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.