Thursday, April 18, 2013

Lessons Learned from Seven Years of Business

I've gone mad with the desire to organize all of my paperwork, which is a minor miracle if you've ever seen my desk, and realized that April is the 7th anniversary of when I started Found Beauty Studio.  I've been a maker my entire life, but April 2005 was the first time I sold a piece to a stranger.  This business has at times been the only shelter of consistency for me through a marriage, a divorce, selling a house, losing everything, having a complete nervous breakdown, moving an hour away, moving back, transitioning through four different day jobs, renting apartments, buying another home, and getting married again.  It has been such a long, terrifying, satisfying, and often exhausting journey and I thought I'd share some of my lessons learned for those of you that may be thinking about running your own creative business.

1) If you can handle having a day job, keep it.  Running your own business is a sure fire way to go broke for the first few years.  Be realistic about your operating costs, as well as your personal bills you need to cover, and how much stress you can actually handle during the time you'll be pouring every cent back into your business.  If you're making $50,000 at your office job, know that you may never see that kind of paycheck again.  Can you deal with that?

There were a lot of times that having a day job saved my butt.  I've spent a great deal of time experimenting with different lines and it's taken me years to find what sells.  If I hadn't had that steady paycheck, I would have been homeless.  It's not a mark of failure to have steady employment.  It's a mark of understanding your needs and making smart choices.  I, I have learned, cannot handle having a day job.  It feels soul crushing and triggers my depression like nobody's business.  For me, it's worth struggling with bouts of poverty and exhaustion to have the freedom to do what I'm cut out to do.

2)  Ask for help.  I don't know everything and neither do you.  There are a lot of people out there who all have pieces of knowledge and experience that will make your life so much easier.  Seek them out.  Ask questions.  Listen carefully and keep an open mind when they suggest something different than what you're doing.

I have struggled with this.  I have often had a terrible fear of asking the wrong questions, looking dumb, feeling stupid, and opening myself up to criticism.  In the last few years, though, I've turned that around and I talk to everyone I can.  If there's a workshop, I take it.  If I'm stuck on something, I find someone who does it well and take them out to coffee and pick their brain.  If there's a professional who has a particular skill that I need (eh hem...accounting) then I pay them to do it.  I took me a while to get it through my stubborn mind that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

3) Kill your darlings.  If you think a particular thing you make is awesome, but after a whole lot of marketing and effort it doesn't sell, let it go.  In the world of owning a business, it's no longer just about what work you want to make - it's about making work that you enjoy and that people want to buy from you.  Making a living does not mean you need to compromise your artistic integrity.  But it does mean that you need to listen to your customers.

As I mentioned before, I'm stubborn.  I hate criticism.  I have a habit of taking things incredibly personally.  Watching my work sit on store shelves and online and go nowhere was so painful.  It felt like a rejection of me when in fact I was just making the wrong products and selling them in the wrong markets.  I used to make bags.  I made gorgeous, intricate bags.  Each one took days to make and they were pretty darn expensive.  And they didn't sell.  And I needed to pay my bills.  So I had a serious talk with myself to figure out what I found satisfying about making those bags and how I could have that same experience making something else.  Turned out that my favorite part of making bags was seeing what I had imagined come to life.  The bags weren't actually an essential part of the equation.  I regrouped, figured out the materials that really excited me, and started experimenting.  And I realized what I had always done as a hobby was the answer:  working with plants.  You know what my biggest sellers are?  Planters.  You know what I do when a particular kind of planter stops selling?  I invent a new style.  Lesson learned.

4) Don't undervalue yourself.  This is a biggie.  For many of us, selling our work evolves from something we've loved doing in our spare time and we're trying to recoup the cost of supplies.  It's so easy to only consider the cost of materials when pricing your work and nothing else.  Sometimes it's about just being so darn thrilled that someone wants to pay you for something you made that you'll take anything.  Other times it's about thinking the answer to having more sales is to lower the prices.  But here's the thing - your time and your talent are expensive.  You are worth being paid for your work and not just your costs.  The cheaper you price your work, the less value it has to your customer.  If you're selling handmade earrings at $7 a pair, your customer will equate them with mass produced jewelry from a mall kiosk.  Don't undervalue yourself!

I raised my prices a few months ago and I was TERRIFIED that I was getting too full of myself, that I'd fail, that my sales would disappear, that I was going to be laughed at.  You know what happened?  Nothing.  No change in sales, no backlash, just an extra $200 a month from the same number of sales I was making before.  No one batted an eyelash.  It was all in my head.  I also figured out that by always trying to price my work as the lowest, I was undermining my fellow artisans.  It's death by 1,000 cuts.  If we all keep lowering our prices, eventually we'll run ourselves out of business.

The biggest lesson of all that I've learned is that I'm better at this than I think I am.  Until I took myself seriously, no one else would either.  I'm making a living off of selling my work and I'm really proud of myself.  It's been some of the most fulfilling work I've done.  For those of you out there taking the leap, I wish you a ton of success, if you find yourself getting stuck, I'm happy to be one of those people you ask for help :)


  1. Very interesting , ups and downs = life And you are living it to it's fullest

  2. Excellent summary of our conversations over coffee ;)

  3. Totally! Thanks for being one of the people I reach out to when I need help and a good ol' dose of commiseration :)