What are you Selling?

Ideas  /  Dave Mason  /  05.27.14

Sherman, set the wayback machine to 1986.

As a rookie designer (I use that term loosely) with his own fledgling business (another term used loosely), my goals were pretty simple. Find a client. Do the best work possible. Get paid. Repeat. Eventually, build a personal/business brand I could be proud of.

Now, operating as a designer in that pre-internet world meant that virtually 100% of my projects were print-based, which meant that—to a great extent—the quality of my final products was determined by the printers and fabricators who executed them. And of course, that meant that my own brand, such as it was, was inextricably tied to the brands of others. While I’d been fortunate to work with a few good people in and around Vancouver, I'd become aware of a small local shop that had somehow begun to attract clients from all over Canada and the US, and was quickly gaining a reputation as the designer’s printer. I figured there had to be something different going on there.

So as soon as what I felt was the 'right' kind of project crossed my path, I called. “Swing on by!” the voice on the phone said. So I did. The 6'7" former cop I met there that morning was friendly and attentive (and somewhat intimidating) as I gave him the rundown on the complexities and scale of my sure-to-be-awesome project. His semi-polite response? Basically “Thanks, but no thanks.”

As I drove away, my brain swam with two conflicting thoughts:
1. What an asshole.
2. Now I really want to work with that guy.

And a little later, I did. And have been for almost 30 years now.

The project I’d walked in with that day really wasn't a good fit for his firm. But when I came back with a project that was, they jumped all over it and totally over-delivered on service and quality. As they always do.

If we’re lucky in business (and in life!), every once in a while we bump into people who know that what’s right is the thing to do. I consider that guy (he’d likely be embarrassed by the attention if I mentioned his name)—the owner of that still small, still excellent eponymous print shop in Richmond BC—to be my mentor and my friend. I’ve learned a lot of business and more than a few life lessons from him, not the least of which was the one I learned that first day in his office. He didn’t try to sell me anything. But in so doing he sold me integrity and a promise of trust. He sold me brand.

What are you selling?