So we were sitting around a campfire at this weekend's Spoonesaurus Gathering, after a full, enriching day of hanging out with other spooncarvers, and the topic of conversation turned to what is encouraging or discouraging to people just starting down the spooncarving path. In particular, the point was raised that displays of skill can be inspiring but they can also be discouraging, because it makes something feel unattainable and ultimately unsatisfying.
This was a wake up call to me, because I realized I myself am guilty of shock and awe displays of skill (remember the 10 minute spoon? look it up on YouTube) that I intend to be a demonstration of what is possible, but that also might have the effect of making someone want to throw in the towel.
I'm sorry about that. It's a tricky thing, putting your best foot forward but also reaching back a helping hand to hoist others up behind you. I don't often get the balance right. What came out in the conversation around the fire was that understanding my story, how long I've been doing this and what it looked like at different stages was actually helpful and encouraging, so I thought I'd take the time here to lay that out, in the hopes that it makes you feel like you can see your own path forward more clearly, and not just think that you could never get from where you are now to where you want to be.
I started carving spatulas, not spoons, about five years back. I had carved maybe five spoons before then, none using an axe, all of them using a swiss army knife and lots of sandpaper. Then I was taking care of my baby daughter, keeping an eye on her as she played in the grass, and I figured I could be making spatulas to sell at Christmas out of the firewood stacked on our porch at the same time, have something tangible at the end of the day I could point to. It helped a lot with the intensity of caring for a baby to do this.
I carved only spatulas for two years, selling all of them at my Christmas tree farm for $10 a pop, slowly getting more comfortable with the hatchet and knife, but still sanding. Throughout this time I was reading everything Robin and Jarrod every wrote, lurking Jojo's Instagram and generally sucking up as much info as I could find scattered around the web.
I finally bought my first hook knife from Robin around the same time as I decided to stop sanding, and I spent that third Christmas season starting to carve spoons, and they were choppy and awkward and it didn't matter because quite frankly, nobody's execution was as refined as it is today. Go back and look at Jojo's account three years ago and you can see that while she was good, it wasn't the gut wrenching level of amazing it is today. So I was lucky enough to have her as an inspiration at a time when what she was doing seemed approachable.
After that third Christmas I decided to quit my summer job and devote that time to carving, and that's when I joined Instagram, two and a half year's into my journey. So at this point, over half of my journey was completed before I ever interacted with anyone. In retrospect, I had an inflated sense of my own ability. Looking back at the spoons I was carving and sending out as samples to potential wholesale customers makes me cringe, but I have always had a blithely optimistic assumption of my own abilities in the present, even when I can look back and acknowledge that I'm still improving.
That whole first year on Instagram I struggled to gain any traction. I had no followers, no idea how social media worked, no clear path to get to where I wanted to go. All I had was the time to keep carving and the assumption that if it worked for someone else, it could work for me. So I kept at it, almost every day, and bit by bit, spoon by spoon, I got better.
It takes time to get good at anything, and the definition of what "good" is constantly changes with your perspective, and probably changes as the culture of craftspeople matures and develops as well. I was lucky enough to be able to line up the economic incentives of selling stuff with my desire to carve as much as possible, and this spurred me on to constantly ramp up how much I carved. By the end of that first year on Instagram I had the goal of carving at least one thing each day, and by the end I was posting it on Instagram and it would sell within fifteen minutes. After another six months of that (so do the math, at least 180 spoons further along) I started to build up a waiting list of pre-ordered spoons.
This whole last year then has been me managing a constantly growing list of pre-orders, and to meet this I have dramatically ramped up how much I expect from myself each day. Some of this comes from being more efficient carving, but most of the change is just in how many hours a day I spend doing this. A year and a half ago I might have spent an hour to an hour and a half a day carving. Now, I typically expect a seven or eight hour day of carving spoons and axing spoon blanks for others to carve. You do the math on how much that increases my own development.
You get good at what you spend your time doing. There is an amazing video on Vimeo of Antonio the spoonmaker (search "spoonmaking") who carves spoons all day every day and sells them for dirt cheap, and he carves them with an axe and a SICKLE. No joke. His motions are swift, easy, economical. You can see that this is what he does, all day, every day.
So if you want to have that improvement, the best advice I have is to figure out how to line up your economic imperatives so that you spend more of your time carving. Make it worth your while. Sell them as fast as you can! Play that long game and recognize that it's not just the number of years you do something, but also whether you are spending an hour a day or eight hours a day doing it.
I will say that there are many more resources available for learning today than there were five years ago, from me and Matt's efforts with Spoonesaurus to Tom Scandian's amazing videos to Barn's online resources. It is possible for me to explain things to my students who come to my home for lessons that shoots them years ahead of where I was when I started. But there is still the work of carving the spoons. That doesn't go away.
But I hope that this account leaves you feeling more encouraged to continue carving, with the recognition that we all start at the same place, struggling to sharpen that knife, sweating over cleaning up the spoon bowl, cursing ourselves for carving the handle too thin. Been there. Done that. And you will be where I am and do what I do yourself, in time, if you just stick with it. Have faith.
Today I spent the day finally setting up the website for Spoonesaurus Magazine, establishing and linking the shipping software, creating a subscription payment plan, and adding information to the website so it doesn't look like a fourth grader slapped it together with whatever they had. Although come to think of it, a fourth grader would have probably done a better job of it.
After a grueling stint sweating through some arcane stuff I feel very uncomfortable with, I think I finally got it right. All of this is to say, Spoonesaurus Magazine is now ready to accept subscriptions! Because I'm learning this as I go and need to accept the fact that action is better than perfection, we are only offering domestic (USA) subscriptions at this time. Don't worry, I know there are lots of you that want this in other places in the world, and I plan to sort this side of it out before September so you don't miss an issue. But I wanted to get this far now and get things moving.
A word on the magazine. After sweating for months over what it should cost per issue (and remember, we are planning to put out four issues a year), I finally settled on $15 per issue. I was worried if this price would seem too high, and I wanted to take a minute to break down the costs as far as I can anticipate them.
It turns out, printing is bloody expensive. When I printed the sample issue, the printing alone cost just about $5 a copy. I'm looking into other printing options, but for full spread, good quality color printing, it's not cheap. Nor should it be. This is the real world, with physical materials that cost real money, and people's time, not just pixels and algorithms. Shipping is somewhere in the $1.50 range domestic (which is baked into the price; international shipping will be added on afterwards, which is the side of things I need to sort out), and I've yet to determine what if any tax burden will need to be applied to the price. The cost of mailing envelopes and postage labels are also yet to be determined.
There are a whole bunch of fixed expenses as well, which don't scale with readership but therefore loom larger now, in the beginning when only a relative few of you will be subscribing. Fees for the website builder, layout software, shipping software and probably something else I'm not remembering right now add up to about $1000 a year, while each issue carries hundreds of dollars in costs to adequately pay our contributors for their time, efforts and expertise.
So yeah. The good news is that $15.00 an issue should be enough to allow us to do all of this and bring you a vibrant, inspirational magazine that you can actually flip through on the couch, while still remaining less than the cost of a wooden spoon. As our subscription base grows, this price point will also allow us to expand the magazine and make it even better without having to change the price.
I've been asked many times why I didn't just start an electronic magazine, why I felt like we could pull this off. Didn't I know that print was dead?
The thing is, I wanted to make a magazine that lingered, that sat next to the couch (or the toilet, no judgement) and that you could read while keeping your partner or spouse company. Our phones and computers are fraying the fabric of our relationships in a way that a book or magazine never will. I wanted Spoonesaurus Magazine to be part of the solution to this most pressing problem of our times, not part of the problem.
So if you are with me in wanting to have a spoon carving magazine, I hope you will take a moment to subscribe. If you are with me in believing in the power of the physical printed word, I hope you will put down your phone, pick up your computer and subscribe. If you are with me in believing that spoon carving scratches the modern itch to be present in the world, to do something tangible, meaningful and beautiful, I hope you will tell a friend to go subscribe. If you are with me in believing that the printed word, like spoon carving, might be written off as dead but is most definitely NOT extinct, I hope you will subscribe, right now.
Thank you for all your interest and support and inquiries over the past months about the magazine. Now let's make this happen!
So I just came across the Instagram feed of @wild.roe, and was quite taken with the thoughtful way in which Morgan Campbell uses her feed to ruminate on various topics. What caught me in particular was the post where she describes her struggle with figuring out how to price her work, and how to balance valuing herself without comparing herself to other makers.
I found myself thinking about this and corresponding with her quite a bit as I simultaneously edited two scientific manuscripts this morning (I know, I know, multi-tasking sucks, yada yada). And I found myself articulating some interesting things, thoughts that were new to me, and I wanted to share them with you here and to say them out loud so that I can roll my eyes at myself in a couple of years.
The main thing I realized was that I value momentum over almost everything else when it comes to thinking about the business as a whole. I leave money on the table, in the form of the difference in price of what I could charge vs what I actually charge, because I want the momentum that comes from a lot of work. In the long run, that makes me a better carver. I heard Tony Robbins on some podcast say that he didn't become a successful motivational speaker because he was so naturally gifted at it. He became so good and so successful because he deliberately set out to do two, four, eight times as much of it as his peers.
I invest in my momentum by leaving this money on the table, and sometimes by spending money, like kicking off Spoonesaurus Magazine with a couple thousand of my own dollars to print a free issue, or by buying spoons from makers I admire and tools that I think may help me be a better craftsman.
By keeping my prices low at first, I also strategically give myself somewhere to go. I want to be able to increase my prices over the years and not diminish demand, but actually find demand increasing even as I do so. This is a careful calibration, and the circumstances of this balancing act are different for everyone. The best I can say is that I just went with my gut and then moved the price around, often up, but sometimes down too, when I miscalculated my momentum. For me, the number of repeat customers has become a useful metric of whether my pricing is on target. They are the canary in the coal mine. If I increase my prices but customers still come back, then I am still in that sweet spot where I can build momentum.
There is this idea that we are all in the same marketplace with social media and the internet more generally, where what I do or charge can negatively impact someone else and vice versa. And while this might be partially true, I've come to realize more and more that I just need to run my own race. Because in the long run it's a sure recipe for failure to let someone else define the rules of your own game. I'm paying attention to myself, not the other guy, and the more I play by my own internal logic the better things go.
So if you are just starting out, I hope you will shy away from the trap of thinking in terms of time and materials when determining your price. Let price be a totally separate issue and a separate strategy from your growth as a craftsperson. Better yet, let your pricing strategy bolster and drive your growth, in whatever way that works for you. Because we all come from different economic backgrounds. Some of us have a mortgage and kids to support. Some of us are living a deliberately itinerant livestyle (although that carries hidden costs of its own) to be able to afford this. Some of us have access to markets that make all the difference, or skills with written media, photography or videography. Some of us just have money from other life factors. Some of us are fighting tooth and nail to make this work. Some of us are hedging our bets. Some of us are scared to jump in the water.
These are all equally acceptable places to be. The point is, what works for you is what works for you. Don't agonize too much about it. Just go and do. And then be observant. And then adjust.
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.