CRAFTY BUSINESS WITH LAURA-JEAN: should I stay or should I go?
Here's a good question for any of you feeling defeated by a less than stellar holiday sales season... Email Laura-Jean with your own business related queries & quandaries.
Q: I don't know if you can help me because my question is pretty vague, but here goes: I've been making things for years, but about 3 months ago, I decided to try to make it into a business. I signed up for a couple craft shows, approached some stores and now, just three months into the whole thing, I'm feeling defeated and ready to throw in the towel! I knew it was going to be hard, but I've barely sold anything! When or how do I know if this just isn't going to work?
A: Well, if you're defeated and ready to throw in the towel, you're right on track! Just kidding, sort of..... I remember talking to one of the designers who was a member at Fresh Collective once. She had a tee-shirt line, and she had researched and worked and really built a nice little business in just a few months. She was really down about slow sales and said "I knew it would be hard, but I didn't expect this!" I was flabbergasted! Here was a person who had taken an idea and made it real in such a short time. From my perspective, she had accomplished a lot! Yes, the sales were the next obstacle, but sometimes we get so impatient, we expect the world and we expect it NOW!
I laughed and replied, "Well what exactly did you think would be hard? Counting all the money you were making?!? Carrying it all to the bank??!" I find myself constantly learning from the newer designers I work with, and this incident made me realize that probably the single hardest thing we face in our businesses is mood management. A small business is very mood driven: our excitement at how great and fun it will be fuels so much, but a rejection, defeat or problem can get blown up into a symbol of why this will never, ever work and we were fools to try.
To make your business work, you need to get your mood back on track and get your excitement level back up.
First, you should address practical concerns. Is your life set up to sustain you working on your business? I think part-time work is a must (unless you're rich) to keep money coming in and your stress levels down. I always waitressed, as it provided a good amount of money in my pocket right away, and I didn't need to care about it. When my shift was done, I was done. I also found it was a good way to promote my stuff! I wore the jewellery and clothing I made, and could tell customers and co-workers about my new business!
As well, set some realistic goals for your business. Realistic is key! Think long term, then work backwards. For example, if your goal is to sell $52,000 worth of your product in 2009, you can work backwards and see that you would need to sell $1000 each and every week. That's $200 each day, 5 days a week. If that's a reasonable goal for you, great! Now every day that you work on your business, you know that every move you make should be taking you closer to that goal. Whatever it is, it helps to make your goal something you can control. Rather than "getting into more stores" try thinking about "approaching a new store a week".
Writing your goals down, and posting them where you work helps keep them at the top of your priority list. The day to day of everything often takes over, and often the goals we have involve the parts of the business we don't want to do: sales, bookkeeping, promotion and administrative stuff. Almost no one needs to force themsleves to make more cute stuff!
Get involved with other designers. When all you see is the public face of other businesses, everything looks like it comes easy to them. But every single business has its struggles, obstacles and failures. Being part of a community of people offers you so much: support, different opinions, a new perspective, learning from another's experience, a shoulder to cry on, and people to celebrate your successes with you. I see relationships forming among the designers at my 2 collective shops, and designers are helping each other out in tons of different ways including helping with computer stuff and websites, sharing expenses (like a photographer), sharing booth costs at a show, offering their expertise and knowledge with certain techniques and materials and more. But even more important, I believe, is the camaraderie and friendship. So talk to other designers at craft shows, make friends in online forums (like Etsy), and if you are interested in joining one of our shops, we are always looking for new members!
As well as other designers, it's important to get family and friends on board. Send out emails to them letting them know what shows you're doing or announcing new products you've added to your website. You'll be amazed at the support you can get when people see that you're pursuing your dream. Many times, family and friends will be your first customers, and then they tell two friends and so on. For them too, it's fun to bring a friend by your booth at a show and show off their cool friend (You!) who makes things! It'll be great to get the business support, with them helping you spread the word. And the emotional support and respect for what you're doing is one step toward getting things set up to get your enthusiasm back.
That said, if you have any non-supporters (family members who complain that you should just get a real job) who are wearing you down, it can help to address the situation and let them know how important it is for you to at least try this. Sometimes people get panicky, thinking they may have to support you if you can't support yourself for a while, but maybe you can reassure them by talking about the part-time job that will pay your share of the bills, and letting them know that their emotional support is really important to you. I think loved ones can become non-supporters without realizing it because of their own fears about taking risks and following their dreams. If they feel trapped, it can be hard to encourage someone else to spread their wings. Or they can't stand to encourage you to try only to see your heart break if you fail. For you, having understanding about their attitudes toward what you are doing can help you build up a tougher skin to their comments, if you can't get them on board.
Realizing that mood management is a job in itself sometimes can take the pressure off. The way moods work on us is by tricking us into believing them. "I feel like a loser, so I must be a loser," is the message we sometimes feed ourselves. But once you realize that you're not alone, and everyone faces these struggles, it becomes just another part of the business to work on.
I used to fall into the trap of working harder and harder when things weren't going well. My mom convinced me, during one tearful phone call, that the best business move I could make would be taking a break. "You've got to take care of you best business asset-- yourself!" she wisely said. Now I'm a little better at keeping things in perspective, and not just working myself into another meltdown.
There is no formula to tell whether you're succeeding, or whether you should keep trying or pack it in. There are, however, a lot of factors to weigh to see if you really want to continue. Are you enjoying the journey to building your business? If not, could you get to enjoying the journey more? Are you able to hold your life together while doing this? Is this really what you want, or after exploring it, are you realizing that maybe a job that you can rely on will make your hobby something you can enjoy again? And did you plow into starting a business with lofty expectations of being profitable in your first 6 months, when maybe you now think it will take two years or more? If you can keep moving forward with your business and enjoy it along the way, while keeping your life together financially through part-time work or other means, that may be success for you for now, even if the progress is slower than you hoped and peppered with rejections. That's pretty much all you can hope for really, at least in the early years.
There's no shame in re-evaluating your goals, even if you see that all that's involved in having a business isn't what you want after all. But if you do want it, there's no shortage of ways to work on building your business! So get your mood back on track, and then start planning some other goals. Buy some books on sales, promotion and marketing and get to work. Ask your friends, family and new-found designer friends for some feedback on every aspect of your business: your product range, pricing, materials, display, logo, packaging, website and more. Slowly but surely, chugging along on making things better pays off. Sometimes it seems like it's taking forever, and sometimes you need a break, but I can say looking back over my 14+ years in business and say that every disaster made me stronger, more able to take risks, and more able to recover from the next disaster. I love having my own business, and wouldn't change it in for all the regular paycheques, benefits and mat leave in the world!