Wow, 19 days since I last blogged. What have I been doing? Working has been on the forefront of my mind this past month, with mounting medical bills from the “March from Hell” and prior commitments and deadlines, keeping me busy, but not typing much. I am starting to get a lot of personal emails, and they have been the focus of my computer time lately.
I keep thinking that I’m nearing the end of my current commission work for St. Anthony’s church, and then I find another reason to keep working another week, and another week. Best guess is now 3 more weeks. My wife gave up on me telling her when I would be done. I’m really bad about estimating planned hours vs. actual hours. Seems like that after all of these years, I would get better, but no. My heart seems to always call for more than my head estimated, or my hands can create fast. People don’t buy my work because I’m fast. It’s a good thing.
We have been pursuing a diagnosis for my daughter Rachel’s limited muscle strength and mobility. After waiting only 8 days for results from Mayo Clinic, we now have a diagnosis of a disease named “dermatomyositis” (I hope I spelled it right) which causes muscle inflammation and skin irritation. She started the prescription drug therapy late last week, and in only 4 days, we are seeing improvements in her health, although changes in other areas, the expected side effects. For instance, she is more “bossy,” “moody,” “irritable,” and louder than normal. All of these side effects are gladly accepted for the improvements we are seeing in her mobility. Thanks for all of the prayer and support; we do appreciate your concern. We no longer feel that Muscular Dystrophy, cancer, tumor, Lyme disease, or arthritis are possible reasons for her problems. Thanks to God for her improvement.
To cause my own “crisis” last week, I think I over-tox’d myself with either lacquer thinner, shellac, denatured alcohol, or all three. I’ve been spraying a lot more of these products than normal on my current work, and being in such a hurry to finish this project, I haven’t been as safe as I should have been with fumes and spilled liquids. The first symptoms were itchy palms and hands, which I just thought was dry skin the first day. Then, a painful night of intestinal cramps, followed by 3 days of diaria figuring it was just some type of food poisoning. But then, after a few hours of terribly itchy red bumps all over my body from the top of my head to the top of my feet, I realized that I had become toxic. Benadryl knocked down the hives pretty quickly, but there were some intense moments before the hives all went away.
Folks, take it from me, be careful with these chemicals! I feel great tonight, and will be taking extra precautions from now on. I’m going to see my friend Charles who builds cabinets in his shop, as he has an Apollo HVLP turbine sprayer he is suggesting that I switch over to. I’ll let you know what I think of it after I see it this week.
Diversified Products & Business Methodology:
Finally, over in the Forum, there has been some recent action on my topic about “What Price to Sell it For” in regard to our woodworking products. I started to reply in the Forum to the comments tonight, but as this got so long, I decided to just BLOG it for antiquity. I carefully consider every comment I get about my work, my business, my ideas, and my comments, as even in criticism and joking, I understand that there is wisdom to be gained. Thanks to everyone that takes time to comment and send me notes, I appreciate the input. The rest of this BLOG is dedicated to my thoughts on the subject of segregating my work into separate websites, as proposed in the Forum comments.
I set up my varied and widespread works into different categories, different brochures, and separate places on my website. For those of you that have received something in writing and snail mail over the past year from me, I have tried to include one of these self-produced and printed brochures with the whole gambit of products.
It seems that the diversification grows every year. In the near future, I will be adding an additional target area of “Church Furnishings” and another in “Caskets” as I am seeing enough activity to warrant a separation into these additional categories. To go along with this, new brochures, new trademarked business names, and new website updates.
For those that don’t know me, the first question is often why I do so many different things. First of all, it is because I can’t stand to do repetitive work, and I get bored quick with things, so I have a lot of strange things I have tried to do. But, all of them were started as a separate request from a person that wanted to pay me money to build the first example. The first flute, the first ceremonial pipe, the first buffalo horn ladle, the first cane, the first casket, the first…..
For instance, a guy looking at my other work has asked me to build a blue’s style acoustic-electric arched-top guitar with fancy wood, and inlay work, etc. He said he would buy the first one, and that others would stand in line once they saw it. I looked into the venture and quickly realized that this style of hand-made custom guitar could easily cost $10,000 to buy, and that there were already lots of great makers in the business. I went back and asked if he knew how much a guitar like he wanted would cost. He assured me that he knew, and that once purchased, it would only go up in value. He added that he would get to play it in his country music band and enjoy it while it appreciated. That sounds like a business venture that has some opportunity for success, if I can execute to a high degree, the skill base required to do the project. Apparently, the market is sound if the work I produce is good enough. He assured me it would be. Still there is risk, as in any new venture. I have yet to start the guitar venture, but I have ordered the book on how to do it. This type of personal, individualized, request later turns into a separate business venture, hoping maybe one of them will take off and run.
So last summer, when an angry member of the National Bureau of Indian Affairs emailed me and called me upset that I was building Native American Style flutes and pipes, I was pretty crushed by the emotion involved, and his criticism of me. He did not criticize my work, but rather who I was, and how I dared to trample on his traditions. After our time visiting, he asked me to continue, taking the art-forms to the best of my ability, wanting me to set up with a Tribal Elder that could lead me on the venture. He said he was excited to see what I could do with flutes and pipes as I worked on them harder. What started out as a rough morning of email and phone calls by an angry Native man, turned out to be a great opportunity and a bright green light to pursue something that another person of notable respect and position thought could be a good thing for me to do full time. Good for the craft, while good for my business he felt.
However, there are so many things in this world that I could get excited about building, that I decided to drop the efforts in the Native American Style work, and just avoid altogether, all of the anger, emotion, and offensive behaviors that I was causing in others. Life is just too short to focus so much effort in an area that is so controversial. I’ll still build one for someone if they ask, but pursuing it as a business area has ended for me. I took it down off of my website, and I don’t hand out the business cards, or brochures anymore.
As you can see, without any real direction, or overall vision of what I am good at, I stumble ahead in my build-it—if-they-ask methodology. “Find a need, fill a need“ someone once said.
The downside of this methodology is that I don’t always work on something that I think is my most creative, most inspired, best effort. For instance, I enjoy building Arts & Crafts furniture, but the challenge doesn’t utilize all of what I am able to do. Building a carved Morris Chair for instance, is a challenge, but the effort does not require areas of myself to be creatively expressed. So, I don’t want to do a lot of Morris Chairs, but a set a year would be fun. Now that I have the bending forms, the plans and dimensions worked out, the marketing and Internet publicity, I would enjoy getting the chance to make more money on my past learning curve. I just don’t want to do it every day. Now, you can see the hurdles I have to jump in making a living at this stumble-along methodology. I am best at “prototypes,” not “production.”
My thought at the time I started up my website (www.decoustudio.com) to go along with my part time hobby-business was that I had the vision that it would all grow into a full time venture. “Build it and they will come” was my thought at the time. To some extent that has been true. But finding people to stand in line for $5,000-$20,000 examples of my work has been hard to get going at times. The rest of the time, I can’t keep up, and the stress of deadlines and disappointed folks is hard for me to manage in my melancholy-temperament limitations.
I look for customers that are people that value me as an artist, as they then seem to allow more bumbling along and missed deadlines, with the idea that my work will be more creative if given the time to complete it fully. And this is true. Give me a hard deadline, and when the deadline arrives, I quit working on the item. Give me more time, and I will nearly bankrupt myself trying to take the item beyond my own expectations, and theirs.
In my diversified methodology I really didn’t anticipate that each product category would find legs and run on it’s own, but the shared impact of a lot of different areas would provide enough income, while I enjoyed working from home and expressing myself creatively. In this plan, I could build a couple of powder horns a year, a few knives, some furniture, a casket, a couple of fancy flutes, etc., so that the total sales for a year would support a meager living.
For instance, I have been playing with the idea of doing metal engraving, decorative engraving typically seen on guns, knives, and motorcycle parts (might be a good way to trade my way back into the Harley hobby I gave up in 1997). I am pretty confident that with the tools and some training, I could excel at metal engraving, and only 30 miles away is a premier school for this artform. Do I want to do it every day? No. Therein lies my trouble with formulating a business plan around my skill in a certain area, or product. I get bored easy.
Getting Friendly Advice:
A good friend of ours is a very caring individual. This person has worried for years about my inabilities as a businessman, and the staggering effects of this on my income level. They have, over the years, passionately expressed this concern by offering advice on ways to get this business going and make some real money.
First of all, making “real” money has never been the goal with this business. If it was the goal, I would have stayed in the big corporate world working for “The Man”, who squashed me in management, but paid me well, even offering the great benefit packages if I hung around long enough to get stuck. However, there is a lot of life that can be missed while living in the safety of golden handcuffs, and once I jumped, I liked the freedom. I’ve said before that I was “hard to work with,” and you can add to that title, “hard to manage”.
This loving friend again approached me last summer and suggested that I hire a marketing person that could travel the country and sell my production items in the area of Scrimshaw Artwork. They suggested that I hire a handful of college art students that had talent in drawing, and teach them the techniques, and then manage the business selling items made by the little company, all sold by the traveling marketing person. They suggested that I could ethically sign each piece myself, as I was managing the business. They added that other artists had successfully done this strategy of designing and producing factory artwork in many art forms, over many years.
I can think of dozens of examples of products and artists that do this now. The artist does the original, the employees make the copies, and the buyers think they are buying a real piece of art. It works for others, why not for me, our friend asked? Personally, (just my opinion, don’t hate me for it) I think that if it is a copy, it is not art. It is a copy of art. Why people collect copies of art is their own decision, but not something I see much value in.
I listened patiently for a long time to the suggestions, but eventually I just could not keep nodding my head and acting like I was taking it all in. Finally, I said, “I sell artwork that I personally make, and people buy it because I did it. If I sell it as a commodity, and just become a manager, then I am not an artisan, I am a businessperson, and that is not what I want to do for my life’s work. I’m not doing this for the money, although I do need some level of money to survive in this world, but the art is the priority, not the profit. I try to live on the profit the “art” produces, and enjoy the freedom that this life provides, but I do appreciate your input.”
This pretty well stunned our friend, and the conversation ground to a halt. I could tell that they thought I was “bonkers” in the head, and I know they feel sorry for my wife. They just got me along with the marriage to Shelli. I might be bonkers, I’m not saying I’m not, I just have different priorities and goals than most folks in this culture. Call that bonkers, I understand, and won’t fault you for it.
What to Make, What not to Make?
So, in this segregated business methodology, there are a lot of decisions that have to be made about what to make, and what not to make. An example is the highly skilled and valued craft of repairing antiques. I don’t quite understand why factory made items that were once bought for their functionality and sold in droves, are now collectible and valuable. But, that is the reality of our culture, why would I not want to cash in on this collecting fervor? It is simple really, I do not enjoy the daily effort of repairing someone else’s creative expression. I want to spend my days in my own creative expression. But, I will occasionally copy a piano leg, repair a table, carve a part to fix one broken off of an heirloom, etc. if the situation is challenging, or if a close friend needs my help.
Choosing what not to work on is probably more important than choosing what to work on. For instance, in the area of furniture. I can solely build about 5-6 art-furniture pieces in a year. Say I can do this for 20 more years. That means that for the next 20 years, I have to carefully select the 100 items that I want to call my “legacy” of work. This mindset helps me say, “yes”, or “no” to a lot of opportunities.
Finding a Niche? Who knows?
As the years stumble by, and I diversify into things I find challenging and interesting, surely I will find one niche in something that is unique and people like. Then, the business in that area can grow, and I can if I want to, specialize in “it” if the market and my interest level make a match. In the other areas that don’t grow, they will be reduced to a hobby if I like doing it.
Some of my customer base has been interested in buying a copy of anything new I try, while others have been customers of just one area of my work. For instance, there are powder horn buyers that haven’t been interested in canes, knives, or furniture. And Cane buyers that didn’t realize that I also built furniture. And so on.
My thought is that over the years I can grow the varied categories that show progress, such as the walking cane business. To use this area as an example, I want to develop a niche in walking canes, a specific style that people like, and that only I make. Probably more important though, is to find a style that a factory can’t copy. I get regular hits on my website from locations in China, scares me to death, but they can’t copy the signature (can they?).
Along with the cane niche developed over the years of production, there will be a growing database of customer names, and stores/galleries that sell the canes. All the while I will be learning the tricks and techniques that only someone that does the same things over and over for many years learns how to do. When I am ready to retire in that area, I can then sell the business name, train the business buyer, load up their truck with my specialized tools, jigs, fixtures, and manual, and give them my blessing. As they drive away I know that I can return to the shop and try a new challenge, or spend time with grandkids some day.
Master of Nothing
However, the cost to this diversified art business is that I can’t be a Master of anything, at best, just good at a lot of things. That is the cost if I share all of my time across many disciplines. For instance, I am not as good of a Scrimshaw artist as I could be, because I share my efforts among varied disciplines, such as furniture building. If I would focus more in one area, I will be better in that single area since the practiced skills acquired more of my effort and practice time.
I think it is this factor alone that separates the work of Master Artisans from the rest of us wannabees, like myself. The “Masters” take an entire lifetime to hone and train their mind and hands to do one thing expertly. Nothing but practice can develop this. Reading the Master’s books, watching their DVD’s, or listening to them lecture can not develop the ability to do what they do, without actually doing it over and over, over many years. But, these video and written materials can provide me with motivation, insight, and touches of their brilliance, and so I am an avid collector of woodworker’s books. Not the “how-to” type books, but the autobiographies that show insight into how they think.
It is also the type of thing I look for when picking out a magazine to subscribe to. I don’t care about plans, tips, jigs and fixtures, tool reviews, etc. But, if an editor regularly picks out the experts in the craft and thoroughly interviews them so that we get to see their heart, then I am hooked and subscribe.
From One to Many:
As I stated, each product area started from a request from a person asking me to build something special for them. I took what I learned by doing the work, developed a marketing plan to find other customers for that line of work, and priced it all so that I can be selective about what I spend my time on. I can build a lot of $50 canes, sell them all week long, but I don’t want to. I want to sell $400 canes, a couple dozen of my best, more creative canes a year, and so that is where my focus is.
I think that the walking cane business has enough legs of it’s own to warrant a website of it’s own. However, here is the kicker. A great website, professional in appearance, operation, and ongoing maintenance, with secure ordering is a multi-thousand dollar investment. A website doesn’t go anywhere without printed paid-for advertising to support it. Once the traffic is going, fine, but the start up years take some investment in publicity. All of this is something a “bonkers man” with little-to-no Capital can’t do. As soon as it is possible, I will be all over that idea. I like it, concur it is viable, and if the money shows up to do it, I will get it done, since I believe it will pay out. In the meantime, I limp along doing the best I can.
The cane business has legs (I think), but I have a hard time getting more than a couple bucks an hour for my scrimshaw work. It is a cool decoration to add it to a product and I enjoy doing it from time to time (not everyday). But, scrimshaw artwork is hard for me to sell at a price that entices me to part with the object. I have two powder horns now that I won’t part with for the money that has been offered for them. If they sell great, if not, my kids will get them someday. I used to have three powder horns to sell, but I gave my favorite one to my dad for Christmas, so now there are two.
So, at this point, a professional quality website with scrimshaw only on it, seems hard to imagine as a good investment of my time and limited resources. There are dozens of other scrimshaw artists that struggle getting their own artwork sold on the internet. It is a marketing/business decision, and that’s all.
Anyway, for those of you that have asked, or wondered in the past, what my Business Plan must look like, the information I have shown here is pretty much the methodology. The details are in how to make it all work, how to market, how to fund the start-up, etc. Take a passionate introduction and attach a large number of pages with boring guesses and assumptions and you have the document. Read this, and you’ll get the gist of it all.
Please keep your ideas coming, I do think intently on each one, and will enjoy hearing what works for you in your niche.
(copyright 4-29-2007 by M.A. DeCou)
-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan - www.decoustudio.com