April 21, 2012

The Wannabe Artist: Running an Artisan Small Business

There are many like me, corporate by day types that dream of packing it in and selling their works to adoring benefactors. We’re not as cool as starving artists nor are we Van Gogh self-mutilating types. I’m just a Mom who can wiggle a pencil into something enchanting…a wannabe artist. And we’re out there en masse on sites like artfire.com and etsy.com self promoting our creations, awaiting discovery. Our mega million lotto win looks like this: The editor of (insert big name trade magazine) tweets a submission call and we trip over our workbench to get our masterpiece on the cover (so what if it’s only a postage stamp sized insert) followed immediately by our website crashing due to all the exposure.

Retail shops snub us until we’re established. So we need to be savvy. Blogs, Social Networking, weekend shows become our brick and mortar. What I’ll focus on is the many hats worn running and promoting artisan work -- the crafty side of business. I have the benefit of a few years under my belt regarding this topic and there’s many do’s and don’ts I’ve learned along the way. Artsy types tend not to be good salespeople. My day job is sales, so some of my skills come naturally, but I don’t particularly like hawking myself. It feels weird, not to mention that the rejection that you receive (often) is multiplied when it’s about something you’ve created. You have to grow some skin and be able to put yourself out there. I’ve learned the hard way, and here’s my net-net on what the marketing gurus teach:

Do #1: Create a Presence. This is a place or places you will frequent to talk about your work. The Web is a great place to start. Begin by searching for what you do online. Who’s out there? What’s trending? How do you differentiate yourself? Art is about you. Don’t follow what others are doing. I can go on any of the craft websites and find what I create, but I think I do it a little differently and that uniqueness helped me define my presence. In the beginning I felt that I had to have a whiz-bang website, that it was critical to success. What I got was carpel tunnel syndrome and frustrated as I’m way behind the web design learning curve. So don’t try to build a be-all website. Start out with a blog or a Facebook page to get acclimated. Unless you are, you are not a website designer. The do-it-yourself sites that say it’s easy? Not really. Create your presence slowly and be consistent about it. And if you have a teenager around, by all means entice them into helping you.

 Do #2: Establish a Brand. Yes, YOU need a brand. Why? Because there are thousands of artisans doing what you do. And that number is growing exponentially. In less than two years, my brand is beginning to gain traction, and that you're reading this helps, thank you! Creating a brand and gaining recognition takes some time. I use key words that place my website on the first Google page…go ahead, type “cremate bead” into search (I know, what’s that about?) It took many web hits for my carasmiths.com site to get this ranking. I’m still not really sure how I did it, but it’s our friend SEO, search engine optimization, which I’ll write about down the road as we’re just getting acquainted—she’s picky, I’ll tell you that. As you’re likely creating your brand on a shoestring, you need to focus your time, energy and dollars. In retrospect, this would have served me better:
 • Define yourself. If you don’t know you, your clientele won’t. I have a look that’s organic, not everyone likes it, and I know it. Being an artist at heart, I really didn’t care at first. Deep down though we all really want to be liked. To gain more appeal, I took what made my designs unique and made some changes. A glass pendant, no matter how stunning, that has “bitch” etched on it has a pretty limited target market. I went broader with “hope” and that opened some new doors.
 • Define your buyer. I’m using buyer purposely here as the person purchasing may not be your ultimate customer. They may be buying for someone else and you want their business too. So this is where you mark you spot. Your style tends to mirror your life, but needs to appeal to others. My favorite color is teal and I’m mad about waves. These wind up in my daily accessories. That a big part of my emerging wholesale business contains ocean scenes for high-end beach boutiques is no accident.
 • Define your plan. And work it. Be selective and learn about your initial selling venues. Your time is best spent creating your art, but you’ve got to work the room too. Go easy on yourself and start slow. A Facebook page is the friendliest place because you can talk with your cohorts and ease into the promotion conversation if you’re shy about it. Something as simple as a photo of your work with, “I made this today” can help you get started. A blog is likely your next step as you have more room to expand your conversation with a larger population...and of course you’ll invite all your Facebook friends. All the major selling venues (Etsy, Artfire, Ruby Lane, etc.) have conversation rooms where registered users can hang together at a virtual water cooler. Chat and learn with other artists. These are low/no cost options, and again, do these before you go with a website so that you can “crawl before your walk.”

 Do # 3: Become an Expert. At what? What you know. A while back I was asked to teach a technique to a glass artisan group far more advanced in skill than I was. But no one had ever tried the process I was demonstrating and I was the (temporary) expert. Seek out venues where you can share your wisdom. It can be as easy as a video on YouTube where many unwittingly have become viral celebrities. A demo that you write up and offer for free on a technique can lead to a workshop, more followers and buyers of your work.

One of the most important lessons I learned was not to try to be and do everything. Create a plan and work it, adjust accordingly. And stay true to your art — the Sistine Chapel took time to paint.