Friday, November 30, 2007

Should I Grant Credit to my Clients?

This is the final post I'm reprinting from the early days of my blog. I wanted to put these seminal pieces about working for yourself at the front of the line. I figure if one person who is starting out in freelancing or self employment gets a nugget of useful information from these repostings, then I am a happy guy indeed.
Working for myself has been at the center of my adult life--it is fun and rewarding. It has allowed me the full range of expression of my creative and critical thinking powers (such as they are!), and boy has it challenged me to be productive under duress.
This post covers the critical question of whether you should grant credit to your clients. This is an area where you could get badly burned, or move onto bigger and better work.

Should I Grant Credit to my Clients?

Let’s be frank. In an ideal world, the answer to this question is NEVER. Ideally, you do a job and you get paid. Of course, this is not always practical, and in some situations not even desirable. Let’s look at some typical scenarios.

Starting Out

The self employed Bohemian, at the outset, is by definition under capitalized. You don’t want a regular job. You have a skill but not a lot of bucks. That was me when I started. I absolutely had to be paid when I finished a job. Had to eat, buy beer, see the Ramones, whatever. Cash flow was spotty. Sure my bills were low but there was no system in place to tide me over while a client took 30 days to pay. So when I started out in the T-Shirt trade, the equation was simple. To place an order, I needed a down payment. The client then had to pay the balance to get the box of shirts. No exceptions. Mind you, I was dealing with stoned college students who would be closing their checking accounts before vacating their dorm rooms for the summer. Hmmm… often I would size ‘em up as to whether I should demand cash, rather than a check, come to think of it.

In my early days as a business man, I stuck to the down payment/COD model for a long time. I had to pay for blank shirts COD, so it’s not like I was in a position to finance jobs out of pocket. On occasion, someone would ask for net 10 or net 30 terms, and I generally turned them down. I just was not financially ready to float orders like that.

At the age of 26, I did a large (for me!) illustration job for a merchants association from a local mall. I gave them net 10 terms to pay me close to a thousand bucks. This was big money to me in 1983. The situation was ugly, as decisions were made by committee, with no one person responsible for the whole project. They didn’t pay on schedule. I demanded payment. They still didn’t pay. I wrote a letter threatening legal action. They paid.

What lesson should I have taken from this? I should have learned: 1. Have the job description, fee and payment schedule clearly outlined in writing and signed off on by all parties. 2. Be sure you are dealing with a person who has the authority to issue purchase orders and authorize payment. 3. Should a problem arise, communicate clearly and frankly with the client about it.

Sad to say, it took me several more years to learn this stuff. I was an impulsive kid, a bit insecure. Later that same year, I shipped an order billing at about $680.00, billed net 30. It took me five months to collect, after threatening legal action again. If I had been more confident, and communicated with the client better, I’m sure it would have gone smoother.

Net 30 accounts

The longer you are in business, the more your trade will grow. Some of your clients will likely be in the business world and will request net 30 terms. This means they expect to be able to take delivery of the goods, the job, whatever, and pay from your invoice thirty days later. It’s a pretty standard was to do business.

Eventually I realized I could grow my business faster if I offered terms to qualified clients. What did I do first? I applied for net 30 terms to my suppliers! The fine people who sell me blank t-shirts were the first people I hit up. They required me to fill out credit applications with them, and to guarantee I would pay regardless of what happened in my business. Once I secured terms with my suppliers, I was able to grant 30 day payment terms to my customers who were qualified. It’s a good idea to talk personally with the person in the credit department anywhere you apply for net 30 terms. Find out what information they need and get it to them.

You’ll want to create a credit application form for your business. Take a look at the credit applications from several of your suppliers. Craft one for yourself that works for you. Anyone who wants credit with you should be happy to fill out a credit application. If they’re not, no credit terms for them.

Let’s say you have a credit application in hand from some local business person. They want to place an order with you for $1000.00. Be sure to call their references. Ask if they pay on time. Listen carefully, maybe even write down what the referral says.

Now, gage your impression of this person. Do they seem reliable? Do they appear to be able to back up what they say? Do they have a phone and address? Are they wearing Gucci loafers? Do they have shifty, beady eyes? Needle marks on their arms? Yes?

Ultimately, you have to make a value judgment. Granting net 30 terms to the right client may open an account that will pay you thousands and thousands of bucks over a period of years. Or it may open a can of worms where you have to do double the work just to get paid on some little rinky dink job.

No matter who the client, consider asking that they pay COD on an initial order. Okay, it depends. Once, and old high school friend of mine was an executive at Apple computer. He ordered a couple thousand t-shirts from me, and I didn’t flinch at granting net 30 terms (Their official policy was to pay in 35 days, however…).

Remember my advice mentioned elsewhere: Your real power in any deal is the power to walk away from it. If a red flag goes off with someone asking for credit, simply tell them in a friendly way that you are happy to work with them on a COD basis.

What to do when they don’t pay?

So the thirty day period is up, and you don’t have a check from Ernie’s Muffler Service, or whoever. No big deal. Send them a copy of the invoice with PAYMENT DUE stamped across the top (by the way, your terms should not just be “net due, 30 days”, but “net due, 30 days, client agrees to pay 15% annual fee on late invoices” or something like that. Give them some incentive to pay on time. You could even offer an additional 2% discount on invoices paid within ten days.

Nine times out of ten, you will be paid within a week of sending out the payment due notice. If you are not paid, it’s time for the dunning call. Call the rat bastard up, and recite your version of this speech: “Hi, this is Steve from Hey! Activewear. I’m calling about invoice #6077, in the amount of $1053.23, which was due on April 12.”.

Then you stop talking. There is a pregnant pause. You are ready for it, because you planned it! You have a paper and pen ready. The person on the other end of the line is not ready for the pregnant pause. After some time, they will start talking. Write down what they say. Often it will be a promise to pay immediately, or by some date. You will hold them to this. Usually, a call like this gets results. If they are a truly slick whistle, they may be ready for the pregnant pause. Get ready for a tough collection if this is the case!

If the dunning call, made close to forty days after invoicing, does not get results, there is a good chance you have a deadbeat on your hands. You may well still get paid, but the chances are slimmer. If it gets past 60 days, either kiss your invoice good bye, or, well, you are obviously in the publishing business (that’s a joke, folks).

Last Resort – legal action

If you can’t get paid, and you really want to pursue the deadbeat, consider taking them to small claims court. You will pay a process server (costs can be recouped), and you will give up valuable time to go to court, but chances are you will win.

If you have been honest and communicative with you client, it should be fairly easy to put together a chronology of facts. You have a paper trail, you have an email trail, you’ve made notes about changes to the order made on particular days. When you get to court, simply stand up and read your chronology of facts. Leave out emotional statements or subjective opinions. Just the facts, ma’am.

In all my years in business, I only took one client to small claims court. I read my list of facts. The customer who’d stiffed me went on an emotional rant. I won. After the judge found in my favor, this frat boy I was suing approached the bench, full of vindictive remarks. The judge laughed at him and told him if he took one more step, the bailiff would arrest his sorry ass.

Frat boy appealed the decision, and we met again in small claims appeals court. Who knew there was such a place? I won again. Frat boy still didn’t pay. I filed a form requiring him to list all his property, so I could pick what I wanted up to the value I’d won. Frat boy paid.

In retrospect, it was way more work than it was worth. I wouldn’t do it again for such a small amount. When I first met the client, he was such a smug, contentious asshole. I should have known right then and there to quote a price that would send him packing. Live and learn.

Back to granting credit to clients. I have been super lucky. I’ve done a lot of work for a lot of great companies, from Apple and Sony music, to the Residents, to lots of small local businesses. I give net 30 terms to these companies and people because I trust them. They pay on time, by and large. They trust me. It works. I’ve been burned a bit on occasion, but I always learn. Keep on your toes, keep your eyes and ears open, communicate well and trust your instincts and you’ll do fine.

@ 2007 Steve Lafler, all rights reserved

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Low Rent Start Up

This post is more anecdotal than nuts & bolts business advice, but there may still be some jewels in here for Self Employed Bohemians!

Low Rent Start Up

The Green Duck needed a new transmission—BAD! Like last week. It groaned with an industrial, metal-on-metal fervor. Let me stop here and proffer a key bit of advice: When you are a near penniless college student, and you need a car, you will, by definition, be buying at the low end of the market. Under no circumstances are you to buy a used Rambler American, formerly owned by the telephone company. The good news is that chances are real slim there days of running into said vehicle.

Sadly, this was not the case for me. In the summer of ’77, I needed cheap wheels, and through some quixotic lack of logic, I romanticized the used, industrial green Rambler with the three-on-the-tree transmission as quite a cool set of wheels. Boy, was I wrong.

So there I was six months later, my beloved Rambler in pathetic condition, barely running. It was December 1977, at the beginning of the six week semester break inflicted on UMass students by dint of some institutional lack of vision. What is a college student supposed to do at Mom and Dad’s house for six weeks in the middle of the snowy, frozen-ass winter? With a ramshackle Rambler needing a couple hundred bucks worth of transmission work, and little prospect of employment, even if the alleged car actually worked?

I hit on a plan to fix the Green Duck. I had no idea what would happen once my car was fixed, but I figured I’d think of something. Well, at least I could round up my pals, get a few six packs, and drive around drinking on slippery, icy, winding, narrow New England roads, one solution to the hopelessness of trying to score a six week job in the middle of the winter, in the middle of a recession.

Rooting around in the attic, I ferreted out my collection of hundreds, if not thousands, of Marvel comics I’d collected between the ages of ten and fifteen. This was the good stuff, the real deal. The Jack Kirby run of Fantastic Four, Thors, and more. The John Romita (senior) Spiderman’s. The Gene Colan Daredevil’s, and of course, The complete 24 issue run of Conan the Barbarian drawn by Barry Smith. Although these had been sacred objects to me for years, by the age of twenty I’d had a radical shift in priorities. The fascinations of my adolescence had faded, so I determined to pawn my Marvel collection and fix my damn car. The prospect of wrestling with one of my bevy of home town girl friends in the back seat of the Green Duck easily trumped the glory of re-reading even Jack (the King) Kirby.

Between Christmas and New Years, on a “warm” and sunny day of forty degrees or so, I set out on the perilous journey to a comic shop some thirty miles form my parents house in Sudbury (twenty miles west of Boston) that expressed an interest in buying the books. Heaving with what seemed like it’s death throes, I grimly piloted my ramshackle Rambler to the shop in Brockton, just south of Boston, where some pale, scrawny pathetic geek with a limp hank of greasy black hair ripped me off blind, giving me $212.00 in ramsom for these mags that had been the cornerstone of my adolescence. Retail on these books at the time would have been well in excess of $1500.00, but my business & negotiating acumen was far off in my future in 1977.

Still, I knew it was a raw deal, but I needed the bucks. Shrugging off the sellers’ remorse, I stopped in to see my pal Steve Beaupre at Strawberry Records, where he worked, on the way home in Framingham. I picked up Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat, and the infamous double live LP know as “Skullfuck”, by the Grateful Dead, and my mood markedly improved.

By the time I was driving off with these new tunes to play on mom and dad’s giant console stereo, I’d solved the problem of what to do about work over the too-long winter break. I was going to print t-shirts of my cartoon characters and sell them! I had a popular daily strip in the UMass college paper entitled “Aluminum Foil”, featuring Gerald, a foil head, and Benb, a sort of smiling, zen-scarecrow, fat idiot. How was I going to sell t-shirts to UMass students over winter break? Good question. Big Picture thinking was not my forte either, at the tender age of twenty.

In any case, I stopped in at the local art supply store and bought some water based speedball t-shirt ink, a cheesy speedball “hobbyist” screen printing kit that included a small screen, a squeegee, an exacto knife, and a roll of “nu-film”, which was hand cut laquer based screen printing film. Total outlay, about thirty three bucks. I was in business!

That evening, I stumbled through the basics, and printed my first t-shirt in my parents basement, a nice drawing of Gerald the foilhead, in a Crumb inspired “truckin” pose. I actually did find one small shirt job over the break, doing a couple dozen shirts for a friends’ band. As for the Green Duck and the new transmission, I spent my way through my small stake in no time, and my mom and dad bailed me out, paying for the new tranny. Spoiled college kid!

When I got back to school at the end of January, I did indeed manage to move a few shirts each week adorned with my characters, but I quickly (and unexpectedly) found myself in demand as a wholesale screen printer. The student credit union, several dorms, student clubs and the like descended on me, asking that I print their shirts. I began to bootleg shirts for everything from concerts to track meets, making more money faster than I ever had. For years, I would see people wearing my “Amherst Smoke In” T-Shirts.

It was great to make enough money to have a car, take out girls, go to concerts and all that good stuff, but first and foremost, the appeal to me has always been the exhilarating freedom of having no boss.

The odd thing about my experience is that I truly followed the path of least resistance in order to make a living. It worked; the way was clear. This has served me as an artist also. Although I am a cartoonist, I never truly desired to follow in any of the well worn cartoon career paths. A mainstream daily strip, whether funny or adventure, was too commercial a beast for my sensibilities. Ditto political cartooning. I was not drawn to animation. And although I enjoyed superhero stuff as a kid, I had, and have, no interest in doing kid stuff, or genre stuff. The original underground cartoonists provided a clue: Use cartooning as a formal art form, a vehicle to express your own vision.

Having a solid commercial self employment base in screen printing literally set me free to be the artist I have wanted to be. I am without interference from the demands of the commercial marketplace, or even the ebbs and flows of fashion, and trend, in the small world of “art” comics. It has been my good fortune, and indeed my plan, to grant myself the freedom to commune with my own peculiar muse, manifesting the odd and wonderful as I see fit.

Copyright 2007 Steve Lafler

Monday, November 26, 2007

Business Adventures of a Green Kid

Here is another classic Self Employment for Bohemians post; this one is perhaps short on the business advice. It's more a rip snortin' yarn about a green, naive kid falling in with a group of boho swashbucklers and creating something of value together.

Warehouse Artist Studios

An artist/bohemian type working for themselves is perceived in a variety of ways by the general public. A lot of the perception actually has to do with a combination of the artist's cashflow and apparel strategy, as opposed to the stirrings of their soul. Strangely, as a young man, people often saw me as a responsible, solid guy. Ha!
In the early eighties I ran my screen printing operation out of a funky old warehouse by the railroad tracks in Eugene, Oregon. Enormous pastry and coffee in hand, I’d get to my shop a bit past nine and dig in for the day. Usually I'd run out of work between 1:00 and 3:00 pm, leaving the rest of the day to run, draw comics and hang out.
Being that the economy had had the shit kicked out of it just then, I was moderately proud that I’d been able to scape up enough business to keep a roof over my head… ultimately I turned enough of a profit to embark on my checkered career publishing my own wacky comic books, but that’s not the subject of this rant.

Warehouse Artists Studios was the literal name of the co-op warehouse wherein I rented space. The studio took up the second floor of a truly dilapidated old funkster warehouse that had most recently been used to store spices. Add to that the gay girls who illegally lived in the space next to mine, burning patchouli oil night and day. This place had a certain bouquet! I’d been printing T-Shirt jobs out of my flat, and it was getting a bit ridiculous. At an opening in a local gallery, I saw a flyer for “Warehouse Artist Studios”, a 5000 square foot space that magically divided up the floor into 170 square foot units that rented for forty bucks a month. I went down the next day and rented two adjacent spaces, which apparently I’d be paying $75 or $80 a month for. A slight, nervous man named Lynn rented my space to me. He was the manager, he had a chair upholstering business in the studio. Straight away, I could see ‘ol Lynn was a duck seriously out of water.

This impression was dramatically confirmed like three days later when Lynn informed me that the Warehouse was failing economically, and that he was resigning as manager. He handed me the studio ledger and checkbook saying “you seem like an astute fellow, why don’t you manage this dump?”. I was rather taken aback at this, but sure enough at the next meeting of the co-op, the members all but begged me to save their studio. I had my serious doubts, but figured there wasn’t much to lose, so why not? It wasn't lost on me either that as manager my rent for my 340 square foot space dipped to $35.00 per month!

The co-op had about 12 members. We were several hundred dollars in the hole. We could pay rent, but couldn’t pay the heating bill. We were required to carry basic liability insurance, which had gone unpaid and lapsed, for starters. I sat down and did a bit of math. I figured if we raised the rent on the basic space about $10.00 a month for five months, and attracted a couple new members, we’d squeak by and could continue renting the dump.

The measure passed at the next meeting. At least with the eight or nine people who decided to stick it out, as a couple dropped out with the news of the temporary rent increase; we did indeed need to attract new members straight away. We papered the town with flyers for the warehouse, and got free listings in any newspaper we could. Miraculously, the plan worked. We lowered the basic rent back to $40.00 per month ahead of schedule and got an infusion of fresh blood. I can’t take too much credit for it, as the place snapped to with an esprit de corps I’ve rarely encountered… I’d say it was goddamn grassroots socialism is action, almost.

Now here comes the fun part, the personalities that made the place click, the swashbucklers, crackpots, con men, assholes and outright brilliant geniuses I encountered in my stint at Warehouse Artist Studios. First comes a woman named Kathy Caprario. She was a dramatic beauty from New York of Italian descent, the best known painter in Eugene, an “older woman” to me of maybe 33-35 years (I was all of 24 at the time). Kathy is the person who was singlehandedly most responsible for the survival of Warehouse Artist Studios at the time of the financial crises. To say she was resourceful and a bit of an aggressive shark is an understatement. For starters, she marched me down to see the owner of the owner of the building when the lease came up. The guy was a real estate money grubbing slum lord type who claimed an artistic background. Right. Our rent was $650.00 per month. Kathy figured that Jeff, the slum lord, was lucky that anyone at all was renting this dump in a crappy ecomomy. She advises me to offer the guy $450.00 per month. No problem! It was an invaluable early lesson in having brass balls.

So we’re in this real estate lizard’s office, and I make the rent offer. Jeff, the lizard in question, completely ignores me and starts this serious, near lecherous flirt with Kathy. She plays this guy like a fiddle, and we walk out of there with a lease for the next year of $550.00 per month, a hundred per month rent reduction. Yes folks, in 1982 in Eugene, you could rent a 5000 square foot studio for that low price. I should mention too, the year after that, Kathy had moved on to a private studio space, but I’d learned well and got that damn rent down to $475.00 per month!
Kathy also had us apply for City of Eugene room tax grants. Turns out there was actual civic supports for the arts afoot! We hastily threw together grant applications to run a gallery in our common space, such as it was, and to offer figure drawing sessions to the public. Given the level of initial interest in these projects, we all saw it as a way to get the city to help pay our rent with minimal execution of said projects.
But who knew! The figure drawing sessions maintained a core of attendance for a couple years. The gallery stared off as nothing—an unrented space was hung with art. But before long, a 22 year old painter of promise named Mike Perkin rented a space and started doing some pretty cool work in his cubicle. He tried his best to ape Francis Bacon, but the works looked a bit like Francis was a werewolf Mexican wrestler or something.
When it came Mike’s turn to show his work, he turned a critical eye at the tiny room where I asked him to hang his paintings. He asked me if I had the studio checkbook. What do you have in mind, Mike? He directed me to the Eugene Planing Mill, a massive lumber yard across the street from us. “Let’s stud up couple walls so I can hang my big paintings”. Outragous! Here’s this wild kid, plays the same tapes over and over (Scarey Monsters by Bowie, anything by Lou Reed) and yells at his paintings. At the drop of a hat, we get some lumber and flail away for a couple hours with hammers. Before you know it, instant gallery! We build some pretty decent walls in a jiffy (other studio members drifted in a pitched in) and whitewashed them. Mike’s paintings for that show were terrific. They were done in ruddy reds, earthtones and orangey yellows, with wood and burlap assemblage fastened to the canvases. The average size was maybe 3’ across by almost 5’ tall. My favorite was called “The Inside of Lou Reed’s Stomach”. If I wasn’t blowing every cent on publishing comic books, I woulda bought it. The opening was a revelation. Mike’s family showed up and they were the most amazing bunch of open minded art, theatre, film and literature lovers you could imagine. A lotta beer went down. I remember late at night, Mike’s mom was wrestling on the studio floor with one of her four sons. From there on in, our little gallery stood a few decent shows, and even better parties. And through it all, the city kept the checks coming!

Keith the retired Air Force colonel is next in our cast of characters. Bald, prim, post heart attack, gentle former Texan Keith. A late life painter, an ultra practical man. Ruled by logic on the outside, soft as a grape inside, he had a good heart even if it was failing him, he did his share to keep the warehouse afloat. He painted small landscapes that revealed a luminous take on Oregon’s rainy colors. Nothin’ amazing, but nice. Fluid, painterly, sea foam light permeating the canvas with a bit of warm ochre and alizarin crimson, tacking it to the surface of the earth. Keith enjoyed regaling the Warehouse crew over beers with stories of flying B-52’s through mushroom clouds after bomb tests in the Pacific back in the day. Knowing that I was involved in the anti-nuke movement of the day, he teased me “I did H-Bomb tests all day long, and I’m not glowing yet”. Although he had a son who was around forty, Keith took a fatherly interest in me, and used to take me to lunch in his enourmous four door GM pickup truck with one of those worthless diesel engines they tried to manufacture for a couple years. He’d take us to the local Lions clubhouse. The food sucked. He’d insist we have a beer with lunch, which I didn’t like as I usually would go for a run later in the day. Hell Steve, have a beer, indulge the old boy! Unbidden, he told me his life story. Before retirement, had risen as an assistant to one of the joint cheifs of staff. After retiring from the military, he’d been a ROTC instructor on the University of Oregon campus in the sixties. He’d have run ins with various rag-tag groups of pseudo Maoist college kids. Then one summer, Keith and his wife were vacationing in the Cascade mountains east of Eugene. Hiking in the foothills, they came upon an encampment where some of these same youths were enacting a military training drill with assault rifles! They were indeed serious about the revolution bit. After a tense momentary face off with no word exchanged, Keith and his wife turned on their heel and hiked out. “I felt like I had a target on my back”, he said, adding that he never saw those kids again.

There was another older painter at the studio, one Nick Nickolds. He was maybe 60-65 at the time. He was the real deal, a life long bohemian, painter and philosopher dedicated to the pursuit of his art. He’d been an orphan from Denver who lived the middle decades of his life in Mexico. Nick scored the studio to the right at the top of the stairs. It was the best studio there as it had a separate private entrance. He painted in a style that at once reminded me of William Blake and Titian. His color was rich, saturated and full of light, yet he built up layers of delicate glazes that gave body and air to his figures. He was painting the figure, and faces and the natural world, yet it was semi abstract. It was as if Blake had decided to lapse into abstraction and gotten about 73% there before deciding he still had to have a face here, an eye or a breast there. This work was technically masterful and evoked images and emotion like a skeleton key. It alluded to everything while putting it’s finger on nothing, like a Robert Hunter lyric. Nick was so consistently true, dignified and full of heart that you had to love him. He was a slightly rotund, dapper little man with ample sparkle in his eye. He once showed me a vial full of crystalline dust, claiming that it was a sort of emulsified, crystal LSD. He stuck a pin in it, putting a miniscule amount on the head of the pin. “That’s enough”, he said. He claimed he’d had the vial for years, had been in San Francisco in the sixties with it (it was full back then). He asserted he’d provided hundreds and hundreds of trips from his little vial. Today, I almost wonder if I made that part of the story up! It just sounds too good to be true.
Nick was a guy who was always fascinating, who revealed himself to me a little bit at a time as we became friends. He approved of my comic books, and my attempts to explain the nature of reality, time, the singularity of the eternal now in cartoon form, and all that jazz. Nick told me I was on the right track as an artist. “All you have to do is be careful about the beer”, he advised me, and boy was he right, as I developed enough of a drinking habit that I ultimately had to stop altogether for my own good. Nick eventually moved back into what he considered the morass of Marin County, as he had money connections down in California. I never saw him again, don’t know if he’s still around or not. I often reflect on what Nick taught me about maintaining integrity as an artist, and about having respect for every human being regardless of anything. I consider it immense good fortune to have known Nick and been his friend, albeit for only a couple of years.

copyright 2007 Steve Lafler. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Do Not Win the Race to the Bottom

Here is another classic Self Employment post. This time, the point is that you should pay yourself a wage you can live on. This is more important than ever, as across the board there has been a huge downward pressure on price for the past several years—don't get caught trying to win the race to the bottom. There will always be someone foolish enough to undercut your price, so set a realistic price and stick to your guns.

Self Respect, or How to Price Your Work

A respected screen printer friend of mine stopped by yesterday. She maintains a shop capable of all type of shirt jobs, but has only a 1 station press, making multicolor jobs on dark shirts very labor intensive. She would like to farm out such work to a colleague, and asked me if I could come up with a price list for her.

I took my “printing on client supplied blank shirts” list and discounted it 10% as a courtesy to her, giving her my best possible rates. At our meeting, she showed me a job that I would print at 2.35 per piece (I probably should have said 2.55). I was informed by her that the rate for the job was 1.75. Note that she didn’t say her price was 1.75, she simply stated what the job was worth (stating her opinion as fact).

Sorry! I do not live in a world where you bid super low in a desperate attempt to attract and keep clients. I don’t create a mindset for myself where market forces dictate to me that I have to work at low wages, suffering an inability to cover my costs.

I mentioned to my colleague that any job on my press has to bring a gross profit of $60.00 an hour through my door to keep the shop rolling. At least! She quipped “We don’t get anywhere near that”. Fine, that’s not my problem. It is her problem, and she was trying to sell it to me. I wasn’t buying.

When setting your prices, pay yourself a rate you are comfortable with. Remember, there is always a market for quality. Your power in any deal is to walk away from it.

© 2007 Steve Lafler all rights reserved

Monday, November 19, 2007

Marketing & Promotion - An Ongoing Process

Here is another in my series of classic "Self Employment" posts. In one sense, this one is the most dated piece I have reprinted. Over the nearly three years since I originally posted this, nothing has changed more in business than marketing and promotion. The rise of "new media" has meant several obvious things--Craig's list has largely replaced the classified section of your local hip weekly, and Google ad words has grabbed a huge share of grass roots advertising action.

This piece still has some very good advice about promoting any small business. I emphasize the importance of creating an ongoing marketing and promotion plan that works for you, it is key to keep putting the word out if you are serious about making a living in self employment!

Make the Phone Ring

Okay, you work for yourself providing a product or service. You need the phone to ring. You need queries about your product or service in your email in box. You need a clientele.

Cover your Bets.

I started my T-Shirt printing service in Oakland in the spring of ’87. For seven out of the next ten years, I maintained a part time job to insure that I could make ends meet. It took time to build a clientele that could support me. Chances are, you are jumping into self employment with minimal capitalization, so it’s incumbent upon you to insure some level of income.

Marketing plans & scams

It has been my experience that intuition supplies one with plenty of ideas about how to attract potential customers. When I started freelancing t-shirt printing as an undergraduate, I simply copied up flyers a couple hundred at a time and papered the bulletin boards of the University of Massachusetts campus with them (and the phone poles, and just about any other surface I could drive a staple into). It was cheap and it worked. I lived for years off of my staple gun. I mean staple guns; actually wore a few out. I took care to design flyers that communicated my message in clear simple terms, including the command “Call Steve for a quote”.

A few years back I gave up the flyer method for a couple reasons. First, there were fewer places to hang flyers. As flyers became a more popular marketing technique, they caused more trash everywhere. Cities, universities and what not became smart about eliminating places where lots of messy handbills could be posted. When I started the biz in Oakland in the spring of ’87, I was the only screen printer posting flyers on the UC Berkeley campus. It brought me a ton of business from dorms, frats, clubs, sororities and the like. Within a year, five or six screen printers started a literal wall papering of campus with flyers like mine. I had to hang twice as many to get half the jobs, and it became a lowball market. Who wants to work cheap? Not me! I’ll also mention that it had become a pain in the ass to truck all over town hanging handbills. It just ain’t that much fun. Occasionally, someone would give me a hard time for trashing up their neighborhood, and who can blame them?

From the very start, I also used what has been my number one selling tool, direct mail postcards. Again, I’ve always taken care to craft a postcard that delivers a clear message: “I do high quality custom T printing at reasonable rates, call me up right now for a quote” was the gist of it. I have usually generated my own mailing lists from local weekly newspapers (go after the advertisers and event listers), the local business to business yellow pages, the regular yellow pages, directories from this industry or that. Collect address of companies or organizations who you would like to do business with. I’ve also bought mailing lists from data base compilers… my experience is that these lists don’t produce calls or email queries as well as lists you produce yourself.

Therefore I recommend crafting a postcard that hammers you message home, creating a mailing list and sending those suckers out. Wait two or three weeks and mail it again. Do another version of the card and mail that to the same list a few times. Advertising is a process, not an event. You have to repeat it. Keep your message consistent and it will sink in.

You can target lists at specific industries or categories. You can offer special prices at your slow times. Hone your message and drive it home. It works. Be patient.

Another marketing tool I’ve used from the start is advertising in weekly or university newspapers. You can do a classified or small display ad. It’s expensive and slow to work, so be realistic in your expectations for response. I still do small display ads in a local tabloid. The response is not great, but it keeps my name and logo consistently in front of a focused audience. With newspaper ads (and print ads in general), be sure to budget enough to run the ad at least five or six times. Again, advertising is a process, not an event. I’m investing 3-4% of my profits consistently into advertising and marketing expenses. Often higher. Do remember to continue marketing when you are busy and flush with success. You don’t want to find yourself low on cash, with no work and no prospects one fine day, only to realize you’ve done no marketing for 21 months.

Your intuition will inform you of methods to reach your potential clientele. I’m a 47 year old cartoonist who has always been in love with print media. I naturally think of marketing solutions that involve print in one form or another. In this era of digital media, a 21 or 22 year old entrepreneur is going to think of digital based, web based, or maybe blog based ways of communicating their message. Without working too much at digital marketing, I’d say that half my business communication is via email in any case, that’s just the norm in today’s climate of commerce.

There is no right way or wrong way to get the word out about the wonderful gift you are ready to offer for a fee, there is simply the truth that you need to consistently put your message across. If something doesn’t work, dump it and move on.

By the way, as usual, I’ll tell you I’m no huge expert on this. Just sharing what works for me, and a bit of the thinking behind it. I might even recommend looking into some of those books on guerilla marketing. Do a web search or something. No doubt here are a million people on the web selling marketing schemes. Look out for snake oil salesmen!

Finally, I’ll mention that from time to time I’ve done a campaign of ads, mailers or whatnot that utterly failed to garner even one phone call. Hey, at least it was tax deductable!

Final Caveat

I’ve been running the current version of my business for almost eighteen years. With all the marketing that I do, at least two thirds of new accounts come from recommendations. So the moral of the story is do quality work, be friendly and deliver a solid value. Oh yeah, one more thing… NEVER GIVE UP!

Copyright 2007 Steve Lafler, all rights reserved

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Win - Win Deal

Here is another classic post from the early days of this blog. Given that I posted a very "hard ball" piece yesterday, it's important to bear in mind that all parties in any given deal must be treated with respect. With that in mind, I present the following diatribe on the "win - win deal".

The Win-Win Deal

Within the scope of private business, capitalism, or what have you, it’s not only possible, but indeed necessary to construct deals in which both parties gain, in order to be truly successful.

Integrity, Honesty and Frankness

Business is nothing if not a series of relationships to the bohemian sole proprietor. In my central Screen Print business, I have roughly three dozen active accounts (a.k.a. customers). My ability to earn an income is dependent on successful navigation of those relationships. It may sound altruistic to pursue the win-win deal, but it’s really pragmatic. Simply, a happy client will recommend you to others. An unhappy one will spread the word that you suck. Take it from a guy who has had both experiences!

Integrity may mean that I suggest an order of 50 shirts to someone who initially says they want 500. My experience is that you shouldn’t over order on a design that doesn’t have a track record, or is not presold to some group, or is for some major concert, etc. If they get stuck with 450 shirts they have no use for, it may occur to them to blame me! If they buy 50 and sell 45, I have a new on-going client.

As for honesty, no need to spill your gut, but do keep your client informed of any information they need to know. Try to make quotes that cover all contingencies so there will be no surprise charges. If, for example, the client hands me an art file that I need to do two hours of work on, I call them right up and say, “This will cost another $130.00 in art time to produce the job.” Then, they have the chance to back out before I start the job. If they become contentious, so do I!

In case of a dispute, if you are straightforward and keep your client informed, you will be able to create a chronology of the facts of the deal to support your version of events. This can be a valuable tool in discussion and settlement of disputes. It’s good in court too, in the unfortunate event that it comes to that.

Pursuit of Quality

I’ve been in the T-Shirt printing game since I was an undergraduate in the late seventies (who knew that an easy way to earn beer and date money would turn into a “career”?).

Not a week goes by where I don’t learn something new about screen printing garments. It is a very simple technology, photographically based, that works swell for printing on fabric. But there is endless and infinite finesse (and technology) that can be brought to bear to make it work better.

As a kid, I got into the business as a low baller, (pricewise) which was appropriate. After awhile, it occurred to me that is was more satisfying to pursue the highest quality available, and that there is always a market for quality.

I had run a low tech water based ink shop for years, still the best approach for the low overhead start-up shop, and the perfect dorm room option. As the demand for multicolor printing on dark shirts increased, I began to farm out jobs to Dan O’Neill Custom Screen Printing. Most of what I have learned about quality printing comes from Dan, who is incapable of doing a bad job. I’ve since tooled up to do these jobs in-house, but Dan is still in business in San Leandro, California with my solid recommendation!

In terms of supporting the win-win deal, quality trumps everything. Everybody loves a job well done.


I charge a price slightly high end in my shop. I figure I am offering quality work and fast, friendly service. As a matter of self respect, I pay myself (and my printers) well. Ever do a job where you quoted too low? You were pissed off while you worked on it, right?

A lot of services, from screen printing to graphic design, will charge on the order of $75.00 an hour for labor (here in the S.F. Bay Area). Carpenters, muffler shops, etc. charge likewise. It’s a reasonable proposition, provided you do excellent work. To support equipment, office, promotion, insurance and other costs of doing business, figure out how much you need to make. Realize, you will spend some unbillable time doing accounting, promotion, or latte drinking, so figure you’ll be lucky to bill 20 – 25 hours a week. How much do you need to make? How much do you want to make? Do you have helpers? Contractors? How much do they get, and what do you charge for it?

By the way, if you are an illustrator or graphic designer, consider charging for usage rights rather than on an hourly basis. Be sure to retain copyright (ownership) of your work. Join the Graphic Artist’s Guild ( and learn how to run your business. Do not accept work for hire contracts, where you essentially become an employee without benefits.

Copyright 2007 Steve Lafler, all rights reserved.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Anatomy of a Deal

Here is the inside dope -- the chronology of a deal in the T Shirt custom screen printing business. I note up front that I always want a win-win deal, where all parties get satisfaction and value; I mention "win-win" here because this piece is rather hard nosed in tone. That's the reality in business, you have to be tough, resourceful and detail oriented.

Although this piece describes a wholesale T Shirt deal, the ideas could be applied to many small business scenarios. I wrote this almost three years back, so bits may be slightly out of date.

Anatomy of a T-Shirt Job

  1. Customer asks for a quote and places an order. Ask them the basic variables of any job: Quantity of shirts, type of shirt (T-Shirt, Hoodie, American Apparel Women’s T, etc.), color of shirt, sizes, and number of colors in the print (again, this can confuse people. They will count the shirt color as one of the colors, or will forget to count black as an ink color).

  • How many shirts? AND SIZES! XXL’s cost more.

  • What style of shirt? What brand?

  • What color shirt? Color ink?

  • How many colors in the design?

  • Is the design done? Is it an Illustrator or Photoshop file? A pdf or jpg file? Maybe a ratty sketch on a gin soaked bar napkin? (Art/design billed at 65.00/hour.)

  1. Make a quote. Refer to the price list. The prices on the list are a little high, you can cut them a bit if you want, use your judgment. They are fair prices as they stand. Calculate a quote including price of printed shirts, films, and screens. If art is supplied on disk, tell them you may have to tweak their file to get film, graphics are $65.00/hour. If you have to do any typesetting, the minimum is $15.00.

Components of unit price are mark up of 50% and print price.

A standard T-Shirt from Fruit of Loom, Jerzees, Hanes etc. will run 1.25 and up, depends on color of shirt and brand. American Apparel cost more, 3.25 and up, they are in great demand with the younger clientele in particular. I usually mark the blank up 50% of it’s cost, then I add the print price from my “Printing only” price list.

California Sales tax is 8.75%, so multiply the total at .0875. If they have a resale number on file with us, charge tax on film and screens only, not on shirts. For new customers who have a resale number, they must fill out a resale card with their Seller’s Permit number on it. Charge tax to anyone who does not have a resale number, or the state will charge it back to you! Absolutely no exceptions.

GET A DOWNPAYMENT. The customer will finance the job. Once you make the quote, figure out how much the shirts cost so you can ask for a downpayment. If the shirts cost $275.00 on a job, I always ask for $300.00 up front, for example. Call or email the client back and tell them the price, and the amount of the downpayment. If they like it, schedule a meeting to take their order. Or they can send the check and disk, or even email the art files. If they don’t like the price, they may ask for a lower price. Negotiate if you want, I don’t. Don’t let anyone push you into a snap judgment, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. My policy is that my rates are very fair for the level of quality and service I offer, so I do not negotiate after I quote a price.

  1. Process the order. Show them the written quote to confirm that is what they want to order. It often changes. Sometimes their art will not be ready for film output, or will have more colors than they said. Take your time to figure out what the art charges will be. Revise the quote to reflect any changes in the job.

Some clients will have a design for both sides, after you quoted for printing on only one side. Or they will cut the quantity in half and expect the same per shirt price. Take your time and calculate the extra charges. Clients may be disappointed if the price goes up when they want a fancy job, be friendly and suggest making it a simpler print.

Make a point of closing the sale. Ask for a downpayment, or a purchase order if it’s a big agency or corporation. “I’ll need a $600.00 downpayment to produce the job.” Usually they happily hand over the check. If they don’t, fine, everybody finds out in advance: no money, no shirts. Finally, find out when they need the shirts and agree on a due date. Generally, this is a lot of fun because you’re working together on a shirt that you both really want to produce. Don’t start work without a purchase order or a down payment; until you have one of those, you do not have an order.

Remember, the power you have in any deal is to walk away from it. If warning signs or red flags go up, walk. I just did this last week. My intuition told me the down payment check would bounce, so I politely declined the job.

  1. Producing the job. Order the shirts from San Mar, Apparel Source, Border Bros, Alpha Shirt Sales, or even straight from American Apparel. Check their web sites for wholesale prices, policies etc. Sometimes you want the shirts that day, so you go to Apparel Source if you are in Oakland. Check to see if you need ink for the job, and order it. Check screen supplies too.

If the client gave you the art on disk, get films output. Better yet, output them yourself on your laser printer or ink jet printer. Check for information on outputting film from photoshop or illustrator files. When art is on disk, get 20.00 per film in the down payment to pay for the films if you are sending out for film.

I always staple the shirt and ink invoices to my copy of the quote/work order, so when I get a check, I immediately pay for shirts and ink and misc. supplies, if I haven’t already. Look over the shirts to make sure the order is right. Count them in. Also check the shirt invoice, does it match what you ordered? Best to spot errors up front. Before printing the job, double check even the simplest work order, just to be sure of shirt color, ink color, print placement, quantity, etc. Show a proof shirt to client, or perhaps a color inkjet print of the design so they know how it will look on the shirt.

When outputting films, be sure you know what size the client expects the design to be on the shirt. Often they supply designs not at the size that will work on a shirt! If client wants a PMS color match, be sure to charge $15.00 if they want it exact. Or even 20.00. People can be very literal about color matches.

  1. Delivery/Client Pick Up. Here’s the fun part. Getting paid. Give the client a call when the job is done. Tell them the amount of the balance they owe. Best if they pick up (keep the transaction on your turf), but some will want delivery. Occasionally, people will turn into weasels and try to get the shirts without paying, especially when you deliver to their place. I usually smile and start hauling the box away, better yet I go in first without the box and announce I have a C.O.D. Usually, it’s a lot of fun and the client is happy and giddy with their new shirts. Once in awhile, you gotta have brass balls and iron nerves. The box of shirts is your ace in the hole. Client already gave you a downpayment, they want the box; so they will cough up the balance.

When you get the check, the first thing to do is pay any invoices on the job: Shirts, ink, sales tax, film, screens.

That’s the basic Anatomy of a deal.

  1. Quote/invoice

  2. Meet Client/get downpayment

  3. Order goods/print

  4. Deliver job/get paid/pay invoices.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Classic Boho Self Employment Screed Continues

Here's yet another reprise of my early posts on the self employed life:

The Big Picture: Building and Sustaining a Career

It’s actually pretty easy to succeed as a self employed bohemian if you are obstinate and consistent. This simply means showing up, day after day, week after week, year after year. You will develop a reputation for being reliable, and your clientele will grow over time. Satisfied clients will recommend your product or service to others. Sure, you will execute an ongoing marketing program to tell the world that you are in business, but most of your new clients will come from recommendations. As you hone your skill in executing your job, you will realize more and more that your real job is the successful management of your relationships with your clientele.

Whether your small business is an end in itself, or a stepping stone to some grander design, it is possible to create a very good job for yourself. You can strive to create decent working conditions for yourself, at decent pay. You will want to charge enough to buy at least basic health insurance, and you will want to open some sort of retirement account and dump a little money in it on a regular basis.

Just as you build equity in a house by paying a mortgage over time, you build equity in your self employment career by showing up, doing a good job, and treating your clients and yourself with respect. Equity in a self employment position is certainly an intangible, and is hard to measure; but from where I sit, it provides a very real source of income and control over my life that I can rely on.

If you are cut out for bohemian self employment, you know who you are. You know you do not want to work in a corporate setting. Some of you have tried it, and have experienced the horror. You know you do not want to work for the government, or in a bureaucracy.

I am here to tell you that you can and will work for yourself, and you will succeed on your own terms, and in your own time. You will experience set backs and disappointments. So get a temp job for a minute if you have to. But never, ever give up. You know, deep down, you are not capable of being any thing other than a perfect example of your own fine self. You may as well face it, and give yourself wholly over to the life you know you were born to live. Good luck!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Adventures in Self Employment

As the third anniversary of my Self Employment For Bohemians blog approaches, it's my intention to reassert the central premise--not only is it very good indeed to be self employed, much preferable to the living death of holding down a regular job (especially one in a soulless corporation), but it is very do-able to be self employed.

I am not the only artistically inclined entrepreneur with a broad anti-authoritarian streak, and certainly I'm not the most articulate. I do, however, have something to say about the process of building an independent work life for oneself, and sometimes I'm even funny!

Digging back to the beginnings of this blog, I am going to reprint my seminal pieces about self employment over the next stretch. Presumably I'll have something new to say on the subject once I've reposted my core articles.

The following was first posted at the end of 2004, it's been edited since.

Self Employment for Bohemians
By Steve Lafler

I was fifteen minutes from reporting to my first day of work as a minimum wage dishwasher early one evening in June, 1979. It was my first summer living out of my mom and dad’s house. Things had started well enough—my intention was to sell wholesale T-Shirt printing services, pumping out the jobs myself on a freelance basis. The first week, I sold a gross of shirts to a local pub, making a gross of dollars. Considering that rent for my summer sublet was all of $60.00 per month, I felt flush! But I hit the wall after that. Despite hanging flyers all over Amherst and environs (including on the enormous University of Massachusetts campus), the fact was that my client base (dorms, student clubs and the like) had departed for the summer and no one was buying.
Having spent most of my last $20.00 on a book that caught my eye (I’d convinced myself that this was practical through some alchemical equation), I was ready to throw in the towel and signed on for a dishwasher job on campus. UMass hosted an odd assortment of conventions, seminars and crackpot camps in an attempt to pay the bills over the slow summer season. I was to be washing dishes in the campus dining commons for a group of several hundred Transcendental Meditation practitioners from the west coast who were convening a seminar on levitation. I did mention it was the Seventies, right?
I was filled with despair at the bleak prospect of washing dishes. I’d done my time as a dishwasher at a fast food steak house in high school where I was required to wear a polyester cowboy outfit. I had no desire to return to the low rent glory of the dishwashing pit.
At fifteen minutes to the 7:00 pm diswashing shift, a bolt of lightning struck. Of an instant, a fully formed scam literally sprang out of absolutely nowhere and announced itself to me. The underlying message was clear: YOU ARE NOT TO REPORT TO THE DISHWASHING JOB! I’d recalled that an acquaintance, Sue, who worked in the campus center building, had mentioned to me that she had a list of groups who were holding events in the concourse of the campus center that summer. Sue had actually produced a list of the events for me. She assured me, if I was to set up and sell T-Shirts at these events, she would look the other way; not charge me for the space. It seemed risky and a bit scurrilous, and I’d forgotten about it until fourteen minutes to dishwashing.
It was a Thursday evening, and that very weekend, the New England Camera Club was hosting their annual convention in the campus center. I determined that I would grace the show with their official (bootleg) t-shirt. The first problem to conquer was lack of capital. I knew where I could score some blank shirts for a dollar a pop, which I could print and mark up to the princely sum of four bucks, but since I was down to $3.00 on hand, it didn’t seem much of a plan. If I had a hundred bucks, I could buy a hundred shirts and turn it into four hundred over the course of the weekend, enough to finance a month of summer living!
Did I mention it was the Seventies? Very fortunate, as it turns out you could hitchhike anywhere in New England back then within the course of a few hours, a day tops. I elected my mom as my financier and was on the road by five minutes to seven with my thumb up. As my folks lived about 70 miles away, I figured I’d get there just before the summer night settled in. I got a ride out of Amherst towards the western burbs of Boston just about the time my shift supervisor probably started wondering where the hell I was.
Okay, so mom definitely raised an eyebrow at the plan, but recognized my desperation and fronted the bucks. By early Friday afternoon, I was back in Amherst at my drawing board putting together a cute little cartoon logo featuring a guy who had a camera for a head. Somehow I managed to rustle up the blank shirts and get them all printed by eleven that evening.
The next day, I set up bright and early on the campus concourse with a table that Sue scrounged up for me (she was slightly horrified that I’d actually taken her up on her offer!). By noon I’d made Mom’s stake back, and was up to $250.00 by the end of the first day.
By just past noon on Sunday, I hit about $430.00 (having managed to get the shirts for .89, I had a few over 100 pieces). At that point, an obnoxious fifteen year old (who had been flirting with me earlier) returned. With an attitude of scorn and derision, she asked if these were the official New England Camera Club T-Shirts? I said that indeed they were! A pale and disheveled fifty year old sad sack with caved in shoulders stepped forward and introduced himself as the president of said club. I handed him the four remaining shirts, and barked “Here’s your cut!”. I was breaking down the table over his protests and briskly walking it back to the storage bay that Sue had plucked it from the day before. Table tucked away, I smiled at the Pres. and thanked him profusely. Then I turned on my heel and ran close to four minute mile pace back to my flat, a remorseless 22 year old flush with success!
Now I admit that I’d pulled a fast one on that guy, but I am hardly the only college kid to ever make a quick bundle of cash bootlegging a few T’s. The moral of the story, such as it is, goes like this: If you’ve got the BoHo self employment stuff, you know it, because you have an anecdote or two a lot like this. Normal, sensible, thoughtful people do not take risks like this, they do not engage in such brazen behavior. They want “security”! You and me, we’ll take the risk any day… for those who prefer the living death of the secure government job and pension, they can have it!

Is BoHo self employment for you?

Are you an insubordinate scalawag who hates being a cog in a hierarchical organization? Do you enjoy simple accounting? Then BoHo self employment may be the designer lifestyle of choice for you.

I was a paperboy from the age of thirteen until I was fifteen. I wasn’t particularly ambitious about adding new customers, nor was I the best accountant/enforcer I coulda been, but I was conscientious and punctual about getting slightly over forty households their morning Springfield Union for two years. I really enjoyed the earnings—at first, it enabled my Marvel Comics habit, which transformed into an album buying binge when I got a bit old for superhero comics. Finally, at the grand old age of fifteen, the gig supported important early forays into the enticing worlds of beer and weed! I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but apparently having a paper route is a good indicator that you may have the right stuff for entrepreneurship.

That may well be true, but the ultimate test is probably more like this: Have you ever been hired for a job (probably one you desperately needed) only to find yourself really depressed at the prospect of looming indentured servitude? Yes? Now there is a swell indicator that you have the right stuff for entrepreneurship!

Okay, that’s really only part of it. Where lies you passion? Do you obsess over something that can translate into a product or service? Can you see yourself building a business around this passion, this obsession? If you have an intense focus, if you naturally bend your will to doing something about it, bingo! You are ready to put yourself in the driver’s seat in your life. Lemme warn you though, you are in for one hell of a bumpy ride. You gotta want it BAD! Seriously, it is easier for most normal humans to just get a job and have a hobby on the side. Stare yourself down hard, look in your heart and do a gut check. Ready? OK, let’s go!

Disclaimer! I can only tell you about my experience, what has worked for me. Take what resonates with you and dump the rest. I am no business genius, but I am very canny about producing an income for myself. I have been able to do so in adverse circumstances. In the midst of the devastating recession of the early 80’s, fresh out of college with an ART degree (not a lot of hiring going on there!), I created a job for myself out of thin air (more about that in a bit.)
Right now, at the age of 47, I’m running a business that grosses about $130,000 a year. It pays me about 35K, and two part timers last year made a total of about 21K between them working for me. Mind you, I’m working an average of about 30 hours a week… part of my pay I take in TIME. Say what? That’s right, I pay myself in time to do what I want. That’s the BOHO part. According to my handy American Heritage Dictionary, Bohemian is defined thusly: “A writer or artist who disregards conventional standards of behavior”. I’m an artist as well as a businessman, so I’ve always been willing to trade potential earnings for time to do what ever the heck I want. In my case, to write and draw “literary” graphic novels. Yes, I make some money from the comics too, but not enough to keep the wolf away from the door.
I’ve managed to keep myself employed during three serious economic downturns since I got out of college. I’ve been able to buy a house (I went in on it with my wife and sister in law, a very economic way to buy real estate). By virtue of re-investing a lot of my earnings back into my business, I pay pretty darn low taxes. I’m no Donald Trump (thank god!), but I’m reasonably content with the job I’ve created for myself.

Okay, the place to start is at the beginning, and we’re almost there, but first I want to tell you about my foolproof concept for starting your own business—it’s called the Zero Overhead Model.

The idea is that your clients are going to finance your business for you! I use my own business model here for a couple of darn good reasons. First, it’s a business I know well. I’m qualified to hold forth on the business of wholesale custom screen printing. Second, my business is built around both a service (custom screen printing) and a commodity (t-shirts/apparel). I believe that the zero overhead model can work for both a service based or a commodity based business.
Here’s how it works in a nutshell. Joe or Joanna Business owner (or any potential client) comes in to order 100 t-shirts imprinted with their logo. I quote a price on the job and they agree to it. I write up the order, detailing the particulars. The client signs the order form, acknowledging their agreement to the deal. Let’s say that the total on the job is $700.00. I tell the client that I require a 50% downpayment to produce the job, with the balance due upon delivery. With costs of about $250.00 total to produce the job, not only have I enlisted my client to finance production of the job, but I’ve gotten a little pocket money up front in the deal!
When I started producing custom screen printing jobs as an undergraduate, it didn’t take me long to figure out that my customers were also going to be my financiers. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention!
This little schema does bring up some obvious questions. For example, why the heck is Joe (or Joanna) Business going to trust you with the aforementioned $350.00 downpayment? Based on what do they trust you? Okay, I admit it’s a con game! A confidence game, that is to say. When you meet a prospective client, you are projecting confidence in your ability to deliver the goods. Your appearance and demeanor project professionalism. If you are indeed in the t-shirt game, you show them samples. They are welcome to walk if they see red warning flags in the course of your meeting. I’m a proponent of the soft sell; as such, I am very comfortable with a perspective client who decides not to place an order at any particular meeting. My attitude is, I’m not so much gunning to close a sale no matter what, rather I’m helping the client fulfill there need for some quantity of screen printed t-shirts. If the price is too dear for them, or if we aren’t a good fit to do business, I’m quite happy with that.
Another question: What about production equipment? What about samples? What about office or production space? Phones? Computers? Etc.? Well, when you are starting out, you just need to improvise. You (hopefully) have a roof over your head, whether it’s your place, your parents house, a sublet garage (ideal!), a dorm room, or even if you are couch surfing. Work with what you have and build from there. If you can borrow a friend or family members phone and/or computer for even an hour a day, that may be enough to contact initial clients and produce that first job.
I’ll dust off another anecdote as an example. I began freelancing t-shirt and illustration jobs while still an undergraduate at UMass, printing jobs in my dorm lounge. I took off for the west coast half a year after taking my degree. After several months of traveling, I found myself in Eugene, Oregon. I spent the little money I had securing an apartment. I placed some ads in the local university newspaper advertising my screen printing services, then I copied up a couple hundred flyers and papered the phone poles in the college neighborhood with them. I was down to about eight bucks when the first job came in (phew!). It was a small job, which would take only about $30 bucks in supplies to produce… yet somehow I had neglected to hit up the client for a downpayment. Oops! I needed a can of ink, four blank t-shirts, a squeegee, a yard of synthetic silk and a wooden frame. What to do… I borrowed the money from my girlfriend! From there I sold more jobs, just scraping by, until a bounty of dorm, frat and music festival gigs rained down on me in the Oregon spring.
You do not want to always ask friends or family to bail you out. And if you do borrow money from them, be sure to make it your first priority to pay them back. But you will rely on your network of friends, family and colleagues again and again. Community is a very good thing! When someone comes to you for help, gladly give it to them! (Unless they are a serial leech, in which case giving them a kick in the ass is the best favor you can do them… ).
The zero overhead model may be the only way to fly for BoHo entrepreneurs, but believe me they aren’t the only ones. Look at a guy like George W. Bush. Is that guy a self made business man? Hell no! Everything that guy ever owned was procured with sweetheart loans from his daddy’s fat-cat friends and stuff like that. Do you think the super rich ever buy anything with their own money? NO! They get it with O.P.M. (other people’s money). OKAY! That’s it for the zero overhead thing for now. I’m getting off track talking about these darn oligarchs and plutocrats.


The Schedule C is the best friend of the sole proprietor. Get to know it well. Work it! The Schedule C is the “Profit or loss from business or profession” form, to be filed along with your form 1040.

If you re-invest in your business, your business will grow, and you will pay very little taxes. Keep a very tight ledger of income and expenses, using the categories that the IRS provides on Schedule C; you may also add categories peculiar to your business. At the end of the year, compile the data and boom—it takes like ten minutes to fill out the Schedule C. Okay, so it took you five hours to add up your ledger, if you do it by hand like me. You can do it on your computer too.
You will pay taxes on the profit you show at the bottom line of the Schedule C, and you will also pay self employment tax (figure it on Schedule SE). There’s the rub, the sefl employment tax is a stiff one—currently upwards of 15%. So be sure to make quarterly payments to the IRS, or you’ll get your ass kicked come April 15th. The best way to do this is to set aside a percentage of your earnings for taxes every time you get paid—EVERY TIME! Don’t raid your tax fund when you get tight for funds! If you are tempted to raid it, that is the moments to send it to the U.S. Treasure! Anyhow, the theory is that you’ll get some of that self employment tax back as Social Security when you’re a geezer. Whoops, I forgot, W. is gonna trash Social Security…

Steve Lafler

Contents © 2007 Steve Lafler