So dear readers, what do you find most challenging about running a shop on Folksy, Etsy, Artfire etc? (Please feel free to comment below.) I make a point of reading all the Etsy blog posts, some with very relevant and useful info, some less so but all worth a shufti. It's fantastic hearing tips from sellers who've made it their full time job, their experience of how to manage both crafting and business, what tips they can impart on a new or struggling seller and what they'd do differently next time. I've learnt that running a small business is a combination of the following things (amongst many others!): good management of time, money and resources; the right attitude; good customer services; the right products; the right market; and the ability to self-promote.
But as someone who manages theatrical productions - and the creative, technical, logistical and budgetary challenges therein - in my real job (which I'm not ready to give up by a long shot) I'm pretty confident that management isn't my failing here. I've not yet read a blog post about time/money/resource management that hasn't made me think "well, I know that..." If that sounds arrogant, well, it's not meant to - I'm only 8 years into a career that most people spend 40+ years perfecting and experience alone can make you better at it, which is quite some way to go for me yet. What I mean is I know where I'm headed in that respect, and where I don't always know how to get there at least I know who to ask for directions :)
My attitude - really, point one of my business plan - is enjoy what you're doing and don't do what you don't enjoy. I LOVE knitting, and I do it because I love it. Equally, I wouldn't sell anything that I wouldn't buy, which isn't necessarily a tried and tested marketing method, but I'd feel like a charlatan promoting something I don't believe in. As a production manager I'm often put in the position of tasking a crew to do a particular job I know they're going to be unhappy about doing, but I never ask them to do something I wouldn't do myself - if they ask why they're cleaning up a piece of scenery that only three audience members will ever see and I either can't give a good reason or don't know why it needs to be done, they won't do it, and neither would I. Certainly there are elements of running the shop that I can't wait to get over and done with - photographing my stock is always a bit of a chore! - but I understand why I do it, and what it means in the grand scheme of things. And ultimately I could give it all up tomorrow and kick back with a book every evening, gaining myself a good 30 hours a week of quality me-time with no financial loss whatsoever, but I never will. My shop is my me-time.
The next item is good customer services which, if it ever needed to be said, is essential. I don't just mean be good to your customers and they'll come back, I mean be a good person, be good to people (they may be communicating through a computer but the people buying your wares are actually human, after all!), and if you've been as kind and helpful as you can you've done your best, and whether or not they choose to return is up to them. As it goes I do happen to believe in brand loyalty and the comfort in what you know as a consumer, but as a seller I don't like to feel like I'm hawking for future business when conversing with my customers, for the fairly simple reason that someone who is being nice just to get your future business sounds like someone being nice just to get your future business - UGH. Manners cost nothing, as my nan often says, and she's wrong about nothing except perhaps the best way to mix a gin.
Then we come to my product line, which is unfortunately where my great business plan starts unravelling... I've been using the first year as a sort of workshop - trying ideas, seeing what's popular and what's worth the time it takes me to make it. I started out with the rule that I would never spend more money than I had made, and to me patience and perseverance is the key so if I've not made it in 6 months then no bother. Getting back to the practicality of the shop however, I've learnt that knitting has the occupational hazard of being time consuming, so even by charging myself a minimal cost per hour and excluding overheads I'm still finding that some items are coming up too costly for the common market and are therefore not worth making. Of course customers will appreciate the effort that goes into handmade and pay more in comparison with the Primarks and the Accessorizes of the world - hence the point of Folksy/Etsy/Artfire - but not many people spend £50 on a pair of lace gloves when there are so many cheaper options; and "not many £50s" = "hardly a stable income" for me. So, I've started to whittle down what's profitable and what's not, at the expense of principle number one (nobody said they had to be absolute) but I still can't be sure that knitted woodland animal shaped accessories is really what people want. Certainly no-one else makes them, but not every gap in the market is there to be filled. *thinks of the lime green mankini, shudders* So how can I make sure that I'm selling the right things? The answer I suspect, is more workshopping, trial and error, and a bit of market research. Which brings me on to...
...my pathological fear of marketing. Pathetic, really. I'm not a stupid person, I've articles on the hows and wheretofores coming out of my ears - I just don't get it. I don't have the gumption to be bold and noisy about promoting myself. Conversations that start with people asking me about my wares usually end with me shyly mumbling, drifting off to another subject and eventually wandering off for fear of ridicule, which, given that none of my customers are 8 years old or Nelson from The Simpsons, is a slightly barmy thing to assume would happen. I know this. I know. I must have wasted countless opportunities to make a sale because of it. So let's put a pin in that and go for an infinitely more appealing and empirical tool of marketing, market research. So how exactly do I do this without annoying people?
That's not a rhetorical question this time. I really want to know. The last thing I want is to come across as lazy about this - "Dear internet, how do I make more money out of my stuff? Yours etc, Me" - although I really would love to hear what you as a seller have found as a useful research tool and what you as a buyer find to be a turn-on/off. I'm aware of questionnaires, but I don't know what on earth I would write questions about, and quite frankly every questionnaire I've ever received as a consumer has filled me with dread. See principle one. So, browsing the other listings on Etsy is another suggestion I've come across. But what am I looking for? As I mentioned there are plenty of knitters but few make the sort of accessories that I do, so I have very little to compare with. and the whole point of handmade is the unique quality - if I find a hundred other knitted apple brooches then to be noticed I'll be forced to resort to noisy promotion, which is still struggling against the massive pin I stuck in it. So how else do I find out what people really want?
There is of course the argument that people don't know what they want until you tell them - sounds suspiciously like that noisy marketing to me - but if we consider that as a plausible theory, you then need to know how to show them what they want, which is all about getting your voice heard. It's that perenneial question: how do you get your products out in the great beyond with a limited budget? I've found that Facebook and Twitter are a good place to start but are nonetheless complex tools in themselves, and in no way to be used as a shop front. The forums haven't really worked for me. I've got business cards a,d all the stationery. I've made the best use I can of my Google presence. The next step is craft fairs and the like - got the first one lined up for May! - but there's only so many I can attend with a full time job. Is the real answer that you don't see a serious return until you make it a serious job? It would make sense, but flipping hell it's a scary thought. Doesn't stop me poring over every single QYDJ article with longing though :)
I know I'm asking more questions that I'm even attempting to answer here, and as I look back on it I know I've answered all my own questions: clearly I know what I need to do and I'm too afraid to do it. Maybe I have to confront the fact that KD can't compete with my career in theatre, and will just have to play second fiddle; it's worked out fine so far, so why rock the boat? There are only so many hours in the day after all. I just feel like I've been asking myself these questions for so long and getting no answers, and with the frustration reaching boiling point I just don't know who else to ask. I hope that if nothing else this post has made other sellers feel like they're not the only ones asking questions to thin air and getting no answers. I'd love to hear if you're having the same problems, and if there's any advice I can offer to ever newer newbies than me then even better!
And if nothing comes of it, well, I at least feel better for having written it down. My poor boyfriend will have some respite from my rhetorical knitting-related questions...
Bless you all for reading this far - I will bring back the slightly more upbeat Folksy Friday blog as soon as the dayjob settles down a bit, so please check back soon. Also I promise not to whine so much this time, honest.
Love and knitties :) xx