Thursday , 15 April 2021
Is starting a craft-based business really the right thing for you?

Is starting a craft-based business really the right thing for you?

Is starting a craft-based business really the right thing for you?

I wish I could do a creative business full time,” Holly Klump recently said to me via Skype. She sounds earnest and a bit wistful. But, throughout our conversation, she makes her reality abundantly clear.

In the 2000s, Holly ran a part-time craft business called Misshawklet, which offered handmade books, jour­nals, and handspun yarn. She tells me it was fun and she learned a lot during the time she made and sold handspun yarn. She considered herself a success. If you were an indie yarn person, you may have heard of her. She did well at craft shows, had repeat customers, and was featured in several craft books.

You must be thinking, what’s the catch? Holly was living the dream craft life. While hand-spinning yarn, she got great exposure from published books, and extra income to boot—enough to buy a house, even! It all sounds too good to be true.

Within the creative community there is a perpetual myth that creating a business from your crafts is an easy and pleasurable thing to do. Not only is this not the case, but it is disingenu­ous and far from the truth. With the rise of Pinterest and lifestyle blogs, this myth is constantly perpetuated by the carefully staged photos and perfectly framed slices of a well crafted life. These flawless scenes give no hint as to the hard work and constant struggle it is to own and run a business based on selling your craftwork.

What lies beneath the surface of these carefully staged photos are many reasons why you should think twice before embarking on a similar path with the mentality that it is all puppy dogs and rainbows.

There are several reasons why you shouldn’t start a business. There is the risk of failure, the reality of how hard you have to work to make ends meet, and how much time you actually have to spend in the day-to-day running of the business. It isn’t for the faint of heart. And maybe, just maybe, it isn’t for you at all.

In the book Handmade to Sell, Chris Herring of the Maryland Institute Col­lege of Art’s graduate admissions office talks about the creation of the Univer­sity’s Master of Professional Studies degree in the Business of Art and De­sign. The program is focused on giving creative-types a leg up in the business world. It offers courses in management, taxes, and business ethics, among oth­ers. Herring discussed the need for the program based on research the univer­sity conducted showing that most in­dependent businesses fail as fast as they begin. The Small Business Administra­tion is a little more favorable, claiming that about half of all small businesses will fail within five years.

There are many reasons why busi­nesses fail and many ways you can take precautions against these instances—but no business venture is foolproof. It is a scary prospect to let your income and financial future rest on an unprov­en and untested business. When you go into business you are taking a risk and you have to be OK with that level of risk.

About the same time Holly was start­ing her craft-based business, Jeffrey Everett also started his own part-time design business. Jeff focused his work on concert posters under the business name, El Jefe Design.

“It was a noose around my neck the en­tire time,” he tells me via Skype, sound­ing a bit jaded. As his story unfolded he explained how people wouldn’t under­stand the pronunciation of his business name, how he would have to justify his pricing, and explain why he should be paid a decent wage.

Jeff found himself having to compete with amateurs willing to do similar work for free. He calls this the “Cult of the Cool Creative,” where someone wants to be associated with the per­ceived lifestyle but not actually do the hard work to get paid. “It’s very easy to get wrapped up into wanting to be this cool creative type. But in the end it hurts the people out there on the line doing it professionally,” he explained. This comes from experience, where he would lose out on jobs because band managers would prefer to go with the untested fan offering services for free.

Losing out on customers to others who undercut the market is just one of the many ways it is difficult to make a living professionally from your designs and craftwork. Another is actually making money from the thing. Look­ing a bit deeper, Holly had never really done the back-of-the-envelope math on her craft-based business—but knew her margins were slim. She knew that if she ever did figure out how much she was making, that her wage would have been atrocious—one she could never live off of, if not for her part-time job.

Similarly, Jeff explained that he even­tually had to set an hourly rate for him­self, so he knew how much he needed to make per day to hit a salary goal by the end of the year. This is a terrifying prospect if you’re not hitting your goal, and an unfortunate reality for poorly run businesses.

When Holly closed her business in 2009 she realized that in order to make it profitable, she would have had to put in a lot more time and effort than she was willing to give. With the bro­ken economy, the purchase of a new house, and the opportunity of a full time job, Misshawklet ended up on the “con” side of her life list. She chose the stability of a weekly paycheck over the uncertainty of the now oversaturated handspun yarn market.

To have a business, you must have an understanding of the market you are in and the forces for and against you. You are also obligated to your customers to fulfill their orders, and hustle to make sales in order to make ends meet. It also means a lot of administrative time, hav­ing to deal with what Jeff calls “clutter.” This is the administrative back and forth with potential customers that can take five to ten emails to nail down the spe­cifics—which at five minutes per email, can add up. While this may not seem like a deterrent, it is another one of the many things you have to deal with as a business owner. All of this takes more time away from being a creative.

Holly concurs, explaining that when she was running Misshawklet, the tra­ditional administrative work was not as burdensome for her. However, it was the amount of marketing that needed to be done to get people to see her work that ended up being taxing. “It took up a lot of my time writing blog posts. This was before Facebook,” she said.

This year, Jeff closed down El Jefe De­sign and regrouped. Today he runs a graphic design business called Rockets are Red. He has a business partner and is enjoying the change of pace. His business partner now does a lot of the intake for new clients that Jeff used to do. He now has more time to let his mind relax and be creative—but he still has to hustle.

In the end, Holly knew it was time to close her business when it was be­coming a chore she didn’t want to do. “It was one more thing I had to take care of. It became a burden,” she said. “Now I enjoy just making things. I en­joy making things for myself. I don’t have to stress about making things.” Holly sounds grateful, as she explains this change.

There is something to be said for keeping your cherished hobby as just a hobby—something you do for stress relief and for fun. When you turn your hobby into a business it can turn into a source of stress. It can be draining and make you worry over whether you can ever claim success.

Jeff still isn’t sure he can call himself a success, even after a decade of being in business. “The chances of succeeding are very small. You really, really have to work your ass off. It is a 24/7 thing. It’s still a struggle,” he said. “Having done Crafty Bastards, Artscape, and Comic- Con, I see far more people who will be out of business in a year than those who are going to succeed.”

Today, Holly has a full time job. But if money wasn’t an issue she would definitely pursue another creative busi­ness. “If I had the means, that would be my ideal situation,” she said. But, “That’s what it boils down to; I’m a re­alist. You need to make a living wage.”

Her last bit of advice is fitting— “Don’t quit your day job, until you’re sure.” TCR

kellyKelly Rand is the author of Handmade to Sell: Hello Craft’s Guide to Owning, Running, and Growing Your Crafty Biz and cofounder and execu­tive director of Hello Craft, a nonprofit trade association dedicated to the advancement of independent crafters and the handmade movement. Rand be­lieves that handmade will save the world.

If you enjoyed this article you must check out the March 2015 edition of Handmade Business Magazine.  CR_2015-02_01digital-page-001


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  1. I thought I was going to read a hearts and flowers article about how wonderful it is to work fulltime on a handmade business. I thought it would include the joys of perfecting the work/life balance. No, it was like a splash of fresh icewater to the face of the dreamer.

    I watched my grandfather continue a business of knot tying (I wasn’t born when he started). He told me his whole life to NOT carry on the family tradition. I refused to get sucked in past the hobby level and kept to part time until 2008. That was the year that I turned on the gas to see what would happen. By 2009, I quit my IT job for the knots.

    Here it is 2015, last year we did our second year in a row with a ridiculous amount of sales, but at the same time expenses are crazy. It really feels like a real business. I have the sleepless nights wondering where the money comes from. I have the highs and lows reflective of the bipolar nature of business.

    It takes a special kind of masochist to dive into the business world to try to get a time slice of the average consumers attention. The marketing and paperwork is easily 70% of my work day and less than 30% is doing the knots. I have been beating my head against the wall the last 6 months begging myself for the time to explore new designs and knots, but I have to keep grinding. The overhead on the business is just a tad over $7,000 per month to keep it going. That’s a decent amount of money and it’s not for the faint at heart.

    Thanks for taking the time to write the eye opening article. There are some deep chasms that need to be crossed to go from a closet hobbiest to a self employed to a sole breadwinner business. It can be done, it is rewarding to do it, but going in mind wide open is the only way to keep your sanity…

    thanks again for the great article,

  2. I just linked to this post on my facebook page because it’s exactly what I’ve been saying about the oversaturated custom cake market! You hit the nail on the head about everything…I find it really interesting that there’s a course of study for creative businesses that addresses the actual business of it, too, since that seems to be what most people who start cake businesses are lacking.

  3. Excellent information and food for thought about running a craft business. I’m definitely sharing this on SM.


  4. Your honesty was enlightening. I have a small business and have many other responsibilities. It has been wonderful. I’ve gained knowledge in areas I had no intention of visiting. Many interesting people have came into my life that I would not have had the luxury to connect with otherwise, but plain and simple it’s hard work!

    You have to keep putting yourself and your work out there. The world is a busy place. Many of us suffer from
    information overload. My customers probably have a billion things to do. I need to make their life easier, better,
    or more enjoyable. I strive to convey that with sincerity, but it takes time and patience & skill.Business ownership is an balancing act. Nothing is for certain.

  5. I am a wood turner. Even the top people in the trade say that it is nearly impossible to make a living being a creative turner. Top people run a school, give training sessions at conferences an write books / DVDs. The other choice is to turn yourself into a small factory, cut out creativity and PRODUCE. At my age, 77, the goal is to pay the overhead, (I rent work space.), and pay for a good part of the annual vacation. After 12 years I reached this goal in 2014. To build on I had 19 years as a furniture designer / builder in California, so I was not a greenhorn. It can be done and usually the price is lowered life style, living in the far back country and carefully picking your craft. Functional ceramics can produce a living as can jewelry, black smithing and patchwork. Weaving, glass blowing, wood turning, basket making take too many hours which people are unwilling to pay for. Do I love what I do, I sure do!!!!

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