100 Craft Shows

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Craft shows & art festivals are important to my business and I meticulously track them. My very first show was Indie Craft Parade in 2011. Doing that show changed everything for me. It's hard to believe I just did my 100th event, but the spreadsheet doesn’t lie.

My craft show spreadsheet turned out to be a great evaluation tool. I track everything - expenses, sales, and the ever so important column “Would I come back?” There were shows when I made a grand total of $80, there were shows when I made a whopping $14,000. Some of these events I only did once (for good reason), but the others I’ve been doing for years and look forward to every time. There were years when shows accounted for nearly half of my total income, which felt awesome at the time, but now that I look back, I realize that may have been a foolish business model.

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The purpose of this post is not to share tips and tricks for successful craft shows (but here’s an older post if you’re interested - scroll to the bottom of the post for 10 tips). Today I want to look at the big picture and share 3 reasons why craft shows have been amazing for my business growth, and issue 3 warnings about relying on them too heavily (because I’m 100% guilty of that).

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3 reasons you should do as many shows as you can (at least in the beginning)

1. You will undoubtedly find your target customer.

Pay attention to who’s buying and if they’re purchasing for themselves or as gifts. Study them, not in a creepy way, but notice how they dress, their life stage, and what else they’ve purchased. This info isn’t always available when you do the majority of your sales online, but it’s literally right there in front of you at a craft show.

2. This is a major marketing opportunity.

Yes, you’ll sell a lot at in-person events, but you’ll also give out tons of business cards. You’ll never hear from most of these people again, but a surprising number will pop back into your life at the holidays or when they’re ready to move forward with that commission they were asking about. Marketing in person can double or triple your craft show sales if you’re patient.

3. Real life feedback.

If you sell online, you don’t know what customers are thinking when they’re browsing. However, in person, you’ll likely hear verbal comments about your prices, sizes, and styles, and you may also notice people asking the same questions, so even though the answers may seem obvious to you, there’s a good chance it’s unclear to your customers. Find a way to communicate these things better and take that knowledge and apply it to your website or adjust your product if necessary.

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3 warnings about leaning too heavily on craft shows (if you want a sustainable business)

1. Shows come and go.

One year, the show is huge and everyone is making a killing. The next year, there’s no sign of the event. And that’s fine. Nobody owes you a craft show. Real people are behind these events, they take an incredible amount of time & money to produce, so sometimes the plug gets pulled. Established shows usually stick around, but even good shows can change their model, dates, or location, and that can make or break the whole event. Don’t count on them always being there or being the same as previous years.

2. Bad things can and will happen.

You could get a terrible booth location, a blizzard or hurricane may blow in, or you could get sick the night before. A few shows require you to apply for multiple categories if you work in different mediums, and they may only accept you for one and not the other, dictating what you can and can’t bring. The show may have an astronomical entry fee for shoppers and hardly anyone attends because of it. Do you really want to tie the vast majority of your livelihood to these things that are completely out of your control?

3. The burnout is real.

If you travel out of state for shows all year long, the exhaustion will eventually catch up with you (unless you’re young or super energetic, in which case - ignore all this). Depending on the type of work you do, all that time on the road away from the studio may mean you fall behind on other orders. As soon as you catch up, you’re back on the road again. It’s a tough cycle if you work alone, and the physical & mental exhaustion can affect other areas of your life. Having experienced this burnout year after year, I’ve gotten extremely picky about how far I’m willing to travel now, and how many shows I’m prepared to do in a season.

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You know what they say about putting all your eggs in one basket…don’t do it!

If you’re considering trying craft shows, just jump in, even if you’re not 100% ready. You’ll get a lot out of them even if it’s only for a few seasons. In 2013, I decided to sign up for every craft show that came my way. There were some really bad ones, but there were some gems in there too - ones that didn’t sound all that good on paper, or were not yet established, but turned out to be fantastic events that I still enthusiastically participate in years later.

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If you’ve been doing shows awhile and notice you’re planning your year around them and relying on them to make your numbers each quarter (that’s me, up until last year!) please be careful. Consider having some other income streams like online sales, commissions, or wholesale. These may be more steady in the end, which is important when you’re earning a living. If you do this Maker thing long enough, you’ll probably have an off year eventually, and if you put all your eggs in one basket, whether that’s the craft show basket or something else, that might be enough to put you out of business. However, if you’ve diversified your income streams well, a bad year will just be a little dip on your sales bar graph and nothing more.

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10,000 Etsy Sales

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It didn’t happen overnight. It happened over a decade.

I opened my Etsy shop on January 8th, 2009. Back then, this Once Again Sam thing was just a hobby and any money I made felt like easy money because I was doing something I enjoyed. I probably spent whatever I earned on shoes and yarn. I didn’t save it, I didn’t invest it back into my business. The whole point was creative fulfillment and a little extra spending money, both of which I received.

Things really started getting interesting in year four. By then, I was earning more on Etsy than in my full time interior design career. That was the year I realized this was way more than a side gig and I started getting serious about running a small handmade business. I didn’t know that was what I wanted to do until I was in the middle of doing it. I may have been a Maker long before Etsy came along, but I certainly wasn’t a small business owner. Thanks to Etsy, its easy-to-use interface, community full of support, and readily available self-paced education, I became an entrepreneur in my mid 20’s, something I never had the guts to daydream about prior to that.

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As you can see in my sales bar graph, some years my Etsy sales plateaued, other years were so good they made the rest look bad (looking at you, 2016), but overall it’s been a slow and steady climb to this big milestone. I’m celebrating 10 years on Etsy soon, and today marks 10,000 sales with the platform that made Once Again Sam possible in the first place.

The reason I wanted to share my true story is because I think a lot of people have unrealistic expectations about how quickly they should be successful on Etsy (or other avenues). I’m sure it happens on occasion, but I have yet to personally meet a maker who’s had that elusive “overnight success.” What I HAVE seen over and over is makers, including myself, work their butts off for years and years, and slowly but surely see success, but at the same time see their definition of success change.

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I hope my ordinary story, as undramatic as it may be, inspires someone out there to start something, pick back up, or keep at something. Decide for yourself what success means to you and go for it (and it’s okay if that changes in the process).

Every year I’ve been in business I’ve thought “I can’t believe how well this is going, there’s no way it can get any better than this” and every year I’m wrong.

 Photo from 2013 when I was part of the Etsy section at the One of a Kind Show in Chicago, IL.

Photo from 2013 when I was part of the Etsy section at the One of a Kind Show in Chicago, IL.

Share What You Know

I’m a big believer in this simple statement. I’ve learned a great deal from others and I’m always happy to share whatever I can. If you’ve ever contacted me to ask about my laser cutter, tips on opening an Etsy shop, or are curious about needle felting, you know this to be true. In the coming weeks, I have several unique opportunities to share my skills and experience with you!

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Needle felting workshops: 

https://www.artcentergreenville.org/artschool-adults

I’m teaching two needle felting classes this summer at Greenville Center for Creative Arts. Each session is suitable for any experience level (ages 8+). The first class (June 9th) will focus on 3D needle felting, and the second class (June 30th) will focus on 2D felting. All materials are provided. Space is limited and registration opens Friday May 5th.

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The State of Making online summit:

https://academyofhandmade.com/thestateofmaking/

Are you an artist, small business owner, or just curious about the maker life? I highly recommend checking out The State of Making, which is a yearly conference made possible by Academy of Handmade. I’m one of the speakers on Day 1 (Thursday, May 3rd) and I’ll be talking shop and sharing what I’ve learned about the Etsy economy, diversifying your income streams, and keeping your chin up when you’re having a down year. Registration is FREE!

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Artist in Residence Daily Documentaries:

www.video.onceagainsam.com

I’m starting to pack my bags (which are mostly full of art supplies) in preparation for my upcoming South Carolina state park residency. This amazing opportunity is giving me the chance to live in a beautiful state park for a week and create a body of work inspired by my surroundings. I’ll be sharing photos and going live on Instagram and Facebook daily, as well as posting a video journal (WIFI permitting) on YouTube so be sure to subscribe to my channel so you don’t miss an episode. You’ll get up close and personal as I explore the park, create art in real time, and you’ll see the ups and downs of my creative process. The work created during the residency will be exhibited in mid June at Art & Light Gallery in Greenville, SC. 

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Commissioning Artwork FAQ

Commissioning a piece of original art may be intimidating if you've never done it before. There’s so many unknowns. Will it look like what you envisioned? How much will it cost? How long does it take? Is the artist you have in mind currently taking on custom requests?

I wouldn’t want any of my customers to feel this way or to rule out custom orders because they’re unsure about the process. Commissioning art can be an enjoyable experience so I thought I’d share how I personally handle commissions and answer some FAQ. A huge part of my handmade business is custom work, so I welcome special requests!

Q: I’m interested in commissioning a wool landscape painting. What do I need to do?

A: Send me a message via Facebook, Instagram, Etsy, or contact form to get the conversation started. If you have a photo you’d like me to use as a reference for the piece, please include that. We'll work out the size, frame choice, deadline, and go from there. Pricing depends on size and complexity of the piece, but a good ballpark budget number for custom felted landscapes is $2 per square inch. For example, an 8x10 scene would typically run $160, which includes the frame.

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Q: I saw something in your Etsy shop or Instagram that I liked, but I want it in another color (or a slightly different design, size, etc.).

A: No problem! Nearly all of my jewelry can be customized, and often times the fiber art can be recreated or tweaked to be a specific size, alternate color range, etc.

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Q: Do I pay before or after the work is done?

A: 99% of the time I’ll request payment upfront. This goes for jewelry, fiber art, or any other custom orders. Once I’ve received payment, your order will be added to my list and I complete them in order of payment received (unless there’s a specific deadline previously discussed).

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Q: Does a custom order cost more?

A: Not necessarily! The price is usually the same, but it may take a few days longer to create, depending on the request and if I need to special order materials.

Q: Do you offer proofs or photos prior to shipping a custom order?

A: I typically don’t do this for custom jewelry, ornaments, or smaller items. However, for the custom wool landscapes, I’m happy to to show you progress pictures upon request.

Q: Do you offer discounts on bulk orders? 

A: When it comes to jewelry, yes, I'm happy to work with you on the total price if you're ordering 10 or more pieces. When it comes to the fiber art, the price is firm. Needle felting is a very tedious process and this is the reason my fiber art work never goes on sale online or at events.

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 Q: The piece I wanted to buy has already sold. Can you make another?

A: Probably so! I don't mind recreating pieces (although they'll always be slightly different than the original because they're handmade). If you see something that's sold, get in touch and I'll let you know if I can recreate something similar. 

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A quick run down of do’s and don’t when commissioning art:

DON’T commission artists to knock off other artist’s work. It’s not cool, and it’s no fair.

DO ask artists for references or examples of past work if you’re unsure if they’re the right person for the job.

DON’T expect the artist to deliver the finished piece in person, even if they’re local.   

DO ask for progress images if you’re particular about the composition, materials, etc.

DON’T be afraid to be specific if you have a certain size, look, or deadline in mind. Share that with the artist from the start so they can accommodate your wishes.

DO allow the artist to do what they do best and embrace their process. The finished piece will surely look different than what you had in your mind, but hopefully it’ll be even better than what you imagined.

Where Women Create

This month, I’m honored to share my personal story and creative workspace in the summer issue of Where Women Create. This magazine showcases artists, crafters, and makers in a way that allows you a personal look at their space, but also shares their creative journey. I really enjoyed reflecting on how I got to this point in my life and all the things that added up to make it what it is today. I feel like I’m just getting started - there’s so much more I want to do!

Checkout the full story below see additional photos that weren’t used in the article. All photos courtesy of the talented Eli Warren.

I was born to create. My love of art and working with my hands started early in life, so early I don’t remember when exactly. I can recall peeling my sleeping mother’s eyes open before sunrise and begging her to come downstairs and draw with me when I was about four years old, and she, in all her love and patience, would do just that. I think that’s where my story begins, with creative and supportive parents.

Growing up, I couldn’t get enough art in my life, so my parents took me to museums often and signed me up for additional art classes after school, encouraging me to pursue it. My mom was a self-taught artist, and although she did it purely for her own enjoyment and to decorate our home, there was never any question that I could do it as a serious career if I wanted to, and I’m so grateful for that freedom. As long as there was art & design in my future in some shape or form, I knew I’d be happy.

After 4 years of intense design study & a wide range of fine art studio courses, I received my BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2005. Shortly after graduating I got married, lost my mom to cancer, and began working as an interior designer for a commercial architecture firm. My whole world changed in just two short months, and for the first time in my life, I wasn’t creating with my hands. I never realized how important that part of me was until it went missing.

Knowing me all too well, my husband Josh encouraged me to open an Etsy shop and get back to making. That little decision changed everything. Not only did I get back to my roots as an artist and rediscover the joy of creating, I was now on a double career path as an interior designer and an entrepreneur, and these creative pursuits complimented each other in unexpected ways.

Working as as an interior designer, I had access to all kinds of outdated material samples like leather upholstery swatches and wood veneer. I took those miscellaneous odds and ends that were bound for the trash and gave them new life, once again, in a whole new way. My business name, “Once Again Sam”, hinted at my love of reusing materials, and although “SAM” wasn’t me exactly (those are my initials but nobody calls me that), it was someone I wanted to become. I wanted to start a new creative life, and not have to choose to do just one thing or have a single career. The freedom to pursue art, the encouragement I had growing up as well as from my husband, inspired me to go for it. ALL of it.

I chose not to choose a single path. I’m currently an interior designer, a fiber artist, jewelry designer & maker, entrepreneur, and published author. That list will probably grow with time. It’s not that I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, it’s that I want to do so many things. My greatest joy is creating and imagining, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a beautiful space for a client, an intricate design for a leather cuff bracelet, a life-like plant made out of wool fiber, or a fictional story about a soap-eating giraffe. I live to create. Any medium will do.

The majority of my time is spent working from my home studio running Once Again Sam, which has grown into a thriving small business that takes me to the post office 5 days a week and all over the southeast for craft show events. My husband Josh, who is responsible for putting the crazy idea into my head that I could actually start a small company, is my my business partner.

A good portion of our home is dedicated for Once Again Sam workspace. The dining room isn’t used to entertain anymore, it stores inventory and displays for craft shows. My husband and I share an office, where we do accounting, photo editing, etc. Upstairs is my studio, where I do final assembly, product photography, store materials, and ship orders. The basement is our workshop wonderland. Josh and I both enjoy working with wood, so we’ve got all our loud messy tools and machines down there, including my favorite tool, the 90 watt laser cutter.

Just as my days are a combination of many things, the same can be said of my handmade jewelry collection. My work marries basic hand tools with high tech equipment, and common materials are often mixed with the exotic. I still use a lot of recycled leather material in my jewelry designs, just like I did when I first opened my Etsy shop in 2009. Sometimes I do the cutouts by hand, other times I leave it to the laser cutter.

I enjoy learning new skills and have a long list of things to try. My husband and I took a wood turning class together a few years ago and have enjoyed getting into wood turning. I’m finally getting the hang of sculpting modern pendants on the lathe. I’ve also taken up painting recently, and my series of landscape pendants feature a panoramic painting that’s cut up into sections so the owner may wear an original piece of art any day of the week. A huge portion of my business revolves around custom jewelry. Customers can order a pendant featuring a portrait of their child, favorite animal, or home state, etched into painted wood. With a wide range of handmade options, there’s truly something for everyone at Once Again Sam.  

My creative journey is just getting started. I never could have guessed I’d be where I am now, and can’t wait to see where my creative careers take me in the future. Starting something can be the hardest part.