Monday, 30 June 2008

Exiting the business

I have just heard that a friend who is only 45 has been diagnosed with cancer. They have good prognosis but it makes you think. Sadly I have known several young people that have died prematurely. I've been thinking what the hell will my kids do with all my photos when I'm gone?

In the mid nineties I was once asked to appraise a collection of theatre photos, some fifty years work belonging to an old photographer who had done just about everybody. His son, who like me then lived in the USA, asked me on one of my trips to the UK to visit his dad and see if anything could be done with his collection.

When the old man had retired some twenty years before he had spent a few years supplying magazines and publishers that knew him but, with little income to invest in marketing and with his contacts retiring one by one like him, the income from his archive eventually dropped to nothing. He also got tired of chasing people to pay him. He is practically forgotten now although Google turns up loads of books with his image credits.

The images were/are fantastic. A serious problem was they had been poorly captioned and have been stored for years in shoeboxes under his bed. When he had all his faculties it didn't matter as he knew who was who but few envelopes are with complete names, places, dates and the old man couldn’t remember so much anymore. To sort them out and try to identify everyone would take thousands of hours on top of the price the dear old gent was asking for his archive and what I could plainly see what he needed to realize for a life’s work.

His son was a housepainter and didn’t know where to start with dealing with the photo industry, especially as the photos were in the UK and he was in the USA. But one of his clients knew me. I was a neophyte myself but I was the only person he knew in photography he could trust.

I approached some image libraries. A few years before someone had offered him £10K for the collection which he had turned down. Now they were no longer interested as they had since bought a similar archive and no one would offer that price again. Some were happy to market the images he supplied and split sales 50/50 but a few quid here and there wasn’t what the old man or his son wanted. The old boy was then in his 80’s and in poor health. One library wanted at least 1000 images properly scanned and captioned to take him on.

There wasn’t any way the old man could realise the value of his archive although it obviously had some value. He wasn’t going to live long enough to benefit from any occasional sales and his children weren’t in position to set that up to benefit themselves.

I thought about going into partnership with the son with me doing the digitizing, marketing, supplying and chasing all the payments and hopefully gently prodding the old man into remembering who was who but with a small and specialist collection that wasn’t going to grow bigger, I figured that unless I pretty much stole it from him, it wasn’t going to be worth my time and the risk. Banks wouldn’t loan me enough unless I put my house up as collateral.

I walked away from that idea and from then on I vowed to caption every image I have ever taken. I’ve just spent several days burning duplicates of my CDs and adding metadata before the brain cells give up.

I have noticed that what I once thought were very boring images I took in the 1970’s have become more interesting. I documented my teenage years fairly thoroughly. Buildings have been demolished, people in unknown pub bands have become famous, the clothes and hairstyles look absurd today. Photos can appreciate in interest and value if unseen for while. There is nothing like new old stock to excite publishers. I hear that some WWII archives that fell into Russian hands that are unseen by the West remain down a salt mine to be released drip by drip to sate the ceaseless demand for such material. So there’s hope. Hang onto something for long enough and it might become valuable in way that can’t be predicted now.

Something I have learned from my business studies: Exiting any business or project needs to be planned for from day one. How are you going to make sure someone, hopefully your designated heirs, will benefit from your work when you’ve gone? In the music industry, your heirs can just sit back and collect the royalties for 70 years and they can leave everything to the PRS but an image archive needs investment and maintenance to remain productive. Who is going to do that when you retire or die has to be thought about now. Heirs have to be prepared to manage a creative legacy. Even if the images are already with a library, heirs have to understand that side of the business as well as you do or they will lose out somewhere.

A growth area in this tits-up economy is retirement planning for the post-war generation, those born 1945-1965. Perhaps there’s a business opportunity for younger entrepreneurs in pooling and managing small personal image collections so their owners can afford to pay someone to wash their bedsores.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Why I must get out of my car....

Two things concern me; there are predictions that diesel fuel will soon reach £1.50 a litre and right now my employer is having a parking crisis.

There isn't enough space for the 500,000 visitors per year (of which 90,000 are directly my customers) coming to the arts, heritage and retail attraction where I work whilst half the car park is taken up with a construction project. This raises a question for me; how much is my parking space worth to my employer and would someone give me something for giving it up willingly?

Although our parking crisis will pass when the building work is finished next year, any number of factors could cause it to return. I wonder if all the businesses on the site see it as worthwile to support any effort to reduce the number of employee and visitor car journeys, especially after the new music campus and retail stores are opened which will increse further the number of visitors, and urge for the better provision of public transport to the site. It is only the lack of parking or the cost of driving to Snape Maltings that is going to drive demand for alternatives.

The dilemma for everyone is can the number of private vehicle journeys be reduced without reducing the number of visitors and so affecting trade? This on a national scale is what our present government seems to be encouraging; reducing or slowing the growth in vehicle use with congestion charges and fuel, road and pollution taxes (which it is promised is paying for public transport) without restricting trade.

The problem is that such measures usually have to be achieved by state or local legislation and that is very poor way of ensuring fairness. There seems no incentive to act locally or cohesively. Our site is a microcosm of a town or a city. I wonder if whatever reductions one business or other achieves at whatever individual cost, if that just gives a free ride to the other businesses on the site who share the car park that might do nothing. The congestion charge has not reduced the number of cars on the school run dropping off at private schools in wealthier parts of London but has raised cost of employing a tradesmen and hurt thousands of small businesses who will either adapt or move, taking the traffic with them.

Our car park is not big enough to set aside exclusive areas for each tenant (which they already want) and charging visitors to park would be very unwelcome. As some businesses have customers who need it mostly during the day and others have them who mostly come in the evening, for most part it works very well but without price barriers, car parks (like roads) can only restrict their use by capacity. When roads are constantly congested, drivers start avoiding them. When the visitors find the car park full or too expensive, they just go away. That hurts every business on the site. Everyone benefits from anyone's effort to attract visitors but also becomes a victim of anyone and everyone's success. Without any transport alternatives, every business is hurt when the price of travelling by car keeps visitors away.

This situation has brought me like many others to my own tipping point although I am determined this won't be a fad. It's been the works for several months after my car had its second £800 head gasket failure. I am finding my 150 mile weekly commute is costing up to 50p per mile (without the repairs to my car) and this is making quite a difference to my income. I work in the arts and a big salary is not one of the benefits of this field.

If fuel and motoring costs continue to rise, which they likely will, the cost of transport will become an even more important factor in employee retention and job satisfaction as well as in operating costs for nearly every business, especially rural ones.

The rising fuel/tax/insurance prices will hurt most those who are on low wages and living in rural areas who have higher mileages and fewer transport options than people in urban areas. I think that is going to apply to most of the people working in the mix of arts and retail businesses at Snape Maltings. It also applies to a very significant proportion of my customers.

Being the leaseholder of half the site, my employer will have to look again at the transport priorities for our customers. That is likely to be part of my job. There is no doubt our present fuel crisis is forcing people into looking for cheaper, mostly greener, forms of transport or forgoing journeys to distant attractions like ours. If nothing is done, we might have to tailor our product more and more to the only people who can afford to consume it. I fear that may make our work - classical and modern music and opera - even less accessible and push it back into the ghetto of the wealthy cultural elites it has lately emerged from.

With the rising cost of motoring and my expanding waistline, decreasing fitness and practising what one preaches on green issues, I have looked into ditching my families' second car when the MOT runs out in July and buying a folding bicycle. The folding part is key to the plan as unlike New York and Los Angeles, bike racks are not yet fitted to our buses.

It seem possible that I can commute from the town I live in to Saxmundham by bus or train and then bike the four miles from Sax to Snape Maltings where I work. I can be at Snape anytime after 06.45 and up to 22.00 (although I can leave it later with a lift to the station). A folding bike also makes ride-sharing for part of the journey a possibility.

I've priced out and tested a distance-comfortable folding bike, the Dahon Vitesse is stiffer and cheaper than a Brompton and is small enough to be allowed on the bus and with all the gear is around £449 for bike, helmet, lights and a lock.

If I take a typical AA figure of 35p per mile for running a car and the bus fares don't rise, I would pay back the cost of the bike in 27 weeks, or six months. If I presume 50p per mile (which for older cars needing more servicing is realistic) I would break even in 15 weeks. Thing is, stumping up £450 is not easy with everything else going up in price. Credit card interest pushes back the break-even point further.

My employer's accountant says obtaining a bike through the Govt. ride-to-work scheme offers no incentive to our company (as I am the only employee so far to ask for it) and I tend to agree it offers little incentive to the employee too. There are lots of petty rules which could inadvertently be broken and get you into trouble with the HMRC.

Thinking long term; if the cost of fuel rises, I expect the cost of bus and train fares is going to rise too, losing the value of switching to a less convenient form of transport.

On the other hand, there is a plan for a 'Beccles Loop' that will enable a doubling of the train service on the East Suffolk line, which hopefully will be in service by 2010 making the fifteen minute train journey a more attractive propostion. It would be almost like London Transport (not) and if more people use buses, there will be more provided. I hope.

But its the last miles that is the present problem. Although there is a regular bus service from Aldeburgh to Snape that the people living in Aldeburgh and working at Snape Maltings could use, (but very few do) there is no practical bus service from Snape to Saxmundham. This is rather annoying, given that Sax is our nearest transport interchange.

All the businesses at the Maltings can do little to encourage their customers to come by train unless they collectively lay on a shuttle bus but the infrequent train schedule rather precludes it now but the Beccles Loop might help solve that.

A2B Cars 01728 633003 offer a shuttle service costing £2 to Snape and Aldeburgh from Saxmundham station but apparently they are getting very little business from the Snape area. It's not surprising. For some reason, as SCC sponsor this scheme, SCC have made certain restrictions so A2B cannot run earlier than 19.40 weekdays when many of the businesses have closed because there is a competing bus service (not from Snape though). I think someone should have a word with SCC about this as a lot of peope are employed in the businesses at Snape Maltings.

I am trying to assess how switching to a bike would impact my workday. Overall I think it would be positive. I would be fitter, healthier and more alert. My increase in time spent commuting would increase from 180 minutes per week to 270 but that is instead of spending time going to a gym. The schedule of the buses and train can get me here for a 8.30 or 9.30 start although I would either have to be punctual about leaving at 17.30 or would find myself stuck until 18.30, so no more "could you just..." at twenty past five.

If my company ever purchased some bikes for staff use I would suggest they are folding ones so they can be used inter-modally with our pool cars and the buses so someone can take a bike for an errand but get a bus or or ride-share back. Perhaps company cars should have bike racks too.

I can see quite a few advantages in having bikes for some of the jobs I do. I find it much quicker and easier to distribute our literature in the towns of East Anglia on a bike than by a car or on foot. With leaflet distribution, using a pool car to take the distributor/s into the town and then using bikes to get around the streets with boxes of leaflets seems to me to be the most efficient method.

It's not going to be easy to adapt. In summer it is lovely to cycle four miles along a country lane in the evening. When its dark at a 4.30 pm in winter and pissing with rain, it's going to be hell. I would like to think there's something more in it for me rather than my conscience as, at £2 a litre, I'd still rather be in my car unless there was a bus running from Snape to Sax.

So I suggest to Gordon Brown that while he continues to reap the benefits of higher fuel prices, he should enable my employer to buy my parking space from me so I can afford a bike so I can still afford to work (so my employer can retain the staff) and I will use the buses by which usage will encourage further investment in greener, reliable and useful public transport so that people can afford to visit rural heritage attractions and so give jobs to people that work there and keep my employer in business and so it goes around in ecomomic circles. It's the sort of barmy logic that's used in Govt policy these days. I don't see why it can't work.