My sister and I started a maker business together before I could drive. Back before Facebook and Etsy, makers just made stuff and sold it at craft fairs. We’d head down to the farmers market every now and then, pay our $10 booth fee, and sell hemp necklaces beside these Amish sisters selling soap. If we didn’t have time to make product, we would skip out on events for awhile. Our profit margins were good, and we made a bit of spending money with some simple crafts, a card table, and a paper sign.
I followed a similar business model for years, making a variety of things but always in a side gig, hobby fashion. I liked crafting. When I was industrious and inspired, I made more things and sold them for spending money. It was more fun than babysitting, and it paid better, too.
Around 2005 when the Modern Maker Movement started to take off, of course I jumped right in! Crafting on the side paid for shoes, makeup, and a couple of vacations, so crafting full time would certainly pay for more, right? I was so confident, that I eschewed Etsy in those early days and created my own website from scratch. I spent hours coding and designing, frantically making jewelry and waiting for the perfect natural light for photography.
I lived in San Diego at the time, and I typically spent evenings after work reading on the beach. With my new maker business, I stopped bringing my books to the beach as I became obsessed with shooting my jewelry in the perfect beachy setting instead. I convinced myself that I was still enjoying the ocean even when I barely looked up from my tiny camera screen as I tried to get the perfect macro settings.
My dad, an entrepreneur since his youth, came to visit, and I showed him my new site.
“Wow, this is so professional! Who’s your designer? My company needs a new website.”
“I’m my designer, Dad.”
“You make websites now, too? How did you figure that out?”
“I stayed up late, drank a lot of coffee, and googled every detail.”
He asked me a bunch of other questions, like where I was sourcing my product, did I have an advertising or marketing firm in mind, and whether I was drop shipping or not.
“I don’t think you get it…this is my own handmade business. I design everything. I make everything. I market, ship, and follow up on every product.”
“Well, that’s impressive, but it’s not scalable. Eventually, you’ll run out of hours in the day.”
He used my business as an example in presentations about teamwork. He had never seen a business that didn’t rely on the success of a team except for my fledgling company. He always concluded that, while he could tell I was passionate, he also knew I had to work harder than anyone he’d ever met because I was a team of one.
I loved being an independent, driven, bad ass boss lady, and the time I devoted to my business flew by. Before, creative flow was something for hobby projects. Now, it was my livelihood. My dad was right to be proud, and as orders rolled in, I relished staying up all night watching Seinfeld reruns carefully filling orders. I didn’t blink when I worked right through my husband’s birthday party. After all, I could still socialize while I made jewelry, and I had deadlines to meet!
I kept on living the maker dream, adding more and more to my plate as more tools became available. I opened a brick and mortar in 2011, and then I really ramped up my maker business efforts. I lived behind the store, so it wasn’t really working if I went into the shop to tidy up before dawn or filled orders and posted on social media way past midnight. I added every single marketing tool I could. I had a website, a blog, an Etsy shop, a Facebook page, Twitter, Pinterest, Foursquare, Instagram, Tumblr, and other accounts I know I’ve forgotten. I hosted MeetUps. I worked with Etsy teams. I attended every event and craft fair I could. My dreams were reality! I had a creative job that was exactly what I wanted, and I got to stay home with my baby daughter.
Unfortunately, I spent a lot more time producing and marketing than I ever spent designing. Those early days of creative flow where I designed until dawn were replaced by mind-numbing hours of assembly line work. Time with my daughter was often just multi-tasking my 1,005 business tasks with a story or song here and there. One day a friend remarked, “Everyone else keeps having kids. You decided to have a business instead of a second child, huh?”
Time stopped in that moment, and I took a look at my business life from an outside perspective. I wasn’t living some fabled dream. I wasn’t a superhero so full of inspiration that I didn’t need sleep. I was an exhausted team of one who had run out of hours in the day.
Once I realized just how overworked I was, I started seeing the undercurrent of exhaustion in the entire maker community. I realized that those mental breakdowns in December weren’t okay because we could sleep in January. My maker friends, with their boundless creativity and artisan skills deserved sleep and mental health every single month of the year. I couldn’t think of another job where people worked all week and then just rolled through the weekends working, too. I started to cringe at the post-craft-fair-marathon war stories:
“I was so busy, I didn’t pee for 12 hours!”
“I didn’t sit down once, and now I can’t get my shoes back on!”
“I lived on candy and gluten free pretzels all weekend!”
“My kids play craft fair all the time because that’s all we ever do!”
These statements, which I’ve heard hundreds of times and uttered myself used to make me laugh. The sweaty, grimy, hungry feeling at the end of a craft fair weekend was a badge of honor. Sometimes, we didn’t “at least make our booth fee back” but it was always “so fun and so worth it!”
I realized the norm in the allegedly empowered, #momboss maker world was to sell ourselves short and endure in the name of art. The best and brightest people I knew couldn’t afford basic comforts like a working car or a bit of savings, and it all came down to working in an industry that put human resources at the bottom of the priority list.
Why couldn’t makers value themselves and their talents? Why did we keep making excuses to justify never taking a break and thus miss out on a real social life and restful downtime? Everyone talked about art and creativity, but I saw so many makers running themselves ragged, not in design pursuits, but in assembly of products priced so low that hiring help was impossible. I can’t think of another industry that asks people to help in exchange for product or pizza, but so many makers had structured their businesses in a way that made paid employees a distant dream.
When I was starting out, a veteran maker who was once a buyer for Neiman Marcus told me that 80% of sales always come from 20% of products. She claimed the secret was streamlining or outsourcing the production of that 20% to free up time to design and create new things. I didn’t understand at the time that she was hinting at how easy it is for a maker to become a factory in the pursuit of an income and leave the creative flow that got us here in the dust.
I stopped believing the countless excuses for keeping prices so low, from trying to compete with Made in China big box shoppers’ price expectations to, “oh, I made that ages ago, and I just want to get rid of it.” I kept thinking about art school critiques and how professors urge students to develop a tough skin and represent ideas confidently, even while being flexible. Why was the only takeaway from that to be so flexible that, when it came to self worth, makers were sometimes just crafty wet noodles?
Yes, it’s possible to be a successful maker, but I think even the most successful crafty folks I know still sell themselves short. I have never ever found myself thinking, “Oh! That creative, awesome, hard working maker’s time is definitely not worth that much!” On the other hand, I see something every day that makes me say, “That maker deserves so much more…”
I found myself filling the gaps in my maker income with creative pursuits that paid better, like website design and copy writing. Eventually, making products became so tedious, I decided to step back to the hobby level again. I stopped deluding myself into thinking that I could work smarter, longer, and harder. I no longer wanted to do it all. I just wanted to do what worked.
The more I thought about what it took to live my maker dream, the more I realized I was missing out on some really wonderful stuff, too. So decided to make a change.
I traded in those long nights on the assembly line for sleep, put down my social media machine (aka phone), cracked open my dusty old books, and started spending Saturdays in the garden with my daughter. I didn’t want to spend my whole life cloistered in a single-handed mom boss factory. Sometimes, I feel like I gave up on my dream. Really, I took back everything I gave up when I quit my stifling day job for the “freedom” to work around the clock.
Amazingly, these choices improved my bottom line, too. When I wasn’t spread so thin, I focused on the parts of my business that worked for me, like consulting and custom sewing, and stepped away from the things that didn’t work, like craft fairs and consignment.
It changed the tone of my consulting, too. Now, I make my first priority finding ways to help clients streamline instead of just diving in with more to-dos to add to their lists. If you’re a maker looking for more hours in your day, I’d love to help you simplify and find time to dig in your garden and get lost in a book again, too.