I’ve been thinking about the ‘perfect’ craft world that we usually see online – endless photos of beautiful finished projects – and how they rarely, if ever, show the whole story. I’m as guilty as anyone else: unless I’m planning a tutorial, I almost never take photos until I finish a project, so you never get to see how many times I re-knit and adjust until I end up with the sweater I had in mind (or something close to it, at least).
And yet, with everything I make, whether that’s a new crochet design or a personal craft project, nothing ever goes entirely to plan! I enjoy the process of making at least as much as I enjoy the finished item, so I don’t see spending some extra time with each project as a problem. But it’s important to remember that failure is a part of learning and growing, and you shouldn’t be upset when something creative doesn’t go as expected – just learn from it and move on.
I thought I’d share a pretty hilarious example of one of my failures with you – remember this purple cardigan I finished knitting a few months ago?
The handmade polymer clay buttons were supposed to be the finishing touch, and I spent ages perfecting a set of 8 lovely 4-hole buttons. Then I put them in the toaster oven and waited. I have no idea what happened – I’ve baked polymer clay dozens of times before, I use an oven thermometer, and I monitor the temperature regularly, so I don’t know what could have gone so badly wrong. And yet, my poor buttons grew and swelled and darkened and turned into…
Chocolate brownies?! With their bubbled glossy surface and rich brown colouring, I seem to have accidentally discovered the formula for perfect replica brownies – but definitely not the formula for perfect buttons for my cardigan!
After this disaster, I almost gave up and abandoned polymer clay forever, but I thought I’d have one quick last try before making such a drastic decision. I quickly cut a new set of buttons, simplified to thinner circles (one sheet of clay, straight out of the pasta machine) with just 2 holes per button, and popped them in the toaster oven. And, this time, they baked exactly as expected:
It’s hard to believe that these two buttons were made from exactly the same materials – the only differences before going in the oven were the thickness (although the ‘brownie’ buttons were much thinner before they were baked/burnt!) and the number of holes. I still don’t know what I did to make such a difference between the two batches of buttons (although I have several theories as to what may have gone wrong the first time), but, luckily, the new buttons are fine, so I just quit while I was ahead and sewed them onto my cardigan!
Failure can even be a good thing, provided you don’t let it defeat you. When it comes to my crochet designs, interesting discoveries often come from my failures in the form of techniques or shapes I can adapt for a future design…
One of my failed prototypes for my Meerkat‘s head (above, right) gave me the inspiration for what became my Aliens pattern (below)! I love my cute little alien, but that design would never have happened if I hadn’t seen the potential in the meerkat failure.
Fear of Failure
The fear of failure can be even worse when you’re trying something new. I’ve been wanting to take up painting again for a long time, and I’ve stocked up on paints, brushes, and canvases, but I’ve been too afraid of messing up to even make a start!
I think it’s time to take my own advice: it’s okay to fail. I know I won’t be any good at first – or maybe ever – but I should just paint something and see what happens, shouldn’t I?
It’s rare for anyone to show their failures, but we all have them. There’s no chance of success if you don’t even try – and then keep trying, and learning, and improving, until you end up with something you’re happy with.
Nobody is perfect, and (despite what you may think from viewing craft blogs, Pinterest boards and Instagram feeds) many projects don’t go as planned! Some things are beyond our control, but you should never let a crafting mishap stop you from having another go. 🙂
Customer support is an area that continually grows as your business expands and you acquire more customers who may need your help. I’ve been running PlanetJune for over 7 years now, and I have many thousands of customers – that’s the potential for a lot of people who may need my support!
Sometimes the task of helping my customers seems overwhelming and never-ending, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I’ve realised it’s partly just my perception:
Requests tend to come in clusters: the days that stand out are those where I wake to a dozen customer problems to solve, not the pleasant days where my inbox is filled with only orders and compliments.
The hurt caused by one rude or demanding email outweighs the joy of receiving ten kind messages, and it weighs on my mind for much longer.
Many of the questions I receive aren’t even from customers – some are general queries related to one of my tutorials, and many others are specific questions relating to a non-PlanetJune pattern. I need to set rules for how much time I can/should devote to these types of questions.
Reaching this point has helped me find a better perspective to cope with all the emails and requests from other sources (blog comments, and messages via Ravelry, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc), but I still didn’t have a way to quantify how much work I really do to support my customers (and other people with questions for me).
A month ago, I started logging my customer support requests by categorising them, so I’ll be able to see a truer picture. Keeping track of how many questions and problems I actually deal with will help me figure out how much of my time I devote to customer support. Keeping track of the types of support requests I receive will help me to see where I can improve my instructions, systems and support resources to reduce that time commitment.
One month into this, I have enough data to do my first analysis. So what’s the verdict?
The largest number of requests by far are for technical support. This is to be expected as I run a shop selling downloadable products, but I hope to reduce the number dramatically by making improvements to the way my shop works. That’s a long-term goal (I’ll start working on it once my pattern re-release project is complete) but I’m already planning the conversion and it’s exciting to think how much customer support time may be saved once I’ve completed it.
The second largest category is people asking for help with non-PlanetJune patterns. Since I began blogging, I’ve spent countless hours helping people understand other (poorly-written) patterns, but I now have a policy on that: I provide unlimited support for my own patterns, but I can’t offer a free service to support other people’s patterns – that should be the responsibility of the designer or publisher of those patterns. Having this policy frees me from agonising over whether I should offer help just this once, and from feeling guilty when I don’t. I’m happy to support my customers; I can’t support every crocheter with internet access.
The best statistic so far: only two support requests have been for pattern support for PlanetJune patterns. That means I’m doing my job properly by creating error-free patterns that very few people have any difficulty in understanding. And those two questions were both regarding amigurumi techniques, not my pattern instructions, so I could easily respond with a referral to my tutorial on the technique in question.
With only one month of data, I’m already seeing areas of my shop, website and business I can target for improvement. I’ve learnt so much already, and my log will become even more valuable as I add more data over time. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been adding to my FAQ and building a bank of canned responses (stock answers I have ready to send in reply to common questions), and now I can judge how effective these are, and identify more FAQs and canned responses to develop.
I wish I’d thought to do this years ago, instead of relying on only my judgment to feel where things could be improved! I’ll be using the data from my customer support log to inform the systems I create, which will automate my business as much as possible. My end goal is to free up more time to concentrate on designing patterns and teaching through tutorials, and to allow my business to continue to grow without overwhelming me with a growing volume of administrative tasks.
If you have a craft business, how do you identify areas where your business could be improved, simplified, or streamlined? Could your business benefit from tracking your customer support requests?
If you’d like to sell your own patterns or handmade goods online, there are many options open to you. It can be intimidating, especially if you’re just starting out, to figure out which venue is the best fit for you. As I’m always getting emails asking for advice about this, I thought I’d put together an overview of some of the major options, with the main positive and negative points of each.
For this post, I’m going to look at the pros and cons of online craft marketplaces (like Etsy), online pattern marketplaces (like Ravelry), a PayPal shopping cart on your own blog/website, and creating your own self-hosted shop from scratch.
Online Craft Marketplaces
Online craft marketplaces like Etsy were primarily designed for people to sell handmade goods, but you can also sell patterns through them. (In some cases this can be a disadvantage for pattern sellers: no matter how clearly you phrase your title and description, you’ll still receive orders from people who don’t read them at all and buy a pattern thinking they are going to receive a handmade toy…)
As Etsy is so popular, I’ll go into a little more detail with some pros and cons of an Etsy shop.
Very popular, so you have access to a lot of traffic
Easy to set up listings and add photos
No setup fees: you only pay for each item you list
Can enable automatic re-listing for pattern sales
Possible digital file download service in future (currently in beta testing) or you can sign up for CraftHub as a digital download service
Fee to list each item (currently 20c), whether or not it sells
Listing expires after 4 months, and you have to pay to relist it
Percentage fee on every sale (currently 3.5%)
With so much competition, it can be difficult to stand out
Listings get buried very quickly and are only found if someone is searching for that specific thing (e.g. “fox amigurumi pattern” has 73 results; “amigurumi pattern” has over 10,000)
Your potential customer needs to create an Etsy account in order to purchase from you
Automatic digital file delivery (for pattern sales) is only available for a fee
Other Marketplaces: ArtFire is similar to Etsy, but there are no listing or success fees; instead you pay a fixed monthly fee, no matter how many items you list and how much (or little) you sell. Customers can buy without creating an account. There’s no option for digital file delivery.
There are also other options, including BigCartel, Storenvy, Shopify, and many more. Each has a different fee structure, different customization options, and are suited to different types of products. Your best option is to shop around and read all the information you can on each before making your decision.
The options I’ve mentioned so far have all been US-based, but most, if not all, welcome sellers from around the world. However, if you’re not based in North America, you may wish to consider opening a shop with an online marketplace located in your own country. You can receive payments in your own currency, and if you sell physical products, selling to locals keeps your shipping costs lower, which may make your products seem more attractive!
You’d need to find an appropriate marketplace for your own country or continent – here are a couple of popular examples:
Folksy trades in British pounds and is for UK-based sellers only.
DaWanda is available to worldwide sellers, but primarily caters for the European market, with payment in Euros and site translations in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Polish.
Online Pattern Marketplaces
Ravelry and Craftsy both provide a marketplace exclusively for patterns. This can be an effective solution for many pattern sellers. It’s very low maintenance, as, once you’ve uploaded your patterns to their server, your customers can automatically download their patterns after paying.
Ravelry is for knitting and crochet patterns only. It gives you access to over 2 million Ravelry users, plus anyone else you bring in from your blog, social media, etc. It has a very reasonable sliding scale monthly fee structure (and it’s free if you sell under $30/month). Customers don’t need a Ravelry account to be able to buy from you.
Craftsy is for any kind of patterns and has zero fees at the time of writing. It is still new, so may not have a large customer base as yet – you may need to bring in much of your own traffic. Your customers will need to create a Craftsy account in order to purchase.
And an added bonus: as these venues are for pattern sales only, the chance of someone thinking they are buying a finished item instead of a pattern is much lower (although I hear it still happens, on Craftsy at least).
PayPal Shopping Cart
If you already have a blog, a PayPal shopping cart may be a good way to introduce for-sale items to your website and customers. (This is how I started out, in 2007!) You can either create a post or page for each item, or have one ‘shop’ page listing all your items. For each item, you’ll create a PayPal button that people can use to add it to a PayPal shopping cart, and then check out through PayPal.
It’s a good transitional move for a blogger – it’s easy to set up, and there are no fees (beyond the PayPal fees you’d also be paying with any of the other options in this post). However, if you don’t already have a blog and don’t want to start blogging anyway, I’d advise against starting a blog or website just so you can use a PayPal shopping cart.
Using a PayPal cart instead of a ‘real’ shop makes you look like a very small business, which may deter some people from buying from you. (If you already have an audience who trusts you, that shouldn’t be a problem though – and you can always move on to another option if/when things take off!)
I wouldn’t advise a PayPal cart as a long-term solution if you’re serious about growing your business and aren’t just selling a few items as a hobby business; as it’s just a shopping cart and not a full shop, it’s very limited. If your business is successful and/or your catalogue grows, you’ll get frustrated with having to create a new PayPal button for each item you create. You also have no way to track orders beyond your payment notification emails and PayPal account records, so you’ll have to download your PayPal transaction logs into a spreadsheet if you want to generate any reports about how well you’re doing, or get your sales totals for your tax return.
Self-hosted eCommerce Site
If you have your own website, you can install eCommerce software to create your own shop (Wikipedia has a comparison of many options). This option gives you the most control over your shop, and potentially costs the least (in money, at least) but requires a time investment or a cost to hire someone else to set up your shop.
I use Zen Cart for my shop, and I like it, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to others. On the plus side, it’s completely free, and I can change it to look and work exactly the way I want it to – it works well for my needs. I can offer instant pattern downloads; I have sales reports at my fingertips; it costs me nothing except my monthly web hosting fee. But I don’t generally recommend it to other people for these reasons:
Time: It takes a lot of work to set up initially – it took me 2 weeks of full-time work to get my shop ready to launch. And every time I want to change something, I have to schedule in more time to make the changes (there’s a reason why my shop still isn’t branded with my logo, almost a year after the logo launch…)
Tech Skills: If you want to make tweaks and updates to your shop, you need to get more into the code side of things – it’s not very user-friendly. If you’re not familiar with HTML (the code that webpages are written in) I’d suggest you either find someone to help you with that side of things, or avoid Zen Cart.
You could get away with using default templates that come with the software and doing very little in the way of modifications, but then your shop won’t look like it’s yours, and branding is very important – you want your customers to remember you! Or you could hire a web designer/developer to create and install your shop for you (for a one-off fee), but that’s a steep investment if you’re just starting out.
So, if you’re not a very technical person or don’t have the time or inclination to delve into code, I’d recommend you use a simpler option like a marketplace store.
Alternatively, you could look into a best-of-both-worlds solution like Ecwid, that allows you to set up a store on your own domain without doing any coding. You’d get the advantages of having your own store, branding, and control, with the ease of an online marketplace for creating your listings. However, you do have to pay a monthly fee for this convenience.
I can tell you that setting up multiple shops takes a lot of time, and maintaining shops on many platforms may take more in effort (and, potentially, in fees) than you get back in sales. If you’re spending time maintaining 5 shops, is that the best use of your time, or would it be wiser to free up more time to create more products?
You’d probably do better to concentrate your efforts on one shop, or two selling locations that make sense for your situation (e.g. one local and one international marketplace shop, or one marketplace shop and a shop on your own site).
This is my current situation:
I focus all my attention on my own self-hostedPlanetJune shop, and that’s where I see the bulk of my sales.
I maintain my Etsy shop, but only for advertising purposes, as many people search for patterns on Etsy and I want mine to show up in their searches. (I think of my Etsy fees as my advertising budget.)
My ArtFire shop is still open, but I don’t have time to maintain it and I’m in two minds about keeping it open – do I really need a third shop? (No.) But then, you can easily import Etsy listings into ArtFire, so I could update my shop relatively easily… I’m still on the fence about this one!
I closed my Ravelry shop, but continue to list all my patterns in their database with links back to my own shop, so my patterns show up in all the Ravelry searches, but I don’t have to maintain yet another shop.
I closed my DaWanda shop, as I just didn’t have time to add all my listings. Also, accepting payments in Euros was a hassle, and many customers didn’t speak English, which made communication difficult.
I haven’t set up a Craftsy shop, because my business strategy is to bring everyone to my own shop. The only thing Craftsy could offer me that I don’t already have is access to their customers, and for me, the work in creating and maintaining my presence there isn’t justified by the potential sales.
Those reasons make sense for me, but won’t necessarily apply to you if you don’t have a high-traffic website, you sell patterns but don’t have an instant download option, you don’t want to do any coding, you live in Europe, you just sell your work as a hobby, or countless other factors…
I hope you can see that there really is no one-size-fits-all solution here: every option has its advantages and disadvantages, and you need to decide what’s best for your unique situation, based on your business goals, your location, the type of products you sell, your technical ability, your budget, and the time you can invest – both initially, to create your shop(s), and then on an ongoing basis, for maintenance and processing orders.
Using an online craft/pattern marketplace has many advantages: it’s easy to get started and to list your items, and you’ll (hopefully) get lots of traffic via people searching that site. On the flipside, the costs are higher, people tend to associate their purchases with the site (“I bought it on Etsy/Ravelry”) instead of with you (“I bought it from PlanetJune”) so it’s harder to build brand loyalty, and you’ll have direct competition in the search results from other sellers who may offer similar products at lower prices.
Setting up a shop on your own site, with a simple PayPal cart or dedicated eCommerce software, means that you have fewer costs, less direct competition, and people know they are buying from you. The downside is that, if nobody knows about your shop, nobody will visit, so the onus is on you to spread the word. That’s really a subject for another post, but you can do this by: writing a blog with useful content that people want to read and share; making sure your site shows up in Google searches; being active on social media; handing out business cards with your web address; or countless other marketing strategies. The best-looking and most functional shop in the world won’t do you any good if nobody sees it…
Where and how you sell online is a big decision, and it’s worth taking the time to compare options and find the right platform for you before you delve into setting up your shop – it’s a lot of work to change to a different storefront and set up all your item listings again, and you don’t want to lose your existing customers by moving to a new web address.
If you’re considering selling online, or already have a shop but wonder what other options are available, I hope you’ve found this summary useful!
Have you used any of these options, or something different? What were the results? I’d love to know your online selling venue recommendations; for or against! Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments…
If you run a crafty business, do you ever feel like it’s overwhelming you? This is how I’ve been feeling:
It’s the price of success: as your one-person business expands, so does your workload. At some point, you have to change something about the way you conduct business. According to this article, the options are to either limit the amount of business you can do (and hence the income you can generate), or continue to expand (by hiring employees, buying new equipment, etc) and spend more time working on your business, and less time in it.
Neither of those options – limiting or employing – appeal to me, so I’ve been developing strategies for coping with my business growth and reclaiming my time both to be creative within my business and to have a life outside of my business. If you’re also feeling overwhelmed by your business and wondering what you’ve got yourself into, maybe my ideas can help you too!
So, how can a crafty business continue to grow without its owner being worked into the ground?
Three Strategies to Beat the Overwhelm
I’m sharing my strategies here in the hope that they’ll help other people with their own creative businesses to improve their working situation and work/life balance. Of course, each crafty business is unique and the way you tackle this depends on what you sell, how you like to work, and the specific situation you’re in with your business right now, so it’s up to you to figure out how you can implement these strategies in a way that makes sense in your situation.
1. Streamline and Automate
How many tasks do you do multiple times that you could streamline or automate in some way to save time in future?
There are several ways you could start to automate your most repetitive tasks:
Employ someone to do them for you. The classic way to begin to grow your business.
Create (or purchase) technical solutions.See my examples below. Even something as simple as saving stock responses to paste into your emails (to answer the questions you’re asked over and over) can be a huge time-saver.
Create batch processes so you can be more efficient by doing each task multiple times before moving onto the next stage. This can apply whether you make handmade goods (making your items in batches vs individually could save a lot of time) or for any other tasks (e.g. processing Etsy orders once a day instead of dealing with each order as it comes in).
Firstly, what’s your prime focus for your business? Is it to make lots of money, or to do what you love and, hopefully, earn enough to live on in the process?
(A little aside: if your main aim is to make money, you may want to think about whether a craft business is really the best way to do it. When I told you about reaching a huge financial milestone, I didn’t mention that I’m still working probably twice as many hours to earn that money as I did in a day job, and I work equally hard even on the slow days when I may bring in nothing at all!)
Passion questions: What do you most love to do? Which areas are you less passionate about?
Finance questions: Which areas are bringing in more money? Which don’t make financial sense to continue working on?
Note: ‘areas’ could be different crafts, different product ranges, different tasks, or any different aspects of your business; the specifics depend on the nature of your own business.
Ideally, you’ll be driven by the answers to the passion questions, but it’s useful to at least think about your answers to the finance questions. Maybe, if an area is a bust financially but you still love doing it, you can relegate it back to ‘hobby’ status and just enjoy it with no pressure of success. (And nothing is set in stone. Taking a break may let you return to it with a fresh perspective in a few months/years – it could still be a huge success in the future…)
Once you’ve figured out your priorities, you’ll know where to concentrate your efforts and what to stop (or to outsource, if that’s a possibility for your business). These decisions are always hard to make but you’ll know when you’ve made the right choice for you – a weight will be lifted off your shoulders!
It’s easy to get so bogged down in work that you feel you don’t have time to do anything else, especially ‘frivolous’ tasks like other hobbies with no purpose other than enjoyment. What do you love to do, apart from what you do for your work? Make time to do it!
You’ll feel better for taking a break, it’ll give you a chance to clear your head, and you’ll be able to bring the creative energy and feeling of accomplishment from having done something fun back with you when it’s time to start work again.
You may even find that your brain will keep working subconsciously and, while you’re concentrating on something completely different, you’ll come up with a solution to something you’ve been puzzling over – I know that works for me!
How I’m Applying the Strategies
I’m working far too hard, and something has to change if I’m going to continue without burning out. I know from my ‘colleagues’ on twitter that I’m not alone in this situation: running the business has become so overwhelming that there’s almost no time left for the creative side of it. My design time is currently limited to evenings and weekends, and my time when I’m not working is pretty much non-existent – not a great situation to be in!
I came up with these strategies last Christmas, and, although I still have a long way to go to bring my workload under control and to be able to manage future growth, I can already see results, and I know I’m taking steps in the right direction. Here’s what I’ve done so far to implement each of the strategies:
Streamline & Automate: I’ve read a lot of advice that says at some point you must hire help if your business is going to succeed, but I don’t want to be at the helm of a PlanetJune empire! I didn’t go down this path because I wanted to run a business; I want to make beautiful things and to help other people to make them too with my patterns and tutorials. The business side of it exists solely so I can distribute my work and earn a living from my creations.
As I know I don’t want to become an employer, I’m creating technical solutions – setting everything up means extra work in the short term, but the resulting systems will reduce my workload in the long term: my own website will be my ‘assistant’ in the future! Here’s what I’ve done so far:
Making my blog navigation clearer, building up my FAQ and adding more tutorials means I get less questions by email.
Answering emails with a brief link to the relevant FAQ answer or a pre-written canned response helps me get through the remainder more quickly.
Setting up automated systems to manage my pattern commissions, to log requests for new commissions, and to create photo galleries for the PlanetJune Crochet-Along roundup posts – all big time-savers.
Prioritise: Before I can scale back on the amount of work I do, I need to identify which of the things I do are really important to me, and what I could (reluctantly) let go.
I set up my Seller’s list when I realised I’d never find time to accept commissions for finished toys (coming up with new designs beats remaking old ones).
I’m cutting back on tech editing and drawing crochet stitch diagrams for other independent designers (time is more precious to me than money at this point, so I have to concentrate on my own business).
I’ve stopped designing new punchneedle patterns (they have limited selling potential as the craft is relatively obscure).
None of these were easy decisions to make, but they’re all helping me to reclaim some time. And, I’m also trying to think more carefully before acting on my latest spur-of-the-moment great idea: is it really such an amazing idea that it’s worth exploring right now, or should I just keep a note of it and come back to it at some point when my schedule is less full?
Re-energise: When I started this blog, I used to just craft because I love making things – if you go back through the blog archive, you’ll see lots of those projects in the early years. In the crazy rollercoaster ride that took me from hobby to business, some of the fun got lost somewhere along the way…
For the past few weeks, I’ve tried to give myself enough time to make some quick, easy craft projects (you may have already noticed a few posts popping up here as a result – pictured below). They are nothing to do with work, nothing I need to write a tutorial for, and have no schedules or deadlines. It’s really refreshing to just make stuff with no agenda.
As I’ve been posting the finished projects here, even with no tutorial (and I really don’t think many simple craft projects need a full step-by-step tutorial – you aren’t stupid!) I can already see from the comments that my fun projects are inspiring other people to make stuff too – an unexpected bonus.
Continuing: I plan to keep going with all these strategies for the rest of the year, and, fingers crossed, I’ll be finding things much easier to cope with by the time 2013 comes around 🙂
So, that’s my plan to beat the overwhelm, through the strategies of automating, prioritising, and re-energising. What do you think? Can you see how my strategies could also be applied to your own business – or even to your life in general?
And if you have more or better suggestions to beat the overwhelm, I’d love to hear them too!