Recharging: Breaking The Cycle

8 11 2008

I’ve been having a hard time focusing on work and it’s been hard for me to meet commitments.  I’ve canceled two fairs in the last two months. I kind of expected I’d be a whirlwind this fall to prepare for a busy holiday season, but that didn’t/hasn’t happened. I haven’t really kicked into gear.

When I did the last big fair of the summer, I promised myself I’d never get into “crunch-time mode” again.  I’m sure you know what I mean, anyone who works for themselves does. The calculations of time per item and how if you just devote “x” amount of time, you could easily turn out “x” number of items and of how stocking for a show could be totally doable assuming you spend every single minute of every day working at the same pace for a week!

I’ve done it.

I’ve vowed never to do it again.

I’ve done it again.

Sigh.

I was in the midst of gearing up for one of my crunch-time weeks and realized I’d promised to deliver a batch of wallets and a display to a new shop, the gift shop of the Paper Discovery Center & Museum in Appleton.  I was honored when I received an email asking if I’d stock the shop with wallets and had looked forward to dropping them off, but because I was in crunch-time mode, I was feeling too busy to keep my appointment (Isn’t this nuts? Talk about an inner saboteur!).

Anyway, I debated rescheduling and then the better part of me kicked into gear, so I packed up the car and headed to Appleton. I’ll save most of the specifics for a post on my own blog, but I want to share one of the most important parts of the visit.

I walked in, met the wonderful staff, was shown where my wallets would be displayed and was treated like an absolute queen. I was given a tour of the museum and got to see everything from models of pulp barrels, printing presses, paper made from carrots, photos of people in the Paper Hall of Fame and everything paper you can imagine. I was totally enchanted as I saw the paper making process from start to finish and I was acutely aware that I had needed the visit.

We went downstairs and I was shown the library (not yet open to the public) and found myself in front of a shelf full of pop-up books. Some of them were vintage and some were new, but all were spectacular.

I almost started to cry because I realized that somehow in one year I’d gone from opening an Etsy shop to standing in a private section of an 1878 building and was considered to be a paper artist by the people at the museum! That I’d done a lot of work over the past year and even though I’ve been feeling like a slacker who has to resort to crunch-time weeks that actually, I’ve worked pretty hard and my problem has not been that I’m a slacker, but more that even with being particular about what assignments I take on, I’ve still over committed myself.  And that while it might be professionally embarrassing, I needed some time to regroup.  I realized I wasn’t willing to spend a week or two in crunch-time mode and I needed to back out of some commitments.

I felt teary because I realized after looking at the magical pop-up books for just a few moments that my heart was aching for the fun part of it again, the time spent last year when I felt overjoyed by each wallet I made and delighted by some new size or fold I was working with as opposed to just churning out pieces.

My tour ended and before I left I told Valerie (the director) that the visit had meant more to me than she could ever know and that I wanted to return to make some paper (anyone can make paper there as part of the admission fee).  It was then that Valerie reached into her desk and pulled out several pink handmade paper  hearts and put them in a hot pink envelope as a little gift for me. I hadn’t even shared with her that I had just realized how my heart had been aching for my work to be fun again!

I left the museum and vowed to stop my cycle of:

  • Calling myself a slacker for not churning work out fast enough.

and

  • Scheduling hell weeks to make up for it.

This weekend I had a fair scheduled and am also scheduled to leave on Monday for Chicago because my grandmother is having surgery. I lost time due to lots of volunteering during the election and realized that I either had to cancel the fair or go into double crunch-time crazy mode.  I chose to cancel the fair and while I can’t say that I’m proud of myself for this, I recognize that I did make a good choice and will take extra care in my scheduling and my promises made in the future.  I’ll get better at the artist’s life versus the business life and am learning as I go.  Those pink paper hearts serve as a reminder that I’m coming along.

Laura

Little Orange Kitchen Studio





The Journey: Competition Versus Being Competitive Laura McCullough-DeLorme

9 09 2008

I want to open this by assuring you that it eventually leads into my art and current work, but begins with an important lesson learned on my journey in another business.

I used to own a successful body, mind and spirit focused bookstore and gift shop. In addition to the retail store overflowing with herbs, teas, books, jewelry, candles, gemstones, music, soaps, lotions and trinkets of all kinds, we also had a healing center with massage therapists and we offered classes and hosted lots of community events.

I had a fairly loose business plan (by most people’s standards) and even so, things seemed to fall into place. It was just the right time and it didn’t take long before the rather new-age shop became “the place to be” even in our fairly conservative area.

When a couple of other shops similar in nature began to spring up around us, many of my customers expressed concern. “What are you going to do to stay ahead of the competition?” they’d ask. Or, “Are you afraid they’re going to take your customers?”.

While I understood their concerns on some level, on another level I found the whole thing puzzling. I’d never even viewed other stores as competition and in all honesty, as naive as it may seem, I viewed us all as part of the same team and thought there were enough customers for everyone.  The idea that someone could “take” customers seemed foreign to me because I guess I never thought of them as mine and only mine anyway.

I’d say as much in response to customers concerned about a new shop a few blocks away and people usually accepted my answer until one day a customer began to press me very hard about how important it was to “be smart” about my business and the “competition.”

I had a hard time explaining why I wasn’t concerned, so he began to lecture me about how assessing competition is “just plain good business smarts“.

It was then that I realized that he was a real jerk…HA! Just kidding! No really, I understood his concern and later thanked him because that afternoon he forced me to pull together my thoughts on the subject and clarify them for myself right there, in the middle of the shop.  He was a long-term customer who wasn’t trying to offend me and it helped me understand in less than ten minutes that I did have business smarts, but that mine were intuitive rather than clearly formulated.

I explained that being competitive within a market and competing for customers are two different things. I didn’t view other stores as competition or enemies because to expend energy on that pulled attention away from my own shop.  However, I was also aware that to remain competitive in the market of rose quartz massage wands, for example, it would also (with only a few exceptions) be unwise for me to drop my price to match another shop’s price.  I’d already set a fair one based on a good understanding of how much the wand cost, not just in terms of what I paid for it, but in terms of what it cost to have an employee nearby and ready to explain to a customer how it could be used or to gift wrap it.  If I dropped the price, I’d have to make up for it somewhere else by raising the price on another item or by lowering my expectations of the level of customer service we could provide. Unless you’re a Wal-Mart price checker, this kind of managing takes time, wastes energy and usually fails to pay off in the long run.

However, if I made sure customers were aware that the wands came prettily wrapped at no added charge and set out a few wrapped examples next to the display along with little cards explaining how they were made and what country the rose quartz came from, I was being competitive in the market by offering knowledge, service and convenience along with their purchase. Believe me, free gift wrap goes a long way with men around the holidays!  And, if I had an item that sold for less somewhere else and I couldn’t afford sell it for less or with an extra service, then a competitive business decision would be to sell out the item and not offer it again.  I liked making room for new and unique things anyway.

I also stayed competitive by considering every person who called the shop a customer even if we didn’t have what they were looking for and the “competition” did.  If someone called looking for a book and we didn’t have it in stock or coming soon in an order, my employees and I referred them to any place in town that might.  We weren’t vague and we were very clear about making sure they knew it was important to us that they find what they needed.

I can’t tell you how this helped my store to remain competitive.  It was a real strategy and it worked.  We gained customers because of our helpfulness on the phone and if a customer walked in looking for something we didn’t carry (or were out of) they waited appreciativly while we called around town to help them find it.

Other businesses who viewed my shop as “the competition” weren’t so helpful and can you imagine how it looked in contrast to our generosity about such things?

I explained that while much of my business philosophy was spiritual and heart centered, that there was strategy.  It was a strategic decision to educate current customers on the inventory of other shops; it helped them and made us look good.  We may have lost a sale on the day of the call, but more often than not we were remembered for our helpfulness and they paid us a visit later.

My rather pushy male customer was beginning to understand, but he said something about how if a customer called and we sent them somewhere else, we might never get them into the store and wasn’t that a loss in the long run? I told him that I never once worried about this. That if they went into a store that we sent them to, (usually calling in advance so the seller could have the item ready) the customer would almost always mention that we’d referred them and the other shop owner would take a moment to comment on how nice it was that we sent them over and how lovely our shop was and how supportive I was of other businesses. That in itself is a great endorsement and happened because we took the time to make sure they learned of the shop that had what they needed on a particular day.

In one case, an owner, speaking from her own fear of “competition” took the opportunity to take a swipe at our shop and said something negative about me and how “irresponsible” it was for us to be out of a particular book and that she’d “never let such an important volume be out of stock.”  The customer, who we had sent to her and who before that day had never heard of her shop or mine, put the book down and walked out.  She called us, told us that she’d wait a week for our order to come in and that she’d been shocked by the other shopkeeper’s comment.  We were surprised, but said nothing negative in response, only that we were happy she’d found us in the phone book that day, we were sorry it didn’t go well at the other store and we’d call her when her book came in.  She told many friends this story and while it was an unfortunate loss for the other shop, it was a gain for us and if the other shop owner had not allowed herself to get caught up in fear, she could have made a sale, gained a new customer and prevented bad word of mouth.

Being helpful and positive enabled me to stay above the stress of daily worries about other businesses and helped me to focus on what we offered and the environment I wanted to create.  Eventually, when the shop close by went out of business, our regular customers knew there was no gloating on our end and that we had been as supportive to another business as we could be and stayed true to ourselves in the process.

If we hadn’t been generous in spirit to that shop and my customers had sensed this, it would have forever tarnished our image in a business that sold tools for spiritual development.  While they might have continued to shop there, the energy wouldn’t have matched our message and they wouldn’t have trusted us on some level.  It would have only been a matter of time before a new shop with a more positive energy opened and the customers would have gravitated towards it.

Eventually, I needed a change, sold my business and began to focus on a different kind of creativiity.  I learned quickly that many things change when the majority of your business is done on the internet, working only with shop owners who carry my work as opposed to the retail buyers or face to face in a booth, but not in a brick and mortar.

I struggled earlier this year when I saw there was a woman making her wallets out of paper and vinyl, but differently than I do. I got a little caught up in my prices and even went as far as to comment to a friend (not a customer) that I questioned the quality of her items. For shame! Hadn’t I learned anything about my own views as I had explained them to that customer a few years ago?  In reality, I didn’t question her quality…I was insecure about my own work and prices.

I think we all understand the sinking feeling we have as artists and crafters when we see something on the market similar to our own. Most of us don’t want to admit to it, but it can be hard not to compare another’s work to what we’re doing, but at the end of the day, we have to remind ourselves that if we start to see fellow artists as “competition” we lose our ability to be competitive. In our work, creativity is key and by keeping our heads in our own businesses, we keep our energy focused and our creative juices flowing.

While we do have to be aware of what’s out there and be somewhat aware of what others are charging in whatever category of art we’re pursuing, ultimately this matters less than us realistically determining what we need to price an item at to cover our needs and if it’s higher than someone else’s, we have to be OK with it.

We also stand to gain more by encouraging our customers to check our the great work being done by other artists.  Recently, I was contacted by a woman who’d retained a PR firm to help her market her gorgeous line of stationary. She contacted me to see if I could partner with her on a project to make little purse sized notebook holders.  At first, I was excited because I had planned to make them anyway, but after I thought about it, I realized that I was months away from a good design and that I really wanted to focus on my passport cases first.  I was only thinking of taking the project out of fear of missing an opportunity and someone else getting it rather than because I really wanted to take it on. I thought of the other woman making the paper and vinyl wallets and decided to refer the woman offering me the project to her.

There are some that would say it is a mistake not to grab every opportunity, but it’s better to let one pass if your heart isn’t in it.  There are others who might turn it down, but not give another artist a referral and even with all my lessons learned, I did hesitate, but then remembered that the same principles should apply to my new business as did to my old one.

These days, I spread the word about Etsy to anyone who will listen and I know that customers will find other wallets out there, but I also know that as long as I keep my work fresh and my eye on my own business goals that I’ll be OK and that I feel great when I can help a customer find a paper and vinyl wristlet from another seller because I don’t make them yet.  It’s so much less stressful to be positive about your own business than it is to worry about the impact of someone else’s.

Whew, thanks for reading…it was a long one!

Laura





Inspiration: Laura McCullough-DeLorme

8 08 2008

To me, inspiration and motivation go hand in hand, if I’m not motivated to work, I simply have to find something to inspire me and quick!  Because I make many of my wallets out of newspapers, I’m often inspired by other people’s art…cartoonists, news photographers, fashion advertisements etc.  I’ll see an image and wonder how I can incorporate it into the front panel of a wallet and this sets about a flurry of cutting, measuring and collaging to see to see if I can make something amazing happen in its transformation.

It’s hard for me to work with paper I don’t care for.  I know it’s important to have a wide variety of patterns because my wallets are accessories and every woman’s taste is different, but I try to choose paper I love, like or well, almost like.

There have been a few exceptions. I was drawn to this Peter Pan paper because of the colors, but when I began working with it, i discovered that I hated the images.

In fact, one of the images of the Indian Chief from the story was so offensive in its negative stereotype of Native Americans that I folded the paper on the inside of the wallet, so no one would see it. And Tinkerbell? Who ever knew that my favorite fairy friend could look like such a brat?

I got through it and guess what? The wallet sold the first day out at Farmer’s Market, accidentally got listed in my Etsy shop and sold there too, so now I have to make another and quick.  What’s my inspiration to work on it now?  I’m motivated by the customer’s delight in the paper and of how perfect it will be as a gift for her daughter in-law. And in most cases, that’s motivation enough. Plus, I do kind of like a swarthy Captain Hook.

The picture at the top of the post is inspiration in action and based solely on my joy of finding an image I loved. It was made with a hot pink newspaper from Italy that’s targeted towards male sports enthusiasts. The image is from the corner of a car advertisement (if you look closely you can see the front window of the car in the bottom of the photo). As soon as I saw it, I was inspired to turn it from an ad to a very unusual wallet. And the work was easy. It’s so fun to see the transformation and as I work with images like I love, I’m excited as a little kid who has a big secret because “everyone is going to just die when they see this!”

Of course, there’s always a balance and by the time I’ve folded my seventy second cherry blossom wallet, the excitement in the end result wanes, but I know there will always be paper I’ve never worked with to get me inspired again. These are next on my list!

I’ll keep you posted!

www.littleorangekitchen.typepad.com





Balancing Career With Life Laura McCullough-DeLorme

7 07 2008

It’s no surprise this topic is posted about often…it’s a struggle for many of us.

I’m selfish when it comes to time I want to spend working.  In fact, I’m fairly selfish about my time in general, but I do recognize I need more in my life than just work and that it’s good for me to make room for other things. It’s funny how I see so many women’s magazines encouraging women to start saying no to invitations and to cut back, whereas, I have to make an effort to say yes to social engagements or else risk being a hermit.

In the past I loved to work all night when inspiration hit…or go for three day jags in the studio and tell my husband he was on his own for a week because I “had a lot to get done”.  I scoffed at the whole idea of making a work schedule.  It seemed boring and I feared it would stifle my creativity. I even referred to myself as having a “manic” style of creating and was proud of my all-nighters and subsequent need for four days off because I was tired and burned out.

The thing is, while my husband is extremely supportive, the bloom was starting to go off my rose as he grew tired of coming home after work to find me either holed up in the studio and resentful of his interruption or taking a break and resentful that I was expected to want to eat dinner with him or go to a movie.  I even tested friendships by canceling the same chai dates two or three times in a row because I was feeling “inspired”.

It isn’t as if I didn’t care about my husband and friends, but I felt I was being true to my inner artist/writer clock and that “they” needed to understand.

This all came to a head last year when I was preparing for my first art show.  I excitedly announced to a friend that I was going to have to work twenty-four hours a day for the “next two months” and she didn’t respond with much enthusiasm.  I commented to my husband about her lack of excitement and at the same time realized that actually, he didn’t seem too excited either.

I had one of those big moments where I realized everything had to change, but I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t like it and in fact, the only thing that motivated me was that I figured I could get more done if I set regular hours and went into disciplined mass “production”.

I made a detailed schedule that included time for life as well as time for work.  I was pretty impressed with myself and couldn’t wait until “Monday” to start my new routine.

I bombed out.  I couldn’t do it.

I did schedule time and sometimes I even managed to stick to my schedule, but I didn’t feel happy or particularly inspired to create.  My eight hours of work time would pass and I’d get a few pieces made (in-between checking my Yahoo horoscope, reading blogs, seeing “what’s doing” on Etsy and making some urgent phone calls to let friends know that a new bakery opened).  Then, I’d close up the studio for the day, head downstairs to have dinner and watch a movie with my husband…resentful and worried the whole time about how I didn’t get any work done earlier.

A girlfriend of mine gently asked if I could use some help with my schedule (this was after a teary call because I realized that I wasn’t going to have as many pieces as I needed for the show and because I still wasn’t pleasing my friends or myself either). I said yes…and this in itself was huge, I’m not wasn’t big on accepting help.

She knows me well and figured that my schedule was too rigid for a “beginner”.  She suggested that instead of blocking off time for various things, that I needed to look at what I wanted to accomplish on any given day.

Instead of blocking off eight hours as “Work”, we wrote “Twelve Wallets” or “Twenty Cardholders”.

I can’t tell you the difference this made. I’d get up in the morning and know that I had a real goal to work towards that day. Plus, she also realized I needed scheduled creativity time…so I scheduled a day to work on the new designs or play with the paper and see what new ideas were born.

I found it easy to pull myself away from the desk after completing my assigned number of pieces and in fact, this helped me to better price my work because I was able to better track how much time each wallet took to make.  It didn’t take long to realize I’d underpriced my work and could have been arrested for breaking minimum wage laws when it came to paying my one and only employee! :)

This has worked well for me, but I have to be honest…old habits die hard and it will probably continue to be a struggle. Especially at times when I feel as if I have to get more done in a day than is possible.  However, I’m learning that saying yes to invitations for midnight walks after the rain with a girlfriend or kicking back with my husband and having chips and dip while watching Tommy Boy (Who would ever imagine?) can be a lot of fun.

The passport holder pictured above is an example of an item that came out of the studio on one of my scheduled “free-days”.  As always, for more of what’s happening in the studio, I can always be found here:

Little Orange Kitchen Studio








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