It's a Wide, Wide World!

by Donald Clark

Courtesy of Handmade Business

I want to have a career in the handmade world where the rules all seem to be changing. I'm finding it increasingly difficult to know the direction the field is taking. How do I get in, maintain my career, and grow my reputation?

Getting going can be expensive; it's essential to not compromise quality now, or ever, in your career. You'll be faced with the cost of the classes where you'll learn your skills, and then there are tools and space to pay for. Typically all of this happens before any income appears. I always urge taking things slowly, study with the best in your field, buy only really good tools as you can afford them, and hone your skills--ideally while another income stream is supporting you.

As you begin your career, there are going to be decisions about direction, and some of these will be influenced by the need for income flow. Affordable, functional pieces will typically generate income faster than higher priced one-of-a-kinds.

Let's be mindful that it's never been easy for a craftsperson to make a living on the products of their creative mind. Yet people continue to enter the field; we can't help it. Some leave after a bit, others go on and make a living. Those who succeed aren't necessarily more talented. I'm quite certain the deciding factor is they are more business savvy.

You have a business: the same good practices that apply to General Motors are at play in your business--it's just a matter of scale. Awareness of this at the outset of your endeavor will help direct your energies and guide you as you invest time and money in your future. Spending time in the office establishing sound business practices is just as important to your success as the design and production decisions you make in the studio.

Factor your formula for success
Keeping records of production costs is essential to the growth of your business. To be successful you need to know what it costs to make each piece. You'll also want to develop a marketing plan early on. Most likely you'll begin to display your work in shows in your area. Typically regional shows are easier to get into, have lower booth fees, and you'll spend less on travel. I'd suggest you use the first few shows you do as research tools. Spend time with every person who enters your booth and ask lots of questions designed to gather information about their perceptions of your work. As your line, knowledge, and confidence grows move onto bigger shows. Just know that bigger isn't always better. Larger shows may be harder to get into, have higher booth fees, and generate higher travel expenses. Once you are in bigger shows, the competition for customers is greater. Do the math, and remember generating a large gross income doesn't always mean the net will also be larger.

Weave your web
If you are only interested in showing online, that is alright too. Begin with a shop on a large shopping site, and keep track of what sells. Post the same item, whether it's a mug or a purse, in several sizes and colors and note the ones that get the most attention. With that information, develop those collections further. Here, your keys to success are great photos paired with enticing descriptions of each item.

Be certain to check out what other vendors with online shops are selling--or trying to sell. When you feel you have the goods and skills needed, then move on to your own website. As a one-of-a-kind maker, you'll eventually need to have a website; it's where you'll send galleries to see your work. I'm sure you realize there are many more makers than galleries. A good gallerist spends the majority of his or her time building the careers of and selling the work of the makers they represent. Sure, galleries need to have new work to keep their customers coming back, however, there are so many makers trying to get their attention and only those who make it easiest get noticed. Be sure to be one of those.

Dip in the digital pool
Once you get going, it's essential to be aware of the impact the rapidly changing digital world will have on your promotional and marketing practices. Perhaps this is easier for younger craftspeople entering the field. They understand the digital world, as they have grown up in it. For more mature makers, this may be a challenge. For those of us who have been in the field for 20+ years, we've had to come to terms with a digital world that rapidly replaced the analog one we're accustomed to. This is all about having a well thought out website, and being comfortable using social media sites.

Some people may not agree with me on this, but I further contend we are all in businesses, that going forward, will be driven by these digital advances. I'm not suggesting we give up the hands-on nature of our studio practices--that's what we're all about. Craftspeople will continue to throw pots, weave textiles, blow glass, and create their handcrafted masterpieces.

Embrace culture change
The craftperson's relationship with the materials they work with gives their products the handmade look. It's that uniqueness they love about what they do. As artists, we also have to love our customers. This means we have to make something they want. This is true whether you're creating a collection of functional work or when you're making one-of-a-kind pieces.

For artists, the biggest impact of the digitization of the planet is on how products are marketed. Whether you're looking for a gallery to show your work or a shop to buy your line, the Internet is a player in the game. Galleries seldom look at submitted images these days and prefer to be directed by a maker to their website. Buyers for shops who still attend wholesale shows are often influenced by pre-show e-mail invitations to visit a craftsperson's booth at the show.

When I entered this field the typical buyer had to feel and touch before they would buy. Today, the typical shopper only has to see it. Launch your career, grow it, and profit from doing what you love by building solid business practices--and yes, even a website.