So today marked an interesting, welcome but also somewhat uncomfortable transition that happens every year, when I go from working flat out at the trees to all of a sudden time opening up, and being able to shift to other projects.
It's welcome because I have been working every day since October 25th with only Thanksgiving day off. It's uncomfortable because after working that long and that hard, I feel funny doing other things, like I'm constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and to realize that I forgot something.
And it's interesting because in that transition lies a lot of opportunity.
I can use the shift to make big changes, clear up messes and spaces I've been letting fester while I dealt with the pressing present moment. My office, for one, is almost impassable.
But the chance to see systems clearly and change them is also evident for non-physical systems: how do I handle my bookkeeping (poorly); would I be better served by a more educated approach to my website development (undoubtedly); what's my broader strategy for the year ahead?
This coming year is an exciting one for me on a professional level. My book is coming out in May, the magazine will hopefully start to feel more like a fluid, understood process, I'm lining up teaching gigs both in person and online (for more on that, read the previous post). I'm booked two months out at a daily quota 3x that of what I was booking per day this time last year, and I'm looking forward to working with some new wholesale partners.
It's also a year in which I will be deliberately pushing myself to engage on more platforms than I have thus far been willing to do. Instagram remains the pillar app for my work, but I have the podcast, and the Spooncarving Collective on Mighty Networks (if you don't know what this is there is a blog post about it too), and I'm gently exploring what Facebook, Linkedin an Twitter have to offer. I'm taking seriously the fact that we are living in a moment where attention on these platforms is as easy to get as it's ever going to be: it will only get harder. So I'm pushing myself to make the long term investments in these platforms that will hopefully pay off in years to come.
Transitioning also means spending more time with my family. I'm going to have lunch with my grandmother tomorrow (who is out of the nursing home finally) and muck out her study. We're planning an extended family visit to the Boston Science Museum at the end of the month. And I've gotten on top of my portion of the presents for this Christmas.
But the transition comes with the end of a simple, straightforward pattern (go to the farm and do as much as possible until it gets dark, every single day) and the start of a more nuanced, murky expectation that asks me to balance professional and personal values and goals. This can be sweeter than just pushing and pushing, but also more confusing.
Either way, like so many things in life, I don't get a choice. Here it is, and the best I can do is to try to navigate it with as much grace as I can muster. Wish me luck!
First of all, I would like to thank everyone who took part in the Virtual Apprenticeship Challenge. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me to figure out how to communicate these topics and ideas, and it has been gratifying to see the community springing from the groups.
I've decided to take what I've learned from running this program and use it to create two new, paid courses that I'll be opening enrollment to now (yep, you read that right). So of the 90 people who signed up for the first round of the VAC, probably only 30 took part in a way that was obvious to me. There was greater enthusiasm at the beginning that dwindled throughout the weeks, leading me to think that a one month course would be a more appropriate time frame than the six weeks that this round was, and that by charging money I can get people to stick to their guns a bit more and also winnow it down to the people who really want it. I also saw that there were really two tracks: those who wanted to learn how to push their business to the next level and those simply wanted to push their carving to the next level (and these are not mutually exclusive).
The DM list function within Instagram is limited to 30 people, so that's my limit. Part of the problem with having three groups of 30 this time around was that I found it tedious to have to repeat each message three times, so I didn't communicate as much as I might have. My goal is to interact enough that everyone's needs are being met.
So. Each track is limited to 30 people. It will be one month long, with weekly prompts and check ins from me several times a week.
Each course costs $50. The way to sign up is to let me know through Instagram DM or email and I'll send you an invoice to pay. To take part you must be on Instagram (sorry, that's just how it goes).
This first round will start Saturday January 12th.
The Virtual Apprenticeship Challenge will be the course on spooncarving. We will work on all aspects of spooncarving, broken into weekly topics to focus on, but also working specifically to address your unique concerns.
The Virtual Journeyman Challenge will be the course on business development. It will be a condensed version of this initial run of the VAC, so you can read previous blog posts to get an idea of the topics.
And just to be clear: everything I will be sharing is stuff I've already given away for free . It's out there if you consume enough of my content. What you get for the fifty bucks is direct and unlimited access to me, a community of others going through the same experience, and the structure of the course. If you would find this helpful, I hope you will be in touch to sign up.
And for anyone who took part in this first round of the VAC, please let me know what worked and didn't work for you! I value any feedback you'd care to share. Thank you for your trust and enthusiasm.
Well, you made it to the last week of the Virtual Apprenticeship Challenge (or quite possibly you are not taking part but just reading along). You've committed to carving every day. You've stepped up your social media game and made some tough choices about handles and bio photos. You've started the process of building a website or worked to improve the one you have. You've done all the silly bureaucratic things you need to do to be legal and official. You've taken steps to help build a community and a culture that you want to be a part of.
Now to put it all together.
Putting it all together means coming up with a comprehensive business strategy. Not a plan (I haven't found those helpful the few times I've tried to make them), but a gameplan that you keep in your head and that you shift around as needed.
Here's what mine has looked like: when I started off carving, my plan was to sell at my Christmas tree farm to people coming to cut their own trees. This was all I focused on for three years. Then I got a phone and hopped on Instagram and thought I'd build up a base of wholesale customers. I worked very hard at this and failed. But in the process of doing that I built enough of a community that I tentatively started to sell to individuals instead. I also attempted and failed to gain traction at local markets.
Then I realized I could use low prices to generate more business which would force me to carve more than I otherwise would, and that this process would be a positive feedback loop pushing my skills forward. So I dropped my prices and it worked. I started selling briskly, built up a waiting list, and got much, much better because I was carving three or four times what I had been before.
Along the way I've learned that my customers usually have all the good ideas. Customers got me to start making spoon blanks (now accounting for 50% of my revenue), and customer requests got me carving coffee scoops, long scoops, teaspoons, camping spoons, flour scoops, miniscoops, flippy spatulas, baking spatulas, kid spoons, pocket spoons and ladles, all forms I now take for granted. These were not my own ideas.
I began offering lessons from my home, then set up a whole season of larger workshops, only to pull in my horns when I realized I liked teaching smaller numbers and one on one more.
I started collaborating with Matt White, first on tool handles, then the blades themselves, then on the @spoonesaurus account and Spoonesaurus Magazine. I started exploring finishing tools and collaborated with Adam Reynolds and Cynthia Main to produce the porcelain burnisher and broomcorn polisher that we now offer to fellow spooncarvers.
Lately I've been exploring sharing what I know through this Challenge and through my new podcast Emmet Audio and have taken the community I've seen being born from this and used that as inspiration to start the Spooncarving Collective over on Mighty Networks.
It's a lot, right? I get exhausted just writing it all down. So how are you going to compete?
You're not. You're gonna do you, and in five years you'll be able to exhaust yourself with a list like this too.
The point is, I started out with one thing. I knew I had a captive audience at the farm, who were already there to buy from me. That was my promising kernel. But when I'd outgrown the thirty spoons a year that this would sell for me, guess what? I floundered around for awhile, trying and failing to get any momentum.
This is normal. Ultimately, you will need to have a track record of success to have anyone trust you enough to buy from you. It's not about the quality of what you are carving, it's about your reputation and the sense people get that you're not so new to this that they aren't sure what they're getting. This is a bit of a catch 22: you need the experience to get the order, but you need the order to get the experience. What are you to do?
What you need are examples. So start selling at markets, if you want. Or start carving spoons to donate to a soup kitchen. It really doesn't matter what, so long as you are documenting the process. I suggested to Chet Flynn that he start giving away spoons to people and take portraits of them and learn their stories to start a whole project called #humansandspoons and through that project he would generate the interest and develop the track record that would lead to sales.
You will need to decide what you want to pursue, inperson sales or online, commissions or selling batches of work, wholesale or retail. My basic advice is to try all of it. Depending on where you live, your temperament, timing, skill level, luck, a host of factors too numerous to go into, some stuff will work and some won't. But I can tell you that trying lots of things and then pursuing the ones you like most/the ones that work out will slowly, slowly, lead you to a place of success.
As you get more successful, I want you to push yourself to diversify what you do and how you do it. Imagine the economy crashes tomorrow (this is definitely coming sooner or later so it's not an idle exercise). How would your current business fare? What could you branch out into that would be slightly more secure or just different? I don't mean more products, don't get this confused. I mean if you are making stuff, also start teaching. I carve spoons for people who are not spooncarvers but who want a nice handmade spoon. That's one sort of audience. I also make spoons and blanks and tools for spooncarvers, a different constituency. I also teach, and now apparently consult, and advise. And spooncarving is just one of three businesses I have, that are spread out across the globe and across industries. The editing is global and intellectual and academic, the tree farm is intensely physical and local. The spooncarving is all of the above. So my mix of businesses is diversified enough to mitigate the risk of it all going sideways. What's going to be your mix?
You don't need three different businesses, you just need enough diversity within the one business to achieve this. And you don't need it right away, but it should be on your mind as a goal.
So as you go into this final week, you need to come up with ten different ways you can start your business proper. A typical list should have you trying local markets, online sales, wholesale, etc. throw a whole bunch of stuff at the wall. None of it will stick. Keep throwing. Don't stop. Even when some stuff sticks throw some more where it didn't and do. not. stop. This is you. In the trenches. Playing the 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.