INNOVATE

5 Rules of Success From Brooklyn's DIY Masters

Experts on makeshift innovation held court at the first DIY Business Association Conference in Brooklyn. They share their unconventional wisdom with Inc.com.
DO IT YOURSELF BUSINESS: In Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood, innovation is thriving. And it's largely bootstrapped. Here's how.
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The riverfront DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn is dubbed "Silicon Beach" for its concentration of some of New York City's hottest tech start-ups. But along with the tech revolution, the neighborhood has become a bastion for DIY businesses and savvy entrepreneurship thanks in no small part to the headquarters of Etsy—home to regular free workshops and skillshares—and a neighborhood-wide collaborative atmosphere that made DUMBO New York City's first neighborhood to offer free wireless Internet.

So it's no surprise the Brooklyn DIY Business Association picked the neighborhood to host its first conference to bring together freelancers, innovators of art and craft, Internet and tech gurus, and business specialists for a day of panels and incubator groups to help foster new ideas and breed success. The panels brought together diverse viewpoints including an Emmy-winning cartoonist, a T-shirt maker, comedians, publishers, and even Todd P., the king of Brooklyn's underground DIY music scene.

But throughout the day, the participants were presented with a few key themes over and over again that panelists say are the key to doing-your-own success.

1. Collaborate at Any Opportunity.

Jessica Lawrence, managing director of the New York Tech Meetup, made the argument that cubicle culture was cutting off creativity and starving it of needed social mingling.

"Ideas need to have sex with each other," she said, a quote that immediately sent the amused crowd members into updating their Twitter feeds. "An idea sitting by itself really isn't much yet. A cubicle is basically a container that keeps those ideas in place."

DIY business owners, freelancers, and independent contractors are perfectly positioned to break this habit. Lawrence says they need to collaborate and lean on each other in order to get out of their ideas out of the bedroom office and in to the public eye. She's an advocate of co-working spaces, where people with different goals sitting next to each other often find common ground. In fact, according to research, 80 percent of people who join a coworking space end up starting a business with their co-coworkers, Lawrence said.

Amber Rae, creator of revolution.is and The Passion Experiment, who is also chief evangelist of Seth Godin's Domino Project, said people need to create good business karma by being liberal with sharing information. 

"I'm just going to put it out there because I know it's going to come back to me," she said.

Dean Haspiel, a comic author and Emmy-winning illustrator for HBO's Bored To Death, said he wouldn't have had his level of success without a willingness to work with others.

"Ideas need to have sex," he said. "So do people."

2. Don't Be Shy.

Successful DIY businesses have an advantage over big corporations: the ability to show off the face behind the project. You should never be shy about promoting yourself anywhere and everywhere you can, especially when it comes to interacting directly with your fan base or customers. 

"I'm really interested in the people who are interested in me," said B., the anonymous creator of the website STFUParents, which documents parental oversharing on social networks. "Any product-oriented business, you really have to be interested in your audience and show it."

Hapsiel—whose website boasts of his collaborations with Jonathan Ames and Harvey Pekar—said anyone trying to build up a brand is foolish to not "abuse the internet to show your wares" across every available channel.

"Showing up is half the game," Haspiel said. "It acts as a resume for you 24/7. You could be wooing people in your sleep."

But how do you offer a different brand experience across the myriad social networking and updating sites? Grace Bonney, founder and editor-in-chief of seven-year-old home design and DIY blog Design*Sponge, said she plays to each medium's strengths: while Facebook is better for image-heavy posting, her Twitter feed lets her personality shine through.

"Set up what each sphere is going to be and play that sphere," she says. "Figure out which aspect of your business you're going to break up into those places."

What advertisers look for now even more than audience size is dialogue with an audience, Bonney says, which puts small companies at an advantage.

"What people want is community interaction," she says. "Engagement is the key."

3. Create Abundant Content.

Panelists said you can turn your business from just a company into a resource by keeping an editorial calendar and ensuring a stream of fresh content.

"Your content is going to create your digital footprint for you," said Mary Butler, senior content strategist for interactive marketing firm Razorfish. "You need to do it well and you need to have it serve you well."

Ryan Davis, a Huffington Post blogger, political pundit on The Hill, and social media director for Blue State Digital, agreed.

"There's nothing worse than going to a blog that hasn't been written on in three weeks," he said.

Seth Kushner, photographer and author of The Brooklynites, said he originally enraged his publisher by putting content online for free. But the free stuff helped build up a paying audience.

"The internet is great for beta testing," he says. "It’s the way to reach the most amount of people without any effort."

4. Don't Undervalue Yourself.

Freelancers, independent contractors, and new entrepreneurs have an unfortunate tendency to not put the right price tag on their work. K. Tighe, executive editor of Splashlife, which she described as the "AARP for the millennial generation," said she fell into this habit after years working in journalism at newspapers and 'zines, "cobbling together magazines in duct tape and tears."

But underselling yourself, panelists said, is a quick way for people to not take you seriously.

"If the numbers don't land where you want them to land, that's OK, it's a jumping off point for negotiations," Tighe said. "Asking for what your worth, you're immediately in a stronger position."

Tighe advises freelancers or others to closely read contracts and offer changes.

"Even if tiniest change, make them know you're paying attention," she said.

For Rae, the trick is to use your passion to build up success stories so you can understand your value.

"Grow your confidence by actually helping people," she said.

5. Above All Else, Keep the Passion.

The panels were composed of varied personalities—from the comedic dirty ditties from songstress Jessica Delfino to the handmade insights of Danielle Maveal, Etsy's education coordinator. But one message united the advice from one DIYer to another: Passion needs to be paramount.

Andrew Wagner said he learned corporations and big businesses will cut passion projects in a flash if the revenue they want isn't there. Wagner got a hard lesson in this recently: he was editor of DIY magazine ReadyMade until it folded for economic reasons two weeks ago.

"You really need to be your harshest critic," he said. "Look at what you did and you need to rip it apart. People are attracted to someone who is really passionate and really knowledgeable about what they do."

That could mean churning out new content or blog posts about your business every day just to stay busy, Kushner says. Both of his books involved three to four years of working every day with no promise of money.

"It's very important to create your own projects even if no one's paying you for them," he said. That leads to the high-paying jobs. It's part of branding yourself that you can't just wait for someone to call you."

If you're struggling looking for paid work, Tighe says to step out and teach or take part in a skillshare, even if it's just teaching people on Craiglist how to knit for a small fee.

"If you are infectious, if you wear it on your sleeve, people are going to want to help you," she said. "And eventually they're going to want to give you money."

IMAGE: dumbonyc via Flickr
Last updated: Jun 28, 2011

TIM DONNELLY | Columnist | Inc.com Contributor

Tim Donnelly is a freelance writer and managing editor of Brokelyn.com. His work has appeared in Billboard, The Atlantic, Thought Catalog, and The New York Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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