2018 - A Year in Review

2018 has been quite a year. I didn’t realize I’d hit so many milestones all at once, but I suppose that’s fitting because it’s my 10th year in business, which in itself is a milestone.

This year was my best year in some respects, but it was also a hard year at times. Some things fell through that I previously counted on, other opportunities found their way to me that were totally unexpected. It all worked out in the end!

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10,000 Etsy Sales:

This major milestone snuck up on me. I remember when I first opened my Etsy shop in 2009 (and started Once Again Sam simultaneously), I obsessed over every sale until I made it to 100 sales, which took about a full year. After that, I stopped worrying about the number and focused more on where I wanted to go with this handmade business. It’s been an incredible journey on Etsy and I hope to see 20,000 sales one day!

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100 Craft Shows:

That’s 100 set ups, 100 teardowns, 200 precise packings / re-packings of the car, thousands of miles on the road, good hotels, bad hotels, perfect weather, horrible weather, early mornings, late nights, and who knows how many hours talking to customers & other vendors. It’s a hard life. I admire people who do festivals full time, but I’ve learned over the last few years that I don’t want to be in a different city every weekend. I have drastically cut back on the number of events I do now, but all of those experiences at various craft shows and art festivals have taught me so much about my product, my customers, and myself.

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Record Sales:

I had a sales goal for the year, and I made it, but just barely. Every month I checked that we were on track to make that goal, and most of the time we were, but not always. I love a good “stretch goal” - something that pushes you to keep going, keep trying, keep making.

Record Number of Wholesale Orders & Stockists:

2018 was the first year I did multiple wholesale trade shows, and it paid off. With Etsy Wholesale closing up mid year, I had to hustle to make up for that loss, and when I look back at the number of wholesale orders from the year that came in solely from tradeshows and contacts made there, it’s easy to see this is a worthwhile investment for my business.

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Largest Commission:

I took on my biggest commission (both in quantity and in size) this year for a local company called Kentwool. I created 75 custom landscapes for them in the spring, then in the fall, I took on my first extra large needle felted landscape commission which was 24” x 36”. That was double the size of my largest piece previously!  I never would have attempted something that big on my own, but now I feel empowered to work at whatever scale I want.

Largest Fiber Art Collection:

In May of 2018, I had the honor of being Artist in Residence at Poinsett State Park, and during my time there I created 40 pieces inspired by my surroundings which were then exhibited at Art & Light Gallery. Never before have I created such a large series around a specific location, and I really enjoyed the challenge. I enjoyed it so much I’m doing another residency next year and have an even bigger exhibition opportunity lined up for the summer. That’s all I can share till next year!

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10 Years in Business:

It doesn’t feel like a long time to me, but I have come to realize a lot of Makers and small businesses simply don’t last that long. I’m one of the lucky ones! I think one big factor in why I have lasted this long and made every year better than the last is because I do a variety of things. When I’m sick of needle felting, I bounce back to jewelry. I’m not stuck in a single medium. I also never gave up my day job, and continue to work a few days a week as an Interior Designer, which gets me out of the studio and uses a totally different part of my brain. I’ll admit I don’t have much free time anymore, but I’m doing things I want to do with my time, and that matters far more to me.

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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.