Price Is Not The Same As Value

Last month, we announced Up Up Creative’s crazy, inspiring name-your-price experiment on paper goods for the month of September. If you didn’t watch the video Julie put together about the project, you should go do that now. It’s inspiring and thought provoking. In the many comments on that post, you asked her to report back on what happened during the project, and what she learned. The result is today’s post. It’s more philosophical than factual, and it contains a ton of business lessons and career lessons. It spoke to me about how sometimes flying in the face of what’s expected can really piss people off, but how it’s usually worth it. Plus, it’s accompanied by pictures from Julie’s business sketchbook (I know, rad).

There’s sort of a business adage (adage? rule of thumb? bit of advice? moral? truism?) that says you should price for the customer you want. If you want a high-end customer, you need a high-end price. If you want a bargain shopper, you need a bargain price.

I actually just gave this advice to two separate individuals in the last 48 hours.

At some point early on in this experiment, it occurred to me that at least in part, my goal for this experiment was to do this the other way around: find the customer I wanted and then let that customer set the price. And who was that customer? She was the kind of person who believes in the power of her voice and her dollar; the sort of person who would think carefully before naming a price. She was thoughtful, maybe a little bit rebellious.

I agonized over my so-called pitch. I worked so hard on the video, on the FAQs. I was selective in which blogs I contacted. I wanted to make this an experiment about ideas more than it was an experiment about how many customers I could bring through the door. I wanted to focus on finding the right name-your-price customers.

After all, it’s just me here. Me and an ex-intern (back to school in September) and a very pregnant sister and a husband neck-deep in prosecuting bad guys. And two young kids in just-part-time daycare. So it’s not like I wanted an onslaught. But I did want participation. I told Meg that my biggest fear was that no one would participate.

And thankfully, people did. In the end there were 33 orders.

The money stuff you can read about here. It was better than I feared, about as I expected, and as awesome as I’d hoped. In the end it even put some money in the coffers, but at the expense of a lot of my time. Put another way, it covered my raw materials but I was paid only part of my hourly rate for all the work.

And ohdeargod was it emotional. I cried. I did Meg Ryan-inspired full-body high-fives. I soared, I despaired. One night I considered taking the whole thing down after a customer admitted she was feeling tortured by having to name a price for my value. I suddenly felt so mean.

So yeah, it’s not sustainable in its current state. It requires too many hours for too few dollars. It made people happy, but it also made them uncomfortable, and not always in that good-you’re-growing way. Plus it’s fair to say, I think, that it pissed off its fair share of people in the stationery industry (although I have to say that appeals to the Mary Mary (Quite Contrary) in me just a bit).

But I’m glad to have done it, and I’d do it all over again.

I’m happy to put in this experiment’s worth of extra hours because the experiment taught me that price actually isn’t a main factor in my own vision of my business or in my now crystal-clear vision of my ideal customer. Price. Materials. Those things are incidental. They are complicating factors at best, points of contention at worst.

They’re easily changed. Adjusted. Reevaluated. Scalable.

What’s valuable about my business is me.

My ideal customer is someone who gets that. She wants a connection with me on a personal level. She wants my expertise, applied to her particular situation. She wants to work with me. She shares my belief that the creative process is capable of producing tremendous highs, and that connecting over the creative process can create real relationships.

Pricing isn’t a part of that. My ideal customer may have $70 to spend on the whole shebang or she may have $70 to spend on each invitation.

I now see it as my job to be creative about making it possible for me to work with each of these people in a way that creates a connection and still pays me adequately for my time and expertise. I’m not going to back down on my hourly rate. I’m not going to double my workload in order to make ends meet. But it’s completely possible to figure out ways to work with all manners of budgets so long as the customer’s aching to work with me.

It sounds kind of self-centered. In fact that’s one of the charges hurled against me this month. But it feels good. My gut says yes to what happened this month. My gut says that even though it sounds self-centered, it’s really very much something I’ve learned from the things my customers have told me. They liked working with me. They like my point of view. No one ever raves to me after the fact about the paper. Or the price. They write to say how easy it was, or how perfect the wording I helped with, or how my design set the tone for their entire (relaxed, fun, personal) event.

(But then, y’all get that, right? It’s the same way that this-here APW blog is what it is because of Meg’s own (Mary Mary, Quite Contrary?) attitude and approach to weddings. While team practical has grown bigger than Meg herself, what she’s done here is create a world in which her take on things is the sane and rational take on things. People read this blog because they want to believe what she believes about weddings, and marriages, and wife-hood.)

I want to thank all you Practical readers most sincerely for letting me do this experiment and for helping me get this conversation going. Believe it or not, the conversation was wide-reaching. I’ve been fascinated to see all the places people have written about it. Even though many of the individual voices seemed quite sure of their opinions of the whole thing, I found that my own opinion vacillated wildly. On the one hand, I believe in most of the things people leveled against me as charges. I believe in a fair wage for artists. I believe that if we underprice then we’re not helping ourselves or our peers. I believe in profit. I believe that I should be able to take home as much money as any teacher or lawyer or store manager.

But I also believe in creative business, emphasis on creative. I don’t believe that we have to do it the way our peers do it just because that’s the way they’re doing it. I believe in taking risks and making friends. I believe in rebelling even when you don’t think you can topple the opposition. I believe in resistance and I believe in voices. I believe in optimism and I think that perfect plans are never as productive of meaning as are imperfect ones.

I believe in the conversation.

I believe in the relationships.

I believe in agreement and disagreement.

I believe in vision and in revision.

I believe that good things have already come of this experiment, and that good things are still to come.

Images: From Julie’s business sketchbook (yes, she has one)

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