Monday, December 12, 2011

Reflections on the Year

Back from a grueling three weeks straight of craft shows, and on the mend from the inevitable sinus woes that resulted, it's time to look back on the year, figure out what went wrong, what went right, and where I'm headed from here.

Hanging out with Oscar Peterson in front of the National Arts Center in Ottawa

This past year has been an absolute roller coaster. I can't even begin to stress that enough. The loss of my wholesale show threw a wrench in the gears from go and I underestimated what kind of a toll that would take on my business. Without knowing what kind of money would be coming in early in the year, I was reluctant to spend what I had on supplies in case I needed it to pay the bills come spring. While the bills all got paid, pots did not get made, and this left me scrambling come early summer, when a flurry of orders came in at exactly the same time I needed to make stock for shows. Thankfully I had the guts to hire help when things got too crazy and I managed to get everything done and out in time, but I spent the rest of the year behind the eight ball, so to speak.

Just as quickly as the flurry arrived, it left and the next thing I knew things came grinding to a halt again. I had several large orders to work on, but shows weren't bringing in much money in the mean time. Once the end of September came swooping in things got out of control again very quickly. In getting ready for two large craft shows back to back for the holiday season, my work days quickly grew to 10 and 12 hour days, 7 days a week, for a good 6 week stretch. By the time my shows rolled around, I was already completely exhausted. And I'll just say it: it's hard to be friendly and cheery when all you want to do is crawl into bed with a good book and a bottle of wine and then stay there for days.

But ALAS! I survived and lived to tell the tale.

So what have I learned from all of this?

1. Well, for starters, MAKE POTS when it's slow! I need to do my best to stock up on what I can when I get some down time. This year I have LOTS of clay and glaze supplies so I don't need to worry about dipping into my savings in order to get work made and ready for the next round of shows and orders. While it's hard for me to think about working when I don't have specific deadlines lined up, it will save me enormous amounts of stress later on in the year if I can get ahead.

2. Since the loss of my wholesale show left such a crater in my finances, I decided to throw myself into the fire and signed up for the New York International Gift Fair. I'm utterly terrified, country girl that I am, and have NO idea what to expect. Could be boom, could be bust, could be somewhere in between. But since I need to do SOMETHING, and New York in January sounded better than Edmonton in February, I'll be heading to the big apple. When push comes to shove, I can throw myself in head first before I talk myself out of things. Sometimes it has worked out, and other times not so much, but if I don't try, then I'll never know. The one thing that every successful business owner has in common is that they have all, at some point or other, suffered failures. Where these people differ from the not-so-successful people, is that they pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and keep on ploughing ahead. So good or bad, whatever is to come, it'll be off to NY in January, where all I can do is the best I can do.

3. Hiring someone to help when things get crazy can really save your ass. I wasn't sure if this was the right move for me. I wasn't sure if it was something I could even afford to do. But in the end, my assistant paid for herself many times over. It's amazing what an extra pair of hands, one or two days a week can do to production levels. Even just having someone to do the mundane tasks of sieving glazes or reclaiming clay freed up MY time to get work made. It's far more important to bring in help when you need it, than to scale back your business because you alone can't keep up. With any luck, I'll be able to hire my assistant again in the new year when she's done her program. It's a win/win for both of us: valuable experience for her, like I was granted when I was starting out, and an extra pair of hands to help me keep things under control.

4. A variety of different income streams are CRUCIAL to the survival of a small, art/craft based business. Had it not been for etsy sales early in the year, things DEFINITELY would have been grim by spring time. And this also relates back to #2. If things get busy in one area, I can scale back in others. For example, if wholesale orders are coming in left, right and center, I can scale back the number of retail shows I do. But say the retail sales are a bust, I can work on the online aspect of my business to keep me afloat. Lots of work, but the safety nets are invaluable.

5. Stop working so damn much! This past fall took a definite toll on me. I signed up for two very large craft shows back to back. 17 days in total of being at a craft show, not including set up and tear down, with only one day "off" in between. This is bad; for my mental health, for my physical health, for my relationships, for my fur kids, for my drinking habits, pretty much everything that's important to me. I certainly won't be making that mistake again. (See #1.) Ironically, I like to tell people that my work is about slowing down, taking time to enjoy your morning coffee in a handmade mug, or cooking from scratch some awesome meal that's served up on a handmade platter. But in order to make that happen for others, I often miss those opportunities myself ... but then, that's a whole other post.

Despite the still-wobbly economy, I'm looking forward to the new year, with lots of exciting adventures and hopefully much less stress, if I can just get my shit together ;)

If you're a craftsperson, what have you learned from this past year? What has worked for you and what hasn't? Feel free to share your insights, I'd love to hear from you!



  1. I don't rely on my art as my income, so my story is different. I am in year 4, have never paid myself anything and have never shown a profit. I also produce very little during a year because my full time day-job is demanding (and I like it so that's okay!).

    I learn one good tidbit per year, so, hopefully, 30 years or so from now when I want to retire, I will have a small business with consistent work to keep me busy and active and surrounded by art.

    Question: Where did you find your assistant to be able to hire one?

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful reflections, Melissa! I kind of did the opposite, my other financial stream is a salaried job that is supposed to be part time, but this year grant-funded projects' deadlines seemed to pile on all at once and I had little time to keep my pottery business going. Now that everyone is talking about what great sales they are having for the holidays, I'm feeling the loss. So, my two cents is to make sure that when you do scale back, make sure not to cut off the activity entirely. It is hard to rebuild the connections!

  3. The biggest thing we put into practice this year was working hard when there are no deadlines pressing. I often found that I could anticipate what was coming and even out my work load. This Fall was crazy with shows and events, but I was relaxed in it for the first time because I had prepared so well during slow times. I even carved out a little time to try new things in the midst of the busy season. That is a FIRST!

  4. Thanks for this posting, Melissa. I just finished my show season this weekend and it really made me stop, breathe and reflect on where I need to improve in my business practices.

    Like your #1, I need to utilize my downtime better by building up my inventory. Even if I bisque and it sits around for months before I'm inspired to glaze it would help.

    This holiday season I've gotten more custom orders than ever before and found myself scrambling to get things thrown and dried so the orders would be ready for Christmas or Chanukah. I really need to establish a tighter firing schedule and more realistic deadlines for the holiday orders. Instead, I've been trying to please everyone and ended up firing a partial load which makes me crazy! I'm not cheap. I'm frugal!

  5. I've been daydreaming about hiring someone for quite some time, so everywhere I go, all my shows, etc., I'm on the lookout for who would seem like a good fit. I met my summer assistant through her mom, who is a member of my local guild and a glass artist. She gave me lesson on lampworking, where I met her daughter. When the time came to actually hire someone, I knew where to look. I couldn't even imagine having to sort through thousands of resumes and conducting interviews and the like. All I can say on this subject is just keep your eyes open all the time. There's a good chance the ideal assistant is close by.

  6. Thanks for your comment Lisa! It's good to know working during the slow moments will pay off later in the year. I have talked about it before, it's just a matter of putting it into practice!

  7. And I know the feeling about establishing more realistic deadlines for orders! I'm usually overly optimistic in terms of when I can get custom orders out, and I'm almost always at least two weeks late, sometimes more. After some dinnerware that went horribly wrong this year, I decided to give my self MUCH more time to get orders made, so customers have a more realistic time frame and I don't look like an idiot every time I have to tell people "sorry, not ready yet..."

  8. What a fabulous post. I can relate. I could have sold so much more if I had been better prepared. I ran out of my best seller (sushi trays). Next year I will be more productive in slow times. I totally agree about having multiple income streams. Good luck at your gift fair!

  9. I'm doing an overhaul for next year. New products, refresh the appearance of the booth and looking at other forms of revenue. This year started out poor due to the mess that the previous year left behind. Ditching the expensive Xmas season was genius for me financially and working with a fellow crafter gave me the opportunity to see things through fresh eyes and learn a ton. Next year my goal is to get back in the black and start fresh. This is year 5 coming up and I'm looking forward to revisiting my business plan.

  10. Hi Lisa,

    I like your post a lot, if you still in Stratford, stop by, will chat about things you are going trough..

    V. flower man..he he