I've been getting a lot of questions lately about how long I've been carving spoons. Something in the zeitgeist, perhaps, but a number of people have wanted to know. I started carving in earnest (discounting a handful done in college and just after) five years ago now, and then made a bigger shift three years ago when I left a seasonal job to devote more time to spooncarving.
There is really no importance to these numbers. There is no magic number of years you need to be carving to be good, and it's not even really meaningful to think about it in those terms. We are each on a journey of developing our skills, and that journey is at its own pace and never ends until we die or stop carving. You could make the argument that there are more resources available now to carvers just starting out, better content breaking down how to go about it, and that this could shorten the time it takes to go from wanting to do it but being frustrated to that delightful middle ground of enough skill to begin exploring ideas. But you could also argue convincingly that the resources don't matter as much as the tenacity to pursue it daily, something that has always been possible.
That for me was the big turning point, when I stopped thinking of it as something I did seasonally or occasionally, and started having the discipline to carve every day. And then carve for a larger and larger portion of each day. If you are focused on running your own race, then the more you practice, the faster you will progress. So my three years of serious carving might be the equivalent of ten for someone who just carves a couple of times a week, because I carve every day for hours.
We all know this. We expect it in anything we pursue as a profession, that a six month internship or a year of devoting ourselves to really learning a job will move us to a completely different place. It is no different with spooncarving. Give me six months and I can have you carving at a professional level. But you will need to be doing it every day.
The harder thing to wrap our heads around is how to balance our expectations when we CAN'T pursue something full time, when it must remain a part time practice. That is the reality most of us find ourselves in with most things. Then it becomes even more important to close your eyes to the trajectory of others and just keep your eyes on the path, one foot in front of the other, and trust that you will get where you want to go.
In either scenario, the most difficult thing is to be patient with ourselves. It takes time to develop a skill. Even when you are proceeding at full steam, there is always a deeper level to go, sometimes a level that no one you can see has gone to. But the level still exists, how can it not? And if you are progressing in fits and starts, the need for patience is greater still.
Patience is even more important when it comes to building a business. Three years ago I reached out to 50 stores that I thought should be carrying my spoons. I had too high an opinion of my work then. Only one was interested, and that fizzled out. Now, two and a half years after being in touch with some of these, I am at a place where it makes sense to reach out again. We will see if it is a better fit this time. Certainly my work is much better and my prices more competitive. If you had told me back then that it would take several years for my ability to match my ambition of having such wholesale accounts, I would have been totally discouraged. Thankfully I didn't have a mentor to tell me that, and I found a way to pivot and adjust my prices to find demand and work my way back to this place. But it was not a sure thing and if I had gotten impatient with the outcome, I would probably have given up.
Everything you want in life will take more time than you think. And it will usually cost you more, in money or effort. That's just truth. The older I get, the more realistic I am about this, and I think it sets me up for more success because I realize that I need multiple irons in the fire, each heating at its own pace. Some will come to fruition in a years, some in five. When one is in full blossom I need to start up another one, because it all takes time. That's just it. Time.
Usually the days pass one by one and we don't really take note, just go on autopilot or react to whatever crisis demands our attention. To wrest back control of our time we need a plan, a long-term strategy of where we want to be and how we're going to get there. And then we just enact, and iterate, day after day after day. Small gains over time look like big gains overnight in the end. But don't let it fool you. That iceberg is mighty big below the surface of the water.
So recently I've been having conversations with a new friend and fellow spooncarver who wants to take the steps to find themselves in a few years in the spot where I am now, fully self-employed and in control of my financial outcome and growth. He has done a lot of things in life, and just had a kid, and is realizing that hustling for himself will probably have a greater likelihood of him finding himself in a position where he can support his family and live a satisfied, fulfilling life. We had a long conversation last week where I spilled my guts about how things went for me up until now, what I thought was important and things he should prepare himself for. Most of these points and topics are also in my upcoming book that's coming out from Chelsea Green Publishing this spring (I'd give you the title of the book but we haven't figured that out yet despite the book being written by now!). So if you like thinking about this stuff, you would probably dig the book.
I started off by warning him that whatever time frame for "success", whatever that means, he had probably needs to be doubled or tripled and even then it might not be accurate. That despite this truth, the most important thing is to start the thing you want to do, and not wait for the time to be right, or the thing to be perfect, or yourself to be qualified.
I talked about how important it was for me to come out from hiding behind a handle or business name and start building myself up as a brand (or reputation, if that phrase makes your stomach turn). How sharing the journey worked better than pretending to be on top of everything. How being thoughtful about how you portrayed yourself was important, but so was just being consistent about producing content.
While the goal might be to become ridiculously good at whatever your thing is, that's too high a bar to set for beginning. Instead, the true bar is, are you good enough to bring value to someone at a price point you can accept for now? If so, then begin, and let the economic incentive drive your improvement in your chosen thing by getting you to do a lot of it. I heard a story about Tony Robbins the motivational speaker (although I think he doesn't use that term) how when he was starting out, he looked at people in the field he was just starting in with so much more experience than him, and he set out to close that gap by just doing what they were doing, but doing four times as much in the same amount of time. You can do this same thing with whatever you do.
Say you have a job and you need to keep it until whatever you are starting begins to bring in money, right? Get up at five, or work in the evenings instead of watching whatever show you are bingeing. Keep kicking that can down the road. Telling yourself that you have no idea what you are doing with bookkeeping? Have the mild panic attack, take a deep breath and break that problem down into its constituent pieces. Nothing is so complicated that you cannot figure it out. You don't need to know the answers to begin. You do need to ask the questions and begin to educate yourself.
Remember that everyone, EVERYONE, started out in the same spot. Don't even bother comparing your situation to someone else's unless it is to reverse engineer what they did so you can do it too. Other than that, run your own race.
Spend your money on your business. Spend it on a bookkeeper to help you a few hours here or there, or on insurance, or on a printer or on a website. Don't spend it on buying more tools or clothes or dinner out or some new toy. You can waste a lot of money in life. Use your money to further your goals.
Speaking of goals, write them down. Figure out what steps would get you there. Write those down. Now throw that out because how you think you will get there is almost certainly not how you will get there. Business plans are not something that is written down that you adhere to. Business plans are the ever shifting sense you have of what is now possible that wasn't possible last week, or the week before, because you have been active and aren't in the same place now that you were then.
Be prepared to be poor. We have been poor for many years, and are just now in the strange space of not being poor and not NOT being poor. Part of this is that my wife has been in school for the last three years and will be for another year and a half. Part of this is that it takes time to build anything up. If you want to experience the joy, frustration and deep satisfaction of building something yourself, of owning it, then be prepared to tighten your belt, at least for a few years.
Finally, being self-employed, especially in these early lean years, means hustling. I was recently at an outdoor table at a fantastic Moroccan restaurant on a date with my wife, when I overheard a young man next to us say that he could never work for himself because he doesn't want to hustle. And I thought, "yup, spot on", because when you are pushing to grow something, the one thing you can't leverage is your time. You only have so much, and it will always be a limiting factor, used to the max. Here I am at 10:44 pm, finishing telling this to you and then I will go to bed and get up at 5:30 to hustle some more. That's just the truth. When you are supporting your family, or when you have big dreams, or when you can taste that this moment in history or in your life is a particular pivot point, how could you do any less?
So several years ago my mother gave us a CD of kid music by a guy I never heard of, named Justin Roberts. It took me a couple of listens to fall in love with it, but then it quickly became a touchstone for our family, with songs that are at turns funny, wise, tender, delightfully quirky and always musically lush and interesting.
Flash forward to three days ago when I had the face palm moment of realizing that I could hunt for more of his work on Spotify, and found that he had 10 other albums. Of course. Treasure trove!
As we started to dive into this guy's catalogue, though, there was an interesting realization: Somewhere in his 3rd and 4th albums, he underwent a sea change, and his music went from good to transcendent.
Now you may laugh at the idea of a kid musician being transcendent, but I spent several hours last night with tears in my eyes listening to his music as I compiled a playlist of my favorite songs on Spotify. Let me back up to explain.
Justin Roberts was a founding member of the indie rock band Pimentos for Gus, when he started working as a Montessori teacher. He started writing songs for his students, and then started recording them. So far, pretty typical stuff. His first couple of albums were very acoustic, with maybe some bongos, and for a younger crowd. But starting in his third and really changing in his fourth album, he started pulling in more rock sounds, electric, regular drums and bass, synth and horns. The vocals became more layered and cascading. His songs were clearly aimed more at the 6-12 crowd, and as such are still earnest but have more complexity. Often there are thematic nods (like a truly Beach Boys harmony wall on a song about kickboards) that evoke certain genres, and the words are just the right mix of earnest, true and goofy.
For anyone still wondering what the heck I could be tearing up about, I dare you to listen to these five songs: It's Your Birthday, Fire Drill, Trick or Treat, Recess and School's Out (Tall Buildings). You will see how this guy uses endless melodic hooks, satisfying chord progressions, backing vocals, horns and modulations to really make you FEEL. Something, even if you can't put your finger on it.
The thing that I have been obsessing about though, besides the music itself, is the sea change that you can feel in Roberts' music, where he brought in the chops he must have developed in Pimentos for Gus to this other music. The result is a music that is as satisfying as it is groundbreaking. He's been doing it for 23 years now, and the change happened on year 8. So that's interesting to me as well, the idea that wherever I'm at in my own life, there's probably a sea change coming up, something that will separate where I am now from where I will end up.
I like the idea of thinking in terms of sea changes, because they encourage the making of creative leaps. Like writing kid music with the complexity of adult music. I don't know what it will be for me, whether it will be more for my carving or my writing, but I'm inspired to think in this way. Often the juxtoposition of two related but generally compartmentalized disciplines leads to this sort of leap forward, but the very nature of thing means that it is hard to see in the moment.
So for now I pay attention. I listen to how the trumpet sings in counterpoint to the voice. I listen to the modulation at the end of the song and let that tug on my heartstrings. And I dream of the day that I figure out how to do that for myself.
Someone I recently met said the other day that they would love to pick my brain about how to start doing what I do, which is to cobble together a living on my own terms, by hustling at a bunch of complementary ventures. I told that person to give me a call, that I'd be happy to chat about my approach to business and earning a living, but it got me thinking about the topic in general and what advice I would give someone like himself, looking to start something that they could someday transition to, away from their current work. There are lots of pieces of this, but the thing I kept coming around to, the key, if you will, to the whole thing, is to figure out what your unfair advantage is.
Notice I didn't say passion. Nor did I say calling, or knack, or even opportunity. These are all good things to have, but they are not, in my opinion, as critical to the success or as defining of the direction of your career as determining your unfair advantage.
Your unfair advantage is what you have going for you that most people don't. Maybe that's lots of free time. Maybe that's some money to throw at this thing, or just financial security. Maybe it's a LACK of money or financial security. It can go either way. Maybe it's being the best at what you do (or really good, for all of you who dislike that kind of metric). Maybe it's just being FIRST. Maybe it's that you don't have kids or other expenses, whether by choice or chance. Maybe it's that you have kids to support and expenses to meet. Maybe it's your location in a city where things are popping or in the country where living expenses are low. Maybe it's your previous skillset or knack with understanding how people tick. Maybe it's your parenting or just who your parents are. Maybe it's your network of friends. Maybe it's your ability to express yourself.
Your unfair advantage is unique to you. There is no moral righteousness about it, and it's not worth wishing it were different. It's not what you have for your unfair advantage that matters. It's what you do with it.
The reason knowing your unfair advantage is more critical to success than, say, passion, is because a love of what you do doesn't help the bottom line turn out differently. You are looking for an in, a way to attract and connect with customers, a way to serve their needs (whatever that is) and a way to establish a reputation. You are looking for a way to make the math work in your favor. But for what? Your unfair advantage might have something to say about that.
Imagine you were really into coffee, and dreamed someday of doing your own thing, something to do with coffee. Let's say you are also a rock climber and live and understand that itinerant rock climbing lifestyle. Your unfair advantage, then, is that combination, and it is the obvious thing to do to start a little food truck (or VW bus, and yes, I know this has been done, that's why it's a good example) that you park at the logical place to serve coffee to all the rock climbers as they are coming on or off the wall. Get it? The unfair advantage over everyone else who wants to do their own thing with coffee is that you have the vantage point to see that this would be dope and to have the cred and knowledge to do something about it.
I have several unfair advantages. The easiest one to grasp and the least braggy is my access to premium quality wood. A year and a half ago, a tornado tore through my neighborhood, just as I was starting out carving professionally, dumping about four acres of forest to the ground just out my back door. For me, it is an hour's work to buck up and move into storage a ten foot length of veneer quality cherry, and there's a lot where that came from. So for me, selling blanks is an obvious move (although when I started selling them it was not my own idea and it was not obvious that there would be demand).
Another unfair advantage I have is my location in New England, 3-4 hours from a number of cities, ten minutes off a highway but in a lovely bucolic setting. This was also not premeditated, but it has made it much easier to have students come to me than if I lived in a more rural (or just less central) part of the country. Under those circumstances, I'd probably take my teaching to the masses instead of having people come to me.
Another unfair advantage is that I'm self-employed at this point, although I wasn't always and know what it is to sell your time and autonomy for money. Working for myself entirely means that I am free to schedule things as works for me, although I do need to be mindful of the needs of my wife and children. It could be your unfair advantage, however, to be employed, with the stability and predictability that brings. Unfair advantage is a mindset.
The point is, wherever you are, whatever you have going for you, there are logical choices you can make that will allow you to work for yourself doing something you love. You won't love all of it, all the time. You will probably be surprised at what you are actually doing (never in a million years did I think I'd be doing my particular mix of work). But you can shift things, bit by bit, in the direction you want to pursue. It takes time to get where you want to be.
And so if I was just dreaming about this sort of thing right now, I do what honestly I do every day, on some level: take stock of who you are. Think about where you live, what your strengths and weaknesses and propensities are. Think about how you want to spend your time, and how to serve someone else's needs. Think about how you will convince others you have what they need. Think about what you need to support in your life, and who. Think about what you've got going for you that few others do.
And then leverage that sucker for all it's worth.
Okay, so. At the very end of carving a spoon, one of the last things you do is cut microchamfers. These tiny little slivers of wood, knocking off a sharp corner, can be fine to the point of ridiculousness.
Now, you may be all about facets. You may be all about surface. You may be all about rustic and you may be all about perfection. Doesn't matter. Microchamfers makes all of these situations better. A microchamfer around the inner rim of the spoon bowl? Crucial. Want a rounded corner? Put two microchamfers on either side of a facet.
Microchamfers are a finishing element, the sprinkle of salt at the end of cooking a dish, the satisfying ending to the movie, the encore at the concert. Microchamfers separate a great spoon from a good one. And as such, they carry parallels to everything in our lives. Because often it's the little touches that separate something great from something good in life, whether it's a thing or an experience. The contrasting thread at the toe of your sock. The extra water pressure in a shower. A real smile from the person helping you when you reach the front of a long line. The smell of gasoline when you're filling the tank on a warm day on the first road trip of summer. Microchamfers.
Microchamfers might seem like they are about skill, but really they are more about attention. They are not hard to pull off: the crisp rustle of fresh sheets on the bed. The twist of lemon on the fish. Actually signing your name at the bottom of a message. Microchamfers.
Sometimes I'm tempted to leave out the microchamfers, because I'm being snookered by the sharp lines of an unadorned facet, or because I think it's not worth the effort. But in the end, how something makes you feel is always more important than how something looks. The relationship that looks wrong on paper but feels just right. The career that you want vs. the one that has the most status. What you say to someone when absolutely no one is watching. Microchamfers.
Something occurred to me the other day while I was driving with my daughters in the car. What often happens is they are absorbed in some game or argument and my mind tends to wander, until I snap out of it and turn on the radio. And where my mind wandered this time was on the dichotomy of surface versus form.
You see, we spend our days chasing the surface of things: getting the finishing cuts on spoons to be perfect, having the perfect veneer of a happy life posted to social media, being able to give the right answer at a party to the question of what we do. We obsess about how we look (I'm no different), how our clothes look on us, and how many followers we have. We are constantly snookered by flash and glitter and sparkly things.
The funny thing, though, is that when you really get down to it, the surface of your spoon matters far less than its FORM. That imperfection you keep chasing out only to have a fresh mark crop up? Totally not going to notice it in a week. But you will definitely notice that you made the bowl too thin and it broke. Or that you overcut the neck. Or that you were afraid to cut down enough because you got the surface perfect early on in the process and let that dictate when you stopped, not the underlying form. But make no mistake: the underlying form IS the thing. The only thing.
This is obviously true of your life, too. How many followers you have (surface) bears no relation to whether or not your relationship with social media is a healthy habit that is sustaining your sense of well-being and empowerment in the world and allowing you to do some good in return (form). The way you look in the mirror is not an indication of how hard you can work, how much grit you have, whether you are cool under pressure, good with people or able to think outside the box. It's not even a good indication of how strong you are! Your life on paper is not YOU. It is the surface of you, and it cannot compare with the actual rich, deep, beautiful form of your life, with all its idiosyncrasies and weirdness.
I try to keep this in mind when I carve. I lean towards designs that push me to value form over surface. Looser, more fluid finishing that emphasizes the underlying shape rather than some complex pattern of facets. How a spoon WORKS is the metric of success, how it feels in my mouth, or works in the hand.
I also try to keep this in mind when it comes to how I think about and evaluate and plan my life. It is always worth asking, when considering something, if it is a patch on the surface of things (a feather in my cap) or if it will truly make me happier, kinder, and better able to help others. Sometimes this is just about the narrative I spin of my life, but sometimes it's a reality check on my motives for doing something.
I was going to end by saying that if you take care of the form, the surface will take care of itself. But that's not quite right. More accurate would be to say that my goal, with my spoons and my life, is to concentrate on the form to the point where the surface becomes irrelevant.
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.
Today I was feeling celebratory, having just completed compiling the photographs for my upcoming book being published by Chelsea Green Publishing this winter. Exactly 200 photographs, arranged by chapter and entered into a spreadsheet that gave their order, title and caption. This process has taken three days and was the culmination of the initial phase of writing the book. Tomorrow I transfer everything to a zip drive, print a hard copy of the text, and overnight mail all of it up to Vermont.
So I was feeling celebratory while driving up through the hill towns to get raw milk from the farm that was the reason my wife and I moved to the area, where I learned to farm vegetables and milk cows. I stopped at the local hardware store to buy chicken feed and twine to string up the pole beans. And on my way back down, I decided to swing by the Bullitt Reservation.
The Bullitt Reservation is where, for three years, I was the property steward for the Trustees of Reservations, a land conservation group in Massachusetts that owns and manages over a hundred properties ranging from tracts of forest to large mansions. The Bullitt Reservation is on the modest end, a refurbished farmhouse and barn surrounded by gardens that serves as a regional office. For three years, my job was to design and build the gardens, repair the barn, build trails and teach workshops.
I left that job to pursue spooncarving as a career, and that first year was hard. Not only was I not gaining any traction with the spoons, the young fella that was hired to take over my job absolutely BUTCHERED the gardens, cutting back stuff that should not be cut back and weeded out all the flower seedlings of self-sowing annuals that I had been carefully cultivating for the last three years. I was devastated, seeing all the careful spaces I had nurtured obliterated by someone's ignorance. I left and didn't go back until today.
Today I thought what the heck, I should visit the property because this was where it all started. Without that job, I wouldn't have gotten into scything, which means I wouldn't have gotten into spooncarving. I wouldn't have started teaching workshops, which means I wouldn't have started teaching one-on-one lessons. By leaving that job the way I did, I was pushed into using Instagram when I would otherwise have chosen not to, and it was through Instagram that I reached out to Chelsea Green and got the book deal. So this place, and leaving this place, brought me to where I am today.
So imagine my surprise when I pulled up the circular drive and noticed that the gardens looked GOOD. The lavender I planted and painstakingly bedded each winter was thriving on the south-facing retaining wall. The blueberry bushes were getting big, the grape arbor I built was actually started to being covered with grapes I started as slips shoved in the ground, the flower beds were crowded with salvia, poppies, clovers, daisies. The strawberries under the hydrangeas I planted along the walkway were still there and the hydrangeas were actually getting big. The willow entrance to the garden towered over the path, and the peonies I planted had so many blooms they were tied up to stakes.
On every side were plants that I HAD PLANTED. It was the space I had envisioned, slightly stripped down, but more complex by virtue of its very maturity. The woodchips on the paths were fresh. The lupines were blooming in the wildflower meadow. The orchard I had planted had mostly survived. The lily of the valley had spread.
I was overwhelmed with this sense of joy and surprise and gratitude, that this thing I had started was not only still here, but had come into its own in the ensuing three years since I left. And I was reminded that life is like that: where we are right now is the result of everything that has come before. We may think we are never, ever, EVER going to see the garden we dream of, or the skill we aspire to, or the success we pursue, but then we turn around and realize it has happened. Not through willing it to be so. Rather, time has done the work. We began something, and stick with it, even neglect it at times, but nudge it forward just enough, and time does the rest.
Guys, the garden is beautiful. There were tears in my eyes driving home, so I turned up the Brandi Carlisle and belted along.
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.