This is gonna be a brief one, folks, because I need to go make a cardboard sword for my daughter's Halloween outfit. She's going as a Greek goddess. Or something.
I wanted to throw my hat into the ring of voices setting the tone for what gets credited within the spooncarving community and how to address the phenomenon (which admittedly I haven't experienced) of having my work plagiarized. Most recently, Alex Yerks had a bit about this in his latest blog post, and if you don't know who Alex is, you are in for a treat.
While I found Alex's position understandable, in many ways I disagree with the basic underlying premise he and others have made, which is that credit should be given over and over to the people who got there first. Who invented the thing that we can now rip off as our own. Hand in hand with this is the assumption that originality counts for more than just being good.
I am of the opposite (or at least it feels opposite) opinion, that we are all just reinventing the same things over and over because there are human factors dictating what works and what doesn't (like how most doorways are a certain size because people are only so tall) and materials factors of what the wood does well or wants to do. While I think it is polite to mention if someone's work has inspired your own, and certainly you should give credit where it is due, I am always a bit baffled when people ask my permission to try a spoon design that they see me carve. My response is always that of course they should carve it if they like, that any design is as much theirs as it is mine.
The best argument I have heard for GIVING credit comes from Pat Diette, who said to me that from his perspective it's just about good cross promotion. It takes very little effort to credit someone whose work you admire, and it helps them reach a new audience and so the wheels of commerce and reputation turn. I like this a lot.
I don't see myself as trying to find a voice that is original, but I do think my work has a fingerprint that is unique to me. How could it not? And so I don't think of the design so much as the execution of the design to be the remarkable feature of a given spoon. This is also why (at least for now) I don't have a maker's mark. First of all, I figure anyone who's in a position to care enough to be curious about a spoon of mine will probably also have heard of me, and if not then oh well. Second, I feel like a maker's mark denotes some kind of claim of having reached some level that I don't think I'm at yet. I think it will be years before I feel ready to have a mark on my spoons. I'm still a journeyman at this.
And finally, as for the idea that people are ripping off your designs and costing you money, I just don't think it's true in any large sense. It is unlikely that the people buying the "rip-offs" would ever know about you or be in a position to buy from you. When I was first taking over my Christmas tree farm, the old owner, who was still farming some of the trees, would stand down at the end of his driveway and siphon people off to his part of the farm before they ever reached me further down the road. This drove my parents crazy, but I quickly realized that I had to play the long game, and not let the little things get to me. Ultimately, I think our choices as craftspeople and business people will lead to success or not, no matter what other people are doing.
I am also dismayed when I see people hold cards close to their chest. I understand the impulse-- that if I give it all away for free, no one will feel the need to take a lesson--- but I have found the exact opposite to be true. The more I share freely, the more people want to work with me and learn from me and support me. It has been true, time and again, that the more I give, and give freely, the more I receive in return.
I would really love to hear your thoughts on all this. Thank you
Okay, so I was scything a chunk of meadow this afternoon at my Christmas tree farm, it's a quarter acre I keep mowed to allow my truck access to a couple acres of trees. And the grass is tall and rank and lodged over and although there is enough wind that the sweat dries right away, it is tough going. I'm listening to Spotify to keep my energy up, but there comes a point where I just hit a wall. I've been mowing for maybe forty-five minutes, but the work is exhausting, and I'm already tired from a full day of work. Now, before I could quit, call it a day, rationalize that I'd done enough, here's the interesting part: the song "You Can't Hurry Love" by the Supremes comes on, and I find myself almost going into a trance, my eyes slitted down, just doing the motion, again, again, swinging the scythe, and SINGING at the top of my lungs! And it's not that it got easier, nope, it's just that I got past caring about that. The song pulled me through to a different place, a place where I was doing the hard thing BECAUSE IT WAS HARD. As my mom always told me, "if you can't get out of it, get into it".
I found out that a number of songs kept me in that place over the next hour and a half: "September", but not the Earth, Wind and Fire version, oh no, the Trolls version with Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick; "Downtown" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis; "Beautiful" by Carly Rae Jepsen; "Party in the USA" by Miley Cyrus. There was plenty of fiddle music mixed in too, of course, but the fiddle music didn't do the trance thing. Fast, driving fiddle music only worked for so long and then I needed a song to belt it out. Oh yeah, "Take on Me" by A-ha. Go figure.
I have found time and again that when you are faced with something truly difficult and you can't get out of it, you get into it. I was once told to wriggle my way down into the belly of a schooner I was working on to scrub down the boards that had become covered with sewage when the blackwater tank leaked. The space was so tight I had to be pulled out by my ankles, but I was cracking jokes and laughing the whole time.
Lately, a lot of manuscripts have come in for my editing business. I don't control when they arrive and I guarantee a two week turnaround on them, so when a surge of them comes in like this I just tack the work on top of whatever else is going on, since I have also made time commitments (although looser) for my spooncarving. So that means waking up at 5 every morning and putting in a couple hours of editing before the kids wake up, carving all day and editing in the evening until bed. If you can't get out of it get into it.
I could push off the carving, and when there is less to do I sometimes do. But I want to be disciplined about the carving, because it is the part of the income I control. I may not be able to predict when editing work comes in, but I can sure put in the hours with the knife to ensure a baseline income. Putting this first reinforces that it is my business, that it is the priority in the long term and that more opportunities flow from being consistent with my carving than just the spoons and the income they provide.
But 5 am is awfully early. So tomorrow, when I'm blearily switching on the lights in the kitchen and settling into my armchair to edit manuscript number six of the nine that have come in this month, I will put in the earbuds, and turn up the Supremes.
One of the most under-appreciated strengths a business can have, in my opinion, is the power of repeat customers. I have three businesses, and each one can attribute 50-75% of business transactions to customers we have worked with before. Whether it's the editing business (where fully half our business is funneled through one customer from colleagues all over the world and another 40% is also repeat business), to the tree farm (where we have families who have been coming for 50 years, four generations, and where I work with the same dozen wholesale outlets each year), repeat business gives a stability to these businesses, and allows them to slowly grow with time until they take up the amount of time I want or am able to allot them.
Both of these examples are repeat purchases (new manuscripts needing to be edited, a Christmas tree each year), while wooden spoons are a durable good, one that if I do my job right won't wear out or break in the owner's lifetime. So how applicable is the concept of repeat customers in this framework?
Completely, I would argue. But it is true that for customers to continue to find value in what I create, I need to make sure I'm addressing their needs. So I have allowed myself to be guided, within the bounds of what I'm interested in, by my customers' needs. You bought a spoon but now need a spoon rack? Done. Want a special scoop? Check. Need some salad servers? I'll try that too.
But far more important than offering a range of goods, I would argue, is to under sell and over deliver. I never want to be in the position (as I have experienced from the other side) of being given a lot of hype about a piece and then getting it and being disappointed. I purposely keep my photographs to a minimum because I want there to be surprise and delight when the package is opened. I go out of my way to make sure the work is as good as I can produce. I KEEP MY PRICES AFFORDABLE. And I try to be responsive to peoples; communications.
And I can say that it is working. It used to be that I would sell a spoon and then never hear from that person again. I think this is because I was charging too much so there wasn't the match up of value and perception that I try to have now. Now, fully half my orders are from repeat customers. They are buying more things for themselves. They are buying things for gifts, they are buying because I am offering them something good at a fair price, and they know it and I know it.
This sort of business takes time to build up. Years. But they are relationships that are not just about money. They are ships sent out from my world to theirs, and the prevalence of these relationships lets me know that I am doing something right. So if you are in this as a career, play the long game. Make the choices that value these relationships over the additional dollar. Don't sell yourself short, but don't sell the customer short, either.
They will be there for you, again and again.
The long game
I was planning to write a post about the differences between carving spoons on commission and carving spoon on spec to sell. But what I've really been thinking about is the long game, by which I mean where I want to be in five years. Because the best way to end up even close to where I want to end up is to have some clear idea of where that is and then reverse engineer what I need to get there.
Making a living carving spoons takes some ingenuity. While some live a nomadic life with few expenses, that is not me right now. I have two small kids and my wife is in school. Carving spoons is about a quarter of what I do, and probably half to two thirds of my time. I could increase that income by increasing my prices, but for a variety of reasons (partly philosophical, partly gut instinct, partly long game), I don't want to do that too much. So the actual selling of spoons I see as putting a floor under my income, a baseline that is entirely controlled by me.
But the long game is where I can make choices today that will have career impacts in five years. I can write this blog. I can carve spoons every single day (and align market forces to incentivize me to do so), getting good at what I am passionate about. I can teach. I can share my story and grow my reach through Instagram. I can make connections with fellow carvers.
In five years, I want to be making two or three times as much from spooncarving as I am today. I want to be writing more, and I have several book projects cooking. I want to be teaching at a number of venues and I want to have a shop at my home to facilitate teaching from home.
Spooncarving is not a scaleable thing, and that is part of it's attraction, to be honest. But if I balk at scaling the price (which would be the common way to increase income from a finite resource, turning it into an art form or high value item), then I will need to make smart moves to grow my income year over year. Unlike a farm or other business, I cannot simply hire others to carve spoons for me, because that would be antithetical to the whole point of this thing.
So a big part of scaling will be presenting my story and drawing income from other, more scaleable tangents to the actual carving. A number of other spooncarvers have already started doing various fascinating examples of this. Barn, with the Greenwood Guild subscription videos. Robin and Jojo, with the tools. Jarrod with the teaching. Barn and EJ with the books.
Of course, for this to work, you need to get at some underlying need you can bring value to. All of these examples so far are serving the community that wishes to start carving spoons themselves.
Where I see the biggest opportunity, though, is the community that actually buys way more wooden spoons than other spooncarvers, and that is cooks. Specifically, women that cook. Typically, someone wanting to learn to carve buys one spoon, maybe several. The people buying ten, twenty spoons are people who love to cook and love to be surrounded by beautiful, meaningful, well-designed objects. So the question is, what is their need that can be served beyond just providing them with spoons.
That is what I think on a lot. That is my long game.
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.