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12 Things I Know About Business at 55 That I Wish I'd Known at 25

COW Library : Business & Career Building : Nick Griffin : 12 Things I Know About Business at 55 That I Wish I'd Known at 25
CreativeCOW presents 12 Things I Know About Business at 55 That I Wish I'd Known at 25 -- Business & Marketing Editorial
Towson, Maryland
©Nick Griffin. All rights reserved.

Put bluntly, Nick Griffin has one of the best business minds we have met. It would not be an exaggeration to say that without him, there would be no Creative COW. When things were very bad and it looked like we were down for the count, it was Nick Griffin who taught us a few moves and gave us the means and the confidence to persevere. His ideas and suggestions worked. The fact that you are reading this, proves it. You would do well to read this article, there is more to running a creative business than render pipelines and bits and bytes...

Thirty years ago I accidentally started a business. As a 25 year old disc jockey turned radio spot salesman, I was ready for adventure when one of my clients suggested that he set me up in my own ad agency / production business. I've spent the last thirty years learning why this may not have been the best idea nor the shortest path to success. But since I'm unable to go back and tell my 25 year old self what I've learned, maybe some of it will help you, whether you're 25, 35, 45, or - God forbid! - 55, like me.

No matter what you think your job is, a major part of it should be about sales and your ability to get others to do what you want.

You're kidding yourself if you think: "I'm creative, so I don't have to worry about selling -- that's someone else's job." And an even more dangerous and industry-wide presumption is: "I'm so good at what I do, business will always find me." (See "Know yourself. Really." below).

Say you work within an organization where your responsibilities do not directly include "sales." Are you off-the-hook? Nope. Sales is more than just customers or clients -- you have to sell co-workers on your vision, bosses on your abilities, suppliers on helping you even when you're just one of many customers.

My business has evolved over thirty years and even though I don't see myself ever -- let me repeat, ever -- going back to creating TV spots for local car dealerships, I've enjoyed several repeat clients over the years. One, in fact, has now hired me three times at three different companies.

A few years ago I was asked how we get new clients. The reply came automatically: "Simple, get the old ones to change jobs."

Repeat business comes from forming solid, working relationships based on trust and continually fulfilled expectations. Few people in business want to start from scratch, so it's only natural for them to want to repeat a pleasant experience. But break that trust, fall below expectations or simply be a jerk and you not only lose today's business, you lose the chance for years of future business.

Along these lines, and I know how formulaic and basic this may seem, a great tool for maintaining and reaffirming relationships is sending birthday cards every year. It works with existing clients and it's a great way to maintain "top of mind" awareness with past clients.

What do new business prospects, potential employers and first-dates have in common? They are all sizing you up from the moment they meet you. Their number one concern is: "Is this someone I can relate to? Someone who speaks the same language as me? Someone whose sense of what matters is similar enough to mine that we can work together?"

Learn how to quickly recognize a good match. Don't shy away from multi-part interviews, use them to build communication and increase the time spent with your prospect and solidify the process.

Conversely, if the chemistry doesn't feel right, and you can afford to, walk away before too much unproductive time is wasted.

There is no easy way to recover once you've seriously dropped your price. After you've been pigeon-holed as a certain level of supplier, it's nearly impossible to ever talk them into a substantial increase in fees.

The hard part is remembering this when it counts, when you really want the job and when they're saying things like: "Give us a break on this one and we'll take care of you next time." No they won't! They already know your price, so why, next time, would they pay more?

Assuming that the prospect is legitimate and not someone you should be avoiding, the best defense against price pressure is to keep them talking. Try things like: "Well, Mr. Prospect, knowing that it's not going to happen that we'll take this job at a fifty-percent discount off our normal charges, what are some other ways we could add value? Would it be helpful if we were able to provide DVD mastering at no charge?"

Bottom line: unless you're starving, you're probably better off leaving a 'take it or leave it' offer when it involves a big discount.

It often takes years to learn that there are things that actually matter more to most people than the lowest price. For example: Does it really matter if the price is low if the vendor fails to deliver as promised?

When you probe and get into the real motivations of people, they may say that price is important but, in reality, it can be down the list and much less important than getting your product reliably, on-time and in a manner that makes them look good to their superiors.

In selling situations this can be used to great effect. Ask your prospective customer a series of leading questions about how they rank the importance of quality, reliability, timeliness and of course, creativity. If you probe enough and get your prospect to divulge their real issues, price is seldom as important as most buyers initially claim.

In the business world, nearly everyone you deal with has someone to answer to. Their transaction with you is likely at some point to be judged, so give them justifications that they can use. When they are asked: "Did you get the lowest price?" -- their answer should be: "Given the quality/style/etc., that we need, this is a very good price."

Have a realistic, and continually reassessed, idea of who you are and your place in the marketplace.

There's a big difference between self-confidence and self-delusion. If you want to make the claim that you're the best video artisan in all of Southwest Caramboola, then you'd better have a comprehensive understanding of the market. Otherwise you're setting yourself up to look foolish, have very little credibility and not get the business you're going after.

Also, if you're delusional about your abilities and your place in the market, you're far less receptive to outside ideas and far less likely to be able to grow professionally.

Learn from those around you. Learn from those older than yourself. Even if it's what you consider your specialty, try working with and learning from others who do what you do. I'm a pretty good copywriter. So why do I hire other copywriters? For fresh ideas and inspiration.

Every few years I run into a situation that goes like this: In the beginning the client gushes over how much they appreciate the creativity I bring to the project. Skip ahead to the mid-point of the project where our ideas are presented but not really accepted. This transitions into the client feeling that his or her brilliant insight is needed and a series of mediocre ideas are offered up as the solution. By this time, I'm ready for this to be over -- so I agree to move ahead with one of the client-generated ideas. And guess what?

When the idea is produced nobody likes it. Even the client whose idea has been realized doesn't like it. So hopefully the next time I can spot one of these in advance, maybe I'll have the good sense to just walk away.

Call it the "80/20 Rule" in the edit suite. Once a project is 80% of the way to perfect, almost every progressive step after that takes longer and longer. Going from 80 to 90% can easily take the same amount of time as going from the start to 80%. Going from 90% perfect to 95%, twice as long again.

The little stuff like adding or deleting frames, subtly changing the audio mix or tweaking the artwork. Granted, these and dozens of other factors can make the difference between good and great but the problem is each can eat up time which could be spent on other projects. So you must decide "how good is good enough."

Have you noticed that most clients never notice the little details which keep us awake at night?

Killing yourself to produce something 98% perfect for a client who can't tell the difference between 80% and 90%, let alone 98% can be a tremendous waste of resources.

If they screwed you the last time, they're probably going to try to do it again. Along with this goes the hard knocks lesson that it can be surprisingly easy to spot the clones of some personality types, and thereby have a pretty good idea of where they're coming from and how they might try to spin you.

Look for the danger signs, like: "The last people I used for this just didn't understand me so here's a 50% completed project that I need right away and, oh by the way, I'm already way over budget so I need you to perform a miracle." (Now say it with me, in unison,) "Give us a break on this one and we'll take care of you next time."

You can have a great reel, a beautiful facility and a lobby chocked full of creative awards but, at the end of the day, your business is judged the same way any other business is: Did it make money or did it lose money? If you can't answer this question very quickly, then you can't tell the difference between success and failure.

So why should something as mundane and ordinary as numbers be of interest to a creative genius? Here are at least two reasons: First, most small businesses fluctuate in volume and profitability. If you're not able to build reserves and put something away during the good times, you won't survive the down times. Second, banks don't lend you money for expansion because you have a winning smile. They take numbers quite seriously, so if you ever want to work with them, you better too.

When I first started out in business I had the all-too-common attitude of only paying my suppliers after I'd been paid. It was only after being on the receiving-end of this kind of thinking several dozen times that I realized what a fallacy it is. It shouldn't be the supplier or laborer's problem when you get paid. Meeting obligations in a timely manner is part of doing business and being in business means that you have a mark-up on your costs, and that means you're being paid to be in the middle of the transaction. Shut up, suck it up and pay the suppliers promptly. If needed, that's what bank lines of credit are for.

One excellent way of building goodwill is paying the smallest people first. In my case it's the talented freelancers who are such an important part of my business. I typically pay freelancers net seven days. In the same talent marketplace where I work, many of the bigger firms pay net 120 and only after a dozen phone calls. So, all things being equal, when I call a freelancer and the bigger firms call too, whose job will the freelancer take first?

Hopefully that's not everything I've learned in my first 30 years. But if I had the same grasp of these ideas when I was 25, as I do now at 55, I would have saved a lot of time, grief and lost profits. What are your thoughts on what you've just read? Please join us on the Business Procedures & Marketing COW and add your experiences, comments, suggestions and questions.

Nick Griffin is the founder of Griffin Communications Inc., a Towson, Maryland-based production company specializing in corporate communications, video and advertising. His clients range in size from small industrial companies to large, multi-national manufacturers. Nick is also the founding leader of Creative COW's Business Procedures & Marketing forum, and has served as senior business advisor to


Re: 12 Things I Know About Business at 55 That I Wish I'd Known at 25
by Christopher Cooksey
Thank you for taking the time to write this wonderful overview. It certainly lines up with my experiences and will keep these in mind as I move forward. I am now 40.

Christopher (Moonlight) Cooksey
Christopher Moonlight Productions
Re: 12 Things I Know About Business at 55 That I Wish I'd Known at 25
by Jason Jantzen
I especially love point #12. I would make time for clients who pay net 7 anytime over other clients. I would even work late nights for those clients just because I generally enjoy working with them more. I wonder what it would take to convert more people over to this practice?

Jason Jantzen
Re: 12 Things I Know About Business at 55 That I Wish I'd Known at 25
by Brett Sherman

Of course there are many in our industry not all that creative either. Continual reassessment, willingness to tear down your own ideas, and questioning your established working methods are all critical to maintaining creativity. I think sometimes when we think of ourselves as "the wise experts" and treat our clients as "idiots" we are maybe not doing as much self-evaluation as we need to grow creatively. Of course there are clients that are idiots too. Knowing the difference is hard.

Brett Sherman
One Man Band (If it's video related I'll do it!)
I work for an institution that probably does not want to be associated with my babblings here.
Spot on with #8
by Larry DeGala
Sales guy thought he was the only creative. Won't own up to the boss. A real time bomb waiting to set off. Wash my hands with Millenial marketing.
Re: 12 Things I Know About Business at 55 That I Wish I'd Known at 25
by Dimitrios Papagiannis
Hey at least you learned this by 55.

I wanted your feedback on this. Have you found that doing favors/deals for people has helped you receive more business from those people. Or is it more like "if you charge nothing, that exactly what you'll get, nothing".
@Dimitrios Papagianni
by Nick Griffin
At the risk of being obtuse I've had it go both ways. If it comes down to choosing between a favor or a deal I've found it better to give a freebie favor. The deal re-defines your usual rate structure by setting up the question, "Well, if it was $xxxx cost then how come you can't do that again this time?"
@Nick Griffin
by Emmanuel Nzano
Thanks for the article..though it has found me late...
I think there shouldnt be freebies..they should be charged,have a lower price atleast..and call it a favour,not a discount.thank
Re: 12 Things I Know About Business at 55 That I Wish I'd Known at 25
by Carlos Opitz
This is a wonderful article, it might be the best one ever written at the COW. Thanks for sharing this invaluable knowledge!

Online & Offline Video Editor
this is a great article
by sharif duffus
one thing i've learned is that even those hes ugly offensive and u hate his guts if he thinks he is your friend and he gets you 50% discount suck it up. i got computer hardware for 1000s less. i would have been saving for years more to get it, than if i didn't get that discount. i would be able to make those short films and ads that i did. :]
Things I know at 64
by Charles Mercer
Interesting article, Nick. I'm starting in the video industry at 64 years of age, after a career in sales and marketing and, finally teaching. Except finally is not the finally I expected it to be as I'm now a gaffer! - I'm actually helping my son build his video business. And I've passed on almost exactly the comments you have made, comments gleaned the hard way through business experience. If I had to distil advice down to one phrase regarding client relations, it's this, 'Salespeople/videographers are nice guys who know what they are selling and doing' Try that from the clients' perspective and you'll see what I mean.
It really is a great article, Nick
by Ron Lindeboom
Kathlyn and I are proud to be your friends and more than a few times over the years, we have learned things from you that are now a part of the COW and have contributed to its success.

You are The Man, man.


Ron & Kathlyn Lindeboom
Great Article
by John Livings
Thanks Nick, Very Informative.

Thanks, guys. I'll try not to LOSE your confidence.
by Nick Griffin
Any wonder I'm a Ravens fan... do something good then LOSE over a dumb error.

Hey, Tim - Whatever happened to the fixed version of this where we changed all the lose / loose typos? My inarticulate interchange of the two words was bad enough the first time around, but we fixed this, didn't we??
What is Nick Griffin's Website?
by Steve Miller
Great article - however, I can't seem to find your website - does anyone know the web address for Griffin Communications?
We learn every day something new
by Javier Carranza
Excellent Article, There are so many things that can go wrong when you are your own production company and specially when that company is only two years old. I go to my office this morning feeling a little bit wiser and confident.
Thanks so much Nick, keep 'em coming!
Great Article...
by Steve Pankow
...but the copy editor missed several lose/loose transpositions in the body.
The advise i was looking for.
by Miguel Soffia
I'm 22 and getting into this world of 'creative' business very seriously. I've been able to identify myself with many of your points (the 80/20) and 've been on front of many of these issues in other times too.
Thanks for writing it down, i'll try to keep it fresh for those crucial times.
I could have used this 10 years ago...
by Bob Gale
Wish I'd have read something like this 10 years ago. Never too late, I guess. Great article.

One small comment: Three times in the article the word 'loose' is used when the word used should really be 'lose.' Probably just the fault of whoever typed it for the web. Maybe that could be number 13...check your spelling. ;-)
Im just turning 25!
by Manjeet Gill
Love the article Nick. Some really great insight and tips on how to develop my own business. The only problem I find though is the initial stages. Trying to charge reasonable prices seems to put everyone off, even though they love our work. Many of the smaller companies do not have that kind of money, so we are forced into charging less. The bigger companies expect you to have worked with clients of the same calibre, which is natural. We have found ourselves doing work for big companies and charities for free just to make contacts and get our name out there. We are hoping it will lead to well paid work. I am hoping the bigger clients don't start thinking we do all of our work for free.

Great article
by Nick Hill
To that I'd add -
1. Always go into situations prepared to admit that you're wrong. When you are, you can then sort the situation out and move on. When you're not, you're less likely to end up being snarky or supercilious.
2. A box of chocolates for each major client's office at Christmas doesn't go down badly either.
3. Meet people in person whenever possible. Email and phone communication can only go so far, keeps barriers between you and the client, and is prone to misinterpretation.
4. Be nice and have fun. This sounds cheesy, but is true.
God bless you
by emile sedra
i have a small agency in Italy and i'm 35 years old. i wish i found your article 10 years ago :)
i had all the problems you are talking about and this is the first article that i found on this issue. Great and real advices. thanks Nick Griffin for sharing your precious experience.

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