Business Lessons from VeggieTales

As you may have heard, a couple of years ago Big Idea (the animation studio that gave us VeggieTales) went bankrupt. As a result, Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber are now owned by Classic Media (which also owns Lassie and Rocky & Bullwinkle). VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer has posted a detailed description of what went right and what went wrong with the company. It’s fascinating to read, and I understand it is now required reading in at least one business school.

I am just a humble illustrator, but that also makes me a businessman. While I love my job, for the longest time I detested the administrative trappings that come with it. Budgeting, taxes, self-promotion, e-mails, paperwork, databases…I saw them as a necessary evil, a distraction, and a nuisance. It’s amazing how much time it all takes when I could be drawing instead. And talk about boring! But they are the engine that keeps my business running. If I neglect those responsibilities, I will soon find myself wearing a paper hat and asking, “Would you like fries with that?”

Fortunately my gracious wife loves doing administrative stuff, so I am in the process of passing those tasks off to her. What a blessing she is! The goal is that I’ll be able to spend more time drawing, and therefore bring home a little more bacon (which we will need with a baby on the way).

Now that that burden is lifting I find myself looking at the bigger picture. Strangely, my attitude is changing. I’m actually starting to get interested in the business side of things–self-promotion, networking, and the like. Maybe it’s a desire to have more stability in my career (freelancing can be incredibly stressful and chaotic, with relatively little financial reward). Maybe I feel the need to gain a foothold now that I live in the big city and swim with the big fish. Maybe I fear shipwrecking my career because of a bad business decision. Maybe it’s just my latest personal “fad” (I have a long history of getting curious about something, studying it ferociously, burning out, finding a new topic to fascinate me, and starting the cycle all over again). Or maybe I’m just getting older. But something’s changing. Suddenly the business side of things doesn’t seem so boring anymore.

I recently I stumbled upon a free trial subscription to Inc., a magazine for small business owners. I was sure it would be capital “B’ boring, but it was free so why not? It’s actually a very good read. I find myself soaking up the advice and tidbits in their articles, and reading case studies of business owners facing difficult decisions and asking myself, “What would I do?”. I’ve also been buying a few business books on It’s scary how much I don’t know. Artists’s are generally poor at business, it cuts against the grain of our creative, emotion-driven natures. All the more reason for us to learn. I may never run a big studio or hire employees, but there is still plenty I can learn from those who do.

Don’t get me wrong. I still love drawing. I will probably be creating artwork until the day I die, even if it’s just doodles on the paper placemats at the nursing home. But for now I want to learn what I can from the successes (and mistakes) of other business owners. Especially those in creative industries like art and animation. I’d rather learn from their failures than make my own. So I’m very grateful for Vischer’s honest and informative tale. His humiity and humor despite his mistakes is very inspiring. I have a feeling I’ll be following Vischer rather closely from now on to see what else I can learn. Maybe you should, too.