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What’s Your Lemonade Stand?

Money panic burns like bad whiskey, doesn’t it? But it creeps up instead of down. I felt the money panic start to grip me, as I realized my rent check of $795 was out in the world, but my bank account was creeping down to $900.

(BTW: Don’t feel bad for me, never feel bad for me: I don’t have money problems, I have money choices.)

After 11 days focusing on networking in New York, I had neglected the marketing and sales side of my business. I had no work lined up, and the process of pitching, discussing, getting assignments, executing the assignment, editing, invoicing, harassing for payment, then actually receiving a check made me feel like I didn’t know how I’d make it through this month.

My main client usually has work for me, and he pays his invoices on the same day like a saint, but he didn’t have anything for me at the moment. I went around Twitter and Facebook, mentioning that I was accepting clients. But it felt like begging.

In the weeks before, I’d been in talks to write for one of the most powerful women on Wall Street, one of the most famous guitar brands, and multiple people from the newspaper with the world’s most Pulitzer Prizes. But today, I needed a lemonade stand.

What is a Lemonade Stand?

Lemonade Stand. n. a personal mini-business from which you feel fairly confident you could make some money within the next 24 hours, including marketing, execution, and billing.

I know about this kind of hustle from living in South America, where people are hustling all over the place. Even a 10-year-old knows the pack of gum offered to you right now on a bus is worth more than a pack of gum a mile away at the store. You need almost nothing to create convenience for people. Last week in New York I saw a woman with a cooler full of drinks by Prospect Park on a sunny day. Same thing.

A lemonade stand is making work for yourself.

Get Hold of Your Assets

Your lemonade stand will always be made out of your assets.

Google says an asset is “a useful or valuable thing, person, or quality,” and also “property owned by a person or company, regarded as having value and available to meet debts, commitments, or legacies.” You want to have amazing assets.

An asset can be the $15 it takes to buy lemons, sugar, and the posterboard for your sign. An asset can be your time, which you can use to wash cars. My most amazing asset is my Fujifilm X-T2 camera, which I bought last year as an investment in travel writing and my career in general.

The camera offered the most immediate value: everyone loves a nice picture of themselves. Ooh, and, I realized, Mother’s Day was this weekend.

I took the rest of my business cards, counted that I had 45, and printed up labels as ads for the back. Just this action alone made me feel better, more in control. Hopeful.

The panic retreated.

Cost of labels: $12

Profit: -$12

Pricing

I usually charge $150 for a portrait, but I set my price at $20. Why? Because I needed people to say yes without having to think about it, do research, or debate. They couldn’t have a lot to lose.

This is something rich people know: Money you need now will never be as good as money you can wait for.

The next morning, at 9 a.m., I left my house ready to work all day. I literally saw an early bird with a worm in its mouth in the park, but I saw no families. I didn’t want to litter, but I wove a few of my cards into the tables at a local playground.

I went to the coffee shop to warm up my photography skills on barista buddies. One of them mentioned that she needed professional shots done, and she might call me. Which is a good point about the lemonade stand. It should have something to do with your regular job, so there’s marketing and networking built in.

First Sale of the Day

At 11, I got my first text!

Oh yeah, sales are exciting! Feeling like, well, a kid at a lemonade stand with her first quarter, I ran back to the playground and took some cute pics of my first customers.

Gross earnings: $20.

Profit: $8

Sneaky Business Costs

By noon, I was out of cards. I had to rush to FedEx Kinko’s to print more. I did so without asking how much it would be, which is a terrible habit I have.

Price for 100 cards: $33.

Profit: -$25

I didn’t get out of Kinko’s until 2, and I told myself I had to pass out every one of those damn cards before sunset.

Pitching

I kept tweaking my little speech. As a hardened urbanite who never accepts anything someone’s handing me on the street, I knew I had to be clever. I began the day by saying “Hi, I’m a writer and photographer…” Then I realized that started talking about myself. Not a great way to sell. Over time it changed to “Happy Mother’s Day. If you want some nice photos, I’m doing family or kid portraits for $20 today.”

If they just stared at my card, I said, “This has my Instagram on it. You can check it out and text me later if you’re interested.”

There is little that feels more vulnerable than literally holding something out to someone and having them not take it from you. But I have a masters degree in rejection called Peace Corps. It’s a long story I’ll tell you later, but no one prepares you as a volunteer for the possibility that you will offer your entire self for two years, and people might just go, “Eh, no thanks.” In many ways, that’s what happened during my service.

So mostly, having someone say, “No thanks” to my business card wasn’t that big of a deal, but I felt the match of rejection light and flare out every time as I walked away.

Only one person looked at me like I was a piece of trash being dangled in front of her face.

Dramatic re-enactment of how this woman looked at me the entire time I was talking to her.

Many other people said, “Oh this is such a great idea.” One women didn’t want one today but asked if I do maternity photos. (I do. By which I mean I can.)

I accidentally tried to give people a card who I’d seen before. “You got us down the road,” the woman said, “but keep at it.”

People respect the hustle.

Getting a Raise

I handed my card to anyone who looked like they were with their mother, and landed a group of ladies, two best friends and their moms.

After fueling up with my own iced vanilla latte, (I know), I posed them in the park, they told me they actually might need some writing help. It felt funny to tell them, oh yeah, I have a book coming out this summer. Like, “Well then what are you doing in a park selling photos?”

Working in a public place has its challenges. I took the ladies to a round enclosure where I thought they could sit on the wall, but found a piece of obviously human feces covered in flies sitting right in the middle of the enclosure.

“Nope, not here,” I said, turning around fast enough to spare them.

The woman looked up at the trees covering it, “Yeah, too dark.”

I posed them on a wall in Cal Anderson park, then a bench. “This is all still $20, huh?” said one, incredulous. “Yep!” I promised.

Then at the end, one of the women slipped an extra $20 in my pocket, and the other sent me a $10 tip over Apple Pay.

Profit: $25

I got one more nice young family on the playground, and then a huge family having a picnic at the park. It’s usually so hard to get that many people together for a photo. I felt happy I could do that for them.

The Lemonade Stand Business Model

A lemonade stand is not a scam. The goal is to bring actual value to people. You buy the lemonade from kids because they’re cute, but also because lemonade is delicious on a hot day of garage sale shopping. This is how I want all my business interactions to feel: the other party felt happy with what they got, I felt happy with what I got.

I didn’t want to sell on the cute factor, which meant people were just buying from me to be nice. I wanted to give them something they wanted. But also, people do want to support artists, so I did mention I was a local writer and photographer for 10% cute factor.

Profit: $65

Passing an acquaintance on the street, I took pictures of her and her daughter.

“Can I give you some cash?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll take some cash.” I wished I could have afford to refuse, but who was I kidding?

Profit: $85

As I passed out the last of my cards after 5 p.m., I saw four groups of people I knew in the park, including one woman I work with day-to-day. It did feel a little embarrassing, like “Uh, yeah, hi, I’m just running around selling photos for my secret meth habit.” But I decided whatever inside me felt embarrassed was not a part I needed to care about. Getting you ego pummeled is always great for you. You have to be willing to see dirt on your face, which is a metaphor until it really happens.

After 6 I was done, and I laid back in the grass with a contented exhaustion. I felt like I’d walked six miles, and I probably did. But I also felt proud of myself, a great antidote for shame and panic.

My go-to is to look for someone else to save me. I’d spent the day saving myself. And really, what did I do? I went around in beautiful weather taking pictures of cute kids, which is pretty much my definition of a good day anyway. That was the best thing about the lemonade stand, remember? It was fun.

What I’ll Do Differently Next Time

Ok, so $85 is not great, but it’s not nothin’. I’m already planning on doing this for Father’s Day next month. I think next time I’ll make a little A-frame sign and just stick to one location. That way I don’t have to approach people, possibly create litter, and spend money on cards. And I can just chill in one crowded park instead of running around all of Seattle. I’ll also display some photos of cute kids I’ve taken, and have a more prominent link to my Instagram. To get people to understand the idea a little more, I’ll call it a “pop up photography studio.” Everyone loves a pop up, it’s something they’ll get immediately.

A lemonade stand is a tiny business model, and like everything, I’ll get better at it with experience.

Seven Characteristics of a Lemonade Stand:

  1. Can get set up using assets you have
  2. Gets money in your hand today
  3. Is mostly made of hustle
  4. Brings value to the customer
  5. Has something to do with the kind of work you’d like to do
  6. Is a little fun
  7. Is repeatable

I think every freelancer, or even everyone should have an answer to the question: What will I do if I get in a situation where I need money immediately? Your lemonade stand is the answer.