The past week has been slow in all senses of the word. The post-Valentine lull has arrived in my shop, I'm physically tired from the busy season and have been slow to start my days, the week has felt as though it's been creeping along, and I'm having trouble in the creative department.
This is not unusual. I have times like these throughout the year where I find myself needing to reboot. I might even have a mile long list of card ideas just waiting to be designed, but I just can't jump start my mind to get to the point of putting those ideas onto paper. When I'm stuck, I've found that there are a few things that help me to get out of that creative rut and become more productive again.
1 // Find a change of scenery. Usually this means that I pack up my tote with some sketchbooks, my idea book, and my pouch full of pens and markers and head to a coffee shop. I leave my computer behind, so I'm not likely to fall into a black hole, and I order a latte and a snack and just start sketching. Getting out of my studio and out of the house is a break from the norm that helps with productivity.
2 // Look for inspiration by visiting an art gallery. Sometimes when I'm in a creative rut, I need something to act as my brain's jumper cables. Being surrounded by art, reading the stories of the artists, and taking in different colors, textures, and ideas always leaves me feeling refreshed. This past Monday, I found myself in the American Art Museum in Washington, DC amidst O'Keefe, Miró, Picasso, Hockney, Lichtenstein, and Calder. I left the gallery feeling refreshed.
3 // Do something creative that isn't what you normally do. Sometimes I simply need a break. As much as I love illustration and design, doing the same thing over and over again can be monotonous. When I'm feeling a little this way, I turn to other outlets. I work on a craft project, bake something or try a new dinner recipe, play guitar or piano, or try a different art medium such as paint or pastel. Doing something different helps clear the mind and leaves me ready to come back to the task at hand.
4 // Get outside and explore your surroundings. Fresh air is one of the best ways to get the creative juices flowing. I might go hiking at a state park, go to the arboretum, or take a walk along the water. And you never know what you might see that will be inspiring in some way.
5 // Make plans to meet up with other creative people. Talking with others that are artistically minded is a huge creative booster. Hearing about projects others are taking on often helps to get my wheels spinning. My gold foil landscape prints came about after grabbing coffee with my cousin who is a painter. And I sometimes get ideas for designs while chatting with other card makers.
Is anyone else feeling a little stuck these days? Maybe it's just the winter weather bringing me down. Nothing like some good sunshine to boost my mood and productivity!
Last week, while doing a deep cleaning in my studio at 9 o'clock at night, after an especially rough day, I stumbled across a notebook. I was feeling down about a lot of things from a business standpoint because it felt as though a lot of the the things I want to accomplish are taking much longer than I had hoped. However, when I opened that notebook, my mindset changed.
There on the very first page, a list of business goals for 2012 stared back at me. As I read the list, I began laughing. They seemed so incredibly small and silly. I hoped to complete my first craft show, something I've done so many times at this point that I could almost do it with my eyes closed. I set a goal for 400 sales for the year. Now, I'm hovering at just above 17,000 sales in my Etsy shop in the time I've been in business. I wanted to design my own website, and here I am, writing a blog post that will be published on my own website.
While these goals made me laugh at first due to the fact that they seemed so simple, they suddenly made me stop and really think. These goals were set four years ago. And in four years, my business has changed and grown in ways that I couldn't have even imagined then as I jotted that list of goals down in the notebook. This thought made me realize that change and growth take time. I might have a vision of where I would like to be right now, but maybe it's ok that where I am doesn't align with that vision. Maybe it's meant to happen a year or two from now.
I've never been one to have a lot of patience. Even as a child, my parents were constantly reminding me to have patience, to slow down, to just let things play out. And here I am, at age 32, needing those kinds of reminders yet again. Four years is a lot of time, and things happen in ways that we don't always expect. That list of goals from four years ago was just the reminder I needed to realize that despite feeling as if I'm going nowhere at times, I am actually making huge leaps and bounds of progress. I just need to have a little more patience.
Where were you four years ago? Have you reflected upon goals from many years ago? How did that change your perspective on your progress in life or in business?
Recently, I've had an influx of random individuals contacting me with questions about my business. The questions range from very general to rather specific. They want to know how I make cards, where I get my card stock, how I print my cards, what printer I use, what tools I use, where I source my envelopes. And I don't oblige.
In most cases, I don't respond to these types of individuals because I honestly don't feel comfortable providing this sort of information about my business. However, in some cases, the person in question is persistent, reaching out to me several times before giving up, and so in order to at least appease their questioning, I give them a friendly "no" with my reasoning.
Inevitably, in return, I am met with a nasty or rude response because the person didn't ultimately get what they wanted-- free information without having to do the hard work. Often times, I must remind myself that this is not a reflection of myself, but rather the person who is asking the questions. This situation occurred once more for me this past week. And a couple days ago, this same scenario happened yet again to another card seller that I often talk shop with. Much as the story usually ends, she too was met with a rude response after sticking up for her own hard work and her business. Chatting with her about this really made me question why it is that so many individuals feel they are entitled to information that is not theirs to have.
While many of you may wonder what the problem is with sharing this information, I'm providing a bigger picture for readers as to why artist entrepreneurs have absolutely no obligation to provide information about how they make their products or run their business.
1 // I have spent hours upon hours researching and testing materials. It took me almost three years to find card stock that I was 100% happy with for my cards. In that time, I tested and researched various types of card stock from all sorts of paper mills. The same goes for envelopes, the printer that I use, and the packaging materials that I use. Time is money. If I spend four hours of my day doing research for one small aspect of my business, why should anyone but myself feel entitled to that information? The same goes for outsourcing. As I move toward soon doing less of the digital printing myself, I have gone through endless amounts of paper samples, have visited several local printing facilities, prepared proofs for printing samples, and spent hours corresponding with print shops. That's time I've invested, and I shouldn't have to give that away for free.
2 // I have invested and lost money while trying to figure out what works best. Similarly to number one, while researching various aspects of how I run my business, I have invested thousands of dollars in products, materials, and equipment in order to test these things. Many of them I didn't even end up using. If I put the money down for this sort of thing, why should I feel obligated in any way to give the same information away for free?
3 // I have been burned in the past. Several years ago, I was more free in terms of giving up this information. I remember one particular instance when a woman contacted me posing as a customer. She wanted to know what kind of card stock and printer I used. She told me that she wanted to know this information because she was interested in purchasing a large volume of my cards and she wanted to be sure that she liked the end product. I obliged, and she never purchased a single card. A week later, I noticed that she had opened her own greeting card shop on Etsy. In her shop, there were cards that had used some of my design concepts and my wording from my own cards. I could also tell from her listings that she was using the same card stock as me. She had lied to me in order to get the information she needed, and then she also used my work for her own profit. Even to this day, she continues to do so. While I know that not everyone that asks me these questions plans on stealing my own designs, this experience has left me very wary of giving out any information about my business.
4 // I know my products are top notch quality and that is part of what makes my business stand out. It's a competition thing. Providing information about an aspect of my business that makes it better than other products devalues that aspect of my business. Maybe this makes me sound arrogant, and I certainly don't mean for it to, but I know that my card stock is much better than the average card seller on Etsy. I've done the research. I hear it in the feedback I get from my customers-- they love the great quality of my cards. If everyone uses the same quality of materials, that aspect of my business will no longer set me apart from the others.
5 // I don't know you. I have no problem sharing information with other stationers with whom I've built relationships. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I do talk shop with several other card makers both in person here in Baltimore and online. The thing is that after you've been in business for a while, you find a group of people that understand what you're doing on a daily basis. You're able to connect and share based on that aspect. We've all been through the ringer of figuring out what works best for our businesses, and at some point there is a level of trust that develops much like any other relationship or friendship. If you ask about the nitty gritty details of my business and I don't even know you or have never talked to you before, I equate that to a stranger asking me personal questions about my life. It's just uncomfortable and really weird.
Ultimately, the points I've made could certainly apply to all entrepreneurs, both small and large scale. Think of it this way-- if you were to contact Coca-Cola and ask them what recipe they use for their beverages, they wouldn't tell you. Much is the same for any small business. As entrepreneurs, we have a right to decline without getting a rude response in return.
As a small business owner, have you encountered the same experiences as I have in regards to business details? Have you ever asked another business owner about proprietary information? What was their response? I'm curious to know what experiences others have dealt with on this topic.
I stumbled upon this soundbite from Ira Glass a few days ago, and I could completely relate. During the past couple of years, I've worked really hard to hone my craft and to get to the point of making cards that I really, truly loved. Some of the cards that I designed when I first started my business were ones that I really didn't love, but it was the best I was able to do at the time. It has taken me five years to get there, but I feel happy with where I've found myself now. And because I've found my voice after all of that time, I feel even more creative energy through my work.
If you're struggling creatively, I hope you'll give this a quick listen. It's reassuring and encouraging for anyone who needs that little boost.
In conversation with other artists and makers, I often hear similar stories told-- that a family member or friend doesn't view their business as a legitimate business simply because it is not done in the traditional way. Businesses that are art or maker based don't have cubicles or giant corporate offices. They have working studios and creative spaces that are different from most businesses. In today's world, many of them, much like mine, don't even have a physical storefront, making them very different from a traditional retail space.
I encountered a similar conversation recently while chatting with a friend. In our conversation about people who have forged their own path after spending some time teaching, another woman came up in discussion, someone who created their own start-up and is now the CEO. I mentioned that it is inspiring to see women go after what they're passionate about, and that it has been interesting to see a few others leave the world of teaching to do their own thing. And then that often heard line came, just in a different form. "Yeah, but she's a CEO," said my friend.
While I knew what she meant by it, it still sort of stung. I realize that she was pointing out the difference between running a corporation versus running a small creative business. But I couldn't help but question, am I not also a CEO? The chief executive officer that calls all of the shots? The head honcho that's in charge? I may not report to a board or have a slew of employees running part of the show or actually hold the title, but how does that make what I do on a daily basis any less important or any less of a business?
Sure, I am an artist and maker, by all means, but I spend a large portion of the day making all sorts of behind the scenes decisions that could eventually make or break my business. I make decisions about the direction I plan to take my business, about how to allocate funds for new projects and endeavors to move my business to the next level, and about how I intend to reach quarterly goals. Just because the business is a creative entity does not mean those other aspects go out the window. And realistically, if they were to, I would probably no longer be in business.
The conversation made me question myself. I wondered whether or not I was perceived by others as taking my own business seriously. Or that I'm perceived as just a maker who is not driven by goals and deadlines. Perhaps my business comes off as this cute, little endeavor next to giant, multi-million corporations. Yet why is that stigma present even if what goes on behind the scenes is very different than those perceptions? Why should one need to hold an official title in order to be viewed in the same way? Why do comparisons of two very different businesses lead to one being perceived as more important than another? Those were questions that I simply could not answer.
Have any other makers ever found themselves in similar conversation? Why do you think that small, creative businesses are not valued in the same way as corporations?