The Golden Gate Bridge is iconic, and it warrants instant recognition.
But have you ever thought of it as a brand? Below, I’ll discuss seven business lessons you can learn from one of the world’s most well-known pieces of architecture.
1. Keep building your brand
I live less than a mile from one of the world’s most enduring brands, the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s served as the internationally recognized symbol of San Francisco since 1937. In 2005, I fired my lame art representatives and started making art full-time, and selling it myself. I got to keep all the money, but I also had to build my own brand. Never having started a business before, I did not know exactly where to start. Just as artists looked to other artists for inspiration, I looked to the color, passion, and simplicity of established brands for inspiration, such as:
- Tiffany’s, as an example of the enduring power of a brand’s color. We all recognize Tiffany blue boxes. My first website was inspired by Tiffany’s.
- Dolce and Gabbana, two designers who combined their shared passion for Italy and feminine curves to create a distinctive elegant style and a massive following. I remain true to my passion of color inspired by nature.
- Yuko Shimizu’s simple Hello Kitty started with a vinyl coin purse in 1974. When Hello Kitty turned 40 years old in 2014, this cat was doing $7 billion a year, without advertising. I’m always reminding myself that it is the simple ideas that take hold.
2. Create a strong first and last impression
My live/work studio looks out directly across the Pacific Ocean. In the dark of late night and very early morning, I watch luxury cruise liners coming and going under the bridge. Every passenger’s first and last impression of San Francisco is a fleeting, glowing glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge under the inky night sky.
Art galleries don’t offer a very warm first impression, and representatives want to keep collectors and artists at a distance. Art galleries are stiff, cold, and intimidating. Why is everyone whispering? I do my best to build a warm and authentic personal connection with my collectors.
3. Solve important problems
The Golden Gate Bridge solves a problem worth solving. It links San Francisco to Marin County. Without it, I would have a very long drive to wine country. The problem, or opportunity, that I observed was that despite the fact that our travel memories are often our most cherished, the only things readily available to remember them by in Napa Valley are tacky souvenirs and scenes of Tuscan vineyards. I set out to offer a meaningful quality alternative with my original oil paintings created in and of local vineyards, and exclusive edition fine art reproductions.
4. Create highly functional beauty
Bottom line—design is vital because it communicates value. Not only is the bridge highly functional, it is classically beautiful, like the very best user interfaces and branding. I love design—in art school I actually majored in industrial design and minored in graphic design. I was a horrible painter in art school; I learned how to paint later. I’m keen on design because it is creative problem solving of the highest aesthetic order.
5. Remain flexible
Entrepreneurs can meet unpredictable challenges best when we remain flexible. The Golden Gate Bridge has expansion joints so that it can bend under the pressure of earthquakes.
When I first started my business, I painted wineries’ vineyards, sold them the reproductions at wholesale, and they hosted me at wine tastings where I sold the original oil paintings. Initially, it was a good plan. I received national press including features on HGTV and in Fortune and the Wine Enthusiast magazines.
[pullquote]Entrepreneurs can meet unpredictable challenges best when we remain flexible[/pullquote]
But my foundation was rocked. A very big winery had me complete 100 paintings of their five Sonoma vineyards, and then they decided not to bother to host me at wine tastings. I had a lot of inventory and no productive sales channel to sell it. I had way too many eggs in one basket. Then another reputable winery did the same thing. I had written contracts with both of them but I could not afford the legal fight. This earthquake and aftershock sent me into a financial tailspin. Once I steadied myself I focused my attention on private commissions, and found that not only would collectors pay me upfront, they were more pleasant and easier to work with.
6. Anchor yourself in the bedrock
The entrepreneur must dream, yet be grounded and practical to thrive. The graceful design of the Golden Gate Bridge draws your eyes from the ocean up toward the California sky. This structure may reach toward the heavens, but it is made of steel and it is firmly anchored into the earth, into 100-feet of solid bedrock.
When I announced that I was moving to one of the most expensive cities in the nation to paint for a living, for the first time, a number of people thought that I was as high as the Golden Gate Bridge. But I knew that my practical corporate gig was sucking my soul, and that is not very practical. So I established a specific goal to sell over $100K of my art in 2005. Then I wrote and maintained a project plan to do it. My practical business skills came in handy, and I exceeded my goal.
7. An entrepreneur is an artist
Joseph Strauss, the main architect of the Golden Gate Bridge, was not only an ambitious engineer, he also happened to be a poet. Reminding me of my friend Dr. Elliot McGucken’s wisdom (nicknamed Dr. E by hip hop-mogul Russell Simons and Dr. Dre): “Every artist is an entrepreneur and every entrepreneur is an artist.” Highly successful entrepreneurs are natural creative problem-solvers. Every business, and every artist, must solve a problem to succeed.
There are big problems with a lot of art:
- Art galleries are disconnected from the artist—they’re flat, cold, and frankly, they’re boring.
- Art is mostly experienced as decor, or like background music, where the artist remains generally anonymous and the viewer has no relatable or meaningful context to help them connect with the art or the artist.
- Many travelers want to buy art to celebrate their memories, but what’s available to them as art is mostly unrefined and cheap souvenirs.
I solve this problem by:
- My collectors actually enjoy buying directly from the artist over art galleries. And I take full advantage of that by building a relationship with my collectors.
- I deliberately invite people into my creative process with the intention of providing a meaningful context and making my work relatable.
- Travelers are seeking local flavor. My art is inspired by my adopted home. Each piece is an authentic reflection of a place and a moment in time.
These are some of the lessons that I have learned, but I’ll be the first to admit, I’m still learning.