Back in Business

Well, it’s finally over. I’m a married lady, back from my honeymoon, carrying with me a ton of freckles and a little souvenir from Montezuma. The wedding was wonderful. I was terribly worried about everything, having DIYed most of it, but it turned out even better than I could have imagined. There were a ton of things that went “wrong” (the lawn games were canceled due to swarms of mosquitoes, all the decorations were completely different than planned, no one danced, the glass of wine for the ceremony was missing, dessert was so late that only half the guests got any, and both shuttles broke down, leaving many guests stranded for hours) but there was so much damned love in the place, we all had an amazing time and I will never forget it.

It’s been so long since I worked on anything other than this wedding, that my sister said to me yesterday: “I’m really sorry to ask you this, but it’s been so long, I forgot: what exactly do you do, again? I mean, for a job?” I answered: “I run my business. It’s just sort of been coasting along these last few months, but my priorities now are sending new prototypes to the manufacturer, putting up the new site, putting together a press kit for the holiday press blitz, catching up on my bookkeeping…” and then I heard myself trail off, because the list in my head was getting too long to say out loud and I was starting to have palpitations.

These last few months I had intended to comment insightfully on how I was balancing my business with my wedding, sprinkling in some witty commentary about traditional gender roles along the way. But the truth is, I didn’t balance anything. The wedding was a 70-hour-per-week job for a solid ten weeks and it simply took over. Eighty of our closest friends and family members were traveling between 2000-5000 miles to see us get married and by God, I was going to make it worth the trip. Originally, my husband (!) had said he wanted to split the wedding planning 50/50, but after the save-the-dates went out, that sort of went out the window. Sometimes I got him to help out by throwing minor tantrums, but since he was making more money than I was, it made the most sense financially for me to handle everything and let him keep working.

In the end, it was all worth it and I regret nothing. Though I was nervous about relegating such a new business to the back burner, it was good in some ways. For one thing, it gave me some distance. Since I wasn’t mired in stressful, time-sensitive details like following up with stores, or programming shopping carts, I was able to look at the bigger picture and re-prioritize my goals. I even signed up for a business plan class at the SBA, so I can learn to lay out my goals in a clear and productive way. It also allowed us to have a wedding that was deeply personal, relatively inexpensive, and extremely memorable (hey, how many couples seat their guests at the “mountain lion,” “mudslide,” or “highway 1” table?). As an added bonus, we got to include new items in our portfolios. My husband added the “California Perils” table sculptures to his art portfolio, and I added the invitations to my product design portfolio (their printing, naturally, was a “business expense”).

Sadly, I can offer very little advice to other betrothed Biz Misses. Just bear in mind the equation, “time equals money” and know that a wedding, not matter how small, will require a lot of one or the other. Get enough sleep, even if that requires half an Ambien, and when your loved ones say, “let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,” take them up on it.

Biz Miss Math: Time = Money

Time equals money. We’ve all heard the axiom. The problem is, it’s not a precise equation. There’s a coefficient missing. It should really read:

Time = A x Money

with A being some positive rational number. You see, one of the trickiest balancing acts for me in business has been figuring out when it is more beneficial for me to spend time, and when to spend money. Most of the contract work I do these days (when it doesn’t involve new designs), I do for about $30/hour. Since I have neither time nor money to spare, I figure that anything that works out to less than this rate is worth purchasing rather than doing myself. For example, I recently sourced out the screen printing of my t-shirts.

Printing t-shirts is not difficult for me to do, and I already have all of the materials, but it still works out to be cheaper overall to have them printed by another company. Mostly this is because every t-shirt needs to be ironed three times: once to get out the wrinkles before printing, and then once again on each side of the shirt to heat set the ink. This takes about ten minutes per shirt overall. At my pay rate that’s $5 a shirt. At Babylon Burning, however, it costs $1.25 per shirt at twelve dozen shirts. Therefore, when it comes to screen printing,

Time = 4 x Money

You see, I have many more profitable things I can do with my time than run my own little t-shirt printing factory. Ten full hours spent making sales calls, sending out press releases, and developing new products ultimately puts my business further ahead than the $180 I had to spend.

Keeping Stress out of the Bedroom

I realize it’s been an inexcusably long time since I last posted anything. I have probably lost all of you to disappointment and summer, but as busy as I am lately, I will try my best to keep this resource growing, albeit slower than I would like.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m getting married (in exactly six weeks). When my fiancé and I first got engaged a year ago, he swore he wanted to handle half of the planning. He said it was because we should have equal ownership in our wedding, the way we will have equal ownership in our marriage. I thought that made sense and was happy he felt that way. But, as a freelancer, my husb-what can’t predict when his heavier workloads will hit. The latest one hit about six weeks ago and I’ve been on my own in wedding planning ever since.

I had no idea how much work it takes to plan a one-evening event. It takes up all of my time each and every day. I haven’t spent more than an hour or two a WEEK on my business and I’m starting to feel trapped inside post-war gender roles.

Two nights ago I had a nervous breakdown in bed. I suddenly realized that I had wasted over a full month of my life on a wedding that is turning out nothing like the casual family barbecue/picnic we had originally envisioned. In fact, it is looking suspiciously like my mother’s dream wedding — the one she never got to have, and which, I am convinced, she is subtly forcing me to plan via ESP and Jewish guilt. I freaked out so badly I couldn’t sleep until dawn, at which point I dreamed we missed our flight and couldn’t go on our honeymoon.

That night spent hyperventilating in the dark was the third night in a row I didn’t sleep because I was stressed out over the wedding. So I began to try some strategies to help me calm down:

  1. Talking it out: this only works if the person you’re talking to understands what you need when you’re stressed out, and is not too stressed out him- or herself to really focus on you. It helped, but it wasn’t a cure.
  2. Decompression: I tried doing no work after 9pm, then no work after 8pm. No dice. The only night I slept peacefully was when I stopped working in the afternoon, then filled the night with “Ocean’s 13” on DVD and a roll in the hay. Lesson? Stop early and occupy both body and mind until bedtime.
  3. Making lists: Part of what I stress out about is inadvertently overlooking something, so I am a compulsive list-maker. Things would probably be worse if I didn’t have my lists, but they don’t relieve enough anxiety to let me sleep.
  4. Crowding out brain space: During an episode of Radio Lab I heard about a study in which subjects were given various tasks before they went to sleep, to see which ones penetrated their dreams most often. The big winners? Tetris and video game skiing. I thought doing a couple of hours of jigsaw puzzles at night would do the trick but it didn’t, so today we bought a Nintendo Wii.
  5. Drinking warm milk: Yup, I tried this one, too. It’s soothing while you drink it, but milk doesn’t stand a chance against full-blown anxiety.

I have not been testing these strategies scientifically. I have also only had one restful night of sleep this week, so I’m still looking for new ones. If you have any suggestions for leaving stress out of your bedroom, please share them in the comments.

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

With an ad deadline looming and no real time or resources to put together any of my more ambitious ideas, I turned to the power of collective creativity. A bunch of our friends met in Golden Gate Park this past Saturday for croquet and lemonade in the incredibly balmy weather. When people had drunk and played their fill, I brought out my box of Sweet Meats and a camera and let people go to town. My peeps did not disappoint. Here are just some of the fabulous shots they created:

My fiancé later helped me out by laying out an ad, which I tweaked and edited into this:

Our next project will be to create some kick-ass video commercials. My crew has already got a number of fantastic plans for this. This Saturday I’m having everyone over for a big seder dinner to say thanks for their help and support — always.

Finding Somone Who Fulfills Your Needs (Part 1)

When I first started thinking about contracting out the sewing of my Sweet Meats, I had it all planned out in my head. I would rent a large truck for the day, pick up my cargo at the Oakland docks, and bring it all home. At first, there would be a lot of boxes in the living room, but the orders from Bay Area stores would put a serious dent in my inventory when I delivered them all the next day. Then, slowly but surely, the living room would empty out as I sold out of all my stock within the next two months. Sure, it would take some time to fill all those orders myself, but since I would be getting paid for the “handling,” it was ultimately a smart move financially.

These daydreams of mine were not based on any real estimates of time, space or money, however, so they quickly evaporated when the hard numbers came in.

First I tried to find out how much space my cargo would actually take up. All along, I had been hearing that it made up less than a full container. I guessed that that meant it took up about half of the 20ft. container they were due to ship in. Assuming the container is also 10’ high and 10’ wide, this meant boxes of plush meats would take up our entire living room — not an option, according to my fiancé. Okay, so keeping them in the apartment was out, but I could presumably fit my boxes in a 10’x10’ storage unit, which rents around here for $150-200/month — not too bad, plus it would be kind of nice to have a dedicated shipping center outside of the house. Again, I assumed several boxes would go out immediately, which would leave some maneuvering room.

But wait. How was I going to fill these orders in a storage unit? Would there be a way I could connect to the Internet to print out shipping labels? Would the postal service pick them up from such a place? Was I going to have to order a really large, expensive scale? A new printer? Cartons of boxes in tons of different sizes? Was I willing to drive 10-15 minutes each direction several times a week and drive my orders to the post office? How much would that cost in gasoline? Would I have time for anything else on those days? I suddenly started feeling overwhelmed by the possibilities I could see and could not yet see. It was time to consider a fulfillment house.

A fulfillment house is a warehouse that holds your goods and ships them to customers. Most of them also offer special packaging and design services, but the advantage to hiring a fulfillment house lies mainly in not having to worry about supplies and logistics. For example, they have accounts with all of the major shipping companies and usually get much better rates than your average business due to volume. Fulfillment houses also have computerized systems in place for weighing and addressing your packages, and for keeping track of inventory. They have all of the packing materials already on hand, which they will usually offer at cost + 10-15%. All of the fulfillment houses I spoke to were also willing to let me use leftover packaging they already had on hand for free.

It was difficult at first for me to get used to the idea of letting someone else take over the shipping and handling of my products. After all, it is a crucial part of customer service and accounting, and if it were handled badly I could have some really big problems — angry or lost customers, incorrect inventory, or damaged or missing merchandise. But part of being a successful business owner is knowing how to prioritize your two biggest resources — time and money. I didn’t start a business to become a shipping clerk, so I’m comfortable with my decision to let someone else take that over for me so I can focus on more lucrative, long-term things like product development and opening new accounts.

Dear Diary, Today I Went to Starbucks

If you are self-employed and either eat out or drive on the job, chances are you’ll want to deduct what you spend on those things. But meals and car expenses are two of the most likely things on your tax return to get scrutinized by the IRS, and who wants to organize hundreds of receipts for small dollar amounts? An easy alternative is to keep a spending diary — or two or three. A spending diary eliminates the need for you to keep tons of receipts for tiny amounts and is also one of the only spending records the IRS will accept as legitimate.

I have two spending diaries: a small notebook that I keep in my purse for meals/entertainment/public transportation, etc., and a pad taped to the dashboard of my car for mileage and car expenses. I recommend a separate diary for your car because it will be organized slightly differently than a regular diary. Some people like to use a digital or cassette recorder in lieu of paper (Blackberry/iPhone users, I’m looking at you) but either method is fine as long as it contains the proper information.

Like all documentation prepared for the IRS, a spending diary must follow a series of somewhat complicated rules in order to be admissible. Here’s how to set up an iron-clad meals and entertainment diary, for example:

  • Include only entertainment and meals you ate out (not groceries!) that totaled $75 or less. You will need to keep a receipt for any meal or entertainment expense over $75 (no matter how many people you paid for).
  • Create the following set of columns for your diary:
    • The date
    • The amount you spent
    • Where you spent it (establishment and city)
    • The names and business relationships of anyone you entertained
    • The business you were doing or discussing
  • Fill out the information the day you spend the money

For your car diary, just follow the format from this IRS example:

mileage log

Source: http://www.irs.gov/publications/p463/11081l08.html

Tip: record the entries from your diaries into a spreadsheet every week when you do the rest of your bookkeeping. This will help you to budget future spending and will save you time when you need to prepare your taxes.

Portland and Seattle d*s Biz Lady Meet-ups

Portland and Seattle ladies! Whether you have a successful design business already or are just thinking about making your craft hobby a full-time gig, you have to go to the design*sponge Biz Lady Meet-up.  This is one of the most useful informational events you will ever attend, not to mention one of the best networking opportunities available.  The San Francisco meet-up is what inspired me to start this blog in the first place, so GO GO GO!

The Portland meet-up is tomorrow, February 26th from 7-9pm at Design Within Reach Portland and the Seattle event is on Thursday, February 28th from 7-9 pm at Design Within Reach Seattle.

You’re supposed to RSVP but at this point, the ever gracious Ms. Grace Bonney is letting folks in anyway.  The event is free, but it is polite to bring a snack or drink to share with the group.

The meet-up is structured as a round-robin.  There are four speakers, who will speak about business financials, press and marketing, retail/wholesale, and successfully balancing life and work.  Everyone divides into smaller groups of four and spends about 20 minutes with each speaker before rotating to the next.  Bring a notebook and a lot of business cards with you and get ready to meet a lot of other very cool, like-minded BizMisses.  I met the super funny and very talented Christine Schmidt of Yellow Owl Workshop at the SF event.

I cannot stress the awesomeness of this event enough.  If can go, go.  I promise, you’ll thank me for it.

Finding Stores to Sell Your Stuff

Okay, so you’ve got a brilliant, well-designed product. You’ve gotten the ball rolling on getting it made, and you’ve done all of your promotional work. After all this, you have a dozen orders to show for it. So what do you do now?

All of the press you get and marketing you do will only cover half of your sales — the half in which stores come to you. Despite all work that goes into creating marketing materials, sending press kits and exhibiting at trade shows, this is the easy half of selling, because any buyer who approaches you is 10 times more likely (in my personal experience) to place an order than a buyer you approach yourself. On the other hand, there are at least 10 times more buyers out there who don’t know you exist than those who do.

So how do you find good sales leads? You don’t just want to look names up in the phone book. Casting that wide a net will surely not be worth the time. Here are a few tips for finding stores that really fit your style:

  1. Go door to door. If you haven’t visited all the shopping districts in your area yet, this is a good place to start. You can take a good look around prospective stores and ask up front who does the buying. Usually it will be the store owner, who may be amenable to arranging an appointment to see your products. Store owners are also more likely to take a chance on a new product if it’s designed by someone local. One note, however: many stores will not want you to sell to more than one other store in the same neighborhood, so go for the big fish first (e.g. stores with additional locations in other towns).
  2. Shop online. Using links from a favorite blog or just searching for products similar to your overall aesthetic, you can find a ton of stores around the world that might be a good fit.
  3. Travel online. Starting with the cities closest to you, visit chamber of commerce or tourism web sites for links to stores in that area. AAA also has a huge online archive of articles from Via, their travel magazine, like this round-up of bookstores in the Western U.S.
  4. christopher jagminTrade! This is by far my favorite way to get info about stores. Contact an artist or designer you know in another city, or find a sympatico design buddy through a favorite web site or message board, such as Etsy or Craftster. Give them the names of stores in your area that might carry their products and receive some names in exchange. Last month in L.A., for example, I met a really nice designer named Christopher Jagmin who’s also releasing his first line. I sent him some stores to contact here in San Francisco, and he sent me some in Boston and Phoenix. Luckily, we’ve both seen each other’s products in person, so it’s easier to tell where we can really “see” those products being sold. If you and your design buddy don’t have this advantage, send each other a sample.

No matter what happens, be patient and keep at it. Many store owners are extremely busy, so it might take weeks or even months for them to place orders (or respond to your e-mail at all). That said, you should always follow up after giving them some time to look things over. It takes me an average of four to five conversations with any buyer before actually making a sale.

Making Your Extra Income Work for Your Business

Unless you have truly hit upon “the next big thing” and your business takes off without any effort from you, you will likely need an extra source of income while you get started. Up until this fall I was a full-time teacher, so it would have been fairly easy to keep teaching part-time while starting my business. But teaching requires a lot of take-home work, and uses up a lot of mental energy even when you’re not on the job. It’s also not the kind of work that I could ultimately apply towards Sweet Meats. Mine is primarily a product design business, so I wanted to support myself financially in a way that would also open up new opportunities in my current field.

There are four valuable things I’ve learned in my search for relevant extra income:

  1. The key to moving into a new industry is to start with the areas that bridge your current field and your desired field.
  2. Sometimes you can create a job where one doesn’t already exist.
  3. The value of a job is often measured beyond how much it pays you. A job that pays very little, for example, but provides excellent networking opportunities, relevant lines on your resume, or exposure for your business can be much more valuable in the long-term than one that simply pays the rent.
  4. Be symbiotic with your friends.

stitch loungeTo elaborate: there is a sewing studio in my neighborhood called the Stitch Lounge, where you can take classes and rent time on their equipment. I originally looked at it as a place I might be able to consign some of my homemade creations, but then noticed that they didn’t have anyone teaching a plush or pillow class. So I approached one of the owners with a plush class proposal. It turns out that someone had recently asked her to add a plush offering and with my background as a teacher (including a semester of Home Ec.), I was hired right away.

As a source of income, Stitch is not particularly lucrative. I teach 2-3 classes a month, which only amounts to a couple hundred dollars. The opportunities for networking, however, are worth much more than that. Before I had even taught my first class, for example, the owner who hired me referred me to her friend at PSY/OPS, a local type foundry, to help them develop some of their letter forms into decorative plush objects. Not only does design consulting pay more than than teaching, PSY/OPS is a fantastic client to include in a product design portfolio.

the present groupProduction work for friends is also an excellent stepping stone to design jobs. My friends Oliver and Eleanor, of “The Present Group,” sometimes hire me to do production work with them on particularly complex pieces. Likewise, I have also hired them to help with photographs or production when I get swamped. Though we’re basically just doing each other mutual favors, working together like this allows us to confidently refer each other to other clients and provide examples of the work we’ve done.

One final note about extra income: it takes a while (usually at least a few months) for the networking mill to bring enough referrals your way to make ends meet. It is therefore much easier to quit your full-time gig if you have a bit of a savings cushion or a partner who can help support you for a while. That said, if you put yourself out there and you’re good at what you do, the work will find you, I promise.

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