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Back of the Napkin Friday Fails: Failure as an Idea Generator with Kelly O’Neill

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Karen Stoychoff

In this Back of the Napkin Friday Fail, Kelly O’Neill, owner of Fusion of Iron and Earth, talks about intrinsic value, knowing your worth and tooting your own horn. Plus, Kelly reveals her favorite Detroit Coney. Listen to the episode.


It is hard to imagine Kelly O’Neill, owner of Fusion of Iron and Earth, ever failing. Especially given her in-depth knowledge of the Detroit Coney. “American is my favorite,” said O’Neill. “I like mine with mustard and onions.” 

That alone should make her immune to any pitfalls that can occur as a small business owner.  Alas, even Detroit Coney knowledge is not all-powerful.

O’Neill first experienced failure in what many have claimed to be the biggest stage – high school sports. “I was an athlete (track and tennis) and not a very good one in the sense that we lost a lot,” said O’Neill. “I lost a lot of meets and I lost a lot of matches.”

It is hard to gauge how those early losses shaped her for dealing with setbacks later in life. It is much easier to see the influence her father had in that area. During her Back of the Napkin episode (The Art of Business and the Business of Art), O’Neill shared how her dad journeyed from candlemaker to photographer and eventually to potter; watching as he learned new crafts and the failures that he had. “The failures provided the best surprise and the most joy,” said O’Neill. “A failure would lead to maybe a new series of art that he would do.”

Knowing Your Worth and Tooting Your Horn

The old saying is “time is money.” Valuing your own time and knowing what your time is worth, and therefore knowing your worth is a valuable lesson. O’Neill got a lesson in what her time is worth when she took on a commissioned project early in her artistic career. As the project became more time-consuming, O’Neill realized she had underpriced it. She determined she made roughly $2 an hour.

Knowing her own worth as an artist, and then making it known, was the key takeaway. “As an artist and as an individual business owner, you are bringing something unique to that customer that has a value,” said O’Neill. “Not just a commodity value, but intrinsic value. Know what that intrinsic value is worth and making sure you charge for it.”

O’Neill thinks that is an important challenge that all business owners – and specifically female business owners – must overcome. It is not enough to work hard and hope someone recognizes it and tells others. You need to toot your own horn. “You are your PR spokesperson,” said O’Neill. “Know your value, know your worth and make sure that everyone has an opportunity to hear it from you. Don't wait for someone else.”

Bike Trail Fail

There are times when tooting your own horn and knowing your worth will not help when you are in over your head. O’Neill recounted an unfortunate fail when she was hired to make a trailhead sign sculpture for the city of Farmington as part of a bike trail through Michigan. “I was so excited because I was going to have, not only a piece of public art, but a permanent piece of art that would be mine, that would be purchased by the city,” said O’Neill.

The city loved the design, which O’Neill would create from recycled bicycle parts. She was introduced to the company making the posts on which to mount the sculpture. "Can I see your sealed engineering designs? I need to know the wind shear results," said one of the engineers.

Not having any idea what ‘sealed engineering designs’ were. O’Neill spent a week researching to see if she could deliver on that. “It was at that point that I realized there was no way I was going to be able to build my design the way I wanted to,” said O’Neill. “That was my first epic fail.”

The other potential fail was that the city would not meet their deadline. O’Neill was able to put them in touch with another artist and avoided that, but the sting still hurt. “I felt so bad in disappointing them,” said O’Neill. “At least I was able to recover by finding another artist to finish the job.”

From high school sports to bicycle signs, O’Neill has managed to take the lessons from failures to continue her successful career. While there is no scientific proof, the Detroit Coney can not be overlooked as a significant part of that. Pass the onions and mustard.

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