Sprinting Surtex

RonnieAndTheSloth-WEBSo, I’m back. I hit the ground running in New York and didn’t stop until I stretched my legs on the trip back to Florida. Oh, and I won the airline lottery on that flight—no seatmate! Now you know how much I love humanity, but after a few days in Manhattan I was gifted with a tiny travel oasis when to my delight the doors closed at JFK and I realized I had two seats all to myself. And since it was a teeny aircraft there were only two seats on each side of the plane so I did not have to negotiate for the middle seat real estate with the aisle passenger. It was mine, all mine!

So I used the time to draw, read my magazine—use the other tray table for my coffee, water, yogurt and the extra cookies that the flight attendant slipped me—there are perks to the silver hair, people!

And I had a little space to reflect back on my trip. As you know from my newsletter, I offered 20 minute coaching sessions to the nine artists who scheduled with me first (plus I added a 10th person because I’m so nice).

All of these appointments were crammed into about 4 hours. Without food or bathroom breaks. Although I did offer one person $100 for a Tic-tac. Again–I am a professional. I received two texts from pals who offered to bring me food but I didn’t see them until afterward and even so, I didn’t want to squander my “coachee’s” time (or potentially grossing them out) by stuffing my face with Javit’s hot dogs.

So back to my “mini-first class”. I took out my journal and wrote down everything I learned from the experience. This is in no apparent order nor do any of them relate to one exact person, in case you are playing along at home.

What I learned from coaching 10 people in 3 hours*

  • Scratch the surface for the really good stuff.

Lots of portfolios have “pretty good” art. The artist has taken “the classes” and has learned about typical arrangements of collections, developing a color story and presenting it a clear and concise manner. But where’s the soul? Where do you (your experience, your culture, your unique point of view, your heart and guts) fit into the equation? Dig a little deeper, honey—that’s where the good stuff lives.

  • Follow your calling.

Does the thought of patterns and snowmen and the newest “it” critter make you roll your eyes and maybe even develop a twitch in that very same eye? Then don’t do it—leave it for someone else. Do your best work and don’t worry about the rules. Figure out the highest and best use of your art and remember there is room for the square peg. In fact there is a square peg writing this blog as we speak. And she’s a doll.

  • Trust yourself.

If everyone who has looked at your book, your website, or your adorable bookmark has said some version of “hey, that’s pretty cool”, then believe them. And move it out into the world further and further until someone who can do something with your art says, “hey, that’s so cool, we’d like to develop that into something” or “naah, not right for us.” You are ready for that.

  • Ideas are cheap—focus is everything.

We all have mountains of sketchbooks, paintings, notes on grocery lists, church bulletins and tiny slips of paper tossed all over our desks. Idea generation is usually not a problem for us—but moving them into something that can be received and evaluated and understood is the hard part. Some (most) ideas fall apart during the process—but you cannot know which ones are the winners and which ones just need to live in your sketchbook until you test  them against a process to see if they have “legs” in the market. (hmmm…that sounds like another blog post—or a Periscope)

  • Right rock, wrong hill

Each step of the process of getting a collection closer to actual numbers on a bank check can feel like pushing a rock uphill. Some of the hills are smooth and gradual while some end at the edge of a harrowing cliff. Some of the rocks you can kick along in front of you while others require Herculean (or Sisyphus-ian) strength. Sometimes you have amazing artwork that will not be appropriate for the market as we know it. Hey, it happens. So you need to march that rock over to that other hill which might just be the exact right one for your designs.

  • Narrow your focus.

We are not all things to all people. We are not even some things to all people. But by golly, we are the exact right thing for some people. Find those people. Tighten your story, find your audience, be okay with responding with, “yeah, thanks, but that’s not me.”

And—I met ten of the most interesting, vibrant adorable artists that I am so excited to see blossom on their chosen path! Oh, and the rest of the time in New York? Super fun!


*actually I knew these things before but boy, did they become crystal clear to me with that kind of intense activity. Even without the hotdog.


To Surtex or Not to Surtex?

This question was posted recently by the (very talented) Melissa Washburn in one of my Facebook groups:

“Is anyone else *not* going to Surtex? I realize that Surtex is not necessarily the place for everyone, and is a huge time and money commitment that not everyone is ready for, but I feel like EVERYONE BUT ME is going (leading to those terrible comparison thoughts and “If I don’t go to Surtex I’m never going to get clients” thoughts). Anyone care to start a “Not going to Surtex” Support Group, lol?”

Melissa’s posts received lots of responses from “maybe some day” to “I wouldn’t miss it!”. It’s a timely subject and  I was planning to write a blog discussing this exact issue. Taking each side of the argument, I’ve written my own little Point/Counterpoint—with myself. So here we go!

SurtexDebate2Why you SHOULD exhibit at SURTEX:

SURTEX attendees are a concentration of art directors and decision makers across lots of disciplines and product categories. If they are in the business of licensing art from independent artists and agents, then they will likely attend the show to scout for current projects and also to discover talent for future product lines.

By exhibiting at SURTEX, you have the opportunity to be seen by and meet with the companies that you have dreamed of working with. And as a bonus, you also have the opportunity to meet people you didn’t know you wanted to work with. (And sometimes you can cross a few off your list once you have met with them because you won’t work well together…).

SURTEX is an enormous networking opportunity to meet potential clients, industry influencers and lots of other artists who are doing, or aspire to do, the same thing you are doing. It’s a way to develop face to face relationships with people that so far you have only met online.  And that’s really fun, plus you never know when those paths may cross again.

If you exhibit at SURTEX you might even get a deal for your art! Yes, that’s right; you could walk away with a licensing contract under your belt before the end of the show. It has been done, however in reality it doesn’t happen often during your first few years.

If you are on the hunt for agency reputation, you can scope out the agents who are exhibiting and possibly have a conversation with them. At the very least you can get a sense of who they are, and maybe whether you would want to talk further with them.

Exhibiting at SURTEX (or License Expo or Blueprint, etc) is only recommended when you feel like you have a clear vision for your business–and your body of artwork is deep enough to attract a wide range of manufacturers—and is at a competitive level for the market. This is no time for a “well, let’s see how this goes” attitude unless you have recently won the big Powerball. (Then you’d probably just want to hang out on the beach in Maui anyway. Call me!)

This is a show chock-full of eye candy: great art, emerging art trends and industry insights that you can observe first hand. Exhibiting at SURTEX can make you feel like you are playing with the big kids—that you are ready to take a big step in moving your creative career forward.

SurtexDebate3Why you SHOULD NOT exhibit at SURTEX

Contrary to popular opinion, SURTEX is not the Holy Grail of success in this industry. There are many artists, agents and a lot of licensees who never set foot in the place. Exhibiting at SURTEX does not guarantee success by any stretch of the imagination; in fact it could take a very long time to earn back your expenses from the show.

Here’s the math:
Say your booth and other expenses total somewhere around $7000 for a 10 X 10 booth. Figuring a 5% royalty on wholesale, your deals would have to net your clients $140,000 at wholesale in order for you to break even. As in no profit yet. And that’s a lot of money. Many deals (like a few greeting cards for example) will never come close to that number. And most artists will tell you that they didn’t get any real traction until they exhibited for multiple years. Yikes.

You are early in your career and are not really sure if your work is right for the industry. Many artists and art styles are not. Instead of risking those kind of expenses you could spend a little more time showing your work to art directors via email and reaching out through social media. Getting additional feedback makes much more sense, particularly in the beginning.

If you believe that you will never make it unless you exhibit. Many artists who have either never exhibited, have stopped exhibiting or do it only occasionally have viable businesses and lots of profitable licenses. It’s just not true that if you don’t exhibit at SURTEX you will be missing out on all the best deals.

If you believe that you’re not “somebody” until you have exhibited at a show. If you are eager enough to make a living with your artwork, you can find other far less expensive ways to get in touch with decision makers and influencers.

Keep in mind that you do not have a lot of control over who sees your art (despite making appointments and promoting yourself) at the show, due to your potential client’s schedule and agenda. They have a lot to see in a short time, so they may not stop at all. You may have better results by sending targeted information to them when they are not in “show mode”.

If you have never walked the show (trust me, you only have to do it once to figure out if it is right for you or not), then you need to pony up the money to attend as a visitor before exhibiting. Spending a grand or less (depending on where you live) is a whole lot cheaper than dropping upwards of $7000 and finding out that you are in the wrong venue for your art.

So there you go—some reasons why you should and why you shouldn’t exhibit at SURTEX. It’s not for everyone and it’s not guaranteed success.  A well-planned strategy and thoughtful promotion of your artwork places you in the position to be seen by decision makers–whether at a show or not.

I hope my little argument with myself helps you in your decision!


Note: All of the free in-person coaching spots have been filled at the show, but keep in mind that I am offering a 20 minute free “get to know each other call” after I am back from  New York. Sign up here!


Surtex Tips from a Pro

©Ronnie Walter
©Ronnie Walter

So it’s just a few weeks away from a couple of art trade shows; namely SURTEX and the new and swanky Blueprint Show.

If you are exhibiting at either of them, you may officially start your freak-out now. As a veteran exhibitor of SURTEX, CHA, and Licensing Expo, I’ve got a few tips that I have learned over the years. And now I’m going to share them with you.

You’re welcome.

Here’s the dealio. You’ve already paid for the most expensive 10’ by 10’ space– not just in New York, but probably in the world. So you need to make it count. I did the math for you and for the average cost of your booth, adding travel expenses and materials cost divided by three and multiplied by 365 days it would cost you roughly $973,000 a year to live there. Of course a 10 X 10 space in New York is probably considered luxury digs.

That’s a lot of money.

So let’s go through a few things to make it all worth your while.

  • Don’t wimp out. You need to stay engaged– all day, every day of those three precious days you will be there. From the moment they say “Welcome to the Show” to the last announcement that says “We can’t wait to see you all next year!) you need to be bright, you need to be open and you need to stay engaged. I had one of my best clients come into my booth 10 minutes before the show closed one year! We made a connection and ended up doing a very nice deal over several years so don’t discount the end of the show. There are people still walking the aisles and they are still doing business. So stay alert. Stay engaged.
  • Never ask the following question: “So what are you looking for?” They are looking for art. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there. Ask a more concise question like “Are you looking for seasonal or everyday?” or “Are you looking to fill a specific look in your line?” You will get a much better answer and they won’t be irritated that you can’t come up with something more original or meaningful.
  • Make sure that you feel good physically while you’re at the show. Here’s the trifecta of de-railers that are totally within your control. (picking up a nasty cold or other icky bugs are just bad luck).
    • Go easy on the alcohol. I know how tempting it is to go out and celebrate with your new and old friends, but as soon as someone says, “Oh, let’s just have one more” that will be your cue to say, “I gotta go—I’ll see you tomorrow!” The shows are stressful enough without adding a hangover to your meetings.
    • This is not the time to try out the best Mexican restaurant in New York. Or the hottest most exotic Thai dish you can find. I’m talking tummy issues, people! You know—gas? If you thought that 10 X 10 booth was small before…got it?
    • Get some rest! More than likely you are sleep deprived from all of your prep and the stress of worrying about whether or not your banners will stay on the wall. Call up ocean sounds on your phone, wear earplugs, mind your caffeine intake. No sleep makes for a very long show.
  • Try not to eat in the booth. If you must, eat something that you can swallow easily like yogurt or small bites of granola bars because you never know when someone’s coming. If you’re in the middle of a giant sloppy sandwich and the best client ever comes along, they may very well pass by because they figure, “Oh, the poor thing is hungry so I’ll just come back later” And trust me on this one—if they say they will come back, many things can happen where they cannot make it back—like their next meeting ran overtime, they forgot which aisle you were in or they just plain forgot. Sometimes I think there are gremlins in the Javits Center that abduct potential clients who say those three little words “I’ll come back”. If you need more to eat than yogurt or granola bars, find somebody to help cover your booth while you’re gone. Now– pretend like I’m your mother. No chewing gum in the booth!  It just looks sloppy! Use Tic Tacs or Altoids or some other breath freshening product you can swallow easily if you need to talk to someone. Just don’t choke. That’s typically bad for business.
  • Get in early! Coming in early to the show (even 15 minutes) can be just the ticket to feeling calm and relaxed when the doors open. Don’t be that artist racing in at 20 minutes past opening schlepping her bags and super hot coffee while eating an enormous bagel. Yes, things happen, but leave earlier than you think you should.
  • Make friends with your neighbors! I have made life-long friends at trade shows, and you know how everyone is always talking about finding “your tribe”? Well, here they are! Be helpful, be generous. Cover for each other for bathroom or snack breaks. Also, if you have a potential client in your booth and they are looking for something that you know is not your style or anything that you can accomplish for them, and you know someone that could? Make the introduction! The artist will be grateful and that client will know what kind of person you are.

Hey, you’ve got this, right?

And here’s a fun little announcement! I am going to be in New York meeting with some of my “coachees”, some trending shopping and sourcing for one of my clients. I am offering a 20 minute meeting with artists who would like to sit down with me! (I am limited to 9 people max) I will be available Monday May 16th  from 11 am to 2 pm. If you have a burning question, or would like a quick portfolio review, I am there for you. I will not be able to meet anyone on the show floor. If you want to get one of the sessions, just contact me here or email me at ronnie@ronniewalter.com and we’ll set up our meeting. It’s just a little thank you to this industry that has given so much to me and my career. UPDATE: My schedule is now full for the free spots, but I will be at the Monday morning meet-up on Level One from 8:15-10:30 am (with an awesome give-away!). Hope to meet you there there! (and of course, take advantage of the super offer below after the show!)

And… this is big, people!

I am also offering a free 20 minute “get to know each other” coaching phone call so you can see if we are a good fit or to help you clarify your needs if you’re ready to fire up your creative career. Have a look at the testimonials on the right side of this website to see the kinds of things people have said about me. If you’d like to set up that phone call, click here.

Wishing you all the best success at the show– whether you are with an agent, have a solo booth or are attending as part of the discovery phase of your creative career; I know one thing for sure–it’ll be a ride!