It’s helpful to mentally create two separate work identities for yourself. The first identity is you as an artist and maker. In this identity you use your talent, skills, and experience toward designing and making things. The second identity is you as an agent for your work. As an agent your job is to package, negotiate, and sell what your maker-self has to offer.
The first identity is, for many of us, easier to inhabit. We’re internally driven to make things. It feels good. It might not always be easy, but we love it and will do it no matter what. The second identity can feel forced and uncomfortable. Although many of us are excellent promoters and negotiators of other people’s work (our children’s and our spouse’s, for example), when it comes to our own work we are quieter.
In order to comfortably inhabit the second identity, then, we need to make a conscious effort to see our own work as an agent would see it. An agent is not worried about being boastful and she isn’t afraid to ask for what her client needs. She’s collaborative and positive and she’s confident when it comes her client’s abilities. Most of all, she isn’t afraid to make a counter offer.
Someday soon you’ll open your inbox to discover an email from someone asking if you might be interested in working with them in some way. They might want you to review a book or write a guest post. They might ask if you’d contribute a pattern to a magazine or sew with a particular fabric collection, or any of hundreds of other possible requests.
When I get emails like this my gut reaction is to respond as a maker. Do I want to sew this? Would it be interesting to work on that? I’ve learned, though, that I’m better off giving myself a little time before writing back. I take a few hours to make myself shift identities from me the maker of my work to me the agent for my work.
Acting as my own agent, I conduct a thought experiment. I ask myself, “In an ideal world, what kind of relationship would I want with this company?” “If I could work with this person in any capacity, what would I want us to do together?” This is the time to let go of real-world restrictions and allow myself to dream big.
After all, consider the steps that took place before that email landed in my inbox. There was almost certainly a planning meeting at which a set of action steps was created, one of which was to email me. Now, it’s my turn to have a planning meeting, even if it’s just sitting by myself at the kitchen table with a notepad for half an hour.
In 2012 Goodsie was a hot new ecommerce platform hoping to gain traction in the DIY craft community. I’d written a blog post questioning whether makers were better off having their own online storefronts or sticking with Etsy and I’d mentioned Goodsie in the post. The next day I got the following email:
My name is David, I’m a founder of Goodsie.com. I recently came across your post, ironically it was passed along to me by someone who works at Etsy! First and foremost, I would like to thank you for including Goodsie in your article, it always feels good to know that your product and hard work is appreciated…I’d love to know if there are any ways we can work together, whether that be us helping you create a store on Goodsie, giving tutorials to your community on how to set up shop, or advertising on your site. Please let me know if any of this sounds interesting to you.
I look forward to hearing from you.
My initial reaction to David’s ideas came from my identity as a maker. I already had an online shop and I don’t take ads on my blog. I wanted to turn him down. I forced myself to wait a little while before responding and in those few hours I shifted to my identity as an agent. I asked myself, “If I could work with Goodsie in any capacity, what would I want to do with them?”
(Just to be clear, this thought process isn’t always about asking for more. Sometimes the offer is perfect as is and sometimes the answer is just a plain old no.)
In the case of Goodsie, I decided that what I would want most would be to talk about ecommerce with David, or his brother and co-founder, Jonathan, and share that conversation with my audience. I didn’t have a podcast yet, but my desire to talk with people doing interesting things in the industry was burgeoning. I wrote back and asked if we might record a follow-up conversation and Jonathan agreed. It was my first time talking with a CEO. It was terrific and never would have happened if I hadn’t taken on the role as agent and made a counter offer.
In 2011 an editor at Lark Crafts emailed me asking if I might be interested in reviewing the book Big Little Felt Universe. I knew right away that this was a book I was interested in and I was going to say yes, but I waited before responding, giving myself time to take on the identity of agent.
I had an idea for my own book and had recently sent a proposal to Lark, but hadn’t heard back. Could this editor help me get my book proposal noticed? When I emailed the editor to say I’d be happy to review the book I asked if she’d seen my proposal. She said she hadn’t and requested that I send it again, this time directly to her. A few weeks later I got the book deal for Stuffed Animals. Again, taking the time to act as my own agent and advocate for my work I was able to achieve my bigger goals.
Every one of us needs an advocate in business. We need someone who sees the value in what we have to offer, helps us hone our message, and isn’t afraid to negotiate on our behalf. The good news is that we can be that for ourselves if we make a conscious choice. Hire yourself as your agent. You won’t regret it.