|Making a living|
Making a Living
What I have learned so far...
I am often a little confused when friends of mine tell me how much they admire the fact that I am making a living as a functional potter. When I hear it, my mind races to “BUT I’m not!” but in truth, I am, it just doesn’t always work the way I have it planned. The end of the year numbers say my sales sustained my life, but cash rarely flows, it dribbles in or comes in a flood. I’m working on the problem to create a rapid flow but it is still a work in progress. Which is of course where my instant reaction of “BUT I’m not!” comes from.
I posted some advice on someone else’s blog a few weeks ago some words I meant to be encouraging about respecting your own work by raising prices, developing a price range, keeping a mailing list, and in general making a plan for financial well being. In these comments, I mentioned emergencies happen sometimes and I was having a sale that weekend specifically because I had a BIG electric bill coming due. I received a less than friendly response or maybe it was just short because she was so frustrated with her situation. It comes down to “if these ideas are so great, why do you need to have an emergency sale?” So I had to explain… 3 vehicles broke down at the same time…I have representatives who owe me money for sales who are having a hard time paying because they had emergencies happen too. I don’t feel like most low to medium income families would have fared much better. Very few people have actual accessible reserves.
In any case yet another friend has asked me how to get started, how to make a living at art, so I thought I would write down all the things I have learned and picked up over the years of building the business. Maybe some of it will work for others too.
I want to note that I started out dirt poor, no one to back me, no reserve cash. I spent my last college grant on a pottery wheel. I have lived on less than 8K a year when I first started. Now I am struggling to support a family of 4, narrowly succeeding and the business is growing. It’s my goal to succeed by a wider margin, pay off my debts, afford healthcare and start to make investments for the future. I feel as if I am now on the right track, but it takes time to make changes and grow a business, and so I go, day by day, trying to work smart, then hard and remember to take joy in the small successes and not let the potholes in the road become the gateway to the pit of hell.
First, I feel functional pottery has an advantage over sculpture and painting in saleability just as jewelry has us all envious for sales and transport. BUT there are ways to be successful and it comes down to marketing and how you present yourself to your buying public. Currently the US Census website’s population clock says there are 306,742,105 people in the United States and 306,742,105 in the world. All you need is 1/10 of 1% of the people in the U.S. to believe in your vision as an Artist and you would be rich beyond your dreams. There are plenty of people out there to market to. There is a way to follow nearly every dream. However when it comes to salable art I feel it must be understood and accessible by the general public. I feel that the market for “Art for Art’s sake” is small and very few people can compete there. For instance, it’s difficult to sell a person a painting when the theme is an abstract interpretation of violence against women. On the other hand Marsh painters have it pretty easy, lovely peaceful beach scenes, not cutting edge, but we’re talking about making a living, not art for arts’ sake. Ultimately each artist is a business owner with a product. You have to think about your audience. If you live in a coastal area, your audience wants more marsh paintings than you can imagine. I am not an advocate of making a thing purely because it sells. The heart of an artist is rarely commercial and anyone fresh from art school will rebel against the idea of creating products to market to the masses. They want to create and have people fall in love with their creations and make money from it. A young and hungry artist will suffer for a long time just to gain that basic acceptance and confirmation that other people share your vision and taste. There are ways to make money from your art without too much suffering by just thinking of your art as a business first. These are the lessons I’ve learned over the last few years...and I have been struggling at this for around 16 years. Implementing a plan turned my life around and made what I do easier to manage. All the kinks are not worked out yet, but where I couldn’t imagine paying rent a few years ago, I now have a mortgage and own a vehicle I can count on.
Yes, it is production
In order to sell art for a living, you have to constantly make art. Not like you do in school with a piece or ten coming out once a month, but prolifically. For a functional potter this means thousands of pieces, for a painter, it may mean only a few paintings, but hundreds of prints in a variety of size. How many? Ultimately the bottom line has to be in the black. When the bottom line shows black in projected sales and expenses, that’s how much you have to make, market and ultimately sell. My experience is that a new potter will make what they want to and hope people like it. You have to do better than that. Forethought is an absolute necessity. A functional potter has to meet the needs of the community that supports them. The better you meet these needs, the stronger the support you will receive from them. The questions are what does your community need? And how can you let them know you have it?
Here is a list of considerations:
· Do you have a product line? If not, develop a basic product line and then change it as your customer base grows and their needs are defined. The buyers dictate what you will make. Your income needs will dictate how much you produce. You will want to have at least twice your expected sales available. Full displays are more inviting to people than sparse displays. Just two years ago I changed my whole approach to making stock for the shows. I realized that much of my stress was from having to rush to fill a table and I never seemed to be able to pump out enough at the last minute to actually fill the table consequently I had huge gaps in my stock and my sales were low and I was stressed for the last two weeks leading up to an event. So after consulting and discussing the problems with my wife and a dear friend who also represents me at sales events, I made some changes when things normally slowed down for me I kept it in high gear...producing like I had shows coming up the next week and I managed to get way ahead on production of my best selling pieces. At my wife’s insistence I implemented an inventory system and had the various reps report back to me not only a dollar amount, but a detailed inventory list so I would know what was selling and would need to be restocked. A basic business idea, but I didn’t do it before… It has worked out very well. Not only is there very little last minute rushing, but I started the year with an amazing surplus of inventory (20K in January) and have consistently added to it throughout the years as it sells because I am consistently working. Now as I get ready for the last half of the year I am finding time to not only produce my verified sellers, but add new items to the product line.
· How much do you have to sell in order to make a decent living? I mean not just enough to pay your production and show costs and buy dinner on the way home. I mean a living, where the business is paid for and there is profit to pay household bills, buy groceries, pay for the kids’ school lunches, health insurance and make payments on the huge vehicle you will need to get to and from shows reliably. I find that I give up about ½ my retail whether it is in materials, consignment fees, entry fees, gas, equipment upgrades, tools I consistently only keep about 50% of my sales so when I project that I need $25,000 to meet my obligations without sweating, and if I can do more than that there is a possibility of savings and investments. I know I need to create about $50,000 of pottery that will l sell, no questions asked. Most young potters I know can’t conceive of that. They are used to the college requirements which focus on creativity rather than productivity. If your focus remains on pure creativity, you must enter academia. Students coming fresh from college don’t know the true value of what they do, nor the true cost of living. I taught my son the value of money by teaching him how many mugs something costs. At first we did it with full retail price, but as my thinking developed we switched to 50%. Now he’s got a decent grip on how much his $23 worth of gas really costs...a little fewer than 2 regular mugs. His insurance costs me 5 big bowls a month. And now that he wants to work away from home he’s learning about minimum wage and the amount of taxes taken out of a paycheck. That $23.00 in gas costs him 5.5 hours of work after taxes. So how much work do you have to make to meet your financial needs and obligations? It's important, Figure it out. Make a budget, figure out what you have to sell to meet it, and then figure out where you’re going to sell it.
· Pricing. In pottery there are two schools of thought. One is you need to keep the work priced low so that it is accessible to everyone who wants it. The other says you should take the maximum amount the market will bear. I am somewhere in the middle. I found that over time I was making so many mugs at $12 a piece that I couldn’t keep up. Mugs dominated my sales, so I raised the prices, slowly over a couple years and found that my sales didn’t go down…but now I was getting enough money for my efforts in producing over 600 mugs a year that it wasn’t so much of a burden. Now my production in the 5 styles of mugs I do is closer to 800 and I get a minimum of $20 and as much as $50 for pitcher sized ones.
· What is your market? Are you going to do craft fairs? Music Festivals? Galleries by consignment or wholesale? Stores and shops? Can you manage your own shop? Sell from the home? Internet? All of these have their advantages and disadvantages, some cost more and some cost less. Just as with a financial investment, I recommend a diverse portfolio. There are times when arts fairs get rained out, if you are counting on that income exclusively you could be in big trouble. Make sure you have several sources of income working for you at the same time. Thinking ahead and making more than I need has opened up time to do special projects and special wholesale orders without falling behind on the bread and butter items.
I sold at Art fairs for the first few years, and then I found myself making less money and stressing out more, so I switched to something different. Currently I am selling at many Renaissance Fairs and some private medieval events sponsored by The Society for Creative Anachronism. Often there are two or move events scheduled on the same weekend. And I have 2 galleries that carry my work. I want to add some more so I can count on enough income coming in that I never have to schedule an emergency sale again. My last emergency sale was done in my own backyard. I recently moved to an area where I am allowed a home based business, so I have frequent sales throughout the year right out of my house and yard. Once you do it a few times and get used to it, you can have a sale at the drop of a hat. Tent up, tables out, sign in the yard and clean the living room. Hang out on Facebook and wait for the dog to announce visitors in the driveway.
Speaking of Facebook. Right now it is the hottest social network out there and it is a growing to dominate the adult market. It used to be used primarily by teens, but now it’s also used by many adults. I love it and find it invaluable for marketing. Why? FIRST..it searches out your friends and family for you by employment and school listings. These people are the core of your sales potential. Add everyone you knew even if they were not really close to you. After 5, 10, 20 years people have changed and they might just end up your new best customer as well as forge a friendship no one knew was possible back in the day. They’ve already got a piece of your story. “I knew this person when they were in High School, now look at the amazing art they do” People who know you, even as a casual acquaintance are predisposed to wanting something you created. There is pride in knowing someone who does cool things like Art for a living. The best part of FB advertising is that is is viral. If I post a picture of my new work on my FaceBook page and 10 of my friends comment on it, then it is posted on their friends pages too. Everyone who is connected gets to see it. It’s the best type of public exposure, friend to friend, word of mouth via electronic media. FB also offers very well targeted advertising. For Instance, I am currently showing at a Renaissance Fair in Kentucky. So I post on my fan page a link to the renaissance fair website, then take out 2-3 days of advertising, targeting couples, specifically women between the age of 22 and 50 who live within 50 miles of the fair. I choose a nice picture of a pretty piece, set my budget ($5.00 a day) and wait for the the targeted people to click onto the Fan page and become a fan. Then they see the pieces are available at the fair and perhaps they choose to go. If they choose not to purchase at the fair, I now have a way to contact them and let them know fresh pieces are now available at the online sales site. www.hughespottery.etsy.com
· What are your costs? Materials costs are incredibly low for a potter if you buy in bulk. I buy 1 ton at a time and go through 3 tons a year. Usually time is your biggest expense. After that it is commissions. Gallery commissions are between 30% and 50%. I believe 30% is too low for a gallery to adequately represent you and stay in business. I believe 50% is wholesale and any gallery charging 50% had better be doing excessive volume for you. Most places will be 40% and it seems to be the key for a long term successful business and is very fair to the artist. Although I have heard artists complain about galleries and their high commissions. Bottom line is, it is worth it. Galleries handle the sales, they man the store, they dust and rotate the work, they pay the electric bill, they are the agents who bring you and your customer together. Most importantly they allow you to be in your studio making more. Time is precious, you can make so many more dollars of stock in the time you would have spent marketing or at a show than it costs you to have a representative either at sales or in galleries.
· How are you going to manage your time? One of the biggest problems I have faced and keep getting questioned about is time management. There are often pressing distractions that keep us from our studios. The kids need something. That pesky non-profit arts organization needs you for something else. The groceries, dishes, housework all press on you for time. The trick is remembering regardless of your self-employed status, you are employed and your inner boss expects you to work 40 hours. You can be flexible to a point. Art is a job you have to take as seriously as any other job. You have to go and your productivity has to be high. It’s not for the boss, it’s for you. If you fail to produce today, 3 months from now you will feel the pinch. One of the problems people face is always waiting until the last minute to finish their work and look for events to participate in. When you are an artist you need to think 6 months to a year ahead. Have your promotional materials ready, have your stock made, have your applications in and on your calendar marked.
· Your customers and relationships. Let me sum it up, keep, nourish and cherish each one. One piece of art is rarely enough and when it is seen by friends of customers you often have a case of viral marketing. Word of mouth is powerful and personal. Your customers are people who share at least some of your artistic vision. They are more than just a dollar. They are years of support for what you do. Most customers want more than the art, they want a little piece of the artist. You’re selling a piece of your story with every piece of art you sell. Make sure you have a little bit of story to give to them. A brochure, something to give the customer a connection to you. Take names and addresses, make a connection. Send them a thank you email, a birthday card, an artist’s update. Do anything to stay in touch. Show your gratitude. Don’t be afraid to give something away as a thank you for large orders or offer a discount on the next purchase.
How to sell your art: Person to Person. You’ve got to be willing to talk. Show them a little of the story that comes with each purchase. I often see Artists of every medium sitting beside a booth void of customers reading a book. They rely on the potential customer to make the sale for themselves. Which sometimes will work, but often you need to add some human touch. I’ve found that being active and greeting people -saying “Good Morning” making eye contact and smiling will often make a walk-by browser take a real interest in what’s in your booth. The other thing is that people who are in your booth at all are predisposed to buying, your job as a salesperson is to validate their inclination. They may waver based on funding, but they’re already interested. Start a conversation, find out why they’re interested and give them enough “Story” to validate their purchase for them.
It’s not everything, but it is a start. I hope some of these ideas help. As I have implemented these ideas into my plan, I’ve seen my sales increase every year, even in these tough times!
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