by Patrice Lewis

Courtesy of Handmade Business

I don't know about you, but once the Christmas season is over, our craft business is on hiatus--things slow down to a crawl.

This doesn't mean we wouldn't welcome new orders, it just means that people aren't buying anything for a while and our sales nosedive for a couple of months. We get a few trickles here and there, but mostly it's dead.

Financially, it's not that big a deal. These breaks in sales are part of our yearly selling cycle, and since they're anticipated, we can plan for them. But in the meantime, what do we do during our slow season?

Besides the endless home projects and the lengthening ''honey-do'' list I present to my long-suffering husband, there are lots and lots of things we can do during the slow season that will help our business during the busy season.

1 Build more stock Yes, it's nice to get some of those neglected home or yard projects done, but when things pick up, whether you're an artist or a gallery owner, you'll regret it if you never anticipated those orders during the slow season.

The single best thing you can do during downtime is build more stock. When crunch time hits around here, we've been known to work literally around the clock to get things done. But during slow times, we can pace ourselves much more easily. We build a nice surplus of stock that carries us through the busier times ahead.

Can you imagine the peace of mind that accompanies shelves full of gleaming products made during a time when you're not stressed with a surplus of orders? You can work at a more leisurely pace, breaking off to do something fun like romping with the kids (or something not so fun, like shoveling the driveway).

Whatever you choose to do, it would be foolish to waste these wide-open blocks of time without taking the opportunity to build more stock.

2 Market your business Close on the heels of building more stock during your slow season is upping your marketing efforts. This is a prime time to research new opportunities to sell your products or to market your gallery.

If you have a wholesale side to your business, try e-fanning out across the country to make contacts with those who might be interested in carrying you. The Internet is tailor-made for such opportunities. Remember the old phrase from the '80s: ''Network, network, network''? There is some validity to this advice.

If you're strictly retail, you might consider expanding into a catalog (online or paper) to broaden your horizons. If you restrict yourself to retail shows, now's the chance to find out what other venues are available in your area, or perhaps places (banks, libraries, municipal buildings) where you can display your work.

Marketing opportunities are endless, but of course they take time... time which, during your busiest season, may not exist. And so your slow season is the best time to take advantage of these opportunities.

3 Upgrade your Internet presence How is your website looking? What about your Facebook page? Your blog? Your other Internet sites?

When things get busy, we tend to let such chores slide. But now that your slow season is upon you, it's time to upgrade your Internet presence with a snappy new look, some new photos or a different product line you can highlight. It's also a good time to experiment with new product or marketing ideas.

Do you have e-mails that you've neglected? Now's the time to catch up with them. How about that YouTube how-to video you've been meaning to finish and post? Get busy!

Once again, the idea of a slow season is to do something productive, something you didn't have a chance to do when your every waking hour was consumed with churning out and selling product as fast as you could. You don't want to waste scarce time by doing nothing.

4 Increase efficiency What could you do during the off-season that would increase your efficiency during the busy season?

We're taking the time during this year's slow season to build a ''clean room'' inside our shop--essentially a shop within a shop that will enable us to do certain steps of our manufacturing process without having to deal with sawdust and other by-products of our production cycle. We can also heat a smaller room with greater efficiency than we can the entire shop, making it much more comfortable to work during the bitterly cold winter temps. We've been meaning to build this ''clean room'' for a long time, and this year's slow season is the time to do it.

What neglected projects can you take on that will increase the efficiency of your production cycle or sales? Perhaps you can get your sewing machine cleaned and oiled. Perhaps you can install the photographic light box you've always wanted. Perhaps you can update your gallery's accounting software to make tax time a little easier this year. Whatever it is you choose to do during this time, make sure it has a positive impact on the bottom line for your business.

5 Combine business with pleasure A lot of craftspeople like to travel during their slow season, whether taking a delayed vacation or visiting family members. Consider combining your pleasure trip with business.

There are endless networking and marketing opportunities while traveling, even if it's something as minor as picking up business cards in stores that seem suited to carry your products. But perhaps you can contact people in advance and set up a business lunch or a tour of their facilities. Or maybe you can hit a number of businesses or storefronts and drop off your own business cards, brochures or even product samples.

If your marketing and networking efforts are serious enough, you may even be able to write off the costs of the trip. Check with your tax professional to see whether your efforts qualify as a business expense.

6 Clean up your shop We know a cabinetmaker who has a poster on his wall that says, ''Downtime is Cleanup Time.''

The whole purpose behind the poster is to remind us that to keep things running smoothly and efficiently, we need a clean work environment.

But stuff happens. When our busy season is upon us, cleaning suffers. This means a clean house as well as a clean shop. Oh my goodness, by the end of our busy season our shop is almost literally knee-deep in scraps! Downtime is cleanup time! My husband will take several days and do nothing but clean and organize the shop. He shovels and sweeps the waste wood into piles for winter kindling and/or burning. He gets rid of the accumulated garbage. He organizes his tools. I, meanwhile, tackle the neglected chores in the house.

It should be obvious that a cleaner environment maximizes efficiency, either in the home or in the shop. It's also a safety consideration. A tidier workplace keeps down fire hazards and dangers from tripping, and reduces wasted time because you know just where everything is.

Take the opportunity while you can to enjoy a more streamlined and efficient workplace or gallery.

7 Play with your kids Since we work at home as well as homeschool our children, our family is together a lot. Yet, there are times of the year that we simply forget to ''play'' with the kids. Downtime is perfect for catching up on family time.

Since our downtime often happens in the winter, outdoor activities are often limited to sledding, snowshoeing and snowball fights (but the occasional snow angel or snowman has been known to creep into our repertoire).We also work a lot of puzzles together. The whole idea is to reconnect as a family during a time when the pressures of work ease up.

This is also a chance to take care of neglected family chores. Minor remodeling you've been meaning to get to, rearranging a bedroom or study, painting the kitchen--these are all examples of things that could never happen during our busy season.

Whatever you choose to do, remember that sitting on your duff and bemoaning the fact that you have nothing to do is useless and pointless. Get up and improve your business…or at least play with your kids instead!

8 Don't waste time, use it About the worst thing you can do during your slow season is waste all those lovely empty days doing nothing productive. Spending hours watching mind-numbing television is high on my list of wasteful, unproductive activities--unless you can do something useful at the same time (some of the more boring steps during a typical production run in our business are best done while watching a movie).

Obviously, I'm not suggesting foregoing any leisure activities when, frankly, you've earned it. But it bears examining whether your leisure activities contribute toward any improvements in your life. Reading books, planning a spring garden, sledding with the kids, cleaning out the junk drawer, making a thick stew that will fill the house with delicious smells on a cold snowy day--there are endless activities you can do during downtime that you never had a chance to do during your busier times. Just make sure you're not wasting that time.

You're not out of work
Remember, downtime does not mean you're unemployed. At least for us, downtime is just part of our yearly cycle of being self-employed. It's also a much-needed and highly welcomed break. Yes, our income drops, but it gives us a chance to catch up on so many chores.

It also lets us do things we would normally feel too guilty to do. We can sleep in. We can spend a whole day ''puttering.'' We can travel together as a family to an activity (something we're normally too busy to do).We try to keep our activities purposeful and enjoyable, but we can proceed at a leisurely pace that lets our minds and bodies recover from the sometimes insane workload that afflicts us during our busy season.

Remember, the most successful business is not a part-time business--downtime is business-building time.