Entrepreneurship by Necessity

This week’s East Bay Express newspaper, covering the eastern cities along San Francisco Bay, interviewed me for their feature, “The Recession-Era Entrepreneur.” The article, written by editor Kathleen Richards, explores the trend of Bay Area residents becoming entrepreneurs by necessity. According to Richards:

Due to the economy, slim job prospects, and skyrocketing education costs, more and more young people are finding their fairy-tale careers beyond reach, or simply not on the horizon. As a result, many are supplementing their incomes — or banking entirely on the do-it-yourself route — by starting their own businesses, many within niche or specialized fields.

It’s definitely a trend I’ve been seeing among my small business students.  What do you think: are entrepreneurs by necessity more likely to fail because they have less passion and/or planning, or are they more likely to succeed because they have more at stake and therefore try harder?

Do you have your own business?  If so, why did you decide to start it? Was it a lifelong dream, an economic necessity, or a combination of both?

Thing-A-Day 16: An Effing JOB

Like many creative types these days, I’ve had to get a day job.  It’s not that I’m getting fewer projects, it’s just that fewer of them pay much, if anything.  When faced with the choice, I always go for the well-paying projects first, then fill my remaining time with the projects that pay in web traffic, nebulous future sales/commissions or “cred.”  Unfortunately that’s been most of them lately.  I’m pretty good about not taking on jobs that realistically won’t give me much of either.

My new job isn’t bad.  It’s mostly tech-y admin stuff and it changes on a regular basis so it’s not too boring.  I also really like everyone I work with and I can make ends meet by working only 25 hours a week.  Even though it doesn’t sound like much, 25 hours a week will basically eat up four full work days when you add in lunch and commute time, which doesn’t leave much time for creative projects.  It makes me kind of tired and stressed.  Prepare to see this blog get a little crankier.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re all: “this girl is going to completely reneg on her thing-a-day responsibility!”  I did consider it but no, I will continue to make a thing-a-day. BUT, I might not post it every day and the rules may relax closer to their original incarnation. On days like today when I don’t get home until 10:30, I will probably not make something AND photograph it AND post it AND tweet it.  Sorry, but I need to not make myself crazy.  I have enough doing that for me already.

Today I took photos of my yoka in various poses.  Then I accidentally dropped him and the very tips of two of his toenails broke off.  You can’t really tell but it’s enough to bother me so I made replacement toenails tonight.  That’s my thing.  Whatever.  I’m going to bed.

Worth Its Weight: Free Shipping

Since I live across the country from my family, I buy most of my gifts online.  Usually there’s no sales tax (which can save you almost 10% if you live in California), and it saves me a trip to the post office.  Unfortunately, my sales tax savings are always trumped by the high cost of shipping, so I was psyched when I found freeshipping.org today.  It’s a lot like my other favorite coupon site, retailmenot, only it specializes in free shipping codes.

I love the Internet.

Thing-A-Day: No Frills Meat Indentity Branding

This weekend I re-organized my studio.  I never realized how much my half-finished projects were stressing me out until I finally tackled my bin of cut but un-sewn plush pieces.  I thought that perhaps I could turn them into kits, like the ones I have for making mini hams, but it wasn’t worth the time to make detailed instruction booklets. Could I somehow turn them into simple, no-frills kits?

Yup.

nofrillsbag

Inspired by the recession, the Helvetica movie, and the joy of removing physical and mental clutter, my thing-a-day was some quick and dirty identity packaging.  The design takes a (huge) page from the no frills supermarket packaging I used to see growing up.  Sure, the kerning could be better but what you you want?  It’s no frills.

nofrillssteak nofrillspork

nofrillsbacon nofrillsminis

Parasol Mag Issue 2 Out

Yasmine may not actually be a posting a print a day lately, but she is CRANKIN’ on this magazine.  Published monthly?  Seriously?  I know it’s a pdf publication but that’s still ambitious.  I wonder how long she can keep it up.  I probably would have folded by now.

Issue 2 is a little heavy on the vintage-inspired photography, but it also has some neat features, like interviews with two 15-year-old artists (one of whom is a Biz Miss in Liberia — go Lovetta!) and a funny article about “Recession Projects” by Maria Adelmann.  She’s like a one-woman WPA, both sponsor and recipient.  My favorite thing about Parasol, though (aside from its price — nothing!), is that every article (and ad) is linked, so if I want to find out if I can afford those gorgeous flats from the vegan shoe company profiled on page 26 (answer: no), all I have to do is click on the company’s name.  Now if only Kindles came in color and cost $50 I’d be all set.

parasolmag

Speaking of the WPA,  A. told me about a friend of a friend who just started a new WPA in NYC with a donated office space and a whole slew of grants.  Is anyone doing that sort of thing in the Bay Area?  Please let me know.  Also, does anyone know more about the NYC project?  I can’t find them online except for a link to a Rhizome page, which I can’t view because I’m not a paying member.  Bahstids.

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).

The Death of Craft?

All of my favorite crafty/handmade things are moving online.  First, the Stitch Lounge closed up shop.  Then, Whizbang Fabrics shut its doors.  Today, Craft Magazine announced it will no longer be printing.  What gives?  Around the holidays all I kept hearing was that the craft market was growing, as people started making rather than buying things to save money.  Anecdotally, here in the Bay Area this does not seem to be the case.  All sorts of crafty ventures seem to be eliminating overhead and staff as they rush to move online.

Though I have never run a fabric store, a sewing studio, or a magazine, this seems to be a mistake.  The essence of craft is that’s it’s tactile.  How can you shop for fabric online, where you can’t feel the weight or the texture, and the colors aren’t accurate? Not to mention it’s simply not as inspiring to “browse” online as it is to be completely surrounded by a rainbow of physical materials.  Online tutorials are no substitute for a live, in-person instructor, and I won’t read anything digital in bed, in the bathroom or at the beach.

For me as a diehard craft consumer, moving exclusively online basically ensures your crafty business that I will no longer be a customer.  I might still visit occasionally, (if a favorite blog happens to mention something interesting about it, for example) but if a new, physical rival opens up, my alliance instantly switches.  I don’t know how many people feel the same way I do, but if it’s significant enough, moving online might just deal your company’s death blow, despite saving money in the short-term.

In the end, if going online is the only solution you can think of in a bad economy, maybe you don’t deserve to be in business anyway.  At least not in a creative business, because going web-only is perhaps the least creative solution I can think of.

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.

Float, Sink or Swim

A couple of weeks ago I attended a small cocktail party for my local merchants’ association.  People invariably asked one another how they were doing in the deflating economy, and everyone there responded in one of three ways.  Some, like the owner of a hair salon, said, “I’m doing fine. My business is recession-proof.  People still need to get their hair cut and dyed so I’m not worried.”  Others, like the owner of a high-end clothing boutique said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.  People just aren’t buying like they used to.”  Still others, like owner of a new gallery said, “I’m doing great. I was trying out new promotion ideas, and one of them worked out so well I’m doing better than before the recession hit!”

These three business owners are examples of what my dad would call “floaters,” “sinkers” and “swimmers.”*  When a bad economy hits (and it always does, sooner or later), some businesses are largely unaffected.  People in the medical industry, for example, will still see about the same number of sick and injured people no matter what.  They don’t have to make any changes to their business model to stay above water.  They are natural floaters.

Every other business has a tendency to sink during a recession.  If they do nothing, eventually they will hit bottom.  With a little effort and direction, however, you can stay above the surface.  And if you manage to keep yourself above water long enough to ride out the wave, you’ll find that your trip back in is even easier than when you started, because some of your competitors will have been “wiped out.”

I haven’t heard any predictions that the recession will last beyond 2009, so if you can make it another year, you should be good to go.  But how to get there?  That’s up to you.  Many businesses seem to be relying on the promotional discount this season.  I say, get creative!  Look around you for things you can use to your advantage. That gallery owner I mentioned above is taking advantage of the private school down the street. She’s offering free weekly classes to parents during the hour before school gets out.  It’s a brilliant idea.  She gets wealthy people in her gallery on a regular basis, where she teaches them how to appreciate what she sells — art. She’s literally taking people off the street and turning them into customers.  She’s never sold so much art in her life!

My approach recently has just been to put myself out there — everywhere.  I’m contributing to things right and left.  I’ve got pieces in art shows and silent auctions.  I’m selling at loads of holiday events — even ones that didn’t ask for vendors.  I contributed a recipe to an event program, a tutorial for a craft book, 500 buttons for a magazine party, and 350 items for goodie bags.  I’m doing an in-store in Brooklyn when I’m home for the holidays and a workshop at a local art college in the spring. I’m even collecting donations on behalf of the San Francisco Food Bank.  In return they add my events to their calendar.

All of my contributions have been narrowly targeted, but they’re low-cost and have often lead to bigger and better things.  For example, the buttons I donated to the magazine party say “I love you more than bacon” on them, and it’s a magazine all about meat.  But those buttons were ultimately responsible for my appearance in the Weekly Yelp.  They even got a mention on KQED radioSweet Meats are even supposed to be in the New York Times later this week.  I’m not sure what was ultimately responsible for that piece of PR, but the point is, you have to get your name out there so that people can find you.

So ladies, put on your brainstorming caps and start saying yes to everything that doesn’t cost you money.  The water level is rising and it’s time to start kicking!

*I don’t think my dad made up the whole “sinkers, floaters, swimmers” thing, but I can’t find the original source.  If you know it, please post it in the comments.  Thanks!