Friday, June 27, 2008

Origami Convention in New York

Origami USA will hold their 50th annual convention in New York City this weekend, at the Fashion Institute of Technology. On Saturday and Sunday, there will be an exhibit of origami works open to the public. I will have several items in the exhibit. Sadly, I did not take pictures before shipping them off to New York, but, there are several items made from polymer clay, a crane made from felt, held together by needle felting, and a wire mesh flower. If you are in the area, and have the time, pop on over to the exhibit for a look. You will be amazed at what people are folding these days.

I will be in the vendor area on Saturday and Sunday with cranes, happicoats and cicadas. I will also be doing a demonstration of folding polymer clay on Monday morning.

If you come by, be sure to say hello!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Digging a Hole with a Teaspoon

You have heard the expression of a death by a thousand cuts. This idea is similar. Digging a hole with a teaspoon is slow and you don't really see the progress you are making until suddenly you look up one day and wonder, "How did I get here?"

This is a lesson in not doing as I have done. Heed the warnings.

The problem is, you may, like me, not see how bad it is until the hole is much deeper than you intended. I am talking about pricing. Specifically underpricing. The biggest part of the trap for me, was the idea that "people won't pay more than $xx for this." And I let that idea guide my decisions for too long, even while seeing warning signs along the way.

Cranes. Of course. I seem to live and breath cranes. Cranes to sell. Crane to memorialize. And in this case, the intersection of the two was part of what made me wake up. Let me begin by saying I had increased my crane price three times in the last few years. The wholesale price had doubled over that time.

But....and this is a very big but....the product I am selling today is not the same product I was making and selling then. At first the surface design was fairly simple. And they were not sold in any special packaging, But, I added the packaging and informational inserts, and increased the price significantly. Sales took off. I was a happy camper.

Then, I started playing. I started to do more involved canework on the surface of the cranes here and there. And the customers loved it. "Send more of those ones with all the detailed patterns. Everyone loved them!" I would be pleased with the feedback, but also sigh a bit as I realized it would be more work. Soon that was nearly all I was selling. Meanwhile, the price had only gone up by about a dollar, but the labor was about fourfold more. Folding cranes for the Crane Project put into sharp focus for me just how long it was taking me to make these intricately patterned cranes. I saw what I had been trying to ignore.

Initially when I would ship the cranes across country, I could ship to California or Washington state, Priority Mail, for only about $6 or $7. I offered free shipping. I figured I could easily absorb that into the price structure. Last summer though, the Post Office revamped their price structure, and suddenly it was more than double that cost to ship across country. Ouch! This spring, the prices took another big jump. I had added a shipping surcharge to crane orders west of the Mississippi, but it was not going to be enough.

Then, the breakage started. I had shipped for two years with not one crane breaking. Now, changes in clay formulation have presented challenges. I have had to revamp my packaging, adding further costs. Not to mention the credits or re-shipments I had to make each time a broken crane was reported.

Can you feel my pain?

I had no room in my price structure for all of these problems to converge. But converge they did. With six more crane orders still to ship under the old price schedule, I knew I had to take action. It was time to begin to fill in the hole, and the teaspoon was not going to work. It was time to put things back in order quickly.

My prices have nearly doubled for the intricate cranes that everyone wants. If they want to pay the old prices, they will have to purchase the "Elemental cranes". Solid colors, to represent the five "elements", air, water, earth, fire, and metal. In between those prices I have cranes with crackled leaf.

I am now shipping FedEx Ground, at a much better rate. And I seemed to have solved the problem of breakage for now.

The reaction is unclear. But, in the end, I could not continue on the path I had been traveling.

Lessons, summarized:

1. If you add to your product, acknowledge that. It is a different product. Change the price. Rename it if you need to. Not all cranes were created equally, but I was pricing them as if they were. Some of you will be saying, of course. I would never do that. I hope you are right. But sometimes we do things that don't make sense, because they will be "easier".

2. Don't undervalue your labor. I was doing what I hate. I had gotten myself into a place that all I was doing was covering the costs of my materials and overhead, so I could make more cranes. Don't do that. It does not respect you. If you find yourself saying, "people won't pay...." Stop. If half the people will pay the new price, I will have the same dollar business, for half the work. I can definitely live with that. Too many people have also told me stories of raising prices, and losing their "high maintenance" customers. Another potential benefit.

3. Sometimes we need to re-evaluate suppliers. I had gotten comfortable with shipping my work by Priority Mail. I knew the drill. It was convenient. I didn't want to have to research alternatives. But in the end, I have a good service, for a much lower cost. And, my husband has a FedEx center right near where he works. I don't even have to leave home!

4. Things will change. At some point something you depended upon, and thought you knew will change. You will have to figure out a new way of doing things. I tried to avoid dealing with these issues for too long. I wanted them to go away. I did not have time. (Can you hear the two year-old tantrum welling up?) Once I decided on a plan of action, it was actually less stressful than trying to pretend the problem was not there, or that it would go away on it's own accord. It is not easy to own up to it, but I really did not want to have to deal with this. But being in business for yourself, there will be things that you have to do that you do not want to do. Unless you have employees, there is no one to delegate responsibility for these tasks. So buck up, and deal! And remind yourself how much you are happier doing what you are doing spite of these kinds of stresses. And if you are not, then maybe a bigger change is in order......

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Too Busy

Have you missed me?

I have missed the time I had been spending writing here, but lately it seems like that is a luxury for which there is no room. I thought I worked a lot before. Now I have had to cut out lots of little "extras", .... like writing in this blog.

So what have I been up to?

First, cleaning out space. A few weeks back I rented a dumpster. Nothing is more satisfying than clearing out lots of clutter, and ending up with space. Our basement was filled to the gills and beyond. It is gratifying to finally have begun to re-establish order where before it was sheer chaos.

Part of the motivation to do this was I was desperate for space. The Crane Project is taking up more and more room. Both storing the cranes, and work space to string cranes up on cables. My work spaces were becoming unworkable. The change has made a large space available to me in the basement, and now I can safely have them out of danger, and more easily do the work I need to do with them.

I also decided it was time I admit that my dining room had stopped being a dining room several years ago when I started selling lots of cranes. It had become my crane packaging and inventory area, and shipping area. But I never fully admitted that. Even though hosting a meal in the room would have been impossible.

So the hutch was cleared out, the table moved to a wall, and a second table brought into the room. My computer came downstairs, along with all my paperwork. Getting an order out the door has become more efficient. It is still chaotic because I have not had the time to organize my office "stuff", but already, it is feeling much better than what existed before. And my husband has taken over the office space upstairs. He has a place to read, to play his guitars, and do yoga.

I have set a tough schedule for myself to complete cranes for the Crane Project. Sixteen cranes a day. Seven days a week. Right now, I am two days behind schedule, or thirty-two cranes. I hope to make eight more before I go to bed tonight so that the deficit shrinks just a little. But it is gratifying to watch the number climb. I just crossed 800 cranes tonight. It is also stunning to see how many that is. And to realize that is it only a year and two months of a war that is already over five years in length.

The motivation for staying on schedule is because it may put me in position to "catch up" at about the time of the inaugural in January of 2009. I like the idea of that deadline. A karma shift of sorts.

The waxed paper cranes are getting folded here and there. I bring a bag with paper squares with me where ever I go. I have folded over 500, and received nearly 100 from other folders. Last night, about 15 to 20 were folded before and during my daughter's band concert. I even taught my dentist and her assistant how to fold cranes last week. I have a new idea that I will be working on in the coming days to recruit more folders.

I still don't know where this project will be installed. It is one of the first questions I get, and all I can say still is "I don't know." All I can do is trust. I am continuing my search for a place, as well as funding options. Filling out applications, and learning.

I have also been dealing with some difficult choices in my business. I will write more about that soon. All I can say for now was once I made the choice it felt better than it did when I was avoiding the inevitable. Once I crossed the dreaded line, answers and solutions seem to fall into place. I don't know how it will work out, but I do know I feel comfortable with my decision, regardless of the outcome.

For the time being, my posts will probably continue to be sporadic. This post is more scattered than I like, but I guess that is a reflection of my state of mind right now. A bit like a pinball bouncing around. Time to bounce back into my studio, and make a few more cranes....

Friday, June 6, 2008

What Do You Know?

It always surprises me how much insight is possible in the obvious. But it is only when we step outside our normal framework that we can perhaps have the vantage point to see.

When I began this journey into becoming a working crafts person, I found there were many steps and hurdles along the way. First, it was developing the technical skill with my material. I can still remember Nancy Markoe at a class at the Arts Business Institute. She was reminding us that no matter how much we learned and understood about the business of craft, in the end we had to also spend time in the studio, honing our skill. We had to be able to have our hands understand the material. She used an example of making a handle for a mug 100 times before you might begin to be competent at that task, and develop the muscle memory of the task. Her words ring even more true for me now.

I have come to understand that we often start from where we are. Obvious, yes. The experiences we have had will color what we see as possible. For me, jewelry was an obvious thing to make. I have worn jewelry for as long as I can remember. I have collections of antique and vintage jewelry. At a craft show, I have always been drawn to the jewelry. I know jewelry. I love jewelry. And my cranes came from a connection to that origami form.

But recently, I began to venture outside the familiar. When I began work on the Crane Project, I was scared to death. I knew nothing about this new terrain, or a project of this size or scale. I knew I was going to have to find a place to install the project. How do you find that? How does it get installed? How do I get the money to pay for it? How in the world does something so big and overwhelming ever happen?

I am still learning answers to many of those questions. But in the process, I have had my world expanded a bit. What seemed beyond me, and a world inhabited by others, more daring or more creative now seems like a place I might want to visit. I have had several ideas stirring up lately that I am excited about exploring. I don't know when there will be time to get to them, but nonetheless, I have experienced a shift.

When we move beyond what we know it is stretching our muscles. It may hurt. We may be rejected. We may not fit in. But, it may be worth the aches and pains on the way to creative growth. We grow when we go somewhere new, or try something different than what we already know how to do well. Growth is seldom going to happen by sticking with what you already know.

In the last few months, I have applied for, and been rejected for, several grants. A year ago, the idea of a grant was not even on my radar. I have now learned more about that process, and will continue to refine my approach. I have learned more about budgeting for a project. I have asked all sorts of people for all sorts of help. Some say no, but others say yes. Some days I feel like a politician running for office and trying to raise funds for the campaign. It is not what you are in this for, but if you don't do it, the other opportunities may not come your way.

By taking this step across the imaginary line of what I saw as possible, into the impossible, I feel like I am Alice in Wonderland. I have entered a new place, with all sorts of doors to explore and possibilities to consider. I may decide I want to go back to the safety of what I knew before, but I may end up feeling a creative expansion that would not have been possible if I did not step across that imaginary line. The line was only there in my head. I decided what I could do, and what was not possible. The line is mutable though. We can redraw it at any time. We can venture into areas we thought were off limits.

What you know and what you have done before does not have to set the boundaries for where you go in the future. They can be a foundation. A stepping stone. A safe harbor. We get to choose.

Do you have any lines you want to redraw?

Monday, June 2, 2008


I have making only rare appearances lately, because I have had to make a choice. Write on the blog, or try to keep my head above water? I have a few posts in my head that need more time and reflection to do them a good service.

Today, I am going to cheat. We have had a book floating around the house for the last few weeks. My husband took a trip out to Kripalu, a yoga retreat center in western Massachusetts, and brought back The Book of Questions, by Gregory Stock, Ph.D. It is a wonderful way of opening up conversation with kids who are teens and older, with a spouse or partner, or a friend. It is also great to just flip through on your own and ponder.

Here are a few of the questions, from a quick and random flip through:

1. What has been your biggest disappointment in life? your biggest failure?(#197)
2. Would you like to be famous? in what way? (#85)
3. If you knew you could devote yourself to any single occupation - music, writing, acting, business, politics, medicine, etc. -and be among the best and most successful in the world at it, what would you choose? If you knew you only had a 10 percent chance at being so successful, would you still put in the effort? (#36)
4. Would you rather be extremely successful professionally and have a tolerable yet unexciting private life, or have an extremely happy private life and only a tolerable and uninspiring professional life? (#14)
4a. The follow-up to this question: Since so many place great emphasis on a happy private life, why do people end up putting more energy into their professional lives? If you feel your private life is more important to you, do your priorities support this? Are you simply unwilling to admit that work is more important? Do you hope that professional success will somehow magically lead to personal happiness?

5. A close friend asks - and genuinely wants - your honest opinion about something, but your opinion is one that he is likely to find quite painful. For example, your friend is an artist and asks your honest estimate of being successful. You think he is an atrocious artist who hasn't the slightest chance of success. What would you do? (#144)
The book is full of these kinds of questions, and some silly and outrageous ones too. If you have a long car ride ahead, or maybe want some entertainment other than television for a vacation trip, I highly recommend getting a copy of the book. You will probably learn a few things about yourself as well as those around you.