Dear Preston: Doing Business With Our Hearts: A Practical and Friendly Guide to Running Your Own Creative Service Business

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When you run a creative service business, you face a unique set of challenges. Typically you’re passionate about what you do, but you probably struggle with problems common to many creative professionals: How do I balance my talent and ideas with the demands of the client? How do I make a living with my art? What can I do to keep clients from going with my dirt-cheap competitor?

Preston Bailey, one of the country’s top event designers and a leading figure in his industry, ...

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Dear Preston: Doing Business with Our Hearts: A Practical and Friendly Guide to Running Your Own Creative Service Business

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When you run a creative service business, you face a unique set of challenges. Typically you’re passionate about what you do, but you probably struggle with problems common to many creative professionals: How do I balance my talent and ideas with the demands of the client? How do I make a living with my art? What can I do to keep clients from going with my dirt-cheap competitor?

Preston Bailey, one of the country’s top event designers and a leading figure in his industry, answers these and many more in Dear Preston. In an engaging advice-column format, he offers his guidance on the questions he is asked most frequently. Preston skyrocketed to success by running his business from the heart—specifically, relying on his empathy, generosity, and trust—and here he shares that philosophy with other creative service professionals, showing how they can use it to delight customers, maintain profits, and stay true to themselves as artists.

Peppered with stories from Preston’s fabulous, celebrity-sprinkled career, Dear Preston is infused with warmth, enthusiasm, and rich experience. Whether you’re deep into your career or still just dabbling, you’ll be enriched and inspired by this heart-driven approach to selling your talent and ideas. 

Dear Preston . . .

How do I start getting experience?

What’s the best way to find new clients?

Will I ever be able to stop procrastinating?

How can I get out of a creative rut?

How do I handle a client who’s insisting on a terrible idea?

Is it okay to discount my services?

What should be on my website?

Celebrated event designer Preston Bailey answers more than seventy questions like these, most of which he received through, one of the event industry’s most dynamic websites. With each reply, he shows creative service professionals that the path to fulfillment lies in doing business with their hearts.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780988314009
  • Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group, LLC
  • Publication date: 1/29/2013
  • Pages: 220
  • Sales rank: 576,631
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Preston Bailey

After thirty-two years in the event industry, Preston Bailey has made his mark as an artist, creating dramatic, one-of-a-kind dramatic spaces for events for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, Joan Rivers, and many celebrities and royal families around the globe. His company does work worldwide. He is the author of five successful design books, and he makes frequent TV appearances and speaks at conferences around the world. He is also an educator, and has countless art installations in places like London, New York, France, Taiwan, and Jakarta.
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Read an Excerpt


Doing Business with Our Hearts

Preston Bailey Media

Copyright © 2013 Preston Bailey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-9883140-0-9

Chapter One

Getting Started

If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it. —JOHN IRVING

I often get questions from people who are at the very beginning of their journey—people who long to get in touch with their creativity and channel it into a business but are unsure where to start. This chapter is for them.


Dear Preston,

I've worked a steady desk job for a long time. It's fine, but I find myself longing to do something more creative in my work life. At the same time, I'm not sure I have what it takes to build a creative business. How can I be sure I'm really a "creative person" before I put in notice at my office job?


Dear Creatively,

I have a simple truth for you: each and every one of us has a unique creative gift that only we can bring to life. If you want to start a creative business, I guarantee that you're creative enough to do it. Being creative isn't about being born a "creative person" with "natural" talent, so don't get bogged down in wondering whether you're original or imaginative enough. In reality, being creative is about hard work, trust, and creating the right conditions for your creativity to flow.

John Irving, a wonderful American novelist and one of my favorite writers, is a great example of this truth. He has published more than a dozen novels, each one funny, smart, moving, and original. His books are taught in high school English classes across the country, and a couple of his best-known works, The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp, were made into popular films. By anyone's standards, John Irving is an amazingly successful writer. "I wouldn't say I have a talent that's special," said Irving. "It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina." That stamina, not some kind of special talent that sets him apart from everyone, is his driving force. In school, Irving struggled with dyslexia, but he didn't let this deter him. He claims that his success stems from very hard work and the knowledge that he is always learning how to write. He's driven not by a unique, innate skill but by his sheer passion for writing. Rather than relying on flights of creative fancy, work hard at your craft, whether you're a budding calligrapher or an aspiring dog groomer. "Good habits are worth being fanatical about," Irving said. (We'll talk later in this chapter about turning creativity into action and building up those good habits.)

You don't have to style yourself as an artiste to run a first-class creative business. You just have to put in the effort, and do it not because you're looking for external markers of success but because you are a passionate individual who wants to learn and grow.

If you're feeling particularly uncreative, try actively cultivating the creativity that is in all of us. Julia Cameron has written extensively on this subject, and her book The Artist's Way is a huge influence on my life. One thing she recommends to help develop creativity is writing "morning pages"—three pages of free writing on any topic, whatever is on your mind, every morning. She's found that this practice helps people express themselves and get rid of mental blocks, and I've seen it work wonders in my own life. This simple activity—putting it down on paper—is the first step toward bringing a dream to life. As you write, you'll start to feel freedom and empowerment, and you'll likely feel your doubts about whether you're creative or talented enough fade away.

Cameron has another tidbit of advice that I've put to good use in my own creative life: she writes about "artist dates" that are essentially play-dates with yourself, where you find a stimulating event or activity and immerse yourself in it as an artist. This might involve looking for an art exhibit, attending a ballet performance, or making a trip to a winery—anything that piques your creative interest. (You don't have to limit yourself to the highbrow, though; one of my favorite artist dates is losing myself in a matinee of the latest science fiction movie.)

Never doubt yourself because you think you're not a "creative person." You are. We all are. Whatever you do as you seek out your creative self, never forget that being creative is your God-given right. It's up to you to allow your creativity to flow and become something beautiful.


Dear Preston,

I'm bored out of my mind at my job, which doesn't let me use my creativity at all. I want my work life to be creative, but I'm not sure what I want to do. I have a lot of interests, but none of them seem quite right for making a living. How can I start a business if I don't even know what service to offer?


Dear New Direction,

You're not alone! Many, many people want to do something creative but have no idea where to start. We often think we need to have all the answers before we can take action, but you don't need a grand plan. You just need to find the one thing that feels right in your heart. Do that, and I promise you, creativity will follow.

When I started out, I didn't have a vision of becoming an event designer; I didn't even have a vision of becoming a florist! One of my first experiences with flowers happened when I was spending a hot summer day at a beautiful property in Montauk. While I was there, photographers from the New York Times were shooting this gorgeous house for the Sunday issue. At the last minute they discovered they needed flowers for the front foyer. I offered to go out to a nearby field and pick lots of different leaves and wildflowers, and I cannot tell you how much fun I had in improvising this last-minute arrangement for the photo shoot. It certainly wasn't perfect, but it was beautiful nevertheless. More important, doing this spontaneous arrangement showed me that I was onto something. It simply felt right.

Discovering that I loved working with flowers eventually opened so many other doors: floral design led to event design, which led to opportunities to transform spaces, which ultimately led to requests to design housewares and pavilions—and even the opportunity to mentor others and to write this book. I got all this from doing a few arrangements in a couple of homes. I was lucky enough to have floral design enter my life as a necessity—I just needed work!—but it felt right in my heart.

Even though you don't know precisely what you want to do, chances are you've had some fantasies. Start by trying out these fantasies in a small way:

• First, make a list of every creative thing you've ever thought you'd like to do. Don't leave anything out, no matter how impractical it seems. (In a fit of romanticism, I once considered writing ballads for a living.) When you look at your list, what seems most exciting? What makes you most curious? Identify two or three ideas.

• Now, find ways to explore the creative activities you chose. Spend at least an hour researching each item, whether it's pulling a book out of the library or reading online, and then look for ways to roll up your sleeves and actually get into trying them out. Can you take a class? Can you volunteer? If you can picture yourself as a sought-after caterer, start by offering to handle the food for a small dinner party put on by a friend. If you're fascinated by your new crocheted purse, spend some time at home each night working on your needlework and sketching out ideas for your own design. Also consider seeking out inspiration and advice from people who are already doing something close to what you want to do. It might seem counterintuitive to ask someone about their work if you're considering opening a competing business, but most people are very generous with their passion. Offer to take them out for coffee or drinks. Ask questions. As you start to immerse yourself, pay attention to how you feel. Are you still excited? Do you want to learn more? Do you feel nourished as an artist? If so, keep going!

• Keep a weekly journal of your passion-developing activities. Whether it's in a paper journal or on your laptop, write down what you worked on and how it made you feel. You'll start to notice patterns—some things will make you feel energized and happy; others will make you feel drained and unmotivated. These patterns can tell you a lot about what direction to move in as you think about starting your creative business. If something doesn't make you feel empowered, let it go, no matter how good a business opportunity it might seem. Follow your heart, not business trends or what your friends think is cool.

If you explore with an open mind and trust in your own abilities, you'll find that new opportunities open themselves to you, and you'll keep moving in the right direction, even if success looks pretty different from what you initially imagined. Eventually, you'll have a business that grows organically around the passion you've found and your excitement in trying new things. This is the beauty of doing creative work: we are always being challenged and, if we pay attention, our work can lead us to places beyond our wildest dreams.


Dear Preston,

For years, I've had a passion for event planning, and I have a lot of ideas about what my own event-planning company would be like. I want to make my dream a reality, but I feel overwhelmed and don't know where to start, and I'm pretty scared of failing. How do I motivate myself to take the first steps?


Dear Excited,

Don't think I'm being unsympathetic if I tell you that the way to take your first step is to just do it. I know it can be terrifying at times—I've put off acting many times out of uncertainty or fear. But I've learned that to move forward and live your dreams, you have to be willing to take a leap of faith.

Right now you may be thinking so hard about every angle that you're ending up paralyzed. That happened to me as I worked on this book. During the writing process, I occasionally got so worried about the best way to say what I wanted to say that I considered giving up on the project altogether. My fearful self kept asking, Who am I to pretend to be an inspirational writer?

If you tend to be an anxious person like me, remember that although careful thought and planning is good, you can't allow fear of failure to stop you from acting. Feeling afraid doesn't mean you are on the wrong path. Just acknowledge your fear and keep moving. If you find yourself making lots of excuses not to take the next step—my personal favorite is "I'm too busy right now"—put your feelings down on paper and move forward. When I found myself paralyzed while working on this book, I sat down, wrote a blog post about my fear, and was then able to keep writing.

On the other hand, sometimes we get so excited by our ideas that we just plunge in. While all that enthusiasm is great, lack of planning can put our dreams in jeopardy. If you tend to be an impulsive person, be sure that you have done some research and planning before you take any big risks. Energy and excitement can take us far, but if we don't plan, we can find ourselves unprepared for the inevitable roadblocks we encounter. When that happens, it's all too easy to throw your hands up and walk away.

The process of taking your first step is all about balance between action and planning. You need enough preparation to prevent an expensive failure, but you need to make that all-important first step at some point. Otherwise, you'll end up treading water for months or even years.

When I got started in flowers, I prepared as well as I could without overdoing it. I turned myself into an information sponge, looking for information and education as much as I could, wherever I could. I remember that whether I was watching a movie or reading a magazine, my eyes were automatically drawn to the floral arrangements and how they related to the space. But I knew that I couldn't possibly learn everything before I took my first big jobs, so I also learned to act and then learn on the fly.

When I did my first wedding, my client—the mother of the bride—was Jewish, and she told me she wanted a chuppah, the beautiful canopy under which Jewish couples traditionally wed. Since I grew up in Panama with little exposure to Jewish culture, I had never even heard of a chuppah, and this was in the days before the Internet, so I couldn't just look it up at home. I have a vivid memory of looking through many books at the majestic New York Public Library, trying to find something called a "hoopla"! I eventually got straightened out about the spelling and spent a lot of time looking at different images of chuppahs, exploring how they were constructed and what made certain ones more beautiful than others. My first chuppah was an incredible learning experience, but I only got there because I acted and accepted the wedding job. I love soaking up new cultures—visiting new places and living and breathing the lifestyle to come up with a design that the client can relate to. But had I told myself that I needed to do all this research before I acted and took on my first job, I'd still be preparing.

Start with one creative idea, however small, and get started on it. Take a deep breath and take the plunge. As you think about your first step and deal with those inevitable butterflies in your stomach, work to maintain that crucial balance between planning and action. It helps to have already thought about whether you tend to be a risk-averse person or a freewheeling risk-taker; whether you need to push yourself to take action or to be better prepared before you act.

Once you've started taking action, the rest will follow. Remember: dreams don't just happen; you make them happen.


Dear Preston,

I've decided on the kind of creative business I want to start. Like yourself, I love flowers, and I'd like to be a florist. I have lots of exciting ideas, but no real experience—and who's going to hire me with no experience? How can I start learning the ropes and land my first floral client?

thanks, NEWBIE

Dear Newbie,

There's absolutely nothing that beats actual experience. But if you have none to begin with, start with family and friends. Offer your services to the people you already know, and reach out to your church or any other club or group you belong to. Keep an eye out for opportunities, no matter how small.

This strategy worked beautifully for one of my blog readers. Despite having no real background in the industry, she asked the owner of a restaurant she frequented if she could provide flower arrangements for his tables at cost. He agreed—he'd be getting beautiful displays for a fraction of what he'd normally pay! It didn't take long before diners began asking who put together the lovely arrangements, and soon my blog reader had landed her first wedding job from an impressed restaurant customer.

I cut my teeth working with people close to me, too. If a friend announced a wedding, I offered to help out. I even designed and threw parties for myself just for the experience!

As you start building experience close to home base, look out for one potential pitfall: working with family and friends—no matter how much we love them—does come with special challenges. It can be especially hard to talk money with loved ones, but you need to make sure they at least pay for the cost of your materials, and I encourage you to charge at least a small fee on top of that, to cover your time and effort. This will remind your loved ones—and you—that you are a professional. (Of course, as you gain experience as a professional, you can give family and friends a specific discount on your time, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent.)

By the same token, it's important for you to practice the professionalism in your work for friends and family. Give their project the same attention and respect that you would any other job. Taking a job means doing your best, no matter how well you know the client or how much she's paying.

As you begin racking up work experience with family and friends, document every stage of the process. Your early work is your opportunity to develop not just your skills but also your portfolio. Take high-quality pictures— from many different angles. Request testimonials and recommendations, even if they're from your cousin Jane or the next-door neighbor. (In my response to the next letter, we'll talk more about building these materials into a portfolio.) Documenting your work takes time and patience, but it's worth it when future clients get a clear picture of what you do. Armed with proof of your past work—on top of your empathy, generosity, and trust in your abilities—you can present with confidence and show potential clients that you're the perfect choice, even though you're relatively new on the scene.


Excerpted from DEAR PRESTON by PRESTON BAILEY Stacy Lutz Copyright © 2013 by Preston Bailey. Excerpted by permission of Preston Bailey Media. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface v

Introduction 1

1 Getting Started 7

Am I a "creative person"?

What will my business offer?

Where do I start?

How do I start getting experience?

How do I develop a portfolio?

2 Shadows 19

I can't stop procrastinating!

I get envious of my competitors

Perfectionism is killing me

Clients won't listen to me! Do I have an ego problem?

I struggle with low self-worth

3 Your Creative Brand 31

Help me stand out from the crowd!

How can I get across my business identity?

How strict should I be about my business identity?

4 Finding Clients 39

What's the best way to find new clients?

Do I have to hire a publicist?

Networking events-will they help me get clients?

How do I cope with rejection from a client?

5 Winning Clients Over 49

The first call with a client makes me nervous!

How do I impress clients in the initial meeting?

I need some presentation help

Should I give creative input before the contract is signed?

How do I deal with clients who I know are shopping around?

How do I say no to clients who aren't right for me?

How do I make clients say "Wow!"?

I'm not really clicking with clients. How do I make the relationship fun?

Am I giving my clients what they really want?

6 Common Client Conundrums 67

My client is driving me insane!

My client is insisting on a terrible, terrible idea

How do I deal with clients battling over creative decisions?

I've got a bad habit-I say yes to everything my clients want

Am I worrying too much about what could go wrong?

Am I checking in too much … or too little?

Is this client getting too close for comfort?

When can I go home?

7 After the Job 81

Should I call my disappointed client?

Should I keep in touch with my former clients, or should I let them come to me when they're ready?

My client isn't happy with my work, and I'm so discouraged

8 Financial Matters 87

How do I explain the payment process to clients?

Are client budgets usually flexible?

I'm sweating bullets over collecting payment!

What does a good contract look like?

I'm terrible with financials. Should I hire someone?

I keep losing clients to cheap competitors!

How do I put a price on my creativity?

Help me out of the cash-poor trap!

When are discounts okay?

Should I sell my services a la carte?

Should I reinvest profits into my business?

How do I get through an economic slump?

9 Vendors 121

How do I make my vendors love me?

Can I keep certain vendors as my secret weapons? Or do I have to share?

Will inexperienced vendors let my clients down?

My client is using a terrible vendor. Do I speak up?

Should I be paying commissions to vendors?

10 Employees 135

Is it time for my first employee?

How do I pick my first employee?

Am I doing everything an employer should?

How do I get the best out of my staff?

Is it a bad idea to hire my brother?

Is it time for me to downsize?

11 Your Website 149

What should be on my website?

Does my website show people what my creative business is all about?

Will copycats prey on my website?

Do I have to blog?

12 Life as a Creative Professional 157

I need help getting my groove back

My work makes me feel … bored

I need to relight my creative fire

I'm always busy, and it's stressing me out

They say I need to take more breaks. Are they right?

13 Giving Back 171

What's the best way to give back?

Notes 177

Acknowledgments 179

About the Author 181

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