Communicating with Comedy–Even if You’re Not Funny with David Nihill

Communicating with comedy - featuring Do You Talk Funny author David Nihill on Profit. Power. Pursuit. with Tara Gentile

“In the realm of business speaking, in the realm of conference speaking, the standard is so low, it’s ridiculous.  So if you just literally have a couple of funny images, two memes, and a video, and one funny story, you’re already going to crush it compared to 80% of the speakers out there.” — David Nihill

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Tara:  Welcome to Profit, Power, Pursuit.  I’m your host, Tara Gentile, and together with my friends at CreativeLive, we talk to powerhouse small business owners about the nitty-gritty details of running their businesses, making money, and pursuing what’s most important to them.  Each week, I deep dive with a thriving entrepreneur on topics like time management, team-building, marketing, business models, and mindset.  Our goal each week is to expose you to something new that you can immediately apply to growing your own business.

My guest this week is David Nihill.  David is the founder of Funny Bizz, a community, writer platform, and conference series helping content creators access top comedic writing talent.  He’s performed stand-up comedy at California’s leading clubs, including Cobs, the Comedy Store, the Improv, and the Punch Line, even though he strongly denies being a comedian, and is well aware most people don’t understand his accent.  He’s also the author of Do You Talk Funny, a book about incorporating humor into public speaking.  I wanted to find out more about how David turned a popular class on Udemy into a book.  We talk about why he started experimenting with comedy in the first place, the impact of student feedback on the development of his idea, and his favorite techniques for incorporating humor into any kind of business content.

David Nihill, welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit.  Thank you so much for joining me today.

David:  Thank you.

Tara:  Absolutely.  So let’s start off by talking about your book, Do You Talk Funny, and its unusual starting point as a video course.  I love that you pointed this out to me, because I love the unusual genesis of products, services, and in this case, books.  So where did the idea for the video course come from initially?

David:  Yeah, it was funny, and I should probably warn your listeners out there, this is an Irish accent, it’s not some lunatic dialing in from a pub here sounding a bit confused and joining you happy people, but it was a little bit of an unusual idea.  One, to be honest, I really struggled with creating a product and then me trying to sell it and publicize it and reaching out to my friends and going, “Hey, I created a thing, and it sounds a bit nutty, it’s like around humor and business, and kind of public speaking,” and they’d be like, “Yeah, go back to getting your real job, would you, you lunatic, why did you leave in the first place?”  So I created … I put everything I’d learned over a year’s experiments, which involved me pretending to be a standup comedian to get over a fear of public speaking, which in itself, I know, does not sound like a good plan whatsoever, and it wasn’t, so obviously, I didn’t want to tell friends and family about that one. 

But I basically put everything I’d learned in a PowerPoint presentation, which became a Prezi presentation using their software, and I posted it on Udemy, and that way, at the time, Udemy were driving all traffic to people’s products on their behalf, so I didn’t have to tell anyone I even put it together.  I didn’t tell anyone I had it there.  I gave it away for free, initially, to get some good people on board and get some reaction to it, and then basically, I started selling it and getting feedback from the people who took it, and ultimately, that allowed me to test the concepts I had for a book on an audience that were actually paying to use it and interact with it and seemed to be benefiting from it, and I was kind of consciously able to iterate all the time, and get something where I’m like, okay, I like it, and people using it seem to like it, they’re willing to pay for it, and least out, when I was actually putting the book together, I kind had all the content laid out and tested already.  I mean, because originally, I hadn’t any background as a writer.  I don’t have much in the way of skills as a writer, and to add to that, I was dyslexic, which is not a winning combination for writing a book, and Dragon Dictate, my idea to dictate the book, didn’t seem to like Irish accents. So it was me, at home, screaming at the computer, going, “Goddamn, Dragon Dictate, I didn’t say that, what are you typing?”  So kind of the workaround I had to do was to put it together as a course, and then have someone actually transcribe the whole thing, and then that way, rather than starting looking at a blank page for a book, I was starting looking at a big pile of content, and it just made the whole process mentally a little bit easier.  Plus, it gave me a lot to show when I went to a publisher or I went to somebody with the idea.  I’m like here you go, I already have 7000 people enrolled in this, they seem to like it, maybe there’s a market for this.

Tara:  Brilliant.  Thank you so much for sharing that.  That’s awesome.  So you really started the video course with the book in mind, then?

David:  Yeah, 100%.  I never wanted to put together a video course.  I am totally scared of being on camera in any way, which is pretty ironic, seeing CreativeLive twisted my arm, being like come into the studio, and I think nearly one of the only reasons of doing that is because of the version I made of myself with the video course is so cringeworthy, it’s only one step up from me at home in my underpants just screaming at people on the internet.  There’s some good content in there, but the delivery leaves a lot to be questioned, because I really hate being on camera.  Actually, it used to be me not on camera whatsoever.  It was just my voice over slides, and that was the original version of it, but yeah, at one stage, the other platform got onto me, and they’re like, “This looks like a homeless person made it.  You’re going to need to upgrade it a little bit if we’re going to keep selling it.”  So I kind of got used to the interaction with people, got used to the audience, got used to be able to get active feedback, because it’s quite a tough process when you write a book, because realistically, you’re not getting feedback from a large audience on the content you have in there and to see if it resonates with people, so yeah, I got used to using it, but the idea to do it only ever was to create a book.

Tara:  Got ya.  Okay, awesome.  So let’s back up, then, to you mentioned that you were pretending to be a standup comic to get over your fear of public speaking.  Can you talk a little bit more about that and how you started experimenting with comedy and kind of including that in your career as a whole?

David:  Yeah.  Definitely.  It does not sound like the best plan.  It was definitely not the best plan.  It was rather painful in moments, and with that, I’d always been afraid of public speaking, and unfortunately, a friend of mine suffered a severe spinal cord injury, and that kind of became the catalyst for all this, because I had suggested by way of a fundraiser, because his insurance had cut him off, to do a comedy show, because I just happened to know a comedian that was a touring headline comedian.  He’d agreed to do it, and all my American friends didn’t know what my friends back in Ireland knew very well, that I was absolutely scared the life out of me anything got to do with public speaking.  I’m terrible at it, and my nickname was actually Shaking Stevens, in university in Ireland, because when I’m handed a bit of paper, I just started shaking, and I couldn’t stop it, and some way, it translated to my hips, and then my hips would start shaking as well.  I looked like I was busting out some 80s dance moves involuntarily.  So as I tell, it’s something my American friends didn’t know, but to be honest, compared to what my friend was going through after his spinal cord injury, it was something like, well, I can’t describe this fear I have as crippling anymore, which I would have.  That does not seem appropriate in anyway, so I better just get over it, and I was a big fan of a lot of the great instructors that CreativeLive have on the platform, the likes of Tim Ferris, which are looking at breaking things down using an 80/20 principle to identify the things that kind of give you the most return on your time invested in learning it, and I figured, well, surely comedians are the true masters of public speaking, if we go by Malclom Gladwell’s, like, 10,000 hours to make a master rule, like, they seem to be on stage in the most frequently, more frequently than anybody else, and in the most challenging conditions.  So it was like, all right, I’m going to try and replicate some of this to get through this charity event, and because obviously, it’s meant to be a funny charity event, there’s some pressure, to some extent, to be funny hosting it, and I did.  It went really well, and I was like you know what, I’m going to keep this going for a whole year. 

So the pretending to be a comedian part very much came when these comedy shows started tagging me on Facebook, and they’re like, “Come see David Nihill do comedy in a coffee shop for two people.”  I’m like, oh my God, my family’s going to see this and wonder why I’m not in my corporate job anymore.  Not quite ready, so, and honestly, if you don’t have much of a track record in comedy, it’s kind of difficult to get booked, so I created a whole stage name, which I didn’t think was very original, but American people seemed to like it.  Irish Dave.  I have no idea why Irish Dave would be touring doing comedy in Ireland, because it wouldn’t be the most popular name with people over there by any means, but so he had his fake Twitter followers and his fake Facebook page and profile, and I basically used that to try and get booked as many places as I could, and I kept that going for a whole year, and the course basically became kind of everything I learned along the way that I think applied to the world of business.  I think for the most part, because if you look at all the leading TED talks at the moment, every single one of them are funny, and there seems to be a pressure there for modern-day speakers to be entertainers, and they seem to be very visibly using the techniques comedians were using, even though a lot of them didn’t seem to know it.  And I guess my argument was that knowing it can save you a lot of time and give you some results pretty quickly.

Tara:  Wow.  Wow.  Can you describe one of the techniques that you learned or that you used in those early days pretending to be a standup comic that then has kind of stuck with you and gotten you results, maybe even through today?

David:  Yeah, sure.  And you know, the thing I think I had most success with was avoiding that moment, say when you’re in work, and your boss calls you into the office, and they’re like, “Hey, come in here, I’ve got a joke for you,” and your brain is like oh my God, this is going to be terrible, I need to get away from this person.  Like they’ve kind of telegraphed their intention to try and be funny, and I think when you do that as a comedian or even in a business presentation in any way, when people can really sense it’s a joke, the anticipation and the flip of expectations, the surprise, all those elements, you’re greatly reducing the chances of success, and I think one of the key things I used was basically just to take all my own stories, and I began to catalog them.  So it’s kind of … comedians have one big advantage over the rest of the world on being funny.  Kind of like where we used to keep diaries as kids, maybe some of us did, or you keep a journal, and you go back and you look at the journal a few years later, and it’s like, “Oh, on Tuesday, I was emotionally distraught.  I had ice cream, and I don’t like myself.”  Okay, this isn’t very exciting or compelling reading, and you kind of stop doing it. 

What comedians will do is nearly keep a happy journal.  Essentially, a list of funny stories or observations they have about in the world, and they continuously will go back to that.  So what I did, essentially, was I listed out all the things I’d found funny, went my own exist, and to start, like all the stories I had from my life, experiences, and as a start, I didn’t have much, but as I actively kept doing this on a smartphone, and logging it every time I heard a funny story that I could relate to, every time I thought of something embarrassing that was happening, happened to me in my life.  Tragically, if something embarrassing happened … if something embarrassing happened to you, that’s funny to other people literally all the time, as painful as it might be for you.  So there’s always kind of humor in those moments.  Learning something new, learning a new language.  And I began to log all those stories, and I just identified the funny part of those stories.  So where do my friends and family normally laugh, and then I try to cut out as many words from the story as possible.  So I only basically kept in what was necessary, and then that basically became what I used in standup comedy, and what I’ve used to this very day, not only in comedy, but also in business presentation.  So short-form stories, true to my own experience, and going out of my way to make sure to keep the funny bit til as late in the story as humanly possible, and then that way, the nice thing is nobody knows you’re trying to be funny, you’re just telling a story, and if they don’t laugh at that story, well, your story’s still a lot better than the pie chart or the presentation that somebody else had them looking at.  And I think that’s something from the world of comedy that really resonates with people, because again, it relies on story, and that’s something we’re naturally receptive to listening to.

Tara:  Yeah, wow.  That was like two minutes of pure gold as far as I’m concerned.  That was so helpful.  I mean, I do a lot of public speaking as well, and I’m always at a loss when it comes to stories, and the idea of keeping a happy journal, and the idea of, you know, not telegraphing when you’re trying to be funny.  Like, all of that, to me, is just pure gold, so thank you for that.

David:  But even, the same applies with a story.  There’s not … like when you get up and you go, “You know what, I’m going to start with a story.  Here’s a story.”  Well, then you’ve basically said I’m going to tell you something that may or may not be relevant for three or four minutes, and if you switch off, maybe you won’t miss a whole lot, but it’s not central, and what you really want to do is get people on board with the story without them knowing they’re being drawn into the story, and again, the exact same thing works with telling a story in your presentation.  Don’t telegraph that you’re about to tell a story, just tell the story, and it tends to make a big difference.

Tara:  Wow.  And I’m assuming that that goes for any type of content that you’re creating online, too.  So blogs, podcasts, even Facebook updates.

David:  Honestly, anything, and when you sound it like a happy journal, it sounds like some hippie exercise that I just followed up with doing a load of stretching, yoga, and locking myself in a hot room in Lulu Lemon pants.  Not quite what I’m … I guess I have it called funny story file, and to me, it doesn’t sound strange that way, and every time I literally see something or think of something, I go in and add to it, and I do use that for anything I ever create content-wise.  So even when I finished the book and I took all this time to lay down everything I knew, then I was like, all right, I need to go in and put some elements of story in this, what bits are funny, what bits might resonate, what bits do my friends like, and the source I was going to was that funny story file, and it’s the same thing if I’m doing an interview, it’s the same thing if I’m giving a talk, it’s the same thing if I’m writing a blog post, it’s the same thing if I’m looking for something quirky in social media, so it’s … it’s just content that means something to us, because we already found it entertaining, and just finding a way to share that with people in the shortest, most effective form.

Tara:  Oh, you make it sound so easy.  Can we talk more about the book and about how you adapted the video course?  Can you describe the approach that you use for actually taking the video course and turning it from something that was multimedia into something that was written?  What did that process look like for you?

David:  Yeah, I mean, it was probably six months of tinkering back and forward and messing around with it and getting feedback from students who were taking the course and just to say hey, what resonated, what didn’t, and the nice thing was with the course I could actually see where the drop off points were.  Like, what was too long, what was too much, what was the most popular areas that I should expand on a bit, and then to be honest, the process of translating that to written form was quite straightforward, because I paid somebody to do it, and I think it only cost me $60 or $70 to have it transcribed, so now I was looking at a couple of hundred pages of content, and it was just a way of introducing each chapter with some form of story that was relevant to what I was talking about, and that … and that took a bit of time, but not as much.  The really core part of the work was in crafting content I felt that would resonate with people, and stupidly, actually …

So the book I’ve put out, I put out one self-published, and then I went back and I worked with a publisher the second time around, and the self-published one, believe it or not, on a book about humorous storytelling, I didn’t even put my own story in there.  So I never put anything about pretending to be a boy called Irish Dave, I didn’t really describe any of the nights I was involved or the things that happened because of it.  I just simply did it as a how to, and even though it was popular, it wasn’t as popular when I consciously went back in with the editor and we said, all right, how do I wrap this information within a story, how do I use some of the things I’m actually telling people to do, and how do I really put my thinking hat on and say all right, well, this needs to be funnier, it needs to have story on it, it needs to be more engaging, and it needs to be not just giving people straight up how-to content.  And I think that’s the mistake a lot of people make these days when they’re crafting content in general, that they pretty much just get everything, all right, it’s a brain dump, conscious brain dump, and then they shape it into a readable format, and they don’t really go back and take another look at it to say, okay, how can I make this more engaging or put some of my own personality into it or put some level of emotion into it that shows people what I was going through at that point, and so I made that mistake myself, and to be honest, it took me more than a year to correct that, waiting to get the published version out.  And it was something I had listened to John Acuff say consciously, it was a really … probably one of the funniest business speakers I’ve ever seen.  A really top author and writer as well, and one I’m sure your community is familiar with, but he’d always say when he writes, he consciously goes back in at stage three or four and tries to make it a bit more engaging or entertaining, and that probably took me more time on this than anything else, but it was certainly also one of the more painful mistakes I made on the project, and quite an ironic one seeing the book was about humor and story.  It was like oh no, a humor storybook with funny on the cover, and I didn’t even take the time to make it funny.  Worst plan ever.  So I went back and fixed that, thankfully.

Tara:  Yeah, I’m really glad that you’ve pointed out, too, that the making it funny seems to come later in the process for you.  Steps three or four, or you know, after you’ve kind of outlined and laid out what the content is really going to be, because I think that’s another kind of unnecessary pressure people put on themselves is oh, okay, I’m going to do a talk, I better make it funny, or you know, what you said about stories, too.  I’m doing a talk; I guess I gotta figure out what story I’m going to lead with.  Does it always come later in the process for you?

David:  For writing, it very much can do.  I guess you have … say if you’re a comedian, or say if you’re a full-time professional comedic copywriter, and you’re starting something from scratch, you basically say, well, what do I want to say that’s your core starting point, what’s the opinion I want to get across, and then you basically try and find funny ways to say that, but you’re always starting with that core belief, that core point, or that core item you want to communicate, and then expanding on that and working with it to consciously make it funny.  Now, if you’re lucky enough, when you’re doing the talk and you have a couple of good stories already, I would just start with the good stories, and shape the talk around the stories, no matter what the story is.  If you’re like this story does not seem relevant or related to it, find a way to make that relevant or related.  Just tell the story, if you like telling it and it resonates with people, and then literally say, “I told you that story because … ” and just fill in the blank, and just find a way to transition that, because at the end of the day, if there’s no element in the story and the information you’re trying to communicate, it’s very hard for people to remember it, and that means it’s very hard for them to repeat it. 

In comedic terms, it’s nearly like going to see a really funny comedian for an hour, and then you’re dying to share it with your friends the next day, you’re like, oh man, this guy said, it was like a cat and a donkey and a grandmother and oh, you had to be there.  And like your explanation of their jokes makes no sense, because they didn’t give it in a structure, a story structure that your mind could actually remember it and process it, and that way, you’re not able to spread their message for them, which is, you know, if you’ve had a good, impactful talk, and you’ve delivered it, ideally, you want that talk to go far beyond just the people in the room in that moment, and the easiest way of doing that is forever basing it on a story.  So to answer your question, it can be both ways if you have stuff that’s already funny and great already, you can certainly start and build around that, and if you don’t, just get the core points you have across that you want to teach or communicate or you want to get out to your community, and then go back and take a bit of time and say, oh, how do I make this funny.  Like chat to your friends about it.  Just say, see if you have any stories.  Hopefully, you’ve started some form of funny story file, so you’re like, oh, I have a little great example here from this, I saw this article that I love.  So the funny story file doesn’t just have to be your own experiences.  It can be a book that you read that had something funny or quirky, or it can be a story somebody shared with you.  I mean, even the highest, best-selling books in the world, a lot of them will only sell around 15,000 copies on average to become a bestseller, so most people still haven’t even heard the coolest stories in the highest-selling books, so I mean, that’s all fair game as content for you to build in to try and enliven things a bit.

Tara:  Wow.  You are making this sound much easier than I expected it to be, so that’s pretty exciting.

David:  Thanks very much.  Well, it wasn’t easy, I tell you.

Tara:  Yeah.

David:  I was learning the hard way.  Learn in another way that doesn’t involve doing standup comedy.  Take the principles and don’t get up there with the drunk people.  I don’t want to make it sound too easy.  But to be honest, if a couple of quick improvements and a couple of quick things you do that comedians do very naturally apply to any form of content creation does, does make a big difference, and all of a sudden, especially, I mean, in the realm of business speaking, in the realm of conference speaking, the standard is so low, it’s ridiculous.  So if you just literally have a couple of funny images, two memes, and a video, and one funny story, you’re already going to crush it compared to 80% of the speakers out there.

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Tara:  So you’ve mentioned student feedback on that course a couple of times, and I want to come back to that, because I think this is something that’s … that’s really important in terms of developing a product, any kind of product, really.  Can you give an example of one piece of student feedback or something that you noticed in the way students were consuming the course that led to a specific change or a specific improvement of the book form of your message?

David:  Yeah.  So there was one thing in there that I described as briefly as I could, and I didn’t realize it took a little bit more explaining, and it was the one thing over everything that probably made the single biggest difference to me in the realm of public speaking, and it was learning a memorization technique that allowed me to turn basically my whole presentation into a bunch of small stories that I then placed in locations in a house, which sounds kind of crazy, but you basically, your mind works second best in stories and it works best in remembering geographic locations, so if you combine the two, you have something really powerful that allows you to take away the fear of going blank on stage, and that was something that I didn’t elaborate on enough, and with the feedback I was getting, most people were like this one thing is really cool.  I never heard of it, I know there’s books on it out there and stuff, but personally, I never use it, I never saw anybody use it, so when I was giving presentations, I was literally creating a mad, mildly fictional story with as much hilarity and nudity and celebrity presence as possible to help me remember it, because that’s the way the mind works, and I was literally, when I’m on stage giving a presentation, in my mind, I’m walking through my house, and I’m encountering a bunch of stories and characters that I’ve kind of fictionally placed there, and that way, if any moment, I’m trying to think back and go what’s the word here, what am I meant to say, I’m never asking myself that.  I’m asking myself where in the house am I?  Oh, I’m in the kitchen, and in the kitchen is Elvis, Tim Ferris, and Brittany Spears, they’re mildly naked, but they’re talking about celebrities and economic progression and any other topic that I might want them to be talking about in my mind, but it just reminds me to hit the key points, and that allowed me to free up my time a lot, and that level of interest came to me, or the level of need to explain that more, and it’s a big topic, so I could give you a lot more on it, obviously, but short form, that was the single biggest thing that made the biggest difference to me and seemed to make the biggest difference to the students, and I wouldn’t have been aware of that without the student feedback. 

Now, equally, some of the student feedback needs to be taken with a little pinch of salt, because somebody said, “Oh my God, I’m so disappointed with this course, I would have loved it only for it’s on public speaking.”  At this point, I had called it a public speaking course, the word public speaking was absolutely everywhere, and there was no way, or I don’t know what they … they might have been high as a kite when they were taking it, but I think 90% of the feedback that came in was really, really good and really, really constructive, and really, really helpful.  Even the negative feedback.  So if someone says something negative that at least has a level of logic to it somewhere, they’re probably correct in there in some form, and even though you might not like to read it, there’s probably something in there that allows you to improve the product you’re creating.

Tara:  Awesome.  Awesome.  So you also have a community and a conference that works to incorporate comedy into business as usual, which is called Funny Bizz.  Can you tell us a little bit about Funny Bizz?

David:  Yeah, sure.  Worst name ever, but I kind of like it, so I stuck with it.  But basically, as I was going around doing all the comedy experiments and shows, I was meeting all these comedians that had one thing in common.  Not all of them were getting famous for being funny, but they were all getting funnier along the way, and they were doing so primarily by improving one skill, and that was writing, and a lot of them had become really, really good copywriters, but they just didn’t know a way to get in touch with businesses that were looking for somebody to occasional enlighten or add some humor or up the engagement with the content they were creating.  So Funny Biz originally was very much a way to try and bring these people together and get them together with the business community that needed their skills, but also allow them to keep working on their passion, which was doing full-time comedy, and then out of that, we grew a conference, and we basically were trying to showcase everybody creating marketing content or promoting marketing content or advertising content that was humorous, and basically, how did you do it, how did you get approval to do such lunacy, because a lot of people say, oh, well, humor is risky, and then it was very much to say, well, how can the people in the room do it, too.  So yeah, the conference we had was very much to bring all those kind of changemakers together that very much believe that content could be funnier and more engaging.

Tara:  Nice.  Nice.  And kind of alongside that, you have a goal of abolishing boring content, which I love, because there’s so …

David:  Just a bit ambitious.

Tara:  Yeah, but there’s so much.  I mean, you could put a serious chink in that, I think.

David:  I could, but I’d probably have to delete a lot of my own stuff as well.  Goddammit, mine’s boring, too, I tried not to make it that way, but I failed miserably.  But it’s just, it’s trying to give people the tools to look at content they’re creating and just kind of encourage them to put the … another side of their … another hat on, and too upright another part of the brain, and to just take that extra effort to go back and go all right, how do I enlighten this up a bit.  Like, where can I get some funny images, where can I work a couple of gifts into this, where can I do something that shows my personality and put a little funny story in there?  But just any way that enlightens it up, and I think to be honest, anybody who’s advertising on mediums like Facebook or Snapchat or using Twitter, they’re in all these places where people are going to consume entertainment, then there’s a level of pressure you feel to become the entertainment, and a lot of people just didn’t know how.  They wanted it, but they just didn’t know how, so we’ve been trying to give them the access to people that could at least say hey, here’s how I do it, here’s how I do it consistently, here’s the techniques you can use, and off you go.

Tara:  Yeah.  And you know, you said something about the conference and the boring content piece makes me think about it, too, which is that comedy, I think, for a lot of people can feel risky, especially if you’re a business owner and you know, maybe you’re afraid of offending someone.  Maybe you’re afraid of just even turning people off who maybe don’t have the same sense of humor as you, or who don’t see the same connections as you.  Is there any like advice that you can give us or tips that you personally use to make your content funny but not risky, or maybe it’s to get over the idea of risk in the first place when you’re making something more humorous?

David:  Yes, I think it’s the latter you said there.  You will see somebody using humor at the moment in America who you would say his position is probably the most serious maybe in the whole world as a leader.  He has more risk for using humor if it goes wrong than anybody else, and he has one of the highest pressure jobs in the world, and he is funny, and he is called President Obama, and everything he does is funny, and there’s no risk involved when he uses humor, because he’s working with people who know what they’re doing or he understands the techniques behind it or his speechwriters know that.  So if someone at the highest, highest levels in the world at the moment showing everybody that hey, humor is a medium that I need to use to reach people, and guess what, it hasn’t been risky when I’ve been using it, it’s been well-received and well thought out.  And I think if you focus on not trying to be the kind of making a joke with a target and a witty observation and you focus on the storytelling side that it translates.  It transcends cultures.  The storytelling aspect of it makes it unrisky.  So I think … I was telling a friend, actually, yesterday that I was fundraising for this charity event, which we continued to raise money for people with spinal cord injuries, and I’m dyslexic, so I was sending out emails forever asking people to donate and buy a ticket, and of course, as you do in business, you end these emails in any way, kind regards.  Well, of course, being dyslexic, I was mixing up the g and the t, and every one of my emails that went out ended with kind retards.

Tara:  Oh, no.

David:  Which oh, I nearly died when I saw that, and to make it worse, I was spelling my own name wrong half the time, so I was calling myself Davdi, and my Indian friends are like, “Goddammit, your name is now Davdi.  You will be Davdi to me forever.”  I was like no, no, it’s just a mistake, and it even got worse when I tried to be like office cool, and I dropped the kind part, and I was just basically writing retards at the end of all these emails.  So I was mortified.  Funny, because it’s a story at my expense, it’s personal to me, and it doesn’t carry that weight with it that oh, humor might go wrong, and I think if you stick to stories rather than opinions, you can recreate that safely in any form of content you like.

Tara:  Wow.  I have to say, Michael and I were just laughing our heads off at that story, too.

David:  Yeah, thanks very much.  Painful for me, funny for you.

Tara:  And that should be a takeaway for everyone here, too.  That’s awesome.  So you have a CreativeLive class coming up.  Can you tell us a little bit about what we can expect to learn there?

David:  I do, yeah.  I’m laying an egg about that one, because as I said, I don’t like to be on video, but at least I know this stuff sideways from teaching it to other people.  So part of me’s looking forward to it, and part of me probably won’t sleep between now and then, but I think it’s going to be on September 15th, and we’re going to be in studio, and I do have one really cool special guest with me, and we’re going to be tackling how to make things funny, how to add humor to all your public speaking, we’re going to be looking at a bunch of the world’s leading talks and breaking them down and teaching people comedic techniques and just train you how to boring things funnier, things that you didn’t think could be funny, to make them a bit more entertaining.  But yeah, should be fun.

Tara:  Awesome.  That sounds really, really great.  So what’s next for you and for your business?

David:  I’m going to try and … well, I’ve basically been testing behind the scenes on Funny Bizz to turn it into an actual marketplace where we’re not an agency type, so at the moment, I’m kind of the block on what’s funny and not, as we have someone sitting in the middle, and I’d really like just to put comedic copywriters in touch with businesses who need their skills.  So we’ve been working on growing that out, and we’ve done the conference now four times, so we’ll continue to do that.  It’s been super popular.  Next one’s in San Francisco next year, so I keep going with that and see how we go.  I won’t be using Dragon Dictate anymore to try and write books, I’ll tell you that for free, but yeah.  So I’ll be keeping busy.

Tara:  Awesome.  Well, that’s a great place to leave it.  David Nihill, thank you so much for joining me.  This has been a real pleasure and incredibly enlightening.

David:  Thank you very much.

Tara:  Find out more about David Nihill at or  You can also find David’s class on CreativeLive at

Next week, my guest is Melanie Duncan, a serial entrepreneur in a variety of industries from apparel to home goods to information marketing.  Melanie and I talk about the role of digital marketing in product-based businesses, how she manages working with her spouse, and the importance of company culture, whether your company is large or small.

CreativeLive is highly curated classes from the world’s top experts.  Watch free, live video classes every day from acclaimed instructors in photography, design, audio, craft, business, and personal development.  Stream it now at 

This has been Tara Gentile.  Discover how to accelerate your earning as a small business owner with my free class, Revenue Catalyst, at

That’s a wrap for this week’s episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit., A CreativeLive podcast.  Download more episodes of this podcast and subscribe on iTunes.  If you appreciate this kind of in-depth content, please leave us a review or share this podcast with a friend.  It means the world to us. 

Our theme song was written by Daniel Petersen, who also edited this episode.  Our audio engineer was Kellen Shimizu.  This episode was produced by Michael Karsh.  We add a new episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit. every week.  Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you love to listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode.

Membership Sites and Team-Building with Michelle Fifis of Pattern Observer

Michelle Fifis of Pattern Observer on Profit. Power. Pursuit. with Tara Gentile

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Tara:  Hey everyone.  Welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit.  I’m Tara Gentile, your host, and together with CreativeLive, we explore the unique strategies that creative entrepreneurs use to take control of their lives, profit from their passions, and pursue what’s truly important to them.

My guest today is Michelle Fifis, the creator of Pattern Observer, and the founder of the Textile Design Lab.  Michelle has worked with Columbia Sportswear, Lucy Activewear, Janson Swimwear, and others to develop custom textile design collections.  She’s worked with hundreds of designers to launch and grow their businesses through her courses and membership community.  Her work has been featured on, Elle Decor, Nordstrom’s blog, and Print and Pattern.

Michelle and I talked about how she’s grown her team over the last two years to allow her to grow her family, how she turned her blog into a full-fledged company, and how she’s been most successful growing her audience and email list.

Michelle Fifis, welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit.  Thanks so much for joining me.

Michelle:  Thank you for having me.  I’m excited to be here.

Tara:  I am excited to have you here as well.  I’m really, really excited to let people see kind of inside your business and just how you’ve made it grow over the last few years.  So let’s start before, really, you even had this business that you have now.  How did you get started with pattern design?

Michelle:  So I actually came to pattern and textile design through fashion design.  I was a fashion design major at Stevens College, and I did my summer internship with a fashion designer named Zondra Rhodes, and she hand-paints all of her fabrics that get sewn into garments, and so I walked in on my first day as a fashion designer with that perspective of a fashion designer, and before me, I saw a large studio filled with artists hand-painting her textile designs onto fabric that would be sewed into garments, and my mind was blown.  I’ll never forget that vision of seeing people actually painting these designs onto fabric.  It wasn’t something that I really knew existed.  I didn’t know that was an avenue that I could take my career in, but I just fell in love at that moment with the world of pattern and textile design.

Tara:  Wow.  That’s a phenomenal story, and I think we all have a better perspective now of why couture garments cost so much as well.

Michelle:  Right.  It was just funny.

Tara:  Yeah, so how do … why and how did you start the Pattern Observer blog then?

Michelle:  So I started Pattern Observer in 2010, after I left my full-time, in-house, textile design job with Columbia Sportswear, and as with any freelancer, I had downtime in between my client projects, and my husband actually said, “Hey, you should start a blog.”

And I was like, “Eh, I don’t really like to write,” so, well, it didn’t appeal to me at the time, but once I started blogging, I realized how much of an impact I could have with visuals, and so Pattern Observer really became more of visual eye candy type of blog, rather than a lot of content.  And so it started out in that way, and it was also a great way for myself and to prove to my clients that I was staying on top of the latest trends.  So when you work as an in-house designer, you have access to all these very expensive trend resources that as a freelance designer just starting out, I couldn’t afford.  And so I had to prove to my clients that even though I didn’t have access to those resources, I was basically creating those resources on my own.

Tara:  Oh, so the blog really was a tool to support your freelance business, and not something that you were starting as a business in and of itself, per se, right at the beginning.

Michelle:  Definitely not.  I had no idea that you could make money from a blog or turn a blog into a business.  It was really just something fun to do, and I had a client actually ask me how can you, he said, you know, “How can I trust that you know what you’re talking about when it comes to trends?”  He said, “I know you can design, because I’ve seen your designs, but how do I know that you’re staying on top of the latest trends?”  And I was so taken aback by that question, and so challenged by that question, I guess, in a good way, that I thought, huh, well, I’m just going to prove to you and to the rest of my clients who maybe have thought that but didn’t ask that, that you know, I know what I’m talking about when I direct you in terms of what trends you should be including in your product designs.

Tara:  Mm.  That is such a fantastic sales lesson, because you know, we talk about overcoming objections when we’re talking about selling, and so often, we just think of that in terms of like frequently asked questions, or you know, how can I tell you that this objection doesn’t really mean anything, or that you know, that it doesn’t apply here, but I love the way you approached actually showing people that their objection was unfounded or that you could easily overcome it.  That’s so helpful, I think, for people.

So what did you do to grow your blog at the beginning?  Or did you do anything to grow your blog at the beginning?

Michelle:  I think, so once I realized, hey, I really like this, and I want people besides my mom and my best friends reading the blog, I purchased advertising on other blogs.  That was my big first step into hey, I want to be noticed.  I want someone to come read my blog.  And it was gaining traction, it just wasn’t happening as quickly as I wanted it to grow.  So that was my first step into actively trying to grow my blog.

Tara:  Mm.  So advertising on other blogs, that’s how we know it was back in the day, right?  So what year are we talking about here?

Michelle:  That was 2010.

Tara:  Ah, yes.  I believe I purchased some ads on blogs in 2010 as well, for a different thing.  Yeah, no, that’s definitely not something that we talk about doing much anymore, but you know, it was certainly effective at the time.  So what kind of metrics were you paying attention to then?  Were you look …  Were you building an email list?  Were you look at like Feedburner stats?  What were you paying attention to?

Michelle:  I think I had Google Analytics installed.  I’m really not sure about that.  At that time, I was really focused on comments.

Tara:  Mm.

Michelle:  And Facebook followers.

Tara:  Okay.

Michelle:  Those were my two big concerns.

Tara:  Awesome.  And how has that kind of evolved over the years?  What are you really paying attention to metrics wise now?

Michelle:  Definitely newsletter subscribers is my number one concern and goal, I guess, for how we are connecting with our community, and I think that’s kind of how my perspective has changed as well.  It’s less of how many eyeballs am I getting on everything that I’m producing and all the pieces of content that we’re putting out, and now I focus more on how much are we connecting with people.

Tara:  Mm, okay.  I want to come back to that, but I don’t want to, I also don’t want to jump the gun.

Michelle:  Okay.

Tara:  So let’s back up a little bit and talk about how your business has really evolved since you first started the blog.  So you said that at the beginning, the blog was more of a tool for supporting your freelance business, but now, your blog and the business that’s grown out of it sort of its own thing, right?  So how, kind of walk me through that process of evolution.

Michelle:  Right.  So after … I had been blogging for maybe six months to a year.  I can’t remember exactly around what time this started happening.  I started getting lots of emails from other designers asking for advice.  And it got to the point where I was having to answer, or I was answering so many emails that I didn’t have time to do my freelance work, and I didn’t want to be rude and not respond, but it was just getting to be this struggle, and so I kind of naturally progressed into hey, why don’t we, or why don’t I take these issues that people are having or the questions that they have about this industry and turn them into a course.  And so that was the first thought of teaching.  I had never thought of myself as a teacher before, and so that’s how we kind of grew into the teaching platform that we really are today.

Tara:  Mm.  Do you remember where you first heard about online courses?  Because I think, you know, it’s been around for a long time in sort of the marketing and online business world, but I know definitely in the creative business world, it took a little bit longer to catch on.

Michelle:  So when I first started teaching, I started teaching through another website called Pikaland, and it’s an amazing blog focused on illustration, and so she put a call out for, “Hey, would you like to teach a course, or do you know a teacher who would be perfect for one of our courses?”  And I volunteered myself, and she was thrilled to have a pattern and textile designer be represented in her selection of teachers, and so that’s how I, why I developed my first course, was for her site, basically.

Tara:  Got ya.  Fantastic.  I did not realize that that’s where you started teaching.  That’s great.  So all right.  Let’s come back to newsletter subscribers right now.  What are you doing right now to grow your email database?

Michelle:  So right now, I’m actually very excited about advertising.  So focusing more on Facebook advertising to grow our list is something that I have been, I know I’m late to the game on that, and this is not groundbreaking, but for me, it was a little scary to invest money in Facebook.  I’m not sure why I had a block against it, but it’s something I worked through, and now I’m really excited with the results that we’re getting.  But up until this point, I think we’ve had a lot of success with resources that we can supply to people who are interested in patterns and textile design, and really just design in general.  So offering free courses is probably the number one way that we’ve grown our newsletter subscriber list.

Tara:  Okay, great.  and how are people finding out about those things?  Is it social media?  Is it through joint ventures?  Is it just kind of organically?  How’s that happening?

Michelle:  In the past, I think it’s just been through Social Media.  We used Pinterest and Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, all the big platforms, and so I just really rely on people taking our courses, and then sharing the courses with their community.  People get really excited to, you know, share the free courses with their friends and the other designers who they know, and so I think that’s how we’ve grown as quickly as we have.

Tara:  Mm.  It seems like people are really excited about pattern design, and I know when I first kind of got into the creative industries field, I also had no idea that pattern design was a thing.  I don’t know how I thought those designs got on the journals and the fabric and you know, the this and the that, but I had no idea it was a thing.  Why do you think that pattern design is kind of so sticky right now?

Michelle:  Because patterns are so much fun to design.

Tara:  Okay.

Michelle:  I mean, they are so much fun, and I think people coming from maybe a more structured design field such as graphic design, when they are given the freedom to design in patterns, I mean, you just develop so much movement and you have so much fun with the motifs that you’re designing.  It’s just very freeing for people, and I see that in our membership test site, too.  We have a lot of graphic designers come to our site, and I can tell after just a couple exercises, they start to open up and they start to play, and they start to have so much fun, and I think that’s what appeals to so many designers.  I also think that patterns are used in so many different markets that people are able to create patterns in their unique style and find a home for them.  So for example, if you have a really feminine design style, there are lots of opportunities to design feminine patterns.  On the other hand, let’s say you have a more graphic, rigid design style, there’s also plenty of opportunities in that way, so I think people are able to really take how they create designs innately, and then find a home for them.

Tara:  Mm.  Okay, so yeah, that is fascinating.  So you mentioned your membership site.  Can you tell us kind of what all the different pieces of your business are right now?  How are you generating revenue in different ways?

Michelle:  Yes, we have our blog, Pattern Observer, which on its own doesn’t generate any revenue.  We don’t sell ads or do sponsored posts or anything like that, but we do hold workshops on the Pattern Observer site, and then we also have our membership site, the Textile Design Lab, and then we … I’ve kept up with my design business throughout the growth of Pattern Observer and the teaching business, and just this year, we’re relaunching our design business and turning it into more of a teaching studio.

Tara:  Mm, ooh, tell me more about that.

Michelle:  So there are various ways to make money in our industry.  You can freelance with clients.  So clients will come to you and say, “Hey, I would love a pattern that has a feminine flare to it with daisies in it,” or something like that.  And so then you work with the client to develop that custom pattern.  The other side of the industry is developing prints and patterns on your own that you come up with, you develop, and then you sell or license the rights to that work, and this is something that I started doing when I first started freelancing, and when the teaching business picked up, I just didn’t have time to balance everything, and I stepped away from that just creating and selling work aspect of the business, and so this year, we really decided to relaunch the studio in a way where we have, we’re offering patterns to buyers in a membership-style aspect.  So pattern buyers can join our site and get resources that they need to make better pattern-buying decisions for their products, and also purchase patterns as well.  And the teaching aspect of the studio is we are helping so many amazing designers in our textile design lab that I would love to start bringing those designers into our studio, and giving them a real hands-on feel for what it means to work with the studio, work with a client, and hopefully, they’ll stick around after they get comfortable and work within our studio, but they’re also welcome to go off and start their own businesses as well.

Tara:  Mm.  So I know you’re just relaunching the studio now, so you don’t have firm numbers on this, but what do you see the breakdown being revenue-wise, you know, by percentages between the membership site, the one off workshops that you do, and the teaching studio?

Michelle:  So I feel like this year, we’ll probably do about 50% from the Textile Design Lab, our membership site, 25% from the studio, and I’m really interested to see how the studio performs.  I don’t know of another design studio membership site concept, so it might be a bust, but I’m excited to try it and see how it works out, and then the remaining percentage from our workshops and our eBooks that we sell.

Tara:  Got you.  So 50% from your membership site is, I mean, that’s a chunk of change when you’re talking about total revenue.  So, and I know a lot of people have, I mean, I know a lot of people are interested in starting membership sites, a lot of people have a lot of bad luck with membership sites.  Can you talk about what some of the ups and downs have been as you grow that aspect of your business?

Michelle:  Yes.  It has been, it was difficult to get off the ground, and we did it very slowly, which is something that I’m very happy that we did.  It was not the robust membership site that we have now when we first started.  So at first, it was really just a way for people who were taking our workshops and then graduating from the workshops.  It was a way for them to stay in touch and stay connected to me.  Basically, they could ask questions at any time, and we had a monthly webinar and a monthly tutorial that was released, and that was it.  And then as the years went by, we decided, I was actually working with you, and I was getting really drained by the amount of products and courses that I was having to market.  We had so many products at that point, and I was really overwhelmed, and so as a way to simplify that business, we took all of our basic, entry-level courses and put them into the membership site.  So now when someone joins, they’re able to take those entry-level courses, and then get all the extra bonuses and more advanced content that we add in every month, and I think some of the lows have definitely been dealing with the technology.  Figuring out the right platform for myself and for our users, and also figuring out what our members expect from a membership site.  There was a disconnect there for a while where I thought getting back to a question or responding to a question within a day or two was a perfect amount of time.  It turns out that is not what our members want.  They really want that feeling of having myself or a member from our team sitting by them.  And so now we implemented an internal, four-hour response time to questions.  And so we have each of our team members take shifts, and we respond to the forum in that way, just because that is so important to our members, and if that’s what they need, I’m happy to deliver that for them.

Tara:  Wow.  Do you do anything to kind of manage expectations within the membership community?

Michelle:  We have.  We have worked on, this is something that I’m not very good at, is I think explaining the details of how things work.  It’s something that I’m working on behind the scenes and in the front of my business, and so we’ve developed more welcome to the membership site documentation, this is how it works, this is where you need to go to access this type of information, and there’s still so much more we can do that I’m excited to add to the site to help that process, but that’s been a big way, I think, that being just really open, and almost giving them a behind the scenes look.  Like hey, this is why we work in this way, because these issues will pop up.  I think versus just laying out rules hasn’t worked as well for us, but when you explain why certain limitations are present or why we have certain policies, people seem really open to working within those policies as well.

Tara:  Yeah, I think that’s such a great point.  So it sounds like you’ve really been very intentional about creating an onboarding sequence that allows you to do your best work and allows people to get their best experience out of the game, too.   Awesome. 

So you’ve mentioned your team a couple of times.  Let’s kind of transition into talking about that.  Tell me about what your team looks like right now.

Michelle:  So we have what I feel is a large team, but it’s probably not that large for a lot of businesses, but everyone who works at Pattern Observer also works as a designer in other ways.  So they have their freelance job going on.  So we work primarily contract, with contract workers, and so we have Chelsea, who I’ve worked with for five years, which is amazing that we’ve worked together that long.  And so she works on client projects, she works in the studio, she also is the community manager for the Textile Design Lab, and she’s really my right-hand woman.  We’ve worked together for so long and we think alike, so it’s really easy to communicate with her in that way.  I also work with a couple other designers within the studio, and they also help with our social media.  That’s something I’ve struggled with is balancing all the different social media platforms, and so I have people who help me with that.  So basically, this is something new that we’ve implemented that seems to be working, where each week, I create a marketing guide for our business, because we’re a design blog, so we have lots of design blog posts.  It’s not like we’re just publishing one post a week.  We normally have four to five posts each week.  So that’s a lot of content to share.  So each week, I create a marketing guide, which kind of explains each posts and gives a visual that then our team can share across all the different social media platforms is one way that we’ve kept our message cohesive while still allowing me to have some help with all that.

And then with our team, my husband, Ken, works on all the websites and also is really just support.  You know, I talk through all my issues with him, and he really helps me and guides me when making large business decisions.

And then I work with a copywriter, Michelle Hunter, who is amazing, and she’s really helped me to grow my business while being so busy with family and other things as well.

Tara:  Oh, that’s fantastic.  I didn’t realize you were working with Michelle.  That’s great.  So you mentioned family.  You had a baby last year was it?

Michelle:  I did.  Well, we had our second daughter, Cora, in April, so last year, and then we have a three-year-old daughter, Ruth, as well.

Tara:  Okay, all right, awesome.  I didn’t think the timeline was making sense in my head.  That makes a lot more sense.  So those, having babies, obviously, are two huge life events.  How has growing your family affected kind of the operations behind your business on a day-to-day basis?

Michelle:  It has affected the business tremendously.  I mean, having babies is a lot of work.

Tara:  It is.

Michelle:  And, but I think for me it’s been really, really good in a number of ways, one of which is I had to really streamline our business, and I’m pretty cutthroat now about if I should not be working on something, I find someone else to work on it.  Which is why we have so many different people working in our teams.  I have to really be strategic with hey, is there someone else who could do this better than I could do this, or if I’m not doing something well, then I know that’s a sign that I need to either pass this off to one of our team members, or look for someone new to add on to our team.

I also think, so right now, I only work three days a week, because our daughter Cora’s only nine months old, and so having that downtime from work, or those days that I am spending most of my time with her, give me time to think a lot about the business, which is great for me, because I’m very impulsive. And so if I have time to make lots of decisions and add on lots of projects, I’ll do that, but if I don’t have time, like I don’t know, then I can really think through my decisions and make sure that they’re in line with our larger goals, and then think about the best way to implement those decisions.

Tara:  Oh, that is so good, because I am super-impulsive, as I think you know, and I, you know, I’ll come back for …  We’ll come back from a weekend, and you know, Rosie and Breanne are like, “What do you mean you’ve done these six things?  That was not part of the plan?”  So I’m so glad you brought that up, and I think, you know, people worry so much about not having enough time to work on their businesses, but so often, you know, we have, you know, the things that we are working on expand to fill the time that we have, right?  And so it sounds like what you’ve done is intentionally limited the amount of time that you have on your business, both I’m sure from a productivity standpoint and obviously from a personal values standpoint, but done so in a way that actually really supports the growth of your business.  Would you say that’s true?

Michelle:  Definitely.  I think, you know, so working with Michelle Hunter as an example.  I had to reach out to her because I just did not have time to do all the writing that I needed to do to grow the business, but you know, having that team member now has enabled us to grow the business in so many other ways.  So now she really knows our business, and she even points out holes in our content, or where maybe we should focus on next, and you know, advises in that role as well, and I think if I hadn’t just been so busy, I never would have thought to, or I never would have asked for help, and I think asking for help has really helped me to grow the business this year.

Tara:  Mm.  So you’ve talked about kind of delegating a lot of things that you either didn’t have time for or that, you know, you just didn’t like doing or weren’t, you know, weren’t especially skilled at, but I think that you know, as your business grows and you step into much more of an executive role instead of one that you’re just doing everything, a do everything role, there comes a time when you have to start delegating stuff that’s much harder to delegate.  Either delegating stuff that you like doing or delegating stuff that, you know, you can do, or delegating stuff that just seems impossible, like no one else could do this.  Can you tell me about one or more things that you’ve delegated that have been kind of really difficult to hand off either mentally or operationally?

Michelle:  I think handing off the copywriting was really difficult at first, because I felt I was worried that it wasn’t going to be authentic.  You know, if I’m not writing every word, and then I sign my name at the bottom, is that bad?  It was really scary for me to do something like that.  I think that was a big leap for me in terms of working with someone who’s at, you know, a higher price point, and really brings more into your business in that way, but this is something that I still struggle with.  I mean, now I’m looking to people who can consult on an even higher level, and it’s very scary for me to make that investment and to know that it’s going to pay off, and so this is something that I’ve actually been obsessing about on my days off.  When I have all this time to think is how do we take it to that next level, and who’s that, who are these new team members who I need to bring on to get, take the business there.

Tara:  Yeah, can you talk about that a little bit more?  What are some of the … what are some of the, you know, plans that you’re working through or the, you know, checks or balances that you’re putting into place as you start thinking about investing even further into the growth of your team?

Michelle:  Yes, I have been working, you recommended this, and so I hope that’s okay to say.

Tara:  Of course.

Michelle:  This is all coming from you, but … so I’ve really been focused on the last week even, part of what I’ve been focusing on is developing an organization chart for 2016.  So obviously not right now, at the beginning of 2016, but at the end, what do I want my business to look like, and I think that’s been incredibly helpful to think, to almost give myself that space instead of oh, I need to hire these people tomorrow, because that’s how I’ve felt in the past.  There was a little bit of panic there.  Giving myself some space to think about what I want my business to look like at the end of the year and then what revenue do I need to create to be able to afford those people, basically.  So I’ve been looking at the revenue expectations for this year.  You know, where can we make some tweaks, maybe add in a new workshop so that we can afford one of these higher level team members.

Tara:  Got you.  Brilliant.  Thank you for sharing that.  So how, kind of piggy backing off of that, how do you plan to grow your community, or you know, just your whole audience base over the next twelve months?

Michelle:  Again, I think advertising I’m hoping is going to be really big for us, since that’s something that we haven’t gotten into in the past.  Things have been working pretty well for us that I really just want to continue what we’re doing, continue our message, continue being really active on social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, and reach out to new designers in that way.  We’re also trying to; we have a new product geared towards graphic designers welcoming them into the industry.  Because I think as fun as this industry is, it can be a little intimidating to designers who come to us from other design industries, and so just explaining to them how they can so easily apply what they know from their industry into our industry is kind of a way that we’re trying to welcome new people as well.

Tara:  Oh, I love that.  So you’re really kind of putting intention behind kind of nurturing and grooming a whole new audience for your business.

Michelle:  Yeah.  I love thinking about, you know, when someone comes to our site from, you know, a graphic design background, or maybe a fashion background, what are they looking for and what do they need, and where can we help them in that way.  I think that’s a really interesting part of running a business is to really get inside the mind of your customer and your community, and how to reach out to other customers in the same way.

Tara:  Mm.  Well, you know, I love that, too, and that is just such an amazing takeaway, I don’t think, it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, if you’re looking to grow your community, grow your audience, reach new people that you haven’t reached before, you really need to be thinking about what do they need to know to be able to make the best use of what I’m offering, and so I love that that’s, you know, something that’s on your agenda for this year.  Awesome.

So can you tell me about a time when you felt like the Pattern Observer business was sort of out of control or off the tracks and how did you get it back on track?

Michelle:  Definitely.  So one of my, one of our most difficult times was, I believe it was January of 2014, which wasn’t that long ago that we made this huge mistake, but we decided to launch a redesigned website, a membership site, and a new workshop all on the same day.

Tara:  Oh my Lord.

Michelle:  I don’t know what I was thinking.  I think I was just so excited about the workshop, and so excited about the membership site that I said, ‘Well, I need a fancy new website, blog,” you know, “as well.”  It should all be new and pretty and exactly how I want it to be in my head.  I mean, it was just a disaster, because as you probably know, as prepared as we are, and as much as we test new websites and software, there are always issues.  There’s just, I mean, I’ve never worked on a project where there hasn’t been some sort of issue, and so we had three new systems that were in place, and it was so difficult to pinpoint where, you know, the code was wrong within those systems and why things weren’t working, because it was all so new.  So there was so many areas where the mistake could be, and so I really get, I get very upset with customer issues.  When someone isn’t happy with someone or something, or when someone can’t login to the site, those things really upset me, and so we were getting lots of emails, not complaints. I mean people weren’t angry, but they just weren’t able to access the materials that they were excited to dive into, and so that was just a really hard time, and it actually took months to get all the issues ironed out, and I almost gave up the entire business and just went back to painting.  That’s what I just kept saying.  “I just want to go paint.  I don’t want to deal with these issues.”  But I’ve learned so much about running an online business since then.  I mean, really need to take things slowly and release things.  Don’t try to do everything all at once, and just releasing products more slowly and just taking time with the process and making sure that you’re testing for weeks and weeks before you launch something versus one weekend before.

Tara:  So coming out of this kind of massive failure, for lack of a better word, where you’re launching all of these things at the same time and trying to make this giant change all at once.  How has that affected the way you both kind of plane for the future and the way you handle yourself when something goes wrong?  What did you learn out of that situation in terms of what you need to have in place when things go badly?

Michelle Fifis, founder of Pattern Observer and The Textile Design Lab, on Profit. Power. Pursuit. with Tara GentileMichelle:  I think taking things very slowly is first and foremost.  Just understanding that okay, if we’re going to add something new to the website or if we’re going to launch something new, let’s do it in steps, test it, and see how it goes before adding something else to the website.  But you know, larger picture than that, I think it’s, I’ve calmed down a lot in my business since that time, and I’ve just learned that mistakes are going to happen, and again, communicating with your community is just so important, and that we are bigger than the mistakes.  Or our businesses are bigger than the mistakes.  Bigger than, you know, one product that doesn’t succeed, and we can work through those, and if you’re just honest, and again, give lots of gifts, then you can really, your community will accept that, and you can just move forward.

Tara:  Yeah, so communicate and give gifts and do things incrementally.

Michelle:  Yes.  Yes.

Tara:  Yeah, I love that, and I love what you said, too, about making sure that everyone has some perspective that your business is bigger than any one mistake.  I know that’s something that I coach my team on a lot is that, you know, yes, someone can be unhappy, or yes, we can have a technical problem, or yes, they cannot get the right download link for an eBook or you know, whatever it might be.  As long as we address the situation promptly, it doesn’t have to be something that you get stressed out about it, and I think that the more you can kind of train yourself out of that stress response, the more you’re able to do exactly what you just said, communicate, give gifts, and do things incrementally.

Michelle:  Yes.

Tara:  Awesome.

Michelle:  And I think it takes time.  You know, that’s something that it’s really easy to just listen to and get, but it takes being so stressed out and just being so exhausted from that stress to realize that that stress isn’t that helpful, and it’s not really helping anyone, so taking that action, and listening to your community and figuring out how they would like to be compensated, you know, for those mistakes.  Or maybe there doesn’t need to be compensation, but you know, how can you look to the future instead of just worrying about what’s happening is so important as well.

Tara:  Yes.  So tell me a little bit more about how you actually tackled the problem.  How did you organize the issues?  How did you approach the infrastructure?  Kind of take me through that a little bit, because I think this is something that people often get really tripped up on.  Either once it’s happened or the fear of it happening as well.

Michelle:  So a big part was our community is awesome, and so they were, so when someone had an issue, we, my husband developed, you know, specific questions to ask them.  Can they give us a screenshot of why, what was going on when an issue occurred?  You know, what type of computer were they using.  We really tried to get all those details, because details can make a big difference when you’re trying to analyze software issues, and I’m definitely not that knowledgeable about code or things like that, but this is kind of from my perspective what we did to solve those problems was we had a set of emails and email responses to some of the popular issues that we were having, so that he could then figure out exactly why those issues were having.

And then on my side, I think I just did, you know, again, communicating with our members, letting them know what was going on, and then giving them lots of free stuff made me feel better, so that’s what we did as well.

Tara:  Nice.  Communication solves a world of problems, right?

Michelle:  It does.  Instead of just, you know, sticking our head in the sand and just ignoring that those problems were happening, we really confronted them head on and were just very honest with what was going on and gave everyone, you know, months of free memberships and just did whatever we could to make our designers feel like we were hearing the issues that we were having and that, you know, they were almost willing to work through the issues with us, which is an amazing feeling as well.

Tara:  Mm.  So here’s a question that I ask almost all of our guests as we start to wrap up here.  How do you balance the roles of artist and executive in your business?

Michelle:  I think that’s been one of the most difficult parts of the business.  They both come fairly naturally to me.  I’ve always been very interested in business and entrepreneurship, and obviously the artistic side of things as well, but combining them into such a busy day has been very difficult.  And I think now I’ve kind of been working on my mindset with this, and designing from more of an executive perspective.  So now I guess I gave myself a promotion to creative director, and so I’m working more on developing high level trend concepts and high level collection concepts and then passing it off to my team.  You know, I still have to play and experiment, or I still get to play and experiment I should say, in order to stay fresh and be able to teach these techniques to other people, but within the past year, that’s been something I’ve been working on and struggling with is how do I juggle this growing teaching business with a design business as well, and so I’m hoping that the studio answers part of that struggle as well.  And so figuring out that maybe they aren’t as separate as I once thought in the past.  I used to have a set design time and then a set business time, and I’ve really been trying to merge those two, actually, and come to my design time, my design work with that executive hat on as well.

Tara:  That is fascinating.  I think we’ve had a different answer to that question every single time I’ve asked it, and no one else has talked about combining things in that way, and I think, you know, even more than just seeing the artist and the executive as two sides of the same coin, I love how you talk about really elevating your own position so that you can have both of those hats on at the same time, even if that might look funny.

So what’s next for Pattern Observer?

Michelle:  The studio is what I’m really excited to play with and see how that goes.  So you know, again, I really want it to become a teaching studio, where we employ designers from the lab and give them that hands on experience, and I don’t know how it’s going to work out, but that’s part of the fun of it is just playing with that as well, and then I hope the site and the membership site are just going to continue to grow.  I’m looking for more collaborative opportunities with other experts in our industry is something that I would really like to do more of within the next year or two.  So I’m hoping to see more of that as well.

Tara:  Fantastic.  Well, Michelle Fifis, thank you so much for joining me.

Michelle:  Thank you so much for having me.  I loved chatting with you.

Tara:  Me, too.

You can find Michelle and her free training on turning your art into patterns that sell at  You can also find her on Instagram @PatternObserver. 

Next time on Profit. Power. Pursuit., I’ll sit down with author and business consultant, Pam Slim, to talk about the role martial arts has played in the development of her business, her indispensable community tour, and the shifting focus of her brand.

That’s a wrap for this week’s episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit., a CreativeLive podcast.  Download more episodes of this podcast and subscribe on iTunes.  If you appreciate this kind of in depth content, please leave us a review or share this podcast with a friend.  It means the world to us.

Our theme song was written by Daniel Peterson, who also edited this episode.  Our audio engineer was Kellen Shemezu.  This episode was produced by Elizabeth Madariaga.  You can catch up on older episodes in the iTunes store, where new episodes are added every week, and learn more by going to