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The Fourth Times’ the Charm: My Emotional Rollercoaster Ride with the New York Times December 30, 2008

About two years ago a writer asked if he could interview me for an article about plush food for the New York Times.  Naturally I said yes, and tried to make all my answers as punchy and fascinating as possible, while weaving in anecdotes from my iconic New York childhood.  I was still teaching at the time, and sewing my toys on the side, but this piece seemed to indicate to me that perhaps my small side business had the potential to grow into a full-time venture.

Two weeks later a photo assistant from the Times e-mailed to ask if I could send in samples of my toys.  The article was due to be a feature in the Sunday magazine—one of their quarterly “T” Style editions, in full, beautiful color.  I was ecstatic.  I told everyone I knew.  I reminded them a week before it was due to come out, and again the day before.

That Sunday I tore the magazine from the paper and flipped through it rapidly.  I didn’t see any plush food.  But there were two articles on stylish items for foodies, so I thought my interview might be part of one of those.  Not there either.  I checked the shopping guide, the back page, article sidebars, and eventually the Style Magazine’s web site.  Maybe it was a web-only article?  Nope.  The article had not run at all.  Anywhere.

I was crushed.  After enduring a week or so of painful conversations with confused friends and relatives, I e-mailed the author to find out what happened.  He said that the Times had cut the article due to space constraints and that they were considering running it in another issue, six months away.  Six months later, the entire process repeated itself, only this time, the Times didn’t shelve the article, they tossed it completely.  The author ran the interview on his own blog instead, which was a rather nice consolation.  Still, I felt spurned and embarrassed after having gotten my hopes up so high.

So when an editor for the Times contacted me again a couple of months ago, I was naturally skeptical.  They wanted a “glamour shot” of a meat medley to feature in the big holiday gift guide in the Home section of the paper.  I sent them a shot, but didn’t tell anyone about it other than my mother, my husband, and one good friend.  The following Thursday, the Home section contained several gift guides: what to get for friends who are hard to buy for, a “25 Under $25,” and so on, but none of them contained Sweet Meats.

I again felt burned and frustrated, despite having lowered my expectations significantly.  After all, it’s hard not to get your hopes up about the New York Times.   Besides the fact that it can cause an uptick in sales (one store owner in my neighborhood reported an additional $25,000 in sales during the month her store was featured), the New York Times definitely has a certain cachet.  Validation by the Times suggests that you have made it, that the experts on style and taste consider your product worthy of sharing with the world.  It’s an easy deflection to disparaging questions such as, “Why do you make these?” and “Who would buy such a thing?” and it’s a signal to every other media outlet that your business is worth paying attention to.

Two weeks later I received a call from a very strange number: 1 111 111-1111.  Telemarketer. Robo-dialer, probably.  I dismissed the call to voice mail.  Immediately there appeared a harried message from a fact-checker at the Times.  She wanted to verify my current prices for a shopping guide in the Home section.  Again?  Seriously?

I felt mildly encouraged that I had been contacted by a fact checker—a step I had not previously reached–but at the same time, I was totally over it, even slightly annoyed.  When would they stop toying with me?

The day the issue came out we flew back east for the holidays, and I didn’t buy the paper until we got to our second airport.  And what do you know?  There they were, in a “fun-loving” holiday gift guide on page 4.  They didn’t accompany an interview in a large-format magazine, and they weren’t part of a full-page color spread.  In fact, they weren’t in color at all (except in the New York City edition).  And okay, maybe they listed my phone number without asking, and maybe they incorrectly stated that Sweet Meats were designed to be children’s toys, but I got to list “New York Times” on my press page, and my mother got to brag about it at her Hanukkah party.  My distributor used it to tempt more New York stores.  My husband thinks the link might even raise my Google ranking.

The direct result was an increase in web sales for a day or two (about a dozen more sales per day than usual)—comparable to the effect of a mention on Cool Hunting two years ago.  I also got a call from another distributor, this time someone in the Midwest who sells mostly to restaurant gift shops.  The full indirect results remain to be seen.

The lesson?  Patience is a virtue, good things comes to those who wait, and don’t get your hopes up—unless a fact checker calls you in a hurry because they’re going to press tomorrow.  Then you can get your hopes up.  A little.

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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.

 

Working with the Press January 25, 2008

I know I haven’t been keeping up with writing very well lately.  I apologize, but I’m being forced to prioritize a lot these days.  Know, however, that I’m working on a lengthy write-up of the California Gift Show I just attended, in addition to a review of Brian Tracy’s “The Psychology of Selling” CD and a description of the uber-weird Westin Bonaventure hotel.

In the meantime I would like to point out yet another free workshop being given by the awesome folks over at San Francisco’s Small Business Administration.  This one is on working with the press (and is so titled).  It is being held from 6:00-8:30pm this Tuesday, 1/29 at 455 Market Street in downtown San Francisco.  Luckily, the SBA recognizes that many of us have day jobs to support our businesses and hold most of their classes during reasonable hours like this.  This week and next I’m working full days at Klutz and teaching some sewing classes at the Stitch Lounge at night, and even I might be able to go to this.  The SBA says that you need to register here (and I do recommend this if you want a seat) but I have seen many people come to these things at the last minute without signing up.  They just take your info once you get there.  Please leave your thoughts in a comment if you attend!

 

Inexpensive Marketing and Promotion (Part 3) December 12, 2007

And even more…

Craft fairs: (Cost: 1-2 days of your time, ~$free-250, depending on fair) Craft fairs are great for a lot of reasons. Firstly, they average about 5% of what it costs to do a trade show. Secondly, you can sell your stuff directly to the public, allowing you to make you some cash while conducting first-hand market research in the process. Thirdly (I didn’t know this until recently), your wares often don’t have to be hand-crafted to be eligible. And fourthly, the press comes to you! Not only do writers for various publications visit craft fairs, they are often sponsored by a magazine like Craft, BUST, or Adorn, and are therefore guaranteed to get coverage.I would never apply for a craft fair that charges a non-refundable application fee because it indicates to me that they are either:

  1. Shady or greedy people who are okay with taking money from people who might not get anything out of the deal whatsoever.
  2. Such terrible businessmen/businesswomen that they need to charge application fees in addition to booth fees just to keep the venture profitable.

Here are some excellent fairs to look into that don’t charge non-refundable fees to apply:

If you do handcraft your wares, you should definitely also have a storefront on Etsy, the biggest online craft marketplace out there.

Check back tomorrow for Inexpensive Marketing and Promotion Part 3!

 

Inexpensive Marketing and Promotion (Part 1) December 10, 2007

Fifteen years ago, it was nearly impossible to reach potential customers outside of your immediate geographical area without spending thousands of dollars, which gave big corporations a huge advantage over small businesses. These days, however, thanks to the Worldwide Web, the scales are tipping. A small business can reach millions of people around the world overnight, and those millions can buy your product without even standing up. Furthermore, the long tail of the Internet tends to favor small, nimble ventures that can take creative risks without some mammoth bureaucracy slowing down their decision-making process. Just look at the success of port2port press or a self-released band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who sold 20,000 copies of their self-made debut album.

Yesterday I wrote about trade shows, which are perhaps the most expensive marketing tools a small business can use, but they are just one type of weapon in an arsenal of less expensive marketing options. In this post (and three more to follow) I’ve described a few alternative and inexpensive ways to get attention for your awesome new ideas:

Go door-to-door: (Cost: two or three days of your time, plus printed materials) It’s how those Uglydolls got started. They walked right up to the owner of Giant Robot, one of their favorite local stores, and asked if they could sell their wares there. Then they approached a second local store, Plastica, and later, a few others. Giant Robot also has a magazine, which gave them some press, but all in all, it was the word-of-mouth by excited customers that got them where they are today.

When going door-to-door, it is important to check out all of the stores in a particular neighborhood you are thinking of approaching, and then rank them by preference. Approach those stores in order, and stop when you have gotten orders from two or three of them. You do not want to create competition for the stores you are trying to buddy up to and you don’t want to saturate your local market too quickly. It is also important to only approach stores that you really think are appropriate environments for your products. If there is only one store in your neighborhood that fits your style, don’t approach a second store that seems like a long shot. It is a big waste of your time and theirs to try to pursue a connection that isn’t there and you might get a reputation for not knowing your audience.

Get yourself some press: (Cost: two or three days of your time, possibly postage, envelopes/boxes, printed materials) You need to put an appropriate amount of time into this for it to work (and have good photos of your stuff), but it can work really well. Grace Bonney of design*sponge has already done us the amazing service of putting together an excellent (and short!) step-by-step public relations guide, so I’m not going to include any separate instructions here. One note, though: give popular blogs equal attention to popular magazines. Not only do they often have just as many devoted readers, they link right to your shop!

Check back tomorrow for more inexpensive marketing and promotion ideas!

Sources: Crowndozen.com Interview: Uglydolls
(port2port interview) Mateo Ilasco, Meg. Craft, Inc.: Turn Your Creative Hobby Into a Business. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007.