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.

2016: Year in Review

2016 was quite the year for Once Again Sam. After taking a much-needed break during the holidays, I had some time to look back over the last 12 months and reflect on all my little handmade business has been through this past year. I felt like I barely crossed the 2016 finish line – I’ve never been so busy before, but it was a phenomenal end to a phenomenal year, and I’m celebrating big time. I’m so grateful for everything about 2016, and feel overwhelmingly blessed by each and every thing that made up this chapter.

Many of my business goals were met this year – I became an LLC, printed my first catalog, participated in my first tradeshow, graduated from Etsy’s “SAM Program”, grew the wholesale side of my business, invested in advertising, and nearly doubled my Etsy sales. I have LOTS of goals for 2017, but I’ll wait to share those after The Maker’s Summit in March, because no doubt I’ll have twice as many goals after the 2-day conference.

The significant spike in business this year certainly had to do with a lot of hard work and a little luck, but there were several specific changes I made in 2016 that might be something for you to consider as you grow (or start) your handmade business. I have learned so much from other Makers over the years, and am happy to share what I know in return. That’s the beauty of the handmade community!

1.     Promoted listings on Etsy & Google: I was skeptical to try this, but looking at what I spent vs. what those promoted listings earned, it was well worth my daily $5 budget. It takes almost no effort once you set it up, and the payoff can be big.

2.     Launched 5 new collections: it seems like it should be pretty easy since I love to experiment and create, but getting my act together to launch 5 cohesive collections is a lot more involved than you might think. The previous year, I hardly launched anything new, only 2 small collections, so having 5 completely new series to share within a 12 month time period is something I’m very proud of and hope to continue in the next year. Several new collections came about during the 30 day #CreativeSprint challenge (April & October). If you want to grow, you have to keep coming up with new ideas – those tried & true best sellers are fine, and by all means keep making them if they’re selling well, but always be working on what's next.

3.     Graduated from the “SAM” Program on Etsy. The “Seller Account Management" Program was something I applied for back in 2015, and my year of one-on-one coaching started last December. I was teamed up with an awesome Etsy staffer who coached me, answered questions specific to my shop, and helped me set goals for the future. I highly recommend applying for this program, even if you’re an Etsy veteran like me. I’ve been selling on Etsy since 2009, been very pleased with my sales for the last 4 or 5 years, but there’s always room to grow. In my case, there was a TON of room to grow, way more than I thought, and I earned nearly twice as much on Etsy this year compared to last year, all thanks to things I learned in the SAM program.

4.     Grew my wholesale business: I started out 2016 with a brand new product catalog, a booth at my first tradeshow, and high hopes of developing new retail relationships. The focused effort worked! Wholesale is something I know I can grow even further in the future, so I’m investing in tools & making a game plan for how to improve my wholesale outreach going forward.

5.     Tried 5 new events (craft shows, art fairs, pop up shops): some of that came out of necessity because two of my biggest sales days from 2015 didn’t happen in 2016, and I felt I had to make up for them or my financial projections for the year were shot. Just to give it some context, these two sales days from 2015 accounted for over 20% of my income that year, so it could have been a big big problem for 2016, but everything turned out incredibly well, despite all my needless worrying. One event (Artisphere) did not accept my work in 2016, and the other (Indie Craft Parade) moved to a different model for their holiday event, which significantly changed things for me. This was out of my control, and I learned the hard way you can’t always plan your season around shows you love or have done in the past, because they can change or go away, and it's not up to you. However, I did learn another valuable lesson here – I applied for several new shows, ones I didn’t know much about, or that weren't as well known as others, and they turned out to be really great events that I will definitely plan on doing in the future. You never know how you’ll do at any given event until you try it for yourself!

So that’s it – that’s 2016 in a nutshell. Can’t wait to see what 2017 has in store. As always, if you have any general or specific questions about running a handmade business, selling on Etsy, doing craft shows, etc., please drop me a line. I’m always willing to help fellow entrepreneurs in any way I can (as long as you pay it forward when someone asks you for help in the future!).  

Past "Year in Review" posts can be found in my blog archives:

2015

2014

Year in Review: 2015

I know I say this every year, (and I hope I’ll be lucky enough to get to say it again next year): this has been an incredible twelve months. Once again, records have been broken, goals have been achieved (though promptly replaced by new goals for next year), and an awful lot of fun has been had. I've learned SO much this year, and there are some big big things coming up in the near future. As always, I feel incredibly blessed to be able to make a living this way, with my own two hands as a creative entrepreneur, and I'm so thankful for every minute of this journey as a Maker.

Once Again Sam turns 7 years old on January 8th, and as I have done in past years, I always like to stop and reflect, think through what I’ve learned, where I’ve been, and the countless things I have to be grateful for.  

Just a reminder of why I share my stats - this is not intended for bragging purposes.

  • This is to show that a little side hobby can become a serious business over time, through trial and error, self education, and a whole lot of hard work.

  • This is to encourage others to start something of their own, or keep at it, whatever stage they're in. If you have idea for a business, go for it! I had no plan when I started out, so if you have that much, you're way ahead of me. 

  • This is because a record breaking year is only possible thanks to God’s provision, and support from everyone out there who has been a part of my business in some way.

Thank you all for your support this year!

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It was a darn good year, in more ways that numbers can ever prove. Here’s ten of my favorite highlights from 2015, in no particular order. This is what memory lane looks like as a small business owner.

  1. Workshop renovations: Thanks to my husband and all his hard work renovating our basement this year, I now I have a workspace where I’m happy and incredibly productive. Also, it’s a total luxury to be able to run equipment, filter the air, AND have the lights on all at once without blowing a circuit!

  2. The Makers Summit: as always, this conference for creatives lit a fire under me to take on some big big goals this year, and I’m proud to say I have checked off almost everything on this year’s list (or very close to it). However, I already have a to-do list for 2016, and the next conference is still 2 months away!

  3. Artisphere: Getting accepted to the festival and winning the People’s Choice Award was a huge honor, and even though I didn’t make the cut for 2016, that gigantic purple prize ribbon will always hang proudly in my studio.

  4. New laser cutter: I upgraded to a huge 90 watt machine this year, and it was worth every penny. I only wish I had done it sooner and never wasted my time on a cheaper hobby model when I needed the professional model from the start. I’ll never forget how relieved I was when we finally got this thing in place (it weighs over 500 pounds and nearly didn’t fit through the doorway)!

  5. Learning new things (woodturning,  metal working, shibori dying): In February I took a woodturning class with my husband, and after an afternoon of instruction, we’ve been hooked ever since. I also attended the John C. Campbell Folk School for a week this summer to learn metal smithing, which was an incredible learning experience. Recently, I tried my hand at shibori dying, just for fun, and really enjoyed the process. I now realize for the first time how important learning new things is for my creative health, so that’ll definitely be a priority for next year.

  6. American Made Finalist: I have applied to this national contest for years, and was excited to make it to the final round for the first time. I got some nice media exposure because of it, even though I didn’t win.  

  7. My first catalog: It took over 6 months of tedious, frustrating, never-ending work, but we did it! Oh my gosh, never again. But yay, it’s finally done!

  8. Indie Craft Parade: I look forward to this craft show all year long for so many reasons, and it never ever disappoints. Is it weird I’m already thinking about my application photos for June?

  9. The Bunny Project: The idea for this series began about this time last year, and once every quarter, I took a break from orders and production work to make something just for fun. In my world, making bunnies is fun. Making bunnies doing or wearing ridiculous things, is about as much fun as a person can have. 95% of the pieces from this quirky needle felted collection sold, so that was an unexpected bonus. I guess I’m not the only one who LOVES bunnies!

  10. Starting the #MakersEyeView series: I got the GoPro camera for Christmas last year, and have really enjoyed producing these short videos for my YouTube channel that share my process (from my perspective, mostly as time-lapse). I didn’t have any video background prior to this, and still have an awful lot of technical stuff to learn, but I have discovered I really enjoy sharing what goes on behind the scenes in the studio, and I have been overjoyed by the positive response so far.