The June/July/August 2015 issue of Ceramics Monthly should be hitting your mailboxes now! My recent blog post following up on The Hourly Earning Project was adapted for CM and appears in this issue. Check it out!
Originally published in June 2015 issue of Ceramics Monthly, pages (20-21). http://www.ceramicsmonthly.org . Copyright, The American Ceramic Society. Reprinted with permission.
I've been back at work in the pottery studio for a week now, after a 2.5 week break for the holidays. I meant to write this blog post during my break, but Harriet got carried away. "Harriet Homeowner" is how I refer to myself in the third person when I am engaged in home improvement projects. Harriet spent four days scraping, spackling, sanding, and painting. She finally fixed the water damage on the ceiling from Snowmageddon 2010. She completely painted her office, followed by a symbolic purging of clutter, all of which was related to her previous career as a designer. She also sewed new curtains for the guest room, to make it pretty for incoming holiday guests. And Harriet's not done yet. Her new kitchen countertops will be installed later this month. Along with a new stove.
If you can't tell, I have extra money right now. 2014 was a record year for the pottery business. I'm still wrapping my head around the numbers. During the fall months, I realized I needed to write this post. It is a follow up to The Hourly Earnings Project. It has been four years since I finished it. I can clearly see how it drove the development of my business since then.
(If you are new to this blog, The Hourly Earnings Project was a year-long analysis of my pottery business, conducted in 2010. I tracked my income earned and my time spent, and calculated how much I was earning per hour. I also compared the hourly earnings values for various revenue sources. You can read all of the blog posts here, or you can read the condensed version that was published in Ceramics Monthly in the summer of 2011.)
My business operates at a much higher level now. My gross sales in 2014 were (believe it or not) more than double my gross sales of 2010. In 2010, I made enough income to support myself financially while living on a very shoestring budget. I was happy to give up my expendable-income lifestyle, in exchange for full-time pottery. I like peanut butter sandwiches. I was not expecting to return to my previous income level. But in 2014, I did.
There are some things about me and my work that changed in the past four years, which are not related to The Hourly Earnings Project:
• The quality, design, and craftsmanship of my work is much better now. Many of my prices have increased.
• My production speed is much faster now. And my endurance for working is much improved. In 2010, I noted that my typical studio day was 3 to 5 hours long, which would leave me tired and sore. These days, I comfortably work 6 to 8 hour days.
• In May 2013, I renovated my studio and purchased a second kiln. These things caused a significant increase in production too.
• At the end of 2013, I gave up my part-time job teaching pottery classes. This freed up a lot of time to spend on my business.
Now for the areas where The Hourly Earnings Project has made a difference. Here is the graph that illustrates its overall findings:
The most important change that this project initiated was a shift away from wholesale work and towards retail (art festival) work. In 2010, my income was split almost exactly in half between wholesale and retail. The Hourly Earnings Project showed me that retail work was a much better use of my time. It yielded 32% more income than wholesale. ($32/hour vs. $24/hour) By the time I finished these calculations, I had already committed to and paid for a booth at a wholesale trade show at the beginning of 2011. So I spent one more year earning half of my income with wholesale work. I had a respectable 24% increase in gross sales in 2011.
Then in 2012, I changed direction. I skipped all the trade shows, and instead I solicited orders directly from my existing gallery accounts. I cut my wholesale workload to 65% of the previous year's orders, and I made up for the income by increasing my art festivals from 6 to 11. I wrote on my blog at the end of 2012, that I felt like I had taken back control of my business. I made slightly more income in 2012 as I did in 2011, but with a lot fewer pots and without feeling exhausted.
In 2013, I pushed even further in this direction. Given that I had leftover energy at the end of 2012, I knew I could expand. I took aim at a productivity ceiling that I had been battling for a couple of years ... the one-kiln situation. In order to make room for a second kiln, I had to renovate my space. As noted above, this happened in the spring of 2013. I managed to keep my wholesale income steady, while increasing my art festivals to 14. I was able to add some high quality shows (in particular ACC Baltimore, and the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen shows). Even though I missed 5 weeks of work due to the studio renovation, my gross sales increased by a whopping 44%. Hooray for the two-kiln situation!
Which brings me to 2014. Once again, I managed to keep my wholesale income steady, without attending any trade shows. I had the two-kiln situation for a full 12 months, rather than 7 months. I did 14 shows again, and continued to add great shows (such as the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts). At some of the shows I've done for many years, I had record-shattering sales (like Artscape Baltimore, and Bethesda Row). My gross sales grew by another 41%. Holy crap!
My wholesale income is now only 13% of my gross. My decision to focus on retail work has really paid off.
(A side note about art festival income ... learning how to be a good festival artist is a lot like learning how to make pots. It takes a lot of practice and repetition. My approach to doing shows now is much different than a few years ago, born out of the sheer number of shows I've done. I will write in detail about my current approach in a future blog post, I promise.)
I launched my online store in December 2011, and calculated its hourly earnings value over the subsequent year. (This came after the Ceramics Monthly article, which is why it didn't appear there.) As you can see in the graph above, online sales have almost the same hourly earnings value as retail sales. But as I noted in this blog post, the volume of online selling is so low. And as I've mentioned a few times on this blog, I really don't like packing and shipping. I planned to keep the online store open anyways, but by the middle of 2013, I had lost interest. I stocked the store sporadically for a while, then came up with a better plan near the end of 2013. Now I keep it closed for 11.5 months of the year. When my annual Open Studio is over, which is my last show of the year, I open the online store for the last two weeks of December. The sales don't happen over two weeks, they all happen during the first two days. I don't mind the packing and shipping when it is confined to two days, especially because I don't have anything else to do except process online orders. The sales volume seems more lucrative, but I know that's just an illusion because they happen all at once. Overall, I'm happy with these boundaries. Once again, I'm going to praise BigCartel, for having flexible plans that allow me to have things my way.
(edited on 1/27/15 to add the next few paragraphs, just some more thoughts that came to mind in the last few weeks)
On the subject of everyday vs. fancy ... the analysis revealed that making higher-priced, upscale pots yields a better hourly earnings value for my time. I noted that this bummed me out a little, because making everyday functional pots is far more pleasurable to me. How has this influenced my business in the last four years? It hasn't. I have basically ignored this finding. I still make some of my upscale line of work, it's a small percentage. Specifically, it is 22% of my work in terms of dollar value, but less than 6% of my work in terms of the number of pots. These percentages were not planned, they just naturally developed based on sales. I made what I needed to replace. I can tell that my upscale pieces are still yielding a higher hourly earnings value, because the days that I designate for those pieces can be completed in fewer hours, while yielding a better dollar value of inventory. But I'm still committed to the everyday pieces as the bulk of my work. Could I make more income if I brought 80% upscale pieces to every show? Maybe. I don't care and have no intention to find out.
Big shows vs. little shows ... in the original project, all of my art festivals yielded a fairly consistent hourly earnings value. Except for one little art festival which was kind-of a disaster in comparison. This has definitely shaped my choices going forward. I put a lot of thought and research into picking shows, and most of the shows I've added recently belong in the "big show" category. This doesn't mean I've given up on small shows, or one-day shows. I just hold them to the same high standards. It's rarer to find little shows that can draw a big crowd, but they do exist. As I mentioned above, I will write about my whole approach to doing shows in a future blog post, which will include my thought processes for picking shows.
My Open Studio continues to be my most important event of the year. Not just for sales, but I now see the value of giving my customers a chance to see inside my studio. I'm pretty sure it makes them appreciate the process better. And it motivates me to clean. This latest one was outrageous in terms of sales, though in the past four years the sales have been up and down. I've learned that weather plays an important role for December events. This year I had clear and mild weather, last year I had a sleet storm. Big difference in sales. I've also learned that I do better when I am alone, rather than having a guest artist. Given the amount of pots I want to display, I need all the space to myself. My conclusion from The Hourly Earnings Project was to limit this event to once-a-year, so as not to over-harvest the precious resource known as my mailing list. I'm sticking to that. I am now convinced that once-a-year, during holiday season, is the right formula for building demand. Besides I don't really want to deep clean more often than that :-)
One last reminder about this project ... my findings are not meant to apply to everyone's pottery business. These are the right choices for my pottery business. I don't want to send the message "wholesale bad, retail good" because that's not universally true. It's true for me because I live in a region where art festivals are very strong. I enjoy them and I'm good at working with crowds. I've met other potters for whom the wholesale format makes a lot more sense. My message is to take the time to figure out for yourself where to spend your energy. If I had not done this analysis, I would still be attending wholesale trade shows every year, and still wondering if that was a good idea. Making this one fundamental shift, away from wholesale and towards retail, made a dramatic difference for me.
(end of addition)
Onward to 2015! I have no expectations to exceed my monster sales of 2014. But at the same time, I think there are good reasons to be optimistic.
(To catch up on, or refresh your memory about, all of the blog posts from The Hourly Earnings Project, click here)
It has been about a year since I launched my online store in December of 2011. I think I have enough information now to write about it in the context of The Hourly Earnings Project. Weirdly, right up until I sat down to calculate this, I had no idea how this would turn out. All the work and all the income was spread out in bits and pieces over 13 months, I really didn't have any sense of how well the store was doing.
I chose BigCartel to build the store and shopping cart. I know that Etsy is a far more popular venue, but BigCartel fits my needs much better. I like that BigCartel offers a low-end free version, and that their not-free versions charge a flat monthly fee, rather than taking small percentages of my listings and sales like Etsy. I like the simplicity of that. I also like that BigCartel allows me to design my store to look like my own brand.
But here's the real meat of why I chose BigCartel over Etsy ... I really wasn't all that comfortable (and still am not) about selling a pot to a customer who hasn't seen it in person. I had a frustrating experience a few years ago when I tried to help a customer buy a pot via email. Although I had given her the dimensions of the pot in inches, once she received it she thought it was too small, and wanted to return it. This made me realize how many factors need to be communicated, and that it's not easy across the internet. The idea that the pots I sell online might not meet the customer's expectations is not ok with me.
Therefore, I wasn't interested in the customer base that Etsy could deliver to my store. My store is targeted only to my existing customers, who would like to purchase something when I am in between shows. The only people who receive any advertisements about the store are subscribers to my mailing list and Facebook fans. And my Store Policies page says:
"All sales are final. No returns or exchanges. I'd much rather sell you pottery in person at one of my shows, or have you visit one of my gallery partners, where you can thoroughly appreciate and inspect all of the qualities of handmade pottery before deciding to buy. But I understand that modern times require me to sell online as well. I ask you please do not make purchases from this store unless you are really sure."
Now that I've explained that my intentions for my online store are probably different from most artist's stores, let's get to the Hourly Earnings calculation. Here are the tasks that I counted when I timed myself:
• All of the same "making pots" tasks that I counted for the other Hourly Earnings calculations
• Building the online store
• Updating the online store
• Packing and shipping the orders
Before too long, I was able to pack/ship/account for an order of one pot in less than 15 minutes. For orders with multiple pots, it would take a little longer, but never more than 30 minutes. It seemed like a lot of work for selling one or two pots at a time, compared to the sales volume of wholesaling and art festivals. Was it? Keep reading.
I added up the gross sales of the pottery plus the shipping fees I collected. From that, I subtracted the following expenses:
• Shipping costs
• Paypal fees
• BigCartel fees
• Clay used
• Shipping boxes used
Just like all the other Hourly Earnings calculations, I did not subtract expenses that I could not quantify, such as packing materials, glazes, equipment use and maintenance, and utilities.
I made $31.60 per hour with the online store.
In other words, the online store yielded an Hourly Earnings figure in the same range as retail art festivals. In that sense, I am pleased. The time that I spent on this was not a waste of time. But in terms of the overall importance to my pottery business, here's another perspective: my gross sales from the online store over 13 months was less than I typically make at one weekend art festival. Also, out of the 13 months that the store existed, it was empty for 6 of those months, because I was busy with shows and wanted to have all of my inventory at the shows.
So I've decided that it is worth continuing. Overall, it yielded as much income as a somewhat-below-average art festival, and the time and effort required was a good match for the yield.
But I am going to make some changes going forward, now that I have some clearer bearings about how it works, and where it ranks on my priorities. I am going to downgrade my BigCartel account from the $9.99/month plan to the low-end free version. BigCartel allows me to upgrade and downgrade my account on a month-to-month basis, which is another reason why I chose them. I think that I only need the free version from now on. This means I will only be able to list five items for sale at a time. I'm willing to live with that. I will try to keep the store stocked all the time, not just when I'm in-between shows. And in the banner announcement that greets visitors to the store, I'll instruct customers to contact me if they are looking for a specific item they saw at a show. That's one thing that's not going to change, I'm still only targeting my existing customers who have already seen my pots in person. And finally, just during the month of December, I will upgrade my BigCartel account again, so I can list a whole bunch of items for the holiday shopping crowd. I'll leave open the possibility that I'll do that for one or two other months of the year, but for now the plan is to only do that in December. After all, more than two-thirds of my online sales so far were made during the last two Decembers.
Here is the bar chart from the Ceramics Monthly article that shows all of the Hourly Earnings calculations, only now I've added another bar for the online store.
I've begun the groundwork for the online store that I pledged to open in 2011. And yes, I am tracking my time and will eventually add this to The Hourly Earnings Project. I'm very eager to see how it compares to my other avenues for selling. But patience is required, I decided to calculate the Hourly Earnings value at the end of next year. It turns out that setting up an online store doesn't actually take that much time, which is nice. But it didn't seem fair to count that time towards a short time period of sales. After a year, I'll probably want to revamp and improve the online store anyways, so it makes sense to assign a year's worth of value to the setup time.
So here's my launch plan ... the online store will open on Monday, December 12. This is the day after my Holiday Open House. It will be a small launch. I'll take a few nice pots remaining after the open house, and offer them for sale online.
If you are on my mailing list, or a facebook fan, or a regular reader of this blog, you will get all the details soon!
This is the pottery fame I hinted about a few weeks ago. I have been featured in Ceramics Monthly!
If you are already a reader of this blog, the article will be familiar to you. The Hourly Earnings Project was a year-long effort that was recorded on this blog. The editors of Ceramics Monthly asked me to develop it into an article last summer, then patiently waited through the end of the year while I finished collecting my research. It now appears in the current issue, which is their annual "Working Potters" issue (June/July/August 2011).
If you are visiting this blog for the first time, you can read all the raw material that went into the project by clicking the category The Hourly Earnings Project. And there may be more analysis added to the project going forward, particularly on the subject of online sales, which I plan to venture into later this year.
I have already received so much wonderful feedback about the project. I'm thrilled that working potters find it useful.
If you don't subscribe to Ceramics Monthly, you can read the article online, or find it in your local bookstore.
This post is an offshoot of The Hourly Earnings Project, which I wrote about all of last year. One of my observations about working as a potter was that I was unable to make pots for 8 hours per day, like a normal job, because it was too physically taxing. Going forward, I need to stretch my ability to make more pots per day, or work for longer hours, in order to grow my business.
Yesterday, I started working on a new wholesale order, worth $540. Which means the market value of these pots is $1080. I challenged myself to make the entire order in one cycle of throwing and trimming. I managed to throw everything in one day, and get most of the handbuilding done. Today, I trimmed all the thrown pots, added handles, and finished the handbuilding. I worked 5.25 hours the first day, and 5.5 hours the second day. I took a 30 minute snack break each day. For me, those are pretty long hours. Last year, I would typically throw for 2 to 4 hours per day. My back is a little tired, but thankfully, no butt pain :-).
So now this is my new benchmark for what I consider a "very productive" work pace: in a 2-day cycle of throwing, trimming, and handbuilding, I need to produce about $1000 worth of inventory.
This is the fourth year that I've held an Open House around the holidays, and it has become a thoroughly productive event for my business. Not only do I sell a lot of pots, I get to unload all the seconds that have accumulated in the past year, and float out new designs to see how my existing customers react. (new sugar+creamer sold in 15 minutes, new dinnerware was a smash hit.) It's a good way to end the year, and to gain some direction for the next year.
An Open House is very different from an art festival on many, many fronts. For starters, there's no booth fee! However, just like a good art festival will spend your booth fee on marketing and infrastructure, you must do the same for yourself. I printed and mailed a postcard invitation, and provided food and snacks for my customers and my guest artist (photographer Laura DeNardo). Those expenses added up to $318, which is still less than the booth fee of most good-quality art festivals.
The time and labor requirements are very different too. The middleman known as my car is eliminated. I only need to move my display and pots from one room in my house to another room. Much easier. But, and this is a big "but," I also have to remove the furniture from my living and dining rooms, and thoroughly clean the place! The net result is ... setup and takedown for an Open House takes more time than taking my display and pots to a festival site. Here is my living room transformed into a showroom, and my guest artist, Laura, with her photographs.
But, and this is an even bigger "but," here's where an Open House is far more efficient with time. Unlike the casual browsers that must be seduced at an art festival, the attendees at an Open House are already fans. They have signed up for my mailing list, responded to an invitation, and gone out of their way to a private residence with the intention of buying. This means the selling can be condensed into much shorter hours. We were open for 5 hours on Saturday, and 4 hours on Sunday. That's not even long enough to need a pee break. And compare that to the 28 hour marathon that was Artscape Baltimore.
For the first time, my gross sales at the Open House were actually higher than Artscape. After factoring in all the differences in cost and time, I earned $46.81 per hour. In other words, the Open House blew away all other forums for selling.
This is officially the end of The Hourly Earnings Project! Looking back, I'm really glad to have undertaken this year-long exercise. I am earning a respectable wage for my work, and now I know it. Looking forward, it'll be nice to get back in the studio without a stopwatch.
I may not put the stopwatch away for good. I plan to add an online storefront, on a small scale, to my business next year. So possibly at this time next year, I will write about the hourly earnings of online sales.
Happy holidays to all! It sure feels like winter now, it is fr-fr-fr-freezing here in Maryland!
The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore is the kind of place that makes me feel good about the arts world. So much of the arts world is snooty and elitist, and takes itself way too seriously. But AVAM is filled with originality, humanity, and fun. And it's wildly successful. Every year they produce a holiday art show called BAZAART. It's pretty small with only 50 artists, and is held indoors in their gorgeous reception hall. I had a feeling it would draw a good crowd, and that folks would be eager to shop on Thanksgiving weekend.
This is the fourth retail art festival that I've chronicled in The Hourly Earnings Project, and I am starting to draw some conclusions that I wasn't expecting. After the first two shows, the big art festival and the little art festival, it appeared that income from art festivals was widely variable and unpredictable. At BAZAART, I made $36.32 per hour. This is the best I've done all year, but still three of the four shows had an hourly earnings value within a pretty close range of each other. The fourth show, which was a stinker in terms of sales, now looks like an aberration.
It's not as unpredictable as I thought. However, what's clear now is that predictability and success come with choosing the right shows. No longer will I rationalize like "well the booth fee is so cheap" or "the person in charge is so sweet." That's not enough substance for me to commit my time. Substance comes in the form of location, venue, expertise, longevity, reputation, time of year, and the quality of the art. I'm lucky to live in a region with lots of good events, but for every good show there are half-a-dozen wannabes. It's not always easy to see the difference, so I thoroughly expect to snore through some more duds along the way. But if I charge myself with making good decisions, I think I can make the outcomes predictable most of the time.
Maybe some artists would consider the Bethesda Row Arts Festival a "large" art festival, with about 200 artists. But I am calling it "medium-sized" in comparison to the Artscape Baltimore festival that I wrote about in Part 3 of The Hourly Earnings Project. Bethesda Row is mostly just an artists' market. It lasts for 2 days with reasonable daytime hours. At Artscape, the artists' market is only one of the multi-faceted activities at the event, and it is held for 3 days that stretch late into the night.
But even though this is a smaller event in terms of size, it is higher on the "fanciness" scale. Bethesda is an upscale neighborhood just outside the DC border. It is dense and urban but without the hard edges of Baltimore. A surprising number of patrons walk through the festival in high heels! Overall, the crowd was huge but the noise level was quiet and refined.
This is the third year I've done this show. In 2008, the show took place right after a stock market crash, and the weather was gray and cold. Last year in 2009, the show was awash with torrential rain. Both times, I left thinking the sales were pretty good considering the conditions. This year, we were fortunate to have some sunny, crisp, early fall weather, and the economy seems to be on steadier ground. Sales were brisk! And not just for me, I saw lots of art being carried away to their new homes.
So where did it land on the Hourly Earnings scale? $32.20. Not quite as good as Artscape, but way better than the "small" art festival. And still better than all of the wholesale calculations.
One final note ... this show plays a big role in my Holiday Open House, which will be the subject of one these calculations in December. My house is only ten minutes from Bethesda, therefore I use this show to promote the heck out of the upcoming Open House. I almost ran out of flyers!
Here is the fourth installment of my project, once again analyzing the retail side of my business. (To read Parts 1-3, click on the category The Hourly Earnings Project) This time I calculated my earnings from a little art festival, called "Arts in the Park." The setting for the event was postcard perfect (Cromwell Valley Park in Towson, Md.) and the hint-of-fall weather was ideal for being outdoors.
I did my homework before signing up, I visited the show when they held it in the spring. I saw several artists exhibiting there whose work I really like. Their feedback about the show was generally positive. The weather during that spring show was chilly and windy, but the crowd was full and I saw lots of buying. One artist said she had also done the fall show several times, and it was even better than the spring show. Based on these comments, I signed up.
This is a good quality show, even though it's small. My intention for this Hourly Earnings Project is not to compare good shows with bad shows. I think the pointlessness of that is obvious. This post is meant to compare small shows with big shows.
There are lots of differences between the process of doing a small show vs. a big show. The scale of everything is very different. A small show takes much less planning and heavy lifting. The hours are usually shorter. Not to mention, it's a lot cheaper to do a small show. During the show, I often felt like I was just relaxing in a beautiful park. When it was over, I wasn't even very tired (unlike after Artscape when I felt like a cooked noodle).
So is it better to spend my effort selling at a big show or a little show? I added up the hours I spent on all the same tasks as before. I subtracted all the same expenses from my sales total as I did before. And at the little show, I made $16.66 per hour.
Ugh!! That stinks!
Remember how I said I felt like I was relaxing in a park? That's because there were no customers around. I chatted with several other artists who had done this fall show before, and they were baffled by the sparse attendance. With the exception of a painter who sold a few high-ticket works, everybody else I talked to had a bad show.
We'll probably never know exactly why this year was much different than previous years. The art was of good quality, the weather was sparkling, and the troubled economy is not a new factor anymore.
My conclusion, which is based on doing many small shows in the past and not just this one, is that small shows are far riskier than big shows. Even when they look promising, they don't have enough presence to draw crowds consistently. I'm generalizing of course, I do know of a small show that is a real gem and very consistent, so there are some exceptions. But that's rare!
And I'm not saying that big shows are always good. Some of them are overpriced and overproduced. I'm saying that if you put your brain into choosing carefully, a big show that is well-established and expertly-produced has more substantial qualities. Such as credibility, momentum, and high expectations. Small shows have nice qualities like friendliness and good intentions, maybe that's meaningful to other artists. But to those of us who are trying to earn a livable income, those things don't have much value.
Maybe another way to put it is "anything worth doing takes a lot of hard work." I will no longer be tempted by shows because they look easy or cheap. The ones that are worthwhile will require more of me. These investments will only pay me back if I exercise good judgement. I shouldn't rely on luck. Success at a small show is way too dependent on luck.
Mea Rhee, the potter behind Good Elephant Pottery
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