In the evenings after work, Minnie makes pincushions shaped like Victorian tea hats. Friends and family tell her, “You could sell these!” Minnie demurs.
But then things get tougher at work. She has already taken a pay cut, and more layoffs are expected. Could she supplement her income by selling pincushions on the side? Could she maybe even quit her job and sew pincushions full time?
Minnie is not real. But she represents countless amateur artisans who are thinking of turning their hobby into a career. More than 5 million Americans make artisan crafts, but just 30,000 to 50,000 of them count on sales as their main income, according to a 2011 Craft Organization Development Association report based on 2009 data.
Competition has grown fierce, making it difficult for newcomers like Minnie to find a unique niche. Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods, now claims 800,000 distinct “shops” — up from 150,000 in 2009 — with 13 million items listed for sale.
Therefore, crafters might be wise to test the waters before diving in. “Slow and steady is the way to go. Don’t quit your day job without understanding your competition and target market,” says Kelly Rand, author of “Handmade to Sell” (Potter Craft, 2012).
Going to craft fairs and online sites like eBay and Etsy to compare products and pricing is a start. Aspiring sellers need this type of benchmarking to write a plan describing the business and its products, the market it will serve and its competitive advantage or unique selling proposition.
A business plan also states how much capital is needed to start and expand the business and includes projected earnings.
Daunted by all that number crunching, creative types often launch into business without a written plan. “They would rather be doing creative work, but a business plan is important if you’re going to run a healthy, profitable business,” says Jennifer Lee, author of “The Right-Brain Business Plan: A Creative, Visual Map for Success” (New World Library, 2011).
Lee suggests starting with a “vision board” on poster board, complete with sketches and collage elements if desired. Sticky notes are great for adding details. But a right-brain business plan should be just as specific as a conventional one.
Starting a business also means looking at personal finances to find out how to fund it and what can be cut from the household budget to prepare for leaner times ahead.
When part-time crafters with day jobs can scarcely keep up with demand, and when they have sufficient funding to take the business to the next level, it may be time to take the plunge into full-time crafting.
“The tipping point occurs when all you do after work is create, create, create, and you spend all your time on weekends at fairs and then go back to work exhausted on Monday,” says Rand, adding that full-time crafters can eventually diversify by teaching classes and selling patterns and instructional videos.
Rand devotes much of her book to the practicalities of business formation, including tax and legal requirements, securing health care and setting up retirement savings.
Rand also makes clear that there is much more to running a business than making product. Administrative work and marketing suck up time and energy. “A lot of people who create things as a hobby do it to relieve stress,” she says, “but if you want to make money at it, it may become a major source of stress.”
Because the marketplace for handmade goods is so saturated, it’s important that products and the people who make them have a good story behind them, Rand says.
Featured in her book is a seamstress who makes reusable lunch bags and aprons out of repurposed fabrics. She also blogs and maintains a website about environmental sustainability, rounding out her brand.
“It’s very important to have a unique selling point to bring to an overcrowded marketplace. Stories help you connect with the buyer and make them feel good about buying your product,” says Rand, adding that crafters should hand out some type of marketing material at fairs.
But though professional marketing materials are important, “I’ve seen it go both ways,” Lee says, “where some people think they need the perfect business card to even get started when all they really need is the Internet.”
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