When is the right time to start investing in a new marketing strategy?
If you are like I was two years ago, the answer is "When I need to". I no longer think that.
Now I think the right time to start investing in a new marketing strategy is several years before you need it. How do you know when you'll need it? You don't.
Which means that the right time to start investing in a new marketing strategy is always right now.
This is hard, because there is only so much time in the day.
This is hard, because you aren't even totally comfortable with the daily operation of your current strategy.
This is hard, because it means an upfront investment of time and energy, sometimes for years, before you start seeing any momentum.
This is hard, because there is always the voice in your head asking if you're crazy to be jumping in so many directions at once.
I've been thinking all this lately, as I've begun to wonder (not for the first time, and not uniquely) what instagram will be like in five years. Ten years. Where will the attention be? I certainly intend to be still hustling for a living, still carving spoons and teaching, but what on earth gives me confidence that things will be as they are now in even two years? Facebook is only 14 years old. Ten years ago, basically none of the other social media platforms existed. So while in the day-to-day, Instagram sure feels like where this spooncarving scene is playing out, that will almost certainly change. Four years ago there was much more going on with Facebook. For all I know there still is.
But another wrinkle is that where the spooncarving scene seems to be is not necessarily the most fruitful ground for me.
So in an effort to keep myself exploring, I'm pushing myself into a number of new spaces. First is was this blog, then the magazine, carving out a real, physical space. Then is was the Spooncarving Collective on an app called Mighty Networks, which we've turned into a lovely hub of spoon-related conversation. Oh yeah, and I wrote a book (face palm).
Along the way, I've dipped my toe into Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat and Reddit. None stuck, in the sense that I didn't feel excited enough by the resources to warrant the time needed to monitor additional social media conversations.
Lately though, I've been feeling that same edginess, the wariness that comes from being allergic to having all my eggs in one basket. So I've been pushing into YouTube more, and today I just wrote my first article on Medium. I'll be revisiting LinkedIn with an idea, and probably start using Facebook for the Christmas tree farm this fall.
One final idea I'm pursuing is starting to teach on Skillshare. I haven't yet started, this is still in thought only, but I'm liking what I'm learning so far.
Does it seem like alot? Imagine this: in two years, Instagram will be different. Already I feel it in the rising percentage of sponsored posts I see. Will it die? I don't think so. Will attention drift elsewhere? Possibly. Will it be important to garner attention from many different sources as it will be harder to gain meaninful attention on Instagram? Almost certainly.
So recognizing all this, and recognizing that any alternative beyond just doubling down on Instagram is harder, recognizing all this, what are you going to do about it?
This weekend I taught my six year old daughter how to scrub a toilet.
Now, in all fairness, I didn't make her. I was cleaning the house and I asked "who wants to learn how to clean a toilet?!" and my older daughter kept her nose stuck in her book, while the younger one sang out "I do!". So it was optional.
I showed her how long to squirt in the cleaner, how to scrub with the brush, rinse the brush by flushing, and then the correct order to spray and wipe down the handle, lid and bowl with vinegar to go from the cleanest to the dirtiest surface. I told her how used to work on a boat that took people on six day cruises, and how we had to clean the bathrooms on that boat eight times a day. Then we went upstairs and I talked her through the second toilet.
Like most parents we know, my wife and I walk a fine line between letting our kids have as much unstructured time to lounge and dream and be bored as possible, while also requiring that they help set the table, clear the table, open the chickens, get the mail and mostly-but-not-really stay on top of putting away their laundry. We've lately been including them in cooking more, and we require that they prepare most of their own breakfasts, although we do cut the bread for them, usually.
We want our girls to grow up with a baseline knowledge of how to run a household, and an appreciation for how to put in the work to do that well. We also want them to feel like they are contributing.
The thing is, it's easy to forget this in the whirlwind of doing stuff. If you are like me, you are an absolute ninja at cleaning the house while simultaneously putting in a load of laundry, feeding the animals, scrubbing out the sinks and tidying away the coffee table (or so I wish). In those moments of whipping the house into shape so that I can feel on top of the day, it's easy to lose sight of the larger opportunity to share with the girls how to do these things, and help them gain an appreciation for why they are important.
I feel this in my work, too. I look forward to including the girls in the work on the farm, but I also know it will take a push on my part to make that time commitment. Because there is always an upfront cost to be paid in the time spent teaching a new skill before it makes any sort of sense from an economic or time point of view. And while I know, I KNOW, that that is not the point, it can be hard, in the heat of my own work, to remember to share that work with my daughters. But I want that more than anything. I think it will be the making of them.
So after dinner tonight (peanut noodles), while waiting for the kids to finish so we could have the rare treat of a dessert (pumpkin pie), I sat down at the piano and started noodling around. I grew up with a piano, and have always loved the way they pull the home around themselves, becoming the center of family life, and while I don't really play (despite six years of lessons), I remember enough to pick out melodies and baselines. As I was sitting there, I started playing and realized it sounded like one of my ALL TIME favorite themes, the opening theme from Star Trek Voyager (also instantly bringing me back to late nights the summers I was 14 and 15). So I teased it out by ear, and then what I heard made me so excited I had to go get the girls and explain to them what I'd figured out.
The thing is, the melody and baseline of this theme (and honestly, if you don't know what I'm talking about, you should look it up and listen to it now, it is one of the most beautiful 2 minutes you will ever spend), the melody and baseline have this remarkable interplay where they are dissonant (read, side by side notes on a keyboard) and then resolved (notes that have a key in between them). I'm not a musical theorist nor have I ever had any training in such, but I explained to the girls (and they got it right away) how this interplay of dissonance and resolution tugs at you, making things feel jangly and then calm.
We got all excited and then went into the kitchen to have the pie, and while we were doing that I pulled up the theme on the computer, plugged in a speaker for more sound, and then we listened over and over to the orchestra playing this beautiful melody, and could hear it pull and resolve. The girls moved the island to the side so they could dance, and my wife practiced her figure skating moves while holding a chew toy for the puppy in one hand.
When listening to the orchestra version, I noticed something else, which is that the power of the piece comes in part from the tradeoff of different instruments taking turns playing the same melody. At first it is French horns, muted and far away, and then it is strings, haunting and lyrical. Finally, a blaze of trumpets soars through at the end, making your hand stand up.
I often lament that spooncarving is not a joint thing like making music. I wish there was some way we as a community could do something together that was more than the sum of our efforts, and I wonder what that might look like. I think it might have to do with these things, with the use of dissonance and resolution, and with taking turns playing with the same melodies.
I'm not sure how this could be created. I'm not even sure if it's possible. But if I can make people feel like how I feel when I listen to this theme, then I know I will have done it. And that's something that's worth pursuing.
If there's one thing I've realized as I progress as a spooncarver, it's that I do many things differently than other spooncarvers. Not just differently, but in many cases actually the opposite of how most of the field does things. This used to bother me, perplex me, worry me, until I realized it's my secret weapon (not so secret now, though).
The reason that doing things the opposite is a secret weapon is because of two things. The first is that when it comes to process, doing things differently leads to new discoveries, new ways of doing things, gains in efficiency. I carve the crank into my spoon blanks first thing, and that means I can use smaller, weirder pieces of wood with a high rate of success, for reasons that are too nuanced to go into here. I use just one hook knife when many others use several, and gain efficiencies, skill and benefits from doing so. I vary my rim thickness instead of trying to keep it consistent, and this makes for better spoons and an easier carve.
I could go on. The point is, I evolve as a craftsman, making developments that continuously take me away from what the canon describes. But it is precisely BECAUSE it takes me away from this conventional wisdom that I find unexpected benefits.
The second reason doing the opposite is a secret weapon is because when it comes to building a business, it is what separates us from everyone else that defines us. What makes you different is what people remember about you.
So while much of the spooncarving scene gets pulled into making hewn bowls, or dishes on the lathe, or cuttingboards (depending on which subgenre you belong to), I stick with carving spoons. Just spoons. There aren't that many of us. You get really good at things when you stay focused.
So while many spooncarvers make and teach, I branch out into publishing a magazine and start a podcast. Who cares if these don't make me money yet? It's what you do that is different that defines you.
There was a day about a month ago when my apprentice Dano was over, and he kept asking me questions about why I did this and why I did that. It drove home to me just how much I do that is different or even the opposite of how most spooncarvers operate, on every level.
Now, there is plenty of room in the category of "opposite" to do something that is dumb, or ugly, or just plain dangerous. But there is also soooo much room for things that are exciting and efficient and smart and safer, too.
And the best way to find the opposite? Understand what people are doing and ask yourself how you would improve that.
Now go do that.
I've been going through a slow patch with the scientific editing this last couple of weeks. Usually one or two manuscripts come in each week or so, but for the last four weeks, nothing. Now this is not unique: I've had slow patches like this and times when the work was coming in way too thick for my liking in the nine years I've been doing this. But whenever I get a dry spell like this, I am always sooooooo grateful that it's not all that I do.
I'm also grateful that it's not work I want to do for the rest of my life, and if it slowly starts to peter out, that's fine with me. What I do need to do, however, is be mindful that that income needs to come from somewhere, and push myself to ramp up my other work to pick up the slack. This is the tricky bit, because we all get comfortable in our lives, and recognizing that you need to ramp up the hours you're spending doing something is much easier than actually making that shift.
Now next week three or four manuscripts could very easily come in: that's how it works, randomly, and so I might need to ramp back down the expectations for my other work. This randomness is a bit of a pain, in other words. But it's also just part of the deal. I have the same randomness with my Christmas tree farm, in that people show up or not, often for personal reasons that have nothing to do with me. New customers come and go, and there is an overall trajectory that you can see from a distance, but the particulars are pretty random.
One of the things I love about my model of taking orders for spoons and running a wait list is that it serves as an antidote to this randomness. It's the opposite: a list of work waiting to be done. I can speed it up or slow it down within reason, and it feels like money waiting to be made. That is a comforting backdrop to all that randomness in the rest of my income.
What's random about your own income? And what can you do to create a backstop for that?
It's February, a hard time of year for inspiration in work or photography. The blush of winter has worn off, but the truly cold weather has showed up, and we are still a month at least away from the possibility of warm fronts teasing us with spring. It's also a time for me with relatively few personal encounters. I don't tend to do much teaching in January or February because the weather can be bad and makes planning a bit of a headache, especially since my outdoor space is a hoophouse, so nice when it's sunny but cold when it's cloudy.
All of this sets the stage for a bit of an energy slump in these months, as we all just wait for spring to bring some excitement into our step. I'm not a skier, nor do I much enjoy hiking around in snowy woods. I'm a putterer, and putterers suffer in late winter.
What does help is having a solid wall of work lined up, something I've been lucky enough to have this year. Last year I had some, but each day I was asking myself to do only about half of what I'm doing this year. This year I am asking 7-8 hours each day of carving/axing/shipping etc. While this can feel a bit hectic at times, it also keeps me pushing forward, through the slump.
I don't suffer from Seasonal Affected Disorder, but I can totally see how it works. And I'm no psychologist, but I suspect my approach of keeping busy is a good one. I don't have to ask myself what I'm inspired to make each day: I merely need to ask what is next.
The one tricky thing with keeping busy is that there is a certain discipline still required to not let the work get out of balance. I need to make sure I'm still pushing ahead with all the pieces of my plan, not just the paid work, or I will regret it down the road, having let things slip that I intended to continue. Like this blog, for instance.
The best way I know to make sure that stuff happens is to do it first in the day. So the kids get on the bus, and I do the podcast. I do the blog. I do the other things that I am doing for the future me. Then I do the day's work.
Otherwise I'd just slump around and panic at the end of the day.
Usually when I wake up I get dressed and grab my phone just before going downstairs. I slip it into my pocket unread but then start to check in as I make coffee, lay a fire, open the curtains. But not this morning. This morning I left my phone upstairs.
I did all those other things in a remarkable quiet frame of mind.
Now I usually hate when people get all philosophical about technology use. Especially when it is the technology and their use of it that allowed their success. And I am keenly aware that I lean on technology and my phone for community, interaction, validation, marketing, engagement, posturing and flag waving. It brings a lot of good into my day and it allows me to earn a living doing what I love working for myself. And for that I am grateful.
But this morning, as I sat near the open woodstove door, the fire just starting to crackle on the hearth and dawn creeping slowly down the windowpanes, I was reminded that while social media and connection can invigorate and excite, challenge and inspire, it cannot lead me to that quiet place in my head where I feel calm and centered and ENOUGH. How could it? It lives and breaths more, more, more.
This morning was an exercise in less, and the balance that can bring to everything that follows.
Okay, so. I was teaching a spoon carving lesson and I found myself saying the same thing a lot, that I was doing the opposite of what most people do. In fact, I found myself saying this so many times that I took notice, and it gave me pause.
I carve my spoons differently from the way most professional and established carvers do. I start differently, I do different things along the way, at almost every step I'm doing it in a manner both unorthodox, and to my mind more efficient.
Now I didn't do it this way to thumb my nose at people who had gone before me. I did it because I was figuring stuff out for myself. When I started carving there was relatively little information online about actually how to carve spoons, so I pieced my information together from scraps tossed out here and there in blog posts and instagram captions, and developed my own method in response to making mistake after mistake after mistake.
What I ended up with was a process that allowed me to do things in ways that no one else was doing them. I haven't kept any of these ideas a secret, instead choosing to share them all as freely as I could. But what I've been thinking about lately is the importance of all of us, going our own way, learning things we wouldn't know otherwise.
A discovery is when you start of in a direction that everyone else scoffs at. By definition it is a risk: there is often nothing fruitful in that direction. But if you, if WE, all keep experimenting and sharing and trying new things, we will be in a better place as a community than if we trod the same footpath deeper.
Obviously this is a tricky catch 22, right? In teaching our methods, we fail to promote the very thing we found so beneficial, namely the experimental spirit. So perhaps a better way to think of it is that each of us stands on the shoulders of all the others, each lifting the group higher and higher, seeing new lands and new possibilities. I have become more conscious of celebrating and actively promoting the innovations my students bring to the table, and try to distinguish between fundamental truths and the truth as I practice it.
So if you find yourself going your own way, if you are worried that you might be doing it wrong, remember that every person who discovered something worth discovering was doing it "wrong", was flying in the face of how other people did things, and that ultimately, through their exploration, our world changes.
I've been doing a lot of thinking about teaching lately, in part because I'm about to start up this next round of the Virtual Apprenticeship Challenge (VAC). Unlike the first VAC, which was free and involved prompts designed to help people build their business and brand, this VAC costs money and is designed to help people learn to carve spoons. When I put out into the world that I would be offering two different tracks for this next round, one to again do the business side of things and one to learn spooncarving itself, NO ONE chose the business and a bunch have signed up for the spooncarving. Lesson one: most people don't want to start a business.
But that's not the point of this blog. The point of this blog is to ruminate a bit on how my teaching has changed over the two years I've been offering spooncarving lessons. Because it has definitely changed. Like a standup comedian trying and failing and trying and failing and getting a little traction and honing and trying and failing again, I've shaped how I go about teaching in response to what did and didn't work from the dozens of people I've taught before.
It's a bit of a moving target, because each student shows up with a different history, skill set, tool sense, goal for their time, and dynamic with me. I do my best to adjust our flow as we go along to make sure they get out of it what they want. But I also make sure people go home with safe habits and a sense of empowerment to do the things that are needed for lasting success carving, particularly sharpening their tools.
In order to adjust flow, I need lots of arrows in my quiver (forgive the mixed metaphors here, just roll with me). I need more than one way to explain things. I need more than one choose your own adventure. What makes sense to one person leaves another person blank. Sometimes it's that they are just not wired to get it that way. Sometimes I need to come up with a better way to describe the thing I'm trying to communicate.
More than anything, I need to keep my eye on the clock and push, tactfully, to keep us on schedule. This is not a trivial thing. I have quite often run over time because I failed to do a good job with this. So much so, in fact, that I increased the length (and cost) of one of my lessons and I will likely do so again in the near future. It's a lot to pack in to a single day.
I recently decided to try inverting a portion of how I teach, to see if it would help the flow and making sure that people left with the right skills and experiences. I had been walking people through the process starting with a log and ending with a finished spoon. But I tried instead starting with a pre-made spoon blank, carving and finishing the spoon (yah!) and then finishing by walking through the process of axing out a blank. The thing I like about this is that they go home with a spoon blank ready to carve, and we can go right from sharpening into carving. The axe work (which should honestly be learned in a whole course in its own right) is kept to a minimum, and more emphasis is placed on the knife work, which is what most people want to engage with, particularly if they haven't done much carving.
Now I obviously am happy to teach people whatever they want, and I've done whole lessons on axe work, and these are fun variants of the basic lesson. But this one flip, the switch from thinking of the lesson as following the same path as though I were sitting down to carve a spoon, and instead being able to think about it in a more fluid way, has been helpful.
So as I start up the next VAC in two days (still time to sign up, it start January 10th, send me a DM through Instagram!) I'm keeping this lesson in mind. The cohort is all at different places in their spooncarving journey. They all want different things from the experience. It's a lot of time that we have, which is a luxury. I will be making videos (all of which I plan to make publicly available on IGTV, what you won't get is the dialogue on the DM list) on all sorts of topics, and sharing every little thing I know.
And you know what? Next month, when I do it all over again, I'll make new videos. Because I will be a better teacher. And the information will be slightly different, refined, reworked, tweaked. And I don't believe in making a definitive video on any topic. There is only the best you can do at any given moment. And if you structure the process right, your best gets better over time.
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!
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.