Staples Will Pay for Your Printer Trash (Again)

In case you haven’t already seen the ads on TV, Staples is once again giving customers $3 for any empty ink or toner cartridge they bring in.  Like OfficeMax and many other large office supply chains, Staples has gone back and forth in recent years about their policy regarding rebates for empties. They ran virtually the same offer five years ago, but then presumably realized that this was a bad business practice, because folks like me were recouping 33% of our ink costs through this program (I had a six-cartridge Canon i9100, and each cartridge only cost $9).

Shortly thereafter, Staples starting accepting only the more costly brands like HP and Epson, which combine multiple ink colors into one large cartridge.  Now, it seems, they’re back to their original policy, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why.  Maybe it’s because they want to look “green”.  Maybe it’s a recession-booster.  Either way, I’ve got two Canon printers now, for a total of ten cartridges (the monthly limit).  I can swap out the whole set and get $30 back toward the mailing supplies I’ve been waiting to buy.  Sweet.

There is one catch with the new promotion: you have to be a Staples Rewards member.  They used to just give you a coupon in the store, but it took the cashiers so long to fill it out I never returned my cartridges if there was a line.  Now they send a monthly coupon in the mail to the address on file for your rewards account. I still have my “Rewards for Teachers” account that I set up five years ago, but they have accounts for individuals and businesses, too.  I have never received any unsolicited promos because of my Rewards account but again, I have one for teachers, which is a personal, not a compnay account.  They may also have changed their privacy policy since then, so it makes good sense to check before you sign up.  You do get 10% back on your new ink purchases as well, but they send those coupons separately from the ones for your empties, and only when you’ve earned at least $10 (i.e. bought $100 worth of ink).

Business or Personal?

Yesterday I went to see the owner of a local store, who commissioned some custom plush toy samples from me.  He wanted animal shapes that could be sewn out of designer fabrics he carries.  Though this store recently stopped carrying my Sweet Meats plush, I tried not to take it personally, but rather to see it as a new business opportunity.  Clearly, they hadn’t rejected me or my taste, just one of my product lines.

I took care to design what I thought were modern, iconic forms, that would fit in nicely with the rest of the store’s collection.  I also took care to make them quick to produce, in order to keep the cost down.  In the end, each toy comes out to about $15 wholesale.  Given that their other stuffed toys start around $30, I thought this would be reasonable, especially for exclusive, handmade originals by a local artist.  But the owner immediately started trying to talk me down.

I wasn’t sure if this was simply business or somewhat personal, but I couldn’t help feeling disrespected.  I wasn’t bidding for a contract, after all, I was filling a commission.  Why would he try to lowball me?  I can only guess that he doesn’t see my work as art, but rather as manufacturing, though that seems uncharacteristic of someone with a design education.  Maybe he just feels he needs to maximize profits at any opportunity, even if it means taking advantage of a less savvy business owner.  Either way, it was clear he didn’t see me a busy, professional person.  He told me to “go get a coffee” while he waited for his partner to come back and give me the fabric.

I didn’t wait around, and I stood firm on my price, which is hard to do in the current economy.  No one wants to risk losing work.  But if I don’t believe in the worth of my own skills, no one else will, and the job wasn’t worth it anyway if it was just a sweatshop job.

The owner ordered ten to start, so I feel mildly satisfied, but I’d still like to prevent situations like that from happening in the future.  After all, if people don’t respect you, it’s your job to make them.  Here are a few things I’ll do differently next time:

  • State my going hourly rate during the very first conversation.
  • State that I will charge for the time spent developing designs and preparing samples, whether or not any are ordered for production.
  • Provide an estimate for the time above.
  • Lay out a pay schedule that compensates me immediately upon receipt of the products.
  • Put everything in a written contract before I do a single hour of work on the project.
  • Create an online gallery of other plush designs I’ve done in order to legitimize and grow this part of my business.

Despite leaving with a bad taste in my mouth, I have no regrets, because I learned a great deal from this transaction.  I’m sure I’ll continue to make mistakes, but the more I refine my system, the less these business deals will have the potential to become personal.

She Works Hard for the Money, and Keeps More of it, too

According to USA.gov, saving money is the third most popular New Year’s resolution in 2009, right behind weight loss and reducing debt.  Not surprisingly, many small business blogs started off the year by sharing some of their favorite money-saving tips.  My favorite money-saving tips are those that don’t require any sacrifice on your part, either of needed materials, services, or time.  Yes, I should probably re-negotiate my phone bill, but not everyone is good at haggling.  Here are a few of my easy faves:

  • Re-examine your monthly bills: are you using all the minutes on that cell phone plan?  Do you pay to heat your entire home or office when you spend all day in just one room?  Does your bank charge you a fee every month for not keeping a mimium balance?  Take a look at your last few bills for gas, electricity, banking, phone and Internet service and make sure you are paying only for what you need.  Maybe a bright task lamp and a small space heater would be more comfortable and cost effective than turning on all the overhead lights and cranking up the thermostat ten degrees.  Maybe you don’t need to be paying for that text plan on your cell phone but you do need a better fit in your checking account.
  • Use coupons: before you buy anything online, Google the website and the words “promotional code” or visit a site like RetailMeNot or CouponCabin to find relevant discounts for your order.  These days you can save on almost every purchase, from office supplies to plane tickets.
  • Purge: (see my previous post on The Great Purge) I’ll bet there’s a lot of crap in your home or office that you don’t want, need or use.  Get rid of it — but DON’T throw it out.  Donate it to a school, thrift store or other non-profit, or if its got some value, sell it online.  Either way you’ll get money back, whether it’s cash, store credit or a tax write-off.
  • Invite more people over.  Rather than hanging out at bars or restaurants, eat, drink and socialize at your own house (or a friend’s).  Our friends used to have a weekly ritual called the “Triple D,” which involved dinner, drinks and dessert at a neighborhood restaurant.  This got really expensive, really fast, and was phased out in favor of a new ritual, “Family Dinner,” in which each week one of us hosts everyone else for dinner.  Those who don’t cook all pitch in to do the clean-up.  It’s usually better food, and it costs a whole lot less.

Hungry for more?  Check out the money saving tips on I Will Teach You To Be Rich, The SCORE Women’s Success Blog and Entrepreneur magazine.

Scholarship for Social Entrepreneurship-Deadline THIS Thursday

Ramit from I Will Teach You To Be Rich recently posted this scholarship for social entrepreneurs.  It’s a $2500 award to support any company, project or organization that helps others. In addition the winner will receive personal advice and assistance from Ramit.  You have to be in your twenties to apply.  The deadline is this coming Thursday, January 15th, but the application is totally doable. There are two pages of questions to answer — thoughtfully and carefully — but no recommendations or anything to rustle up on short notice are required.  There is likely to be some serious competition for this award, but if nothing else, the application serves as an excellent mini business plan.

Finalists will be announced on February 2nd, and the winner will be chosen on February 23rd.  Even if you don’t win, being a finalist will bring serious traffic to your site.  I Will Teach You to be Rich has thousands of subscribers and is often featured on other popular blogs.  Good luck!

Review of May Events: Capsule Design Festival

I have attended two previous Capsule events as a shopper, but this was my first time as a vendor.  All in all it was worth it (I made about twice the cost of my booth) but it wasn’t an investment with major returns.

The event happened on Sunday, May 25th, from 11-6, on several blocks surrounding Patricia’s Green in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. The booth fee is a fairly steep $190, considering you are not provided with shelter, parking or furniture of any kind.  We all got nervous when it rained the day before, and a chance of rain was predicted for the day of the festival as well.  Luckily, things stayed dry.  If nice weather had been assured, the turnout may have been better, but nonetheless there was a pretty steady stream of customers throughout the day.  I was set up on Linden Street, however, and a fellow vendor told me that his table on Octavia Street between Hayes and Grove was only receiving about half the traffic — a good thing to know considering you get to choose your own table location.

Compared to other craft/handmade events, the Capsule Festival has a reputation for being a little too cool for school.  It’s definitely hip and on the high end price-wise, but it seems like a good venue for artists whose goods are too time-intensive and costly for the average craft fair.  At Capsule, there are plenty of buyers who are prepared to spend over $100 on a well-made item, provided you accept plastic.

Scattered thinly amongst the uber-hip artisans were a few typical “street fair wear” booths.  Their goods may have been technically handmade, but not by anyone in the U.S.  I heard complaints from some artists who were placed next to such ventures, since their prices were glaringly cheaper, and a few customers were so relieved to finally find a “bargain” that they failed to realize that they came out to Capsule just to shop at H&M.  I know that Capsule juries it’s applications, and I know that they walk the fair themselves, so I can’t imagine they allow such vendors to return in the future.  It used to say specifically on their website that Capsule is not a venue for mass-produced discount merchandise, but I can’t find that statement anymore.  Maybe the definition of “independent design” has changed?

Depending on my schedule and how busy I am in general, I may sign up for the October Capsule Festival.  It’s right in my neighborhood so it’s ridiculously convenient.  It’s also nice to have an event earlier in the holiday season.  You can do some first-hand market research before the big rush and adjust your inventory accordingly.

Tip: Sunscreen the [email protected]$T out of yourself before any seven-hour outdoor event.  I had such a wicked raccoon tan I couldn’t take my sunglasses off in public for a week.

New L.A. Area Craft Fair: Handmade Brigade

Here’s one for all you SoCal Biz Misses:

Handmade Brigade Craft Fair
Saturday, July 12th
Tall Mouse Arts and Crafts in Cerritos, CA

Application period: May 3rd-31st
Fee: $30, includes table and two chairs
Vendors notified by June 7th

This might be a good craft fair to apply to if you live within driving distance and you’ve never done one before.  You have very little money to spend up front and since it’s happening in a craft store, you’ll have a walk-in audience whether they knew about it or not.  I personally don’t know anything about the Tall Mouse stores, though, including how well equipped they are to host such an event. If you live in the area and are considering applying, I would go check out the Cerritos location and see how big it is, what the lighting is like, etc. They are ultimately accepting 30 vendors in that space.

It was difficult for me to find the application page (even though the entire web site is only three pages), so I’m linking to it here.  I didn’t realize you had to click on the little blinking advertisement because it only says “click for more info” on the fourth frame or so.

San Francisco Small Business Week Begins Today

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

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.

Thanks, Dubya!

Today when I opened my mailbox, I found a notice from the IRS about the “economic stimulus act of 2008.”  I wrote about this back in January, but Congress apparently made it happen in time for this tax season.

There’s plenty of confusing language in the one-page letter, and lots of provisions that don’t fit quite so neatly into their “How to Determine Your Stimulus Payment” chart, but basically it breaks down like this:

  • If you made less than $75,000 in 2007 and you owe income tax (i.e. you’re not expecting a refund), your “stimulus payment” is $600.
  • If you made between $3,000 and $74,999.99 and you are expecting a refund, your payment is $300.
  • If you made less than $3,000 and you are expecting a tax refund, you do not get a payment.

The one thing to watch out for when you do your taxes this year is a calculated refund of less than $300.  If that’s the case, remove enough deductions so that you end up owing the IRS a few dollars.  That way, you’ll get the $600 payment rather than the $300 payment and come out on top overall.

For more specific info like payments for children, reduced payments for higher income taxpayers and what counts as “qualifying income,” you can visit the IRS’s Economic Stimulus Payments Information Center.