I've been thinking a lot recently about how to make my family's financial situation more resilient in the face of future economic downturn. Sexy topic, I know.
The thing is, we can be sure, as sure as that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the current economic situation will change. Right now it's pretty good. People are spending money. And while I have no idea when it will change, and it will likely bear no resemblance to the meltdown of 2008 and the ensuing recession, I figure there are things I can do to make sure that I am ready.
So I've been doing a fair bit of reading and listening to podcasts and just general thinking about my businesses and finances, and I thought I'd share with you what I think are the most important points. Please keep in mind that these are my own take, that I am no expert, and that this is not meant to be comprehensive. I do hope you find it useful and sparks you thinking about your own situation, and taking action. Please let me know what you think about all this and what you are doing.
In no particular order, here are the most important keys to remaining resilient in the face of economic downturn:
Live below your means. This is one that we are just starting to do consistently, since we stretched ourselves to buy our house. But we are finally at the point where we are living comfortably below our means. This lets us save money, which in the end is the biggest factor to resiliency as I see it. Money can't buy you love, but it does solve a lot of problems, and the ability to pay in full for things rather than finance purchases, the flexibility that comes with a cushion, the ability to take advantage of business opportunities, and the resources that allow you to weather the unexpected all comes from saving money. I hate living close to the edge. I hate having to closely watch the money in and out, and I hate the worry and I hate the juggling. I would much rather live far enough below my means that I don't have to worry. Build up as much savings as possible. The key to doing this is to spend less. It's as boring as that. Remember that every dollar you spend is a dollar and change that you need to earn to have again (when you account for taxes and social security). Not to mention the opportunity cost of not having that dollar to invest anymore.
Build multiple businesses. I can't stress this enough. I know it is conventional wisdom that your business will never take off unless you invest 100% of your time into it, but that also leaves you vulnerable to changes in the marketplace. Maybe your business is one of the first things to get dropped from people's spending when they tighten their belts (I'm looking at you, dog groomers). When we took over the Christmas tree farm at the height of the recession, we used to joke that people might not be buying presents but they were sure gonna get a tree. Try to diversify the markets that your businesses are in. Figuring out how to yet take these disparate businesses and markets and have them build your personal brand despite not being in the same field is yet a different topic, not to be covered here. I like to think about having businesses that require different things from me, too: have something that uses your body, and something else that only uses your mind. That way if you get hurt you can pivot.
Build a personal brand. Whatever way the economy goes or develops over our lifetime, the one thing you will always definitely have is your reputation. Treating everyone with respect, helping others when you can, being honest and doing the right thing is always the right move. Your reputation, both within your local community but also within your professional field (or fields) is what brings opportunities to you. This takes time, and requires consistency and discipline. It also requires the audacity to pursue it even when you feel like others have already written that book or that you don't have anything unique to offer. A more appropriate question would be to ask yourself if people seem to be getting value out of what I'm offering, whether its a service, or a thing, or knowledge. Anything you can to bring value to people, you should be doing as an investment for later on, when you might need it.
Stay out of debt. With the exception of buying a house (provided the house is the right sort of house that could be easily resold should you need to), or possibly paying for education (although there are many debt-free options for this if you are creative), we try very hard to live debt free. This gives us the ability to react to situations AS THEY ARE, and not be responding partly to choices we have already made, in the form of paying off loans. When we need a car, we buy it in full, and find the best match of what we need and what we can afford (please learn from our mistakes: always buy it used).
Invest as much as you can in passively managed mutual funds that simply track the market. Since there is always something wanting your money's attention, the best way to save consistently is to have it automatically leave your bank account. Could you do something else with this money? Yes, but remember, this is about spreading out your opportunities. That means investing in the market as well as investing in your business, as well as investing in yourself.
Learn to hustle. Hustling is a mindset. It is looking around you and figuring out how to do stuff for yourself, and trying stuff out. It means assuming that all doors are open, instead of thinking of most of them as closed. It means being willing to work hard, at whatever you are doing. It means not being too fancy for a job if you need the work. It means looking up from that job and noticing patterns.
You will notice I didn't talk at all about homesteading, or prepping, or eschewing society at large. I'm not sure I believe in these fantasies of independence. We are all interconnected, and to prepare for a scenario in which I'm only taking care of me and mine is ultimately distasteful, on either side of the ideological spectrum. The coming economic downturn, whether it comes next month or in ten years, will find me in a position to help myself and help others. Because we rise and fall together.
When I quit my seasonal job two years ago (I already had the tree farm and editing business, but I had a summer job managing a public property, building trails, creating the grounds, repairing the buildings and teaching workshops), my plan was to get a smart phone, get on Instagram, get my spoons into a bunch of stores and build a business like so many you see, where the person is almost anonymous and the spoons are all you see.
That is not what happened.
Looking back now, I can see that my spoons were just not that good. Better than some, but not nearly good enough to command the prices I was asking of the stores. Only a few ever bit, and then I never heard from them again. What was supposed to be me revealing my talents to the world became a disillusioned slog, reaching out to stores, carving more spoons, reaching out to stores, carving more spoons. I sent out over a hundred and fifty spoons, in pairs of two, to about 80 stores over the course of five months.
It came to nothing.
Except not quite, because the process of making and giving away so many spoons pushed me to think about my process critically, to evaluate the time I was taking to do things, the ability I had to repeat forms and the ultimate functionality of the spoon I made. I got better, slowly.
I also got better at using Instagram, figuring out how to take photographs that looked good and were meaningful beyond just the product (for more on that, check out my blog post How I Use Instagram). As my followers grew, slowly (oh so slowly!) I began to receive inquiries about buying from individuals. At first I didn't know what to do with this-- I was all set up in my mind to sell wholesale to stores, that was the identity I wanted. But a sale was a sale, so I began saying yes.
Back then (in the Jurassic, apparently) I was so dogmatic about what I did and did not want to carve. I wanted to carve eating spoons and cooking spoons. That's it. I didn't want to carve scoops, or spatulas, or ladles, or anything else. I had pretty rigid ideas about what I was into and about.
That all went out the window, bit by bit, as I realized that all of my best moves kept coming from a customer asking if I could do something for them. I began saying yes instead of no, and I began to find that these shapes I was so against before had become a backbone of what brings me joy.
It took a year before I started consistently selling everything I made, and a year and a half before I needed a waiting list of any form. For that whole time, I was posting 3, 4, 5 pictures a day to Instagram, researching new hashtags, responding to every person that reached out, and pushing myself to carve at least one thing every day. Even a year ago, I was carving one thing a day, with no real thought of how that could possibly scale up.
Then people started to order spoons instead of just waiting for me to make something. Then people started to order more than one spoon at a time. Then I made some spoon blanks for someone who asked if I could do that and then more people started to order blanks, first a couple at a time, and now 10-15 at a time. I had to keep changing the way I kept track of orders to stay organized enough to keep on top of it as the waiting list grew to two weeks, three, four, and as of right now, 6 weeks, even as I increased the amount of time I devoted to it each day. Right after Christmas, I had scheduled about three hours of spoon work a day: now I schedule about 5 hours of this work a day.
My point is that this did not happen overnight. I wasn't discovered and I never trended. Nothing I've done has ever gone viral. This whole thing is the result of consistent, disciplined action, slowly scaling up as makes sense. And for a long time, nothing about it made sense. If I had given up when those stores didn't want the fairly crummy spoons I sent out, I would not be here. If I had stopped believing that I could make a living out of this when all I was doing was making and selling one spoon a day, I would not be here. I am here because I was patient beyond reason. Now it all makes sense. But when there is no clear path, when you cannot see the steps you will need to take to get from A to B, it is easy to think you won't get there. But you can, if you are patient.
This spooncarving thing is new enough that there are relatively few examples of people doing this, and each of us has a different road to success. Some crushed it on Etsy. Some crushed it on Instagram. Some had the connections or the blog or the positioning to define the whole thing as it blossomed. I had none of these things.
But what I did have was patience. And you can too.
Well, you know it was bound to happen sooner or later, folks: I've gone and started a magazine. WHAT!
Yup, my Spoonesaurus partner in crime Matt White and myself will be launching Spoonesaurus Magazine with a free half-issue we will be handing out at Greenwoodfest 2018 in June, with a goal of the first real issue being ready for September! The magazine will be for our fellow spooncarvers, and will focus mainly on spoons while also dabbling in all things related to greenwoodworking and sloyd.
I decided to do this based on the overwhelming response I've had in the last few months to every time I've offered some useful trick on the Spoonesaurus Instagram feed, and to the level of engagement I've had in the last week to the live Instagram Stories I've been doing with me carving and answering questions. There is a hunger from people for resources, and I am, at my core, a writer.
So I thought I'd create a magazine where I could write all this stuff down for you and gather the thoughts and experiences of others as well.
Sound good? Tell your friends, spread the word on any social media you do. For this to work, I will need your help to reach far more people than I have following me. This is really going to be a team effort.
In the same vein, I welcome your input on what you want to know the most. What would you want out of such a publication? Here's what I envision for content:
1) a deep dive into some aspect of spoon carving in each issue. Maybe it's spoon design, wood choice and processing, sharpening, hollowing, finishing, different axe techniques, knife techniques, auxiliary tools, there are lots of ways to go narrow and deep. Each issue will do so in the way that is most useful to you.
2) an interview with an established carver who makes at least part of their living carving, focusing on what they have done that worked or didn't work to turn their passion into a business. We will also be exploding their toolbox in a separate tool section and looking at what they use and why.
3) a project for each issue that is not spooncarving but some other accessible project explained by someone else (not me) in such a way that you can try it at home. Ever wanted to learn to weave birch bark, or ash or oak splints, or make a shrink pot or fan bird? We will dive into one such in each issue. I welcome any requests for this section, and if you have a skill you'd like to share, be in touch.
That's it! I want to keep it simple, fairly short, informative and useful to you. I also want to keep it as affordable as I can, so while the writing will be good, the content useful and the photos beautiful, there will be few bells and whistles. I really hope we can build this thing, together, into something that will help generations of future spooncarvers.
To be clear, this will be a paid subscription thing because printing something real costs real money (let alone my time to produce it). But I am mindful that the content needs to be truly useful for the value to be there. So it will be.
More announcements will happen as things develop, but for now, welcome aboard!
We've all experienced it as spoon carvers: you're carving some really lovely bit of wood with flashy grain and then, as you are close to the shape you want, the grain does something amazing.
Maybe it's a heart. Maybe it's an owl. Or maybe it's the miraculous image of Jesus Christ himself, manifest in the grain. Usually it's just pretty.
When this happens, we often make a mistake, and stop carving.
The reason this is a mistake is that grain is temporary. That amazing pattern? It will be faded in a year. But the shape we were chasing, the shape whose ultimate expression we sacrificed to the dazzle of the grain, that is what will remain. In fact, as patina builds and darkens the wood, bringing the bone structure of the facets to the fore, the shape matters more and more.
This is, in no small way, true of life, too. We can be dazzled by the grain of things, in the moment. We can lose sight of what we want to become in the flashy success on the surface of things. But as we age, it is our shape that matters. It is the bone structure of our character that will shine clearer, even as the grain of our accomplishments fades.
So it is crucial that as we are shaping who we want to become that we don't let surface success dictate the form we are chasing. Because that surface is ephemeral. Sometimes it coincides with the right shape of things, but often, very often, there is more work to do.
If you took away the grain on the surface of your identity, the job, the popularity, checking off all the boxes we are taught matter (partner, kids, house, career), what would be the shape of you? Do you like the shape of you? Are you making the choices that matter? That is different for each of us, what makes for a good life. And it also changes over time. But it is always worth asking, if we are being true to what truly matters to us. If we are doing what we are doing because it is what we want, or if it's just what looks good.
I worry about this all the time. Am I living a life that is meaningful to ME? Am I being the husband, father and son that I want to be? Am I contributing to the world? Am I providing for an uncertain future? Am I going to be happy with my form when I'm about to die?
Or have I been chasing flash over form?
Jarrod Dahl made a good point in one of his recent blog posts the other day, about how much administrative work goes into being a craftsman. Instagram, the main vehicle for many of us, is good at capturing the glamorous part of what we do as makers, but it is more difficult to give appropriate weight to all of the other parts of the process that go into making a living from something like carving spoons. So I thought I'd document a sale from beginning to end, with the goal of providing an accurate picture, not so much to impress anyone with what goes into it, but to help any of you who are looking to scale your hobby up to a real part of your income.
Sales for me usually come in the form of a message request on Instagram or email, someone reaching out asking if they can order some work. Often this comes in reaction to a recent post showing the glamorous side of things (finished work or a pile of blanks), and often it is someone who has followed along for awhile before ever being in touch. About a third of my orders come from repeat customers, and you can read my thoughts about that in an earlier blog post.
So there is usually a message or two to iron out what I can do for them, at which point I enter the name, address and order into my daily planner. I used to just use scraps of paper when I was able to turn work around in a day or two, but as demand increased so did my waiting list. For awhile I used a big sheet of paper tacked to a wall, but this year I have found it crucial, with a now five week waiting list and growing, to use a daily planner. This allows me to loosely schedule work (while leaving me wiggle room to accommodate the vagueries of life and people adding onto orders last minute) while giving customers a sense of when their work will be done.
In general, I aim to create between $45 and $90 of work, which usually takes 3-5 hours. I have other work I need to accomplish (writing and editing) so I don't do this all day, and quite frankly it has taken months to build my muscles up to the point where I can sustain these hours day after day. I do anticipate the number of hours to increase over the course of the next year by a little bit, and each year at the end of October my prices will increase slightly, to match my sense of inflation, cost of living, increasing or decreasing demand and my own gut sense of what my work is worth, but that is where we stand for now.
Each day I have work scheduled out, which is loosely scheduled in the day planner but then more firmly planned on a sheet of computer paper, where I often combine days of making blanks and try to schedule that for sunny weather, when the greenhouse where I do the axe work will be warm. Similarly, I try to schedule my day to do extended axe work from late morning to mid afternoon, when the sun will be actually hitting the greenhouse. During warmer months this is less important, as my chopping block is then in the shade of the woodshed.
So my weekly to-do list gives me the shape of things, and I probably re-write this list three times a week, to refresh my goals as the week progresses. Monday is usually post office day and bank deposit day, which I will describe later, but it is an important efficiency to batch these tasks together, since that way they takes less time in my week than if I attended to them multiple times.
As I do the day's work, I am constantly attuned to any moments I might want to capture, both for myself, but also to share because they say something valuable about the process or are funny or give an accurate picture of the moment. I've written extensively about my use of Instagram so you can read more about that in previous posts. Suffice to say, I stop to take pictures, but I mostly get immersed in the work and music or a podcast.
Sunday night or Monday morning I box up all the orders from that week. I try to keep packaging simple, with quality cardboard boxes and plain brown paper, and I use the names and addresses in the day planner to check that orders are complete and that all the information is correct. Names and addresses then get entered into a rolodex so that I can find them easily in the future. I used to just enter addresses into a book, but as the number of customers grew I recently decided to shift to an expandable, alphabetized system. It is analog to help reduce the time I spend on a screen, and I also like that it is safe from hacking or loss.
Packaging takes an hour or less, and the post office run takes about half an hour, since I live a quarter mile away so the travel time is negligible. From the bank receipt I know the shipping for each package, and then I round up and add a dollar to account for packaging costs and my handling time. With this and the order history, I know grand totals, which I then message or email to people, letting them know their order is in the mail, and giving them my address where they can send a check. I much prefer to trust that people will pay me than to ask for money upfront. I have never been stiffed, and that way people can add to orders at the last minute without further complicating payment. I also really appreciate the trust it builds into the relationship with each customer, the importance of which probably can't be overestimated.
Monday mornings or sometimes a different day, I take all the checks that have come in the mail that week and enter them into our bookkeeping software. I separate out the money from out of state sales from those that were in state (for which I collected sales tax). The law, so far as I understand it, is that at least right now, if you have less than a million dollars in revenue, out of state sales are not subject to tax collection. For in state sales, I simply calculate it and add it to the grand total I give the customer. These in state sales get entered separately, and once a month I go online and pay the sales tax owed the state. Once a month I also enter any international sales that came in through the app I use for that, retroactively dating them as appropriate. After accepting the deposit in the bookkeeping software, I prepare the total deposit using an adding calculator and bring it to the bank, also just a quarter mile away.
So I estimate that in any given week, I do probably about 20 hours of actual craft work (including the one lesson a week I teach on average), maybe seven hours of social media and this blog, and 4 hours of administrative work. From this I average (right now) about $1500 a month, which accounts for maybe a quarter of my yearly income.
I hope this helps give a realistic perspective of what the total process looks like. Please understand that this is a constantly shifting thing, and that much of what I do is positioning for the future rather than immediate return and that this does not represent the totality of my workday.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.