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Whoa, Those Are Shrinky Dinks? June 30, 2009

That’s what I said at the last Bazaar Bizarre when I saw these earrings by Heidi of Passionflower. She uses a mix of found printed materials and original artwork to make these.  One of the things that makes her work so unique (and not resemble shrink plastic in the slightest) is her sparing use of color and the way she mixes various materials into one piece.

Then I started noticing shrink plastic everywhere.  Apparently lots of crafters are making really useful, grown-up things out of one of our favorite childhood toys.  For example, I think these stitch markers from Karrie at Girl On the Rocks are ingenious.  I especially love the ones that remind you how to do the kitchener stitch as you go.

I also really like the way Erin of Broken Fingers uses shrink film to turn her graphic designs into wearable art.  She draws these by hand.  Yeesh.

Some crafters make really compelling jewelry just by creatively cutting and punching solid-colored sheets like these pieces by Crafic.

Other ingenious projects? You can make custom buttons with shrink film, perfect for when you can’t find the right button you need to finish a project.  Susan Beal at Craft Stylish has a nice tutorial on this. She also has another useful tutorial for making pet ID tags.

“Okay,” you say, “I’m convinced.”  How do I get started with shrink film myself?  Well, first you have to know that your options have greatly increased since we were kids.  Regular shrink film now comes in clear, white, brown and black, which you can draw on with colored pencils or Sharpie-type markers.  If you go the Sharpie route, I recommend protecting your pieces with a spray or brush-on sealant because it tends to scratch off.

BUT, there’s also inkjet-printable shrink film now, which means you can create complex pieces really fast and in multiples.  This is what I use to make the little meat charms and jewelry I sell at fairs and on Etsy, but you can scan, print and shrink virtually any image.  I use the sheets made by Grafix, which you can get online (Blick is the most consistently inexpensive) or at Pearl art stores, among others.  It comes in white and clear.  You can even call up Grafix for a free sample to try it out.  Occasionally I get a wonky pack that doesn’t shrink correctly but they always replace it right away.  Shrinky Dinks brand also sells all the varieties.

No matter which film you use, remember to use colors at about half strength, as they tend to saturate and darken when your piece shrinks.  Expect your finished piece to measure about 40-50% of the original in each dimension.  I set my oven to between 275-300°F so everything shrinks evenly.  For about ten seconds after they come out you can flatten (or bend) your pieces, but use gloves because they will be extemely hot.

I also read recently that you can use plastic from your recycling bin marked #6 as shrink film.  Apparently the clear plastic kind (think clamshell take-out containers) and the opaque styrofoam kind (think supemarket meat trays) both work.  I have also heard that the fumes are not the healthiest stuff to be breathing so I can’t really recommend this.  I assume given the recent CPSIA brouhaha that store-bought shrink sheets are non-toxic because they are designed for kids, but PLEASE correct me if you have info to the contrary.

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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.

 

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.

 

Policies of Truth February 19, 2009

Two customers recently complained about orders that arrived late to their destinations.  One was ordered through Etsy during the holidays.  It was an order for a single button, which was shipped using stamps and cost $0.60 in postage.  The customer left “neutral” feedback as a result. The second was ordered through my own web site using UPS Ground.  It was supposed to be a Valentine’s Day gift, but arrived the following Tuesday. That customer wanted a full refund.

Both customers, referring to quoted transit estimates on the USPS and UPS web sites, were annoyed that their shipments took two weeks to arrive.  This is perfectly understandable–I have received shipments that took weeks when they were supposed to take days and I was annoyed, too–but they left my company’s hands on time, and shipping estimates are just that–estimates.  Winter weather can cause all sorts of cross-country delays.  I would never think to ask for my money back or penalize a company for delays due to the Postal Service or UPS, especially if I had chosen a non-guaranteed shipping option like First Class Mail or UPS Ground.

Despite feeling principally certain that my business carried out its responsibilities properly, I wanted my customers to feel listened to and fairly treated.  It seemed unreasonable to offer refunds for products that were not defective and were not being returned, but I wanted to keep these customers coming back.  To the first customer, therefore, I offered another button or charm free of charge.  She declined the offer, but was glad that I made the effort, and she upgraded my feedback.  To the second customer I offered a $20 gift certificate, which she accepted as a good compromise.

I might normally think of these as expensive ways to sastisfy customers who are angry at another company’s mistakes, but they both provided a valuable service to me: pointing out flaws in the clarity of my shipping and return policies.  That’s the sort of practical education I’m willing to pay for.

 

Overexposure January 24, 2009

Filed under: Marketing and Promotion — bizmiss @ 1:02 pm
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When I was first starting out, I gave away a lot of stuff to people in the name of “exposure”, because I kept hearing from other business owners how important it is to “get your stuff out there.” What they really meant, though, was “get your stuff out to your target market.”

Two days ago a random Etsy member asked me to donate 100 items to supply her wedding guests’ gift bags. In return, she promised to “get your product out there to a large group of people of varying ages, most of which have never even HEARD of Etsy.” (**For those who don’t know, Etsy.com is an online marketplace for handmade goods.)

This may sound appealing (poor grammar notwithstanding), but when you think about it, it’s as effective a marketing strategy as standing on a random street corner and giving away 100 of your products for free. “People of varying ages, most of which have never even HEARD of Etsy” are NOT my target market. They’re no one’s target market.  Even if they think your product is cool, Great Uncle Fred and 12-year-old Simon are not going to shop your online store. Why waste your time and budget on them?

My advice is to only give away freebies at events where at least 80% of the participants would be likely to shop from you. If you’re a crafter, gift bags at well-attended craft fairs are generally fine, especially if it gets you a spot in promotional materials or the fair is so big customers don’t make it to every booth.

Product-specific events are also good. Do you sell mainly to affluent pet owners? Then donating stuff to an animal rescue benefit is appropriate. Giving away freebies at the launch of a new fashion magazine is not. Yes, some of those fashionistas will also be affluent pet owners, but is it worth 100 wasted products to get just one new sale?

I’m not saying that those who ask for free stuff are bad people, but they are ultimately looking out for their own event/organization, and not for your business. It’s up to you to do that and to separate targeted, effective promotion from untargeted ineffective promotion.

 

Luckily for Small Business, the Economy is in the Tank: CPSIA Exemptions January 17, 2009

Small businesses are pissed about the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.  Really pissed.   On the surface it sounds good, and it certainly has good intentions behind it, but it carries a lot of new requirements that could put a lot of individuals and small companies out of business during a time when it’s already hard enough to get by.

The CPSIA sets new standards for the amount of lead and phtalates allowed in children’s products–from clothing to toys to furniture–which is good, in theory.  In practice, however, it requires every material in every component in every color of every product to undergo testing, which can cost thousands of dollars per product.  It also requires resellers of children’s products to carry safety certificates for any regulated product they buy after February 10th (when the law goes into effect).  While large, foreign toy manufacturers may be able to absorb these costs, small domestic manufacturers and individual crafters may not.

Unsurprisingly, small businesses have been in an uproar about the CPSIA–so much so, in fact, that the issue reached #6 yesterday on Change.org, putting it safely within the top ten issues which will be presented to President-Elect Obama’s transition team.  People like sellers on Etsy.com have been petitioning the Consumer Product Safety Commission regularly, as have many popular small business bloggers.  Luckily, with the economy in the tank and public opinon firmly on the side of Main Street, these petitions seem to be getting heard.  Just last week Bloomberg News reported that “wool, cotton, silk, gemstones and pearls” would all be exempt from testing.  The L.A. Times also reported exemptions for “clothing, toys and other goods made of natural materials such as cotton and wood.”  And the CPSC itself released a statement on January 8th, stating: “Sellers of used children’s products, such as thrift stores and consignment stores, are not required to certify that those products meet the new lead limits, phthalates standard or new toy standards.”

That’s a big relief, and of course the hope is that the CPSIA will continue to be updated to protect both children’s safety and the livelihood of small businesses, but we’re not off the hook yet.  So what can you do as a small business owner?  First, submit your own comments to the CPSC by January 30th. All the contact information can be found on the second page of this document.  Second, prepare your business if any of your products are not exempt:

  • Contact the manufacturers of your materials to see if they have already tested their products.  If so, ask for a copy of their safety certificate.  If not, ask that they be tested (perhaps in conjunction with others who use their materials), or seek alternative manufacturers.
  • See if your products can be made with alternative materials.  Can your children’s jewelry be made with wooden beads rather than plastic ones?  Can that headband be made out of cotton, rather than polyester?
  • Contact your local representatives in Congress about this issue, or draft a petition and have all the small business owners you know sign it.

There is still a lot of room for change in the CPSIA, but it won’t happen by itself, so be a swimmer and take responsibility for the survivial of your own business.

 

Worth Its Weight: Ponoko October 22, 2008

Apparently I’ve been pretty out of the loop lately, because I hadn’t heard of Ponoko until this week.  An article in ReadyMade piqued my interest, but it wasn’t written very clearly so I read through the Ponoko web site in order to understand how it all works.

Ponoko is similar to Etsy in a lot of ways.  Members have their own little Ponoko shops, where they can list items for sale, buy things from other members, request custom items, and contact each other.  Where Ponoko differs from Etsy is that you can only sell things that are made (at least in part) in Ponoko’s laser-cutting shop.  This is how they make their money.  They don’t charge listing fees or take a percentage of your sales, but they do charge you for the materials and laser time it takes to make your item (or item components).

Most of what gets sold on Ponoko right now is jewelry.  This is because the easiest and least expensive thing to make with their laser is a small, two-dimensional cut-out.  People mostly design silhouettes or etchings that get cut and/or carved into thin sheets of wood or plastic, and then turn them into pendants, earrings, jigsaw puzzles, coasters, and other flat design-y objects.  3-D objects like tables and lamps sometimes appear in people’s shops, too.  These are mostly put together using layering (to acheive a topographical map sort of effect) or a slot-and-tab configuration.  Unfortunately, this causes a lot of people’s products to look very similar to one another.  Additionally, some people also sell or give away products plans in their shops, so that customers can build items themselves, or have the Ponoko factory folks build it for them.

Because of the limits of just one process (laser-cutting) and a few, flat materials (basically wood and acrylic), Ponoko has a ways to go before it can become the small-manufacturer-to-the-masses it would like to be.  I would love, for example, to see them expand to vacuum-formed plastic or fabric-based manufacturing.  If there were a place in the U.S. where I could get on-demand plush toy manufacturing, it would solve a LOT of the problems inherent with my current business.  Luckily for me, however, another product line I’m working on can be made perfectly with Ponoko’s lasers and plywood.  I’ve already researched a lot of industrial cutting facilities for this project, but having one right here in San Francisco that can make them on demand is infinitely preferrable to having to buy and then store some huge inventory again.  I had all but written off this new line for that very reason, but I’m excited to think the possibility exists to move forward with it again.

Ponoko’s ultimate vision is to have dozens of little factories all over the world, so that no matter where you live, whatever you buy can be made nearby.  Making things only to order cuts down on waste, and having lots of scattered factories cuts down on the costs and emissions associated with global transport.  This is an example of one of those forward-thinking green businesses profiled in books like Cradle-to-Cradle, in which it is more profitable to be eco-friendly, not less.  They still have a lot of growing to do, but I really think Ponoko is onto something big.  If I were a venture capitalist, or if they offered stock, I would definitely be investing in these guys.