Thursday, May 28, 2009

How Do They Get Away With This??

I was talking with another artist the other day about a shop that had approached both of us within the last few years. What stunned me as we spoke was the fact that this place was still in business, getting artists to sign up to their "great" plan.

The deal is that you pay a fee of about $170 for six months, and then you "only" have to pay a consignment fee of 15%. Apparently this last thing is what gets so many artists caught up in the web. They hear the 15% and think,

"What a great deal. Only 15% fee."

What is wrong with this picture?

First of all, why are you paying someone to carry your work? It is not necessary, and it is a needless cost. Let's assume that a mark-up of 2X your wholesale price is reasonable for both you and the seller to cover your costs, in which case the standard consignment of 50% is not entirely out of line. So, you would need to sell $400 through this shop to reach break even. It is only if they are selling more than $400 over a six month period that you will begin to see any advantage to the better consignment rate.

But, when you sign up, how do you know if this will be the case? This artist that I talked to managed to negotiate a six month period with a standard 50% consignment rate. During that time, she found out that they did not do a good job selling her work. She would have been in the hole by several hundred dollars. And when they presented her with a contract, and an offer to continue to have her work with them, she saw that they had kept the consignment rate at 50%, AND wanted her to pay that membership fee.

What else is wrong with this picture beyond the basic math? First of all, why are we so willing to carry the inventory costs of the shop by offering our work on consignment, and, to pay a fee for the privilege on top of that? The sales pitch tells you that they will spend your fee to help market your work. Isn't that what the the normal consignment fee goes towards? Why would anyone want to assume all the risks of their business by paying this fee up front, and giving them the inventory they need to run their shop?

When we sell our work on consignment, we are carrying the inventory costs of a business. This is part of the normal operating costs of a retail business. And when the work is on consignment, their is a risk that the merchandise will be neglected, damaged, or not tracked well. We are assuming more risk that with wholesale.

There are good reasons to have your work on consignment. There are a few local shops where my work is sold through consignment, and I find they do a good job representing my work. And, I can give them a wider range of work than some wholesale accounts might carry. It gives me the opportunity to see how newer work will do. A few local wholesale accounts will have one or two larger pieces on cosignment to give the display of my work more "Wow!"

But, I only will do consignment with local businesses. Even then, it is a challenge to keep them stocked, to rotate inventory, and make sure that my work is being well represented.

There are some galleries that only work on a consignment basis. Sometimes you need to do some research, talk with other artists who have their work there, and find out if it is a good place to have your work. Do they pay promptly? How do they handle rotating stock? Have they ever had any concerns?

I am not ruling out consignment, under the right conditions. Ideally you will be paid 60%, or in a few rare instances even more, of the selling price. But 50% is pretty standard these days. Know how often the checks will be cut, and sent out, so that you know when to expect payment. And, be willing to risk losing something. Theft happens in even the best of circumstances, and you will be more at risk to absorb this loss under consignment, than under a wholesale arrangement.

But please. Do not pay to play. If someone is asking you to pay a fee to sell your work in their shop, and keeping a portion of the sales price as well, ask them,

"Why am I assuming your business risk?"

I did not get a straight answer from this shop when I asked that question. So I declined the opportunity. They placed a wholesale order for some cranes. Go figure. Sometimes saying no is the absolute best thing you can do for yourself, and your business. There is enough risk in the business of being an artrepreneur without taking on the risk of another business too.

Remember, sustainability is our goal. We want to be in this for the long haul.


I am leaving for Las Vegas and the ACRE wholesale show this afternoon. The last word I heard was that more buyers were registering in the last few weeks. Let's hope that turn out is better than expected, and people come ready to place orders.

I'll keep you posted!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Pricing Challenges

I recently had the good fortune to be invited to speak to the Vermont Craft Council. I taught two classes; one about using the Internet for publicity and promotion, and the other about pricing. I was frankly a little surprised by the invitation, but also flattered.

But, I also wondered what I had to say about pricing. I struggle with nearly everyone I know. I have yet to meet the crafts person who declares, "I love to price my work!"

It is a task that is put off to the last moment for many of us, or agonized over for too long. As I prepared for this presentation, I reviewed some of my earlier posts about pricing, and in particular the ones about pricing the pear. I had learned a great deal in the process of writing those posts, and once again, I found preparing to teach a class brought forth new understanding.

First off, I recalled that I have always hated pricing. When I was selling oxygen, nitrogen and other industrial gases, I hated pricing. It was nearly always a challenge even then to come up with the right price in competitive bids. When I was a product manager in several companies, and I had to review price deviations with sales people, it was always a stressful process. When I had a business making window treatments, I really felt challenged by coming up with the right price. So, why should this be any different?

If anything there is the added challenge that we are pricing something that we have made with our hands and often our hearts. A piece of us goes off with each piece. How can we value that?

Then there is the challenge of trying to figure out how much will someone else pay for this item? Can we cover our costs...if we even know what they are?

As I reviewed my presentation with my husband, we began to talk about the many factors that go into pricing. That was when I realized how I had always hated pricing. But I also began to see a new challenge that exists in the world of an artrepreneur. The marketplace is dysfunctional. Both the buyers and sellers can play a role in that dysfunction.

Let's look at the sellers first, since this is the easiest...but not easy! control. As I reviewed the past posts on pricing, and the many ideas I gathered from readers about how they approach pricing it was clear that not all sellers are pricing in a way that will create a sustainable business. In order to continue to be in business for five years, ten years, or more, a seller must consider all their costs of being in business...not just their cost of materials. Or maybe the labor. If a seller is selling their work in the retail market at wholesale prices, they are doing themselves, and the market, a great disservice.

We need to price our work with the idea of sustainability. That means our overhead, selling expenses, and a profit that can be reinvested into the business in new equipment or other capital purchases, are incorporated into the price, along with labor and materials.

What if you think, "Oh, I don't want to do that. I just want to have fun making things and make enough money to buy materials."?

Okay. What about your cost of display equipment...even just a table....or packaging? Are you including those? Are you declaring your income and expenses with the IRS? Can you honestly say you are in business if you are not pricing your work like it is anything more than a hobby?

Maybe you have moved past that. You can comfortably say that is not me. I don't do that anymore. I price my work so that I can make a fair wage, and a fair return on my investment in my business. But then you go to a show, and you find yourself surrounded by people who are pricing it as a hobbyist. Do you think the customer can understand the difference in pricing, and why the higher price is actually more rational? Does the average consumer at a local craft fair care if you are in business next year? How can you keep your head when everyone around you is losing theirs?

This is where I began to realize part of my underlying motivation to move up to higher quality shows, or to wholesale. The markets are more rational. You are more likely to compete against artists who understand the cost of being in business. They are in it for the long haul. Likewise, the consumer is likely to be more educated as well. They are willing to pay a fair price for handcrafted work. They want you to be around in five years, so that as a collector or as a shop owner they can continue to purchase from you. They understand that you do not need to price the work so that every single person who wants to own it can afford it. You are one person. There is only so much that you can produce.

I am not dissing the local craft shows, or the on-line shops full of dysfunctional pricing. I am just describing the landscape. I did a terrific little show last year at some local art studios. There were people there who had fair prices. And there were plenty with just crazy pricing. But, I did not allow the people who have are pricing too low make me question my own pricing strategy. And I had a great show.

There are also times that you can reasonably lower prices. If you have old inventory that you want to clear out. Or if you have seconds that are saleable. Go ahead and discount those items and convert them into cash.

If you hate to price your work, you are not alone.

If you think it is way too hard, you are right.

But just because other people around you are losing their heads, doesn't mean that you need to lose yours. Hold on tight. Breath deeply. Know what your true costs are, and know what a fair price is.

You may find that a fair price for an item is just not saleable. You may need to redesign the product, resource your supplies, or perhaps even come up with a new idea all together. But continuing to produce it, and sell it for less that is reasonable for the costs you have...that is just crazy. And you know that.

Sustainability. That is the word to hold onto. We want a sustainable planet. And we want an sustainable business. Neither is easily achieved. But both are well worth the effort.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Is It All About the Venue?

Lindly Haunani recently sent me a story.

Watch this video.

Did you notice the protective bubble that seems to exist around the violinist. Even the few who finally stop to listen, keep a "safe" distance away.

The violinist, Joshua Bell. A world class musician. The violin, was worth $3.5 million. He played six beautiful and complex Bach pieces over 45 minutes. Six people stopped and listened for any length of time. About twenty people gave him money, but kept walking.

Just two days earlier, he played a sold out show in Boston. The tickets cost an average of $100. You can image that the audience paid full attention to every piece played.

Same musician. Same instrument. Different setting. And an entirely different response.

It certainly made me think about the many shows I have done when people have walked absent-mindedly through a show. Chatting on the phone, or with a friend. Half looking at the work. At these very shows, there are artists showing work that is worthy of being in a museum....or who have work in a museum.

I have yet to see someone walking through a museum, chatting on their cell phone, and munching on popcorn. Why does one setting invoke respect and focus, and another half-hearted attention? I do not expect people at a craft show,...even a high caliber be looking at the artists and their work with reverence. But, if you do come to see beauty, then why not see the beauty?

It also made me think about how the context in which we sell our work, creates a perception of value. If you sell your work on a bare table in a school gymnasium, don't expect people to value your creative genius. If you put mediocre pictures of your work on your website, don't expect to have anyone see what you see in the work. Sell your work at price that is too low to reflect the work that went into it, and people will look to see what is wrong with the work, to solve the apparent contradiction. Put thought and effort into the design of a piece, and neglect similar attention to the finishing, and don't be surprised that the design is not fully appreciated.

Attention. Attention to where and how is essential to success. Neglect that attention, and you will have an even harder challenge to get your audience to pay attention, appreciate...and buy...your work.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Final Installment of the Chain Interview

In my last post, Laura Timmins was sharing with us how she balances the art with the business. She had some great ideas for goal setting, and keeping herself on track throughout the year. Laura then turned to her friend Maureen Carlson to ask a question about inspiration.

Question for Maureen Carlson from Laura Timmins: I love listening to the stories that go with your figures. What is your process when you are starting a new figure? Do you have a story in mind and then develop a figure that fits the character in your story, or do you have a character in mind and then the story comes about as you are working on making the figure? What most often sparks a new idea for you?

Thanks for asking, Laura.
When I create my story characters, such as the Pippsywoggins, I usually start with a character idea, then the story, then the sculpture. The most critical aspect of making it all work seems to me to be imagining a specific spot where the character might live. Then everything else falls in place. These imagined homes are always in real locations with which I’m familiar, such as my backyard asparagus patch or the line of pine trees down the road.
It seems that finding a home for the character makes them real to me, and triggers my mind to go into that world where wee folk might live. I can see them arranging their little homes and taking on a personality. As I do this I start typing questions into my computer, and, if I’m in the zone, from somewhere in that never-never land the answers come pouring out. I can tell if it’s a true story by the way my energy feels. If I have to work hard at it, then I’m forcing it. Then I sculpt the character to fit the story. As I sculpt, if I have an idea for a fun accessory to add to the piece, I can always go back and add it to the story.
When I ‘m doing art pieces that tell a story, such as a story box, I usually go back and forth between the idea and the actual piece, with everything being much more intuitive and perhaps never written into story form at all. After I’m all done I can look at the piece and then “read” it, taking note of the symbols and relationship between the elements. I still use my imagination, but more in an interpretive way.
Having watched one of Maureen's sculptures evolve over a few days, it is truly an amazing process. And one does get a sense of story with each piece she creates. The back and forth process she describes with the story boxes is one I think many artists experience when they are creating. Many of us also know about the difference she describes between being in the zone, creatively, or having the feeling of "forcing it."

Maureen turned to another sculptor, Katherine Dewey, who creates such beautiful sculptures. Both have written and published extensively about sculpting with polymer clay.

Question for Katherine Dewey from Maureen Carlson: I'm curious as to why you've stayed with polymer clay for so many years? I know that you love to experiment with lots of materials, and that with your artistic skills and knowledge of the human figure, you could work with any material. Why polymer clay?
Also wonder if you could give us that sculpting link for the people who are using polymer clay to create their masters for the garage kit and game industry. I think other people on this list might like to see another part of the polymer clay world.
Actually, I sculpt in a lot of media. I currently work in epoxy, paper clay, sulphur free plasticines, and wax. I once worked with terra cotta and stoneware. Polymer Clay is by far my favorite medium. It doesn't require a lot of tools and it's more versatile than anything medium. It's friendlier than epoxy, cleaner than wax, more permanent than Chavant, and it's colorful. Oh, so, colorful. Gray, brown, green or buff-- those are the colors of plasticines, earth based clays, carving waxes and epoxy compounds. Oh, there are days and there are sculptures that are better rendered in a single color (gray and brown being my favorites) because form and texture are paramount. Only polymer clay allows you to sculpt in color. What a spectacular notion!
Here's link to the Sculptor's Corner, my favorite web site where you'll find artists and sculptors far better than I am. All of them work in polymer clay, though most work in other clays and waxes as well. Look for Tony Cipriano, Randy Bowen, the Shiflett Brothers (Brandon and Jarrod), Mark Newman, Chris Elizardo, and Gabe Marquez. Ask any one of them: What's your favorite clay? To a man, they will answer: "Super Sculpey!" I know for certain because I did ask. I also know that artist's whose jobs require they work in wax, Andy Bergholtz or Eric Sosa, for example, begin their sculptures in Super Sculpey and then mold and cast in wax for the finishing touches.
If you are at all interested in sculpture; making, or just admiring, be sure to check out the links above. There is incredible talent to be explored.

This is where the chain ended. I plan on beginning a new chain in the next week or so. Keep an eye on your mailbox.....who would you ask a question of?

To all the artists who participated in this experiment, "Thank you!!"
It has far exceeded my expectations in many ways. It also was a reinforcement in trust and letting go for someone who used to have control issues, that still surface from time to time.

For those of you who have been procrastinating about making New Year's resolutions, or goals for your business for the coming year....or who already feel like you have failed at your attempts at resolutions, I have a post coming up for you. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Chain Interview Continues...Part 2

When I left you last time, Hollie Mion had answered a question from Lindly Haunani about her collection of polymer clay work, and how she went about building that collection. Now it is Hollie's turn to ask a question...

Question to Maggie Maggio, from Hollie Mion: I have long enjoyed your color tutorials. My first exposure was when you and Lindly would generously share your knowledge and ideas at the Shrine Mont Retreats back in the mid 90's. How did you get started with it, and where did you obtain your knowledge of color theory?

I'd like to say that I have always been interested in color theory but that's not the truth. I've always been interested in color mixing. The teacher of my first high school art class taught color theory by giving us a batik assignment with only four pots of dye – red, yellow, blue and black. That experience was pivotal for me. I tore up a cotton bed sheet and made close to 1000 color swatches using different combinations and different strengths of three dye colors - a pink red, golden yellow and bright blue.
The first thing I did when I found polymer clay was to buy one each of all the primary colors and start mixing them together. Soon I started documenting the mixes. Then I started teaching how to mix colors. But it wasn't until I began writing color articles for the PolyInforMer in the mid-90's that I brushed off my college textbooks and looked at color theory again. I relearned all the traditional theory just so I could share it in those articles. That's when I found out how little I knew, and how much of the theory just didn't make sense to me. I decided to start testing color theory and soon discovered that polymer clay is the perfect medium for color exploration.
So how did I obtain my knowledge of color theory? By playing with the clay. By reading color books and then experimenting in the studio. By teaching and then finding out that theory is not the same as reality. By observing nature. By talking with other colorphiles. By researching for the book that Lindly and I are writing, and by writing the blog. Color is so complex that I learn something new all the time. It's a bit of an obsession. I just want to know! Recently my daughter called me a "color detective" because I am always trying to uncover the facts about color. I love the searching. And that's the truth. -Maggie Maggio
Question from Maggie Maggio to Cynthia Tinapple: Interest in polymer clay is growing all over the world. The National Polymer Clay Guild just changed its name to the International Polymer Clay Association and your blog, Polymer Clay Daily, plays a huge role in connecting the global polymer clay community. What are some ways we can reach out and network with our fellow polymer enthusiasts in other countries?

I've been surprised that 40% of the PCDaily audience comes from beyond the US borders. I'll attach a list of the countries in the order of their participation.
What can we do to increase and improve that participation?
U.S. bloggers may want to be careful of their use of idioms so that readers who are translating can better understand the content. Putting a translation widget prominently on your blog will make it easier for your international guests as well.
Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words. Make those pictures good and self-explanatory.
More video tutorials, webinars, other online video meetings, virtual guilds will be in our future. Beyond that, face-to-face in classes and conferences will continue to cement our bonds to each other and spread techniques around the globe.
The barriers to cross-country sales will become less problematic. Already, online galleries like Etsy and Dawanda have helped promote the exchange of polymer clay art to a wider international market.

Extend your reach...comment on foreign blogs, join the European guild, link to foreign sites that you like. The best part of this is that when you're stuck in a rut, there's no cheaper travel or richer source of new ideas than crossing a border online. -Cynthia Tinapple
Question from Cynthia Tinapple, for Laura Timmins: You've been making your living at polymer clay for a few years. What suggestions do you have for integrating the accountant and the artist in you? How do you keep your left brain and right brain in such good balance?

Like most artists, I MUST make art. It's not optional. No external motivation is needed. It's easy. The business side of things is a whole different story. Previously, I had to fit my art making around my day job. Once I made the commitment to combine the two activities (earning money and making art) I found that I had many more hours every week for making art. I still feel that the business of selling my artwork interrupts what I really want to be doing, but the trade off is absolutely worth it. Keeping the perspective firmly in mind that what I've done is trade working for an employer to earn a living, for working on marketing my art to earn a living, keeps me motivated to do what can feel like drudgery at times.
But staying motivated is only part of the equation for me. There are so many possible business directions to take that it's very easy to get side tracked, especially when I'd rather be thinking about other things! I use two methods to help keep myself focused; goal setting and discipline. I set my business goals in outline form. My top level goal for the business side of things is obvious: Earn Income. I then detail specifically how I plan to accomplish that goal for the coming year. Category headings are things like Art Shows (applications, displays, fee deadlines, ordering supplies), Website (photography, maintenance), Galleries (new contacts to follow up, special shows that will need artwork, reminders when to check on stock at each), etc. I also include all the tasks involved for each heading and deadlines for each task to help keep me from becoming distracted from the goals I have set. I revise my outline every few months. With a detailed outline of my goals in place I have a concrete way to evaluate whether or not to pursue any new opportunities that present themselves.
Discipline is harder for me than organizing, which probably means it is the more important of the two. I try to set a work schedule and stick to it (which only works some of the time). The first thing I do each day is check my outline. If there are looming deadlines I work on those first, usually and hour or two each day but sometimes more. I reward myself for getting those business tasks done by making art for the rest of the day. - Laura Timmins
What I love about the questions and answers is how often they are directed at something that the person is truly passionate about. That passion and interest comes across in their answers. Plus I am getting lots of good information to think about in my own approach to blogging and managing my business. I love Maggie's story about her high school art class. Didn't you?

Stay tuned for the next installment....

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Beginning of a Chain

I am beginning the new year with a little experiment that I began last month, with the help of some smart, talented, and wise women. It began with a question. A question to another artist/entrepreneur. She in turn, asked a question to another artist/entrepreneur. And so a chain was begun. Each person answering a question, then turning to another with a question.

In some ways it is like one of those infuriating chain letters. It relies on the passage of the e-mail from one person to another in order to sustain itself. And there is the promise of a payoff. The difference is there is only one person to send it on to, and you have an opportunity to ask someone something you would like to know about them, or that you would like to learn from them.

The experiment seemed ready to collapse a few times. But it would suddenly come to life again, and a series of e-mails would follow. I will start with a few entries from the chain, and continue over several posts. It began with a question I posed to Judy Belcher, the out-going President of the National Polymer Clay Guild...which is now the International Polymer Clay Association! Judy spent two years as president, and it was during this time that I got to know her. I witnessed from the sidelines a few of the many experiences she had as president, and I knew there must be at least one good story in all of it.

Question to Judy Belcher (from Judy Dunn): You are finishing up your term as President of the National Polymer Clay Guild. You have had lots of new experiences over the last two years. What did you learn or experience from this time that you might not have otherwise learned?

I really have learned so much about this community and about myself. I have written four thoughtful answers to this question and then decided to get personal and yes, selfish. I met Tim McCreight at a workshop he held at Tamarack, here in my state. The workshop was fascinating, but holding the position of president of the IPCA (newly renamed International Polymer Clay Association,) gave me permission to relate to him on a whole different level. He is an amazing storyteller, filled with knowledge of the history of metalsmithing, the beginnings of PMC and information about the art community in general. I was able to converse with him that week about things that were on my mind about polymer clay and its place in the world, about our community of artists, and about the role that the IPCA should play in that community and the art world. Our conversations were thoughtful and thought provoking and a real "I can't believe I'm talking to Tim McCreight about all this" moment for me. Because of that connection, I felt empowered to call on him several more times for advice on issues that have come up with our group, to ask him to participate in Synergy, and for his wise counsel on more personal creative dilemmas. I have learned that by taking this volunteer position, one that I didn't intend to gain from personally, I relate with people in a different way and in doing so, have gained a wonderful group of mentors. - Judy Belcher

Question from Judy Belcher, for Lindly Haunani: Having worked in this medium for a long time, what do you see as the most exciting moment in our relatively short history?

Wow! That is a hard question, as a lot of exciting moments have unfolded over the years. If I had to pick one...then it would be an evening in the "teacher's lounge" at the first national polymer clay conference- Ravensdale 1996- sponsored by the Northwest Polymer Clay Guild. While I had already met many of the artists working with polymer clay before- including Pier Voulkos, Kathleen Dustin, Steven Ford, David Forlano, Victoria Hughes, Nan Roche, Maggie Maggio and Kathleen Amt...there were many others that I had never met before in person including Michael and Ruth Ann Grove, Karen and Terry Murphy, Judy Kuskin, Cynthia Toops, Dan Cormier, Tracy Holmes, Meredith Arnold, Sarah Shriver...
So, on that on particular night, with a crackling fire in the fireplace and a drifting moon over lake Ravensdale, Judith Skinner decided to show us a color blending technique "that everyone already knew about" that she had been using for several years, using a pasta machine .Within minutes the room was a buzz and Kathleen Dustin made the suggestion that this technique should be named "the Skinner Blend". One could almost hear the creative wheels turning in everyone's heads- as they just began to imagine just how they could use this technique in their own personal work and as a teaching tool.
I still hear people of my generation pose the question- "Where you at Woodstock?" For many of us in the international polymer clay community, we still pose the question "where you at the first Ravensdale?" - the event where the reality of the synergistic effects of openness, sharing and an expanded inclusive community of polymer clay artists helped to create a memorable experience for everyone involved. - Lindly Haunani

Question from Lindly to Holly Mion: Your polymer clay collection recently was on display at the National Polymer Clay Guild's Synergy conference in Baltimore- and enjoyed by all of the participants.How and why did you start collecting? Has your rationale for selecting pieces changed over the years?

I got involved with polymer clay in 1991, and was addicted instantly. I had a voracious appetite to keep learning, and started going to workshops, retreats (including our "Woodstock"), etc. right away. While at these various events I purchased items I wanted to wear or things that I admired as objects of art (e.g., the large mask by Kathleen Dustin, circa 1994, has been hanging over my fireplace ever since I purchased it back then). Since I was co-editor of the NPCG's newsletter for 3 years, and organized the national retreat for 10 years, I had even more opportunities to acquire new work and was also lucky enough to receive some gifts along the way. I never bought anything with the thought of creating a collection until this past year. I own some significant pieces by well known past and present polymer clay artists, but I have also purchased a number of pieces that were made by unknown artists. Putting together my exhibit for Synergy and seeing people's reaction to it made me realize that what I have is, indeed, a collection (and I now have a rider on my insurance policy!). Prior to that, my polymer clay was located in a number of locations in my home, and the jewelry portion was such a massive jumble that I didn't truly appreciate what I had. After seeing it displayed properly at Synergy, I have now given many of my pieces a proper home where I can easily enjoy them every day.

I must admit that when I ended up buying (a lot) more pieces at Synergy and at the ACC, the whole idea of a collection was in the back of my mind for the first time. But even so, I only purchased items I loved and would wear or put on display in my home as works of art, whether by famous or lesser known artists. So I guess my rationale for selecting pieces hasn't really changed over the years, but my pockets did get a bit deeper. I know that some others have many more items in their collections with many fabulous pieces. I hope that we get a chance to see and admire someone else's collection in the future. - Hollie Mion
My next post will pick up from here. Who do you think Hollie will pose her question to? Were you surprised by any of the questions or answers? Did you learn anything new? Fun, huh?