not
Of course, the show was in many ways its own reward. But that was years of my actual human life, and it was often an unpaid full-time job, for me. And indeed, after a couple of years of doing something like that, one inevitably, and inadvertently sells something. One of the things we sold extremely successfully was the tantalising idea that we were dishing out superbly valuable free promotion to any mug who had a book out, and we still get hopeful messages from people with profiles to build, not unreasonably feeling entitled to a bit of that free community pie. It’s a ‘how you spend your days is how you spend your life’ thing. If you spend all your time giving out stuff for free, quelle surprise, you end up being treated as that person who gives out stuff for free. You can’t really complain when people sometimes call on the charity. None of which would be a problem if I hadn’t been hoping, on some level, that making a free regular show for years would do something for my own profile.
But hang on, what am I selling in this blog post? What am I actually selling, though? What am I going to get back? Have I learned anything?! Maybe it’s time to…
Be at peace with the things you just can’t help
I walk a fine line in blog posts like these, I’m well aware; I just can’t help it. A fine line of pissing people off, finger-pointing, coming across as needy, or bossy, or self-indulgent, or whatever else it is I’ve been called over the years. But what if I can’t help it? The internet is a transparent thing, the idea of carefully constructed ‘branding’ seems a bit funny these days, really. Perhaps Katie Prices’s genius is not in her constructed brand, but in her truth to herself. Perhaps we’re thinking about ‘branding’ all wrong. Maybe the real sell is in the gaps.
Maybe that’s going too far. But I can think of several corporate accounts I follow on Twitter which are really incredibly personal, and that personal-ness doesn’t add anything to their carefully composed brand messaging at all. It may even slightly detract, for many of their followers. But who am I to judge? The people running these accounts are human too, and it’s clearly not an intentional postmodern branding decision to puncture the mask every third tweet, so perhaps that’s their thing that they absolutely can’t help.
Besides, some people will see the weakness as strengths. Some will see the individualism and the rule-breaking as part of the deal, closing the gap, marking you out. Now I should say that clearly, in my case, it doesn’t really work as an audience-building strategy; my stuff doesn’t touch the hearts of thousands, or even tens. But perhaps, if I can’t help it, I can at least stop worrying about it and focus on the things I can do something about.
Expect the world to contribute
You know how weird and difficult and out-of-place you feel in world, like, all the time? How it constantly feels like you’re engaged in an impossible David and Goliath struggle against ‘how most people are’? How everything and everyone is confrontational and everyone’s priorities are messed up and everyone’s signing up to the big names and spending all their money on the wrong stuff and not giving you a voice?
Well, screw those guys!
Those people who don’t ‘get’ your stuff, look again at their output and choices. More often than not, don’t you feel it’s pretty massively excluding you? Doesn’t this in fact suggest, Your Honour, that it is in fact they who are the difficult ones? The world opens up considerably when you stop mentally allowing for the power to be distributed against you. Of course, you can’t take all the power back by brainpower alone, but more of it is up for grabs than you might think.
Now, all this is a recent revelation and I might be wrong, but my feeling is that selling is not one-way. Nor does it have to be approached as an act of grovelling: “Why, what can I do for you today, Master?”. Tripping someone’s switch so they see the world your way is a profound act of power. People love a bit of that masterful taking-in-hand stuff. Now here’s one that only works when you’re in a good mood, but why not go into the room, the argument, the meeting – expecting it. Rock solid. I cannot imagine why you wouldn’t buy Hack Circus. I don’t understand what you mean by ‘It’s not for everyone’. Sorry mate, but I know there’s nothing wrong with me!
It’s OK to be that guy sometimes.