Melbourne writer Kath Dolan explores the nuts-and-bolts of creative business with makers, designers and craftspeople.
“I feel like I’ve always had – I hate the word ‘entrepreneurial’, but a bit of that spirit,” says creative business coach and marketing guru Fiona Killackey. “Every time I’ve ever worked anywhere it’s like, ‘Oh, what could we change here? What could we fix about the processes?’ It’s just an interest that I have. So I’d always wanted to go out on my own.”
Before biting the bullet in 2015 to launch her business and marketing consultancy My Daily Business Coach Fiona clocked up years of experience as a magazine and book editor and writer (she’s contributed to Monocle, Broadsheet, Frankie, Cool Hunting, Yen, The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, amongst others, and now writes about small business for The Design Files).
She got a taste of running her own show with a copywriting consultancy in 2007 before migrating to marketing and working in-house with major brands like Audible and Amazon in the UK and Mimco in Australia. These days she offers small and creative business owners the benefits of her experience working for those major players through business coaching and consulting and regular, info-packed workshops in marketing and branding.
Fiona’s advice is not only hard-earned, it’s empathetic. She’s learned the hard way how to run a creative business, just like her clients: through trial and error. She’s the first to admit she’s made mistakes, and even the timing of her launch was tricky. Fiona and her husband had just bitten a couple of other bullets: buying a house and having a child. But he was super supportive of her entrepreneurial plans and she had the fire in her belly thanks to an innocuous enough question from a workshop she attended: what does your ideal life look like a year from now?
“I suddenly realised that this ideal year I put together was me working for myself,” Fiona says. “We went to Bali a couple of days later for a holiday and I spent the whole time putting together a business plan and … (listing) all the people that could help me.” Compelling viewing for her husband. “He just went surfing,” she laughs.
“I love planning. I love organising stuff. I spent six months meeting with people who inspired me or anyone who’d ever said, ‘I need help with marketing’.”
I set up myself so I’d have at least four to five months’ income and then I quit.
EXPERIENCE = CONFIDENCE
“I just needed a few clients to lock in the money side of things and then I was like, ‘I’ll kind of figure it out as I go’, if I’m really honest,” she laughs.
Why so confident? “People can love or hate Amazon but they are leaders in ecommerce and digital marketing around ecommerce brands and I’d learnt so much there,” she says. She had also run workshops for major clients in the UK and at an Australian digital agency. “I also knew how much money they were charging me out at,” she adds. “I had the confidence of, ‘I know that brands buy this and I know how to structure the pitch’. And I’ve always just thought, ‘You’re employable. If it doesn’t work out just go and get another job’.
It wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to build an empire and make millions’. It was just, ‘I want to see my son more. And I want to be able to wake up and love what I do, and put all that effort into my own business, not everyone else’s’.
LEARNING TO CHARGE
The business nous Fiona lacked at the get-go was knowing how to charge. It took a year to nail that but it laid the groundwork for everything that followed. Still does, in fact.
“It’s easier for an agency to say, ‘We’ll need two people to attend every meeting and we will charge them all out at this much per head’,” she says. “And they’ve got a big name behind them. I didn’t know what to charge. I think that was a big gap.”
Her first big client suggested calculating an hourly rate based on her past salary as head of marketing at Mimco. Awesome start. But Fiona concedes that in the early days she often changed her rate to suit other clients’ budgets – real or perceived. “Which was complete crap because you just don’t know what people’s financial situations are,” she adds. “I also didn’t ask anyone else what they were charging. I’ve found that is a thing people should ask more. Especially when you’re friends with people in that industry. Lots of people don’t talk about money but a lot will.”
Developing a fair rate meant sitting down with Excel to calculate the minimum she needed to earn in a year and working backwards (first monthly, then weekly) to arrive at an hourly rate. “At that stage it was half what I was on at Mimco. And then I added 10% super, five weeks of holiday, 10 days of sick leave. Then I divided it by three days a week because that’s what I wanted to work. And then by hours.”
Learning to quote clients on the hours she thought their project would take was another trial-and-error process. “Why am I charging 10 hours for this when it actually takes me three days?”
Fiona’s tip for others tackling this (even employees asking for a raise) is paycalculator.com.au. “You literally plug in everything – am I paying tax, am I paying HECs debt – and it will show you what you take home each week after everything,” she says. “Then you can go, ‘That’s realistic’ or “I need to earn way more than that for my living expenses’.”
BUSINESS HOURS RULE
Fiona works 3-4 days a week, runs workshops some weekends and tries not to be on the computer after dinner. “I was just giving my life away to my last job,” she says. “I’d sit on the computer as soon as Levi was asleep. And I see so many of my friends still like, ‘I’ve just got to answer this email’. You don’t. A lot of the issues that we have with boundaries we put there ourselves.”
No one was forcing me to check my email. It was me.
Before she left her job a friend advised Fiona to get onto Xero and start managing her money as she meant to continue. Accountant Meredith Fannin at Darkwave Consulting in Fitzroy helped her set up everything from the right business bank account to trademarking. “The best advice was really, ‘Treat is as a proper business’,” Fiona says. “Don’t treat it like, ‘I’m just going to freelance for a couple of clients’.”
Organising finances and processes in a business-like way helped her start to see herself as a business person.
“One person said to me, ‘You should be earning this amount a year as a consultant’,” Fiona recalls. “It was crazy money, in my opinion. And it would just bring so much stress. I might have let that get to me for a couple of months in the first year. Should I be doing this? That? Working non-stop and trying to get to this many figures? But that was just their goal, not mine.”
Fiona consults to all kinds of small businesses and sees patterns in the problems owners present with. Escapees from corporate life often understand the importance of structure and processes. Creatives without previous experience in business often harbour “some limiting beliefs around money”, she says. “There’s, ‘Oh, I couldn’t charge that’, as if somehow their hours aren’t worth it. Or they’ll just charge what other people are charging, as opposed to how many hours it actually took them to create something.
“Around marketing the commonality is it’s just really ad hoc. They don’t want to be too salesy. And they don’t want to be looking – especially the Australian clients – like they think they’re too great.”
‘Who am I to put myself out there? I’m not Del Kathryn Barton. I’m not this big person yet’. So it’s almost like they hold off. ‘I’ll put myself out there when that happens’.
Many clients of all stripes assume marketing their business means banging on about themselves ad nauseam. They worry they won’t look right. Have nothing to say. Will be expected to mould what they do to whatever’s cool. Or slap their photo on everything. They worry they’ll come across like a wanker, crapping on about themselves and their product 24/7. Add to the existing white noise. Go hard-sell.
Fiona reckons they’re missing the point. At its essence marketing is useful storytelling. The trick, especially for introverts reluctant to thrust themselves into the spotlight, is to find stories they feel comfortable telling in ways that match their skills.
“A lot of people think it’s all about selfies and putting Instagram stories up every five seconds and it’s not,” she says. Podcasting can be perfect for chatters. Q&A interviews for those who like time to reflect and edit their thoughts. Collaborations with extroverts happy to handle promotion can be gold for introverts and a boon for both brands.
“If you’re okay at answering questions maybe you just go on a little panel in front of 20 people to start with,” Fiona says. “There’s lots of ways you can put yourself out there that are comfortable to you.”
I’m introverted. That’s why you won’t see heaps of selfies of me. But pushing myself to do public speaking and workshops has done a huge amount for my business.
MARKETING VS PR
Many small business owners equate marketing and PR but they’re wildly different beasts. “Marketing’s not pushing something with a short-term focus and mass exposure as quickly as possible,” Fiona says. “Marketing’s a long-term game. It’s about people trusting you enough to come back – to buy something from you or just exchange in some way. It’s not like you need to be on Sunrise and the Herald Sun and everything at once. You can go at your own pace. But also I think people should stretch themselves a little bit because that’s where the magic happens.”
MARKETING VS SALES
“Marketing runs a spectrum from brand to sales,” she says. “Sales is very short-term. We’ve got you, thanks, on to the next. They’re often measured by quantity not quality. We’ve got $X through or X leads.”
Brand marketing’s ultimate goal is loyalty.
“Yes there are short-term tactics, like when you go into sales periods or urgency messaging like, ‘We’ve only got two tickets left to the workshop’. But the majority of it is long-term. Moving people through ‘know, like and trust’.
“A lot of PR is know and like, not necessarily trust. And sales is often just know. But they all cross over so much.”
GOOD MARKETING = DISCOVERY
“The misconception is you should be always asking for something or always talking about yourself or that you can’t possibly add in your competitors’ stuff,” Fiona says. But who’s your competition really? Furniture and homeware makers aren’t vying for customers with other artisans, she says. They’re up against chain stores for customers. By telling the right stories they can win some over to affordable bespoke.
“Good marketing also allows you to discover things,” Fiona says. For a business selling headphones, better to share a cool band you’ve discovered than wang on endlessly about your amazing technology.
Good marketing is about inspiring people.
Those who’ve had a crack at creating quality marketing images and words (or paying others to) know it takes time. Which puts plenty off ever starting. Process and structure make it genuinely do-able, Fiona reckons. “And knowing your audience. And thinking, ‘What three or five topics are they interested in’ and restricting what you’re talking about to those topics. If your audience is super interested in organic food maybe you have a foodie Friday post. You’ve got 52 Fridays in a year so you need 52 pieces of content, and you can start batching that together.”
Lots of us assume marketing is more complex than it is. Like there’s a secret to it we’re not in on. Good news is we’re wrong. “It’s not rocket science,” Fiona laughs. “Overall it’s, ‘Who is my audience? What do they want? Where do they hang out? How do I give them what they want through good content or an event or collaboration or a great podcast? And how am I going to analyse if that had any impact on my goals?’”
SOCIAL MEDIA ISN’T EVERYTHING
Putting all your eggs in the social media basket and making no time for events, collaborations, media or even email newsletters to your mailing list leaves you exposed and your marketing unbalanced. “You also don’t own social media,” Fiona says. “They could decide to just pull the pin on everything overnight and so many businesses would be ruined. Yes it’s good to do social media. But social media’s just a distribution channel, like email, like an event, like media.”
“If you know who your audience is and what you want to say to them and what they want from you, then you can figure out, ‘Okay, this is really great content, we’re going to use a bit of it for social media, we’re going to have it on our blog, we’re going to be driving people from social media to sign up to an email.’ I always say to people you own your email list and you own your website traffic. And you own the experience people can get if they come to something in real life.”
“Social media is full of promises it can’t necessarily keep. I had a client in my first year who had more than 100,000 followers on Instagram but wasn’t doing anything with them, and she had 500 people on her email list. So if Instagram changed things her whole business would be gone.”
Going back to marketing being a long-term thing, who knows if social media will be around in five years, or if it would have completely changed to something else?
“But if you’ve got an email list and if you’ve got people coming to your site that you own, or coming to events that you do, that’s future-proofing your business.”
WORD-OF-MOUTH IS GOLD
“The real-life stuff like events and meeting people and getting them to really understand you as a human, that can be crucial to growing your business,” Fiona says. “It might just be you talking at your local wine cellar for a night about whatever you do. Or going to a kindergarten and talking to new mums. It doesn’t need to be … Oprah. I’ve gone to … see a panellist I’ve never even heard of and (thought), ‘Oh my God, I want them to be my best friend’,” she laughs. “That’s a human thing. That wasn’t structured and curated and looking great on social media. Word-of-mouth marketing is the best kind of marketing ever.”
Ninety per cent of my clients have come through recommendations from another client.
PUT YOURSELF FORWARD
Pitching yourself for inclusion on a festival panel or event program isn’t as hard as you might imagine. “Write a list of all the things you’re a subject matter expert in and then have your hit-list of all the different festivals, panels, the types of places you’d like to speak at, and it’s just a numbers game,” Fiona says.
Email the organisers a high-res headshot with a clear background (an iPhone pic is fine) and a long and short bio (find ideas on the speakers’ pages of event sites). Include a link to your website and a personal message explaining what you’ve enjoyed about their past events and what you can bring to this one. If you don’t hear back, follow up twice: first by email, then by phone. “It’s going to be super awkward but at least you’ll know,” says Fiona.
“There are so many events – like Vivid in Sydney, which is massive for people’s exposure. They all just have an application form you fill in online.”
“Or get together with two other people you’re friendly with, like two other artists, to lessen the pain. All three of you (can) apply to do something together … like a panel at your local art shop or … library.” Bite the bullet and see what happens. “It’s a case of just doing it.”
Getting better at business and marketing means ripping off all kinds of band aids. Regularly. Tackling tasks we put off. Nailing fundamentals, even belatedly. Starting now.
“Understand your overall financial goal for the year, divide it by 52, and look at it on a weekly basis,” Fiona recommends. “Figure out if you’re hitting it, or if you’re way under, or actually set your goal a bit low.”
List your top 10 goals for the year ahead. Then cut it down to three and try to eliminate things you’re doing in marketing or business that don’t impact deeply on them.
“Often you’re doing all this crap that you don’t need to be doing,” she says.
“If you have a website set up Google Analytics. It’ll give you basic analytics about how many people are coming to your site, when are they coming, what are they interested in. All of this falls under trying to understand your audience. If you don’t know how to use it enrol in the free Google Digital Garage or Google Analytics Academy. You can just do 15 minutes a night for a while. They’re multiple choice questions and … videos.”
“If you’re on Instagram or Facebook look at the Insights you get – free analytics about what your audience is doing, when they’re on, what kind of posts they like. Get to understand them.”
KICKSTART YOUR NETWORK
Once you’ve sorted the basics, create a personal network you can learn from. Sounds scary, but Fiona did it before launching her consultancy and swears by it. List people you admire who could potentially could be a collaborator, client or mentor. Contact them via Linked In. And if they connect, ask if you can buy them a coffee and throw them some questions about their career path. Be clear you’re not chasing a job, just looking for tips about handy steps, resources and mentors. “People are people, they’re not going to be nasty,” Fiona says. “And you never know what will come out of it.”
She gained insights and introductions by connecting with CEOS of brands she admired, and approached each conversation almost like a magazine interview.
“One, it was an ace conversation with a smart person,” she recalls. “Most CEOs have asked a lot of questions themselves to get to where they are, so they would often just ask me a bunch of questions. ‘Where do you want to go? What are you trying to do?’ And often they would say, “Oh, I should put you in touch with my friend so-and-so’, or ‘I should put you in touch with someone who works for us, she does X, Y and Z’, or ‘Have you thought about looking up this person, they’ve got a great website that does a similar thing to what you’re going to do or they might be able to help you’.” Most importantly it forms a connection that means you’re both comfortable contacting each other again if the need arises.
For Fiona, this personal approach felt more relevant and less overwhelming than joining a ready-made professional network where everyone already knew one another.
Direct messaging on Instagram is another option. “The majority of people, even if they take a while to get back to you, will help you if they can,” she says.
Lots of us are doing better than we think at business and marketing. Once we’ve defined our key goals it’s crucial to measure them in logical ways. Sales are easy to track and compare to weekly targets. Long-term brand awareness? Good luck. Social media followers and likes don’t necessarily amount to much. Increases in web traffic and subscribers to your email list do. Conversations and questions from people who’ve seen what you’re doing are good signs of genuine interest and worth tracking. Ditto intangibles like personal development.
If you do something that you were so scared of doing a year ago, like going on a panel or contacting an editor, or contacting Lucy from The Design Files, that’s success because you’ve grown a little bit from the year prior.
Inspiring quotes, books, websites, podcasts, series and people are kinda Fiona’s thing. For makers keen to lift their business and marketing game she recommends these:
Dais podcast by Rachel Hollis
“She started off in event planning in the food industry in LA and now runs Chic Media. I should add a warning. She’s Christian and sometimes she’ll add little bible things in there, but she’s not in your face too much. She lays out things like how to sell a product on Instagram and really breaks things down easily.”
Marie TV by Marie Forleo
“I initially didn’t like her and now I’m in love with her after three years of listening to her all the time,” Fiona says. “She does three-minute videos on everything. She’s probably got about 300 on YouTube so you’ll find whatever you want. She does a lot with makers.”
Marketing School podcast by Neil Patel & Eric Siu
“Five-minute sessions every day on a topic like should you spend money on Google Ad Words, should you spend money on SEO, should you hire a consultant’, Fiona says. “They’re bite-sized pieces of information, but not necessarily around makers.”
How I Built This podcast by Guy Raz
“It’s a really good podcast that is about the story of people, from the guy who started Starbucks through to the people who started Instagram and the people behind Vice magazine. The lady from Spanx is one of their best episodes. Again it’s not makers specifically but it would show you so much about … trial and error. These big brands have just started exactly the same way you did, testing and experimenting and asking their friends for favours.”
Abstract, The Art of Design Netflix documentary series
“Each episode has one person, a photographer or interior designer or the guy who designed all the Nike shoes for the last 20 years, and it will just talk through their creative process and how they started,” Fiona says. “Again they all just did whatever they could to get ahead. None of them really knew what they were doing.”
LEARN FROM LOVE
Fiona always asks clients to analyse five businesses doing things they love, either inside or outside their industry, and figuring out how best to weave whatever they’re responding to into their business. If it’s a website, for example, is it the colours they adore? A particular graphic design style? Topics totally unrelated to business?
EVEN HEROES SUCKED
For anyone feeling self-conscious about marketing their wares, Fiona recommends searching out the first posts, videos or published stories of established talents. In all their unpolished glory.
Marie Forleo, if you go back to her very early episodes, her husband is in the background making a smoothie and the dog walks in, Fiona laughs.
“Don’t expect to be perfect from the get-go. No one knows what they’re doing at the start. No one.”
DEFINE YOUR DIFFERENCE
Marketing copywriters always ask business people to define what’s unique about them. The answer isn’t always in the products they make. Sometimes it’s path they’ve taken or the attitudes and influences they bring to business. Someone who hails from a different industry or cultural background to their peers, who brings unexpected skills or interests to their work, can strike unexpected chords when they share those stories.
“Many people start off marketing the way they see other people doing it, assuming that’s the right way to do it,” Fiona says.
Then when you do something that’s just you, that’s often when you have more likes and more engagement and more people replying to an email saying, ‘I love that you did that.’
“Because it’s unique. And it makes them feel like they know you a bit more.”
CALL FOR REINFORCEMENTS
Can’t define what you do best? Wary of bragging? Email 20 people – past clients, employers, friends, peers in business – tell them you’re doing some marketing homework and ask them to tell you three things you do well and one you could do better. Key themes emerge quickly. Even Fiona uncovered some surprises.
TESTIMONIALS AND REVIEWS
Ask permission to use the best feedback as testimonials. And ask customers for reviews. “If you sell a product and you stand behind it you should be okay to have reviews,” Fiona says. “Amazon has built its entire business on reviews. It won’t actually launch a huge product unless there’s reviews, so they’ll send it out to a bunch of verified people who are legit reviewers and are not going to say it’s great if it’s not.”
ASSUME THE BEST
We’ve all been known to catastrophise or assume the worst to avoid disappointment. Fiona’s a big rap for flipping that habit on its head. “What’s the best that can happen?” she asks.
If you put this post up about something that you love, what’s the best that can happen?
“Someone amazing sees it, or someone DMs you about a collaboration, or buys something from you, or they just get in touch to say how lovely that post was. Think about the best situation as opposed to the worst and then just go for it. And if it sucks, it’s digital. You can remove stuff. That’s the best part,” she laughs.
It’s so clichéd, but you’re the only person stopping you.
Thanks to Annette O’Brien and Lee Sandwith for images.