Sunday, May 31, 2009

ICE Re-cap

What a great great weekend. I’m writing this in a very relaxed, very grateful state of mind. It’s not very often you’ll find me like this at the end of a festival. The getting ready wears me out to the point that I usually enter the weekend exhausted, so I’m on the verge of collapse once the weekend is over. Something was different about this one, and though I haven’t quite been able to succinctly define why, I do have some thoughts about the matter.

I’ve been pretty frank about how I feel about doing festivals. But I’m starting to feel a shift in my attitude. Festivals have a lot of the same familiarity that film sets do. You can be in different cities with different crews, but you make fast friends. There’s a “we’re all in this together” comraderie that you don’t get very often in life. And I happen to have chosen two jobs that have brought that into my life. That can’t be an accident.

One of the aspects of my business that has always greatly appealed to me was being a part of my community, and now that I'm out and about in the festival circuit more regularly, I'm feeling that tenfold. It is the best feeling when people come into my booth saying, "Oh, I bought your products at (insert place) and I love them!" Or, "I've heard about your products and I've been wanting to try them." Mama felt invisible for a lot of years because I was so in and out of it. And now that I've put myself and my products out there, I'm loving all of the new connections that I've made with people in the community.

I want to give a big hats off to Christy and Shannon and all of the people that went into making ICE a success. Centennial Park was a fabulous back drop for this show, and it was hot hot hot, but that didn't keep people from coming out in droves. I was really impressed with the vendor line-up. There were a lot of talented crafters and artists who I had never seen, and the ICE crew did a great job of getting them there.

This marks the end of spring festival season for me, and will be my last until the fall. I just found out that I was accepted into Grant Park Summer Shade, which will kick off the fall festival season in August! In the meantime, you can find me at some farmer's markets around town, or you can stop by the store and shop in air conditioned comfort!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A turning point

Before I made Mama my full-time venture, it was more of an idea. It was something that I put out there sporadically and only when time allowed, so there was never any consistency or any real progress. At least not financially. I just did the math and realized that I am in my 7th year of business. Mama will be 5 in September, and I started out with a different product line before Mama. In that 7 years, I primarily focused on developing products and branding, but didn't really spend much time on sales. I get so excited by ideas, and I was constantly coming up with tens of hundreds of them. If time wasn't a factor, I would have a very diverse company. But you can't build a company solely on ideas, particularly if you're not getting them out to the masses. So when I decided to make a go of it full-time, I pared down to the essentials, focused on what I had and started selling. The response has been amazing and it's given me such pleasure on so many fronts. But my glamourous life as a small business owner consists of working 7 days a week, as many hours a day as I can keep my eyes open. Let me be clear - I am SO not complaining. I remember many times within the last 7 years when I was slaving away at a job I didn't particularly like, visions of Mama dancing in my head, when I heard about small business owners who were working round the clock and dared to complain of a lack of sleep because of their mad success. I would have given my right arm! So now I am figuratively armless, because I have joined those masses of sleepy entrepreneurs. And I am delighted to be one of them.

But I'm realizing that I can't keep going at the rate I have been for any sustained period of time. The hectic pace is largely dictated by the various facets of the business that are commanding my attention. I'm doing a little bit of everything - retail store, festivals and markets, wholesale, private label, internet sales, and the list goes on. I'm jumping at all of the opportunities and there have been many, which is the most incredible feeling. There were a few months of sleepless nights in the beginning of the year, and now I sleep like a baby. Mostly because I'm so tired, but I'll take that over insomnia any day. However, the multiple paths have begun to leave me feeling like a jack of all trades and the master of none. I'm a person who benefits from some focus, but I find myself running around like a crazy person all day responding to the various opportunities. It's a dream for a person who is relying on their business to grow, but it's also somewhat of a conundrum in the grand scheme of things. I want to keep everyone happy, but if I'm overcommitted, no one will be happy. You know what I'm talking about.

I know that I'm exactly where I should be, but it's making me take a hard look at where I'm going. "Work smarter, not harder" has been running through my head lately, but I'm not even sure where to start working smarter. Actually, that's not true. It's that the concept of working smarter involves spending more money, which is also hard. Either spending money on people to help me, or spending money on services that I currently perform. For example: I design, print, cut and apply all of my own labels. It takes longer than you can even imagine. Probably about as much time as making the actual products when all is said and done. I could either hire someone to help cut and apply the labels, or I could outsource the printing. And then I could still use someone to clean the containers and apply the labels, because it's a time-consuming job. It's a tough call, because both are additional expenses that come with their own risks. Label printers require large minimums per label, and without counting, I probably have at least 20 different labels for all of my different products. That's a pretty large investment out of the gate. Products and information evolve as I discover more about my business, so I tend to alter my labels at least once a year. I don't sell as many products per year as I would have to buy labels for, so I'm stuck with labels that I won't even use. So maybe I suck it up and use all of the labels, but that's unlikely. OK, so maybe I hire someone. There's the liability of putting someone in contact with the sharp blade of my paper cutter (though the worst I have ever done is slice a hole in my shirt, I'm sure worker's comp wouldn't see it that way), plus there's the need to find someone with the precision necessary to get the job done. It's not rocket science, but it does take a certain amount of skill to get the labels lined up and make clean, accurate cuts. I've been doing it for 7 years, so it's second nature. I need another me. This is just one example of the many things that I'm constantly assessing. The same considerations go for web design, bookkeeping, manufacturing, and selling, all of which I do myself. Granted the latter four don't risk losing a finger, but hopefully you get where I'm going with this. Growth requires people to help, and that terrifies me. It wouldn't terrify me if I had the right people, but finding the right people is either pure luck or a lot of trial and error. The latter part is what inspires fear. I learned to manage people in my former career, and I've been told that I'm a good person to work for. But I don't really have any skills in hiring people. Film work was job to job, so if a person wasn't right, I just toughed it out and didn't hire them again. Didn't have to have the tough conversation about why they weren't right. There was always the out that I had my "usual" people. Call me a chicken, but it's no fun to look someone in the eye and tell them they're not "a good fit for your company" (i.e. not good at their job), and you're letting them go. So growth is scary because it involves other people and all of the stuff that comes with.

The next phase of my business in my mind has always been wholesale. This means selling my products to retailers who sell them at their stores. And it's the obvious next step for a business who wants to grow substantially. Which means cold calling retailers if you're a masochist, or a trade show if you want the easier, but more costly path to the masses. Trade shows are EXPENSIVE. And there's no guarantee that you will recoup your investment. Because it's not just the expense of the trade show itself, you're also selling your products for half of your retail price. The whole purpose is to sell volume. Volume mandates growth. Buying more stuff to make your products, hiring more people to make it. This traditionally is an action item in the business plan of a business like mine, so it's where my mind has been. Truth be told, it's not something I'm terribly excited about. I'd much rather have a retail store, which I do, but retail stores have their own financial risks. There is a lot involved to owning a successful retail store. "If you build it, they will come," is not a realistic marketing plan. Just so ya know.

The long and the short of this is, it's all a risk. You just have to decide which risk you want to take. And up to this point, I haven't been able to choose one. I go back and forth on a weekly basis, and have my finger in all of the possible pots, in the smallest of ways. But you get to a point where you need to stop trying things out and pick a direction. And so...

I had a meeting today about a new opportunity that has gotten me really excited, and in a curious way, has gotten me mentally on track. It won't necessarily lessen my workload, but will streamline my focus, and it offers growth without the hugest investment. It involves entering into a niche that comes with no guarantees, but makes a lot of sense when I take a hard look at my business and who my customers are. And it involves me putting my tradeshow/wholesale plan on hold, because I know I have to stop trying to do so many things at once. Which is a huge relief, to say the least. It's happening fast because I'm hopping on a train that is already moving, but it's made me think that I can grow my business for the time being while still staying small, which makes sense for my life where it is right now. It allows for other life things to happen, without the pressure of managing a business that is growing exponentially. It also allows for other ideas I've had in the past 7 years to come into play. Ideas that I loved at the time, but put on hold because I didn't have the means to move them forward at the time. I know I'm being vague, but I want to share the new direction once I have my head around it. I assure you, it doesn't change any of the work that I'm doing now. Rather, it complements it and allows me to grow at a pace and in a direction that I'm more comfortable with.

More exciting details coming soon!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Kirkwood update

So I woke up this morning at 6am with the forecast looking the exact same as when I went to bed. I talked to my friend who was going to be in the booth next to me - she had done a risk vs reward assessment and decided not to go. I turned on the weather channel and mulled it over for about an hour. I called another friend who was already there and said there were a lot of vendors setting up. I decided that I would be uptight all day if I didn't go and at least give it a shot, so I got in my car and headed over. The morning was nice, albeit humid, so I was feeling hopeful. I was next to some friends who were keeping up with the forecast throughout the morning, and got the news that storms were rolling in around 1 and were supposed to last all afternoon. They started to break down around noon. Still uncertain, I took a few extraneous things to my car and kept up the mental debate. Around 1:30 the dark clouds rolled in, the skies opened up, and within 10 minutes I had a 3 foot wide river running through the back of my booth, which was jammed full of people trying to wait out the downpour. My gut said to cut my losses and go, so I started making very wet trips to my car. I got soaked, but my products did not, which was what was important to me. It had lightened up a bit as I took the last load, but was still drizzling when I got home. I again looked at the forecast, which had 80 to 100% chance of thunderstorms throughout the rest day. It stopped drizzling around 3 and... IT DIDN'T RAIN ANOTHER DROP ALL DAY. It actually cooled off, and the afternoon turned out to be a lovely one with the sun occasionally peeking out. I heard a lot of people showed up at the festival. I keep telling myself that I made the best decision I could with the information I had, but I'm still feeling a little remorseful. I actually had a pretty good morning sales-wise, even though there weren't that many people out. It was indicative that if it had been a nice day, I probably would have had a really good day. And if I had I stuck it out, it may have been a good day after all. Sigh.

I realize that I'm not a great candidate for festivals. I don't like the unpredictability, and the extreme weather wreaks havoc on my products. I didn't intend for festivals and markets to become the mainstay of my business plan, but they are the low hanging fruit so to speak, so I've crammed my calendar full of them for this year. I thought that I would be able to focus on promoting the retail store and making wholesale contacts in between, (as well as keeping my site updated and sending more marketing emails, blogging more, sending out press releases, etc etc.) but I am a one person shop and I've found that getting ready for festivals is taking up the majority of my long hours. That being said, I've noticed a considerable jump in foot traffic at the store since Inman Park, and I've made some wholesale contacts as well. Most of the festivals and markets I've participated in this year have been wonderfully profitable, but I have had a couple of bad weather days where I came home determined to about-face to a business model that mandates I conduct all of my business in a controlled climate. Immediately. But I made the decision to bootstrap my business for the time being, so I'm doing exactly what I need to be doing. Except for today.

I'm not one for regret, so I'm trying to look at this as a learning experience. This whole thing has gotten me thinking about my process and business in general. I'm usually pretty decisive, and I usually make good decisions. So when I don't, I have the tendency to beat myself up. I need to work on this, because all we have is our intuition and our knowledge of past events, and there's no way to accurately predict the outcome of something. This is the ultimate truth for running a business in general. Most people who do festivals for a living have a "you win some, you lose some" mentality, and I can't say after 6 years of doing this that I've ever been able to get my head around that. And the more I've thought about it, I realized I don't really have that attitude in regards to my business in general either. Not to say making a wrong move should be taken casually, but I know small business owners who accept their mistakes or bad judgment calls with humility and without a lot of mental anguish, and they seem to have happier lives as small business owners. That being said, I have to remind myself that I'm transitioning out of an industry that wasn't very forgiving about bad judgment calls, so I made it a point not to make them. I am realizing now that this was an awfully rigid way to live and doesn't give you much of an opportunity for personal growth. So I'm having some growing pains, but at least I finally feel that I'm going in the right direction. I'm screwing up all over the place, and I'm weathering the storm.

Friday, May 15, 2009

To show or not to show?

That is the question, indeed. I've spent all week gearing up for the Kirkwood Festival, and the inaugural East Lake Farmer's Market, which are both happening tomorrow. This is what has for me:

Not pretty. So now comes the conundrum, do I go to the show? I've decided to definitely do the market because it's in the morning, when things look a little less sinister. The Kirkwood festival is open for set up at 7 and goes from 10 to 7pm. That is a long day of sitting in off and on thunderstorms. And honestly, who wants to be trapped in a 10 x 10 metal tent when there's the possibility of lightning? My in the know husband, Chuck, explained that the percentage of the chance of storms isn't really a prediction, and is actually based on the last 100 days that had comparable conditions. Right now the percentages are 30 to 50%. Not high enough to make the call tonight, but enough to keep me up worrying about it all night. The deal with festivals is once you're in, you're in, so there's no breaking down until the bitter end unless you want to carry everything out by hand. And that's usually frowned upon.

I really hate not honoring my commitments, so I've been stressing about this all day. But I also know that I have to do what is best for me and my business. I don't want a big sudsy lump of freshly made soap or soggy labels and ruined products. I slaved away this week, working long hours to make everything. I really don't like the thought of losing money, but I loathe the thought of wasting time and losing money. I have orders to fill and 100 other things to do (like update my website with all of my new stuff), and that will be hanging over my surly head while I'm sitting in my soggy booth. I told Chuck I feel like a farmer. I don't like having my finances so dependent on mother nature, and this has made it glaringly obvious that it's time to make the time to expand my business plan so I'm not so reliant on festivals for income.

In the meantime, I've decided to wait and see what the morning brings. I've packed up my car, but I pared down my booth from the usual mini-store that I set up for festivals to my single table farmer's market booth. That way if I have to bail out in a hurry, it won't be a 1 hour + breakdown. I wish I had a crystal ball.