Marketing (part 3)

When marketing people talk about placement they aren’t just talking about where you place your item to sell. They’re also talking about where you place your product within the market. Let’s talk about the actual selling spot first. When I started selling things online, Ebay was pretty much the only option. At the time, I used it like many people do, as a global garage sale for collectibles and such things. When I started selling handmade items, a few went on Ebay, but not many.

When I got ready to really sell handmade, Etsy was it. The end-all be-all of handmade online marketplaces. I don’t think I even knew about any alternatives. They are still the 800 pound gorilla, but they’ve run into some trouble lately (to put it mildly) that is off putting to many sellers. Ask your average consumer where they’d look for handmade goods on the internet and they’re still most likely to say Etsy.

Handmade – but maybe not so much anymore.

Most of my sales to date have been through Etsy, save a few Facebook initiated customs. I’ve tried other venues, but nothing’s come close to the amount of traffic and sales Etsy generates. That doesn’t mean I’m 100%  happy with them as a seller, but my current customer base is using this venue to look at similar items and it would be silly for me not to have Ruggles there.

Of course there is a veritable ocean of other handmade marketplaces out there, with more appearing every day. What you’re selling might also help determine where you should sell. If you’re selling cloth diapers (for instance) you better be on Hyenacart. If your item doesn’t dictate placement, then it’s up to you. Choose Etsy or one of the others. And although you might get a few views or even a sale just by being on Etsy, no matter what venue you choose you’ll have to do your own promotion work to really make your shop thrive.

Have a serious business plan in mind? Go straight for your own website with an integrated shop. Every seller should work toward this, and I’m currently in the process of redesigning my website to include a shop. Even if you use it as a backup, it’s there should you need it.

Other venues to check out:

There are also venues whose main market are Canadians (iCraft.ca) or Europeans (Folksy and Dawanda) although they’re open to everyone worldwide.

What about selling on consignment or at craft fairs? I can’t really speak to those. As a Mom of two young, active boys doing craft fairs is out of my scope. I like the idea, and know several sellers who do quite well at them. If you’re personable and a good salesman event selling might make sense for you. There’s a wealth of information on the net about setting up your booth and finding local shows. As for consignment, I’ve never tried it and never will. I don’t like the idea of putting my product in someone else’s hands to sell. I’d rather do the selling myself. I’ve also never heard of a seller who just loved consignment or had great success with it.

I’m going to touch a little bit on placement within the market. This is where factors like competition come into play. Actually, this stuff is pretty interconnected if y’all haven’t noticed already. I should go into target markets at this point, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish I’ll cover as part of promotions.

So let’s pretend the market as a whole for your type of item is a vertical line. You should narrow your focus market as much as possible. So for Ruggles it looks something like this: Toys> Blankets> Security Blankets> Animal Security Blankets. So Animal Security Blankets is my vertical line. I’m positioning myself at the top of that market. I do that with pricing, quality and branding Ruggles as a boutique item. I’d put things like Pillow Pets at the bottom of the same market. If you’re in a highly competitive market, your positioning becomes more important and is one way to help your product stand out. Mine isn’t really a highly competitive market. If I broaden the definition to include things like Taggies then it become a little more so, but nothing like the more saturated categories.

When you search “security blanket” on Etsy you get 7,015 items. Search “animal security blanket” and the field narrows to just 911. I actually don’t have to do much to make sure I stand out in that kind of crowd. I’m not going to lose a lot of business to a competitor because I have no direct competitors. Search for “jewelry” and you get 3,184,739 items. If you’re in one of those highly competitive markets, either your product, or your positioning, or preferably both will have to make it stand out.  I decided to do a search for “stamped jewelry” since I like those necklaces and that narrowed the field to 61,289. In a market that large, positioning yourself in line with your competitors is going to be a factor. Unless you have something super special that adds actual or perceived value, like your necklaces being sterling silver or a special shape.

You might think undercutting your competitors and placing yourself at the bottom of the market would be good, but that can backfire. If everybody else is selling their widget for $40, and you sell yours for $5, you may get some sales but you’ll lose a lot because your item will be perceived as cheap. Unless of course it actually is cheaper. It’s okay to occupy that position in the market. Just do it deliberately.

This is far more “wall of text” than I intended. As always questions and comments are welcome! Promotions is up next, and is what I’m best at. That might turn into more than one post…

More challenging things

Time is obviously still my biggest challenge since I told myself I’d carve out time to post regularly and I’m not doing so hot on that front. But I’ve had others of course. Some anticipated, some not so much. I knew cash flow would be a problem. There’s never as much money as there are things to spend it on. I’ve had a couple difficult customers but I don’t feel like I can complain. My two weren’t really THAT bad and I know people who have the most assinine customers in the world. One in particular should write a book. They’re that bad. I’ve had issues with equipment failure though thankfully not that often. Most of the time if my sewing machine breaks I can take it to my repair guy and he has it back to me the same day.

The most irksome challenge I’ve had is a recent one and something I never imagined. Getting supplies. I needed plain white minky for a recent custom sheep.

The sheep in question

I went to my main supplier. Out of stock. Ummm… okay. That’s never happened before. Go to backup #1, and the website says they have it – yay! Only they call me two days later to say that no, they really don’t. That was pretty frustrating. Finally with the backup for my backup I found it and had it shipped. That process took a week, and thus made me a week late with the custom. Something that gives me stress hives.

But like everything, at least I learned something. Keeping basic supplies in stock at all times is an excellent idea. I’m going to have to get even more organized so when I use the last of something I’ll reorder immediately. I also found a better backup supplier, and the one I ordered from who called two days later has lost my business for the most part. They still have specific fabrics I can’t get anywhere else, but they messed up beyond just waiting two days to call me. I had two other fabrics in the order and they failed to ship them until seven days later after I called to complain. I’m actually still waiting on them to show up.

The silver lining of all this is that my customer was super awesome and patient. Also, I now have that new backup supplier that is fast with the shipping and has great customer service. I’m considering buying fabric wholesale, but the issue there is storage. Faux furs are bulky. I could pack 10 yard bolts of cotton in my dining room all day long, but a 10 yard bolt of minky is a whole different beast. If I come up with a way to store it without sending my husband into apoplexy, I’m going to do it. Just so I never again experience the panic of not being able to get what I need when I need it.

All in all I’ve been pretty lucky in that my challenges have turned a hair or two gray, but nothing overly serious. I haven’t had to track down buttheads using my pictures in their shops, deal with people who say hateful things just for the hell of it or had scammers who say the package was destroyed or lost in the mail or what have you – all things my circle of craft businesspeople friends have dealt with. Let me take a pause to knock on wood.

Hmmm… I’ve just noticed a trend. The challenges I think are the worst all deal with other people. I guess that’s because if it’s equipment or supplies or something like that, you just get it fixed or find another source. If it’s a person, then you have no idea what sort of crazy can happen.

Which makes me really, really grateful for my {totally and completely awesome} customers.

Time Challenges

It’s a common lament that there aren’t enough hours in the day. You’d think that would get better if you ran your own business, but it actually gets worse. I don’t call myself a “Work At Home Mom” because I don’t consider Bewhiskered to be my main job. I’m a Stay At Home Mom. My job is to care for and raise my boys. My part time job is to manage the household (a nice catch all phrase for handling everything from the dishes and laundry to scheduling doctors appointments to killing or relocating stray bugs). My other part time job is caring for our two cats which mainly involves letting Pilsbury in and out of the house hundreds of times a day.

Pilsbury, our brain damaged Manx

After all that, I have a husband who sometimes wants attention too. When I have free time (insert laugh here) I have to decide between sleeping, spending time with my husband, having “me” time or working on the business. I’ve gotten better at scheduling my time during the day so I manage to work a bit but it’s getting harder as Erik gets older and his naps get later. At one point I was getting so frustrated that I considered shutting Bewhiskered down.

I know other craft business people who have full time jobs (not involving kids) have the exact same problem. If anyone comes up with any sort of solution that doesn’t involve staying up later or waking up earlier please let me know. I’d love to stay up all night and work since that’s when I’m most productive, but on the rare occasions I’ve done that I’ve regretted it the next day. No matter how tired I am, I still have an energy filled three year old and toddler to deal with. And when I’m tired and cranky it’s not pretty. And I have never and will never be a morning person.

Almost human after hitting snooze three times and two cups of tea.

So until I come up with some magic way of doing it all (which personally I think is bullshit and something women put far too much pressure on ourselves to do) I’ll be bumbling around as I am now. I have found that the more organized I am, the better. When my space and supplies get disorganized I spend more time looking for things than I have to spare. I actually spent a couple of days last week getting even more organized which should help.

I try to keep in mind that running Bewhiskered should be fun for me. So I don’t schedule too many customs in too short a time. Being overdue on shipping them stresses me out big time. I’m going to give myself even more time when school ends and I’ll have both boys at home. Can I make a living working like this? Hell no. But that’s not what I’m going for right now.

It’s way past my bedtime, but this was the only time I had to update the blog. I’ve discovered it’s all about managing the tradeoffs. And naps. Naps are very important.

Changes…

Since there’s a man painting the window on the other side of my sewing machine, and if I worked I’d be about a foot from his crotch I’ve decided to write a blog post instead.

The first thing any crafter struggles with is what to make and I’m no different. I can walk into a craft store and spend hours, coming up with a thousand different projects that would be really cool. I’ve done it, and have the materials of hundreds of cool projects lying fallow in my supplies to prove it. (Plus another couple hundred pages of magazines with inspiration or things I want to make on top of that, and let’s not even talk about my Pinterest account.) Starting a crafting business was like that for me. I had a lot of ideas and little direction. Now, when I look at business sites and they talk about formulating a business plan and 5 year goals and whatnot I just have to laugh. I don’t know a single handmade business owner who did it that way. We all just started making stuff, thought “hey, somebody might buy this” and opened shop.

Aren't these blown egg geodes cool?

Which is a good a way to do it as any I guess. Especially when you’re working on this kind of scale. If we were talking about a big corporation, or hell even a small brick and mortar business, that would be different. But when you’re talking about a business whose greatest investment capital is probably already sitting in the craft room then it’s a different story. I didn’t have to go to a bank and take out a loan to get started, I just made stuff with what I already had. Even though it’s not a bad way to do it, I would have done it differently had I gone into this thinking “business” instead of “make a little money, might be fun!”

For one thing, I would have nailed down my product to begin with. That would have saved me a little money on supplies that never got used (in the case of the pet items idea) and a lot of time and effort (in the case of the diaper idea). Arriving at my one true thing wasn’t a long process, but it was long enough. I think that’s one of the beauties of the micro scale handmade business. You can fail without going bankrupt. You can try new things without a great deal of expense. Research and development is natural and fluid. Feedback is pretty instant. Change is a good thing, and doesn’t feel like such a huge risk. Because it isn’t.

Of course there have been changes to my shop even after I settled on Ruggles. I’m constantly trying to improve my items and my customer’s shopping experience. Being online, I have to keep updating my product and my shop to stay viable and current.

Some of the changes I’ve made have been to make my Ruggles bigger. Create a permanent pattern base that I can work from so they are all consistent in size. Went from using Velboa furs to Minky. I switched from using safety eyes to embroidered eyes. Made my tags double sided and filled the back with everything I need to be CPSIA compliant. I’ve changed my picture background (several times), orientation and size. I streamlined my item description and moved a lot of useful but not critical information from there to the policies section. I created a stand alone website. I’ve tried and discarded a dozen different marketing ideas (I’ll save the specifics on that for another post).

I still like this background, but it didn't do anything to showcase my Ruggles.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch all the changes I’ve made in suppliers, supplies, logo design, tags, and on and on. To sum up: change is good. When you’re running something this small $10 spent on new business cards can make it feel like a whole new business. So you can change quickly and respond to customer input, competition and innovation.

It only took me about 7 hours to write this post! I’ll have to talk about the unbalanced balancing act of Mom, wife, housekeeper and business owner. Later.