Inspiration Station

If I want to transition into doing more editorial-prop-type work, I’m going to need to beef up my portfolio.  I’ve already done some work for book publishers like Chronicle and Scholastic, but most of it’s not very sophisticated, being geared mainly toward the kindergarten crowd.  My portfolio needs a lot more examples of the kinds of projects I’d like to get hired for.  It needs to demonstrate that I’m capable of handling more complex work of various scales, while appealing to the needs of marketing and art directors.

I’ve therefore begun an on-going brainstorm (which I will turn into a static page so I can keep updating it) of potentially interesting portfolio pieces.  The idea is not to get through the entire list, but to create enough options that at least one of them is exciting to me on any given day, no matter what my state of mind. If you have ideas to add, please put them in the comments and I’ll add them to the project brainstorm page.

  • Design a new title page for a boring magazine article
  • Design two interesting settings in which to photograph jewelry
  • Design a window display
  • Design a trade show booth
  • Design five DIY holiday gifts, and five DIY holiday decorations
  • Design a political package for an issue or candidate, including poster, bumper sticker and button (or other schwag)
  • Design a piece of wearable clothing not made from fabric
  • Create three unsettling plush objects
  • Create a pop-up card or book spread
  • Design something to indicate the passage of time that is not a clock, calendar or hourglass.
  • Shoot a handcrafted animation
  • Create a kit to help solve a common problem
  • Create a diorama
  • Create a shadow box
  • Create a papercut
  • Design something to help organize your workspace
  • Make a gross or boring job or product look sexy
  • Create a trompe l’oeil
  • Create a map of an imaginary place
  • Make a pocket square that looks like something other than a handkerchief
  • Make a memory game
  • Take photos and then alter them in a barely noticable way
  • Create a shrine to an obsolete technology
  • Create a board game to illustrate a process
  • Make a family tree
  • Diagram something emotional
  • Create an introduction/thank you piece a la Jeffery Rudell
  • Make a weird cross-stitch/needlepoint sampler
  • Design a poster for a quotation using at least five different fonts
  • Design 5 simple-to-make but elegant DIY wedding items
  • Make an advent calendar
  • Make something useful out of 100% garbage
  • Design the childhood bedroom of a fictional character
  • Re-create an often overlooked household object that is ten times larger or smaller than usual

Epiphanous: Jeffery Rudell

How do you make a living off your art?  That, my friends, is the $50,000 question.  There are the standard models we all know about, but they’re all deeply flawed in the same way: in order to be successful, you need to spend most of your time on non-creative endeavors.

Take the typical gallery model, for example.  Unless you are sponsored by some incredibly well-connected patron, you need to go to graduate school, network like crazy, and then apply for shows, grants and residencies with the hope that you will secure one out of fifty.  All of this while maintaining some sort of day job.  Where is the time after all this to actually make art?

Then, of course, there’s the DIY/self-publishing model.  You can put up your own web site, or sell your art on Etsy, thereby bypassing the need to work within the establishment and their 50% gallery commissions.  But then you need to do your own publicity and promotion, not to mention shipping, web programming, bookkeeping, etc., still while likely maintaining a day job.  This can also often entail churning out dozens of the same (more affordable) product over and over, making you a manufacturer, not an artist.

Lastly, there’s the merchandising model.  Either through licensing images or having items manufactured, you get your designs into the hands of the public through mass-produced items.  This involves many of the same things as the DIY model, only you’re focusing more on sourcing manufacturers or licensors than you are on manufacturing products yourself.

I’ve been using a combination of the DIY and merchandising models for the past few years and while it is satisfying in many ways, it leaves me very little time to do creative work.  I spend most of my day on correspondance, order fulfillment, marketing and bookkeeping.

Then yesterday I read this article on CraftStylish by Jeffery Rudell and I had a revelation: here, finally, is the model for exactly how I want to run my career.  Mr. Rudell crafts for a living, and the actual creative process is what takes up most of his time.  Of course he networks and promotes himself — that’s unavoidable — but essentially he’s a freelance art-producer.  Magazines, stores, TV shows and other media commission him to create specific art pieces for photo shoots, store windows and tutorials, within variously flexible parameters.  This is very much like being a graphic designer (a route he came out of that I have also briefly pursued), but it involves working with your hands on three-dimensional objects much more often than sitting in front of a computer screen.

Okay great, so there’s a guy out there with a career I’m totally jealous of.  What am I supposed to do about it?  Follow all the steps Jeffery Rudell did!  Luckily for me, he’s a storyteller, too, so he couldn’t resist laying out his trajectory step by step:

Step 1: Create a gorgeous and variable portfolio while working a day job for money.  I just read about him yesterday and I’ve already drafted a long list of art-director-friendly projects to work on and I’ve applied for a part-time bookkeeping gig.

Step 2: Introduce your work to valuable contacts by sending them inexpensive, eye-popping “introductions.”  Send similar “thank yous” to existing clients so they don’t forget how awesome you are.

Step 3: Say yes to everything you can do or learn to do within the specified deadline, even if it seems difficult.  By embracing challenges you become a better artist and a more valuable asset.

Step 4: Value your work highly and price it accordingly, always remembering that people are paying you for your ideas in addition to your production hours.

Step 5: Remember that it is your job to communicate ideas, emotions and experiences, not just create a pretty product.  Mr. Rudell calls his promotional introductions “(souvenirs) of the experience people have working with me.”

I don’t really know what to call Jeffery Rudell’s job (prop-maker? production artist?) but I am determined to make it happen for myself.  More on my specific steps in later posts.

The Iron is Hot

As Warren Buffett once said, “We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.”  In other words, now is a great time to invest in your business.

In even more words from Rebecca Lynn, Principal of Morgenthaler Ventures, “A recession is the best time to start a company. The opportunity cost is low, hiring good people is relatively easy, rent and equipment are cheap (sometimes free) and established competitors are focused on reducing costs & staying in business, not on innovation. The key is being in a good position when the economy picks back up.” (via Women 2.0 — more on them in a future post)

Worth Its Weight: StartupNation

If you don’t already use StartupNation on a regular basis, you probably live under the same rock as I do.  I was a little appalled at myself to have just discovered the site this morning.  It’s extremely comprehensive and well-written, but what differentiates StartupNation from other entrepreneurial web resources is its integration of information and services.  For example, in an article about timing a good PR campaign, you can click right to a page that gets you quotes from pre-screened PR firms.  The best part?  Everything at StartupNation is 100% free.  You don’t even need to sign up for anything.  You just visit the site and use whatever you want, barrier-free.  I’m currently loving the ten-step plan for growing your business.

In addition to the web site, StartupNation also runs a weekly radio show, which you can download as a free podcast.  It’s great for commutes, though it admittedly has a “boomer emphasis.”

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.

Worth Its Weight: the SCORE Web Site

SCORE stands for “Service Corps of Retired Executives,” and is a volunteer organization dedicated to helping individuals start successful businesses by receiving advice from those who have already done it.  I’ve taken a few SCORE-sponsored workshops in the past, and used their sample business plan to write my own, but today I discovered even more free, useful goodies on their web site.

I’m particularly taken with their “60-Second Guides,” which cover everything from pricing to hiring.  Especially at this time of year, time is tight, and I love being able to learn how to make real improvements to my business without having to read a lengthy guide.  One of my favorites is the 60-Second Guide to Building Word-of-Mouth Referrals.  Similar to the 60-Second Guides is their collection of “Top 5 Business Tips,” which also helps you focus on just the essentials in a variety of topics.  In this section, I especially liked the tips on budgeting, which can help you put together a rough budget for when you don’t have time to go line-by-line.

Another collection of goodies I love is the template gallery.  Here you can find tweak-able templates for a lot of things you can’t find elsewhere, like a break-even analysis, and a business plan for a business that already exists.  The financial templates all come in both Adobe PDF and Microsoft Excel formats, with the formulas already programmed in.  This allows you to plug in your own numbers or to tweak the formulas and see how the totals change. No fancy calculations required!

Finally, for the days when you have more time for professional development, you can read in-depth articles in SCORE’s online “Reading Room.” There are literally hundreds of articles here, that cover everything from selling online to disaster preparedness.  And of course, I always recommend visiting the web site of your local SCORE chapter for free counseling and low-cost workshops.  Biz Miss, educate thyself!

It’s Alive!

It’s seems that no other project racks up delays quite like a web site.  There’s always something that could be added, or could use cleaner functionality, or doesn’t look quite right in Internet Explorer 18.3 for Windows WTF.  But after six months of such delays, I am proud relieved to announce that 2.0 has finally launched!  It’s as close to perfect (for my own purposes) as I’ve ever gotten a web site, so I’d like to share some of my steps with you, and review a few of the services I tried along the way.

Step 1: Evaluate. There were a lot of reasons I desperately needed a new web site.  I enumerated them on paper in order to be sure that each issue got solved in the re-design:

  • Not a clean design.  It was simple, and cutesy-clever, and some people liked it, but it was also pretty slap-dash.  And four years old.  It felt ridiculous that my own web site wasn’t good enough to include in my design portfolio.  The product photos also weren’t very good.
  • Hard to pay.  My old site only accepted payments via Paypal.  I calculated that I lost at least 25% of my potential customers because of this.
  • Not expandable.  The design didn’t allow for the easy addition of more products or pages.
  • Limited functionality.  It had no ability to handle discounts, gift certificates, shipping choices or product sizes with any grace.
  • Bad navigation.  It used pop-ups in an incredibly unattractive and repetitive way.
  • Hard to analyze.  Very minimal stats that provided few clues about how to improve sales and traffic.
  • Bad SEO.  Only appeared in Google rankings for very specific search terms like “Sweet Meats Plush.”

Step 2: Make lists. I wrote down exactly what features and functionality I wanted to have in my site, and what keywords I wanted Sweet Meats to be associated with in searches.  I decided what was important to have right out front, and what could be reached in a click or two.

Step 3: Research. With my list of features in hand, I searched for a shopping cart, and then a web host, that could accommodate my needs for a reasonable price.  I already have a merchant account and payment gateway through Thompson Merchant Services to handle credit cards.  I wish they were cheaper but they work really well.  As far as shopping carts went, I tried four:

  1. Zen Cart: completely free, open-source shopping cart software that is chock full of features and is theoretically fully customizable.  You have to be a really good PHP programmer and be able to handle hideously confusing file organization in order to make this work, though.  I constructed a passable wholesale site using Zen Cart.  It took three frustrating weeks and my customers hated using it, so I didn’t even try to make a retail site with this cart.
  2. Shopify: I downloaded the trial and started mucking around with it but didn’t get very far.  It’s not hard to use but I realized that the features I would need, like SSL security and the ability to do discounts, were only available with the “Professional” plan, which costs $59 a month + 1% of sales.  Way too expensive for my small business.
  3. WP E-Commerce: This is only for WordPress sites, but my husband is a wiz at programming these, so I thought I’d give it a try.  It’s not a good option for US vendors, because it can’t handle shipping physical goods with different weights, and doesn’t interface with UPS or FedEx.  After mentioning this in a previous post, one of the company owners offered to send me a working version of the cart, “personally,” but he never did.  I’m a little pissed I wasted $25 on the “Gold Cart” upgrade before I was able to figure out that the cart just doesn’t work.
  4. Mal’s E-Commerce.  This is what my last web site used, and what I ultimately went with again.  I had unfairly written off this cart because it was somewhat limited in its customization, but (naturally) it has changed somewhat in the four years since I last looked at it, and it handles quite nicely.  Here’s what I like about it:
    • It only costs $8 a month.  It would be free if I didn’t want to process credit cards through my own gateway (rather than use Paypal).
    • All of the code goes in your buttons, so it doesn’t change the appearance of your web site in any way.
    • It integrates with UPS and USPS shipping modules, so you can calculate shipping automatically based on weight and location.
    • It’s ridiculously easy to set up and works with graphic buttons, pull-down menus and text boxes, all of which I use on my product pages.
    • The shopping cart is hosted on Mal’s secure server, so I save money on not having to purchase my own SSL certificate.  The only downside to this is that the amount of customization you can do on the checkout pages is limited, but it looks integrated enough for my taste.

Step 4.  Design!  I laid out exactly how I wanted all of my pages to look in Photoshop, down to the pixel.  It took five drafts to get it just right and I got a lot of feedback from friends throughout the process.

Step 5.  Host.  I was getting a little tired of GoDaddy, with their limited stats and the bizarre way they handle permalinks and page titles, so I tried Lunarpages.  It was easy to set up, and reasonably priced, but they don’t handle domains very well.  I got a free domain with my hosting, so I chose “” and used it to build my new site online.  When I was finished, I planned to have my old domain, “” (which is hosted with GoDaddy) point to my new Lunarpages web site, and have that super long domain name just forward to the right place.  But as my “primary domain,” Lunarpages’ control panel wouldn’t let me forward, and consequently, my old domain wouldn’t point properly either.  Tech support was quick to answer the phone, and they took care of the “primary domain” problem for me right away, but they couldn’t figure out how to get to forward to, they could only “park” it.  My husband eventually fixed this for me, but I was annoyed that a web hosting company didn’t have the capability to do this themselves.

Step 6.  Program.  This was the tedious part, and required a lot of tutorials from my husband.  I haven’t programmed a web site since college, and a lot has changed on the web since 1999.  I also signed up with Google Analytics at this point (free!), so I can track things like “conversion” (how many visitors turn into buyers), and return-on-investment for pay-per-click advertising.

Step 7.  Test.  This was the REALLY tedious part, but it’s important to proofread everything 2-3 times and to test every link on every page.  Anything that doesn’t work right could cost you a sale or publicity.

Step 8. Launch!  I sent an e-mail to my wholesale customers, then to my newsletter subscribers, and then to family and friends.  This week I’ll be working on an announcement to send to the press.

If you like something I’ve done on the site and have questions about how I did it, don’t hesitate to ask!

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.

When God Closes a Door, He Opens a Closet

I was saddened to learn recently that San Francisco’s Stitch Lounge is closing its doors for good.  Though it will continue to operate as an online entity, offering tutorials and a blog, their fantastic, in-person classes are coming to an end on September 12th (click here to sign up for one last class).  Here is a snippet of the announcement the lovely Biz Misses of Stitch posted on their website:

Some 4 and a half years ago, three hopeful soon-to-be-Stitch-B*tches held hands and jumped and opened the first sewing lounge ever….We achieved so much more than we ever imagined and so it is with pride that we look to our next life chapter where we focus on our families and (non sewing) full-time careers. To make room for our new experiences, the time has come for us to close the San Francisco lounge (the brick and mortar portion of it, that is). While the physical studio will no longer be available, we will keep the virtual lounge alive and continue to post free downloadable tutorials and keep you up to date with the goings on in the sewing and fashion world and with the crazy B*tches!

But as they say, when God closes a door, he opens a closet, sometimes in the form of a tiny fiber arts studio.  On August 25th, Jamie Chan, the organizer of my favorite craft fair, Bazaar Bizarre, and the person who introduced me to needle felting (i.e. wool sculpture) announced the opening of Urban Fauna Studio, the brick-and-mortar entity of her business, Mary Jane’s Attic.  UFS is located at 1311 16th Avenue (between Irving and Judah) and has hours Friday - Monday 10-6:30 PM and by appointment.  Like the Stitch Lounge, Urban Fauna Studio is an open workshop that hosts classes, sells supplies and runs a consignment boutique.  But whereas Stitch emphasized sewing, Urban Fauna is all about everything fiber arts, from spinning to felting to weaving, and only carries eco-friendly, socially responsible products by independent designers, like Biz Miss favorite, Girl on the Rocks.  I am VERY excited to stop in this weekend.

Also on my list of must-see shops this weekend is WhizBang Fabrics, in the Mission/Potrero Hill neighborhood.  WhizBang also opened just this year and were responsible for this summer’s RockMake Street Festival, which combines my two most favorite things: rock and roll and crafting.  I couldn’t decide whether to apply as a maker or as a musician, but then I found out I’d be on my honeymoon then, so that settled that.  Located at 3150 18th Street, Suite 113 (on Treat @ 18th), WhizBang carries mostly printed cottons, both vintage and modern.  Though I have yet to visit, they carried many WhizBang fabrics at the Stitch Lounge and from what I’ve seen, the designs are really fantastic.

Though neither Urban Fauna Studio nor WhizBang are a substitute for the Stitch Lounge, they both give me something new to get excited about and it’s nice to still see Biz Misses blazing trails out there.  Rock on, ladies!

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.