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Aletta de Wal
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Aletta de Wal
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Huguette May

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Welcome to our series of interviews with artists who are making a difference in their communities. My primary goal is to inspire you with living examples of people who make a living in any economy and who consider being an artist a real job and valid choice of profession.

Fire Bowl Artist John T. Unger: Remaking the World from its Broken and Cast Off Pieces

There is often additional information on the recording that is not in this written interview.  Inspire yourself and listen while you make art.

For 15 years, John T. Unger was a poet and writer. He found it a difficult way to make a living and turned to graphic design, which he used to illustrate his own writing. As his fine art piled up, he started showing it to make room and money for new work. One year when he had only 7 days of graphic design work, against the well-meaning advice of his friends, John decided to become a full time artist. He admits that making a living in the arts can be difficult and the first few years were hand-to-mouth, but after a while he built enough of a reputation and signature body of work that it is now a successful business.


I'll bet you didn't know that recycling is a fine art. John T. Unger's art is just that.

"I believe that creative re-use has the potential to spark new ways of looking at the world... if one thing can be turned into another, what else can we change? Successful recycled art and design encourages creativity in others - it's alchemical, magical, subversive, and transformative by nature. My sculptural work is a way of demonstrating in concrete physical terms that the world and the items in it are not as obvious, limited or easily identified as they appear at first glance. It allows me to engage my audience to be more creative in their own daily lives and to think more creatively about the world around them.

"As an artist, my job is to communicate ideas clearly, reach people emotionally, inspire or incite change and to fill in the blanks in the world... finding new ways of seeing things, or creating the things that don't exist but so obviously should have once they do.

"My creative mandate is 'sustainable design with an edge.' Just because we're good doesn't mean we have to be boring, right? I think there's a place for rock n' roll to dance with environmental responsibility in a house shakin' way. If green products are to compete in the market, they need to be sexy, sleek and chic - cooler than new."

A.C.T.: What prompted you to start your professional art career?

"When the dot com crash of 2000 wiped out most of the design industry at the peak of my career as a freelance print designer, I went from turning away work every week to working exactly 7 days of the next year. I lost my girl. I lost my loft. I lost part of my thumb in an accident moving out of the loft. I pretty much lost it all.

"Of course, the only reason I was working in offices was to fund the art career I wanted… materials, space, tools, etc. I worked eight hours in the office and ten in the studio, sleeping when I passed out involuntarily. I decided that if my industry had tanked, I was damned if I was gonna retrain to do something else I didn't want to do. I chose to make the art be my sole means of support. I built some monumentally scaled commissions working out of borrowed shop space, with borrowed gear, sleeping on borrowed couches.
"It worked. I've been making my living as an artist ever since, and these days I earn five times the income I ever did from the best corporate gigs."

Unger NY Times

© NY Times 2010. Though John T. Unger lives in a small town, he is able to sell his firebowls, constructed of quarter-inch steel, all over the world.

Credit: Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times


A.C.T.: What makes an artist professional?

"The question that defines a professional from a 'non-professional' is 'Does your art support you?'

"When you are a professional artist, you don't spend all your time in the studio. You have management tasks, business tasks, and marketing tasks.  The amount of time I spend in the studio is not as much as I spend in the office."

A.C.T.: What is your artistic direction? What is your "life's work" as an artist, i.e. what legacy do you want to leave?

"Because I was a poet for a long time, I feel it's really important for the meaning of the piece to be encoded in in the materials. I choose my materials not just for the structural requirements but also how they relate to what I'm trying to say. I try to come up with designs where it's not obvious what the materials are. Ideally it looks like it's made new.

"I started out being fascinated by Haitian and African art, which has a lot of metaphor and pattern - but it's non-repetitive, like jazz and blues. That one idea really changed everything for me because I work a lot with non-repeating patterns. There's a narrative because things move and your eye completes the movement. That helps the piece extend itself beyond the moment it's in. There's a visual depth I try to go for so you never really see things twice when you look at my work.

"Surprise and beauty are a good start, but I expect more and so should you. As an artist and designer, I am intensely committed to sustainable design practices and materials in the following ways: I work primarily with recycled or re-used materials. This is the best way I know to minimize my impact on natural resources, climate and the environment. In addition, I feel that creative re-use has the potential to spark new ways of looking at the world... if one thing can be turned into another, what else can we change? Successful recycled art and design encourages creativity in others - it's alchemical, magical, subversive, and transformative by nature. I feel that can only be a good thing.

"I design for permanence. Most of my objects will last generations with little or no maintenance. I try to create objects that will never go out of style by drawing from primal metaphor and classical elements of design that speak to what it means to be human and alive.

"I design for functionality. My work is intended to be useful as well as beautiful. I enjoy the practical aspect of art and feel that engineering is as critical as ingenuity in the creation of solid works of art. Where possible, I design for easy disassembly for shipping or later re-use of materials."
The Great Bowl O' Fire

The Great Bowl O' Fire

"The public response to my firebowl sculptures is on a much deeper level of meaning than purely decorative or functional work. From the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago to the Iron Horse Biker Church of Axtell, Texas, my sculptural firebowls have been commissioned by a number of churches of different faiths, who apply their own meanings to the work in their Liturgies and services.

"But a design need not be complex to hold deeper meaning. The simpler designs of my firebowls are a direct tribute to and study of modernism. My Isosceles Modern, Font O' Fire and Big Bowl O' Zen were inspired by such artists and designers as Charles and Ray Eames, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns. The Sunfire was inspired in part by the 1947 Ball Clock created for Herman Miller by George Nelson, Noguchi and Bucky Fuller. The simple geometric forms of these sculptures are in no way required for the function of the object, and in fact the sculptures are often purchased with no intention of actually using them on any regular basis (or at all) to hold fire. The Isosceles Modern is just as often used as a bowl, a decorative element, or as a surface to display other items.

"In most of my art that uses recycled materials, my goal is to transform the original object so thoroughly that it appears to be made from scratch. I shy away from creating work where the source materials can be easily identified unless the history of the object specifically plays into the meaning which I intend to convey with the art (as with the pay phones for the Venting Machine project, since the phone is one of the most common ways we express our frustrations). In many instances, by taking a discarded object which was once useful and making it useful again in a totally different context, in a completely new way, I am able to show connections which are not obvious, draw parallels between seemingly unrelated ideas or create social commentary which hopefully illuminates cultural practices or better yet opens those to question.

"As Gabriel Guzman writes in The Daily Book of Art 'Who would have thought that a bowl of fire could be so beautiful? Artist John T. Unger's art portfolio ranges from bottle-cap mosaics to furniture, but he is perhaps best known for his amazing
BottleCap Fish Mosaic No. 50

© John T. Unger "Bottle Fish cap Mosaic No. 50"

firebowls. Hand-cut out of recycled steel, these bowls combine sculpture and function to create unique works of art with industrial flair that provide warmth and an exciting centerpiece for events. When in use, the flame-like edges of these bowls cast mesmerizing shadows that dance across the ground, acting as part of the art.'"

A.C.T.: What is your art business direction and what are your business goals?

"One of my main goals is to design more work that I do not have to exclusively make. I'm doing more with wholesale now; working on new designs that are more customizable so that different vendors can have exclusive designs. I will have these manufactured from my designs.

"The more successful I get with the art and the more demand there is, the more I realize that I can make only so many pieces. I have hired more people to help me get things done. I have a professional art accountant, a sales rep who gets a percentage, a full time studio assistant, and a part-time office assistant. I'm probably making less money as a result of supporting so many other people.

"So prices on the work that I make myself are going up 30% and I will raise them every six months for the next 18 months, because of demand, the increase in cost of materials and my support team. Down the road I would like to focus on more one-of-a-kind sculptural work again.

"Every year there's the business side and some large project for 'giving back.' Like 'Art Heroes Radio' for podcasts on art marketing advice.

"Next will be an e-commerce project that will make it easy to put your art up on the web anywhere you want to, because the tools that I've wanted aren't there."

Unger NY Times

© NY Times 2010. John T. Unger also makes sculptures out of shovels.

Credit: Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times

A.C.T.: Where and when will you have a retrospective?

"I've given a lot of thought to a retrospective. I think it would be hard because I've sold most of what I've made. And in the early years, I was not good at client records. My work has changed a lot. When I first started it was mixed media work. A lot of it wasn't archival which is part of the reason I shifted to steel and mosaic. When you start out it can be amusing to think that one day conservators are going to have a hard time fixing your art. Then you get a little older and more mature and you realize it's not funny at all. If you really want to have a lasting impact on the world with your work, think about that quite a bit."

A.C.T.: Please describe a typical day, and a typical month so readers can understand how you manage your time, money and energy.

"Relaxing makes me tense, so I tend to put in a lot of hours on diverse projects. You have to choose what your focus is going to be when there are 23 or 4 projects going on at the same time. Right now I am applying for a patent for the new firebowls so I have to make the prototype, work with the patent attorney. Plus I have the radio show; firebowls to make; videos for each firebowl; redesigning the web site; learn about my new shipping company process; new supply sources for the base of the firebowls ... stuff can pile up!"

"A typical day ... there's a pattern that is variable but it's sort of consistent.  I get up some time between 10 and noon, have coffee and deal with e-mail and Twitter while I'm waking up. For the rest of the business day it's mostly phone calls and e-mail or time out in the studio. Around 6 or 7 my wife and I have dinner and we set aside 4 to 6 hours that is really just our time. That's really important because if you are self-employed, working 70 to 80 hours a week, and you want to have a relationship, you have to allow time for it. Then later I may do more e-mail or project work. Obviously there are times when I might take a whole day or two in the studio.

"Most of my work is 'on demand' so I get the order, make it and go back to other tasks. I'm doing less speculative work than I used to. It would sell but then I also have to make time to get it up on the web, etc. Some of the smaller pieces take about 4 times as long to photograph and get up on the web as they take to make.

"It's all the same thing in the end - I wake up most days thinking about how I want to change, fix or improve some aspect of the world. And after a couple cups of coffee I get started on it. My specialty is impossibility remediation: if it can't be done, I'm on it.

"All I really care about on a daily basis is forward momentum. Fix this, deal with that, ship this, and solve this problem. For me, it's all in my inbox - if it's there, then there's something I need to do before I can file it and it's done. If the person responds, it's in my inbox again. If they don't, I don't chase them anymore. If they want to move forward, the ball's in their court. The big picture is more consistent but there's less obvious movement.

"I actually take downtime now, which is something I never used to do. I've decided that I should enjoy some of this too."

Unger NY Times

© NY Times 2010. John T. Unger of Mancelona, Mich., sells most of his steel firebowls through  

Credit: Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times

A.C.T.: What peak moments have you had as an artist?

"The most exciting is coming up with a great idea for a piece of work. It beats getting press or money, especially when you really surprise yourself. Others:
  • "Getting mentioned in the New York Times. That generated an ungodly number of sales, which was really cool but I chose to try to keep to the 3 to 5 day shipping time that I promise - and I didn't ship a single piece late!
  • Being in books by other authors and having my pieces in the books and on the back cover.
  • Michael Moore and his wife bought a large piece from me.
  • Being included in a show in a museum in Haiti."
A.C.T.: How do you define success and how do you celebrate it?

"I think there are a lot of people who look at me as a successful artist - I'm making a living and I've gotten a lot of good press, and the money's not bad. I do celebrate by going out to dinner, shout, 'woo hoo!' and dance around a little.

"But I'm kind of competitive and whenever something good happens, I say, 'OK - what's next?'  So there is no end point of success - you just keep topping yourself and up your game. I've said that Picasso is my totem animal - he was a genius, and changed the face of art, was incredibly prolific, had a lot of good work (not all of it) and worked in every medium. My goal is to beat Picasso on all of those fronts, which is never going to happen, but if I try, I can beat 80% of everyone else.

"Once you are successful people are generally unsympathetic to any problems that come about because of your success. So it helps to have other friends who are successful and get some sympathy instead of 'Oh, nice problem.' And it's great to have some friends that are a little ahead of you, so that you kind of have an idea of what's coming."

A.C.T.: What obstacles have you encountered in your art business and how have you handled them?

"The biggest problem right now is finding the source materials to recycle. There are only a couple of scrap dealers in a radius of 200 miles willing to sell me the propane tanks for the firebowls, and only one who is reliable. So when a size is out of stock I have to take it off the web site and promote it only through the newsletter. The supplier for the bases has decided to go out of business altogether. I am changing to a new freight supplier who is global and that will make it easier to ship overseas once we learn their system. For a lot of these problems you can find a new business partner but eventually you are going to have to solve that problem again - and that's a little frustrating. I think, 'Oh, I'm done.' And then I find out 'Not so much.'"

A.C.T.: What opportunities has a professional approach to your art career brought you that you might otherwise not have had?

"Oh that's a fun question! If I could pick the tagline for my reputation, it wouldn't necessarily be artist - it would be genius or something. Obviously I have the physical skills to make art but what's more important is the thought and problem-solving skills that go into art - which is something that I apply across a lot of different disciplines, like software and e-commerce. Part of the reason it works is that I've trained myself not to make assumptions. It's like the concept of the professional amateur - someone who comes into a space without professional training and does a great job anyway maybe specifically because by lacking that training, they are going to ask questions differently.

"The opportunities I've gotten are to work with some incredibly brilliant people who in the past I would have admired from afar and I thought would not be not approachable. So a lot of the people who would have been heroes, and are at the top of the food chain in whatever they do, are peers - they know what I do - and they have become friends. Having access to those kinds of people with those kinds of minds is probably one of the most rewarding things I do.

"That's what I love about Art Heroes Radio. Once a week I get to call someone brilliant and ask him or her whatever I want about what they do - and they answer!"

Art Heroes

A.C.T.: Who are your role models and mentors? What was the best advice they gave you?

"When I first started selling online, Seth Godin was an influence, and still is. I learned a lot about selling art from Hugh McLeod, and now he's selling his own. Now he attributes a lot of what he does to me but it's really stuff that he said first that I'm putting into practice. It's a little circular and it's kind of fun. Brian Clark at Copy Blogger taught me a lot about writing copy and headlines.  Naomi Dunford at said things I already knew in an entertaining way so I would give them another pass. I've read Alyson Stanfield's book and Blog.

"I think at this point there's not much that I'm seeing anybody say that I don't already know and do. A lot of teachers, coaches and consultants talking about marketing on the Web are mostly talking about courses and e-books. Not a lot of them are talking about physical product - like art, except the ones talking exclusively about selling art.

"I've grown the business to the point where there's a certain amount of danger in being able to fulfill orders and being able to keep the bottom-line low enough that I'm actually making a profit. I'm particularly interested in scaling. How can I do more - more projects, make more art without exhausting myself or the market, without the costs over-running the profit. It's a lot of infrastructure stuff these days."
Unger Great Bowls O' Fire at Tiki Beach, Grand Cayman

© 2010 John T. Unger Great Bowls O' Fire at Tiki Beach, Grand Cayman

A.C.T.: What is your art marketing strategy? How do you incorporate social networks?

"My basic art marketing strategy is 'Make really cool stuff and then talk about it.' I'm very active on Twitter. Initially only my actual friends followed me, so I could say things that were a little more off color and non-sequitor, and I kind of miss that. I have about 2500 followers and I have no idea who most of them are. I assume they follow me because of the art or the marketing. Mostly I try to share some of the behind-the-scenes stuff about the studio, what I'm thinking about and tips on art business and marketing. Every now and then I go on a mini-rant that might be better done as a Blog post, but I don't really Blog much anymore because I don't have the time and I write really slowly.

"The web site is my main place where people come to me. I try to use good stories to illustrate what I'm talking about; good photographs - some from clients; good videos for the firebowls so people can see them going.

"A big part of the marketing is that I do give back and that gets people talking.

"My audience, fan base, and friend base is pretty evenly split between the art, art business/ marketing and software crowd. There's a lot of interesting overlap.

"I recently hired my first assistant and had her go through my customer database and find everyone on Face Book and Linked In and friend them. I learned a lot about people that way that you don't get from their email or Twitter feed. On Face Book I saw that we had a lot of friends in common. I personally loathe Face Book but over the next couple of years, I am focusing more on using it to keep in touch. On Linked In, I noticed that a lot of people had titles starting with a 'c' in technology companies. By not focusing exclusively on people in the arts I am selling art. Before they bought artwork, I hadn't interacted with any of these people, but they have common interests so probably heard about me from other friends. There's something there that I need to explore a lot more - just to get to know them so you can have an ongoing relationship. Through these social media I learn a lot more about who the demographic is. The Google map I use that shows me where I've shipped firebowls shows that a lot of people live along lakes and oceans; certain regions are thick with them. The only state I haven't sold to yet is Iowa.

"I think there's kind of an unfortunate adversarial - 'Us vs. Them'- relationship between artists and customers: 'they have money to buy art and we don't.' The bottom line is that if they like your art, you have that much in common - and probably have a lot of other stuff in common with you that you can talk about, even though you might not agree on everything. I plan on learning more about who these people are that are on the other side of the Shopping Cart - what else do they like, what can I do to make their lives more enjoyable, whether I make a buck from it or not."

A.C.T.: What changes have you experienced in the art market and how have you navigated them?

"In some ways, I started some of those changes for some people. I got in early. I was selling art on line before Etsy existed. I don't want to sound overblown about this but I navigated the changes by pioneering. I used to make my living predominantly via commission work and gallery sales on consignment. A couple of years ago I stopped doing consignment altogether because I have to do accounting for work that has or has not sold. I just don't have time to keep track of it. If the art never leaves the house until it's paid for, I only have to keep track of what's sold. I also find that if a gallery invests money in the art, they'll put a lot more effort into selling it because they want to recoup their investment and reinvest. If they get it for free. There's no real incentive.

"I did the Ann Arbor Art fair in the summer of 2010 and it is the last art fair I will ever do. I sold one firebowl. We spent more money to get there and back than we made. By comparison, while I was away I sold 5 on line. Doing art fairs takes a lot of time, money and work. A lot of artists are successful this way. There are a lot more art fairs than there used to be and still only so many dollars to go around. There is a lot of work sold made outside of the U.S. and the jurying process is not as stringent as it used to be. A lot of art fairs have become a lot more about entertainment. There's nothing wrong with that, and I love putting on a little show but it's no longer practical or desirable for me.

"I do fewer commissions. They are fun, I get to make something new and interesting, but nothing totally new goes smoothly the first time. I'll spend ten times as much working on it so unless the pay is commensurate it's just not worth it. Besides if I am working on a commission, since the studio is pretty small, I have to suspend work on the firebowls, and that's not fair to the people who click the 'Buy Now' button and think that 'now' means now. I'm still open to doing some commissions or customizing a firebowl a little bit, but the project has to be extremely cool, extremely lucrative or extremely high profile, or all of the above. Again, sometime I'd like to go back to that but in the meantime it's just not practical."
Fiery Fleur-de-lis firebowls on Lake Okanagan near Kelowna, BC

© 2010 John T. Unger Fiery Fleur-de-lis firebowls on Lake Okanagan near Kelowna, BC

A.C.T.: What legal measures do you take to protect your work? Have you had to take legal action?

"Just writing copyright © on your art or your web site does not get you any legal protection. You can only write a 'cease and desist' letter. Technically you have copyright but unless you formally register with the copyright office and get a piece of paper, if it comes to enforcing your copyright, you are not able to go to federal court. If you do file and go to court, you are automatically entitled to have your legal fees paid and may also be entitled to damages. It's very important and not very expensive. It's a little more difficult than it should be because of the website, but once you make your way through it once you know what you're doing. You can pay more and file on paper if you want.

"I did send a 'cease and desist' letter to someone over the firebowls. We did have formal copyright but we had filed for it after this. They sued me in court to have the copyright overturned. Eventually we settled out of court and I did get them to stop. I didn't get any legal fees or damages; I paid out of pocket, mostly out of a fundraiser. If it had not been for the Internet I would have literally been bankrupted, ruined and actually be homeless now. While it's an uncommon situation, by the other party bringing suit first, if I did not counter sue, by default the other party would have won and taken everything I owned. Challenging the suit ended up costing me everything I had. In the end, we won, but it cost us a little over $60,000 to get back to where we started.

"The new design that I'm doing is more of a patent than a copyright situation. Whether or not I'm granted the patent, I'm allowed to say 'Patent Pending' for the first period of time until they decide.'"

A.C.T.: What advice would you pass on to emerging artists who want to succeed in any economy?
  • "Price your work high. When the economy is bad, the people who stop spending money are the ones who don't have that much to begin with. The people who have a lot of money are still spending it - maybe not as much or as quickly and thinking about purchases a bit more. The low end of the market is a lot more crowded. You are competing with China, big box stores, hobbyists, retirees, students - and all of those people will undercut you. It's a 'race to the bottom' where everybody loses.

"Whereas on the high end, there are fewer people who can afford you but they can afford you more readily. You do have to justify those high prices. If you're going to sell at the top end of the market, then you'd better be good! Your marketing and materials, your craftsmanship, your concept, your social networking, your social proof all better be good. It's a lot easier for me to raise the prices on the fire bowls when I can say that Sandals Montego Bay has one, they were in the New York Times, they're in books, all of thee restaurants and hotels resorts, The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago bought one for their Easter vigil. Be able to say all that and to show that you have really happy customers, that you are a pleasure to deal with, that you can be counted on to ship early and ship right. That's why all of the time in the office is important, because no matter how good your art is, in order to justify the higher prices that will actually make you a living, you need to be able to demonstrate that you're worth that money.

  • "Don't cheap out. When you're buying materials and tools, spend more and go high end on that too. If you are a jeweler and like silver, to get the higher prices you have to go for gold, even though it will cost you more. If you are a painter, buy really good paint, really good canvas, get the expensive brushes that give you more control. Whatever it is that you need to do the best work you can do, get it. If you have to forgo cable or make some other sacrifices to get the best for your art, do it - it's a good investment.
  • "Have a merchant account. Mine cost me about $200 to set up, $40 per month plus a percentage. I notice that a lot of artists are reluctant to invest in that. When I started, I had PayPal and was selling about $20,000 of art a year, gross. When I added as an option, my sales went up to $100,00 per year, for the cost of about $2,000. Of the purchases, 95% use and the rest Google or PayPal. Do the math! If you don't want to pay the fees, consider that you will pay a gallery at least 30% - 50%, so 3% - 5% really isn't too bad. If your prices won't support that, then you are not pricing your work high enough to sell in galleries. Start by raising your prices 5% to offset the cost of the payment system. Getting a merchant account and making it easy for people to purchase is one of the best. It also looks more professional. I don't accept cash, only checks or credit cards.
  • "There's always the temptation for artists not to report all income. You are probably going to get caught, and it's not worth it. But more importantly, your prices are based on your sales. The value of your art is based on proof that you can sell it for what you sold it for. Even if you have to pay an accountant, which for me is $250 per month before we do the taxes. If you have a sales record that you can verify, it's a lot easier to get galleries and buyers interested, because they know that you're not just pulling that number out of a hat.
  • "There's a lot of debate about whether or not to list your prices on your web site. Absolutely! If you tell me that I have to e-mail you for the price, it's a pain. I'm not going to do it, I'll assume that I can't afford it, or even if I can afford it, the fact that you're not posting it in public makes me think that you might be giving me a different price than somebody else. That makes people really uncomfortable. If they ever find out that you are charging different prices in different circumstances, it can really ruin your reputation rapidly and forever, especially with galleries. Integrity is the backbone of your career. It's more important than the quality and freshness of your work.  
  • "Be authentically who you are. The more you can comfortably share without over sharing, the better. The more you talk about your process, methods, how you meet your deadlines and your challenges, the more people will relate to you. 
  • Obviously the quality of the work is very important. If the art's no good, it doesn't matter how good the rest of it is. But you have to do all the business stuff right too."
A.C.T.: How do you recommend that artists develop their careers? Based on what you know about A.C.T., how can artists best use our resources?


"When I interviewed you on Art Heroes Radio about  'Dispelling the Myths and Clichés of the Artist's Life,' I remember being very impressed with that and if the rest of your book 'My Real Job Is being an Artist' is as good, and I'm sure it is, artists should definitely buy it when it comes out.


"Your one-to-one coaching can be very valuable too. If you are struggling to get all this done, or to prioritize, or figure out what art business and marketing tools, then working with you would be a really good call, especially if you need someone to hold you to your deadlines and goals.


"I cheat and call my friends, which I am sure that some artists reading this do as well. I have a business coach who comes up with really cool ways to solve problems that I might not have thought of, and holds me to the course, if not to the task."