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Crafty Business Questions: Etiquette April 10, 2009

Filed under: education,Feelings,networking,Starting Up — bizmiss @ 4:10 pm
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I got a lot of etiquette questions this week, so I’m posting all the answers below:

I’m just starting out, and I have lots of questions I’d like to ask successful business crafters. What’s okay and not okay to ask about?

In general, it’s okay to ask about process, not product, and it’s always best to ask for help from businesses that don’t compete with yours. For example, if you sell plush toys, it’s not okay to ask another plush artist where they get their fabric, who their distributor is, or what consignment stores they work with. Instead, try asking something like, “Can you recommend somewhere to start researching distributors/stores/wholesale fabric suppliers?” Then, instead of giving away their contacts/sources, they can give you the name of a trade association or web site where you can begin your own research.

It is also okay to ask a fellow crafter general business information, like if they can recommend any good crafty business books, marketing classes, banks, or bookkeeping software. Your successful accounting practices will not harm their business. Other things that are sometimes okay to ask about include who designed their logo/web site, and how they developed a good pricing structure. You can also ask non-competing businesses for general feedback on your Etsy store, packaging, etc.

If you are unsure about whether your question falls within the bounds of etiquette, try asking it by beginning, “Would you be comfortable sharing information with me about X? I totally understand if you’re not.” That way, it’s easy for them to say no and neither party has to resent the other.

I sell handmade toys with buttons that have clever sayings on them. Yesterday one of my customers told me she also wants to start selling (mass-produced) toys with clever buttons on them. She asked me for my button source and their pricing! I think this is really rude. How do I respond kindly without blowing my top?!

Again, this goes back to process, not product. How did you find your button source? How did you research pricing in order to comparison shop? It may be as simple as telling her you Googled the phrase “button makers” and then requested prices and samples from five local businesses. She still has to do the legwork, but you’ve answered her question helpfully, while insinuating that maybe it’s not so cool to ask a competitor for such specific information.

I’m thinking of applying for a particular craft fair, but I don’t know anyone who’s vended there. Is it okay for me to ask a random vendor (posted on their vendor page) how profitable it was for them?

This is a tricky one, but I would say yes, provided: you ask someone who does not sell competing products, you ask using the “Would you be comfortable sharing…” preface, and you don’t ask specifics, like “how much money did you make at that fair?” or “what were your best selling items?” Instead, stick to more general questions, like “was it worth your time?”, “did the customers generally fit your demographic?” and “would you do it again?”

Do you have thoughts about these questions? Do you have other etiquette questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them!

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Epiphanous: Jeffery Rudell March 12, 2009

How do you make a living off your art?  That, my friends, is the $50,000 question.  There are the standard models we all know about, but they’re all deeply flawed in the same way: in order to be successful, you need to spend most of your time on non-creative endeavors.

Take the typical gallery model, for example.  Unless you are sponsored by some incredibly well-connected patron, you need to go to graduate school, network like crazy, and then apply for shows, grants and residencies with the hope that you will secure one out of fifty.  All of this while maintaining some sort of day job.  Where is the time after all this to actually make art?

Then, of course, there’s the DIY/self-publishing model.  You can put up your own web site, or sell your art on Etsy, thereby bypassing the need to work within the establishment and their 50% gallery commissions.  But then you need to do your own publicity and promotion, not to mention shipping, web programming, bookkeeping, etc., still while likely maintaining a day job.  This can also often entail churning out dozens of the same (more affordable) product over and over, making you a manufacturer, not an artist.

Lastly, there’s the merchandising model.  Either through licensing images or having items manufactured, you get your designs into the hands of the public through mass-produced items.  This involves many of the same things as the DIY model, only you’re focusing more on sourcing manufacturers or licensors than you are on manufacturing products yourself.

I’ve been using a combination of the DIY and merchandising models for the past few years and while it is satisfying in many ways, it leaves me very little time to do creative work.  I spend most of my day on correspondance, order fulfillment, marketing and bookkeeping.

Then yesterday I read this article on CraftStylish by Jeffery Rudell and I had a revelation: here, finally, is the model for exactly how I want to run my career.  Mr. Rudell crafts for a living, and the actual creative process is what takes up most of his time.  Of course he networks and promotes himself–that’s unavoidable–but essentially he’s a freelance art-producer.  Magazines, stores, TV shows and other media commission him to create specific art pieces for photo shoots, store windows and tutorials, within variously flexible parameters.  This is very much like being a graphic designer (a route he came out of that I have also briefly pursued), but it involves working with your hands on three-dimensional objects much more often than sitting in front of a computer screen.

Okay great, so there’s a guy out there with a career I’m totally jealous of.  What am I supposed to do about it?  Follow all the steps Jeffery Rudell did!  Luckily for me, he’s a storyteller, too, so he couldn’t resist laying out his trajectory step by step:

Step 1: Create a gorgeous and variable portfolio while working a day job for money.  I just read about him yesterday and I’ve already drafted a long list of art-director-friendly projects to work on and I’ve applied for a part-time bookkeeping gig.

Step 2: Introduce your work to valuable contacts by sending them inexpensive, eye-popping “introductions.”  Send similar “thank yous” to existing clients so they don’t forget how awesome you are.

Step 3: Say yes to everything you can do or learn to do within the specified deadline, even if it seems difficult.  By embracing challenges you become a better artist and a more valuable asset.

Step 4: Value your work highly and price it accordingly, always remembering that people are paying you for your ideas in addition to your production hours.

Step 5: Remember that it is your job to communicate ideas, emotions and experiences, not just create a pretty product.  Mr. Rudell calls his promotional introductions “(souvenirs) of the experience people have working with me.”

I don’t really know what to call Jeffery Rudell’s job (prop-maker? production artist?) but I am determined to make it happen for myself.  More on my specific steps in later posts.

 

Worth Its Weight: NWBC Town Hall Meeting November 7, 2008

Today I attended a San Francisco Town Hall Meeting sponsored by the National Women’s Business Council–an advisory council that reports to the offices of the President and Members of Congress the issues that women in small business face every day.  While it is obviously important to make your voice heard to your representatives in government, our concerns as small businesswomen could have been collected via e-mail or online survey.  Such a method might have gotten more more responses (today’s event was limited to 200 participants) and certainly would have cost a lot less than holding a full-day conference in a hotel.  But I’m glad the NWBC didn’t go this route and I’ll tell you why:

  1. Networking.  It’s true that as one speaker said today, “women love to help other women.”  I had many more people approach me wanting to offer advice or moral support than wanting referrals or publicity.
  2. Resource sharing.  I have four pages of notes filled with nothing but the names of web sites, organizations and business services that other women at this event have used and can personally recommend.  I will be sorting through these in the next few days and reporting back which ones live up to the hype.
  3. Brainstorming.  I can come up with several issues I confront every day about which my elected officials should be concerned, but there are also some I almost never think about that are nevertheless important.  One example: a woman in our break-out section on micro-business mentioned something about sustainability, which reminded me that sometimes I feel frustrated that there are no incentives for greening home-based businesses.
  4. Sharing ideas directly.  I was able to speak directly to a member of the NWBC about my green home-office issue and she told me that this was an issue on which immediate steps could be taken, and would therefore be sure to bring to Senators John Kerry and Olympia Snowe of the Senate Small Business Committee.  Wow!  Also, an outreach member of the I.R.S. listened to me gripe about their web site: that the completeness of available information was excellent but that it is extremely difficult to navigate or search.  She recommended I use Publication 910 (her professed favorite) to find a list of the I.R.S.’s free resources for small businesses, and a full index of their other publications.  I suggested that this publication be made visible in the Small Business section of the web site, and while I was I surprised that she seemed suprised by this suggestion, she nevertheless thanked me for it and said she’d pass it along.  You just can’t beat direct results, folks.

Sure, the NWBC could have conducted an electronic survey, or just directed us Biz Misses to Obama’s new web site, but even in this age of online sales and networking, there is still no substitute for being in the company of your sisters.

p.s.  If you didn’t a get chance to attend one of their Town Hall meetings, you can e-mail the NWBC at info@nwbc.gov with your concerns.  There are only four women in the office, so they will read your message and get back to you.

 

San Francisco Small Business Week Begins Today May 12, 2008

Today is the first day of San Francisco’s second annual Small Business Week. As a truly microscopic business, I can’t actually afford to participate in a lot of this week’s events but there’s even some stuff for gals like me.

For example, this Saturday, May 17th, is the Citywide Sidewalk Sale. If your business is located in any of these neighborhoods, you can set yourself up a little table on the sidewalk for selling/promoting your business without having to go through the usual complicated and expensive permit rigmarole. The only thing to watch out for is that you don’t set up your stuff on another business’s property without their permission. The president of my neighborhood’s merchant association said I could park my stuff in front of his vintage furniture store so that’s where I’ll be.

I’m also really interested in the free seminar called “Buying Commercial Real Estate 101,” not because I am in any position to afford a building but because I dream of owning a bowling alley one day.

If you haven’t written a business plan yet, even if you’re already in business, I would recommend SCORE’s “Writing Effective Business Plans” workshop tomorrow. They’ve discounted the cost to $30 for the whole day (so cheap!).

There are lots of other little talks and workshops going on as well, with some of the main focus areas being green business and restaurants. Just look through the calendar on the web site for more info.

 

Useful Web Resources: Coroflot March 25, 2008

The other day, my good friend Eleanor over at The Present Group sent me a link to the post “Eight Things They Never Taught You About Networking”  on Coroflot’s “Creative Seeds” blog.  That post, and indeed, that entire blog, is a useful web resource in and of itself, but coroflot.com has a lot more to offer.  Now, I realize that many designers, especially if you went to design school, already know about this site, but I think it may actually be most useful to those of us without the benefit of a “career services” office.

Coroflot.com is a one-stop shopping clearinghouse for those longing to be part of the design industry.  You can create an online portfolio (really great if you don’t have the skills or funds to create your own web site), search for jobs, and create or join groups based upon shared interests, training or geography.  In other words, you can find a job you want, network with someone at the company and show them your work all in one place.  I started drooling a little over the posting for Chronicle Books’ semi-annual fellowships today.  Other useful things on Coroflot include the 2007 Design Salary Survey and Coroflot Magazine, which regularly features work from online members.

Tip: To keep your portfolio at the top of the stack, update it a little every day.

 

Portland and Seattle d*s Biz Lady Meet-ups February 26, 2008

Portland and Seattle ladies! Whether you have a successful design business already or are just thinking about making your craft hobby a full-time gig, you have to go to the design*sponge Biz Lady Meet-up.  This is one of the most useful informational events you will ever attend, not to mention one of the best networking opportunities available.  The San Francisco meet-up is what inspired me to start this blog in the first place, so GO GO GO!

The Portland meet-up is tomorrow, February 26th from 7-9pm at Design Within Reach Portland and the Seattle event is on Thursday, February 28th from 7-9 pm at Design Within Reach Seattle.

You’re supposed to RSVP but at this point, the ever gracious Ms. Grace Bonney is letting folks in anyway.  The event is free, but it is polite to bring a snack or drink to share with the group.

The meet-up is structured as a round-robin.  There are four speakers, who will speak about business financials, press and marketing, retail/wholesale, and successfully balancing life and work.  Everyone divides into smaller groups of four and spends about 20 minutes with each speaker before rotating to the next.  Bring a notebook and a lot of business cards with you and get ready to meet a lot of other very cool, like-minded BizMisses.  I met the super funny and very talented Christine Schmidt of Yellow Owl Workshop at the SF event.

I cannot stress the awesomeness of this event enough.  If can go, go.  I promise, you’ll thank me for it.

 

Finding Stores to Sell Your Stuff February 24, 2008

Okay, so you’ve got a brilliant, well-designed product. You’ve gotten the ball rolling on getting it made, and you’ve done all of your promotional work. After all this, you have a dozen orders to show for it. So what do you do now?

All of the press you get and marketing you do will only cover half of your sales–the half in which stores come to you. Despite all work that goes into creating marketing materials, sending press kits and exhibiting at trade shows, this is the easy half of selling, because any buyer who approaches you is 10 times more likely (in my personal experience) to place an order than a buyer you approach yourself. On the other hand, there are at least 10 times more buyers out there who don’t know you exist than those who do.

So how do you find good sales leads? You don’t just want to look names up in the phone book. Casting that wide a net will surely not be worth the time. Here are a few tips for finding stores that really fit your style:

  1. Go door to door. If you haven’t visited all the shopping districts in your area yet, this is a good place to start. You can take a good look around prospective stores and ask up front who does the buying. Usually it will be the store owner, who may be amenable to arranging an appointment to see your products. Store owners are also more likely to take a chance on a new product if it’s designed by someone local. One note, however: many stores will not want you to sell to more than one other store in the same neighborhood, so go for the big fish first (e.g. stores with additional locations in other towns).
  2. Shop online. Using links from a favorite blog or just searching for products similar to your overall aesthetic, you can find a ton of stores around the world that might be a good fit.
  3. Travel online. Starting with the cities closest to you, visit chamber of commerce or tourism web sites for links to stores in that area. AAA also has a huge online archive of articles from Via, their travel magazine, like this round-up of bookstores in the Western U.S.
  4. christopher jagminTrade! This is by far my favorite way to get info about stores. Contact an artist or designer you know in another city, or find a sympatico design buddy through a favorite web site or message board, such as Etsy or Craftster. Give them the names of stores in your area that might carry their products and receive some names in exchange. Last month in L.A., for example, I met a really nice designer named Christopher Jagmin who’s also releasing his first line. I sent him some stores to contact here in San Francisco, and he sent me some in Boston and Phoenix. Luckily, we’ve both seen each other’s products in person, so it’s easier to tell where we can really “see” those products being sold. If you and your design buddy don’t have this advantage, send each other a sample.

No matter what happens, be patient and keep at it. Many store owners are extremely busy, so it might take weeks or even months for them to place orders (or respond to your e-mail at all). That said, you should always follow up after giving them some time to look things over. It takes me an average of four to five conversations with any buyer before actually making a sale.