I gave a lecture on entrepreneurship last night to a group of incredibly creative students. One of them made the statement that he was conflicted about the idea of merch. In particular, he felt that selling t-shirts at gigs didn’t align with his values (my words, not his – his words were more along the lines of: “selling out.”)
I told him I understood, and referenced the fact that I had recently had a conversation with Zoe Keating, and she told me she doesn’t sell t-shirts; she doesn’t feel that they fit with her values (again, my words/paraphrase).
This student was clearly swirling around on this issue, and as Mr. Hitchcock has taught us, “Swirling takes up all [your] time.”
The student followed me to my office after the lecture, where an overly-tired version of myself listened as patiently as I could, before saying, “Look, man, sell t-shirts, don’t sell t-shirts…who the hell knows? Try it. If you try to sell some, and people buy some, and it feels OK, keep doing it. If you try to sell them, and no one buys them, stop and figure out why. If you try to sell them, and people buy them, but you feel like you’re “selling out” – whatever that means – then stop, and come up with something else. In the amount of time we’ve been discussing this – let alone the amount of time you’ve been debating it with yourself, your bandmates, etc. – you could have tried it out, and gotten some data/feedback/learning, and either embraced or moved on. Instead, here you sit, not doing anything, not moving forward…just cogitating.” (This is the version of myself that Lauren Markow calls my “evil twin.” So it goes).
I don’t know if selling t-shirts is or isn’t right for this artist. The reality is, he doesn’t really know. How could he?
A wise man taught me that the thing to avoid is the “big mistake;” making small mistakes is the transaction cost (the toll) on the road to success.
When we get bogged down and worry about making any mistake, we are stuck in cogitation mode. There’s a reason why Deming put “do” in second position in his Circle (before “check” and “act,” and just after “plan”).
“Mistakes” are part of the iteration process, and iteration is good; it leads to feedback, refinement, and eventually success.
I hope this student makes some t-shirts and sees how it feels (both internally (to himself) and externally (to his customers)), and then moves on.
The alternative isn’t good.