Friday, March 29, 2013

Behind the Scenes of a Photo Shoot

Today I thought I'd share a little behind the scenes look at how I photograph pieces for etsy.  I'm a DIY kind of gal, and if i can do something with a home grown solution instead of a lot of expensive equipment, I do it.   So my process for photographing my work to sell online is decidedly low tech.  Here's my photo studio - my kitchen :)

It has a small north facing window to the left of the table, and between 10:30am and 1:30pm, the light is perfect.  It's not too bright, it's not too dark, and it doesn't cause a lot of glare.  But, just sticking a planter on my messy table isn't exactly going to bring in the buyers, so I do a little rearranging:

I found out the hard way after photographing a ton of work that the colors in the mahogany table really mess with the color balance in my camera (a canon photoshot elph point and shoot) so I cover part of it with a plain old piece of foam core I found in my closet:

Next, the subject:

As soon as I get a close up shot, the setting works rather well:

I could use any inexpensive photo editing software at this point, since really all I do is crop and dicky around with the contrast, but I use photoshop since I'm comfortable with it and have been using it for years.  After tweaking, here's the finished product:

You can check out all the photos I used in the etsy listing!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Working at Working from Home

This is my second go around with working from home in the last two years.  The first time I tried it was during a 3 month stint from October through December.  I had been laid off of a job I really loved, thanks to a cut in government funding, and was smarting from the loss.  My self-esteem was in the gutter, but I was determined to stay off of unemployment and make a living through Found Beauty Studio.  Too bad I was completely unprepared.  I was undercharging for my work, over-extending myself by selling in 3 brick and mortar stores and online during the holiday season, barely turning a profit, and on the verge of a particularly bad bout of depression.  Let's just say, this was not a resounding success.  I essentially holed myself up in my house as the days were getting shorter and colder, and sat in my living room producing as much as I could.  I was also selling several different kind of products, so there was no streamlining anything.  I was a one-woman crazy factory.  I'm pretty sure at some point my husband must have considered leaving town until I re-entered the world of the sane and rational.  Needless to say that when I was offered a job out of the blue in January, I jumped at the offer.  I was important again!  I had a reason to get dressed!  I had a nice fat paycheck and big executive's desk!  I finally felt like I could breathe. 

It only took a few months before I realized how incredibly stressed out I was by trying to work a full-time day job, which ended up taking 50 - 60 hours a week, and run this business with the remaining time.  Plus, here's the thing - I really hate rigid work schedules.  Having to be in one place day after day for a predetermined amount of time makes me want to scratch my eyes out.  So I bailed on that job, took two months in the summer to run Found Beauty Studio full time again, and then was offered what seemed like an incredible opportunity at another organization.  Again, the siren song of a steady paycheck won out.  It turned out not to be a good fit for me (see above for my hatred of rigid work schedules) and at the beginning of last month I went free range again.  Seeing a pattern here?  Yeah, me too.

So what do I expect to be different this time around?  Thankfully, quite a bit.  I know what my downfalls have been and I have a pretty good idea how to avoid them.  They include:
  • Leaving the house every day.  Sounds funny, right?  But I'm dead serious.  It's so easy to get caught up in the strange and all-consuming world in my house and I need to be reminded of the outside.  Plus, it makes me feel better to talk to other people and not just my cats (and myself)...
  • Socializing.  For real.  I have friends and we're all busy, so I make a concerted effort to schedule coffee dates, mini road trips, and impromptu social gatherings.  This was the hardest part of my first work from home experience.  I went from supervising 30 people and being constantly surrounded by coworkers to seeing maybe one or two people a week, one of whom was my husband.  It was so isolating.  
  • Having a work plan.  I'm like a magpie around a bunch of shiny objects.  It doesn't take much to distract me, so in order to get things done, I need to have goals set out for each week.  I don't give myself time of the day deadlines as that would violate my no rigid work schedule rule and I'd hate life, but I do know what I want to have done by the time Saturday rolls around.  
  • Giving myself a break  This one is by far the hardest for me.  I'm a workaholic and a perfectionist and I have a tendency to set completely unrealistic goals and then beat myself up for not reaching them.  So I'm trying to be kinder and gentler to my psyche.  It's a one day at a time approach, but it's working.  If I'm my own worst enemy, working for myself by myself is a bad idea. 
So far, so good.  Two months in and I'm really enjoying my life.  But if you see me staring crazily out my window and yelling at kids to get off my lawn, feel free to intervene :)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Ethics of Selling

I'm broke.  I mean, not flat-broke-can't-pay-my-electric-bill kind of broke.  I've been there and thank goodness I'm not there anymore.  But pretty much every penny I make goes right back into the business.  It's almost like a magic trick.  As soon as an order comes in, I need to buy more supplies and the money just disappears.  POOF!  Now you see it, now you don't.  Because I know what it's like to be a small business owner and sole employee, I don't judge the decisions that other small business owners and sole employees make.  But it's tempting.

There's an incredible project in Colorado called the Women's Bean Project.  Here's their description of their program: "Since 1989, Women's Bean Project has been dedicated to helping women break the cycle of poverty and unemployment.

Women’s Bean Project strives to break the cycle of chronic unemployment and poverty by helping women discover their talents and develop skills by offering job readiness training opportunities.

With this stepping stone toward success, the women will be able to support themselves and their families, and create stronger role models for future generations."  

Essentially they employ women in poverty to make food products like "Bean Soup Mixes, Dips, Bread Mixes, Organic Fair Trade Coffees, Cookie and Brownie Mixes, Instant Iced Tea, Salsa Mixes and Fajita Marinades, Spice Rubs, Sweets, Gifts Bundles, and Gift Baskets". 

I DEEPLY admire the work that they do.  I'm working on building the social enterprise wing of a local business to train young women to grow local edible plants that will help repair the landscape, and I look up to the work that the Women's Bean Project has done.  It's not easy.  It's not the typical profit focused venture.  But last week they announced a deal selling their products through Walmart, and all hell has broken loose.

I also received an offer this week to work with a large retailer who is know for ripping off independent artists and who's CEO contributes heavily to anti-gay movements - something I do not agree with.  So what do we as makers, sellers, and small businesses do?  We're all just scraping by.  For the Women's Bean Project, the incredible exposure that Walmart offers could give them the funds to employ hundreds more women in poverty.  But Walmart's strategy of paying people substandard part-time wages with no benefits is one of the reasons people end up in poverty.  You can work full time at Walmart and still qualify for welfare.  WTF?  Does one good deed outweigh the bad deeds?  I honestly don't know.  In my case, would selling my work through a company that has cheated so many others, but would probably bring in enough profits for the rest of the year, make any ethical sense?  Could I live with myself?  Could I, who has a business based on reducing consumer waste and creating a connection between people and the things they own and use, sell my work through a company that sells so many products designed in the US by artists, ripped off, and then reproduced in third world countries?  I don't know.  But I doubt it.

I don't begrudge any artist or charity the opportunity to to raise funds to further their work.  It's a completely personal choice and one that none of us can make for them.  Will I kick myself if I turn this offer down and then can't keep my business going, all because of my conscience?  Maybe.  Since I'm the only one affected by the decision, I'll probably turn it down so that I can sleep soundly at night.  But, then again, I don't have employees depending on me for their livelihood.  That would be a different story all together.

I hate that this is an issue.  I hate that we as a society support the kind of companies that rip people off, create artificial poverty, and exploit third world labor.  Its a catch 22.  The people that Walmart employs can only afford to shop at Walmart, which keeps them in business.  Prices stay artificially low.  The culture stays focused on the disposable.  The lowest price wins, even if it came at the cost of 1/3 of our society and countless people in slave labor conditions around the world.  I know this blog post isn't going to fix any of it.  All I'm asking is that everyone who reads this just thinks for minute before you buy your weekly groceries, or that new lamp, or that $10 shirt.  Just, please, think about it.  Nothing changes if we don't change it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why Yes, I Did Make that Myself. Thanks for Asking.

Yesterday, in a hardware store, I had what has come to be an oft repeated conversation.  It happens so frequently that I can practically psychically predict when it will happen.  It always occurs when I'm intently looking through either tools, lumber, fasteners, or plumbing supplies.  A male sales person will come up to me and politely tap me on the shoulder and say, "Do you need help finding something, ma'am?".  First misstep - calling me ma'am.  I'm 34.  Knock it off.  I reply, "Nope, I've got it.  Thanks.".  He'll stare at me with a slight hint of disbelief.  He'll look me over and decide that I do not fit the mold of someone who knows what they're doing with tools, lumber, fasteners, or plumbing supplies.  I'm usually in a dress, because I like dresses.  They're comfortable.  Second misstep - judging me by my appearance.  He'll say, "Are you sure?  Are you picking up something for your husband?".  Third misstep - expecting that I'm picking up something for my husband.  This use to really make me chuckle before I was married. I'll say, because now he's ticked me off, "Actually no.  It's for me.  Can I ask why you assumed it would be for my husband?"  At which point he usually stammers and wanders off.  One sales person actually said, "Sorry, didn't realize you were one of those feminists".  I made sure to make a comment to his manager on the way out after that particular trip. 

The thing is, this doesn't just happen in one particular hardware store.  It happens in all of them with varying degrees of similarity.  Some ask me if I'm looking for something for my husband, some ask me if I'm picking something out for someone else, and some just don't listen when I say I don't need help and continue to probe me about my projects.  I've watched what happens when my husband shops in those same stores.  They usually just nod at him and say hello.  He, apparently, looks the part.

And - drum roll please - my least favorite thing?  When someone asks me who helped me with my projects.  It's like I'm a kid at a science fair who couldn't possibly have completed my exhibit without my parents stepping in.  I get it.  I don't look the part.  I really don't.  I wear dresses and dress shoes.  I like long wool coats as opposed to the heavy duty outdoor gear most people around here sport.  My bag is bright blue and has a hummingbird appliqued on it.  I never, ever, look like I'm wearing anything weather appropriate.  None of this fits most people's assumptions of a woman who likes to build complex biological based plumbing systems in her home.  Or fix her own car.  Or wire her own electronics.  But I love doing all those things.  Figuring out how things work is one of my great joys in life.

I've been a tinkerer since I was quite young.  After age 9, I lived alone with my mom in a big, rambling house just outside of Boston.  After school, I would hole myself up in the living room and watch PBS.  This was the golden time when I'd religiously watch Julia Child, the Frugal Gourmet, Yan Can Cook, This Old House, The Victory Garden, and - my very favorite - NOVA.  I learned ALL OF THE THINGS.  When our vacuum cleaner broke, I took it apart and figured out which belts had slipped and replaced them.  When the toilet ran, I knew how to tweak the float so that it shut off when it was supposed to.  I fixed the washer when it broke, and replaced the thermostat on the dryer when it wouldn't heat up.  I knew more about how to choose insulation than any 10 year old should have.  And in our basement, I found my ultimate treasure, and perhaps one of the most defining influences of my childhood: The Encyclopedia of Crafts.  26 glorious volumes of projects covering everything from how to make your own sandals out of scrap leather to how to install a greenhouse.  I went methodically through each one, completing every project I could.  Since it was just my mother and me, there was no one around to tell me that these weren't typical projects for girls.

What bothers me the most about all of this is not that I don't fit in the template expectations people have for me.  It's that occasionally I buy into it.  When someone tells you enough times that your husband should check over your wiring work, you start to believe them.  Luckily those moments are few and far between, but I worry about all those kids out there who didn't have my unfettered childhood.  How many of them could be incredible tinkerers and makers, but don't feel welcome in stores, or don't have the confidence to take something apart?   

Do the world a favor, everyone.  Let every kid tinker, regardless of gender.  Don't hover, don't fuss, just let them take something apart and see how it works.  And while you're at it, take it apart yourself.  Consider it an act of rebellion in a world of pre-made things and stubborn stereotypes.  .