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

Maker Faire Madness

It’s been a crazy week.  After getting back from New York late Monday night it was a mad dash to finish two days worth of contract work and everything I needed to do for the Bazaar Bizarre and When Creativity Knocks (both at this past weekend’s Maker Faire).  I only slept 5 hours each night, during which time I had several stress dreams, including having to perform a trapeze act in front of thousands of people with only ten minutes training by a hairy, naked French woman.  I ditched the circus as soon as I realized my face wasn’t on the poster and the audience wasn’t expecting me anyway.

There were a few snags, like having to leave Eleanor on her own to finish the last hour of mock-ups, and not being able to find the catnip, bells and beans I needed for the WCF steak cat toy demo, but everything got done in the end and the results were fair to good.  The Bazaar Bizarre raffle looked fantastic (thank you volunteers and friends/family of Jamie!), the demo went smoothly (though I had to omit the filling step), and the Sweet Meats sold really well.  In fact, all the vendors did really well.  Everyone kept remarking on how the recession didn’t seem to exist inside the Maker Faire.  Maybe the attendees save so much money by growing their own food and building their own vehicles that they have plenty left over to spend on plush meats and robot soap dispensers.

I love that the Maker Faire Bazaar Bizarre helps me pay my June rent, but I get a little sad that I can’t attend it anymore.  I got to go the first year, which was awesome, but it’s so much bigger than it used to be and all of the new stuff is so tempting.  I want so badly to ride the two-person ferris wheel, but my short lunch break doesn’t allow time to wait on the long line.  This year many of the exhibits were open on load-in day (Friday), so I got to see a few things after setting up that night, but I had to work all that day, so my participation there was limited to about half an hour.  Next year I’m going to load-in first thing on Friday so I can spend the rest of the day exploring the exhibits.  Not everything will be up, but I’m sure it will still fill the day.  One highlight of the Faire was getting an Editor’s Choice ribbon from Becky Stern at Craftzine.  I’ve been secretly coveting one of these for years (I’m a HUGE fan of Craft) and it gave me a nice “mission accomplished” feeling at the end of an insane week.

maker faire editors choice

The day after the Maker Faire was my birthday, so I did a little shopping for myself on Sunday.  I got an awesome tool apron from Polly Danger (I made her assistant take off the one he was wearing and hand it over), a sweet little wrist wallet from eleen, and the most awesome snail mail stationery set from Jill K. in L.A.  My friend Lydia moved across the country to Pittsburgh so I am currently writing her real letters on ugly stationery I bought in high school with lots of cross outs.  She types on lovely onion skin paper using an antique typewriter.  I think the snails will help bring me a step up.  When I first saw the stationery in L.A. I was determined to buy a set even though it seemed expensive to spend $5 for one letter’s worth of paper and envelopes.  Then I heard a man at another booth explain to his wife that of course he was going to buy this $6 card, because he couldn’t think of anything better to spend his money on than a way to meaningfully communicate with his friends.  I couldn’t agree more.

tool apronwrist walletsnail mail stationery set

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 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 Sweet-Meats.com 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 Authorize.net 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 “sweetmeatsplushtoys.com” and used it to build my new site online.  When I was finished, I planned to have my old domain, “sweet-meats.com” (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 sweetmeatsplushtoys.com, 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 sweetmeatsplushtoys.com to forward to sweet-meats.com, 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.

Fred Flare's Next Big Thing

Deadline: Friday, May 2nd

According to fredflare.com: “The NEXT BIG THING contest is best suited for designers, artists, crafters and creatives who are serious about taking their business to the next level.”

In short, it’s a contest in which you submit your art/design/craft products for $5 an entry in the hopes of winning $1,000 and having your stuff sold on fredflare.com.  There will be 27 finalists, each of whom gets a spot and a bio in the limited-time Next Big Thing Boutique section of the web site.  Then in June, the polls open, and customers vote on their favorite product.  The winning artist/designer gets $1,000 and Fred Flare will buy out the rest of their stock.  In the future, if your item does well, they will keep you on as a wholesale vendor.

Although there are traditionally a huge number of entries and you face some pretty stiff competition (Jay McCarroll of Project Runway, Jenny Hart of Sublime Stitching, and Amy Sedaris have all been finalists), there’s a lot to potentially gain and only $5 to lose.  I’m definitely going to enter the Sweet Meats. One tip: read the rules carefully because they’re very specific.

Think Outside the Shop

I made a couple of sales calls in the Upper Haight today and got the same response everywhere I went: “We’re not buying anything right now because it’s slow. Come back again in April and we’ll see.”

On the way home I lamented to my fiancé about how I wish there were stores in the Lower Haight that could sell Sweet Meats. After all, that’s the neighborhood we live in, and it would be really nice to have my products so close to home. There are no toy stores in the Lower Haight, however, no pet stores, no home accessories stores and only a couple of gift stores that do not have a decidedly ethnic slant. I sent an e-mail to the owner of Doe, my personal favorite neighborhood shop, but if I’m going to be honest with myself and with her, Sweet Meats are not really a good fit with her woodsy collection.

Then, as we were passing Costumes on Haight, my fiancé said: “Maybe you could sell them in some other random store, like a record store, or clothing store, or Costumes on Haight.”

“Costumes on Haight? But how are plush meats a costume? You can’t wear them.”

As the words left my mouth I saw the strangest, most wonderful thing. Taped over the crotch of one of the costumed mannequins was a paper t-bone steak, the exact size, shape and color of the plush one I happened to be carrying. I walked into the store and approached the register.

“Excuse me,” I told the man behind the counter. “I live in the neighborhood and was just walking past when I noticed your paper steak in the window. I think you can do a lot better.” And I plopped my plush t-bone on the counter.

“Oh. My. God.” said the clerk quietly, “How much is it? I’ll buy it from you right now.”

“Well, these are just samples,” I said (I still needed to show them to two more stores this afternoon).  “I’ve been showing them around for months and they’re a little ratty. But here’s my info in case you want a fresh one or the store wants some for display or prop purposes.”

The clerk took my info and I offered to come back in a couple of hours and drop off a sample that the store could keep for a while.  He said that would be fine and that he would show my info to the owner in the meantime.  Just then, I was spotted by my friend Christine, looking more natural in a hot pink bob wig than anyone I’ve ever seen.  We chatted for a minute, and when I turned back to the counter, the owner was standing in front of me, ready to order his first set of  meats for the front window.

Needless to say, I felt luckier than ever to have such a smart, problem-solving, future husband.  It just goes to show you, there are many unexpected, potential outlets for your stuff, especially if you’re a local. I thought I had enough to work with already, but beyond the usual suspects of gift stores and food establishments is a whole world of unexplored options.  So if you’re feeling frustrated that the well has run dry in your area, try hitting up those costume shops, video stores and record stores. Because anything on earth can be a display, and if it can be displayed, it can be sold.

Craft Fair Report: Bazaar Bizarre San Francisco

Yesterday I participated in the San Francisco Bazaar Bizarre, a large holiday craft fair (~100 vendors), that was held this year in the County Fair Building in Golden Gate Park. The Bazaar Bizarre is organized mainly by Jamie Chan of Mary Jane’s Attic, along with help from her family and friends. I honestly don’t know how she does it all — heading up the Bazaar Bizarre, teaching Science, running her own fiber arts business, organizing events for the San Francisco Craft Mafia, and writing for blogs like CraftGossip’s Indie Craft Blog — but this woman is my hero. Jamie is one of the nicest people you will ever meet and never seems to break a sweat. She even has time to shop at her own events! Jamie is now the owner of some Sweet Meats, and I have added her needle felting kit to my Christmas list.

The first Bazaar Bizarre in which I participated was part of the Maker Faire earlier this year. It went extremely well from both a sales and marketing perspective but I think yesterday’s Baz Biz went even better. The publicity for the fair was excellent and the place was packed from opening to closing. Jamie made sure everything ran smoothly, from parking spots for load-in, to wheeling around the dolly when we all broke our tables down. There were food and drinks for vendors, Craft Fair Survival Kits from the folks at The Sampler, and stickers courtesy of Mrs. Grossman’s, one of the fair’s sponsors. Everyone seemed to do a brisk business and the building was warm and well-lighted.

As usual, I was not totally prepared for this event. I had all of my display stuff together, most of which was still packed up from the Baz Biz in May, but I was sadly lacking in inventory. In the rush of online holiday orders, I’ve been having trouble keeping up. I was still sending out packages on Thursday. I had about a dozen meats and a few t-shirts left over, and I made another dozen or so meats on Friday. I rationalized that since it was exactly the amount of goods I sold in one day at the last fair, I would be fine. But holiday fairs are a separate beast from spring fairs. People are shopping especially for gift items and they spend their cash much less critically. Yesterday’s Bazaar Bizarre ran from 11-6 but by 3:30 I was sold out of everything other than a few pairs of earrings. I received a lot of congratulations from shops and other vendors who saw my “Sorry, Sold Out” sign, but the truth is, I just wasn’t adequately organized.

You see, I’ve always been somewhat of a slave to the “tyranny of the urgent.” I tend to put the retail sales of plush meats above everything else. Especially in December, this is my primary source of income, so even though it keeps my business from moving forward in a timely fashion, it becomes my top priority. Orders also realistically need to get out within a week of their receipt, so despite not being the most important item on my business plan, it’s the item that usually needs to happen the fastest. In the end, this just pushes back the even more important stuff until it, too, becomes time critical. But you don’t want to have to rush things like new product development, publication design and trade show presentations.

Now that the fair is over and I have the slimmest of financial cushions, I’m trying to get back to what’s important rather than what’s urgent. Luckily, I can rest easy knowing that I will never again have to sew a dozen plush meats the day before a holiday craft fair, because by the time the next one rolls around, I will have boxes of them already made. It makes me really look forward to the next Bazaar Bizarre. Who knows how much I might be able to sell when I don’t sell out?

Bazaar Bizarre SF 2007