From the very first day I created and textured some 3D objects in graduate school (my major was computer science but I was interested in taking some of the computer graphics electives available back in the day) using Designer’s Workbench on a Silicone Graphics computer, I realized that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. As the years rolled by, and the hardware/software barriers to entry to a serious 3D computer graphics career became ever easier to overcome, I began spending the disposable income available to me (first as a USAF officer and then as a software engineer for a major defense contractor) to build what was to become my own personal modeling and animation studio. I went through a series of software titles and workstations before I settled on Lightwave 3D (the story of my reasons can be saved for another day) and the Mac Pro running OS X (ditto for that story) as my personal flavors of poison.
Fast forward to March of 2012, and I felt I had finally positioned myself to “slip the surly bonds” of being employed by another and to take on the mantle of the self-employed entrepreneur. I was good at what I did, my service filled an obvious (to me) and needed niche, my “war chest” was flush with accumulated savings to see me through the early stages, I was essentially debt free, and the future beckoned. I even had a cool name for my business, steeped in silly USAF stuff, and a web site. Everybody loves web sites, right? Good to go! I pulled the proverbial trigger, quit my job, hung up my equally-proverbial shingle, and waited for the eager clients to line up at my door.
Heh. Of course all I found each time I checked was a happily-chirping cricket.
Welcome to the reality of starting a business: no one really gives a damn, at least not of their own volition. Before you can expect that eager, dewy-eyed client to show up at your door clutching a fistful of dollars you need to (gasp) market your wares in a way that first attracts their attention, then convinces them life will never again be complete without what you do.
But…I’m not a salesman. I hate selling stuff. I’m not a marketer, either. I just make kick-ass computer animation for great prices; isn’t that enough?
No, grasshopper, it is not.
Inertia is not only one of the more fundamental physical laws, it is a business maxim. The local small business owner is already doing things their way and, hopefully, that way is working for them. Why should they spontaneously get a crazy idea to change things up? Even if they did, how would they know that you are ready, eager, and able to make their craziest out-of-the box ideas come true? Marketing, grasshopper, marketing. Unless you started your shiny new business with some marketing and advertising staff off the bat, guess who has to take on that mantle? Yep, you. Welcome to Oz, please leave your flying monkey outside.
B-b-but…how am I supposed to do that?
I’m glad you asked me that question, because I’m gonna share some of the pain and glory of my own stumbling through the poppy fields. I by no means have all the answers—or even a lot of them—but I have picked up a few things here and there. Some of it might even be right.
Before I get into my own stuff, I’m going to share a concept that has been one of my touchstones. It was first brought popularity by the Wilson sisters (yeah, of Heart fame) and introduced to me by my friend, creative mentor, former Madison Avenue agency advertising dude, and published author of many books: Gary David Bouton.
The concept, because of course it does, has a nice little acronym: it’s called MAST. The letters stand for Meaning, Approach, Sensitivity, and Technique. Rather than try to reinvent the wheel I’m going to share Gary’s words on the terms, taken from a blog post he wrote over a decade ago.
Meaning: When you bring a child into this world, their own expression is what you’ve helped mold, but it stands on its own and speaks on its own. What is the meaning? What were your intentions? This is such a broad word in context, that it’s elusive! In essence, “Here is my Artwork; it speaks for itself as it speaks for me, and this is what it stands for.”
Approach: From what direction did you create this piece of artwork? What is your background, what is your concept? You approach an idea in your head; the direction depends upon from where you start—are you a starving artist trying to liberate Mankind? Is your background a happy one, and you intend to color your art with happiness? Essentially, art is a process of problem-solving—how can I forge the tools I need to bring an idea to the world? Your approach is what you’ve learned in the past, continuing to solve the present puzzle of the “imagination to reality” process.
Sensitivity: There’s a lot of insensitive art out there, but the Dada-ists early in the last century said that you could neither kill art nor disqualify it. That is, it’s rather hard to say precisely and accurately, “Oh, that’s not art”. More often than not, it’s Art, but it’s not good art—it might be insensitive or there could be scores of other issues that are unappealing, trite, or just plain disgusting in a particular piece. Sensitivity and Approach I think are key to getting the artistic message across. And lack of sensitivity to one’s self, one’s audience, the perception of the world, blah, blah…inevitably leads to art marred by this insensitivity. I think that once we tune the sensitivity up, the more pleased we are with our work, ourselves, and our outlook in general. Besides “insensitivity”, the opposite of “sensitivity” is also “numb” and “blinded”.
Technique: This is perhaps the easiest quality of the creation process to overlook. “Technique” is a good thing, for it is better to be skilled than unskilled, but technique without Meaning, Approach, and Sensitivity” is without context and fairly without meaning. I see a lot of brilliant technicians out there who seem to be without soul as expressed in their art.
All these recipe items need to be added in the proper amounts to make a savory feast for the eyes, the ears, or the palate.
So, what say you, O patient reader?
Okay, nice. Now I’m a qualified art appreciator, but what does all that feel-good stuff mean to me? I’m trying to pry clients loose from their money!
Spoken like a true, hard-bitten business mogul. Okay, let’s dive in.
First, before a client is willing to throw money your way, they are going to have to trust you—trust that you are not only not going to rip them off, but that you can do the work you’re promising. You can, of course, shower them with testimonials and work samples, but what will sell them in the end is the image they have formed of you—your brand.
In short, it is everything that you and your business means to everyone else. It’s your web site, your logo, the impression others have of you, your business, and your product. In the wise words of Elon Musk:
Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.
So, here’s Spinny’s First Law of branding your business: until you have a brand in your own mind you cannot project one to others. The good news is this process is essentially free, minus your valuable time spent on working this out. The good offices of talented graphic and web designers to help you get your logo and site off the ground are certainly useful, and most likely not free, but before you even start shopping for such talent you need to have this concept fixed in your own mind—and following the MAST approach will help quite a bit.
Meaning: what does my brand mean? Why should others care about it, or about what I am offering? What’s in it for them?
Approach: why did I want to start this business in the first place? What does it mean to me, personally? What talents or skills did I bring to the table that I can leverage? What’s in it for me?
Sensitivity: what does the buying public want? What turns them on about what I’m coming up with—and what turns them off? What is their pain that I can step in and alleviate with my product or service? Why should anyone else but me care this business exists? Note this is closely related to Meaning.
Technique: how should I tell people about what I’m offering? Is it primarily visual? Aural? Is it something to eat? What color scheme sells my Meaning? What do I need to say on my web site? How should my logo look? What kinds of advertising work best for my brand, and what on that list can I afford? Can I cut some deals? Who are the people I need to reach? Now you’re at the actual “doing” stage of the process.
So, lots of navel-gazing here, leavened with some fun aphorisms. How does all this high concept stuff work in practice? Again, I will never claim to be an expert, but I’m in the trenches living this Go shi right now, so here’s how I’ve been doing it (things might seem about to devolve into an infomercial but I can’t share what I’ve been doing without also sharing how that’s supposed to make me look good)….
Everybody else is trying to market their business, too. The attempt to lift your brand above the background noise can be frustrating and expensive, and sometimes your attempts even fall flat. Motion catches the eye. We’re hardwired from our fight-or-flight days to key on things moving within our field of vision, and then to evaluate that movement in terms of how it might affect us. In that vein, given the glut of same-old-same-old marketing out there, making your message move is a sure-fire way to make certain people notice it amid the clutter. I can make that happen—affordably.
Okay, everything else aside, 3D modeling and animation are just cool. Doing this stuff is hella fun for me, satisfies both my technical and creative appetites, and results in stuff that I like to think people get a kick out of seeing. I can make a living doing this stuff? Where do I sign up?!
Again, this very quickly relates back to Meaning. People want their brand to stand out from the crowd, but this 3D stuff is expensive. I won’t belabor you with what the Graphic Arts Guild guidelines say 3D animators should be charging per second of finished animation, but it’s insane in the context of Central New York’s economics—much less for start-ups. So, I must not only be good, I must keep my rates sensitive to local reality while still being able to feed and house my family. When I claim “Hollywood Animation at Hometown Prices” I’m not only being sincere, I’m aiming to appeal to the refreshing idea that you can, indeed, leverage this cool new tech even if you have a tight budget, and if you jump on board before competitors wise up you can gain a leg up on them.
Okay, nuts and bolts. First, full disclosure: I did not design my logo all by myself. I had an idea of what I wanted it to say about me and my business, but I enlisted the aid of a professional designer to help me work out the details. In my case I was able to work out something in trade because, frankly, I can’t afford high-zoot help any more than any of you can. What we ended up with was a rather abstract form based on a graph of some strange attractors in chaos theory. The Meaning (see, those four terms pop up all over the place) is deriving form from chaos, which is literally what I do when I start with a blank screen panel and then create 3D shapes in virtual space. The colors were carefully chosen to project an aura of energy (orange) bound by honesty and integrity (blue), and the typography combines the technical with the artistic.
I didn’t stop there. Oh, no.
See, one of the reasons start-up marketing fails is the entrepreneurs don’t “eat their own dog food.” If you can’t project, immediately, to your target audience that you’re taking advantage of the very things you’re touting about what you do, why should they think you really believe in them? I’m first and foremost an animator, so my message to you had damned well better have some animation in it, right?
In that paragraph you just read I again hit the MAS of MAST; you just can’t get away from this, really. So, now the T. First thing was my web site. Of course I used the same color scheme as my logo, and populated it with all the rah-rah ad copy to make it meaningful to reader and web crawler alike, but I needed more. My home page, the very first thing you see and my default “landing page,” is homage to things being in motion. The main navigation panel is a scrolling “cover flow” that moves on command, and even each item in that flow is a small animation related to the page it links. In less than a second of your loading my landing page I’ve not only thrown down that I mean business, but I’ve also given you a fun toy to play with that might keep you on my site for a few extra precious seconds so you get an eyeful of what I’m peddling.
Don’t just take my word for it, check it out: http://www.spinland.studio.
Oh, but there’s more. One of the products I push hardest, because it’s one of the most affordable and gets immediate results, is the animated logo. I can take your logo design (or help you get one if you don’t already) and bring it to life in all manner of fun and eye-grabbing ways. I use a combination of 3D and 2D effects, lighting and motion to get your logo to tell a little story. Oh, and the path to coming up with that story? See MAST again! Heh.
In the case of my own logo, the primary message I decided I needed to tell was that life is 3D, not flat. By illustrating that concept in a fun manner I intend to convey the idea that 3D is better, and hence you should let me improve your brand accordingly. In this animation the flat logo can’t stand on its own until Spinland Studios comes to the rescue, gives it shape, and helps it onto its “feet” again. Now drop in the slogan, and BoOm.
Here are a couple of other logos I’ve animated recently. These are animated GIFs so there isn’t any sound. See if you can get the mini-story of each:
And that’s a tale of how I’ve been working to build my own start-up in Central New York: by following the MAST principle in order to build my brand and to get it out there where the paying public can see it. Is it working? Well, I’m not yet ready to buy my first mega-yacht but I’m still in business after these no few years—and I’m here writing to you!
Spinland Studios, LLC is a high-tech branding and marketing studio in the Mohawk Valley of Upstate New York. We leverage the power and magic of 3D modeling and animation to take your company’s image places you can only imagine. Defy conventional marketing and bring your brand to life! Visit www.spinland.studio for more information and examples—then hire us to boost your company’s marketing image into the 21st century!