All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Shark Tank

We LOVE this show. If you haven’t seen it, go to ABC or Hulu and watch some episodes, check out the fan blog (, and while you are watching think about how what you do, as a licensing artist, is parallel to these poor hopefuls being chewed up by the Sharks. The real lessons you should take away from each episode are not so much related to the product concepts (although some are quite good) but rather can be gleaned from how the investors react and the questions they ask.
Try viewing your licensing partners as investors in your product (your designs), because in a very real sense that is exactly what they are. When you cut to the core of it most investors are motivated by one of two things:  the chance to make money (greed) and the concern about losing money (fear).  A licensee is going to be on this same page – you are asking them to invest their time and money in your business, and while the benefit for you is obvious is the benefit clear for them? Greed and fear dominate. Are you sparking one of those, and which one is it?  The idea here is to evaluate what you are offering to see if it could make it through as a start-up presentation to an investor. It goes without saying (but here it is…) that you need to have a good quality product to even begin the pitch, but assuming you do and you were standing up there in front of those sharks, you better:
1. Know your concept and your target market cold. How do they interact, who are your competitors, why is your product better or unique? (And if it’s not better or unique, why are you there at all…)
2. Pitch the right people. Companies have no use for ideas they cannot execute, so don’t waste their time. Know who makes what before you start talking. If you don’t know, ask.
3. Be prepared for questions and alternative scenarios. Have an answer for whether or not you will make changes, or let them make changes, if you will sell outright, can you do additional patterns, what about a flat fee – think about all these and more ahead of time rather than on your feet.
4. Connect with your investors. Shake their hands, make eye contact, smile and joke with them, make it a person to person pitch, not a person to a corporation pitch.
5. Respect their expertise. You may not enjoy their questions or comments but you need to acknowledge their experience, try to understand their concerns and have appropriate answers.
6. Go all in. Investors and licensees alike want to work with someone who is dedicated to their craft and passionate about their ideas. Be clear about what you do. Tentative doesn’t cut it.
7. If the deal does not make sense for you, walk. While everyone wants to get their business off the ground you don’t want to do it at any cost. Know enough about your field to set realistic expectations and to know a bad deal when you see one.
One of the keys to success in this (or any) business is the ability to see the world from your customers’ viewpoint. It’s about them, not about you. Spend a little time thinking about what your presentation looks like from the other side and you have a lot better chance of making that connection.

Get Out of the Middle

Most people in this industry don’t know that in a previous life I was a boat dealer and yacht broker. I owned and operated a multi-location brokerage that sold both new and used vessels; we handled a number of high end lines over the years, and yes, occasionally I do miss it. In the world of boats there are literally hundreds of boat manufacturers, and it can be very confusing trying to sort out who makes a quality boat, an exceptional boat or – most important when you are 20 miles offshore – a crap boat. It is difficult because the lines are blurred between the great majority of the manufacturers when it comes to quality; there are a handful of exceptional builders, a very few crap ones, and a whole bunch of builders in the middle turning out a decent product that could be characterized as a good boat. The bar is set pretty high when it comes to “average” in the marine industry.
I tell you this because the thought struck me the other day that there is a sort of parallel situation when it comes to licensing artists and particularly the artist/agent question.
There are a large number of artists out there looking for agents, and many are having a hard time of it. We usually get several inquiries a week but the pace seems to have ramped up as of late, and now it’s not unusual to get more than one in a day. We try to answer them, and when we can would prefer to craft an answer that goes beyond a simple “no”, but that takes time that we don’t have, so unfortunately we can’t always respond.
But back to our analogy. We see a lot of submissions from a lot of artists, and this is how it plays out: there are a few exceptional ones, a surprisingly large number of crap ones, and a whole bunch that are stuck in the middle doing work that could be characterized as good. Of course the problem is that “good” doesn’t cut it in this business anymore – it may get you a few small licenses but it is not likely to get you representation. The conversation goes something like “Hey, look at this / So what would we do with them? / I don’t know, could maybe get a couple of licenses for cards-bags-other paper stuff… / Yeah, probably not much more, too bad.”
This is where the difficulty lies for so many of the artists seeking representation – even if they have decent art skills. Every successful agent already has the ability to pick off the “low hanging fruit”, all those quick and easy projects that come up every day, so we don’t need another person whose work is “good enough” to do that. We want to open that email or portfolio, see something so new and so fresh that we would say “Wow, come look at this!” and immediately start talking about what products it could work for, what clients would like it and how much fun it will be bringing it to the market. That is where you want to be, but of course the frustrating part is that no one can tell you how to get there, you will need to discover that path for yourself.
Oh, and along the way, don’t forget the next question is still “so what would we do with it?”….