school of hard knocks
April 15, 2012
Success is often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.
– Coco Chanel
The topic of last week's Craft Racket, a quarterly networking and professional development program hosted by the Chicago Craft Mafia, was on getting your crafts into shops. Leading the discussion were Rebecca George of Purple and Lime, Shawna Smith of Shawna Smith Handmade Goods and Amanda Shell of Whirley Girl Designs, Inc. Each presented a different aspect of the process, whether selling on consignment or wholesale and how to go about approaching retailers. The conversation was lively with folks attending from as far as Grand Rapids. One question really struck a chord. An artisan relatively new to the field asked how we as Mafia members have managed to keep going with our respective businesses despite all the challenges of being self-employed. It got me thinking, how in the hell have I managed it? Truth be known, I have several advanced diplomas from The School of Hard Knocks.
My first mistake came with my first business, a wholesale jewelry company with sales in the US and UK. I was a brazen hustler. I did everything Rebecca, Shawna and Amanda advised against doing - I went door to door. Yep, I flew to NYC and with samples in hand I went up and down the streets of Manhattan entering stores that looked like a good fit. If the store was slow, I asked to speak to the manager / buyer / owner. If it was busy, I took a business card, called later and set up an appointment. This was before the age of the Internet (I am dating myself here...) when you can do retailer research online. Doing your research is critical to not only finding shops that are a good fit, but also to making sure they will pay for orders. I got my jewelry into a great store on Madison Ave. At least I thought it was great until I realized the owner was never going to pay. If I had done some research with others showing in the shop or run a credit check on him, I would have learned that he was in default with many of his suppliers. I was owed thousands of dollars, tried using a collection agency to collect, finally filed with the NY courts, but never received payment. After filing yearly for seven years (the extent of the statue of limitations) for debt collection I finally wrote the loss off on my taxes.
Lesson learned: Do a credit check whether formally with a credit agency or informally with other colleagues in the field. Do not send work without payment upfront until a level of trust has been established. I apply this same lesson with the exhibition of my art. I always ask others before approaching a new gallery. Do they pay on time? Are they professional and responsive? Work is not sent until a contract has been signed by both parties (me and the gallerist) regarding consignment terms and expectations.
The ramification of not receiving payment also meant that my cash flow was tied up. Without cash flow, you can't sustain a busines. I hobbled along for 3 more years before I finally called it a day and entered graduate school.
Unfortunately, MFA programs don't offer business classes. I got a great training in semiotics, postmodernist theory and such, but nada in terms of what one needs to know to start and run a business. (And yes fellow artists, art is a business.) Well, I'm lucky in that I come from a family in which self-employment is the norm. I had a great resource to draw upon - my parents. But as is often the case with families, I thought I was smarter than my parents.
When I finished graduate school I took over an existing textile art supply store. It was well established with an existing customer base. Groovy! Yet, once again I learned my lesson the hard way. This time I killed my cash flow by moving my store to a new location while simultaneously opening two new departments. I didn't realize the impact moving would have on foot traffic. Though I had an active mailing list with over 2,000 customers, many others were not on it. I'd get these panic calls from customers sitting in front of the old space demanding, "Where are you?!" This transition may have run smoother with the development of the Iternet (which was in its infancy at this point) and the invention of smart phones, but that's just a guess. I compounded the problem by adding the new departments. Customers needed time to adjust to the move, but I still had bills to pay.
Lesson Learned: Build your business slowly. Get advice. Take business classes.
Fast forward to now, I am selling retail online, consignment to galleries, and freelancing with international craft supply companies. I am much more cautious and do tons of research on prospective clients. I've joined trade associations, attend conferences, network and attend professional development workshops. Most recently, I've hired a business coach to help keep me on track with my goals. In other words, I am finally learning from previous mistakes, including the one that failure isn't failure, just a learning lesson on the path to success.