How much time do you spend skirting around uncomfortable subjects? Whether it’s relationships, money or career, we generally shy away from frank conversations and instead settle for something less that requires little confrontation. Nobody likes to be rejected – that’s one reason – but another is that as women, we’re conditioned to keep the status quo rather than encouraged to sway the boat. I’m not talking about being aggressive or pushy, rather using simple, clear language to effectively get what it is that you want. State it from the offset and it’s more likely to manifest—people aren’t mind readers, after all.
This is how Katharine Earnhardt likes to do business and rather than upset the apple cart, it’s become the thing that differentiates her. While her expertise may be rooted in art — Mason Lane is an art advisory service that pairs customers with affordable wall pieces – she owes the success of her business to the way she communicates. “Being honest, transparent and communicative are invaluable traits that will guide most business (and life) decisions,” she emphasizes. “There is no benefit to competing with your colleagues, putting down your competitors, or cutting corners to make a quick buck.” By applying this mindset to every facet of the business, Mason Lane has grown exponentially, consistently garnering new clients and creating positive experiences for the customer.
Business development, Katharine says, is all about making other people comfortable. It’s about being clear from the start about what you can and can’t deliver, and setting expectations both parties are happy with. Aside from communication and good customer service, Katharine talks us through some of the strategies she puts in place to buffer losing clients, how much time to spend on acquiring new customers versus maintaining existing relationships, and how networking is one of the easiest and effective steps you can take to grow your own business to the next level.
THE EUREKA MOMENT FOR MASON LANE & THE COMPANY’S USP
When I moved into our first home in TriBeCa, I had been working in the art world for 10 years and was not quite sure where to get art that I could afford. Many friends were in the same position and would ask me for advice. I was totally engrossed in the upscale art market at the time and started to extensively research the more affordable, emerging market and the people who needed this art. There seemed to be a huge disconnect as people didn’t know where to find such art.
What makes Mason Lane unique is that we broadly define “art” to mean anything that can finish your wall, and we don’t carry our own inventory. In this way, we are working objectively on behalf of our client, sourcing ideas and options from anywhere to get clients styled, finished walls that exceed what they could ever conjure up on their own.
HER MISSION TO MAKE ART FEEL APPROACHABLE
I read a book called “Plain English for Lawyers” (with zero intention of becoming a lawyer). It really made me think practically and communicate in simple, efficient terms. This had an oddly large impact on me and has influenced the way I do business. It’s different from other people in the art world, where more abstract communication is often valued, but to me, simplicity and clarity just makes sense.
HER BACKGROUND HAS ALWAYS FUSED ART AND BUSINESS
I majored in Art History and Economics at Williams College when that combination was considered strange (maybe it still is?) because people saw those fields as being mutually exclusive. I later got my Masters in Art Business from Sotheby’s, and subsequently built a career in the business side of the art world. I worked in the management office of MoMA, in business development at Christie’s, then in business development for Gurr Johns, a boutique art appraisal and advisory firm. All of this was before launching Mason Lane to help bridge the disconnect between the intimidating art world and those who wanted to learn and buy. One of the biggest takeaways from my past experiences is that being honest, transparent, and communicative are invaluable traits that will guide most business (and life) decisions. There is no benefit to competing with your colleagues, putting down your competitors, or cutting corners to make a quick buck.
THE KEY THINGS TO THINK ABOUT IN GROWING YOUR CLIENT BASE
To me, business development is about making other people comfortable. That means being genuinely engaged in your communication with them and being clear about your business process; time lines, follow-ups, summaries in writing, and regular touch points without being annoying or insincere are key in developing any kind of productive relationship. I can’t stand poor customer service in my own personal life, and witnessing what not to do can be an education in itself. Treat every client as if they are your most lucrative. Lower paying clients should not be made to feel second class, and you never know how someone can be directly or indirectly helpful you in the future. That said, time is finite – don’t waste it on activities with minimal impact on your bottom line, and get support when needed. I split my time 50/50 between working on existing clients and acquiring new ones; it really depends on the time of year. Work can be cyclical (few people want to buy art in August) and marketing efforts take months to implement, execute and be effective so I keep that in mind and plan accordingly.
MISTAKES TO AVOID WHEN PITCHING NEW BUSINESS
Sounding desperate and inauthentic – would you want to do business with someone who sounded this way? Probably not. People who sound comfortable and confident are those that I would want to do business with, and in this competitive, consumer-driven world, that’s the impression I try to convey to my target market.
SMALL STEPS YOU CAN TAKE TO UPLEVEL YOUR BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY
Meeting others, getting inspiration, and making connections is incredibly valuable. Small networking groups can be as useful as large ones; just find one or more with like-minded people that inspire you. When I was at Christie’s, I was advised to go around the room at a business event and approach people I don’t know, rather hang around those I do, which is obviously more comfortable. Your goal should always be to make as many quality new contacts as possible in any given situation. Go into each networking opportunity with the goal of learning one thing. It doesn’t have to be signing a new client or selling a product that minute; just try to learn one thing – it can be a new connection, a new channel to explore, a tendency you want to avoid, etc. This approach enables you to have a continued education that ultimately furthers your business.
But networking alone is not enough. Instagram is taking over the world, and personal outreach is impactful. I find a multi-channel approach is essential to reach your audience and motivate them to work with you. Not all channels will be fruitful, but that’s a good data point to have as well, as your strategy evolves.
MASON LANE IS A CULMINATION OF ALL HER PAST EXPERIENCES
Many people in this industry stay within one track, and they become a specialist in one area. That can be excellent for pursuing a specific role, but for me and my business, flexibility is key; I help a variety of clients with diverse needs, and I wear a lot of hats as the head of the company. Learning about art appraisals, art storage, marketing, financial modelling, corporate investing, and employee training are just a few of the areas I had direct exposure to before launching Mason Lane, and that have been directly applicable to my role today.
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