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Monthly Archives: March 2013

My various experiments in blogging, website design and online selling have given me an opportunity to reflect on how computers help us to do work. If you are starting from scratch, you decide in advance what you are dealing with and set rules about what you want to happen, then someone sets up a computer program to make it happen that way. If the computer program has already been written, as is the case with a pre-existing online selling website, or a blogging platform, most of that work has been done, and you need to work out how to achieve what you want to do within the confines of existing features of the application.

This automated nature of the computer applications means is a lot of effort goes into modelling scenarios and building solutions based on what might happen and how it might be dealt with before it actually happens.  Computers aren’t less work, they are a different type of work. Setting them up is not easy. Establishing the requirements for a computer application, building, testing and maintaining it is difficult work that deals with minute details and complex rules and operations. Customising an existing applications to your needs presents the challenge of working within pre-existing assumptions and solutions that might not be a good fit for your situation.

This digital age has created a lot of employment opportunities for knowledge workers, who are paid to focus their abilities and intelligence on these types of highly complex problems. Its can be interesting and challenging work that engages the mind and makes strong demands on the intellect. Knowledge workers are presented with an endless stream of problems to investigate, analyse and solve. Problems so complex that you have to get totally absorbed in the details to be able to do the work. Problems so complex that you lose yourself in them, and wake up at night trying to resolve them. Problems so complex that they take up an enormous amount of disc space in your consciousness, at the cost of other potential objects of your attention.

I suspect this need to become deeply absorbed in the work in order to do it well, and the tendency for it to spill over into free time, is a reason why some people feel the urge to resist or rebel against technology work. This may be one reason why people “play” on the internet when they are supposed to be working. They want to infuse their consciousness with something that speaks to their own identity, rather than having a head full of technical problems. It may be why some people long to quit their job and “follow their passion”. Of course if we work in IT applying out attention to the task at hand is what we are paid for, and those of us who are conscientious strive to do that well. But there can be an underlying fear that devoting so much time and attention to our work is causing us to miss out.

My recent experience with trying to set up rules to calculate postage rates for potential online sales reminded me of the all consuming nature of knowledge work. While my mind was spinning over how to solve this issue it was very difficult to connect with other people who were right in front of me, or other projects that I wanted to work on. I felt consumed by the problem I was trying to solve in my head and it was distancing me from other things that were important. I am good at analysis and problem solving because I DO throw myself into a problem and get involved in all the detailed complexity. I DO put all my resources into coming up with a solution to a messy multi-faceted scenario.  But that commitment to the task and absorption in its logic does not leave a lot of space for anything else. It can be such an effort to get a grasp on the details of a specific issue, it can be difficult to put it down over lunch, or at the end of the day.

Creativity, writing, photography, relationships, spiritual development. These are the things that are important to me. There is an opportunity cost to performing well in a demanding full time job, and these are the causalities. I don’t want to be ignoring the people around me because my head is  full of a complex abstract problem. I don’t want nights and weekends to reduced to “recovery time”. When I am on my death bed, I don’t want to be reflecting on my ability to analyse data, processes and applications. I will on occasion lend my attention to solving problems and puzzles, for work or fun. But I will be guarding against the high-jacking of my consciousness to the detriment of people and projects that are important to me.  At this time in my life, I want to use the best of my time, attention and creativity for my own priorities.

A while ago I was asked to list the support network that would be helpful to me in setting up my new business. In my list I included blogs which I had found to be a good source of information and encouragement. Someone responded “The Internet Can’t Be Your Friend”. I felt annoyed because in my reality, the internet, in the form of carefully chosen blogs, has been a tremendous help and encouragement. Of course it isn’t a replacement for real flesh and blood friends, but for me, blogs written by like-minded people have been invaluable.

As I am working from home, I find it helpful to have some input from the outside world in the form of blog posts each day. I have four blog readers, each focussed on different themes, and I turn to these as someone else might turn to a magazine or newspaper. These are a great source of information, ideas and inspiration. I think if you choose wisely, the internet can be your friend, in the same way that books, art, movies or any other form of creative expression can teach you, feed your spirit and nurture your dreams.

This week I have been struggling with how difficult it can sometimes be to feel that I am making progress. I had a disappointment when I learned that a lovely casserole pot I had sold had smashed in the post. I was disappointed for the man who bought it, disappointed that a delightful object was broken, and discouraged that what had been a modest financial gain was now a loss.

Smashed in the Post!

Smashed in the Post!

I have also been grappling with the best way to establish relationships with shops that might buy my greeting cards, and how to maintain those relationships moving forward. Its a common theme among quality gift shops that they want their stock to be unique, which I can appreciate. However I can see it leading to a situation where my customers are dotted around the city, far apart from each other, so that I have to cover a lot of ground to keep in touch with them in person. Thats tricky without a car, and would be fairly inefficient even with a car, given the low profit margins involved.

The reality is that the transaction of selling greeting cards is of much greater significance to me than it is for any particular shop owner on any particular day. I keep remembering the movie Happyness, with the main character running around the city trying to sell machines than nobody wants. My cards are more popular than those obsolete bone density scanners were, but its still a matter of time and logistics to find the right customer at the right time and maintain that relationship.

While I was feeling some discouragement, one of my internet friends came to the rescue. I don’t know Leo Babauta, and he doesn’t know me, but we think alike on the matter of goal setting and planning. His recent post The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur was exactly what I needed to read. In this post he describes how people who start businesses try to control things by setting a vision, laying out goals, trying to be productive, and trying to hit targets each day. However as Leo points out the ability to control outcomes is an illusion and we really can’t know how things are going to turn out.

Leo advises embracing the not knowing, which means not being overly attached to any particular outcomes. This made a lot of sense to me, because when I tried to make myself get goal oriented about sales, I became anxious and started pushing myself in ways that weren’t really helpful. Nobody wants to buy pretty cards from a hot, tired, grumpy person.

The alternative Leo puts forward is to act out of guiding principles, rather than specific goals and targets. This allows for a less anxious and more open approach to the work. I can really see how this will help me with my Etsy store, as I am inclined to want to keep checking every few hours for sales and worry whether the effort in setting it up will be justified. I think a better approach would be to enjoy the role of being a person who is setting up a store and interacting with other store owners and allow the sales to look after themselves.

Giving up control can lead to some interesting surprises, as you can’t predict what will appeal to other people, or what they will pick up on.  Of all the images in my shop, one of the least typical was chosen to be highlighted in a Treasury on Greenery. Good work Cactus!

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So you see, the internet can be your friend. If you pick your internet friends wisely, they can whisper just the right word in your ear, at just the right time, and even strangers can give you an unexpected boost when you need it most.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I feel like I have been cheating on you. I have been over on the Etsy website looking at a lot of the other shops and “Favouriting” items, following Shops, and having Convos with other shopkeepers. While doing this I have been spending less time reading (and writing) my favourite blogs.

When I started this blog I was not particularly concerned with being strategic about attracting readers, and just let it grow naturally. Now that I have been in the blogosphere for a little while, I am a bit more savvy about methods of attracting and connecting with other people, and having opened my own Etsy Store I am inclined to become a little more purposeful about drawing attention to what I am doing. I hope that doesn’t affect our relationship!

Etsy is a site that hosts shops for handmade and vintage items. It has a system where you can put little hearts on things that you like which flags them as favourites. You can also “favourite” or follow a whole store. If you want to chat with a store owner, you can send them a private message which is called a “Convo”.

Etsy has a lot of great educational resources for people opening and operating a shop which explain various aspects of the business. One thing that was very helpful was the explanation of how keywords in titles and the keywords are are used for searches. After learning about that I changed a lot of my product titles to be more diverse to attract people on a wider range of keywords.

Once I had a few products in place, I started searching on the keywords that I was using and bringing up other products that used that word. I then scrolled through the list and put a heart on anything that grabbed my attention. These were not necessarily products like mine, for example I searched on words like Paris, butterfly, umbrella and found lots of beautiful and interesting items. This approach was strategic to the extent that I was thinking that people who sell things using the same keywords might have an interest in that theme, and therefore like my cards. For example I have a Corgi dog in one of my cards, so I looked up Corgi and liked a few things that came up.

I hope this doesn’t seem like a cynical exercise. I am still getting the hang of how to make myself known and connect with others without resorting to insincere gestures and corny tricks. When it comes to the items I am giving a heart, I only do that if I do find it appealing, and in sympathy with my own tastes and interests. I have resolved the problem of differentiating what I like in general from what I really like by putting hearts on a lot of individual items to express a general appreciation, but only putting a heart on a whole shop if that product range is a very strong personal favourite.

A by-product of this exercise is that I have learned a lot about my own taste, and what appeals to me. Its like a psychological test where I am presented with multiple images in quick successions, and have to make an intuitive response that I like something. This has built up a “taste library” of objects which reflect my aesthetic sense. I learned that I like bright colour in general, particularly turquoise and any other blue, green or purple. I like interesting shapes and objects, like umbrellas, merry-go-rounds and butterflies. I like some retro graphics and vintage objects, especially Art Deco and Art Nouveau. A big surprise was that I like quirky illustrations of whispy girls with big eyes. I did not know that before!

The hardest thing for me to look at is other photography, because there is so much excellent work on Etsy that I feel rather overwhelmed. I don’t go out of my way to look at other photography as I am afraid I will crawl into a hole and stay there. However I decided not to exclude photography items from my random likes and have made a few nice connections with other photographers. I think I just need to be brave and stand my ground on my own work.

I regret that until the income starts to overtake the outgoings I can’t buy anything on Etsy. I wish that I could show other shop owners some support by purchasing their products, but spending on pretty things is not on the budget just now. I also feel a tension between the minimalist direction I have been heading in, and this new connection with the world of beautiful handmade items, and the desire to support small scale artists and creatives. It will be interesting to see how that ends up being resolved in the long term. Maybe I am not as minimalist as I thought I was.

I have been a bit quieter on May and September lately because I have been absorbed in setting up an Etsy Store to sell my greeting cards online. There has been a lot to learn and a lot to decide, but the store is now up and running and I can take a breath and relax.

One of the challenges in selling photographic greeting cards online is conveying the image to advantage. The Etsy store has a variety of views of the primary image most of which are a landscape view, or square tiles. Since many of my cards are in portrait layout (tall rather than wide) I needed to make sure that the images worked in a variety of modes. I came to the conclusion that the majority of images needed to be in landscape layout, but with the main part of the picture in the central square. This meant working out what to do on the sides, which may or may not be cut off. It took me a couple of photoshoots to get this right. Fortunately the subjects didn’t get restless, although I did.

The other visual challenge was how to show a photo of a photo to advantage. One of the biggest selling points of the cards is their colour and tactile quality.  How do I convey the appeal of a colourful glossy photo on a glossy white card in a shiny packet? I tried taking photos of cards on a white background but they didn’t look very interesting. Then I stumbled across the origami paper.  I did some sample shots using a brightly coloured background and was happier with the results. You can really see the card and envelope, and the coloured paper adds interest.

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The Etsy webite is exclusively for handmade and vintage items, and the dominant visual aesthetic favours subtle and subdued backgrounds. Most items are pictured on white or faun, with the occasional pastel pattern. My cards certainly stand out amongst the other images! Always the rebel. I just can’t help it. I hope they look bright and appealing, rather that over the top and garish. We’ll see how it goes.

The other tricky aspect of setting up and Etsy store is working out pricing and postage. I spent a few days hype-focussing over the different options. With greeting cards there could potentially be a wide variation in the number purchased – one, six or twenty. I needed to accommodate that variation in the prices. Postage costs start on a low plateau, but leap to a new level when the quantity changes from a letter to a parcel at around 8 cards. Postage rates vary widely within Australia and between different destinations around the world.

I was explaining all this to a friend and realised I sounded just like I did when was working as business process analyst on student fees, my head spinning with the complexity of it all. I was making the options too complicated for myself to understand, let alone anyone else. I decided to drop some variables and tolerate some inconsistencies and fluctuations. Happily as I am the boss, I didn’t need to prepare a submission to a committee in order to do this.

The variable I dropped was trying to sell sets as well as single cards. Single cards have the option “free secondary postage” which means you only pay postage on the first card you buy. Effectively the more you buy, the more the card price subsidises the postage costs. I was also working on 6 packs and 8 packs with discounted prices for bulk and realistic postage. This was doing my head in as it was too complicated to work out the relative costs and profits for the different combinations of pack sizes and postage rates.  Selling only singles makes the maths easier and gives the customer full control of which images they want to choose and how many they want to buy.

Well thats possibly more than you need to know about selling greeting cards! These “behind the scenes” issues are what has been absorbing most of my thoughts this week and perhaps some of you can relate to these dilemmas. I have started regular posts on my ImageChest Photography website which give background on the pictures on the cards, plus other photographic adventures. That website also has nice clear pictures of the full range of images on the cards which can be accessed from the Greeting Cards Page. The cards can be purchased from the ImageChest Etsy Store. I am looking forward to getting some views that aren’t me!

We regret any difficulties you may have had Starting Up

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The site was down for maintenance.

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These pictures are from a park in Sydney which looks like the Windows Start Up page, or Teletubby land. It makes me want to log on, or giggle stupidly. Sydneysiders may recognise it. Here is another clue.

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Its Sydney Park at St Peters, near the old Brick Pits.

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I think it has the bluest sky in Sydney.

I have mentioned in earlier posts that I would like to learn Spanish. Every so often I set myself up with the iPod to listen to a lesson, but I typically find that I just don’t have the concentration to really enjoy it. My mind is going in so many new directions already, learning a language seems to be one goal too many. Last night I went through the process again, and started listening to ways to explain my level Spanish speaking ability. It wasn’t inspiring me, and I found myself thinking “I can’t learn Spanish now; I need to learn Photoshop”.

That seemed like an odd combination of ideas, but when I thought about it, learning a new computer application, particularly Photoshop, is very similar to learning a language. One of the things Photography Shop owners tell me “professional photographers” do is use Photoshop CS6. As a consequence I decided to download the free month trial and see how I go. I have been watching the video tutorials and doing some practice and I am blown away by what it can do, but also how much there is to learn.

Photography is a means of communication, and being able to manipulate a photograph to say exactly what I want to say is becoming increasingly important. I have a few fantastic photos that have problems that are beyond the capacity if iPhoto to rectify adequately. One common issue is the need to lighten the shadows without blowing out the sky. The other is the need to disappear annoying little people and objects who I didn’t see when I took the shot.

Like mastering a new language, learning Photoshop is a great test of frustration tolerance and persistence. I watched the video on Dodge and Burn and thought I had those annoying dark shadows all worked out, until I realised I was doing permanent changes to the background (ie changing the base image), rather than removing the shadows in a separate process that could be reversed. So there I am clicking about, trying to work out how to dodge those shadows without doing a destructive edit  on the image. (Thats special photography talk). It was like standing in the Paris metro trying to dredge up enough vocabulary to ask the way to the Eiffel Tower. “I thought I knew this, why can’t I do it.” Using a program for real, to do a particular task, is much harder that it looks, just like speaking a new language for real is very different to an in-class exercise. So at the moment is No Hablo Photoshop (I don’t speak Photoshop). But I hope to learn.

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Reasons to learn Photoshop: People and garbage bags.

Hi,

This is the first of my monthly updates. I might be the last. You know I hate to be tied down! I thought I would give a quick rundown on progress in various areas that I have written about in the last month or so.

Weight Loss Progress

Since declaring I wanted to lose weight I have adopted the following strategy:

Start walking regularly > Start eating chocolate regularly > Get sick from too much sugar > Stop walking regularly > Stop trying to limit calorie intake > Start being strict about diet for health reasons > Lose weight. I have lost about 4lbs in 6 weeks which is OK as I am not very big anyway.

This might seem like a roundabout method of losing weight, but its typical of how things go with me. Big pronouncements often get derailed, but something more important crops up. I am being very strict about avoiding foods that I believe I am intolerant to, and as a result I feel fitter and lost some weight anyway. My weight has been fairly stable since I started avoiding foods that don’t agree with me, and that seems to be the best approach for me. I may have a bit more fat than you might expect, but since I don’t have much sugar, it seems to work out. Since I can’t eliminate everything, hot chips are allowed.

Focus Days

The system of having focus days to do specific activities is going well. Its holding its own for housework tasks, as it means jobs get done on a fairly regular basis and I think the place looks better for it. Its nice to clean a shower that isn’t in desperate need. The system was thrown out last week for my work-related projects because I went out two days in a row. (How dare I!). This meant I was doing things on the “wrong” days to catch up. But it really doesn’t matter, after all its MY system. Swapping days is allowed. Thanks to the system I did get some little jobs that I had been avoiding done on the relevant focus day, such as reconciling a complex account for some newspaper advertising that had become very confusing due to credits and part-payments. I felt bathed in excellent office feng shui after doing that.

Social Action Email

The politics and social action email account is up and running and I am checking it a least daily. I am gradually switching things over to that account. I feel happy about that decision as maybe I can go back on some mailing lists that I abandoned because of excessive communication clogging up regular email.

Greeting Cards

The Cornish Fishing Boats greeting cards were well received, so the are now in a couple of shops. Thanks to blog readers for your initial positive feedback, which emboldened me to go on. I have started updating my ImageChest Photography website with background stories on the greeting cards as I release them. I recently wrote a short piece on Exploring Traditional Cornwall at Mousehole on that site. I am now working on setting up an online store for greeting cards.

Thumbnail

I am enjoying my new online thumbnail image. It makes me happy to see the colourful tulips when I make a comment. Its not possible to have 100% compliance with the new look name over all online activities, but I am happy that it is more consistent.

Dreaming

Lately my dreams are inhabited by colour images of Paris like the one below, which is one of my favourites. If you are going to dream about your work, this is the way to do it. Certainly beats Student IDs, spreadsheets and decision trees.

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