How to Succeed in Business...
...without having any fucking clue what that even means.
Given the sad state of publishing and digital media, it’s been necessary lately for me to become entrepreneurial in order to survive. As someone who has sometimes invented what I’ve needed when it didn’t already exist—for example, the now defunct Kingston Writers’ Studio, an unfortunate casualty of the pandemic—I become energized at the prospect of making new things guided by my instincts.
Instincts I’ve got in spades, but they are not any kind of substitute for money and/or business acumen, neither of which I possess. This is where I regularly get tripped up. It’s a life-long problem I’m going to have to deal with sooner than later as I aim to grow my two other paid newsletters—Oldster Magazine and Memoir Monday—so that they can at least partially sustain me, and allow me to pay contributors.
Let me be blunt here: I am utterly clueless about money and business. For a good ten years my idea of “financial planning” consisted of taking part in an annual New Year’s Eve creative visualization party in Rosendale inspired by The Secret™ with a bunch of other hippie artists and writers. Crammed together around tables littered with art supplies, old magazines, and glitter, we’d all clip images of legal tender and other things we wished for, then paste them artfully onto oak tag, and present our personal “treasure maps” to one another at the end of the evening. I’d usually bring with me a letter I’d typed up in advance addressed to “Whoever Is In Charge of the Universe,” pleading my case, and affix it to the back of my vision board with an Elmer’s glue stick.
Before I opened Kingston Writers’ Studio, I found myself a mentor through my local small business association. Jean was great. She loved my notion of a dedicated co-working space for writers, and all my ideas for it. But when we got down to the brass tacks of how I’d fund it and make it a financial success, and she tried to get me to write a business plan, she was shocked by how little I knew and how hard it was for me to grasp basic business and money concepts.
She literally laughed out loud several times when we met; she seemed charmed by the incongruence between how excited and determined I was, and yet how clueless. “Well,” she said one day, “what you lack in business fluency, you sure make up for with ideas and enthusiasm!”
In the end, Kingston Writers’ Studio was a space that members seemed to love, but a business through which I consistently charged too little and lost money. In January of 2020, I finally started bringing in slightly more money than I was putting out each month. And then…well, you know what happened.
My business mentor’s bafflement was echoed a few years later by the mortgage broker who tasked me with putting together a profit and loss statement (a “P&L” as the business-savvy kids say) for my freelance writing “business”—something I’d never had to do before. I’d always thought of myself as a constantly-struggling-barely-surviving-1099-person, not a real “sole proprietor.” I totally winged the P&L a few times (like five), and my mortgage broker was stunned.
“Um, what ever that is that you just sent me?” he said, laughing in a voice message. “That is not a profit and loss statement.” Eventually I found some examples on the internet, and after a few more tries, got it vaguely right—exactly the lowest level of right that would allow us to procure a renovation mortgage on the foreclosure house we were buying.
When it comes to money and business, I have what feels like an intransigent block. Like all blocks, it consists primarily of fear and ancient conditioning. I don’t come from money, but grew up adjacent to people who had it, and that led to a combination of envy, shame, and disdain. I somehow got the impression that money and prosperity were things I wasn’t inherently entitled to, and that inspired resentment toward those who had them, and a scarcity mindset that made it more comfortable for me to cling to low expectations and living meagerly, hand-to-mouth.
I think there are both unhealthy and healthy aspects to that perspective, which is now further validated—and complicated—by a growing awareness of the ills of unfettered American capitalism. There are systems, deep long-standing structures, that have affected who has the money to make more money with, and who doesn’t. Philosophically, I believe there is no ethical consumption—or health care, or publishing—under unchecked capitalism, as it stands. But capitalism is the system we have, the system that governs us even more than democracy does—a system that has corrupted our democracy, and which is destroying it, but which I must nonetheless adopt and adjust to, so that I can survive and maybe even thrive.
I’m thinking about all this as I prepare to raise prices on Oldster Magazine subscriptions because I’m not bringing in enough money there to both pay contributors and pay myself—a radical concept!—and also as I prepare, for the same reason, to put some content behind a paywall at both Oldster and Memoir Monday (where starting in mid-January I’ll consider original essay submissions for pay). I’ve always been uncomfortable asking for money, and when I muster the courage to do so, even more uncomfortable demanding an amount that reflects what my work and other offerings are truly worth. I absolutely hate to do it, and my sad bank account reflects that.
I’m saying this for my own benefit, as much as to explain it to my readers: writing, reading submissions, editing, curating, sustaining an editorial vision—these are all work. Hard work. They take time, and thought, and they provide readers with something valuable. Charging a more substantial amount of money, asking those who can to pay for content I’ve created, is reasonable. (I will offer discounted and free subscriptions to those who can’t afford to pay full price.) It’s also necessary if I’m going to be able to keep at this, and, you know, keep living in the world.
So, wish me luck doing some grownup business-y things that are sure to be incredibly uncomfortable for me. Honestly, it’s personal growth that’s long overdue. And also, please consider becoming paid subscribers if you read Oldster Magazine (while the price is still at rock bottom for another week or so!) and/or Memoir Monday, where a paywall will soon go up on forthcoming original essays.
Thank you in advance, and happy new year. 🎉