Wussify Your Way to Success

I’m trying to be a more prolific crafter without adding any stress to my day. Being stressed just makes me procrastinate.

A couple of years ago as part of New Year’s resolution, my husband (who is already much more prolific than I) decided to try to change his habits by adopting a “make-a-thing-a-day” routine for just 30 days.  If it wasn’t too difficult, he would extend the project to three months, and so on.  More than two years later he’s still doing it, which means that since he made that resolution he has made no few than 800 pieces of artwork.  Today one of them got chosen for an art show in Prague!

The task has always seemed daunting to me.  I’m afraid I will fail, even within the 30-day trial.  But this is the time of year when I make my annual resolutions, so I’ve been trying to figure out ways to make a-thing-a-day easier to accomplish.  Here are some rules I’ve come up with for myself:

  • I can make anything.  It doesn’t have to be “crafted.”  I can make a ten-second drawing or write a two-line poem.
  • I can copy someone else’s work.  I’ll still get technique practice and new ideas from doing this, and as long as I’m not selling what I make or adding it to my public portfolio, I figure there’s no harm done.
  • I can make a project from someone else’s instructions or from a book.
  • I can substitute half an hour’s work on an existing project, like the sweater I’m knitting or the cross-stitch I’m trying to finish.
  • Craft/design work for clients counts.
  • I can make something I’ve already made before.
  • I cannot make two things one day in order to skip the next day.
  • I do not have to post the results of any day’s work if I don’t like it.
  • A project is finished when I am done working on it.  It doesn’t have to be complete.

These may seem like total wuss rules, but I think I’m more like to continue making something every day if I feel excited and confident. I can always ramp up the challenge later.  Whether this works despite my wussifying remains to be seen.  I’ll let you know next month.

Have any of you ever set creativity goals that you’ve successfully accomplished?  Please share in the comments!

Media Diet

Reading my alma mater’s alumni magazine makes me feel bad about myself.  I makes it seem as though all of my fellow alums are doing brave and amazing things — some of them at extremely young ages — while I sit here spinning my wheels.  Web sites (blogs especially) also make me feel bad about myself.  They present a world that is overflowing with creative people and all of them, including the hobbyists with non-art day jobs are more creative and prolific than me.  No one will ever hire me in such a world.

It’s bad.  I’ve been spending nearly two hours every morning reading about other people’s projects, ideas and successes, bookmarking the ones I want to post on this blog or try some weekend 37 years from now.  I go back to maybe one in five hundred of these pages.  The rest just waste my time, cause feelings of inadequacy, and make me feel both overwhelmed and behind the times when I review them later.  I get so frustrated and tired with my work as a result that after dinner I just want to veg out.  Then it’s another day wasted, another reason to feel bad.

These feelings only got worse when I turned 29 last week.  Only one more year to accomplish all the things you thought you’d have in the bag by 30!  I decided enough is enough, and A. and I have been on a “media diet” as of Monday.  I’ve been wanting to try something like this for months, but what finally got me going was having a plan already laid out (in Timothy Ferris’ book, The Four-Hour Workweek), and having someone to do it with me.

Here’s how it works: for seven days, we avoid all non-fiction media and severely limit our intake of entertainment media.  In other words, no magazines, newspapers, blogs, NPR, Facebook or Twitter and only one hour per day of fiction reading, fictional TV or video games.  There is no limit on music or interpersonal correspondence.  We are allowed to post things to blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. and to write non-fiction, since the point of this whole exercise is to make us more productive and confident.  We are also allowed to use the web for project-specific research (like collecting the links for posts) but no idle surfing.

We’re about halfway through now and I’ll admit, it’s difficult.  We watched the premiers of Weeds and Nurse Jackie tonight so now I can’t touch the Wii game I’ve been wanting to play until tomorrow.  I can’t click any of the links to funny/interesting stories that my friends e-mail me and I had to put down the copy of Omnivore’s Dilemma I just borrowed after wanting to read it for years.

Next week when this is over, I will definitely try to schedule my media intake a little better.  I will probably allow myself two hours of “leisure media” per day and go back to setting NPR as my default station in the car.  But I will not open my Google reader every day.  I will open it only once or twice a week, to look for specific things I can use in a post that same day.  No more saving things that “just seem cool” for some nebulous future purpose like a digital pack-rat.

Have you ever tried some sort of media diet?  How did you limit your intake and what happened afterwards?  Did it work?

Live Podcasting is Terrifying

Yesterday I did a short interview about Sweet Meats with Emily and Kyle of The Meat Show. They’re excellent hosts and interviewers and I was particularly excited to be a part of their  “Meat Inventions” episode but I was also very unprepared.

They called at noon to confirm a 3pm broadcast (unnerving in and of itself) but our phone connection was not great and our conversation sounded weird and stilted.  Was this how the interview would sound?  I gave them my home studio number to minimize connection problems for the actual show.

For an hour before they called I felt like I would throw up.  I’ve done plenty of live performance and even some on-camera interviews, but radio is different, especially when you’re not in-studio.  There are no visuals to help fill in for awkward pauses or inarticulate phrasing.  And it’s LIVE.  And unedited.  I’m not entirely comfortable with my verbal communication skills (this blog is heavily edited) and the thought of having to be informative and entertaining for ten minutes straight was terrifying.

When they called at 3:20, I said “hello?” into the phone but no one replied.  Instead, I heard Kyle and Emily finishing up their last segment.  Oh crap!  Did someone just hear my confused greeting in the middle of the broadcast?  No, you idiot.  This is how radio works.  They don’t turn on your phone connection until they’re ready for you.  How would I know when I should start talking?!  When they say “Hi, Lauren.  Thanks for being on the show.  How are you?”, apparently.

Luckily, The Meat Show feels extremely fast-paced for a guest, more so than you would think just listening to it.  Kyle and Emily never allow for dead air and always have great comments and questions at the ready (they really do their homework).  Everything is friendly and slightly rushed, so you don’t have the time or inclination to worry about how you’re doing.

In the end I think the segment went pretty well and I actually left wishing I had gotten to be on longer.  It turns out that if you have great hosts you can have a great show, even if your guests are peeing their pants.

It's All Going to Be Okay

It’s been way too long since I posted last, I know.  We adopted a dog last week and it’s craft fair season again, so what little work I’ve been able to accomplish has gone exclusively towards getting ready for last weekend’s Indie Mart, and this coming weekend’s Unique Los Angeles. Still, I’m able to read the interwebs a little during meals, and yesterday at lunch I read Hugh MacLeod’s “How to Be Creative” manifesto, also called “Ignore Everybody” in its soon-to-be-published hardcover form.

MacLeod’s manifesto is a really refreshing read, because it puts the American dream back into perspective.  It never promises anything — least of all that your creative idea will be successful — but it reassured me that my dreams are worth pursuing, and that success is still a reasonably attainable goal as long as I’m willing to put the hours in.

“How to Be Creative” is organized into 37 little chapters (40 in the hardcover edition), each titled with an original, pithy truism, such as ” Selling out is harder than it looks” and “Never compare your inside with somebody else’s outside.”  While I agree with some of MacLeod’s proscriptions more than others, the sentiment behind each idea is sound.  For example, on “keeping your day job” (#7), I may not agree that I should just “find that extra hour or two in the day that belongs to nobody else but me, and…make it productive” because I want more than an hour a day to be creative.  As long as my life is financially stable, I don’t think it’s necessary to put a lot of time into a day job I don’t find especially meaningful.  But I do agree with “balancing the need to make a good living while still maintaining one’s creative sovereignty” (i.e. the “Sex and Cash Theory”).  In other words, it’s important not to compromise your creative work in order to make it more marketable, because that’s not fulfilling either.

I would recommend reading this manifesto to anyone who struggles with creative work, whether you’re in a band, thinking about starting a business, or just wondering where to go with your art.  You can read the first twelve chapters on MacLeod’s web site, or you can download the first 26 chapters in pdf format at ChangeThis.  I think now that he has a publisher, however, you won’t be able to read the whole thing unless you buy the book when it comes out in June.

Crafty Business Questions: Etiquette

I got a lot of etiquette questions this week, so I’m posting all the answers below:

I’m just starting out, and I have lots of questions I’d like to ask successful business crafters. What’s okay and not okay to ask about?

In general, it’s okay to ask about process, not product, and it’s always best to ask for help from businesses that don’t compete with yours. For example, if you sell plush toys, it’s not okay to ask another plush artist where they get their fabric, who their distributor is, or what consignment stores they work with. Instead, try asking something like, “Can you recommend somewhere to start researching distributors/stores/wholesale fabric suppliers?” Then, instead of giving away their contacts/sources, they can give you the name of a trade association or web site where you can begin your own research.

It is also okay to ask a fellow crafter general business information, like if they can recommend any good crafty business books, marketing classes, banks, or bookkeeping software. Your successful accounting practices will not harm their business. Other things that are sometimes okay to ask about include who designed their logo/web site, and how they developed a good pricing structure. You can also ask non-competing businesses for general feedback on your Etsy store, packaging, etc.

If you are unsure about whether your question falls within the bounds of etiquette, try asking it by beginning, “Would you be comfortable sharing information with me about X? I totally understand if you’re not.” That way, it’s easy for them to say no and neither party has to resent the other.

I sell handmade toys with buttons that have clever sayings on them. Yesterday one of my customers told me she also wants to start selling (mass-produced) toys with clever buttons on them. She asked me for my button source and their pricing! I think this is really rude. How do I respond kindly without blowing my top?!

Again, this goes back to process, not product. How did you find your button source? How did you research pricing in order to comparison shop? It may be as simple as telling her you Googled the phrase “button makers” and then requested prices and samples from five local businesses. She still has to do the legwork, but you’ve answered her question helpfully, while insinuating that maybe it’s not so cool to ask a competitor for such specific information.

I’m thinking of applying for a particular craft fair, but I don’t know anyone who’s vended there. Is it okay for me to ask a random vendor (posted on their vendor page) how profitable it was for them?

This is a tricky one, but I would say yes, provided: you ask someone who does not sell competing products, you ask using the “Would you be comfortable sharing…” preface, and you don’t ask specifics, like “how much money did you make at that fair?” or “what were your best selling items?” Instead, stick to more general questions, like “was it worth your time?”, “did the customers generally fit your demographic?” and “would you do it again?”

Do you have thoughts about these questions? Do you have other etiquette questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them!

Gluttonous Waifs

I discovered an interesting site today called “design glut.”  The intertubes led me first to their store (they had a pork chop bank), but I was intrigued by the following description near the top of the page: “Our webzine is an inspirational resource for entrepreneurs.”  More accurately, their webzine is a series of interviews with successful designers.  More inspirational than resource, I’d say, but good breakfast reading nonetheless.

It does make me a little upset and covetous to read entries where the founding waifs interview successful designers their own age (24-year-old cool hunters get invited to Davos? Seriously?) but those are my own issues.  I just can’t handle people who are two or three years out of undergrad and already “experts” about something.  Expertise is your consolation prize for getting older and less attractive.  I’m sorry, but that’s just the rule.  You’re not allowed to have youth/beauty AND expertise/money.  It upsets the balance of the universe or something.

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.

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" rel="bookmark">The Fourth Times’ the Charm: My Emotional Rollercoaster Ride with the New York Times

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.

Recession Guilt

On November 30th, I participated in the second annual San Francisco Holiday Bazaar Bizarre.  I asked many of my fellow vendors how they were doing and I got the same response from all of them: “It’s going well, but not as well as last year.”  Many of them acted apologetic for having said this, abruptly adding qualifiers like, “But last year was crazy,” as if they didn’t deserve such a singular event to repeat itself.

I admit, I felt similarly.  I felt guilty for the moderate success I was having during one of the worst holiday shopping seasons on record.  I felt guilty at the Mission Bazaar the following weekend, and guilty at the Unique Los Angeles fair the weekend after that.  Even if sales were slightly down from previous years, it didn’t seem right to be turning a healthy profit when other vendors were slashing their prices to wholesale or cost.  Three-color letterpress cards were 6 for $10 at at least two different stationery booths!  You can’t even buy cards at the drugstore that cheaply.

Now this may not be p.c., or even totally true, but I’m going to say it: I think we’re feeling undeserving because we’re women.  Generally speaking, I believe that a man would be more likely to attribute his success to talent and intelligence than to good fortune.  Why?  Because as women, we can’t abide the opposite.  I don’t want to believe that my fellow Biz Misses are having trouble because they are being naive, inert, or unsavvy.  They are my sisters-in-arms, and it seems mean to imply that they are responsible for their own troubles.  It’s much easier to attribute my success to random factors like booth location.

Of course, luck has something to do with the success or failure of every business, but I guess the lesson is to make your business hardy and flexible enough to withstand unanticipated events.  Start slowly, build slowly, and have a diverse set of products, markets or sources of incoWhen sales are slow, use the extra time to focus on marketing strategies, product development and setting up infrastructure, so that when the market turns around (and it always does), you’ll be ready to take off.

50,000 Feet

Once I got back on track, I tried tackling the 50,000 feet questions again, like, “Why does my business exist?”  Though you’d think it would be the most fundamental thought driving your business forward, I had actually forgotten all about it.  I got so caught up in the lower-level questions of, “Will I be able to roll out a new design in time for the holidays?” that I completely lost sight of my company’s purpose.

My company’s purpose is/was to be a springboard for bigger and better things.  Sweet Meats are a trendy product, currently riding the ebbing wave of the meat zeitgeist.  They were never meant to last, or to expand very far (maybe to the pet boutique market, or the barbecue circuit).  My plan was flood the market while they were hot and then take my winnings and apply them to more meaningful business pursuits.  I didn’t feel particularly good about just putting more stuff into the world, but it made more sense to me to try to turn an already-running side venture into a full-time business, than to try to start a new one from scratch.

In hindsight, that was a mistake.  I should not have started a business that I was not totally comfortable with from an ideological standpoint.  Yes, I made sure I was using sustainable materials and fair labor practices, but that still doesn’t change the fact that my products don’t really change anything in the world for the better.  I also should not have started a business that requires a huge volume of stored inventory.  I also should have narrowed my focus, to something like designer toys, or just the pet market.  But those mistakes have already been made and are now in the past. I can’t do anything about them.

What I can do now is cut my losses and learn from my mistakes.  I can stop working on prototypes for new Sweet Meats designs.  I can sell what I have left and call Sweet Meats limited-editions, which they now are.  I can stop being so worried about the perfect new web design and just put up the one that I have.  I can promote the hell out of that web site and my now limited editions, and in the meantime start work on a business plan for something I’m actually passionate about.  I’m finally excited to work on Sweet Meats again, just so I can finish with it and move on.

As a new entrepreneur, you always hear the statistic that nine out of every ten new businesses fail.  I was determined not to be one of the nine, despite the odds, but I’ve made peace with that now.  Most successful entrepreneurs have at least one failed business behind them.  You can fail at your first business and make it out with your shirt still on — so long as you catch and address your problems soon enough.

The new purpose of Sweet Meats now is as a learning experience.  In the end I think I was lucky to have made my mistakes with a company I wasn’t 100% passionate about.  It means I can make the sound financial decision to cut out early and move on, rather than hold on for dear life because I’m too emotionally attached.  I’m a firm believer in the notion that you can never tell whether an event is fortunate or unfortunate at the moment it occurs.  It’s only with context and distance (say, 50,000 feet) that you can see the role it played in your greater path.  I’ll let you know when I get there.