The Value of a Lifestyle Business

Why is the term “Lifestyle Business” spoken with derision? Is it because “real businesspeople” discount the value of them, or is it because the Lifestyle business owners themselves belittle the amount of income generated by their businesses?

One of my favorite office spaces.

In a world so full of people that *don’t * like the things they do to make a living, it seems counter-intuitive to be belittling a situation that allows people to make a living doing exactly what they want to do. Admittedly, I’m in a strange place to be hosting this conversation. I live amongst artists and entertainers who make their livings in “Lifestyle Businesses” whether or not they use that moniker. Folks who make a living on their own creativity, who get to spend more hours of the day with their children, who get to travel and manage to make their businesses pay for it … these people surely have Lifestyle Businesses, even if the term is more often used for expat importers who can happily justify their second home in Bali; or folks who create automated business via the internet.

Believe me when I tell you that there were “Lifestyle Businesses” before there was an internet.

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Don’t think for a second that I am dissing the opportunity to have a second home in another country. Quite the opposite … I’m wondering why this ability to craft a business that allows someone the life they want most to be living, is dismissed as “less than” the person whose business makes an initial public offering on Wall Street.

It takes more than dollar signs to establish the value something has for our lives. I think we need to remember this when comparing ourselves to the lives of the people we see in the media.  The real goal, the brass ring, is living an abundant life. Living an abundant life has more to do with the intangibles than with the financial balance sheet.

If you want to live your best life; make a balance sheet that includes things like time with your kids, creative outlets, travel, self-determination … and see just how valuable that Lifestyle Business is against the cubicle job that allows more stability and less risk. I know which one I choose.

For the last 5 summers I’ve booked a show near here, simply to give myself a week with this as my office & contemplative space.

 

Choosing the Right Paint Color

Every industry has rules. The trick is in knowing how to get what you want while meeting the rules. Venues with a historical theme have tons of several restrictions that help create the environment that fools the public into the fantasy that they are visiting a 16th century village. I won’t get into the finer points on costume rules and building design here, but I will talk about one control that shows up in both those departments. Color restrictions.

There are real reasons for having color restrictions in a historical venue. The technology wasn’t yet invented that could create a hot pink piece of fabric, or a vibrantly purple stucco wall. At least, there was no “affordable” technology that did so. Renaissance Festival costume rules almost universally prevent anyone other than royal characters wearing purple. Apparently in the 16th century, the only source for a purple dye was found in a type of muscle shell found in the Mediterranean Sea, and you needed a lot of them. All of the colors used during the Renaissance Period were from natural sources. Vegetable dyes faded fairly quickly, so the palette of the working class was soft and earthy. I’m not a professional costumer, although I have good friends that are. The end of the color issue that I know better is the one where color restrictions are applied to buildings.

Much like a mall lease contract, contracts for the vendors at a Renaissance Festival or Faire require they do their own “build-out”. They build, or pay to have built, the shops that they will be vending from at that particular festival. Designs have to be approved by the Vendor Coordinator, and perhaps the Site Director and General Manager as well. Each show is an independently owned company with only a few exceptions in the industry, so they’ll each have their own set of hoops for one to jump through. In the best cases, the proposed building design also has to meet with the approval of a Building Inspector.

Because buildings are each designed by an individual, with rare consideration of their neighbors’ designs, the color rules protect us all from garishness. If the color choices were not controlled, each vendor’s desire to be more readily seen than their competitors would quickly spiral upward into a visual cacophony. It happens sometimes even with the color safeguards in place. I myself am guilty of renaming a color when making my building design proposal to management, because it sounded far too purple otherwise.  (Smart building coordinators require paint chips with the proposal.) Fortunately, Park Management has final design control, and can easily tell a vendor to repaint if the color choice was a bad one. In most cases management is considerate to time restraints and may even let someone get a season’s use with the bad color before having to change it for the following season.

I designed and built shops for vendor clients for many years. (Actually, I designed, my husband built, and I painted and trimmed the buildings.) In conversations with my clients, I’d coach them on how to be creative within the color restrictions. I was not telling them how to bend the rule; I like the rules. But, I found that the best explanation was to tell them to “Put some dirt into the color that they most like, and it will probably qualify as an acceptable color.” It was a simplification, but one that communicated well. This is because, while vegetable dyes were used in fabrics, almost all colors used in the building trades came from mineral sources. So I’d ask a client for 3 colors, help them make choices that worked well together, and then if one of those colors was something that would have been more difficult, it became the smallest of the accent colors. In other words, no dark green walls, but perhaps some dark green trim.

It isn’t that any of this is rocket science. But the builder has to care about the illusion that she is helping to create. Renaissance Faire builders are amongst the luckiest designer/builders in the country. They get to design whimsical structures that actually come to fruition. More often than not, they are building inside a private park, and they rarely, if ever, have to build the same thing twice. Caring about the “whys” of the color rules just makes them better at their jobs.

 

Mid-construction, Jaime’s Coffee Shoppe at the New York Renaissance Faire. The bottom floor finished out with the same warm beige stucco you see on the dormer.

my favorite baker

Just because it makes me happy …

One of my favorite photos from the fall show:

We call him Vandal.

 

Vandal works for me during the Texas Renaissance Festival. I snapped this photo one morning while he was ‘bumping’ the mixer, in order to incorporate all of the flour for the Cinnamon Squealers without making a huge mess. I had been trying for weeks to get a photo of these tattoos, but he always seemed to be wearing gloves.

It was obviously cold that morning, because in this photo he’s wearing pajama pants under his customary cargo shorts and chef jacket.

 

Personal preferences vs menu items that make money

I’m really into food. Most especially, food that is both delicious and healthy. I derive great joy from preparing a meal for friends, knowing it is healthier and (quite possibly) more delicious than anything we’d find at a restaurant.

I make my living in food, but it is not the same food that I want to be making in my home kitchens. My restaurants are in seasonal theme parks, and while I wish it were different, the majority of visitors to outdoor events and amusement parks want to buy the food that they associate with these events. I slip healthier items in here and there, but the truth of the matter is that I pay my mortgages with French Fries, Funnel Cakes, and Scotch Eggs.

Steak-cut sweet potato fries

There are some regional differences in festival foods. We spend summers in New York, and are involved in a couple of well-juried food courts at The Clearwater Festival and The Fingerlakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance. The food courts at these shows are curated to give the best possible mix, while eliminating product overlap. Consequently, there are some very creative menus to be found. We spend our fall season at the largest Renaissance Festival in America, the Texas Renaissance Festival. We have 4 shops there. Mine is the bakery and breakfast shop, and my husband has 3 fruit and chocolate shops. TRF is another venue that is rich with food selections. I’m pretty sure there are over 600 different food items to be enjoyed there, and that doesn’t take into account the ever-changing bakery case selections at my shop.

While my own food preferences do not supply me with inspiration for the next great festival food, they do inspire me to sneak healthier items in where I can. During festivals, the crews work long hours in less-than-ideal climates. Healthy food has a solid smaller audience amongst festival workers. I also garner personal satisfaction from the idea that I am caring for my community members by providing these options.

My kitchen crew at the bakery is made up of about 20 souls, most of whom travel as I do. Some of us have dietary restrictions, some of us do not, but we are definitely not automatically tuned to the desires of the local palate. In fact, often sometimes we can be a little too “Dean and Deluca” for the Houston festival audience.  Take the Cinnamon Roll Situation this past fall. I knew I wanted to serve a hand-rolled cinnamon roll. I thought my audience would rather have something we made from scratch than something made in a factory and frozen/warmed/served. Wrong! Folks wanted something they recognized, and these folks were not happy when they had to choose from 25 other fresh baked items on days we didn’t have the cinnamon rolls. It took almost half of the show for us to figure out how to make enough money on cinnamon rolls to have them be an everyday item instead of a special. (Hint: size matters)

It’s not always easy to get into the minds of the audience; especially when the thing that they want is so drastically different from the things that I want. But it is a creative challenge … and I do love a creative challenge. One that pays the bills ?… even better.

 

The Cinnamon Roll Situation

This past fall, at my biggest show, I made a menu mistake. We were able to salvage it and turn it into a giant win, but not before customer feedback stirred us to action.

When I bought this shop at the Texas Renaissance Festival, it was considered a bakery, but no actual baking took place there. The owners of the shop were in their 70s, and most of their product line was bought frozen, then thawed and served. The festival runs for 8 weekends every fall, along with a couple of student field trip days. So, this means that while I’ve owned the place for 7 years, it’s been open to the public under my control for a grand total of 133 days. I’ve steadily shifted the place to be a better expression of my own personality, and a collection of better menu items for the audience. My crew has evolved to one that ‘gets me’ better as well.

Icing the cinnamon rolls

In this improvement process we had eliminated all of the frozen baked products except for one, a high quality frozen cinnamon roll. This year (2012), I vowed we would make our cinnamon rolls from scratch. Since they were very labor intensive, I thought we could just run cinnamon rolls as a special. After all, we had at least 25 other hand-made baked goods to choose from. Surely folks would simply choose another item. Surely they would rather have a handmade cinnamon roll, hot from the oven, rather than one that went from the freezer into the warmer? Nope. People wanted cinnamon rolls, and they were MAD when the choice wasn’t there. “How can you call yourselves a bakery when you don’t have cinnamon rolls?!” My salesperson replied with “Um … because we *bake* everything here?” At a Renaissance Faire we have a lot of leeway in how we interact with the public, because they’ve come for an interactive experience, but we quickly decided the proper response to their outrage was to explain we were now making them from scratch, and that they’d be a special of the day. We promised to put up an announcement on the Texas Renaissance Festival Foods Facebook page to let them know when that would be. This appeased a few, but so many of the festival’s 600,000 customers save up for a single annual trip … there was no fixing the fact that I hadn’t had cinnamon rolls on the day they visited.

 

This was a real problem. There is no short-cut to real cinnamon rolls, so they are always going to be labor-intense, and therefore expensive to make.

 

mix+roll-out+season+roll-up+cut+proof+bake+icing = expensive

So the question was how to make the roll something amazing enough to charge real money for it. I bought a new proofer to be able to regulate the rise of the rolls better than our “relatively air-tight, oh it probably needs more boiling water” old warming box. My baker Vandal and I decided on a serving size that would feel like a Texas experience: barely fitting into a 2# paper tray. He made a batch, cut them, and got them into the proofer in time to have some ready at 7:30 when we opened for the festival participants’ breakfast. Then I asked him to make a second batch, and to line it with soft-cooked bacon before rolling.

 

 

Cinnamon Squealer Production Shot

 

Vandal grumbled the entire time he was rolling and cutting that first batch of Cinnamon Squealers. In fact, he vowed to never add that tedious step again. It was a vow he quickly rescinded when our guests started yelling towards the kitchen door that we were geniuses, and obviously were on a path to world domination with our evil plan to compromise every diet plan imaginable. The experiment was an instant success. We were selling basic cinnamon rolls for $5 each and Cinnamon Squealers for $6 each. We sold out daily. We still don’t know the best number to bake in a day. They are still labor and time intense items, so we would make as many as we could, and note what time we sold out. We’re installing a new walk-in refrigerator for 2013, to allow us the ability to make more rolls and retard them in the fridge until time to go into the proofer.

 

The Public Relations team at the Texas Renaissance Festival was certainly part of the success. I would tweet a picture of the process, and Cory would repost it on the Texas Renaissance Festival Facebook page, which has over 112,000 very interactive fans. We had several customers come to the counter asking for specific items they’d seen the festival post, but the instant success of the Cinnamon Squealers was still a shock for all of us.

Gratuitous brand placement that was reposted by TRF

So the menu mistake turned into a menu-win, but only because we truly cared about our customer’s experience. It would have been easy to dismiss a guest’s request for a frozen-then-thawed cinnamon roll as an uneducated palate, but instead we tried to make his visit everything he wanted it to be. Obviously, his perfect day at TRF began with a cinnamon roll. Now it begins with an extraordinary cinnamon roll.

Making the market

As an outsider businessperson, I’ve learned that creating a business outside normal parameters requires the constant thought “there might be a good idea here”. Do not expect there to be a trade show tailored to your new genre, just because you are making a living at it. Go to every event that seems to have the slightest relation to your business. Go to any trade show that might have one booth of interest to you. There are vast opportunities in between the norms.

Mexican metal sculptures, made from oil barrels and car parts. Canton, TX.

This weekend we are visiting the First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas. We have friends that vend there, and while December is a slow month, the venue can easily get over 100,000 people per day in busy months. The event is loosely themed toward Texas antiques and reproductions, but Commerce actually drives the market. The place is a mix of folks who have the best price, and wholesale to the other vendors who have fancier presentations. It’s rather a microcosm of the antique and fine junk industry. The large numbers of visitors, both shop owners and homeowners, allow a quick reality check as to whether or not an idea will sell.

However, there are work-arounds. Let’s say you locate a great source for antique doors; a great enough source that allows you to wholesale them. The masses of people coming to the event already have a basic shopping list in their minds, and there may not be room in the truck for the new find you’ve brought to the market.

 

 

Smart vendors are networkers. The door source goes to his friend who builds reproduction furniture and gives him a deal on doors. Antique doors start showing up as headboards, hall trees and sofa tables. Interior Designers and Pinterest users carry the idea further, and now there is a solid business wholesaling antique doors. That smart door wholesaler might also sell reproduction cast iron coat hooks and hand forged nails for the reproduction furniture builders.

 

 

 

The Husband and I are not in the furniture, interior design, or antique business. However we do like to talk shop with other vendors who, like us, function best with a series of deadlines and concrete up / downtimes. We might find a new scheduling tool that makes the lifestyle easier. We may find a new food idea to steal from one of the many food vendors that are scattered amongst the 7000 vendors in town for the weekend. Or, we may just buy some antique doors for a project at our house.

 

Addendum: no antique doors on this trip, but I *did* get this awesome @ symbol.

The mug is for scale …

The Pinball Metaphor, planting the seed

A couple of friends who are also industry pros happened to be in the same state with me for a matter of hours today, so we met for lunch. One of them has been an Entertainment Director and Entertainer, and another is a Craftsperson and Booth Owner. We were talking about the Pinball Metaphor for park design and guest movement management. My argument is that if folks are entertained enough, they can be steered through the park, by bouncing them from experience to experience.

1965 Bally Sheba (German Version)

I mentioned positioning cart locations so that the permanent shop owners gain the benefit of the “bumper effect” of that cart. John argued that the responsibility of guest movement falls upon the Entertainment Director, and his ability to schedule shows in a way that moved guests throughout the entire park. I asked if he would consider the entertainment schedule as the flippers in the pinball game, and he grinned … I’m going to let him stew on it awhile, and then come back to the discussion.

 

Reality Check: Fantasy Building Designs Must Meet Local Codes

Sixteen years ago, The Husband (at that time boyfriend of 10 years) and I were hired to oversee the construction of an entire Renaissance Festival. This 11 year old show had lost its lease, and was moving to a new piece of property 3 miles away. I was the Building Coordinator; probably the first ever in the history of permanent Renaissance parks.
I was 30 years old, and my job was to translate building code for the builders, some of whom had been building in these parks for almost 20 years without ever seeing a building inspector. I’d been working festival construction for 10 years, and drawing for permits in several different building code jurisdictions.
To say there was some friction would be an understatement. Renaissance festivals as a whole tend to be populated by open-minded people. However, these people also tend to be anarchists of a sort. They’ve made a living for themselves within an alternative community, and sometimes the rule-enforcers can be subject to a bit of push-back. I think more of it was due to my age than my sex. In truth, it was mostly that I was on the side of the regulations, and my job was to tell these guys when they were wrong, before the mistake was big enough to be spotted by the inspector that was onsite weekly.

Detail on Hawkers Crossing Pub, by Lars Lunde

When we were hired, the piece of land was completely unimproved. A group of folks who’d been doing festivals for years had designed a park with no inner circles, in an amoeba-like shape, with each arm anchored by a major stage. The early part of my job was leading what we called “Machete Tours” of the new site. While the old site was still in use, I escorted vendors on the new site, convincing them the move was a good investment, and helping them choose 3 different booth locations on which to build. The festival management wanted to maintain some flexibility in regards to building design compatibility and craft mix, so the final decision was made by a management committee. (I’m happy to say almost all got their 1st choice, and none had to resort to their 3rd choice.) At that time, this festival was open twice per year. This meant that vendors were designing shops that would access 8 weekends of sales in the spring, and 5 more in the fall. They turned in some truly lovely building designs.

More of Lars Lunde’s work

The Husband (Phil) was hired as the builder of the festival’s structures. This would be the front gate, all of the stages, and a few other structures owned by the festival, such as the first aid/information building, and 2 major food areas. He didn’t actually have time to do any of these things. At the beginning of the project, we asked the Festival Management who the Job Supervisor was going to be. We hoped it was someone with some festival experience, and not simply a local person who owned a bulldozer. The answer to our question was a blank stare. When we were obviously growing nervous at this non-response, Management asked us, “What do you need a Job Supervisor to do other than what you two will be doing?” Phil started unfurling his fingers one at a time as he listed; “Someone has to lay out the park, decide where the road will be, decide on where the water, phone, and electricity providers will put in their respective utilities, lay out the parking lot, set elevations for individual buildings, set elevations for the grounds, design the campground …”. Just before Phil unfurled a tenth finger, he was made the Job Supe.
There is some discussion in the industry about whether or not it is beneficial to have building inspectors involved when trying to mimic a 400 year old village. (Refer back to the comment about Anarchists.) We are designing retail spaces that look like they belong in an English village in the 1600s. Levels and plumb-lines can make a structure look a bit “too crisp”. Builders voice concerns that inspectors drive up the cost of construction. The vendors that hire these builders hear that comment and agree … loathe to spend any more than necessary on the shops they build for only 20 days of sales or less per year. But building inspectors protect everyone. The Park and the Vendor are protected from the liability of a poorly designed building. The Vendor is protected from an unqualified builder, and the Guest is protected from injury. Qualified builders build to code anyway, so the price is consistent with or without a building inspector. I’d be leery of a builder who said he wouldn’t build on a site where he had to pull a permit.

A typical elevation drawing for a building permit. More drawings are part of the drawing package, including labelled header sizes over open spans. (drawing courtesy of Lars Lunde at MidKnight Construction)

 

 

In my experience, building inspectors are not arbitrarily difficult, although difficulties can arise from lack of familiarity with the unique buildings involved in a Renaissance Festival. With established parks, the city’s sales tax benefit usually ensures that the inspector wants the building to be able to open. In the best situations, inspectors visit throughout the building process, and coach through corrections in order to insure the design’s viability. Inspectors *will* hold the builder accountable to the permit-approved drawing; so there is no designing-on-the-fly other than trim and color variations. This is a small price to pay for the assurance that the building, and everyone associated with it are safe.

 

footnote: Much thanks to my friend Lars, who allowed me access to his portfolio at MidKnight Construction for the images used in this post.

Friday equals Monday

It’s Friday. When you have a business that is only open to the public on Saturday and Sunday, Friday is equal to the early hours of Monday morning. So today I’m running errands, hoping to catch a few minutes with a chiropractor, and making sure everything is in place for my employees to do their jobs tomorrow and the next day.

 

We’re headed into the third weekend of an eight weekend Festival. Traditionally there is a traffic flow to an eight week Festival. Weather is always a factor, but Festival traffic tends to increase over the eight weeks. No matter what types of advertising are used, word-of-mouth is always the most effective. This also means that you have to be selling a good enough product that the word-of-mouth is positive advertising. Most of the festivals we do have great reputations for putting on a good show. Some of them manipulate traffic by providing us with comp tickets to share with our employees’ families and with our vendors. These tickets tend to be dated for early weekends in the Festival. The theory being, more visitors early in the show gets word-of-mouth started sooner. So, third weekend is about when traffic begins to build. This summer, in New York, it’s been rainy. I know my Texas friends in the midst of a drought, may think that sounds like bragging. It would be if it were not raining on weekends. So far, we haven’t been able to string two good weather days together. There are two conflicting weather reports for this weekend as well. We will just have to see how it happens.

 

So I don’t know exactly what to expect in the way of traffic this weekend. When I know the weather’s going to be terrible I can call off half of my employees, and cut my payroll expense. However, we only have two days of the week to make any money, and missing a sale because you’re shortstaffed … Well, it’s not something I want to do.