An Artful Business

Creativity and business can sometimes seem like opposing forces, but that doesn't have to be the case. I recently chatted with New York Real Estate broker, Lee Anderson, who talked me through his experience of that sweet spot where creative endeavour and thriving business become one.

Q1. So, Lee, you combine a successful business with an active interest in the arts. Tell us a little about your company and how your creativity influences the way that you do business.

A1. I work for a real estate company called New York Living Solutions, located in downtown Manhattan – in the financial district, actually. It's really surprising how much creativity this job takes. And on lots of levels, too. For instance, there is a certain amount of artistic talent necessary to design real estate ads, which I do myself. I've always loved to paint and draw, so that comes in handy. I also write my own ads, which is how I finally found a way for that English degree to pay off. Plus, there's the creative aspect of helping people envisage how some empty apartment could be converted into a dream palace with the right design touch. I don't think I could stay interested in any job if it didn't involve creativity to a large extent.

Q2. Do you see opportunities in the creative world being applicable to businesses like yours? I see many authors now offering free ebooks and advice papers, or using promo videos on Youtube as book trailers. Have you considered anything like that to set your business apart?

I'm actually keeping a video blog sponsored by the New York Department of Cultural Affairs, called "Alphabet Pony," which I've linked with my business websites. Some of the videos that I post on Alphabet Pony can get pretty artsy and "out there," so some people have told me that I'm being too risky. They ask me how posting stuff that's crazy or weird can help my business image. Personally, I just think it's important to stand out and to offer people ideas that challenge and inspire. I've tried the straight promo idea and it's just not me. Too boring. Besides, that's one of the things that I love about the real estate biz: you can be yourself. People appreciate that, no matter how quirky you are. In my experience, they do, anyway. Helps them remember you too. I worked for years and years at jobs in which I had to be someone else some stuffed dork in a suit and I hated it.

Q3. What was it that first drew you to Real Estate as a career choice?

I worked for many, many years in the hotel business, which I'm extremely grateful to. I had some unforgettable experiences. Definitely met some people that I never thought in a million years that I would get to meet. But there came a point where I got tired with working late nights, working weekends, working holidays...there's a profound drawback in working for a business that never closes. I had some former coworker friends who had moved on to try real estate, and the reviews were good. I think it's most people's ultimate hope, right? To be your own boss and to have your own business? When I worked as a journalist, there was a part of me that always felt as if I was spotlighting people who were having a huge, beneficial impact on their environment, and on their city. I kept thinking, wouldn't it be more challenging and fun to have the same impact myself, rather than just standing on the sidelines and writing about it? Real estate is a way of beneficially shaping the physical world by using my talents, including the creative ones. Plus, after getting into a big-time verbal tussle with a lawyer and actually showing him that he was wrong, I was hooked.

Q4. Are there any creative techniques or books that you refer back to?

"The Real Estate Agent's Guide to FSBOs" by John Maloof and "The Power of Myth" by Joseph Campbell. I think it's important to balance the spiritual with business as much as possible, even in my choice of reading material. The only creative technique that I consistently use is to stand out as much as possible, using pictures that no one else has with graphics that are eye-catching enough to entice clients into calling me. I also use testimonials from clients that I've closed, who were more than happy with the service that I gave them.

Q5. Although I'm very tempted to ask you how you might see Campbell's "Hero's Journey" translating into good business practice, let's flip things a little. We've already talked about how a creative approach can be applied to business, so which lessons from the business world and your own working experience can be applied to creativity?

Just be disciplined and stay focused. It's all right to let your imagination go crazy, but there still has to be some structure applied to it at some point. Some way of measuring what you want to achieve and how you'll know when you've got there. Plus some quality control of course.

Q6. So, in your own creativity, outside of work, do you set deadlines and goals? And if that's the case, how do you define those parameters?

I believe you HAVE to set a deadline and a goal. Otherwise, how do you get started or know when to finish? Everyone needs a direction and a finish line. Mainly, my own parameters are time-based. I have to post on "Alphabet Pony" daily. I have to generate leads daily. I have to post ads in the New York Times twice a week. Objectives like that. Deadlines and goals drive everything for me.

Q7. Since we've talked about business and creativity and the arts, as a final question, what artwork (of any form) do you own or wish you owned?

My entire apartment is decorated with orginal works of art. Nothing by anybody famous just friends, mostly. There are also a few pieces that I bought from artists off the street in Soho and Union Square. Come to think of it, I can't imagine my home without them. As far as pieces I would love to own, it'd be nice to have "Starry Night." I know that's an outlandish idea, but you can always hope, right?

Lee's bio

A native Floridian, Lee came to New York in 2000. He quickly became an exemplary agent in New York City’s residential real estate market, developing a significant following throughout Manhattan. During his career, he has built strong relationships with several prominent clients and leasing companies. Lee is best known for his ability to comprehensively grasp a client's needs and to negotiate difficult deals. A major advocate for the New York art and literature scene, Lee hosts a monthly reading series in the east village. He also serves as editor-in-chief for Le Chat Noir, a New York artists and writers collective. He maintains a blog for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and when possible, helps with such charities as "Behind the Book," "Children International," and other non-profit organizations. He is an active member of the Real Estate Board of New York.


Just for fun...kinda...

You know it's not the ideal freelancing job when the ad mentions:

1. Wording.

2. Wanting a quality writter.

3. We have a small budget, so please bare (sic) that in mind.

4. We're a luxury magazine, seeking writers looking for 

5. Payment in warm fuzzies.

6. Willing to split proceeds of word-beating novel once published.

7. Must be willing to dress up in costume.

8. A great way to lern (sic) your craft and rise (sic) your profile.

A report in every storm

When your pipes leak, you get in a plumber. Need some handmade cupboards built? A carpenter's your man or woman, guvnor.

And if that manuscript of yours (or mine) isn't quite cutting the mustard, where all the feedback is generally encouraging, but there's still no cigar, who you gonna call? A manuscript assessment service, that's who.

A good report will not only highlight weaknesses and inconsistencies, it will also tell you what you're doing right. Objective feedback can put your work under a microscope, which is both enlightening and disconcerting. Best of all, you have consider the feedback before you without the opportunity to argue your case and play 20 justifications. (No, my character has to play with a yo-yo at crime scenes because it's a metaphor for how she keeps an investigation going.)

Reports do not always make comfortable reading I've had three, over the years, for different books. Each taught me something about my writing and something about myself. Those same comments that had me coughing derisively (try it it's a real skill) later received nods of approval when I sat down again to review the evidence.

Summary feedback will focus on technique, characterisation, plotting, pace, description and dialogue. Which is a lot to fit into one report. Illustrative examples will help drive the points home. And then there's the manuscript mark-up. The right comments, perfectly placed, can act as a pivot point to lever your work over a hurdle. Those eureka moments really can make all the difference.

Although it can seem expensive unless you're fortunate enough to receive a bursary it's also an investment in your craft. And it may be your first opportunity to get feedback from a professional with experience in the industry. (Incidentally, always ask for the organisation's background and track record before you make any decision.)

An assessment of your manuscript might shatter your dreams and leave you running screaming to the hills. Or, duly acted upon, it just might be the difference between 'no thank you' and 'yes please'.

An unexpected pleasure

The business of writing is very often a set of knowns combined with a small number of processes.

You know what you're pitching for, you know your capabilities, you know your aspirations and you know the payment you can look forward to if:
a) you're hired for the gig
b) you deliver the goods

Often the surprises fall into one of very few categories:
1) changes to the requirements
2) changes to the payment agreement

Now, every month or so I take on some gratis work. Generally, but not exclusively, the recipient is a non-profit of some kind. Other times, it's a start-up that is just getting up a head of steam. In all cases, I've done it because the project appeals to me and because I believe that I can make a difference.

There are also benefits to me of course, in that:
- I get to try new areas of work that I might never have encountered before.
- I to test my skills and to pick up key learning.
- I end up with valuable feedback and often a testimonial.

But it's not about the money though. And, while I'm very keen on the idea of running a business that's first and foremost about values and principles, I will admit to having a modicum of scepticism about how to do that and still be sufficiently profitable.

This week, however, life threw me a welcome curve-ball. I received a payment and thanks for some gratis work I did recently. And I have to say, it's making me think that maybe it IS possible to do business another way.

Writer as entrepreneur

Apparently, the term entrepreneur was apparently first used by the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say. Where once this was synonymous with a contractor, who acted as the third part of the holy business with capital and labour, now it means much, much more. The entrepreneur controls - either directly or indirectly - the means of production, the branding, the marketing, the sales and the aftercare. That sounds an awful lot like a writer to me.

Lately, I have been discussing the realities of writing commercially with Wolf, over at Wolf Photography and my transatlantic compadre over at A Word with You Press, writer and editor-in-chief Thorn Sully. When running a creative business, it quickly becomes apparent that not only do you need to wear several hats, you also need several states of mind (preferably one per hat at any given time).

If, as in my case, the type of writing you do varies from client to client, that potentially multiplies the headwear during the production stage. I currently produce the following: features, copywriting, web content, speeches, sketches, gags, monologues, slogans for badges and greetings cards, short fiction and of course those beloved novels of mine.

The more I research internet and social media marketing models (and believe me, I've been doing a lot of research recently), the more I realise it can be summed up in one sentence: You find a way that works for you. Yes, there are approaches that appear to work for some individuals under certain circumstances - for example, an ebook author on Twitter announced his 50,000th sale last week, which is brilliant. But I'm also aware of a maxim in relation to business models: You only sing when you're winning.

Which is a roundabout way of saying I've decided to park some projects in order to focus on what, on the good ship corporate, we used to call The Lead to Cash. And if Sarah's reading this, please forgive me pressing a bruise! However creative we may be, business decisions are always rooted in pragmatism and often open to interpretation - here's a snippet on Radio 4 about Innocent and the investment from Coca Cola, as a case in point.

My thanks to those of you who purchased a copy of my short fiction ebook The Silent Hills.

If you're still thinking about it, here are two reviews to help make up your mind from
Crystal Trent Reviews and writer Rosen Trevithick, who I interviewed recently about her own novel, Straight Out of University. And here's an interview with my lead character, Peter Marlow, on the Musa Publishing blog.

Happy reading and happy writing!

Straight Out of University

It's my great pleasure to welcome a fellow West Country writer, Rosen Trevithick, to my blog. Here, amid a busy schedule for her recently published book, Straight Out of University, I turned the spotlight on her to learn more about her novel, food combining and fly paper.

Can you tell us about your book and the reasons why you wrote it?

Straight Out of University is a contemporary, comedy-romance that explores the culture shock of leaving university and trying to make it in the real world. That's something I've been through myself and I found it riddled with humour, so I let it inspire a book.

It also tells the story of a bisexual woman who is neither confused nor promiscuous, which I felt was long overdue.*

What would you say to your central character?

I'd tell Sophie Sweet that Maltesers and malt vinegar are not compatible ingredients, and probably lend her some of my recipes.

What are your aspirations as a writer?

Mostly, I want to entertain people. If I can make people think about a situation is a new way, then that's a bonus. Also, I'd like my writing to lead to the acquisition of a house on a cliff, with a flower garden and a windy path down to the beach.

Are you a meticulous plotter or a seat-of-the-pants writer?

It depend what I'm writing. I do enjoy making fiction up as I go, but that can leave me snookered without an ending, so I don't risk that strategy for large projects like a novel. Straight Out of University was planned carefully in advance.

Name three books - of any genre - that really inspired you, and why.

Matilda by Roald Dahl, One Day by David Nicholls and A Hole on the World by Sophie Robbins. Regarding the latter, I think it's incredible that an eighteen year old has already written and self-published a novel, let alone a good one.

Name an author you'd like to be trapped in a lift with, and tell us why.

Whichever author is also skilled as a lift repair technician. There's bound to be an indie author out there who knows how to fix a lift. There might even be an eBook on that very subject - indie books are getting pretty diverse.

What have you learned about yourself through the process of writing your book?

If you leave your housework for six weeks, nobody dies, but you do need to invest in some fly paper.

Where can we buy Straight Out of University?

*You implied, at the beginning of this interview, that your novel's take on bisexual women was long overdue - can you elaborate?

There are four predominant bisexual women in fiction:
- The soulless baddie who will seduce everything and everybody in order to spin her evil web.
- The selfish, promiscuous slut who can't decide between men and women, so does both.
- The lesbian in denial.
- The straight woman who dabbles in lesbian behaviour in order to improve TV ratings.
Sophie Sweet is none of those. She's caring, committed, self-aware (after the first couple of chapters) and genuine - like a real woman.

You can also see a trailer for Rosen's book here.

Eight types of client to avoid

A little list to be going on with.

Eight types of client to avoid

1. The ones who don't know what they want and say you'll work it out together as you go along.

2. The ones who need three brand new samples on very specific subjects.

3. The ones who reply, "Rights? What rights?"

4. The ones who, after three emails, still haven't specified the payment on offer.

5. The ones who 'just have a feeling' that your copy needs a little more rewriting, but they can't tell you what changes they're looking for.

6. The ones who believe that you need to give them free copy to use as a way of proving yourself.

7. The ones who change their minds halfway through the assignment and then say, "So that work you did before doesn't count, right?"

8. The ones who suffer a serious bout of amnesia, especially when it comes to pay day.