Friday, March 4, 2011
Answering Your Questions :: Building a Full Time Handwork Business
I knit my first gnome back in 2001 and started selling them on Ebay shortly after to contribute a small bit to our family's income. At this point in our life, Mike had lost his job a year or so prior and he was still on the path of working himself back up to a similar position that he had previously had. (which never did happen)
The gnomes sold well and I started knitting some other toys of wool in the waldorf tradition of simple form with natural materials.
Over time, I worked up to a small store front and added some other items that I resold. This means I purchased wholesale and then sold retail. Still though, for several years this income was small but helpful.
I learned about the internet and selling and kept my eyes open, watching other store fronts that made and/or sold toys and how to market without paying for advertising. I started to see the potential, but knew that I could never make enough to support our family - you can only knit so many gnomes in a day.
In 2005, I am not sure how I learned, probably through a natural parenting forum online, that a new site was opening where artisans and hand crafters could have their own shop within the site - called Etsy. I signed up right away as knittingmomma. At the time I didn't realize that my username was going to have to be my store name. But we still have this shop today. The fees are affordable. Twenty cents for each listing and etsy takes 3% of each sale. They also process credit cards for you.
In 2006, my husband, Mike, came up with the idea to use branch slices to make a matching/memory game. At the time we lived in a duplex that had a bit of forest in the back. He had a chop saw to cut the slices. I stamped them with rubber stamps and crochetd a bag to put them in. I also asked him if he would make branch fences to go with the animals I was knitting. At this time he still worked full time for a property maintenance company near Boston and spent at least an hour commuting each way and worked long hours, so building the business was a slow process. This was still a very part-time business. We did start selling wholesale to A Toy Garden at this point. This means offering our goods at a 40 - 50% reduced price but in larger quantities.
In the fall of 2007 we moved to Vermont, secure that we would at least have some money coming in from our toy sales while Mike looked for a job.
Upon arriving in Vermont, we brainstormed and came up with many more products that we could make from branches - including walking blocks (clompers), building block sets, lacing sets, hooks, and more. Making these kind of products as opposed to the time intensive process of knitting and crocheting, made the possibility of actually earning a living from the work of our hands seem real. Our etsy shop grew and we also had more sales from our online store.
We also sold our handcrafts at a farmers market where we also sold our produce and baked goods. Generally, we sold just a small amount as we live in a very low population area. Our nearest city has just 6,000 people (25 minutes away) and our own little town just 600 or so.
We knew that selling online was going to be our best option, although we do still sell local from time to time at an occasional fair.
Through continued stocking of our etsy shop and then adding another shop, the Vermont Branch Company, over a year ago to capatilize on the Vermont name brand, our sales continued to grow. We also started making wedding decorations which resulted in higher volume sales. For example, someone might order 150 birch branch place card holders. Last year, before expenses, we had $20,000 in sales and Mike had about $10,000 in property maintenance accounts.
This year we are on track to have $38,000 - $40,000 in sales before taking out for expenses and shipping costs. (We now have 6 wholesale accounts.) Mike will take on less property maintenance jobs as a result and we will spend more time on the business and homestead.
A key for us is to have very few expenses. We are still using an eight year old desk top computer with dial up. For tools, Mike has a chop saw, small table saw, and sander. The rest of the tools are hand tools. We still don't have a workshop. Mike works in the basement on the dirt floor with a desk lamp hanging from the ceiling. He has to go outside first to get downstairs. We have piles of products here and there in various stages of completion. Our stainless steel kitchen island also serves as a sanding, drilling and hand work station.
A workshop and studio is in our plans but it may still be several years away. This year a small barn is a must in order to get our dairy goats and move our chickens into a better coop. We make do and think through every expense and whether or not it will really make a difference and result in more income or not and if we can afford it. Our new purchase this year for the business will be a drill press. We are very excited about that, but again, it will be an inexpensive one, probably about $150.00.
We also have bought very little advertising and only yesterday did I purchase my first advertising spot on a blog I enjoy, Farmama.
I don't think our business fits any business model. Instead we do things very simply, one piece at a time, one day at a time, work consistently, and keep the faith.
If you have any questions, check back here in the comments, as I will do my best to answer them.