I just finished reading a book that I wanted to share with you, as it has given me a lot to think about. The book is The Art of the Sale by Philip Delves Broughton, who attended Harvard Business School and was shocked to find out that how to sell was not in any way part of the curriculum. He found that this was common across all business schools, a shared uneasiness and disdain for sales as a subject, and so he set out to write this book to examine what works and doesn't work in the world of selling stuff.
This book holds particular interest for me because I have recently taken the plunge to being completely self-employed. For many years now I have had a Christmas tree farm and an online business editing scientific articles, but I have also had seasonal, part-time jobs that largely functioned to provide some sort of safety net, a baseline income and a way to project myself to the world if I was feeling insecure and didn't want to explain the many tentacled thing that is my work. I am now about half a year into working entirely for myself (it should be noted that this was not a large leap: the farm and editing provide about two thirds of my income, so in many ways the transition has not felt as scary nor have I had to be as brave as those of you who plunge ahead with one thing, needing it to sink or swim) and I have come to realize that the thing I am most scared of, and the therefore the thing I am trying to face full-on, is the act of selling myself.
I throw a lot of stuff on the wall to see what sticks, so I am selling spoons on instagram and fielding phone calls about scything lessons and working early mornings at various writing projects, but ultimately it boils down to this notion that what I have to offer is worth paying for. That has at times been a hard step to take. What I have found interesting in Broughton's book is his ultimate point, that selling, at its best, is an act of service. When you are helping someone else, whether it is to learn a new skill, or to bring a little more pleasure into the daily acts of cooking and eating, or just inspiring them to dream their own dreams, that is what you are selling. That is what has value. The spoon? It's just a spoon, and we could assign whatever value to it you want based on a whole lot of metrics and estimations of time and costs, but in the end it boils down to the pleasure it will give someone as they use it.
It has helped me to think about selling this way. It helps me to provide excellent service, in terms of the quality of what I'm selling, be it a lesson or a physical item, and in terms of the price I'm asking, and in terms of the follow-through I bring to bear with each customer, and finally in terms of the value the thing I am selling will bring to someone's life. I had this yesterday with a woman who called me up to see if I could do some scything for her to clear some overgrown sections of her property. As we got talking, it became evident that she had a scythe but didn't have the tools or knowledge to use and maintain it, nor the confidence to use it in such a public place as her lawn. Now normally I feel squeamish about suggesting people spend more money, feeling like I am trying to upsell them into something they didn't want, but as I offered to teach this woman how to use and repair her scythe, and offered to teach her to mow her own lawn and offered to make her a special bench she needed for this process, she became more and more excited. Elated, even. I was helping her in exactly the way she wanted to be helped.
It was a revelation to me. I am not looking to sell things just for the sake of selling them, though I do need to make money and I feel very grateful to be able to align what I want to do with what people seem willing to buy. I want to be helping people. And in helping them I want to be helping myself to become a better craftsman, a better provider for my family, a better human being, if that's not too much to ask. I had been thinking of selling as a necessary evil I had to stomach to achieve these things. But now I'm not so sure. Broughton has brought me around to thinking, as the Arts and Crafts movement in England believed back in the 19th century, that selling is "a means to escape the jaws of industrialized commerce. It was how you could live in a modern, capitalist society, while doing exactly what you wanted to do".
It was an excellent book. Anyone who sells their work, in any form, should hunt it down and read it.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.
One idea is as worthless as another until you actually do something about it, and then it is the action, not the word that matters. --Orson Scott Card