Saturday, December 27, 2008

Marketing for the Self Employed (an update)

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 clientèle.

Cover your Bets.
I started the Oakland, California version of my T-Shirt printing service 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 clientèle 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 fliers (a.k.a handbills) 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 fliers that communicated my message in clear simple terms, including the command “Call Steve for a quote”.

A few years back I gave up the fliers method for a couple reasons. First, there were fewer places to hang fliers. As fliers 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 fliers 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 fliers like mine. I had to hang twice as many to get half the jobs, and it became a low ball 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, and directories from this industry or that. Collect addresses 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 have done campaigns with 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.
At the beginning of my career, I used classified ads in weeklies and college papers with a measure of success. These days, craigslist and other online listing sites have taken over the classified function. It's a good way to generate leads and interest, but be aware that it serves a lowball market, you will hear from price shoppers who may not be thinking about quality or service (yet!).

Your intuition will inform you of methods to reach your potential clientèle. I’m a 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 most my business communication is via email in any case, that’s just the norm in today’s climate of commerce.

Google Ad Words
I've experimented with Google Ad Words as a marketing tool. It delivers a lot of requests for quotes. I have gained some new clients from Ad Words. I recommend a cautious approach to Ad Words, it's easy to spend a lot of money fast with. Start slow with a small budget. Experiment with the wording of your ad and track results. I used Ad Words when I lived in Portland, Oregon form 2005 to 2007. I kept my campaigns focused on the Portland market, as people there are very big on buying local. I had budgeted for a six month newspaper ad campaign in the local weekly Willamette Week when I moved to Portland. I believed it was a good way to introduce my service and message to that community. I sunk several thousand dollars into this campaign. I did get several clients from the campaign, but in retrospect it was clear to me that the money would have been much better spent on a carefully crafted, Portland focused Ad Words campaign.

Over a six month period, I'd invested more than $600.00 per month in a small display ad in Willamette Week. It was a relatively successful campaign in that I averaged perhaps five quote requests per week. However, when I switched my ad budget to Ad Words, a slightly smaller budget got me four times the quote requests! You can see that small business ad dollars may be more effectively spent on new media than old school print media. The funny thing, I've been a print guy all my life, I have ink for blood. But I can't argue with results, and Ad Words kicked ass on Willamette Week!

One caveat, I noticed that the responders to Ad Words were more likely to be looking for a low ball price. The people who responded to my Willamette Week ad had likely seen my clever ad and logo for weeks, and came in for a quote with the confidence that I was a quality shop that would do right by them. I am not a low ball shop, I am selling quality and service and I do not compete on price. I have no interest in working cheap, in “winning the race to the bottom” as I call it. Thus, the Ad Words responders might have been less likely to actually do business with me.

In the long run, the most effective on line marketing would be to create a weekly blog pitch or news letter, and build a list to send it to. People could sign up for your news letter at your website or blog. It would be labor intensive but cost little. It's always been my experience that elbow grease works better in marketing than throwing money at the problem.

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 guerrilla 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 deductible!

What Really Works?

I’ve been running the current version of my business for twenty 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. Never give up! Soldier on and do your best.

Just for fun, I thought I'd make a list of how some of my clients came to me:

Sarah's Science, summer science camps for kids and after school science education. Recommended by a friend and colleague in the design/illustration community. Sarah Shaffer, proprietor, is as close to a soul mate as I'll ever find in a client. I do illustration for her too, and we are clearly both from planet bug. Or is that planet slug?

David Boyer Designs, successful designer of Hippy tourist shirts in the San Francisco market. I was already friends with Mr. Boyer, via a mutual cartoonist friend. We've done shirts together since '94 and are still going strong. We owe it all to rich tourists and Jerry Garcia. Thanks Jerry! Goddammit, what I would not give to see you walk onto stage just one more time, Tiger in hand, to rock my soul.

The Residents, legendary San Francisco purveyors of music and satire. Their merchandise person saw my flier in Berkeley on her street! She did not know I'd been a fan for 15 years. When she quit, another merch guy took over and I figured the party was over after five great years of printing eyeball shirts. But no, this new dude, name of Dren, started Astropitch; we went another four years and did massive piles and piles of shirts for such acts as Peaches, Chix on Speed, and Anticon along with many more fantastic shirts for the Residents. Dren then bought his own T Shirt press and took production in house, oh man poor guy I would not wish that on anybody but myself!!!!!!!!

Margaret Cho, brilliant comedian. Fellow cartoonist Adrian Tomine designed a T Shirt for Margaret, and recommended me to her manager for T shirt printing. I did Margaret's shirts from '99 to 2007. She runs a great organization. Honest, efficient and soulful. A real sweetheart, and one bad ass trash talking hot mama. I never saw any entertainer sell shirts faster than Margaret when she was on a roll, her fans are nuts for her. Nothing but fun. Wish I still had the gig, but management changed and I was out.

Apple Computer, I was hired by the chief engineer of a key hardware project to do a shirt for Apple. He was one of my pot smoking buddies from freshman year of high school! Only did one shirt for Apple, as he soon left for another silicon valley company. I got to design it too, did a cool cartoon illustration for the project.

Sony Music Distribution. Shirt & Illustration jobs for Screaming Trees, Alice In Chains, Mike Watt, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and many others. A Sony Music promo guy, Big Tim, was my flat mate in Oakland, he fed me great jobs for years. Here was an exemplary human being who truly wanted to help just about everyone he met, and it was my immense good fortune to know him.

EMU Cultural Forum. This campus organization at the University of Oregon was responsible for putting on concerts on campus. I did shirts for the security and staff for many shows, including Frank Zappa, The Ramones, Iggy Pop, The English Beat, Bill Cosby, Willie Nelson, The Beach Boys, Kenny Loggins and many more. I wrote them a passionate sales letter about how I would go the extra mile for them, and then some. It worked, and it was huge fun early in my “career”.

SFJCC. San Francisco Jewish Community Center. I cold called them on the phone when I was broke in the spring of '87 to see if I could print some of their summer camp or recreation T Shirts. I hooked up with Jefrie Palmer, a great guy, and produced piles of shirts for them over a twenty year period.

OCCB and Bulldog Coffee Shop. From 1996 to 2005, I printed shirts for a variety of Oakland based medical marijuana providers. I was recommended to them by a good friend who was their lawyer. In turn, I had met this lawyer friend through one of my cartoonist pals. This lawyer dude was amazing, he argued cases all the way to the Supreme Court for the OCCB. The medical clubs had a popular product, to say the least. They also loved T Shirts and sold a lot of them. Early on, I took some pay in trade, but soon realized I had no need for thousands of dollars worth of herb! Okay, a little weed is fine guys, but I actually need $$$ to pay the bills! Lots of fun, but some of those beefy security dudes freaked me out a bit.

Sweet Potatoes, a somewhat big time producer of baby/toddler apparel. One of their production supervisors saw my flier on a phone pole on Fourth St. in Berkeley where their office was then located. They would give us fabric panels to print that were later sewn into garments, large scale production stuff. It was funny because I just had a homemade press at the time, and a spot dryer, I was just this side of fly by night! And here comes Sweet Potatoes, giving me runs in excess of 10,000 pieces. Their production guy, Paul, keeps asking if he can visit the shop. It was just too funky to let him in! When he finally realized how small scale I was, he was a bit horrified, but actually was also impressed at what my staff and I could pull off on our funky equipment. He did split after feeding us jobs for three years, as they started sending production offshore. They invited me to match pricing they were getting from Guatemala. I don't think so!

Okay, that's enough of that. Notice that most of these clients came from recommendations or personal connections rather than from marketing messages. Certainly I've gotten dozens of clients as a result of my marketing. But bottom line, if you circulate, have fun and hand out your card everywhere, you will have all the business you need.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cartoonist Interviews: An Outstanding New Blog

The emerging artist/cartoonist Austin English, a young man of singualr gifts and inspiration, has started a great new blog entitled 20 Questions With Cartoonists. As well as being a unique, original artist, Austin has a parallel path as a journalist of comics and cartooning, and has distinguished himself there too.

It's my good luck that Austin considers me a worthy subject for his 20 questions, and my answers can be seen here:

20 Questions With Steve Lafler

If you do bother to read it, soldier on all the way to the comments, where I think my best answer is to be found.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Them Old Time John McCain Blues

Remember folks, Sarah Palin is only funny if she loses! I've written a little old time blues ditty to insure an Obama victory, as follows:

Them Old Time John McCain Blues

Go Obama!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

HowTo Start A T Shirt Printing Business

In these times of economic uncertainty, there are lots of unemployed people with little prospect for getting a job, and plenty of young people starting out in similar straights. The current economic mess is pretty rotten, but I believe it is possible to start a successful T Shirt printing business in times like these, because I did it myself!
When I graduated college in 1980, we were in the midst of a deepening recession. It was a cyclical downturn, not as bad as today, but wait! I was living in Eugene, Oregon. The lumber industry was really in the dumps, making the Eugene economy really dreadful. Unable to find work, I began freelancing T Shirt jobs while searching for a more secure position. When I sold my first shirt job, I simply got a down payment from the client for the necessary supplies, and I was off & running (lucky for me, it was an easy one color print!). Here we are 28 years and several economic downturns later. Sure I did great in the boom times, but my T Shirt printing business always put burritos on the table in the down cycles too.
If you have a garage, basement or spare room you can use, you're ready to go. We'll look at screen printing 101 in a minute. First, I will make a radical claim. After investing just a couple to a few hundred bucks in basic tools and equipment, you will be ready to print your first job. I believe a profit can be made from the get go in the Custom Screen Printing business. I direct your attention to my blog entry, The Zero Overhead Model for a description of my business model. Be sure to take a peek also at The Win – Win Deal, a sort of philosophical underpinning to how I conduct my business relationships.
A business is nothing but a web of relationships. I have a business because I have healthy relationships with my clients. They talk, I listen. Sure, you should do lots of marketing, study the various techniques and theories, but I guarantee if you circulate and talk up your business day in, day out, you will attract clients. Be sure to pass out business cards left and right!

Now let's dig into the screen printing overview. Whether you are an out of work fancy pants graphic designer or a DIY punk rocker, one of the best small scale entrepreneurial businesses to start is a T-Shirt printing business. The initial investment can be modest, and a profit can be realized quickly with proper care to details. A screen print on a T-Shirt looks great – screen printing ink is bright and dynamic. I'll mention ink jet printing and digital imaging later, but the thrust of this piece is screen printing (a.k.a. Silkscreen).

Here is a list of materials you will need for your first project: Wood (or metal) frame stretched with screen mesh, piece of foam rubber to fit inside frame for exposure process, screen printing ink (Union water base in is good to start with, or Speedball brand can be found in some art supply stores), squeegee, light sensitive emulsion, Light source (a halide work light is good), glass & weights to hold the glass down on the frame, and your design on transparency or film (the design should be positive, not negative on the transparency). Oh, and T Shirts to print on.

A well stocked art supply store can sell you all the basic screen print materials listed above. It is recommended to comparison shop, as the prices may vary dramatically. Also check with your local industrial screen print supplier (under “screen printing/supplies” in the yellow pages or online). If you are serious about setting up a shop, you want to buy from an industrial supplier like Midwest Sign & Screen.
Here are the steps to produce your first screen print project. Clean your stretched frame with mild soap, rinse and let dry for at least an hour. Coat the screen with light sensitive emulsion (check instructions for light conditions appropriate to your emulsion). Coat both sides then scrape away excess emulsion. Let dry overnight. If you didn't buy a pre-stretched screen, you will need to put your screen fabric on the wooden frame, so taut that you can bounce a coin on it. You can use a staple gun, but take care not to rip the screen mesh with the staples.

Put your art/design on a transparency. Either draw with india ink on translucent vellum, or print the design on vellum or other heavy transparent paper on a laser printer. Inkjet printers often do not create an opaque enough image for burning a screen. Warning: Some laser printers are too hot, and will melt vellum!!! If you draw on vellum with india ink, go over your lines or brush strokes twice to insure opacity. I successfully used a HP laserjet for years to create transparencies. It was necessary to use the HP brand cartridges; the generic/refilled ones did not make a dark enough film to successfully burn a screen. You can also send your graphic file to a film output service bureau for your film positive.

Burning the screen: SEE DIAGRAM at top of article. You need to do this step in the dark. I used Ulano Fotocoat TZ, an emulsion you can use in low light, check the instructions for your emulsion. Put your foam rubber on the floor or a table. Put your coated screen frame over it on the inside side of the frame (leaving the flat side of the frame pointing up). Put your transparency upside down on top of the screen. Put your piece of glass over the transparency, and weight it at the edges with books or some other heavy objects. If you have ink cans, they will do fine because they are heavy. Hang your light source about 18” above your screen and turn on for recommended exposure time. Develop with warm water. Spray the screen until the image area is free of emulsion. If your screen doesn't develop, use more water pressure. Blot both sides with newspaper when done developing, to remove excess emulsion. If your emulsion comes off too easily, ruining your image, increase your exposure time. For years I used a tanning bulb to burn screens, it had the power necessary to burn a fine screen, including halftone dots! Later I used two halide work lights, those suckers are pretty hot so use caution!

Let the screen dry. Put over T Shirt and add ink to one side of the screen, creating an “ink reservoir”. Holding the screen frame down firmly, pull 2 – 3 strokes and lift to check your print. Clean screen immediately when finished. You can do multiple prints. If your print smudges, try a finer screen mesh. If insufficient ink gets on the T Shirt, use thinner ink or a more open screen mesh. I used to print one color jobs in my dorm room with no press, just the screen frame and a squeegee, it kept me in beer money and date money!
A word about inks, for years I used a homemade press and waterbase inks (Union brand is good). Most commercial T Shirts are printed with plastisol, a plastic base ink. You will need a dryer to cure plastisol. I recommend an entry level spot dryer, it maybe runs 5 – 600 bucks. Shop around. I was in the biz for a decade before I got one! If your business takes off, you will eventually want a spot dryer and a conveyor dryer.
Injets and digital technology. Yes, you can print backwards on “T shirt transfer paper” with an injet printer and iron the design on a shirt. It's a cool way to go for short run, full color. Also, there are now machines from U.S. Screen that do digital imaging direct on shirts. They are great machines but start at 17K or so, we are talking serious capital. Sure, I want one, but it just ain't in the cards for me at present. By contrast, my 6 color, 6 station workhorse manual printer was a marvel, and it cost only $3600.00 brand new. Paid for itself in a couple months, and it's still running today 9 years later in my buddy David's shop.
The other diagram is my design for a homemade three color T Shirt press using thick plywood, masonite, screws, nails, sawhorses, and screen frame clamps. It's funky, but you can print tight register three color jobs on this rig with practice. You may want to sell only 1 color jobs until your level of craft improves, and you can confidently handle multi color work.
So let's build a press—start with a 4' X 4' piece of 3/4” thick plywood. Cut the shirtboard area away with a jigsaw. This is a lot of jigsawing, start with a fresh blade. The channels should be 2.5 – 3”. The indents at the back of the shirt board are for the material at the bottom of the T Shirt to have a place to fall as to not interfere with the print. Round the corners at the front of the shirt board so as not to catch the shirts as you load them onto the press. Run a 3' long piece of 2” X 2” under the shirt board /press table for support. Bevel the front of the support board, again so it doesn't catch shirts as you load them on the press.
Top the shirt board area with a piece of 1/4” masonite to create a smooth printing surface. Nail down with brads at the edges, out of the live print area. Buy 3 sets of screen clamps from a screen print supply house and mount them on 1/4” masonite too, so they are at the same level as the shirt board area. With this homemade press, you will be making your own screen frames to fit the peculiar size of the press. Painting stretcher bars work pretty good, or just buy 1” x 2” or 2” x 2” wood to make your frames.
There are many fine rotary manual presses for T Shirt printing available, both new and used. I recommend checking the Screenprinters page of industry links of suppliers for presses, dryers, shirts and equipment. NOTE! This is the most important link in this post, it's a virtual bazaar of everything you need to get into this business. Remember too, all the suppliers want to sell you as much stuff as they can. It's fun to get all the latest gear and equipment, but experience tells me that a profitable shop buys only what it needs to produce the work it has.
A note about pricing jobs. I started out as a hungry student who needed to learn how to make a decent print, so naturally I came in at the low end of the price scale in the shirt biz. Once I got the quality thing down, I charged a higher than average fee. There is always a market for quality. Most buyers are looking to push your price down, especially after years of low cost Walmart stuff from China!
Don't work cheap, it will just piss you off. Talk to people in the field to see what the going rates are. A screen printing press should generate at the very least $50 per production hour for a small scale shop, really $100 is do-able. If you can put together 10 - 20 production hours per week you will be fine. There are lots of other business tasks to eat up the rest of your time, believe me.

If you are seriously considering trying a business like this, do not hesitate to email me with any questions. I will answer them as well as I can.
Copyright 2008 Steve Lafler.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

El Vocho gets chubby

I just posted a nice chunk of new material to my online comic El Vocho. In fact, I've done 24 finished pages (of course, it gets all chopped up online).
The old school method of publishing a graphic novel in progress, of course, was to issue a series of comic magazines as the work was created. That's what I did with my BugHouse material in the 90s as I buzzed it out.
These days, the economic model is completely different--the graphic novel is the elegant, efficient mode of print packaging (I need sell only about 400 books to get to profit!!!), and the "new media" (?) is here to flog, disseminate and otherwise bang people over the head with your message.
In any case, there is now enough of El Vocho up there to be entertained and amused, and to get a handle on the characters. I recommend digging into the archives on the El Vocho blog site, start at the beginning and read the chapters in order. IF you like it, spread the word!

Anyone who really knows me will tell you I'm a bit the wild eyed zealot, so I will just go ahead and say this: El Vocho will save the world! Or at least, it's a story about saving the world. From what?! From Big Oil, and our horrible addiction to oil, of course! Por Su Puesto.

I hope to complete the book and publish it as a GN by next summer. I'll be in the U.S. for at least a month then and will be looking to get around to promote it.

Steve Lafler

Monday, September 22, 2008

Steve's Online Gallery

I've posted my inventory of paintings at, I'll be adding stuff to this page as it emerges from my studio.
Featured here are Jelly fish vortex and Mr. Transtastic.

There is a range of work old and new, all offered at decent prices.

I handle billing / payment via Paypal. Shipping is via DHL, which is included in the prices as marked. DHL takes two days to zip stuff from my home in Mexico to the U.S.
It's my policy to offer a money back guarantee if any work arrives damaged.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cave Paintings & Howlin' Wolfman

Since moving to Oaxaca last year, it's been my ambition to begin painting again. I'd actually taken a degree in painting some 29 years ago, so the will to sling paint around has a precedent in my life.
I've painted in fits and starts for the past six years, and it's been both gratifying and frustrating. The process of creating color images with paint is so thrilling, but of course difficult as I have yet to master the tools and techniques.
In any case, I've been at it for a few weeks here and tonight I'm posting some of the early results. As I continue, I will be marketing the new work via various web channels.

Once I have a decent inventory I'll begin a gallery search; I hope to find at least one west coast and one New York/east coast gallery to represent me (any hot gallery tips, please zip me an email).

It will be a gradual process, as I'll court the muse on her own terms--and meanwhile I continue work on my next graphic novel, El Vocho, which is of course a full time job in it's own right.

As I create more canvases and get my marketing figured out, I'll post more here about my budding painting career.

Images ©2008 Steve Lafler, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Thomas Friedman Articulates Argument Against McCain

I heard an interview with NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman on Fresh Air last night. The dude rocks, he argues for a green energy revolution with candor and wit. Oh, let's not forget he has a command of the facts, too.

He articulates the most concise arguments I've heard yet against a McCain presidency, pointing out the absolute lunacy of the "Drill, Baby. Drill" chant heard at the Republican convention. Continuing oil addiction makes for bad politics, bad business, and would be bad for the environment, the economy and your health. But the oil industry has the army of lobbyists, and pays for the campaigns of the weasels in Washington, so we hear utter idiocy like "Drill, Baby, Drill".
Don't take my word for it, check out Friedman's new book Hot, Flat and Crowded, and his N.Y. Times column.

I wrote in this blog a couple years back about the coming boom in clean energy, Friedman points out that tax credits from the federal government need to lead the way. McCain consistently votes against this, even when it would mean piles of new jobs in his state!

Go Obama!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Shotgun Wedding

A song for John McMcain and Sarah Palin, as follows:

There once was a reformer whose name was John McCain
Now he's the candidate but he's plainly not the same
No, John is not the same

Now maverick John went to choose himself a veep
He didn't tell nobody--the veep secret he did keep
Oh, veep secret he did keep

John vested Sarah Palin, he did it on his own
Asked for no opinions because of his thick dome
Oh, because of his thick dome

Now Sarah's on the ticket, she has a pregnant kid
Let's have a shotgun wedding, before John flips his lid
Oh, before John flips his lid
Oh, before John flips his lid

(Sung to the tune of Jack-A-Row)

Friday, August 01, 2008

Living the Dream: The Expatriate Entrepreneur

For many, the grass is always greener on the other side. Me, I tend to be content where I am as an entrepreneur who creates his own job. However, the wife and I have fostered a dream for years of living a gracious expatriate life in the elegant colonial city of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Situated in a highlands of southern Mexico at the confluence of three mountain valleys, Oaxaca has a history of several thousand years of continuous culture amidst it's charming colonial splendor. Serena and I spent half of '97 living and working here, and vowed to return.

Things were different in '97. We were both engrossed in creative work that did not require daily communication with the outside world. As the internet was barely out of diapers back then, Oaxaca truly felt remote from the bustling atmosphere of our Oakland, California home. I had left my business affairs in the capable hands of a trusted associate. This worked well in terms of sustaining the business, but the carrot I offered was most of the income while I enjoyed my half year off to work on a graphic novel. It worked short term, but the lack of income brought me home after six months.

As of this writing, it's been just a few days shy of a year since we moved permanently to Oaxaca with our young family to live our dream of an expatriate life here. I am happy to report that it is eminently doable. Both of us are working from our new home via internet and phone with few problems, enjoying the relative strength of our earning power in a charmed area with a lower cost of living.

First of all, a note to parents on the move. Serena did a pile of research on schools in Oaxaca, and we were able to find a fine private school for our two kids for under $500.00 U.S. per month for both. With the sorry state of education in the U.S. at present, we are very pleased that our kids are learning a second language and critical thinking skills here. There are schools available for a range of prices with a variety of approaches. Our school is more writing and creative based, yet still offers a fine academic experience.

Now, to the meat of the matter, how the heck do I run my business from Oaxaca?! There are a few key details to the nuts and bolts of it all. First of all, I picked up a deal of a laptop from Dell. I recommend buying a “refurbished” computer from Dell, as you get a (basically) new computer that someone returned for one reason or another. Dell gives it a thorough check and resells it at a deep discount. It is a great value and I needed to replace my five year old desktop machine in any case.

In Oaxaca, we had two choices for internet, Infinitum from TelMex, the phone company, or cable from Cablemas. We had a rental house for the first several months (before buying a house) with Infinitum internet. It was decent high speed internet, but I will say that the speed of the service varied. Who knows why? Also, the modem broke and TelMex was more than happy to sell us a new one! Ha, service with a smile for a price.

When we bought a house recently, we went and talked to TelMex. It was about $200 U.S. just to open an account, and then it would take 4 – 6 weeks for them to show up and get us rolling. Thanks, and goodbye TelMex! We went to Cablemas, they opened an account for 15 bucks and we had internet, fastest I've ever had, the next day!

Next up, phones. We have a Skype account and a Vonage account. Both offer impressive capability to call the U.S. or anywhere else for a pittance. With Skype, you need to buy a microphone for your computer. Big deal, I picked one up for 5 bucks. You download the software and give them a card number. Boom, we were calling the U.S. for 4 cents a minute the next day. The only problem is you don't have a phone number where people can call you, you have a Skype name. Anyone who has a Skype account can call you, provided you are at your computer with the sound on!

With Vonage, I signed up for an account offering 500 minutes per month for about $19.00. It cost maybe $70 to open the account. You can pick the area code for your phone number, I picked the S.F. Bay Area since most of my clients are there.

Vonage offers various pieces of equipment to use for calling, you can get a flash device phone that plugs into your USB port, or you can order a router that hooks up to a phone. The latter may be better as it can be set to ring, so you don't have to be at your computer with headphones on to get a call.

Thus it is pretty easy these days to hook up basic office services abroad. What else might you need? Oh year, clients! It is my good fortune to have a roster of truly great clients who I have done business with for years. By respecting them and delivering value, we have built relationships of long standing that are beneficial to all parties. They hold up their end by paying the invoices!

As my business is custom screen printing of T Shirts and sportswear, it's necessary for me to have great suppliers and associates, too. Again, it's my great fortune to have two printers working with me. Both are consummate professionals who I can count on. We have many years of working together behind us. The key thing with my clients and suppliers is that we have built trust with each other over time, thus all these people are willing to continue dealing with me from a distance.

With my wife's work, the case is even more interesting. With a background in travel writing, journalism and teaching, she opted to try her hand at freelance writing from Oaxaca. There are plenty of interesting jobs teaching English available, however the pay scale is on the low side.

Amazingly, Serena has built a clientèle that delivers decent paying work to her just since our arrival. She has outstanding credentials as a writer, and she can deliver the goods. She sifts through writing jobs offered from a variety of sources, including craigslist. It does take a lot of time and patience for her to find decent gigs; I'd say that 98% of the writer listings on craigslist are looking for a freebie.

As it took me several years to build a viable client base, I'm fairly amazed at the work Serena has been able to generate in short order.

An important consideration in any work from abroad scheme is how to get paid? The easy, surefire answer is to use Paypal. Both Serena and I bill clients through the online payment service with no problems.

As some of my clients are businesses that prefer to pay by check, it's incumbent upon me to maintain some accounting functions stateside. Here again, I recruited a trusted associate of many years standing to handle deposits, payables and some basic office traffic directing. He puts in an average of 4 - 5 hours per month (my business is small and simple), and I pay him well for it--he provides a critical lifeline to commerce in the U.S. and is truly a key man.

I'll conclude that it's quite possible to freelance from abroad if one is highly motivated and has ample resources to launch the whole venture. Good luck to any who try! Anyone with questions can post a comment and I'll answer as best I can.

Steve Lafler

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sophomore novel from "Lucky Man" Ben Tanzer

Early in 2007 I published a fantastic debut novel from writer Ben Tanzer, Lucky Man, on my Manx Media imprint. Now Ben is back with a new novel, Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine, on Orange Alert Press.
Here is a description of the new book:

Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine takes place in an early nineties New York City and follows the romance between Jen and Geoff the novel's two main characters. It is a story about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the value of friends, the reason its best to go out for coffee on first dates and what exactly defines being on the rebound. The characters riff on their favorite books, channel Yoda and Bob Dylan, deal with siblings and try to make sense of a world that shouldn't be as confusing as it seems to be. They also seek greater self-awareness and debate why Dallas will always be superior to Knots Landing, even as they find love, lose it and find it again.

Interested parties can pre-order the book by visiting this link:
Go Ben!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Buying Real Estate in Mexico

Once upon a time, I was between apartments in San Francisco. The shared housing scene was tight and I could not find a place to live. Some friends of means had a huge loft space up on Bush St., borderline between Pacific Heights and Japantown. They would be spending the next several months in their place in SoHo, NYC—would I be interested in house sitting their enormous, elegant loft for several months while they were away?

Of course I accepted, and greatly enjoyed spending the fall of '85 in that gorgeous spot. I've lived in many places both splendid and dismal since, but I've always wondered if I'd get another crack at “loft living”.

Here we are, almost 23 years later, and I'm sitting in a new construction modern boxy townhouse in urban Oaxaca—my wife and I just bought this joint, having finalized the deal last week. The place is big and rather sparse, but has stylish modern touches and just enough classic Mexican elegance (a nice inner courtyard with sliding glass doors on three sides!). Best of all, there is rooftop access with a safety wall that we plan on developing into another living space with garden, hammock, yoga area and perhaps even a Tiki bar.

Certainly this is a more rough and tumble neighborhood than the Pacific Heights/Japantown locale, but it's a more private street with less traffic than Bush St. in San Francisco; there is a hum & vitality here that is hard to match. This place is in point of fact the loft living I used to imagine for myself, located in the splendid cultural mecca that is the city of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca is the seat of a vibrant indigenous culture. The Zapotec and Mixtec peoples (among others) having been hanging around for several thousand years so far. Art is alive here, the markets burst with a wild array of local crafts–pottery, carvings, masks, weaving, paintings and more. There are galleries featuring a wide array of styles and sensibilities, and many outstanding museums.

To be a Oaxacan painter of note is a mark of honor and dignity. The respect and stature earned by the greats is traditionally paid back to the native village with the construction of parks, schools and museums as a natural gesture of thanks and community service.

The city was also the scene of a year of revolt in 2006, as a teacher strike widened to a general strike against the corrupt state government. Roving goon squads working for the Governor shot several demonstrators, and indeed killed Brad Will, a journalist from the United States. Ultimately, the federal government sent in forces to quell the rebellion and support the Ulises Ruiz, the Governor.

The feds paid lip service to protecting the people and keeping the peace, but no one was fooled by the rhetoric. It is a testament to the energy, strength and resourcefulness of the people of Oaxaca that the city has quickly sprung back from these dark days with a somewhat booming economy and cultural life. No one knows what lay ahead politically for Oaxaca. The teacher strike is a long standing tradition in Oaxaca. My understanding is that the government would usually throw them a bone, an inadequate pay increase. It was the new Governor Ulises who decided in '06 that the teacher strike needed to be crushed. As I write this in late May, the teacher strike for the year is on again in the Zocalo (town square), and who knows what will happen this time. Has Ulises learned anything? I doubt it.

I will say I feel easily as safe here, if not safer, than I did living in Oakland.

IN any case, having spent several months in Oaxaca in '97, Serena and I always knew we would return, but this adventure and commitment is far and away beyond what we could have imagined for ourselves, yet here we are. For us, this is a perfect environment for our shared adventure in creating a freelance, Bohemian life for ourselves and our little family. It's not lost on us that our expenditure of about $200,000 U.S. For this new house is less than half of what it would have run in Portland, Oregon where we most recently lived. I won't even speculate on what it would run in the Oakland where we had lived for many years, let alone San Francisco or New York.

As we are about to spend our third night in the new place, it's the perfect time to reflect on the whole experience of buying real estate in Mexico. Last week, we went to our Notario's office downtown to sign the final papers with the seller, and then it was off to the bank to fork over the bucks. Actually, it was earlier that morning we met our selling agent at the house for a final inspection, to see that our requests had been met before headed to the Notario's to seal the deal. Standing in the kitchen with my wife Serena, talking to our agent Luz, I slid into a crystalline mental acuity, a timeless hyper-awareness of the moment. Part of me was at a remove, observing the scene, commenting “Steve, here you are buying a house in Oaxaca, Mexico. How do you like that, motherfucker!?” Quite a bit, thought I! I felt intensely alive, delighted, surprised and a bit alarmed.

Where Serena and I are concerned, I am fond of saying that I believe I won the relationship lottery. We are truly simpatico—strikingly different people with many shared values and tastes, we have a shared sense of mission and routinely accomplish amazing stuff together. So it was no surprise to me to be standing next to this remarkable woman at the Notario's office that morning, buying a house in lovely Oaxaca de Juarez.

Time now for a brief breakdown of what it takes to buy a house in Mexico, and some of the differences with buying in the U.S.

Some folks reading this will wonder what we are doing in the office of a Notary buying a house. In Mexico, real estate deals are handled by a Notario. This is a very different position that a Notary in the U.S., the Notario in Mexico is more like a lawyer specializing in real estate transactions. They handle the title search and legal transfer of title, and the write up the buyer/seller agreement. I understand that the money usually changes hands in the Notarios office too, but more on that later.

We started the process of looking for a place in late February, having rented for about half a year, we knew we wanted to stay and were ready to begin the search. Our first step was to contact a great agency in Oaxaca, Tierra Oaxaca, run by a husband and wife team of Todd and Silvia. They showed us a number of outstanding properties both in Oaxaca and in the “campo”, the outlying villages. In fact, we offered on one place in Colonia (neighborhood) San Felipe del Agua, but got outbid, and consequently did not get the place.

Mexico has no equivalent of the Multiple Listing Service, so it soon became apparent to us that each Realtor has their contacts and listings that are finite. To get a true sense of the market, it is necessary to work with more than one Realtor. It's worth noting that Todd and Silvia have the commendable ambition to open up the Oaxaca market to the practice of sharing information among agents for the benefit of buyers, sellers and agents alike.

We went ahead and talked to several agents and saw many properties. Although some had great features, it was clear to us that the house we ultimately bought fulfilled the most of our requirements for living and work space (as we both freelance from home) and the location had both urban amenities and proximity to the kids' school.

The agent we bought from, Luz, is a world class character, an appealing combination of utter charm and charisma along with an intent hard sell approach that would do any used car salesmen proud. The first place she showed us was up on a dramatic hill in the fast developing Colonia Loma Linda. We dubbed this joint the Rock Star house. We loved it. It was a sparkling new mansion on a hill, tricked out with beautiful finishes. We lusted after it. The siting of the house and the view were spectacular. Now, this would be a 1.25 million dollar house in Oakland CA, where we lived for a long time. Here, they wanted about 270K for it. It was 70,000 dollars above our stated budget, but we actually tried a lowball offer on it.

No go. Sellers here in Oaxaca would rather sit on a property and wait for their price than sell low, it appears. I would say it's a mild buyer's market here. There are more sellers for sure than buyers, but it's not like the current downturn in the U.S., prices are still climbing here. This urban area is growing fast and the demand for housing is driving prices up. It's expensive by Mexican standards in Oaxaca, which is ironic as this is one of the poorest states in Mexico. But a growing population and a strong & growing ex-patriot population keeps prices headed up with a tight supply of land and houses.

No rock star house for us, we are relieved. We did not come here to live beyond our means. We spend a few more weeks looking around and we go back to our modern boxy loft with Luz several times. She is pressuring us to sign all along, but we hold her off. Finally, deciding this is the best place for us, we lodge a lowball offer and are rebuffed. Ultimately we get the price down from 2.3 million pesos to 2.1 million, but we were trying to get it for 1.85. Switching strategies, we asked for a safety barrier and staircase to the rooftop at the 2.1 million price, and the developer agreed! This will make it possible for us to create a rooftop garden/oasis in our urban townhouse.

Faced with a provisional verbal agreement, it was incumbent on us to execute a series of moves to seal the deal in the unfamiliar Mexican market.

We needed to repair to the offices of the Notario of our choosing to write up the Compra/Venta agreement (choosing a Notario—ask around for recommendations from Mexican friends and acquaintances), and we needed to put down some earnest money on the house.

Turns out in Mexico, for new construction, one is expected to plunk down a large chunk of earnest money. We take the plunge and agree to pay half up front, with the balance to be paid when the house is finished.

Any further negotiation that needs to take place happens at this point. The Notario wrote up a boiler place compra/venta agreement. We looked it over, showed it to friends, and reconvened at the Notarios office with the seller and gave a list of things we wanted to add to the agreement. As our seller is a decent man doing quality work, he had no problem with our additions.

The truly hilarioius and indeed hair raising part, the guy wants the down payment “En effectiveo”, also know as cash. How else can he avoid reporting the income??? So, away we go the the bank with him. We withdraw one million pesos in cash and hand it to him, a literal bag of cash. He stuffs it in his backpack and heads down the street with it. He made it home alive, as we soon see him again.

It's worth mentioning that our sales agent, Luz, had helped us open an account at Scotiabank, making it possible to transfer funds from the U.S. for the deal. To open a Mexican bank account, you need two Mexicans to vouch for you, and our agent and seller did just that. Without them greasing the wheels, it could have taken months to open an account. Luz marched right in, jumped the line and got the manager to give us VIP service. It's rather embarrassing to do this, but on the other hand that's just how stuff gets done here.

I need to mention also—as foreign nationals, we were required to apply for a permit to buy property in Mexico. As part of the permit, you agree to adhere to Mexican law in any legal dispute surrounding your property, you waive the right to bring any legal action under U.S. Law. This permit ran us four hundred bucks each, plus another hundred each for the Notario to handle the paperwork and application process for us.

The Mexican love of bureaucracy reared it's silly assed head here. My name on my six month tourist visa was listed without my middle initial. I had to jump through a few hoops, file some forms, pay a forty dollar fee and visit the immigration office two or three times and act contrite to update my visa with an added “J” for my middle name! Then I was able to successfully apply for a permit to buy property in Mexico.

Once we'd gotten the agreement done and paid the earnest money, it was just a matter of waiting for the house to be finished. “It will be done next week” stretched out to about five weeks, but indeed we felt it was done in good time. For sure, we had a couple meetings at the house making lists of things that needed attention for the house to be truly done. Naturally we had more leverage to get details fixed before we pay the balance!

Then, a couple more trips to the Notario for a provisional title document (The real deal, the Escritura, follows after a few months of red tape). We pay the balance (another huge bag of cash!), we pay the Notario the wild fee of a few hundred bucks, and we own our new casa in Mexico.

Oh—one more thing, there is a transfer tax. It is tradition to flat out lie about the value of the house, usually listing the value of the land alone, having done this we figure we will be hit with about a $1500.00 tax bill.

Now the next part of the adventure—who know's what it's gonna take to set up a phone line in new construction here, let the Byzantine process begin!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Albert Hoffman, A Fine Human Being

Just heard over NPR that Albert Hoffman has died at age 102. Who can argue with living to such a ripe old age. By any measure, this man was a very successful human being.
Of course, Albert Hoffman is best known for the synthesis of LSD-25 in 1938, and for inadvertently dosing himself in 1943. He went on to lead a dignified life, intelligently discussing and analyzing his great discovery for the balance of his long life.
I won't bore anybody with my own views on LSD and psychedelics here (just read enough of my comics and you'll catch the drift of my opinions); I would simply direct attention to my link to Hoffman's Wikipedia entry. Draw your own conclusions.
Okay, allright, one final note. I would say that it's hard to take any critic of LSD and psychedelics seriously if they have not tried them, just my subjective opinion.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Here We Go Again: El Vocho

As mentioned here last month, I've written about 150 new pages of comics, pretty much a whole new graphic novel. The working name for the piece is "El Vocho", referring to the nickname earned by the venerable VW bug in Mexico, where it remains one of the most popular passenger cars.

In the past, when working on a longer piece, I've either kept a lid on the work until it was ready to be published as a graphic novel, or I've issued a series of shorter comic books (as with my BugHouse series). Now, in the new media future, it makes a hell of a lot more sense to post the material as I create it. It will save me a lot of expense and effort, it will save readers money and frankly I expect it will be seen and read by far more people online than it would be in comic book format.

That being the case, I've created a blog for the sole purpose of posting El Vocho comics as I create them. Go ahead and click the El Vocho link to see the first installment.

It is worth mentioning, since I moved to Mexico almost eight months ago, I've been casting about for a project (really for a mode of working) that truly captivates and engages my best energies. I've wandered down a couple different alleyways with regard to characters and storylines, posting some web comics I was pretty happy with.
But frankly, something was missing. While I'm excited about new media/electronic media, I still burn & yearn to work with the long narrative. I also want my stuff to appear in print in a graphic novel format.
With El Vocho, I've created a compelling story that serves all of the aforementioned interests and needs. I will post it as I create it, it is a long narrative with complex characters and an overlay of several story arcs, and I will collect it as a print graphic novel when it's done.

Looking over the web comics/online comics landscape, I see that there are several sites that do a fine job of hosting and promoting web comics. I considered posting with one of these sites, but ultimately decided it was not for me. I prefer to maintain my own proprietary blog for posting web comics.

Each of these hosting sites has a list of requirements to adhere to in order to play ball with them. The most odious of these was that one must create a web comic for web use only (it was forbidden to post a graphic novel in progress). Hell, I don't need some skinny pimply paste-faced teenage web dweeb entrepreneur telling me what color socks to wear; I prefer to captain my own ship, come hell or high water! Hopefully, I can attract more than four viewers to each of my El Vocho posts. We'll see what happens! Stay tuned.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bubbling Up from the Literary Underground

Just over a year ago, Manx Media published a fine first novel by Ben Tanzer entitled Lucky Man.
Now, Ben has gone electric with a fantastic online magazine featuring fine writing, poetry and AHT! It's called

This Zine Will Change Your Life

and I highly endorse it, it's just the type of endeavor that keeps well crafted, grass roots literature alive in a near post literate environment.
Here is Ben's spin on the new issue:

"This edition we have a killer love story by J.A. Tyler.

This piece will be up for two weeks and as with every piece going forward it has been matched-up with a photo and music by my collaborators on this project, Adam Lawrence and Jason Behrends respectively.

We hope you enjoy this edition and come back in the future. We also hope you will let people know that we are out there and maybe even link with us."

Steve again. Not only is Ben building momentum with This Zine Will Change Your Life, but he has a second novel practically in the can--you just can't stop this dude's creative overdrive!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Stupid Tourist Tricks

Wow, what a crazy March it's been! I've seen three sets of visitors from the U.S., and I"ve happily turned into a tourist in my own back yard.
We're talking visits to the ruins at Mitla, Yagul, & Monte Alban (the latter at night by special arrangement!), country Mezcal factories, and of course the Silent Procession on good Friday in Oaxaca, mentioned in my last post. Wait, there's more, including visits to the "figuras de madura" (wooden animals) village of Arrazola, and the Rodolfo Morales museum in the town of Ocotlan.

We've also haunted plenty of great restaurants in Oaxaca, soaking up the local color & great food. My kids have been on a two week school break at the same time, so we've kicked back and soaked up the good vibes and good cheer. My birthday came in the middle of all this, and my friends Mats!? and Peri presented me with a GIANT CAKE from one of Oaxaca's finest bakeries, making it a memorable fifty one for this geezer boho.

It reminds me of something good that entrepreneurs often forget completely -- Vacations are good for you! I'm not quite the hard driving workaholic I was in my 20s, but I still forget to take time out. Thanks to all my great friends for the visits, (hugs & kisses to Carrie, Mats!?, Peri, Mikey and Marcia) forcing me to step out of my routine and have a ball.

During all of this, I've managed to pump out several jobs including a big order for a new client, so all remains covered in the world of this self employed Bohemian.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Who am I, and What am I Doing Here?

I'm sure almost nobody remembers the above line from the Vice Presidential debate before the '92 election, where Ross Perot's running mate, Admiral What's-his-face (with the ideal candidate helmet of white hair) uttered the once famous line. Fuck, that guy was a world class space cadet. What a fine moment of prime time it was. He sunk Perot's already slim chances with six seconds of perfect sound bite!

As for me, Who am I, and What am I doing here? Fuck if I know either! Right now, I'm listening to this.

And it is nicely ripping my face off, but actually I'm here to report on my self employed Bohemian activities for the recent stretch. This is what I've been doing: Nothing.

Okay, maybe not nothing. I've been paying enough attention to my screen printing business to keep the wheels churning. Me 'n my boys back in the states are making pretty prints for money, and all is well in the world of work.

The real news here in Oaxaca is that my Casa has been graced with a stream of lovable guests for the entire month of March. Fun has been had, ruins have been visited, mescal has been sampled. Well, more than sampled by certain guests!

Actually, for a few days the guests decamped to the Oaxacan coast long enough for me to sit down and write perhaps 150 pages worth of comics! It was my best sustained burst of comics writing in perhaps five years, the muse commandeered my psyche for the better part of a week and whispered a wonderful narrative in my ear--it was the best sort of writing for me, where I honestly just felt I was taking dictation from some disembodied source. Now I gotta sit down and draw the damn thing, but it will be a pleasure.
I'd certainly had the idea last fall & winter that I was gonna jump into the web comics biz--and I did, enough to get my feet wet. But I gotta say, I longed for the long narrative. It's my wife & it's my life (as Lou Reed once sang). Sometimes I try to forget, but I came to this mudball to draw comic books. Books! So here we go, fine with me.

Then what, the guests return, more visitors show up, and it is good! No lie, all the flow & traffic enhances the lives of my family and pumps up our energy. What the heck, the kids are on school vacation anyway.

So, it happens to be one of the biggest holidays of the year in Mexico, Semana Santa (Easter week). On Good Friday there is to be something called "the silent procession", a sort of parade acting out the stations of the cross.
Who knew these dudes would show up in this klansman/executioner regalia? Whoooo! Brings back the bad smells & bells of my childhood! Them crazy Catholics, they sure know how to hold a parade, let alone an inquisition, as per the above photos.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

It's the War, Stupid

Oh Bush, thanks so much for signing your band aid bill to avoid recession. I'm sure it will work like a charm!
Uh, it's for sure gonna fix the sub prime mortgage crisis. We all know that you & congress can save us, and the economy.

Or maybe not. How did we get here, on the brink of recession? Sure, all those funky mortgages had something to do with it.

But, where has the real error been made? I believe it's the misbegotten war that Bush/Cheney started under false pretenses and pushed on the world over the past few years. What an incredible, very large, waste of money (not to mention lives).

We are in a situation similar to the aftermath of the Vietnam war. It took a good ten years to pay for that war and shore up the economy.

I think we should cut the "defense" budget in two, and spend a bit on health care, education, housing (especially for low income people), infrastructure and education. Now that is an economic program I'd support.

In conclusion, Bush and his ilk are not only bad actors, they are really shitty accountants.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Breakfast & Taxes with a Squeeze of Lime

This is ostensibly a blog about self employment for artists & creative types, but right now, I feel like writing about breakfast.

Goddammit, I just had the best breakfast—sitting here in the back courtyard behind our rental in San Felipe Del Agua (a neighborhood in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico), I took the world's most perfect ripe avocado and a few slices of juicy red tomato and layered them over some crunchy wheat toast. Something wasn't quite right after the first bite... I know what it needs, a squeeze of fresh lime!

Holy Shit, suddenly I feel like the luckiest man alive, enjoying the most delicious meal in all the ages of mankind! The day is ahead of me, the sun is just about to break over the backyard wall, the sky is blue, birds are chirping, etc.

Sorry if I have lapsed for a moment into the precious little world of the “foodie” blog, but maybe I can dig a point out of this, pertinent to “Self Employment for Bohemians”. Here it is: It dawns on me that I must be doing something right. See here how everything leads up to this day (apologies to Robert Hunter).

Even thought I'm going to spend the rest of the morning working on my taxes, my dedication to the life of the self employed art bum has brought me to this sublime moment—I have no complaints.

And never forget, folks—when it comes to taxes, it's nothing but a good time! Proper planning throughout the year and close attention to the wonderful possibilities of the Schedule C (write off every cent you can, within the confines of the tax code) can help you enjoy your breakfast too!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Self Employment: Telling the Folks

Most self employed people start out with a regular job of some sort. Even the hard core self employed are subject to real world pressures that demand most young folks entering their work lives sign on with some company or other to earn a living.

So it was with me, out of college I worked on a loading dock for minimum wage. To say it was boring and degrading, and that the pay sucked, is an understatement. I lasted all of six weeks before I started a T Shirt printing operation.

Anyone who quits a job to work for themselves is subject to the delicate task of informing those near and dear of their course of action. In my case, it was my very concerned parents. Others might have to tell a spouse or other family member that they have taken the plunge. If you find yourself in this position, don't be surprised if they react as if you have climbed onto the weakest branch of a very tall tree with a power saw.

For example, you might say this to your parents, spouse or whomever:

“I've decided to work for myself on an amazing new clean energy product which will replace the internal combustion engine within one year and save the planet. A venture capitalist has pledged $20,000,000 in seed capital for my new company.”

This is what they hear:

“Hi Mom & Dad, I quit my job today! I'm gonna sit around the house watching porno while I smoke crack and polish my Bishop. When I need money, it's OK if I call you up, right?”

Yes, it's true, those closet to you may be averse to risk. They may have a tough time understanding the vision that is crystal clear in your head. Don't let this stop you from your mission of making your dreams manifest in real time. If Henry Ford had listened to his mom, we might all be taking the horse & buggy to work (hey, that might not be a bad idea!).

Anyone who has parents knows that they live in their own strange pathological web of derangement. Parents do not hear the words you tell them, they put these words through a magic filter that alters the message that arrives in their cranium.

I offer more sample dialog to make my point. Let's say you just met the girl (or guy) of your dreams. This is what you tell your parents:

“I've met the most wonderful girl! She's beautiful, compassionate and funny. We've been dating for three weeks and I think I'm falling for her. Did I tell you her novel was just favorably reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review?”

This is what they hear:

“Hi Mom & Dad, sorry I haven't called you for a few months, but I've been boning this skanky hooker I picked up while scoring some brown tar heroin. I would've called sooner, but I didn't run out of money until now, and I wanted the open sores on her arms to heal before I introduced you to her anyway.”

The moral of the story, love and accept you parents on their own terms, and you will be all the happier for it!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Is Print Dead? Or Does it Just Smell Funny?

If you are like me, you have a lifelong love affair with print in all it's manifestations—books, magazines, newspapers, graphic novels, comics books, posters, drink coasters—in short, anything you can feed through a press and slap some ink on can be the object of this affection.

With the rise of the web and “new” media, newspapers and magazines are shrinking from reduced ad revenues and circulation. The venerable Punk Planet has folded, publishers of every stripe struggle to break even, and kids spend the majority of their reading time online, instant messaging and the like.

Sure, electronic media is stunning and fun, but a deep-seated part of me wants to bury my head in the sand and focus exclusively on print, for ever and ever.

I felt compelled to poll several of my colleagues in the ink stained world of comic books and graphic novels on the state of print today.

Jesse Reklaw, the cartoonist behind the weekly strip Slow Wave, is a keystone personality in the vibrant world of mini-comics. “I think about this all the time lately. My feeling is that things are shrinking in some ways (newspapers, magazines), but growing in others (graphic novels, printed archives). Maybe we're readjusting and getting better focus about WHAT should be in is one of the most durable forms of information storage.”

Another lover of print, a true blue avatar of art comics, Dylan Williams, cartoonist and publisher of Sparkplug Books, suggests a more active approach.

“I don't believe print is dead. I've actually had a lot of time spent thinking about what I'm trying to do with my life and the whole idea of punk rock is something I keep on coming back to. I've been a punk since I was a kid and those values are really my core values. If you feel bad about stuff the only thing we can do is fight it. I love print, love drawing, and love art comics. I hate what comics became in the 90s, things like web comics, ‘the new independents’ and all the money-speak that took over comics bugs me. I'm an underground kid and that is my idea. I think, all we can do is light our little fires and stoke them. I don't ever feel like giving up.”

Sparkplug has issued outstanding titles by the likes of Mats!? (Asiaddict), Renee French (Edison Steelhead's Lost Portfolio), the gifted young artist Austin English (Windy Corner), and Williams’ own standout series Reporter, to name a few. Both Williams and Jesse Reklaw are in the vanguard of comics kids coming to full maturity—these are people who have vision, ambition and confidence. They believe in print and are willing to bet their careers on it.

Veteran underground cartoonist and painter supreme Mary Fleener offers a historical perspective on how we got to where we are. “I think the print world began to die with the television. When radio was king, books were still popular because radio didn't have the visual kick. Don't forget, we humans are a lot like magpies—we like shiny things and TV provides that fix. However, today, print and TV are dying because there's nothing of substance on either TV or within newspapers.”

Rob Clough, comics editor of Other magazine and a high profile comics critic, joins Fleener in naming TV as the real culprit in the waning primacy of print, but holds out hope for the graphic novel.

“Print as the dominant form of mass media is dying. That was precipitated by TV and is obviously being driven further home by the Internet and assorted gadgets.

“That said, reading print is such a particular and visceral experience, that print will never completely go away. Instead, it's going to become more of a boutique item, something done in smaller quantities. It's why Fantagraphics will continue to thrive, and why print-on-demand services like Lulu will become even more prominent.”

“The good news about recent technology is that it will democratize the dissemination of information
even further—everyone will have a chance to have their say. This will take the flow of information out of the hands of the corporate interests that have strangled it for nearly 150 years in this country.”

Looking to the future, I return to Jesse Reklaw, with his finger on the pulse of grassroots/DIY comics publishing. Jesse believes that the heart and soul, the true innovation in comics, rests in that grassroots/DIY world, and how can anyone deny that self-evident truth? He cites the emergence of several annual awards for mini-comics as symbolic of the durability of print based comics:

“The minicomics awards (this year we're offering a cash prize of $300 to the best mini!). I think the fact that people are rewarding mini-comics makers, and encouraging them, shows that there will always be an interest in print and the art of making books.”

For my own part, I'm inclined to agree with the sentiments expressed by Brett Warnock, co-publisher of Top Shelf Productions and one of the most charismatic figures in the art comics movement, “You know how I feel about print vs. digital media... I'll die with ink-stained fingers and a rolled-up comic book in my back pocket, baby!”

NOTE: Here is an interesting twist--I've been plunging into the world of Web Comics lately with my Tuff Toddler strip. The issue of print vs. "new media" remains foremost in my mind. Indeed, I have a couple comic book projects in the can, so I'm hardly ditching print media. Each project has a publisher interested, but I have no signed contracts for either as of this writing.

So it is that I wonder, are the existing revenue models for print media still viable? I've seen my income from print related projects shrink over the past couple years. How are these traditional models working for others?

The real question here, what are the revenue models (let alone the production models) for the "new media"? Sure, I'm pulling some modest income from AdSense ads from Google, but how is a cartoonist going to pull a living from the "new media"?

I'll be sure to post more about this. This article may or may not appear in an upcoming issue of Alarm magazine, I'll be sure to note if & when it appears.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Comic Book Entrepreneur at the Dawn of the Indie Age

As the Seventies stumbled to a close, I found myself at a Ramones concert just before Christmas with an ascendant case of the flu, which my girlfriend attempted to nurse with a few tiny tiny spoonfuls of cocaine. Never liked that awful stuff too much, the flu had it's way with me, yet somehow I survived the show and made it through the next week and a half to the Eighties with my newly minted Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (and perhaps enough money to last two weeks if I stuck to beans & rice).

This was something of a comedown from where I'd parked my psychological living space for my undergraduate years. Fact is, getting my art degree (with a focus on painting) was a bit of a dodge, a pleasant enough way to be “going to college” while I pursued my real education, which was comprised of writing & drawing a daily comic strip for the school newspaper. The Massachusetts Daily Collegian offered four or five much coveted slots to students to work out their chops on the comics page. By my second semester, I talked my way into grabbing a spot there, and held it for the next four years until graduating.

Luckily, my strip Aluminum Foil captured the zeitgeist of the moment, and the strip was widely appreciated at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a diploma factory of gargantuan proportions, that once earned the dubious distinction of being Playboy magazine's party school of the year. Aluminum Foil chronicled the adventures of Gerald (a stoner foilhead/everyman) and his sidekick Benb (a dapper, overweight, mute smiling scarecrow).

The highlight of the UMass social calendar was of course Halloween. At UMass in the late Seventies, Halloween was nothing less than a weekend long, full on psychedelic pagan bacchanal. Hordes of tripping, costumed students would converge on the concourse of the campus center building for a convivial mass celebration of All Hallows Eve. It was something to behold, especially for me, as many of the party goers would be dressed as Benb & Gerald (Gerald in particular being the easy costume—just fashion a helmet of Aluminum Foil, poke some eye holes in it, roll a fat doobie for a prop, and there you are!).

Which brings us back to January 1980. There I am, ego inflated beyond all reasonable proportion after four years of basking in the glow of the successful run of comics, with barely enough money for a six pack of beer. What to do? I tried a standard forty hour job for all of six weeks, working on the loading dock of a down market department store for minimum wage. This was depressing (in the dead of a freezing ass cold western Massachusetts winter, no less), and the final straw came when the boss instructed me to drown a cute little mole that had invaded the warm store during one particularly nasty freeze. Not willing to whack a mole for minimum wage, I released the little guy into the frozen tundra and resigned.

Having some experience with screen printing T Shirts, I started freelancing wholesale shirt jobs (always a popular product when it's twenty degrees outside!). This took care of keeping food in my belly and a roof overhead, but how to sweep the world of cartooning with my (obviously) unparalleled genius?!

In retrospect, it's clear to me now that I came pre-installed with the “publishing gene”. This is a genetic quirk whereby an artist or writer can (by some mysterious alchemy) justify shoveling pots and pots of money into the never ending project of publishing their precious works. To say I was burning up to get started in the field is an understatement. It was pretty much all I could think about.

I'd managed to save $150.00 from my heroic efforts on the loading dock. Armed with the idea of collecting the best of my college strips into a one hundred page volume, I dropped by a local printer to get an estimate on having books produced. Turns out they wanted nine hundred bucks to do a run of five hundred, a bit beyond my means. Just about then, an important adjunct to the publisher gene kicked in, and I became a financier as well.

Turns out one of my housemates, Betsy Hilborn, an amiable, fun loving & somewhat cynical nursing student, has been listening to me chatter about my plans and offered to pony up most of the funds for my initial publishing effort. So with $600.00 from Betsy, my paltry $150.00 is savings and another $150.00 coaxed out of my dubious parents, I threw my hat into the ring as a comics publisher.

I had penned some four hundred plus daily strips during the run of Aluminum Foil. I figured I'd publish them over two volumes, with the first one hundred page volume featuring two strips per page. I hauled my strips down to the print shop, and within a couple weeks I had five hundred copies of Benb & Gerald in hand!

Although I was a completely naive amateur, I left no stone unturned over the next several weeks in an effort to sell the books. As I'd promised Betsy that I would pay her back within a couple months, I sprung into action like a man sitting on a hot stove—I was determined to be as good as my word.

The first step was to stage a publishing party. It was my good fortune to be friends with Carl Mayfield, lead guitarist and vocalist for Martian Highway, a local party band with a strong following. Carl was an accomplished illustrator as well, and we jammed on an 11” x 17” poster for a Martian Highway gig that would double as a costume ball / publishing party.

Given the tenor of the times, Carl hit on the clever idea that we would print the poster in silver ink on black paper. Why? To make it look like a giant hit of blotter acid, of course! Sitting down with our drawing gear and a stack of late Seventies punk rock and Grateful Dead records (go figure), we created a gorgeous drawing featuring Benb & Gerald driving a late model Ford with an electric, glowing Martian in the back seat. Carl added the requisite typography, and we scribbled a manic cast of characters over every square inch of the art, including the first image of my future lead character, Dog Boy (although I did not name him in this drawing, the fully formed image was there).

One wag suggested that we were quite bold to produce a silver on black poster that was “virtually unreadable”; I had no problem reading the poster myself! We papered the UMass campus and local towns with the poster. It stood out like a beacon to those in the know, and the party was well attended by costumed, tripping revelers.

Green kid that I was, I felt disappointment with selling 33 books at the party, and another 40 or so from my prepublication advertising and marketing. In retrospect, I recognize that it was a pretty good first day as a small time publisher, making a nice dent in the money I owed Betsy. The following month saw me hawking books in front of the UMass campus center building dressed as Gerald, replete with Aluminum Foil mask (but only once—too embarrassing!), making a critical connection with the book buyer at the campus bookstore, and placing books in every local book & record shop that would take a few.

With the unrelenting verve & energy of youth, I managed to make the whole thing work and somehow sold enough copies to pay back the loan to Betsy ahead of time. Other key breaks came along, for example I received a positive review from cartoonist Jay Kinney in a column he was then writing about underground comix for Heavy Metal magazine—this one review alone sold a good thirty books via mail order.

By the time mid summer rolled around, I'd sold all but a handful of my run of five hundred books, turning a modest profit. Considering I'd had a near captive audience of 20,000 daily for four years in the Amherst – Northampton area, it wasn't unreasonable for me to assume I could pull it off. In any case, it was a remarkable initiation into the rough & tumble world of comics publishing for me, making a profit my first time out despite being almost completely ignorant of the biz. It whetted my taste for further adventures into the world of indie comics publishing at the dawn of the Eighties.