Evil gnomes, shovels, and a very important marketing lesson

The Simple Life

Rina loved story hour. She loved watching twenty pairs of eyes staring up at her enthralled as she told tales, and the stories she liked best were the fairy tales of old.

But then one day she told the story of Rumpelstiltskin, the troublesome gnome who demanded a first-born child in exchange for his straw-spinning gifts, and she ended the tale with the thump of the closing book, “…and it served him right.” And thus she sealed her doom.

That night she awoke from a strange dream to find herself standing in the middle of a warehouse, with a gnome looking up at her and smiling maliciously. “What am I doing here? Who are you?”

“Oh no, sweetheart, I’m not falling for that old trick. You can call me Mr Blue, or maybe Master.” He leered. “And I have a challenge for you that you can’t refuse.”

Rina hadn’t read fairy tales all her life for nothing. “Do I have to spin straw into gold? Or fetch a golden ball from a well? Or take the words from the golem’s head?”

“Nothing quite so elegant. Look around you.”

Rina saw crates and crates and crates, each labelled: Round-mouth shovel x 20. There didn’t seem to be a spinning wheel or a pair of red shoes hiding behind any of the crates, so she turned around quizzically. “What am I doing with these?”

“You have to sell them. There are ten thousand shovels here, and within the next six months you have to sell every single one, not getting less than $30 each.”

“What happens if I don’t?”

“Remember all the fairy-tale punishments? Let’s say… all of them.”

“All of them?”

“All of them.”


So Rina started to sell shovels.

First she went to the big hardware stores, but their suppliers sold shovels to them at $25 or less. They weren’t interested, although one man named Patrick was very sympathetic when she told her adjusted tale of woe – how her batty Uncle Geoff had left her a warehouse full of shovels instead of an inheritance – and he recommended a few other stores she hadn’t thought of.

The smaller stores bought a few shovels, but only a few. It was time to try selling directly.

Rina bought ads in the newspapers, the tradesman’s magazines, and on Facebook. (She thought, “You never know.”) Her prices were similar to the hardware store, but it was not terribly convenient to buy from her, so few people did.

So she loaded up her little car with shovels and went to building sites, gardening conventions, homemaker centres and even sports stadiums. (“They have a lot of people. You never know.”) She sold with the passion of someone who sees the oven and the red-hot shoes and the crows and the tower in her future, and she sold more shovels than anyone would have thought likely.

But at the end of four months, she had only managed to sell three thousand shovels out of the ten thousand. The scrofulous gnome appeared again, with a grin that was not allowed to be shown to children under thirteen years of age.

“You’ve only got two months left. Not doing so great, are you?” he purred.

“No!” wept Rina. “I’ve worked so ha-aa-aaard, I’ve travelled for ages, but I’m running out of people to sell shovels to…”

“Yeah, well. Sucks to be you.” said the unsympathetic Mr Blue.

“You’re so mean!” wailed Rina. “Are you going to take your money now?”

Mr Blue sneered with a face well designed for sneering. “I don’t care about the money. Keep it. Burn it. Shove it up your ass, I don’t care.”

Rina sobbed into her hands violently. Those who knew her might think that it looked a bit like she was hiding laughter.

Rina gets serious.

Once Mr Blue was gone, Rina got thoughtful. There was no way she could sell another seven thousand shovels in two months as she’d been doing it.

She decided to dig a little deeper. (Sad puns were her only source of joy by now.) Perhaps she could find a way to improve her shovels so they’d sell more?

She already knew that the round-mouth shovels were used for a bit of digging and to move materials around. She ignored the small panicking voice that reminded her she only had eight weeks left and spent time to see them in action, talking her way onto building sites and landscapers teams.

One week later she tallied what she’d seen and despaired. The builders and gardeners and roadworkers were already amazingly efficient with their shovels. When moving gravel and sand and dirt they would get the maximum possible load into their wheelbarrows with one nonchalant dig-and-flick action that dropped not one grain on the ground. They used heavy gloves so there was no chance of blisters. Many red-necked men, taking pity on her, told her gently that they couldn’t really think of any way to improve on the shovel.

That weekend she returned again to the hardware store to ask the advice of Patrick. She described the builders and their work and stopped when she saw a strange gleam in Patrick’s eye.

“Builders and gardeners and professionals use wheelbarrows, right?”

“Yeah, the shovels are for getting things onto or off the wheelbarrow.”

“But what about everyone else? There are lots and lots of people who don’t have a wheelbarrow but need to move sand and dirt around. How do they do it?”

Rina kissed Patrick on the mouth, making him go a delightful shade of red. “You’re a genius! Can I borrow a clipboard?”

The rest of the weekend was spent out the front of the hardware store, interviewing the populace. “Hi, do you have a wheelbarrow? Do you shovel dirt or gravel? What problems do you have with it?”

Rina heard from lots of people who moved dirt and mulch and sand with only a shovel. They said it was a pain. “So what you do, right, is you get it on the shovel, and you’ve only got to go about two metres to the garden bed, right, but you have to hold your shovel totally steady so all the mulch doesn’t fall off, and that’s such a pain on your wrists. And if you get the kids to do it then they spill it a lot.”

That Monday Rina and $90,000 went for a walk to an engineering firm. The $90,000 became $20,000. Rough sketches became detailed ones, and then prototypes. The manufacturing team was put on double overtime. Six days later, the Shovelbarrow was ready for sale.

The Shovelbarrow was a normal shovel – of course – with a special attachment. It dug like normal, but when you pressed the button on the handle a strong plastic bubble snapped into place. You could carry the shovel pointing straight down at the ground and no dirt would fall out until you pressed the button again.

Rina revisited the hardware stores with her new invention. She grinned as every buyer’s eyes lit up and they went on and on about how smart an idea it was.

The orders started avalanching in, and a second and third manufacturing team were brought in with the new money. Within a month, Rina had twenty thousand orders for seven thousand shovels.

On the last day of the six months, she was waiting in the empty warehouse when Mr Blue arrived. She was leaning on a shovel and keeping the look of triumph off her face.

“Yeah, well. So you found a way to sell ten thousand shovels. Bully for you.” A gleam of cunning appeared in his eyes. “Or did you not mange to sell one of them?”

“Oh no,” said Rina. “I bought this one myself. I have the receipt, if you want to see it.”

“And is this one of your fancy-ass Shovelbarrow whatsits?” he sneered.

“Nope, this is a standard shovel. It’s just like all the others except for one small thing…”

“What’s that?”

“I got it sharpened.” Light gleamed from the knife-edge of the shovel as Rina moved in.

You don’t need to know their name to defeat them if you’re well armed, you know.

The moral of the story

Fairy tales are messed up. Also:

Selling something extraordinary is a thousand times easier than selling something ordinary.

evil gnome advice

You can choose to do your marketing at the end, after every other decision has been made –  like Rina at the gardener’s convention, exerting tonnes of energy to convince people that this is the shovel they want.

Or you can do your marketing at the beginning, by designing something worth talking about. When you create something that people want to buy, the rest is easy.

So how do you create something worth talking about?

I know how, my lovely, and I thirst to teach you. Sign up for Rise and Shine, the Cash and Joy newsletter, and keep learning more.

P.S. Don’t ask me why I keep writing about wheelbarrows lately. I have no idea.

Creative Commons License photo credit: kennymatic

Getting Shit Done: Momentum Edition

Suburban Construction

You have a seven pallets of bricks that need to be moved from the driveway into the backyard. Your resources are your arms (flex!) and a wheelbarrow.

There are a few ways this can go.

The very stupid way

You stack sixty-three bricks on the wheelbarrow, making a tottering ziggurat of baked clay. The wheelbarrow is now so heavy that you must use all of your strength to get it off the ground, and you don’t push the handles as much as you shove them wildly in the direction of the backyard. You get two metres before your wrists give way and the wheelbarrow clunks to the ground.

You pant and wrench the handles up again and shove, to hit a hidden rock which creates a death-wobble and dumps the entire load on the ground. Your back aches once you’ve gotten all the bricks into the barrow, and your hands feel raw and sulky. It continues: lift/grunt, shoveshove, drop, rub hands, sigh deeply, lift/grunt, repeat. You get to the destination and unload the sixty-three bricks. The strangely light wheelbarrow is shoved back to the driveway where you do some math.

You’ve moved 63 bricks, leaving 469 on that pallet. With another six untouched pallets, you still have 3661 bricks to move. That’s another 58 loads of back-sproinging misery.

You burst into tears, rub your much-abuséd hands, and quit for the day.

The very smart way

You load twelve bricks, pick up the handles, wriggle experimentally, and put it down. You remove four bricks, leaving eight. Now the wheelbarrow feels like it has no weight in it at all. You walk at a jaunty pace toward the backyard. You hit a small rock and the wheel bounces, making the bricks clatter. You stop, remove the rock, and merrily push the rest of the way.

You jog back – healthy! – and load up with another eight bricks. The weight is completely negligible, and you know you can walk all day if you need to.

After you stop for a glass of lemonade, you try ten bricks in the barrow. It feels pretty much the same as eight. (Are you getting stronger? It appears so!) By now, you have the path smoothed out, and the effort required to get started on each load is almost unnoticeable.

By the end of the day, you’ve moved eight hundred-odd bricks, and you’re ready to do it again tomorrow. Your hands are a bit chafed, but they’ll be okay. And you think you might be able to start on fourteen bricks soon!

The moral of the story

If you want to build anything big, you’re going to need momentum.

When moving things, the most effective way to build momentum is to push them downhill. Objects want to go that way; gravity is on your side instead of working against you.

When moving ourselves, the most effective way to build momentum is to start with something much less challenging than our capabilities. We want to succeed; our mind is on our side instead of working against us.

Start insultingly small and simple. If you need to tidy the house, put away the shoes near the front door. If you’re creating a magnificent website, start with the contact page. If you’re starting a business, buy a box to put the money in. Make your first task something you can’t possibly fail at.

When you start with the easiest possible work, there’s almost no friction. Confidence is sky-high – I can’t possibly fail at this, tra la la la! – and your energy seems limitless. So you expend your energy with no strain, no tiredness, and no injury. Strike that off the to-do list!

Everything is so easy that you keep on working. (More easy success! your brain says. Gimme gimme!)  Without even noticing you build your muscles, and your definition of this-is-easy-peasy work grows without announcing itself.

Eventually, when you have to start really pushing, you have the muscles, the experience, the confidence and the momentum to push a thousand times harder than you could on your first day.

It’s always easier to move something that’s already in motion. And when you’re starting, the easiest things to move are the tiny ones.

Go take care of a teensy thing and report back!

Want to make a tiny change that will get some momentum happening in your business? How about signing up for Rise and Shine, the weekly newsletter? It’s pretty awesome.

Creative Commons License photo credit: TheGiantVermin

Vital numbers: the Real Bare Minimum Price

All that's left !

This is another story about Jonah, the man haunted by mailboxes, and his quest to be magnificent. Go read it first if you don’t know that story. Also, “sparky” is Aussie/New Zealand slang for an electrician. Many of you have quietly told me that you missed my lessons in Aussie slang, so this is just for you.

Jonah was ludicrously happy for the first three months when he quit his job as a sparky and started building mailboxes full time. He built the one like a Kodiak bear, and one like a reverse Jack-in-the-box. (He heard the postman giggling on the day he tested that one.) He danced around the house with the boys, and packed loving lunches for Marie-Claire as she went off to work at the law firm.

He and Marie-Claire had prepared as thoroughly as they could for Jonah’s career change. All of the profit from the sales of his earlier mailboxes had gone into savings, with her end-of-year bonuses and any left over from the monthly budget. They could live for a year off the savings (but they really didn’t want to).

So when Jonah sat down with Marie-Claire to complete their three-month review, he did so with a light heart and a plate of scones.

The smile disappeared as they put the numbers into the spreadsheet.

The scones were absent-mindedly scoffed while checking the receipts.

It must be admitted that Jonah looked very sulky by the end.

It was left to Marie-Claire to say the words.

“The business is running at a loss, and we’re only getting by because we’re dipping into the savings. At this rate, they’ll be gone in fifteen months. Awww, crap.”

“What do we do, sweetheart?”

“I don’t know. We could get some advice from Jim?”

Jim was an accountant and the dad of Harry’s best friend; he’d become a good mate after he got divorced and kept the kids. For the price of roast lamb and two slices of pavlova – never to be sniffed at by a man who couldn’t cook – he agreed to have a look at the numbers.

He thoughtfully sucked a bit of rogue lamb out of his teeth and said, “Okay, I see the problem. Your model is stuffed.”

He elaborated: “So Jonah, you take roughly how long to make a mailbox? About six weeks?”

“Yeah. I thought it’d be less, but with getting the kids from school and things, it’s never going to get down below five even when everything is going well.”

“And you need to make how much every month?”

Marie-Claire jumped in. “Well, it’s $5,000 for his share of the bills because we want to pay off the mortgage as soon as possible. And another $2,000 for the workshop he has to rent because we don’t have enough space here.”

“And how much do you pay in materials for every piece?”

“Jeez, I let me check. Right now I’m building a lot of the stocks from scratch, I’d be surprised if it was less than a grand for each.”

“And how much have you sold the mailboxes for before now?”

“Well, I wanted $10,000, but one guy talked me down to eight.”

“How did you reach that number?”

“I… guessed? There’s not a lot of call for artisan mailboxes.”

Jim grabbed a pen and wrote in big numbers. “You need to make $7,000 a month, right?” They nodded. “And it takes six weeks at least to build a mailbox, plus $1,000 of materials.” Nod again. “And you’re charging $8-10,000 per mailbox.” Marie-Claire looked pale and bit her lip. “You see the problem?” She nodded ruefully.

Jonah said, “I don’t get it.”

Jim showed him the notepad. “For neatness, I’m saying it takes two months to build a mailbox. Because you get sick sometimes, and you probably take at least a week off between mailboxes to think about the new one and you’re not including that.”

“Oh shit, I do too…”

“Okay. So if it takes two months to make a mailbox, then each mailbox needs to be sold for the cost of materials AND two months’ worth of the money you need to make AND a third again for taxes AND any extra money to buy more equipment.”

“But… that’s like… $25,000 or something!”

“Yeah, pretty close.”

“I can’t imagine that ANYONE would pay $25,000 for a mailbox!”

“Look, there are probably some, but not many, yeah.”

Oh, bugger.

Jonah looked like he’d been kicked in the unmentionables. Marie-Claire looked very alone.

Jim hastily said, “But there are things you can do! It could work out!”

As they stared at him intently, he kept going. “You could change your business model.”


“Right now, you’re working one-to-one, but what if you made prototypes for mailboxes that could be mass-produced?”

I won’t make crap!

“Yeah, okay, not crap – defensive artists, sheesh – but licenced to someone who could make thirty instead of one, and you get paid $500 for each. And you could make sure that standards of quality were in the agreement.”

“But I really like making one-of-a-kind ones…”

“And if there’s someone who values that as much as you do and happens to have $25,000 laying around, then they should have it. But you have to start with the amount you want to make each month and do the math from there.”

Both Marie-Claire and Jonah were silent for a long moment.

“You’re right, damn your eyes. Have some more pavlova.”

It worked out, eventually, although at one stage Jonah and Marie-Claire were down to two months worth of savings and were talking about selling the car. A year after, they were making so much money that Marie-Claire could quit her job if she wanted to (she didn’t, but she appreciated the option when it came to salary review time).

And Jim claimed his share: lamb roast and three slices of pavlova, at least once a month. He said it was the least he deserved for saving them from bankruptcy.

The moral of the story

This is a marketing story, really.

You need to choose a market that can afford to pay you AND values your work enough to want to.

The market of “people who have $25,000 to spend on mailboxes, and want to” is pretty small.

The market of “people who have $2,500 to spend on mailboxes, and want to” is much much bigger.

This doesn’t mean you always have to go for the cheaper solution – it’s easier to sell two copies of a $1,000 artwork than to sell a thousand copies of a $2 artwork, or a hundred copies of a $20 artwork.

But to start choosing the right market, you need to know your real bare minimum price.

If you’re selling something with hard limits, like your time or your handiwork (which essentially comes down to time, anyway) – then you have to sanity-check this math:

Amount I want to make each month ÷ average number I can produce + (average number x production cost per item) + other costs like taxes and admin and business development + 10% for all the stuff you’ve forgotten = the absolute bare minimum price.

Here’s a pretty version!

bare minimum price

If the bare minimum price is very high (I love woollen bobble hats, but it had better be a damn special one if it costs $300… at that price it should make me look like Eliza Dushku and quietly tidy up the house when I’m away), then you must either change your business model dramatically, or have an audience to whom your price looks completely reasonable.

Doing this math the other way around leads to insanity and bankruptcy, as you realise that charging $50 for a hat but needing to make $5,000 a month Does Not Work.

What’s your bare minimum?

P.S. If you want to start making profitable magnificence of your own, I created the world’s awesomest resource to help you get all the tangles (like this one) unknotted. It’s called DIY Magnificence.

Creative Commons License photo credit: pfala