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Works in Progress March 28, 2010

Filed under: diy,fairs and shows,Working from home — bizmiss @ 4:36 pm
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I know it seems like I’ve fallen off the face the earth, but really I’ve just fallen very deeply into a project vortex.  There’s lots to be done before WonderCon next weekend, and by far the  largest undertaking (literally) is a seven-foot-tall version of Mitch the Monster for Neon Monster’s booth.  Since I’ve never built anything of this scale before, I’ve had a few setbacks, mostly material-related.  The structural engineering of an 18″ stuffed animal is VERY different from that of a larger-than-human-sized display.

A. took this photo a few days ago when I was tracing out the pattern pieces on our living room floor.  It’s the only room in the house large enough to accommodate a single one of these pieces.  There are four of each of these pieces making up the monster’s body.  He’s still not quite done (I’m having eye issues), so I’m going to get back to it now.  I’ll be back to posting useful things in a week or so…on my brand new almost-finished web site!  Get psyched!

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Apparently it is Easy Being Green July 2, 2009

Did you know that in addition to running the Bazaar Bizarre and working full-time in science education, Jamie Chan and her husband Blas Herrera also own Urban Fauna Studio, the best little fiber arts shop in San Francisco?  It’s enough to make a girl feel downright lazy.  Ever the overachievers (and responsible business owners), Blas and Jamie recently went through the process to make UFS a certified green business.  Jamie agreed to share their experience with me so we can all become green businesses, too.

First a little background on their business: Urban Fauna Studio sells independently made and eco-friendly craft supplies and tools. They focus on ecologically and socially considerate manufacturing practices, products made in the US and handmade items. They host a growing community of consignment artists and crafters, all of whom are committed to bringing quality handmade goods to their customers.  At UFS you can also explore the fiber arts through a revolving series of workshops (see their calendar for details).  Blas has a background in environmental science and Jamie is a science educator. Both of them come from families that have long enjoyed the fiber arts, crafting and DIY.

Why did you decide to pursue green business certification?

Just because many shops are independently owned and selling green products does not make their business practice green. We decided that a more genuine commitment to sustainability was to get certified by the San Francisco Green Business program. SF Green Business helps San Francisco businesses adopt environmental practices that are sustainable as well as profitable. They set stringent criteria, provide technical assistance, and publicly recognize and promote Green Businesses with a seal that enables customers to shop in keeping with their values. The Program is made of up of three City agencies: the SF Department of the Environment, the SF Department of Public Health, and the SF Public Utilities Commission.  We are the first fiber art and craft shop in the SF Bay Area with a green certification. We feel this sends a message to our customers and our fellow business owners that our commitment to sustainable retail goes beyond selling green, we live green too. It’s not hard to do considering many of us engage in green practices in our personal lives.

What are the benefits of being a certified green business?

San Francisco Green Businesses can save money by implementing practices that lead to cost savings in energy, water, and garbage bills. We have sought out a greener web provider who uses 100% green renewable energy, Carbon Neutral, who was actually less expensive than our previous, non-green, web hosting provider. We also participate in Carbon Offsetting with our electrical company and reduced our garbage bills.

We use all non-toxic, plant based cleaning chemicals which make us feel safer in our workspace and for our customers entering the store. We buy 80% post consumer, chlorine-free, recycled toiletry papers, 100% post consumer, chlorine-free printer papers, and 80% post consumer, chlorine-free business cards and promotional materials.

We enjoy a marketing edge over the competition. Coupon books, web site listings and other promotional strategies are fine. But a certification system with this level of transparency about standards and regulations makes us feel secure that people will know we are not trying to “green wash” them with hype.  (**Blogger’s note: I was shocked by how few businesses are listed on the SF Green Business site.  I thought SF was so eco-forward….)

Blas spent his college career studying environmental policy and social justice and I have studied marine sciences. We have seen the data firsthand and know this planet is not heading in a good direction with our current rates of consumption and use.  He and I both care very much about the future of our environment and we want our business to reflect that. The biggest benefit is the peace of mind that this certification brings, that we are helping to make our local and global community better.

How long did it take over all?

We started the certification process right before we opened our shop.  So about 10 months.

What did it take to earn the certification?  Were there requirements you found particularly easy or difficult to fulfill?

We had to submit a written application and then a detailed table or checklist of actions we would take to make our business meet their retail business standards. Then we had a phone consultation with some follow up e-mails. There was an initial site visit from a consultant. Between that time we had more e-mails and to provide more evidence that we were engaging in green practices. This included taking pictures of certain parts of the store, providing bills and proof of certain services.  Then there was an on-site assessment to verify that San Francisco Green Business standards are being met. We had a few more things to change and follow up on after our assessment. After submitting our changes, our San Francisco Green Business status was awarded! We were listed on the site within two weeks and warmly welcomed into their community. Nothing was particularly difficult. It was at worst, annoying and eye-opening to realize how every detail of our business could be greener. We thought we were “green” already and it was good to know that someone else was there to ensure we got all the aspects of our business to be more sustainable.

Would you recommend the process to other crafters/designers or only to people with stores?

Yes, if your business is certifiable we would suggest it. They currently certify hotels, restaurants, offices, retailers and dentists. This INCLUDES home businesses….and we do mean you, indie crafters! Your studios, offices and work spaces within your home can be certified. It does not take a long time. Our case was an exception, most applications should be approved within 4-6 months.  There is really no reason not go through the process if you can devote the time. We estimate that we spent no more than 20 hours total on this certification process. The certification program in SF is free of charge.  Many towns have a green certification program…we encourage you to look at your options and get involved.

Did you get any help during this process?

Nope. We didn’t know of any certified green indie retailers at the time, but now YOU do! Feel free to contact us. We are willing to answer questions and in general help to promote other green indie craft businesses. The nice thing about being indie is that we all really DO need each other to make an impact in the world of corporate run, big box stores. Being green together, being transparent about our goals, is a good thing. Lean on people in your local business community, you’ll be surprised about how much you can gain from it.

Well, folks, there you have it.  I’m definitely going to look into this for my own home office.  Thanks, Jamie!  If anyone else has experience with this process or is thinking about becoming certified, please share below.

 

Ask Biz Miss: Self-Shipping Questions June 23, 2009

Is it worth all the trouble to give my customers multiple shipping options?

Well, that all depends on what you mean by “options.”  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend offering multiple carriers but it’s okay to offer multiple speeds.  In other words, choose just one company to ship with, such as UPS, FedEx or the US Postal Service.  If your web site’s shopping cart automatically calculates shipping costs, you can offer multiple delivery options such as First Class or Overnight, but if you have to enter those prices manually it may not be worth it to have to stay current with rate changes.  Some sites, like Etsy, never let you choose more than one service or delivery option to a given destination.  That’s fine.  Just add a line to your FAQs, policies, or product pages that asks customers to contact you if they need expedited shipping or prefer a different carrier.

Can I charge for “handling” if I ship products myself?

Absolutely.  I think it’s crazy that people believe their customers won’t buy from them if they charge more than the cost of postage to ship something.  Packing materials aren’t free and neither is your time.  Charge your normal hourly rate plus the cost of your shipping materials and postage.  For example, if it takes you five minutes to ship something (i.e. look up the order, pack it, address it and print out shipping labels) and you pay yourself $25/hr., you should charge $2.08 in addition to the cost of the box and the stamps.  This is not unreasonable.  If you still feel funny about it, though, feel free to lay out the charges in your FAQs or Policies page.  Don’t sweat it if a customer refuses to buy from you because of this.  You don’t want a relationship with someone who thinks your time is worthless anyway.

How can I keep the time and cost of shipping as low as possible?

Whoa.  Big question.  Let’s tackle time-saving first.  The most important thing is having the right supplies around.  I keep all of my shipping materials in one place, including a postal scale, address stamp, padded envelopes in sizes that fit my most common items, and the most common denominations of stamps I use.  I order most of these in bulk from places like Quill and Uline.  The shipping is usually free and my order often arrives in 1-2 days.

postalsupplies

My postal scale is a regular spring-loaded Dymo scale with the postage prices printed right on the dial.  I place my package on top, and the needle points to the correct First Class postage price so I don’t have to look it up.  The Priority Mail and Express Mail prices are also printed on the front in a grid.  My only complaint is that the replacement dials they send when the price goes up are slow in coming and expensive ($15).  I looked into postage meters, too, when I was first starting up, and I determined that they are not worth the monthly rental fee unless you send hundreds of First Class envelopes each month.

I keep tons of $0.44, $1, $0.17, and $0.20 stamps around because any First Class package can be mailed using just those four denominations.  It’s often much quicker to address an envelope by hand and use stamps than it is to go online and print out the shipping label.  On the other hand, if you’re mailing something that has tracking info or doesn’t fit in your corner mailbox, it’s usually better to create the label online.  The shipper will send the tracking info to the customer for you and you can drop off your shipments at the post office or hand them to your driver/mail carrier.

Now for cost-saving.  Firstly, the more you can store, the better.  Having space to save shipping materials allows you buy in bulk and and to reuse the boxes, bubble wrap, etc. that you receive from other senders.  Secondly, become familiar with shipping classes and delivery times.  For example, what the USPS defines as a “letter” can be surprisingly large, thick and heavy.  Just beware of uneven or weirdly-proportioned envelopes.  USPS machines can’t handle them so they require a $0.20 “non-machinable” surcharge (hence my stash of $0.20 stamps).  In another example, UPS always delivers Ground shipments within the Bay Area in 1-2 days.  There is therefore never any reason to pay the overnight rate on a local shipment.  It arrives just as quickly at the lowest price.

Thirdly, I’ll reiterate that you should use online shipping labels for any package that uses tracking info.  Most carriers will give you a discount on postage bought online.  You can also schedule a free pickup for most online shipments, which allows you to save on gas money.

Lastly, make friends with your delivery people.  Learn the names of your UPS driver and your mail carrier.  Ask them how they’re doing.  Leave them tips or gifts at the holidays.  Not only are they competent human beings who deserve to be treated as such, they are often happy to do you favors and help you solve problems with your shipments.

Most of the complaints I receive from customers have to do with shipping.  How can I avoid this?

Shipping issues are by far the most common complaints I receive from customers as well, but I’ve been able to reduce them significantly by posting clear and specific shipping policies to my website and Etsy shop.  If an issue ever comes up that isn’t covered by those policies or falls within a grey area, I solve the problem to the customer’s satisfaction and then update the policy page so it never happens again. In addition, I sometimes put the answers to the most common shipping questions on the product page itself.

You can also reduce the number of complaints by offering fewer shipping options.  This may sound counter-intuitive (customers prefer choices, right?), but it ultimately makes for less confusion and frustration.  You can always let the customer contact you if they’d like special shipping arrangements.  If you’re able to provide them, great!  Your customer will love you for being so accommodating.  If not, you can always return a polite explanation that references your shipping policies and leaves no room for argument.

Finally, always pack your items well. Like, to withstand being run over.  It doesn’t matter whether or not your customer opts for insurance, you’re an A-hole if the product breaks in transit and you refuse to replace it.

What are some common shipping issues you’ve faced and how have you dealt with them?  Please share your experiences in the comments section.

 

You’re Gonna Jealous: Awesome Studio Storage February 20, 2009

Yesterday I came across a post on Modish featuring creative and beautiful storage solutions in people’s studios.  I’m a sucker for tidy spaces, and this post made me want to makeover my own home studio immediately.  I was particularly amazed by the sheer number of scrapbooker Lainey’s storage ideas, which are labeled with notes in her photo.  If you like these pictures there are more in the other “Handmade Spaces” posts like “So Colorful,” and in the Handmade Spaces Flickr pool.

the studio of pink loves brown

the studio of pink loves brown

 

The Great Purge January 1, 2009

Happy New Year, everyone!  It’s almost noon here in Cali, and though I’m feeling a little worse for the wear, I’m also excited to begin a new year.  Being Jewish, I get to experience this excitement twice a year–at Rosh Hashanah, which I use as a time to reflect on my personal life and relationships, and on January 1st, as a time to reflect on my business, and other practical matters.

One of my favorite New Year’s traditions is The Great Purge.  Every year my husband and I go through the house, room by room, and take everything out of every drawer, closet and container.  We give/throw away what we no longer need, and clean and reorganize what we do need.

This tradition was born from Christmas.  We always finished up the holidays with bags of unwanted or duplicate gifts, and the gifts we wanted to keep, we didn’t have room for.  It therefore became necessary to purge the old to make way for the new.  Every year it seemed like we would be able to part with fewer and fewer of our carefully curated possessions, but in fact we end up with about the same amount of free shelf space every time.

The Great Purge is extremely therapeutic.  Every box we take to Goodwill feels like a great weight has been lifted.  Uncluttering my work and living space makes my mind feel similarly uncluttered.  I feel less stressed and sleep better at night.  I’m also able to work on larger goals without all the little stuff to get in my way.  With my house, files, and finances all perfectly in order, I feel ready and eager to tackle the year ahead.  After all, nothing inspires like a blank page.

Want to perform your own Great Purge?  The following resources can help you get started:

Good luck and happy purging!

 

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.

 

Worth Its Weight: Things October 6, 2008

My husband is a productivity junkie.  Every week he likes to show off some new piece of software he’s found that will improve his daily work speed by nine seconds, and I usually just smile encouragingly and walk away.  Occasionally, however, I try out one of these tools, and this time, I have found one that I love: Things.

Things is a to-do list/task manager for Mac OSX by Cultured Code.  Now, there are a LOT of list-managing “solutions” out there, and I’ve tried many of them, but I always ended up going back to a disorganized paper list, because it was just too inconvenient and/or slow to use software.  With Things, however, I never use paper anymore.

One of the reasons Things is so convenient is that you can type in a to-do item without actually having to be in the Things application.  If I’m working in Photoshop, for example, and it reminds me of some product pictures I forgot to take, I can hit a particular keystroke and a little black box pops up.  I can then type, “Take product photos” in the box, hit the Enter/Return key and my item will end up in my Things inbox, where I can sort it later.  At no point do I have to switch out of Photoshop to do this, so there’s no delay in being able to get right back to work.  Since I type faster than I write, this process is actually faster than using pen and paper.

At a good stopping point in my day, I usually open up Things to sort my inbox.  Like in other programs, in Things you have the ability to create projects and due dates to house your to-do items, but the most wonderful and brilliant thing about Things is that you can use tags as well.  Whats so great about tags?  It means you can sort your items by any category that is meaningful to you.  In most other programs, you can sort items by priority, due date, person responsible, etc.  All the usual office categories.  But by creating your own tags, you can sort items by where they occur, how long they take, or how fun they are.  For example, maybe you run most errands in three different places: your local main street, the street near your work, and the big box strip mall two towns over.  You can tag the errands you need to run with “local errand,” “work errand” or “mall errand.”  Then, the next time you are headed to any of those three places, you can click on that tag and all of the errands you can do in that place pop up.  Print your list and you’ll never again kick yourself for forgetting something while you were out.

But maybe you don’t have time to “Buy a new dishwasher,” even though it’s on your “mall errand” list. If you’ve also tagged your items with the time they take, you’re good to go!  Just click on both the “mall errand” tag and (while holding down the Shift key) the “5 min” tag, and you’ll get only those items you can do at the mall in five minutes or less.  Sweet!  By using tags, you can create and sort a list based on how you already live and work, rather than having to adjust the way you think in order to fit into some software company’s idea of what is the best way to organize your life.

Things has many other great features, such as an automatically generated “Today” list, based on your due dates, reminders and recurring tasks.  Really, the only big drawback of Things is that it only works on Apple products, like Macs and iPhones.  If you use a PC or are planning to get a Google phone that uses Android, you are S.O.L. my friends.  The developers have said that they are not going to release a version of Things for these other platforms anytime soon.  For the rest of us Mac-only users, Things will remain free of charge until MacWorld, when it goes from beta to full release.  At that point it will cost $39 for early adopters, and $49 for everyone else, which is still much cheaper than your average Filofax.