Are you an artist or a frame maker?

Why it’s worth knowing which role you’re best suited for, and how valuable it can be when looking to join a new community.

Last week I received an email from someone in London asking how life in NYC was going for me, and what I thought of The Met museum.

They knew I’d had to wait a while for my work permit and so naturally assumed I’d spent a fair bit of my enforced sabbatical visiting museums. Guiltily I replied I had not. I’d barely gone north of 75th Street, let alone explored Museum Mile.

Amends were made and yesterday I spent a couple of hours exploring the huge Metropolitan Museum of Art space next to Central Park.

I decided to travel roughly in chronological order, starting with Ancient China, via Dutch 16th portraits and 19th Century American furniture, and ending up in 1920s cubism.

In the final room of my visit something caught my eye – a painting by the Japanese artist Bumpei Usui.

The work itself didn’t appeal to me greatly (it didn’t help it was also next to a bunch of work by two of my favourite artists, Gris and Leger), but the placard next to the Usui piece was what grabbed my attention.

Bumpei Usui immigrated to New York from Japan in the late 1930s. Rather than integrating into the city’s art community as a painter, he operated instead as a frame maker, and through this practice became popular with many leading contemporary artists. [1]

Two things about this very short synopsis jumped out at me.

First, he was a recent arrival in a new country, seeking to integrate into a particular creative community. I could relate to that.

Secondly, he decided to focus on one of his multiple skills, and rather than aiming to directly become a member of that community, he instead built his reputation by providing its members with a valuable service they could trust. A wonderfully simple yet effective strategy.

I instantly saw the persona of the frame maker in other areas of work: operating relatively unnoticed; there to provide structure, protection and context for the artist’s work; yet also with their own value, tools, craft and language.

Of course, some paintings have no frame at all, and some are certainly best without, but for many others the frame is a crucial part of the work as a whole.

And just like in other creative industries, whilst a rare few people can become accomplished as both frame makers and painters, more often one tends to complement the other.


 

A few hours after my museum visit I went downtown to meet with an advertising creative embarking on a new venture. We got along well.

After he told his story he invited me to tell mine by asking ’so what paintbrush do you use?’.

I smiled. I’d never heard someone use that phrase before.

I told him I didn’t really use a paintbrush.

I preferred to be the frame maker.

 

[1] During WWII, Usui was saved from incarceration by his many friends who spoke up for him in New York. For the duration of the war, his large collection of Japanese swords (over 120) was stored at the homes of his many friends and was returned to him when the war was over.

Finding your hook: Merchandising the Stallone way

NPR run a popular podcast called Planet Money.

I started listening recently – it’s been going a while, so I was pretty late to the party.

One of my areas of curiosity is food – not just eating and cooking it, but how the logistics work and more broadly how the world is going to get fed in 5, 10 or 20 years time.

And so Planet Money Episode #813 (‘The Produce Show’) was in my headphones on my walk down Park Avenue last week.

 

Visiting a big produce show in New York, the Planet Money team meet a guy called Tony Stallone.

“Any relation to Sylvester?”

“He keeps claiming there is”

Ha – I bet he’s used that line 1000 times but it still got me.

Tony is the produce buyer for Pea Pod, one of the big grocery delivery platforms in the US, with a big focus on the millennial market.

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Tony believes millennials can’t cook, so he’s at the show looking for how to deliver the freshest, most ready-to-eat produce to millennials, so they can eat it right away.

There are two things he’s particularly focused on: berries and avocados.

Why?

Tony is convinced that if a grocer can keep their berries and avocados beautiful and ripe, the customer is going to buy the rest of their produce at that store.

The berries and avocados are the hook.

Tony knows he needs the hook, and today it’s more important than ever. That’s not to say everything else doesn’t matter, but with attention at a premium the hook is essential.

The hook has to be right for the audience. It has to be compelling. It has to be relevant.

What’s your hook?

 

 

Tony Stallone (and others) at the produce show: https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=571222377

Music Business: How to choose an agent

I recently met with an artist manager who was looking for a new agent for his client, an electronic music producer and DJ.

This manager isn’t a music industry lifer, in fact he’s spent more of his career in adjacent fields. So whilst he brings a lot of very useful skills, experiences and questions to the table, he also has a few blind spots. One of those is knowing what to look for in agents. There are some obvious traits of course , but his curiosity and diligence made him want to dig deeper so we got chatting.

I thought it could be useful to collate and share some of what we discussed for other people going through the same process either now or in the future [1].

This article refers to electronic music – if there’s sufficient interest I’ll aim to put together a follow up that takes some of these ideas and maps them to other spaces in the business of talent representation.


Typically your choice of agent/agency boils down to 3 options,:

1. Go for broke on big roster (in terms of quantity, profile or both)

2. Be a high priority on a small roster

3. Hedge your bets and find somewhere in the middle

You can make a choice based on this alone, but it’s probably not enough. So how can you make a more informed decision?

When it comes to electronic music, the touring side is built more on soft tickets [2] than hard tickets; 95%+ of events in this world are delivered in this way.

Assuming you are/working with an electronic artist and you’re doing soft tickets, there are a few key areas to analyse when choosing an agent to represent you, and they’re all inter-connected [3], [4].

  • Tribe
  • Relationships
  • Leverage
  • Strategy
  • Operations

These areas are all very important in hard tickets too, but with soft tickets they’re crucial.

This is especially relevant when an artist is focused on having the right positioning and also wants enough revenue to sustain (most of) their living from touring.

There are exceptions, but these two factors of positioning and revenue are very important to most artists I know in the electronic world.

So what does all this mean?


Tribe

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(For a primer, I wrote about Tribes here. Also check out Seth Godin’s work if you’re interested in Tribes more broadly.)

The electronic world can be surprisingly nuanced and is very tribal. The more niche you go, the more nuanced it tends to get in terms of tribe and positioning around that.

You want to look closely at the agent (or agency) roster alignment with what you want to do (i.e. your strategy). The agent’s own tribe alignment is generally more powerful than agency alignment. However, if the agency and their roster are at the centre of a tribe and the agent is close enough to this (a la the mafia saying of ‘he’s a friend of ours’), that agency alignment may outweigh that of a singular agent elsewhere.

Tribes are everywhere in electronic music: some interconnect and play nice together; others repel, sometimes to the surprise of the uninitiated.

As a manager you should know which tribe(s) you are a member of, and which you’d like to become a member of in the future.

Being in and around relevant tribes gives you understanding. It’s the way to build relationships, devise strategies and ultimately gain leverage.

Outside the tribe and not sure how to get in? Provide them with something valuable.

 

Relationships

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To get right into the tribe you need relationships. It’s possible for to be in the tribe without relationships (i.e. through artists on an agent’s roster that are catapulted into the centre of the tribe) but without the relationships being built on top of this, it probably won’t last.

Relationships also come from time (this can’t be understated; a lot of success comes just from staying in the game long enough).

Agency size doesn’t necessarily matter that much here, although an agent at a larger agency has the chance to build far more relationships than an agent at a smaller agency – as long as they have the autonomy to do so. It may be worth querying the autonomy and authority of an agent who doesn’t have their own name in their company email address for example.

Aside from the tribe, relationships with key venues are also crucial. Promoters are of course important but if you’re looking to stay off multi-act club bills (ignoring festivals here) the in-house booker at a top venue is an important person to know.

Not sure what the key venues are in a market? Look at where the agent’s roster are playing regularly – as an artist/manager it’s worth you knowing the top 3 clubs in each main city in a territory for your (desired) tribe so you can test the agent on it. They should be able to rattle these off without hesitation. See the ‘Miscellaneous Tips’ at the bottom for more tactical suggestions.

 

Leverage

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Leverage usually comes from roster members being part of a tribe. This leverage is usually directly from an agent but also can come from an agency. Again it’s usually preferable to optimise for agent leverage vs agency leverage but both is best. Leverage increases your fees, billing, and maybe even sex appeal.

For instance, if an agent has a very hot artist, the leverage they gain from that can enable them to raise prices for other artists they represent. If a promoter is desperate to secure a hot act for say $100k (why they are desperate is a topic for another post), it’s relatively easy for the agent to utilise their leverage to get the promoter to book another act for $20k who may be worth $10k in normal circumstances.

Additionally, a promoter will often (subconsciously) see an agent with a hot act worth $100k+ as someone who operates at that level, thus paying an additional $20k doesn’t feel unusual, even if the agent isn’t a ‘big player’.* This leverage is why you’ll see some festival bills spread with acts from the same agent or agency roster.

* I’m sure there’s a succinct economic theory that can sum this up better – any economists reading please let me know.

The leverage point is generally best when the agent represents an artist who is your ‘desired peer’ – someone in or near your tribe, who you want to emulate and is 2-3 levels above where you currently are. An artist 5+ levels above you can be useful too, but if you start pestering the agent for support slots here you’re going to build an unwelcome reputation.

 

It’s also worth noting some agents have a great knack of knowing when and how to push (whether that’s on billing, money or something else), and frankly a fair part of the job is really a type of pushing* (an inconvenient truth alas). While not easy to gauge, it’s worth setting up another question around this to try and figure out their ability to push.

The best advice on to take on leverage would probably be this:

Find the person who wants to be number 1 but isn’t.

OR

Find the person who wants to be number 1 but isn’t. Their boss currently is, and they really want their boss’s job.

 

* A word about Hustle. Similar to Pushing, but a little more nuanced and broader reaching. Hustle is effective, but only if the tribe and relationships are in place. Without it, it’s actually pretty useless. If you want to know more about hustle, read up on Gary Vaynerchuk.

 

Strategy

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This is an agent’s understanding of what the artist/manager wants to do, ideally blended with the agent’s blueprint for something they have done successfully in the recent past.

The agent’s strategy should be roadworthy for the next 12-18 months; with agents it’s actually equally important to pick for where you are now as well as where you want to be.

Thinking short seems counter-intuitive, but a) things can change quickly, b) it’s very hard to predict outcomes far into the future, and c) you can fire an agent whenever you like 🙂

Agent strategy usually comes from being part of a tribe. Most strategies are built on what’s worked for other members of the tribe. Building a strategy isn’t that difficult, but executing successfully on it requires relationships and at least some leverage. It’s worth finding out which agents have alternative strategies – great strategy with decent execution may be able to beat poor strategy with great execution…

How do you test an agent’s strategy? Here are a couple of questions you can ask:

  • Imagine things aren’t working out in a particular city. What do you do?
  • Which festival plays this year and next year in territory X sum up the strategy and growth of the artist?

 

And remember the words of Mike Tyson:

Everyone has a strategy until they get punched in the face.

 

Operations 

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Operations should come from a good agency structure, and doesn’t need to be a big company to be able to do this – in fact the lean setup can work better if done well.

Operational excellence (being organised, chasing the money, etc.) is of paramount importance in electronic music. Like it or not the history of how the business was built means there’s a heavy degree of opacity and a lot of savvy, cash-driven people. Most of these people are legit but within the supply chain there’s a lot that can go wrong, from lack of licenses and money laundering to stoned drivers and incorrect airport codes. People dancing, drinking and doing drugs late at night attracts a few interesting sorts, after all.

If you don’t have a tour manager and are relying on the agency to do your logistics (flights, hotels, visas etc), make sure the agent’s assistant is solid, and that the agency have proper financial management in place. Get to know who these people are. I’ve seen too many horror stories of enormous tax bills, miscalculated withholding and incorrect visas, often from naive ignorance rather than malicious malpractice.

This is far from the glamorous end of things, but it’s important and will cause you pain if it’s not done well.

The further up the ladder you climb, you’ll need the agency day to day operations less, but their support on wider reaching financial affairs as well as more complex  promotion details will be crucial.

 

Miscellaneous Tips

  • Don’t get confused with live agents who have acts that look like DJs; if you’re a DJ doing soft tickets it’s a different world. Many electronic artists yearn for the ‘cool’ factor of being on a trendy live roster but they often end up a) cut adrift from their core tribe and b) learning the hard way how hard ticket guarantees work at the lower end of the scale.
  • The economics of hard tickets are…well, hard, at least at the beginning. It can be galling for an artist to realise that their fee for a support slot on a hard ticket show is $100, or that on that for their headline gigs they’re paying for their own flights, hotels and ground transport. Fees for hard ticket shows will typically only outstrip DJ fees at 1000 tickets (if not more). All that glitters is not gold.
  • Make sure you get clarity of what the agent defines ‘landed’ and ‘delivered’ to mean. Not knowing this can be very expensive.
  • Before you start talking to agents, make sure you know the following:
    • Your reference artists – peers and desired peers
    • Where they are playing
    • How much they overlap with where the agent’s roster are playing
    • The key 10 cities you want to make an impact in
    • The ladder of venues/promoters in each of those cities

There’s a bunch more I could add but this is already a long post so I’m leaving it here for now.

Hopefully this helps – now get out there, find a great agent, and play some shows 🙂

Want to know more? Or think I’ve got it all wrong? Give me a shout

 

thanks to Murray Gray for reviewing drafts of this article.

 


Footnotes

[1] For brevity I’ve omitted some of the more obvious character traits to look for.

 

[2] Soft tickets are where the tickets can’t be tied specifically to one artist, and thus artists (very) rarely share in the percentage of the sales. The majority of festivals work this way, and most night clubs too.

It’s worth noting there’s a grey area in night club world where the headline Artist could be considered to be the singular draw to the venue. Here you’ll often see set fee bonuses rather than percentage splits; this is for a few reasons depending on how cynical you are 🙂

A ‘hard ticket’ is for a gig where the tickets are being sold primarily on the draw of one artist. That headline artist will see a percentage of sales, usually alongside a guarantee. Rule of thumb – if the headliner’s name is at least 2x bigger than any other acts on the lineup, it’s a hard ticket gig.

 

[3] I was an agent for a fairly long time, and moderately successful, but I’m now two years out of the game. Some of my thoughts may not have dated well but I hope that’s not the case 🙂

 

[4] The basic agent playbook reads something like this:

  • Forge relationships.
  • Get into a tribe.
  • Build leverage in the tribe.
  • Learn strategies.
  • Refine operations.
  • Forge new relationships.
  • Get into a new tribe.
  • Repeat.

or alternatively;

  • Decide on a niche
  • Get leverage in that niche
  • Spend time and effort working that leverage
  • Have the operations to deliver it
  • More onto the next niche

 

Credit to the Edit

How editing got me hooked on movies, and why it’s such an important and underrated skill to develop whatever your industry or interests.

One Saturday morning in the early 1990s I was sat in my local library in a small town in the south west of England. I was 9, maybe 10 years old and was reading a book about the movie industry.

It was magic – the special effects, the incredible locations around the world, the armies of people who came together to create these amazing stories and experiences.

I especially loved the section in the book that explained how certain sequences were put together. This was before Pixar and their contemporaries elevated special effects to the levels we see today, so many of the things I read about were down mainly to sleight of hand and illusion – just like a magician. I was hooked – I decided right there I wanted to be a film producer.

Around that time a school friend and I watched the first Terminator movie. We were way too young of course, and it gave me nightmares for a while, but I still found it enthralling. The first time we bailed out halfway through because his sister came home and we didn’t want to get caught watching scary movies, but the second time we watched it all the way through. I remember vividly on this version of the VHS tape there was a section after the final credits going behind the scenes of some of the action sequences.

After some of the car chases, there were two scenes I’d seen before – in my book! One of them was when the Terminator punches through a windscreen with his bare hands. They used pneumatics to make the glass break of course, but when the finished scene was shown again at regular speed it wasn’t just the camera shots or the special effect I was most impressed by – the editing was what made it all come together.

 

AtlasSmall

Last weekend I finally got around to watching Cloud Atlas, the hugely ambitious 2012 movie by The Wachowskis and the German director Tom Tykwer. Cloud Atlas tells six stories across different times in history, each of them gradually impacting the others as the movie progresses. For the regular movie fan it’s pretty hard to notice great editing – we only tend to notice it when it’s incongruous or uncomfortable.

However, with Cloud Atlas I noticed the cadence of the edits gradually increasing over time at the film’s crescendo came into view, and different elements in the plot starting to bleed into others. It was extremely clever and the 1000+ shots must have been meticulously mapped out (no pun intended) by the editor Alexander Berner. It felt fitting that earlier in the week I’d been grappling with a challenging editing project of my own – albeit only 55 minutes of linear audio.

Tickets_Logo

The first episode of my new podcast ‘Tickets’ went online last week. Practising what I preach, it’s been built lean to test the concept – in this case Skype calls, laptop mics and free editing software. So far the responses have been good – experiment validated. More episodes will be live in the coming weeks.

I always knew the edit was the tricky bit, but I underestimated just how much time would be needed to iron out the ‘um’s, ‘ah’s, pops and crackles. My lean approach meant it was tough to test my mic levels, and I needed to re-record a few parts and splice them back in, plus all the exports, imports and mix downs – this just for a simple 55 minute audio file. Recording time: 1.5 hours. Editing time: 8 hours. Uff.

The edit also helped me improve a lot of other things including storytelling, timing, voice projection and segueing between threads of conversation – in fact I learnt far more here than in the preparation and recording processes combined.

Suddenly those 8 hours didn’t feel so bad, and I’ve since been listening to and watching content with a new level of understanding of the craft and respect for the creators, producers and editors making it happen.

I may not have quite followed that dream at 10 years old and become a film producer (yet art least…looking to reigniting that one soon in a slightly unorthodox way), but just like the wonderful DJ and remixer Greg Wilson I’m giving full credit to the edit.

The Intrapreneur in action

You may have noticed a growing number of companies offering innovation and business transformation services. Some of them are deeply involved in these burgeoning disciplines, others are bolting on these offerings to their existing consulting services, and a few are frantically pivoting from spluttering business models.

There’s no doubting the need exists. The majority of behemoth businesses of the past are unprepared for the future, and with hardened legacy practices and a wide turning circle they naturally need help in being ready for tomorrow.

One of the concepts often floated as part of an innovation or transformation program is that of the ‘Intrapreneur’. Just like the entrepreneur, they seek to solve problems, take risks, instigate initiatives, unlock value and (eventually) bring in revenue. The only difference is they do this from within the business, not out on their own with only a co-work’s coffee machine for company.

I’ve trained a number of people who are either looking to inspire a new cohort of intapreneurs or are seeking to become one themselves, but I’ve never seen one out in the wild.

Until last weekend.

 

Mattress Wars

Upon moving to NYC, a mattress was straight to the top of the shopping list for our new apartment. After some consideration (although relative to the cost probably not enough – I’ve spent more time deciding on what to have for lunch), I ordered one from Leesa, one of the plucky startups aiming to entice urban dwelling millennials like me. (I passed on Casper as I like to back an underdog – it happens when your football team is Crystal Palace).

The Leesa did a good job for the first month, then towards Christmas it seemed to have a kind of mattress rigor mortis; early morning bad backs became a regular fixture. With my wife’s busy schedule at work, good sleep was particularly paramount – it was time to wave goodbye to Leesa and bring in a new contender. The mattress wars are real – sleep is a competitive business (see the image at the top of this post)>

 

Enter D.D

The new contender ended up being the old incumbent – on a mild Saturday afternoon we went over to our local Mattress Firm a few blocks from our place. It was close to home, it had product in-house, and a slightly confusing front window display. But hey.

After taking personal pride that I kept myself from throwing my 6’6 frame spreadeagled onto the first bed in the store like an over-sugared 6 year old (I did this on a circular sofa at a designer handbag store the week before and was chastised accordingly), we were approached by a rather charming Haitian lady named D.D.

I’ll spare you the finer details of our mattress decision making matrix, but an hour later we were ready to pay up the dosh and take delivery of our new mattress & pillows (next day delivery too). As we waited for the payment to process I mentioned her very fetching company t-shirt. I liked it, but it seemed a little off-brand.

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D.D. responded that she’d designed and paid for it herself as she thought it could be a good way to make the store more memorable and built some wider brand awareness, as well as being an opportunity to improve her design and marketing skills. She’d even set up fresh Twitter and Instagram accounts using the hashtag.

This store was until recently a branch of Sleepy’s until Mattress Firm recently acquired the company. They’d started the rebrand in February last year and 12 months on it still looked like a work in progress – next to me the Sleepy name poked out sheepishly underneath some Mattress Firm branded bed legs, and the store itself looked a little sleepy by nature as well as name.

D.D. didn’t think the rebrand had quite hit the spot, hence her taking matters into her own hands. She’d lobbied a couple of execs with her idea but hadn’t had any response.

I loved her zeal and passion – she was really knowledgeable about the products in the store, clearly loved to help customers, and had a wonderful demeanour and sense of humour. She even paid for her own custom work uniform! Who wouldn’t want her as part of their team?

D.D was the Intrapreneur personified. I felt disappointed the company execs hadn’t acknowledged her initiative, so I told her I’d write to them and publish an article about our experience at the store, along with a photo. She laughed. I guess she thought I was just that nice English guy being polite and a bit quirky.

But I wasn’t joking. Here it is – D.D with our new mattress and pillow.

Fingers crossed I’ll get a response from Sicily Dickenson, CMO at Mattress Firm, and maybe we’ll see ‘Got Sleep?’ on the billboards of Union Square some day soon…

 

 

 

Introducing the Operator’s Handbook

TL;DR: The Operator’s Handbook is a collection of resources for operators and business builders.

Over the past few months I’ve been learning more about operations management and various associated aspects of running companies. Instead of taking one course or program I’ve been ingesting content and ideas from a bunch of different sources and set up a simple Google Sheet to store the various nuggets I found.

This got unwieldy pretty quickly, especially when trying to places different pieces of content into themes. I could build a pivot table or similar to handle it but it didn’t feel quite right and rapidly became more hassle than it was worth.

I could also sense there was some value in sharing these resources will fellow venture builders. There are plenty of resources for digital marketing, coding and other aspects of building a startup or small business but not much around broader operations. But the Google Sheet didn’t seem to cut it,

Enter Airtable, something I’ve been playing around with quite a while but just couldn’t find the right use for. Half an hour later and the sheet was imported, open-sourced and categorised for use by all and sundry.

Hopefully you’ll find this a handy resource – at the time of writing I’ve added 40 or so resources, with more to come. And if you’ve got something to add, please feel free to submit it to the directory.

www.operatorshandbook.com

https://airtable.com/embed/shrfceSeFM3spzKyq?backgroundColor=red&viewControls=on

If Sesame Street did nightclubs…

Celebrating a creative right up there with the very best, and looking at the future of pop culture IP

At a certain vintage we often like to think we’re culturally aware and attuned to the latest events and happenings in the Arts; whether it’s gallery openings, exhibitions, or offbeat movie screenings. In practice, we tend to let things slide and inadvertently prioritise the latest Netflix series instead. Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown may have some cultural merit, but it’s not quite the National Ballet.

Returning to NYC after Christmas I knew a dose of inspiration and creativity would be a welcome tonic to the brutal tundra that is the US East Coast in January.

It was time to chill on the Netflix and get out and about.

What better than an exhibition celebrating someone who has made a huge impact not just on popular culture but also education?

Since July the Museum of Moving Image in Queens have been hosting the Jim Henson Exhibition, a tribute to the mind behind the Children’s Television Workshop, The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Labyrinth, a whole host of TV commercials and even a futuristic nightclub (more on that later). The location is also fitting – Sesame Street’s studio is just around the corner.

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Taking up the second floor of the museum (directly underneath a highly addictive bunch of arcade games including Out Run and the peerless NBA Jam), the exhibition includes several dozen of the most well known puppet characters plus a few most obscure creations, as well as hundreds of other items including drawings, storyboards, fan letters and TV commercials.

Surprisingly there isn’t that much interactive content – presumably the curators decided they wanted the work itself to do the talking. Perhaps it’s also do with the fact the project had a really hard time getting open in the first place; the museum turned to Kickstarter to help raise funds for character restoration.

In lieu of things to play with, there were plenty of behind the scenes insights. Something I loved about many of these studio shots was that so little was needed, even in later years when budgets were bigger. Most scenes were essentially improv – a couple people using their hands and their mouths to bring simple shapes to life; creating fun from practically nothing. Henson and his long-time partner Frank Oz were a zany and perfectly synced creative double act – from Ernie and Bert through to Grover and Kermit.

And that simplicity also ran through many of the Muppet designs – Kermit spent the first few years of his life as a repurposed old coat from the Henson family wardrobe.

As well as The Muppets there was of course Sesame Street. There’s a certain magic in being able to blend entertainment with education so seamlessly. A couple of my projects are exploring this combination and it’s really tough to find the right balance.

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Statler & Waldorf: My mum says my dad and brother act like these two when they get into one of their sparring matches about the topics of the day

I nearly missed one of the smaller areas of the exhibition – tucked away in a corner was a gallery showcasing some of Henson’s failed experiments, mainly during the mid-late 60s.

One in particular caught my eye – a nightclub called Cyclia.

The proposal for Cyclia described it as ‘pure theatre in a revolutionary new form: a perfectly controlled, unified environment of movement, images and sound’. There would be film projections on the faceted walls and ceiling, dancers with kaleidoscopic images projects onto their bodies, and floor lights that reacted to the music.

Despite Henson and his business partner exploring locations in NYC and LA, Cyclia never opened. Maybe he was just 30 years ahead of his time – there’s more than one venue today that look like what Cyclia would have been,

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The Cyclia nightclub – ahead of its time. Could it work today? What would Henson’s nightclub of 2018 looked like?

The previous week on my flight back to NYC from London I watched a BBC documentary profiling Ray Harryhausen, the pioneer of stop-frame animation in movies. In the documentary, the legendary director James Cameron suggests that Harryhausen would have embraced the new tools, and in what I presume was a cheeky bit of editing, the scene cuts straight to Harryhausen saying exactly the opposite – for him the original ways were still the best because of the tactility.

Given that the magic always seemed to stem from improvisational, hands-on storytelling, I wonder if Henson would have said the same as Harryhausen. To paraphase Steve Jobs – simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

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Brand partnerships in action – Henson’s work did start life in TV commercials after all…

 

What can we learn from Jim Henson and his wonderful creations? 4 main things stuck out for me:

  • Story comes ahead of technology
  • We’ll always desire compelling and relatable characters
  • The failures, although painful, will eventually lead to breakthroughs
  • We often underestimate how engaging simple concepts can be

 

I left the museum a little overwhelmed but also inspired and full of questions.

  • What makes for great storytelling?
  • Is simplicity the ultimate sophistication or do we desire something ‘more’ now?
  • What will be the next new and valuable IP that can appeal to both kids and adults, and last a generation or more?
  • Could that IP be created by an independent entity rather than a Disney, Marvel or Dreamworks?
  • Could it have educational and/or social impact as well as entertainment and commercial success?

I didn’t have all the answers. To get started I took the first step that made most sense and stayed true to the simple, hands-on nature of what made Henson’s work so great.

No technology, not even any puppetry, just a room and a couple of people.

I booked my first ever improv class.

Introducing Zorro: projects for hybrid talent

TL;DR: Zorro is a new solution for connecting companies to multi-disciplinary talent. We work with proud generalists – the operators, producers, builders and can-doers who don’t fit into standard job titles or descriptions. Whether you’re on the hunt for projects or people, check out www.findzorro.com

A few months ago I moved from London to New York. One of the restrictions of my visa was that I had to apply for an Employment Authorisation Document (‘EAD’, i.e. a work permit) before I could undertake any work for US companies. This process took several months, usually 3 but sometimes as long as 7 months depending on the specific application and the processing times at USCIS.

During the wait for my work permit I met up with as many interesting, smart and creative people as I could, as well as taking some time to sharpen up a few of the tools in my career toolbox.

Occasionally I also took a look at job boards to see what was out there and what companies were looking for.

Most of what I found had very specific job titles with role descriptions which were either extremely specific or very broad.

This made me consider three things:

  1. There’s very little demand for people with diverse and eclectic skills and backgrounds, as all companies wants to hire specialists
  2. As headlines are (apparently) 80% of the work when writing, some of the generalist jobs would get missed by potential applicants as the titles looked far too narrow and specialised
  3. The job boards focused on consulting work are full of roles that are either very specific and/or require an MBA/’top tier’ consulting firm background

I was willing to bet that (1) was incorrect, if not now then in the near future, and particularly within smaller businesses as everyone on the team needs to be able to do almost anything. Job titles become fuzzy at best.

(2) could be overcome by a bit of deeper pruning by those in the job market, but it’s a hassle, and using the right combination of search terms is pretty difficult on most platforms.

(3) ruled me (and most of my peers) out as I don’t have an MBA nor am sure on the value of one. This is evidenced by MBA schools having severe pain right now.

There appeared to be a gap. Not a huge gap, but that was ok. It was a small gap, the kind of one that a cat or maybe a fox could fit through…

With that in mind, I’m pleased to introduce Zorro – a job board for the generalists, the hybrids, even the misfits. That’s not to say Zorro is for anyone – it’s aimed at connecting companies who want Swiss Army Knife-style talent who have solid track records as well as diverse eclecticism.

Zorro is curated on both sides, and right now we’re in private beta while we iron out all the gremlins (I told you I was still sharpening skills – coding is definitely one of the slightly blunter ones).

If you think you fit the bill, or you’re looking to bring people into your company who are really good at getting things done then please join us.

Zorro can be found at www.findzorro.com

And why ‘Zorro’? The title is inspired by Isaiah Berlin’s essay about the Hedgehog and The Fox, which in turn got its title from the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus, who said a hedgehog knows one important thing, and a fox knows many things.

Sometimes we need the hedgehog, but I believe more than ever we need the fox.

 

 

 

 

 

Harness your curiosity. Beware the Magpie.

I spent my youngest years growing up in a very small village in the Cornish countryside. For a long time we had a local milkman who would deliver glass bottles of milk to our front door each morning. You’ve probably seen the sort – the ones with the coloured foil lids.

Inevitably, lots of the bottles got attacked by the local wildlife. The crows and sparrows would puncture the lids and try and guzzle down the milk, but I was more interested in seeing if the early morning magpies would come out to steal the foil lids.

After all, legend has it the magpie is a bird that just loves shiny things.

Figuratively speaking, we all have our own personal magpies. Sometimes they’re relatively docile. On other occasions they are champing at the bit with an insatiable hunger.

And our magpies aren’t only loitering for the chance to grab some shiny yet low value items like milk bottle tops or Instagram likes.

The modern magpie wants to make impact. It wants to make positive change. It wants to achieve and excel. It wants to build a nest filled with valuable things.

I don’t know about you, but my magpie is ravenous.

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A Raven, rather than a ravenous Magpie. by Tyler Quiring on Unsplash

Accordingly to the Myers-Briggs test, my personality type is INFJ.

When it comes to careers, one of the INFJ traits is to dislike choosing one path, mainly because it means making the heartbreaking decision to abandon several other equally fulfilling and intriguing options.

Being naturally curious about different things and how they work exacerbates this.

Living in today’s always-on world, particularly in busy cities, amplifies it even more.

This combination creates particularly fertile ground for the magpie.

The magpie can find nourishment almost everywhere:

  • an article going behind the scenes at an interesting company
  • a new charitable enterprise to get involved in
  • a successful person with whom we can (subconsciously) compare ourselves
  • a request for advice from someone getting started or changing lanes
  • a new trend or idea in an adjacent industry

The magpie desires them all.

And like the fabled Scorpion, it’s not its fault – it is just its nature.

If we indulge the magpie it can harm us.

However, to avoid harm we don’t have to banish the magpie completely.

What we must do is tame it, even if we feel we are passing up golden opportunities by doing so.

Derek Sivers suggests a good heuristic when looking at a decision or opportunity is to respond with either ‘Hell Yes’ or ‘No’. If it’s not ‘Hell Yes’ then the answer should be ‘No’.

The magpie makes us say Yes when we should say No.

But only we know when it’s ‘Hell Yes’. That feeling comes from somewhere else the magpie can’t reach; it doesn’t know us well enough for that. And that is how we tame it.

When making decisions, ask yourself: is this me, or the magpie?