Monday, July 30, 2012

Start Me Up

I've been guilty of lounging about sighing and wondering where my career is going. I do so many things: illustration, writing, wearable art, painting, comedy, running workshops, drinking good coffee...I have confused myself entirely. However I've never been an entrepreneur, so to add to the rabbits running around inside my head I signed up for the Wellington Startup Weekend figuring that one should never die wondering.

Three days before the event I got windy. no, it wasn't a case of too many beans or the capital's weather. I was worried that I couldn't add any value, that nobody would pick me to be on their team, that I wasn't techy enough, savvy enough, designery enough or young enough. It would be like being picked for a netball squad with everyone avoiding the short unfit one.

So this is how it went:

On Friday night we gathered at the BizDojo in Vivian St with a few beers and burgers. Dave Moskovitz ran us through what we'd be doing, how the weekend would go and what we needed to know. We played a game which involved brainstorming crazy business ideas in teams then doing a one minute pitch. This was pure fun and allowed for start ups of the most preposterous kind. Our team came up with Bear's Badgers; robotic programmable badgers that would dig you out of the rubble come the big one in Wellington. We'd promote it with a reality TV show hosted by Bear Grylls where buildings were blown up and the badgers are sent in. All extremely implausible and un PC, but we had ridiculous fun. I was thrown up there by the team to pitch it and found that my years of presenting on TV, to groups and schools and of course my foray into stand up comedy was incredibly useful. The feedback (after beer) was that people had no idea what we had come up with but they really wanted one!


Then came the real stuff. 47 people got up and proposed ideas for business and who they would need to make them come alive. The ideal team comprised designers, developers and marketers. I wondered at this point where an illustrator who has a way with egg cartons would fit in this mix. My skills with InDesign are limited, I cannot write code and I do not have an MBA.  You could go and join up with any person whose idea you liked the best and was looking for team members so that's what I did. I decided not to care too much that I was from the arts and crafts end of the creative world, but I did make sure the team had someone there with real design know how and I pulled in another one walking past just to be certain that I wouldn't be made to struggle with creating web page graphics in a program I bumble about in. Is that lazy of me? I don't think so- it's all about finding people with key skills. I still had no idea what I could contribute and figured that if nothing else I could bring the others coffee and 'know my limits'.

I can say with relief that I did not become the tea lady.

I'm going to spare you a blow by blow account of what we did and how we did it. If you really want to know how this thing works, join the next StartUp near you- travel across country to it if you have to. But these are some of the things I found myself doing:
Internet research on product and affiliation programmes, canvassing opinions from people on the street on facebook, by phone, calling clothing designers, emailing, texting, trying out competitors product... at one point this involved me stripping down to my undies in the corridor and using their webcam software to take my body measurements. Possibly the website is a have and I am now on YouTube somewhere exciting 80 year old men- I don't think I did much for the 20 something designers who happened upon me with my laptop on their way to the bathroom!

I found myself contributing to discussions and decisions about how the product we were developing should look and feel, how it might work in the marketplace, where the revenue streams might come from. These are the sort of conversations I avoid; I always just want to do the painting and drawing bits and leave the business stuff to suits. I found myself using words like Marketplace Validation and Minimum Viable Product and understanding what those things mean. We used the Lean Canvas which was invaluable and I shall forever use this as my template when coming up with any new idea that I want to promote and sell.

We had incredible mentors who sought us out, asked us the hard questions and told us how to get to the answers. A high point for me was that our pitch coach was Helen Baxter from Mohawk Media. I listen to her on Afternoons with Jim Mora and she is just as gorgeous and bubbly and smart in real life. I was a little bit star struck (and this from a woman who has been a television presenter for years). I'm not going to tell you what we pitched, because it's an idea that someone else came up with and may develop further without my continued involvement. It's his IP and as he's an IP Laywer (but a young very laid back long haired dude) then it's really best to respect that! But I CAN tell you that he and I pitched it together for the team. I did the first bit to engage the audience and outline the marketplace problem and he talked through the solution and product.
The hours were long and crazy (bed at 2am), the highs were high, the lows were low. The three days were a compressed version of what setting up a new enterprise over a longer period of time is. It starts with A Great Idea! lots of enthusiasm and a sense of 'We are going to take over the world/NZ/Wellington/Cuba St'. Adrenalin and excitement. Then comes research and seeing someone has done it or the costs will be too high and the revenue nil or simply that nobody needs or wants it. Then rehashing, pivoting, spinning and just making a decision goddammit! Then working like crazy to make a prototype and business case.

People came up with working apps, live websites and signed up customers- OVER A WEEKEND when it's hard to get in touch with anyone. The stops that were pulled out were incredible. One team even took on learning new programming to get their product out. When developers say they need 3 months...they CAN actually do it sooner (well maybe not totally scoped out!) We all can. Amazing things are possible with a dedicated team over a short period of time.

One site which touched all our hearts was NZ Cancer Supporters led by Nick White a cancer survivor to wanted to set up a network. They got 1050 members in 24 hours. Extraordinary courage led that one. They got the People's Choice Award. There were other incredible ideas and the one that won is in education and it is sooo cool if you see the word Questo sometime, then this is how it came about.

So, have I got a fabulous new innovative app or business I shall make my millions from and will I be featuring on the rich list anytime soon?
No. But what I did achieve was pulling myself out of the thinking that this economy is so f*cked and business is so mercenary that there is no room for an aging illustrator like myself in the world. I found that I can be useful, I don't have to do everything myself in order to achieve, my head is NOT filled with fluffy kittens, I know my shit and that there are many ways of skinning a cat. Market Validation? I got Fifi Validation, and that my friends, puts me on a rich list that has nothing to do with dollars.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fitting in a poem

Fitting In- Fifi Colston

It's National Poetry Day, so to mark it, here is my contribution. I may have posted this before so apologies if you've seen it. I wrote in when living in Bristol and feeling a little short on networks. I had to work really hard to make contacts and this is a reflection of how I felt. Tonight I'm about to make a whole bunch and I am feeling both excited and terrified by the prospect. It's the Wellington Startup weekend and I am about to throw myself into the lion's den. My worries that I'm too fluffy a kitten or too old a cat have be ignored as I put on my gladiatorial suit and see what happens! I will report back with a full run-down on Monday (if I am not too exhausted). 

Fitting In…

Do you ever stand there looking
At the bottom of your drink
Thinking ‘Any minute now’
‘I’m going to throw up in the sink’ ?

And this is not a symptom of
Some alcohol abuse
Because what’s filling up your glass
Is only orange juice.

You’re the designated driver
And it’s just as you had feared;
Your party going partner has
Completely disappeared.

You know that you should mingle
But you don’t know where to start
You can barely hear the music for
The thudding of your heart.

Everybody in the room
Is full of bonhomie
And seem oblivious to you
Whilst bonding cheerfully.

So when you find this happening
Do you soldier on alone?
Or slug down half a pint of gin
And take a taxi home.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Al Capone- Fifi Colston

I was up in my attic today looking through piles of artwork for a particular picture I had done some time ago of a daffodil ( I thought I could cut it up to make a card out of) and came across this picture of Al Capone I did sometime in the early 90's, or it might have been the 80's; who can tell? All I know is that I was living in Christchurch and fully employed as a freelance airbrush artist and that this was for an advertising agency. I have no idea who the client was- possibly something to do with safety glass. The details are on a need to know basis and who needs to know this now? I'm not planning to write a memoir.

If you enlarge the picture you'll see dust sticking to the surface. This shows that a) it is a real bit of painting and b) my archival facilities leave lots to be desired. It's also worth noting that I did this illustration back in the day when there was no internet to do research with, no Photoshop to construct it with and no facility at home to scan it and send an image via file sharing. I did it by getting books from the library, drawing it, transferring the image onto (very expensive) imported airbrush paper, covering it with frisket film and hand cutting each stencil layer which were then airbrushed until the very final little highlights. Then couriered to a client and hoped it would pass muster. It took hours and required plenty of skill and much planning; if you got it wrong there was no back button. You had to start again.

I find it interesting that artwork rises to the surface to say 'hello old friend' just when the timing is perfect. I say this because my SO and I are watching Season 1 of Boardwalk Empire of an evening. I'm revelling in the costume of the time, we are both engaged by the politics and of course the series features a young Al Capone. Did you know that his car had inch thick bullet proof glass? I'd like some of that, because right now I find that being bullet proof in this pared back economy is not only useful but imperative. If work gets much thinner, I may have to start illegally manufacturing my own gin...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Fifty Shades of Green

Update! I've created a blog for this and a facebook page so you can keep up with the antics of Josie and her cat as they (try to) write an erotic novel! You can get them sent to you by email if you go to the blog. I'm posting every other day until they are done. So come and join me and remember- if you haven't laughed today, at least you haven't wet your pants.

Well it's true to say that I'm feeling very cross that I haven't written a really steamy novel. I could pay the electricity bill AND the plumber if I had lucked in like E L James. It seems EVERYONE is reading it in hardback, on Kindle and iPad. A colleague's teenage daughter and friend were even booted out of The Warehouse for chortling and squealing over page 100. It's in the window of Whitcoulls as their premier display and last night as I drove home from a Storylines meeting I saw a bright red neon winking at me from the Old Hutt Road declaring 'Fifty Shades of Grey'. 'Funny place to put a bookstore' I thought, but as I drove past realised it was a paint shop cashing in on the fame. Who would have thought that a bit of fan fiction turned dirty could sweep the world in such a way?

A couple of years ago I started writing something like one and got quite some way with it. It was to be my 'next big thing.' But it's fair to say that my characters came (if you'll pardon the pun) to the point of having a physical encounter of the most intimate kind. And that is where my writing stopped. The problem with writing nitty gritty dirt stuff is that you need to write from some sort of experience. This leaves you as a past voyeur or active participant. I mean if you'd never felt shuddery sensations or seen whopping members then you probably weren't there. Mind you, has anyone who has ever written about them, ever met an actual vampire?

My problem is that I have never actually been a nun so the fear that any writing in the sweaty zone might be interpreted as 'That was the time when...' from my own life, leaves me feeling uneasy. I'd hate litigation for tales of tiny appendages, unsatisfactory oral sex and downright awful kissing from a past life. Equally any tales of magnificence would only leave my husband either outrageously proud or very suspicious. And then there is the dichotomy of my career as a children's book writer and illustrator and pursuing a career in porn (sorry, erotic literature).

My other great regret (other than not making an ungodly amount of money from a dirty book) is that I haven't hooked into the graphic novel market. I wouldn't perhaps be read by quite so many flushed women, but I'd certainly get lots of Creative New Zealand Funding...

Artistic Passion

     As the lift doors opened, Fifi smoothed her paint ridden palms down the side seams of her paint spattered art shirt and took a deep breath, beating back the niggle of doubt which had invaded her rebellious confidence during the trip downtown. She had come this far, she couldn't back out now. She stepped out of the lift and padded out into the stark luxury of the marble foyer. She felt so out of place here in the business sector of Lambton Quay. Her pounding heart beat an unsteady rhythm as she contemplated her options. It was no use. The only way she would get funding for this project was to front up to the man himself, Jake Montana. Fifi only hoped he wouldn't look down on her ink stained hands and make an unfair assessment of her ability, because underneath it all, Fifi knew she had a special that a man like Jake needed. She shut her eyes and prayed to be given the opportunity to reveal it to him.

    Clunk! The lift doors shut behind her, there was no escaping now. Fifi swallowed, which wasn't usual but given the circumstances she would consider anything. She pulled herself together and stood up straight; she reached a full five feet and that was without impending osteoporosis.
    'May I help you?' said a deep rumbling voice behind her. She turned, startled and found herself looking into deep blue eyes the colour of Tasman Bay.
    'Yes,' she said thrusting her small chin forward, 'I'm here to convince you to give me a quick response grant.'
   Jake laughed loudly...

Bodice Ripper- Wearable Art  Entry 2003

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Just Desserts

Time for a bit of verse- that's why my blog is called Fifi Verses The World- because I used to do a regular column for Next Magazine (for 8 whole years!) when the completely wonderful Lindsey Dawson was editor there- she gave me my first writing break! I love that woman for all the opportunity and mentoring she gave me- and she is still doing that with great workshops amongst the many wonderful things she does. Go check them out here.

Anyway, about the poem. I wrote this when the kids were small and picky as about food. Drove me bananas and I always said that I'd know when they had grown up because they'd eat a curry. Well now they truly do eat all sorts of things and more than that, our son has become a chef. I would never have thought it when he was 5 years old spurning mushrooms and now at 21 he is totally frustrated with my lack of a pantry. It's not that I don't have one, it's what's in it that he despairs of. Is this really my revenge for all the years of 'I don't like that!' dished up by offspring?

Here's a bit of rhyme for all of you out there who are at your wits end about getting the right foods into your kids...

Just Desserts

I'm desperate for Salad Nicoise,
Or sautéed silverbeet,
But chips and chicken nuggets,
Is all they ever eat.

That, and mashed potato,
Instant noodles and mince pies,
I'm sick to death of KFC,
Or anything that fries.

Cooking for them makes me weep,
It's all so frigging bland,
They spurn fresh market produce,
And worship mush that's canned.

The books all say don't worry,
Kids won't starve deliberately,
But mine will three day hunger strike,
Than down a fresh green pea.

That, or search with patience,
Through every scrap of food,
To pick out grains of couscous,
And onion flakes half chewed.

They just don't know I'm plotting,
To avenge my tortured meals,
I want them both to get a taste,
First hand of how it feels.

They'll invite me round to dinner,
When I'm seventy odd years old,
And won't eat sugar, salt, or fat,
...revenge is best served cold.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Pony Contest!

I did this little Shetland pony pic as a sample illustration. It's done in watercolour and coloured pencil.The trouble with doing 'hard art' (that's on actual paper as opposed to digital art) is that it takes up space in your drawer.  You are unable to bin it (because you like it) and it's (hopefully) an awfully long time until you die and your children profit from selling your artwork on Trademe. That's assuming you got famous enough in your lifetime like Maurice Sendak (who had no children) for your art to be worth something.  This little picture has no intrinsic value to me except to show a client that I can a) draw a pony and b) am keen for some work.

It has some worth thought to someone who likes horses and /or wants something to frame and give to a friend or put up in a kids room. Or maybe they would just like a piece of my artwork because who knows when I'll hit the big time? Like Bill Nighy.

So in the spirit of someone who just likes her artwork out there in the world, I'm offering this little illustration to the person who most entertains me with their horse story. When you were 12 did you ride one called Bubbles and were devoted to it like Nat in my junior fiction novel Glory? Did you have an incident involving a forward catapult over the neck of a stubborn mount? Go to my facebook page and comment on the post with this picture on it. Or comment on this blog. I'll send it anywhere in the world for free and seal it with a loving kiss (I'll wipe my lipstick off first!) You'll need email me with your address (mine is on the sidebar). Robots, spammers and Nigerian scammers need not apply- what use would you have for a pony picture anyway?

Happy horsing around!

Stan Yee for his fab tale of horse-manly pride coming before and embarrassing fall! Thanks Stan, the pony is on it's way to you :)

Stan Yee Well, there was a time more than 30 years ago, when I was with the church group and we took turns to ride at Kiwi Ranch. The guy asked who was experienced enough to handle a 12 year old ex-pacer - me of course. They were all watching as I galloped away about half a km and turned and headed back. I was showing off, naturally. I dug my heels in, hung onto its mane and reins with both hands and put my head down. I think it had one of those old well worn leather saddles. It was so cool, galloping so fast that I could hardly feel the hoofs touching the ground. I saw the crowd in the distance and I just keep going ... until I ran out of room that is, and suddenly pulled the reins down, somersaulted over the horse and landed flat on my back, still with the reins in one hand. Very red faced I tell you ...