Sunday, December 14, 2014

Chip Tate and the Plight of Creative People

If you haven't been following the saga of Texas micro-distillery Balcones and its founder, Chip Tate, I won't try to bring you up to speed here. The Waco Tribune has covered the story very well from the beginning, for which we should all be grateful. Their most recent story, which reports the conclusion of the current chapter, is here.

I say 'current chapter' because Balcones will continue and Tate will be back. His new manifestation will be in Waco, he says, so the story should stay interesting.

Balcones under Chip Tate has been one of the leaders of the young micro-distillery movement. Its products have been original and delicious. Up until the recent troubles its story has been pitch-perfect too. In a year when craft distillery fakery was all in the news, Balcones was usually pointed to as a new, small distillery that became successful the right way.

My attitude now is that the parties have settled their dispute. What was said was said, and you can't unring a bell, but there is nothing to be gained by rehashing it or trying to dredge up new details. There is nothing to be gained by knowing more except to satisfy our voyeurism, which is a pretty small good for speculation and commentary that will inevitably be very hurtful to people who deserve more respect and care from us than that.

(To that end, I will not approve any comments that do not follow these guidelines.)

I think it's fair to say that a Tate-less Balcones is a fundamentally different company. It will be judged on what it does going forward, just as Tate will be judged on what he does going forward. What they did together is on the record. That entity is gone. It's what is to come that matters now.

All of the parties are to be commended for bringing it to a conclusion quickly and not compounding the damage already done. The most supportive thing we can do as fans is look to the future and hope all parties will do the same and thrive.

That said, this saga has caused me to reflect on what sometimes happens to creative people in business. 'Creative' can be a tough word to talk about in the first person, but I spent most of my career in the world of advertising and marketing communication, where 'creative' is a job title, the name of a department, and the term used to describe the work product itself, as in, "have you finished the creative for the new campaign yet?"

In organizations of all kinds, managers sometimes think of employees as mere cogs in a machine, each essentially the same, easily interchangeable and replaceable. That's always a mistake, because every person is unique. Managers who think that way often do so because they are convinced it is they who make all the difference, not the people who work for them. But mostly it's a problem that happens when managers who come from one discipline are charged with managing people from a different one.

In part, I was raised to be sensitive to this problem. Dad was an engineer for an appliance manufacturer. He complained endlessly about the 'bean counters' who cared too much about cost and not enough about product quality.

For me as a freelancer, I have to be wary of prospective clients who shop for creatives like they're shopping for a new phone. Hiring the right creative is more about the ability to connect and communicate with that person than it is about how much they cost or even whether or not you like their past work. When it's apparent that a prospective client has no real idea what I do, I back away. You have to, because it's bound to become a problem eventually. A client, or boss, who fundamentally doesn't understand what you do can't direct you productively or evaluate you fairly.

Sometimes it's just an irritant but it can become a nightmare.

Creatives, therefore, have to develop the ability to spot bad bosses in advance and avoid them, but in a long career you inevitably miss a few. That can amount to a serious career setback or, at the least, a real solid period of unpleasantness, but you have to be true to yourself and pay the price to get back on track. You learn from it and move on. But, for God's sake, learn from it. Examine what blinded you to the warning signs. From my experience it's usually money, or fame, or prestige, or power, or something that looks like an easy score. Some or all of those seduce you and you don't recognize what you later realize was obvious from the beginning.

But if you really do learn from the experience (and I'm talking about myself here, no one else), then it's worth it.


Sam Komlenic said...


Anonymous said...

Chips plight was that which afflicts all businesses that opt to operate in the US, be it whiskey or widgets. It's easy to be a small business, and it's easy to be a big business. The problem is, running a business that is growing.

The primary problem is that the IRS requires you to book and pay tax on your net, even if you put 100% back in, to grow the company.

Venture capitalists love his dilemma. It gives them the leverage they need to structure the deals that many times end the was of Balcones.

If it wasn't for the requirements and romance of it all, whiskey production would leave our shores like every other industry.

Anonymous said...

Structure your company so you have no Net. That is what expenses, debt and depreciation are for. But yes, payables, receivables and growth can be hard to juggle especially without a certain background and training.

I never had the chance to pick up any Chip Balcones. Looking forward to his next venture.