The second one is the May/June 2016 issue Pottery Making Illustrated. I have written about my Ahjoshi Hanbok canister on this blog before. The editors of PMI asked me to parlay the project into one of their how-to articles, which I wrote and photographed at the end of last year. To my delight, they put my pot on the cover!
I am pleased to announce that I was featured in two magazines this spring! The first one is Home and Design, which is a DC-area-based magazine covering home decor and interior design. They like to profile local artists, and author Tina Coplan planned my spread for their March/April 2016 issue so it would lead up to the Smithsonian Craft Show. It worked! At least half a dozen people at the show said they had seen me in Home and Design.
The second one is the May/June 2016 issue Pottery Making Illustrated. I have written about my Ahjoshi Hanbok canister on this blog before. The editors of PMI asked me to parlay the project into one of their how-to articles, which I wrote and photographed at the end of last year. To my delight, they put my pot on the cover!
This is the last installment of The Art Festival Plan series of blog posts. Brace yourselves, this is a long post. And it is long overdue too, it took me a while to get this down in writing. When I was done, I thought I should edit it down to make it easier to read, then changed my mind. These are important subjects, and I don't want to leave anything out.
Part 4: Branding, Marketing, and Salesmanship
As you may know, I spent 20 years working as a graphic designer, therefore I am comfortable with the term "branding." I have often heard artists talk of branding like it is intimidating or confusing, sometimes even with scorn or dismissiveness. If you've ever talked to somebody about branding, or read something about it, that left you feeling confused, the source of information a) is trying to sell you their branding services, or b) doesn't understand it either. It's one of those topics that people will bullshit about pretentiously, similar to wine or health food fads. I'm also shaking my finger at those who are quick to be dismissive of branding. You are revealing an attitude that might be laziness, or it might be a sense a entitlement. My work is so amazing I shouldn't have to try hard to sell it. Or, you might have some unreconciled feelings of guilt about capitalism, to which I say "get over it, or do something else."
I want to explain branding in ways that are relevant to a small business like a festival artist. The meaning of branding is the same for any business, but the process of branding is very different between a small company and a big company. My definition of branding is "the impression your company makes on the public." It is important to your business because your credibility is at stake. Ever hear a news anchor mispronounce a word on tv? Doesn't it make you cringe? You wouldn't care if a personal friend made the same mistake, but a news anchor is held to a different standard. A business is held to different standards than a regular person too. You are asking strangers to part with their money. They will hold you accountable in ways that they wouldn't expect of their personal friends.
For a small business, the branding standards you need to achieve are easily attainable. The most important standard is to be consistent all the time. Every time your company name appears in print (when you can control how it looks) it should always look consistent. That might sound simplistic, or even arbitrary, but it's not. This is what it conveys: I know who I am. That is a powerful message. And the truth is, you really do need to know who you are in order to commit to a look. If you are still figuring out your work and yourself, you'll find this surprisingly difficult. When you commit to a consistent look, you come across as confident, credible, and trustworthy. On the other hand, when you fail to use a consistent look for your company name, strangers will subconsciously conclude that you don't have your act together, fair or not. You will be the anchorperson who can't pronounce things correctly. Remember, these are people who don't know you, don't expect any benefit of the doubt.
Here are some elements of my business that I have included in my branding scheme:
My booth banner
The sign in my check-out area
My artist card
My shopping bags
The stamp on the backs of my plates
And of course there's the header of this website too.
Honestly, you don't need to brand all of these things in order to be effective. Do as much as you can. The main point is, whenever you choose to put your company name on something, make sure it is consistent.
For a small business like a pottery studio, it boils down to this: just pick a font already, and don't overthink it more than that. Like I said earlier, depending on your level of self-awareness this might be harder than it sounds. But it really isn't any more complicated. I know I'm not offending my designer friends, because they don't want your work anyways. They are after bigger fish, the ones who need more complicated branding work.
Here's another basic standard you need to meet: When you commit to a font, make sure it's a good one. Bad fonts are everywhere. They are a scourge. A bad font can negate all of your branding efforts by making you look amateurish, no matter how consistent you are. You don't need to be a designer to have access to good fonts. My favorite place to buy them is Fonts.com. This website lets you preview any font in any text. You don't need to buy an expensive package or subscription of fonts. Remember you only need one, which can be as cheap as $30. You don't need to make a conservative choice like I did. My chosen font reflects my personality, and your font should reflect yours. Just please, for heaven's sake, pick a professional-grade font!
You might be thinking, doesn't this mean anyone can portray their company name consistently, and gain credibility points that aren't deserved? Yes, that's true, but you don't have to worry about that. A company with great branding and poor substance is not your competition. Sure, their branding efforts will help to some extent, but they are still going to fail. When I see a company with branding that far exceeds their substance, I figure they paid a talented consultant for their branding, and didn't contribute much to the process. I paid someone to tell me who I am. I feel sympathy for the consultant in those cases. Every designer tries hard to accurately portray their client's character, sometimes there isn't much to work with.
My final word on branding ... think of branding as a baseline standard that your business needs to meet before strangers will take you seriously. But it's just a baseline. You won't get very far without it, but there is still a lot more work to do, so don't sink too much time on this. Figure it out, then turn your attention to the things that will directly generate sales. Starting with ......
"Sales and Marketing" are often said together like they are one thing. I prefer to separate them into two different activities. In the context of art festivals, marketing is everything you do in advance of a show to get people to attend the show. Salesmanship is what happens inside your booth during the show.
When it comes to art festivals, i.e. a live event that folks must attend in person, there is one form of marketing that is far more effective than anything else: email marketing. I focus almost all of my marketing effort building and maintaining an email list, and using it to promote every show. I also make announcements on Facebook, however I don't expect much in terms of results from social media. I don't use Twitter or Instagram at all.
I met most of my email list subscribers at one of my shows. They are art festival goers, who are located close to one of my shows, and appreciated my work enough to hand over their email address. This is a highly targeted group of people, very likely to buy my work sometime in the future. Nobody likes junk email, so when someone gives you their email address, you know their interest level is high.
As popular as social media marketing is these days, it simply cannot deliver the same level of interest. It's reach is too broad. I'm pretty sure most of my facebook and blog followers do not live close enough to attend any of my shows. And it takes so little investment for someone to "like" you online. I equate social media "likes" with pennies, and email addresses with $20 bills.
Of all the potters I know, the ones who make the most money are the ones who spend the least amount of time on social media. This makes perfect sense to me. Social media can be a real time suck. Successful potters understand they need to produce a somewhat insane volume of pots, which doesn't leave much free time. They spend their marketing efforts generating sales, not "likes."
Here's an article from Forbes that expands on how I feel. "Although social media is ideal for promotion and building awareness, it does not always work well to get customers to act." -- Jeff Cornwall, Forbes
After over 10 years of collecting email addresses, my list is currently over 1300 addresses. I collect between 5 and 50 addresses at every show. People can also sign up through my website, those trickle in on a regular basis. I usually get 2 or 3 unsubscribes after every campaign. Every few years, I purge the addresses that are not opening the emails. I use MailChimp to manage my list and write/send the emails. MailChimp makes a lot of this work easier, and it's free (until my list exceeds 2000 addresses, then I'll have to start paying for it).
During the week before every show, I spend about two hours on this. I enter in all the new addresses I collected at the last show, delete the ones who either bounced or unsubscribed, author the new email, and schedule its delivery.
If you think this sounds like too much work, again I'm shaking my finger at you and thinking "lazy." The effort you spend on this will pay you back! I see evidence of this at every show. At a normal show, I'd say 30 to 50% of my sales are made to people who I emailed. Good shows get better and better every year, as the number of repeat customers grows. It is very predictable. The list is especially valuable when I find myself in a bad show, with hardly any attendees. At these shows maybe 75% of my sales are made to my existing fans, who only heard about the event because of my email, and basically saved my ass from losing money. Maybe the best evidence is my annual Open Studio. This event is not advertised to anyone but my followers, and it is usually my highest grossing event of the year (over $10K in 2015).
Years ago when my business was smaller, I did 5 or 6 shows per years. In recent years I ramped that up to 10 or 12 per year. For a while, I worried that sending 12 email campaigns per year would seem spammy. But I have learned it's not. People don't mind hearing from me that often. And the ones who lose interest can easily unsubscribe, thanks to MailChimp. And here's where marketing ties into branding ... all of my emails have a very consistent look, and are formatted in the same, concise way:
1) name of my company
2) a nice photo of my work
3) show dates/times/location/admission fees/website
4) maybe a short paragraph about the show
5) my booth number
6) a link to my website that lists my entire upcoming show schedule (always the most clicked-upon link)
There is a subtext that says "I promise not to waste your time." I want my subscribers to expect that from me. I think this contributes to my high open rate, and my low unsubscribe rate, and why my customers seem to like the emails.
Sometimes other artists ask me, "how do I get people to sign up? I put out a notepad to collect addresses, everyone ignores it." Again, the answer is tied to branding. My email list signup pad has the same consistent look as the rest of my brand. Therefore it is credible and trustworthy. Remember, when someone gives you their email address, they need to feel like they can trust you with it. I place the signup pad where people stand while they are making a purchase. I don't say anything about it. It looks inviting and people sign up on their own. I only talk about it when a customer initiates a conversation such as "what other shows are you doing?" I'll answer that my show schedule is always on my website, and if you're really interested you can get automatic notices by email (while pointing to the signup pad). I never initiate the conversation, because I don't want anyone to sign up because they were too polite to say no. (I once watched another artist do that ... super awkward.) I'll never do anything gimmicky like offer a raffle or giveaway in exchange for email signups. This is a waste of time, because the people who respond to this are not interested in buying your work. They only want it if it's free. The only addresses that I equate with $20 bills are the ones that happen naturally. Skip the gimmicks, get rid of the storebought spiral notebook or steno pad, and create a signup form that matches your brand. I created an 8.5 x 11 page with two forms per page.
I cut the pages in half, then I use a heavy-duty stapler to bind them to a piece of cardboard. I've been using this same piece of cardboard for years. Whenever I need new pages, I pry off the old ones, and staple on new ones.
Did you notice that the everything takes time theme has appeared again? I have a great mailing list because I built it slowly over time. I didn't take any shortcuts. I decided this was important many years ago, and I have been faithfully maintaining this process ever since.
As I mentioned above, salesmanship refers to everything that happens inside your festival booth. It is the end of the line, where sales are either made or lost. Salesmanship is the reason why branding is only marginally important to a festival artist, because during most of the time your business interacts with the public, you are there. Your presence, persona, and behavior are far more important in terms of making an impression. There isn't one right way to do it, there is no script or formula. Good salesmanship is about your attitude. Pick the right attitude and your behavior will follow. I have a few rules, starting with:
Don't be shy. I struggled with this in my early years. I was anxious about being in public with my work on display, and nervous about talking to strangers. It's normal to feel this way at first, but you need to overcome it. I know that's easier said than done for some people. If you truly have too much anxiety about this, this is not the right job for you. You will be miserable and you won't have much success. For me, it got easier with time (there's that pesky theme again). You know what helped me the most? Teaching pottery classes. The format is very similar, i.e. public speaking to a small group of people. Being a teacher forced me to do it two nights a week, every week. Eventually it became second nature. Which leads to the next rule:
Don't think of yourself as a salesperson. Think of yourself as a teacher. When you are talking to customers about your work, don't even think about making a sale. Instead, just teach your customers about your work. Hopefully, your work contains a great deal of your thoughts, ideas, feelings. Put those thoughts into words. In Part 2 of this blog series, I wrote about my line of work, and the development process that my pottery designs go through. I already have prepared stories about many of those designs. This allows me to easily start talking when I notice a customer's interest. That is, if I sense that the customer would welcome some interaction from me. You know what else a teacher is responsible for? Reading people and making everyone feel comfortable, like being a good host of a party. Which leads to the next rule:
Remember that every customer is an individual. This is a mistake that too many festival artists make. They start seeing their customers as one collective lump, rather than individual people. "Them." A festival artist must use their people skills to read each individual customer, and give them as much space or attention they need. You cannot assign your beliefs about one customer to everyone else. This is another form of laziness. It's easy to fall into this trap. And it takes a whole lot of energy to do the opposite, which is to view every new person as a completely new situation, all day long.
I can't believe that customer asked a question that I just answered 30 minutes ago. Now I have to answer it again! What an idiot! I have actually read other artists' blogs where they are complaining about this. Guess who's the idiot. This is another common way that artists fail to see each customer as an individual. And yes, working at a festival means you have to answer the same questions all day, and tell the same stories about your work repeatedly. It's part of the job to always deliver those answers like it's the first time. Do you think this will annoy you? Then read my next rule:
Be grateful. This cannot be faked. It must be genuine, from somewhere deep inside. It is a privilege to be a potter. Make sure your customers know that you understand this, which means they don't owe you anything. Be grateful for sales, plus all the compliments, questions, even when someone just takes the time to look. These things are all worthy of your gratitude. Your customers deserve to feel it. When you express gratitude, it pays you back.
A person on an online listserv once said that she refuses to say "thank you" when she gets a compliment, because she reserves her "thank yous" for sales. Does she really think people cannot detect her passive-aggressiveness? She's wrong. She's treating her customers like they are dumb. Which leads to the next rule:
Treat your customers like the intelligent people they are. Anyone who wants to furnish their home with handmade wares, and can afford to do it, has a combination of high self-esteem, appreciation for beauty, good taste, and some kind of successful professional life. Way above average. These people understand the word "value," and spend their money thoughtfully.
If you are encountering a lot of stupid people, go back and read Part 1 of this blog series. You are applying to the wrong shows.
Don't listen to anyone who thinks salesmanship involves tricking, conning, or arm twisting. A person who is interested in handmade craft is too smart to fall for any of that. Which leads to my final rule:
Don't apply any pressure. Zero. None. There's no need for pressure. You've already done everything you can. The final decision is for your customer to make. Respect an intelligent person's ability to decide for themselves. Remember that your business will not survive if people will only buy your work once. Therefore, trying to turn a quick sale in a way that is disrespectful to your customer will only hurt you in the long run. On the other hand, if customers walk away feeling great about their new pots, and the experience they had in your booth, they will come back and they will refer their friends. Those are the only kind of sales you want.
I've written before on this blog about my love of wood-firing. Wood-firing is a great analogy for what I'm writing about here. You can spend years studying and practicing forms, surfaces, and construction methods that are well-suited for a wood-fired pots. Then every time you hand your pots over to the kiln, you must let go. It's amazing what you see when you acknowledge the limits of your control. It's both humbling and empowering, because you also see exactly what you can control.
If I had to condense all of my salesmanship rules into one rule, here it is:
Make every individual person who walks into your booth feel like they are welcome to stay as long as they want without buying anything.
In a recent post, I mentioned that I was sick during this year's ACC Baltimore show. My brain was working at half-speed, and I was tired and grumpy. I did my best, but I couldn't always maintain the right frame of mind to be a good host in my booth. My sales were over $1000 less than the previous year. I hope this illustrates the value of my salesmanship approach. Being "off" can cost you money! Don't worry, I made up for the lost funds at the Smithsonian Craft Show, where my sales far exceeded last year's sales. And to follow up on that same recent blog post, my new 8W LED PAR lightbulbs made my booth at the SCS look fantastic. Maybe those attracted a few extra sales too.
This is the end of The Art Festival Plan blog series. Thank you to everyone who read all of them. This was my comprehensive "plan," i.e. how I get ready for every show, and how I make decisions for every year. I hope you found enough guidance to put together your own plan. This doesn't mean I will stop writing about shows and business-related things. No doubt there will be plenty of stories and experiences to share in the future.
This is one of my favorite cookie recipes. I made them for my Open Studio last year. Today I had to bake a batch of these cookies, and shoot a glamour photograph of them. I can't tell you why yet, but I promise to explain soon. In meantime, enjoy the recipe!
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup molasses
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp Chinese five-spice powder*
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
turbinado sugar, for topping
*If you can't find five-spice powder in your grocery store, you can make you own:
1 tbs Sichuan peppercorns, or any peppercorns
6 star anise
1 1/2 tsp whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 tbs fennel seeds
Grind in a spice or coffee grinder into a fine powder. Store in an airtight container.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Using an electric hand mixer on low speed, cream together the shortening and sugar. Add the egg and molasses and beat until smooth. Add flour, baking soda, five-spice powder, ginger, and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until thoroughly incorporated. Dough should be stiff and somewhat dry. Roll the dough into 1 inch balls. Dip the tops of the balls in turbinado sugar. Place 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake for 12 minutes. Cool on wire racks. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.
I know I haven't written anything here since early January. It's been a weird winter, because I spent about a month feeling sick. It started suddenly on the Saturday before the ACC Show, when I woke up with a severe case of vertigo and nausea. I powered through the show on a combination of Nauzene and Advil, and after that I went around and around a cycle of feeling better and feeling worse. It was exhausting and depressing. There's an amoeba eating my brain, I thought. I googled my symptoms and I found the answer, Labyrinthitis, which means inflammation of the inner ear. Once I realized it was not an amoeba, and that it was normal for it to take weeks or even months to resolve, my mood lifted and I started to take it in stride. I just had to paw my way through the fog, and try not to get annoyed at my mental impairment (such as putting something in the microwave, and forgetting to turn it on). The good news is, I didn't miss any work. It's not hard to keep your head still while making pots. The only hard part was loading/unloading kilns, which I had to do very slowly. I've been feeling normal for about 1.5 weeks now.
I did manage to complete another project during this time: choosing and buying new light bulbs for my pottery display. This topic really belongs in my last post (about my display) from The Art Festival Plan series of posts. When I wrote about my display last fall, I left out the part about lighting, because I knew I wanted to change my light bulbs. So consider this an addendum to that post. I'm about to get into some very nerdy details about light bulbs, so if you don't care to read about that, you can skip to the end to learn which bulbs I chose.
I purchased the track lighting system for my booth in 2008. Back then, compact florescent (CFL) light bulbs did not come in any color other than sickly blue, and LED bulbs did not exist. A very helpful salesperson from LampsPlus.com (where I bought the track lighting) recommended that I buy four incandescent reflector bulbs, and four halogen PAR spotlights. A reflector bulb is a triangle-shaped bulb, with a reflective coating inside except for the front face. Therefore, the light only comes out of the front face, but not in a focused way. A PAR bulb (parabolic aluminized reflector) directs light in a much more focused way, like a headlight on a car. It is a true spotlight, which a reflector bulb really isn't. These bulbs made my booth look great. The problem was, incandescent and halogen bulbs are HOT. My booth was like an Easy-Bake Oven.
After a few years of sitting in the oven, I started looking for something else. By then, CFL bulbs came in nicer colors. LED bulbs did exist but they were crazy expensive. I chose CFL reflector bulbs. The color was just about right, though sometimes I thought it was still a little too blue. The brightness was good, and they stayed totally cool, so I was comfortable sitting under them for eight hours. But there were two drawbacks. First, the bulbs are huge! They look clumsy. And second, I missed having those PAR spotlights, because they really make the display look subtly dramatic.
In the last year, I became aware that LED bulbs had become affordable. There are a lot of choices. Too many choices! So I bought three different LED bulbs to see how they look in person. From left to right: 1) the CFL reflector bulb that I'm replacing (cool but huge), 2) the halogen PAR spotlight from 2008 (tiny but hot), 3) an 8W LED PAR spotlight (delightfully tiny), 4) a 7W LED PAR spotlight (small but not delightfully tiny, cheapest of the LED bulbs), and 5) a 10W LED PAR spotlight (largest and most expensive of the LEDs).
Not sure if a photograph of light bulbs can show you what I saw, in terms of brightness, and the focus of the beams. The PAR spotlights looked so much better because of their focused beams, it made the CFL reflector bulb seem unappealing. I decided I wanted all PARs and no reflectors. I also decided that having eight track fixtures didn't quite make sense for a three-sided display. It made more sense to have nine fixtures, three per side. The 10W LED PAR (far right) was just as bright as the halogen PAR (second from left). Therefore I ruled it out. Remember I previously only had four halogen PARs (plus four reflectors). Having nine equivalent bulbs would be too bright. And besides the 10W was the largest and most expensive. The 8W and 7W bulbs were less bright. I think they were just right considering I would have nine of them. The differences between them were small. The 8W bulb was the tiniest, and the 7W bulb was the cheapest. Ultimately, I decided that given the lifespan of LED bulbs, these are the last bulbs I'm going to buy. I splurged on the delightfully tiny, 8W LED PAR bulbs. Link to the bulbs on 1000bulbs.com
One more thing I needed to test. Like I mentioned earlier, I was hoping to buy bulbs that were slightly warmer in color than my CFL reflector bulbs, which were 3500K color. All of the LED PAR bulbs I tested were 3000K color. I had to make sure this would still flatter my gray pottery.
Looks good to me! There's still a little guesswork here ... is nine the right number of bulbs? Will it be too bright or not bright enough? Also, while the bulbs are not hot like a halogen bulb, they aren't totally cool like a CFL bulb either. They are slightly warm. How comfortable will it be? I can only test that in an actual show situation. I will write a quick update to answer these questions after the Smithsonian Craft Show (April 21-24).
I know many of you are waiting for my last blog post in The Art Festival Plan series, which will be on marketing and sales. Sorry for the delay! Blame it on the Labyrinthitis. I've been thinking about it a lot, and I promise it is coming soon. I'm finding this one is harder to put into words, some of it is trickier and subtler than "do this" and "don't do that." For example, trying to do a show while feeling nauseous and dizzy will impact your salesmanship ... to be continued ...
As of 10am on Monday, December 14, my Online Store is open. A limited selection of work is available through December 31, or while supplies last. $10 flat rate shipping for all orders.
Wishing you all a warm and cheerful holiday season!
Good Elephant Pottery's 9th Annual Open Studio
Saturday and Sunday, December 12-13
10am - 5pm both days
There is ample street parking in my neighborhood. The entrance to the studio is behind the house and down a flight of stairs, and will be clearly marked with signs.
I have a few new designs to debut, plus some updates to existing designs. This is my most original new design, the Maryland Platter. It is a medium-sized rectangular platter, impressed with the unique silhouette of my home state. 8.5 x 12 inches. $70
Most of my nesting bowl sets come with three bowls. I decided to try a more ambitious set of Five Nesting Bowls. Largest bowl is 11.5 inches across. $225 for the set.
Bowls, bowls, and more bowls. I've grown very fond of Medium Serving Bowls. So functional! I'm always experimenting with new designs. By now I have several designs that I am crazy about. Prices range from $65 to $72.
The Ahjoshi Hanbok canister that I introduced last year now comes in different shapes and sizes. From 6.5 to 10 inches tall. Prices range from $145 - $175.
I've added a new design motif to my Contemporary Korean line of carved surfaces. The Cherry Blossom Jar is 6 inches across, $110.
And of course I will be fully stocked with my staples: mugs, tumblers, bowls, plates, casseroles, pitchers, berry bowls, and elephants. There will be a "scratch and dent" area full of bargains, and a table full of snacks. I have a fresh shipment of Good Elephant reusable grocery bags. All purchases will be packed into these bags. Hope to see you this weekend!
I’m glad to discover that people are reading these blog posts in great detail. I’ve had a few people tell me, graciously and apologetically, that they hope I did not think they were hitting on me at shows. I promise that if you have enough conscience and self-awareness to apologize for that, I was not talking about you! The people I was talking about are not reading a geeky blog like this. And if they happened to read what I wrote, I guarantee they lack the mindfulness to recognize themselves. That couldn’t be about me, she definitely found me charming. Of course, anyone who tries to apologize after reading this, that will obviously be fake.
The fall months are the craziest time of year for potters, which is why it took me a few months to write this next installment. If you are new to this series, you can find the rest of it here. Part 3 is about an aspect of festival planning that I’ve seen many artists doing poorly, and many artists doing fabulously. It’s another area where it is hard to be good at first, but with experience and practice you can get it down to a smooth process.
Part 3: Display and Logistics
All of the examples photos in this post are from an indoor show. So before I get into the details of these photos, I want to talk about canopies for outdoor shows. I personally own two canopies: a heavy-duty one, and a lightweight pop-up. If you are just getting started doing shows, do not buy a $1000 heavy-duty canopy. Too many people dive in for the $1000 canopy before uncovering their deep hatred for doing shows. Start with a $200-$300 pop-up. Don’t let canopy snobs tell you there is anything wrong with pop-ups. There are plenty of pop-ups at the highest-quality shows. You are ready for a $1000 canopy when you are sure you have committed to festival work for the long term, and regularly doing multi-day shows. That pop-up will still come in handy for one-day shows, because the heavy-duty canopies are too cumbersome for that.
As far as $1000 canopies go, the most common ones (and the best, in my opinion) are the Trimline by Flourish, and the Light Dome by Creative Energies. The first one I bought was the Trimline, after another artist told me how it kept her work safe and dry through a hurricane. After several years of using it, I had to admit the steel structure was too heavy for me. It took me 45 minutes to hoist, and left me exhausted. So I sold it a bought the Light Dome, which has an aluminum frame and is designed for a one-person setup. It takes me only 20 minutes to hoist, without any strain. If you are a brawnier person than me, or if you always work with a strong helper, the Trimline is the sturdier and more attractive canopy. But for an average-size female working solo, the Light Dome makes more sense.
Trading my Trimline for a Light Dome is a good illustration of my overall advice about displays: Don’t make it pretty. Make it easy. The evolution of my display over the years has gone in one direction: smaller, lighter, and faster. Why should this be your first priority? Because it allows you to do more shows. If doing one show wipes you out, you’re doing it wrong. And you probably can’t get through the number of shows it takes to make a livable income.
My entire display is lightweight, packs flat, and fits into the middle row of my minivan.
Speaking of the minivan, having the right vehicle is an essential component of logistics. Buying my minivan in 2013 caused an immediate increase in the number of shows I could do, because I can leave my display in it for most of the year. Loading the display in my van (and taking it out) involves 12 to 15 trips up and down the stairs to my basement. When I had a smaller car, I had to do that for every show. Not anymore. I know some potters who have a van for shows that is always packed, plus a separate personal vehicle. Some artists use a trailer for shows that is always packed. The key is “always packed.”
(I remember cringing at another artist who could not figure out how to fit her display and work into her Lexus at the end of the show. That is an entirely impractical vehicle for shows, because the cargo space in those rounded SUVs is quite small. The cringy part was that the Lexus had an automatic back lift gate that made a loud beeping noise as it slowly went down. It would stop and go back up if it detected an obstacle, beeping all the way up. The beeping went on for at least half-an-hour, as she tried repeatedly to rearrange her payload. Beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep ….. Obviously she got everything to fit just two days earlier, but she didn’t remember how.)
Here’s is my entire display on a dolly, plus six tightly packed boxes of pottery, in my booth space at my last show.
Here are the walls of my booth. I use the poles from my Light Dome canopy as a frame, plus fabric curtain walls. I love the fabric walls because they weigh so little and pack down into a small box.
Here is all of my furniture in place, unfolded out of its flat-packed state: folding tables, fabric table covers, and shelves
Anyone looking at my booth at this stage, before the pottery has been unpacked, would probably think “hmmm, plain.” That doesn’t matter. What matters is that it was easy.
Here it is filled with pots
Hopefully now you can see the utility of the “plain” booth. Nobody looks at my tables and walls. People only see my pots. If I were to add any visual clutter to this, it would only serve to draw attention away from the pots. At the highest level of shows, look closely and you will see that most of the booths are “plain” booths. You didn’t notice before, because your attention was on the work, not the booths. Artists at this level have figured this out.
Let’s talk square footage. My display contains 51 square feet of horizontal surfaces on which to display pots. For me, this is the right amount of display space to give customers enough to chew on, enough to choose from, without overwhelming them. The “right amount” will be different for every style of work. For example, if you make intricate, one-of-a-kind pieces, it doesn’t take many pieces to give your customers a lot to see. Or if you make “stock up your kitchen” type functional work in high volumes, it makes sense to display the high volumes. On the other hand, if you bring 100 super-intricate pieces, your viewers cannot possibly process it all. Or, if you make everyday functional wares, but only have space to display 20 pots, that won’t come across as “serious” to a knowledgable pottery fan. Everyone’s pottery falls somewhere on this spectrum, it’s important for every artist to answer this question individually: what is the “right amount” to display at a time?
I use this arrangement for any show that is two days or longer. The longer the show, the more work I will pack, but I will still only display this much at a time. The rest will be stowed as backstock, and brought out as needed to keep the booth looking full. For one-day shows, I use a smaller version of this, which looks a lot like the next photo.
Which leads to another neat feature about my simple, modular display. It shrinks!
Again, my display can be formatted smaller for one-day shows. But also on the last day of a multi-day show, I may not have enough pots to fill 51 square feet anymore. This means I’ve already made a satisfactory profit, and I start caring more about having the easiest pack out possible. So I start putting away parts of my display. This keeps the remaining display surfaces looking full, and gives me a jump start on packing.
My flat-packable display parts are easy to hide in my “closet."
The back 2.5 feet of my 10x10 ft space is my closet. It is where I store my dolly, ladder, empty boxes, briefcase, coat and shoes, snacks, plus my roll of kraft paper and shopping bags. I also use the spaces under my folding tables for storage. There are lots of shows that will give artists additional storage space outside of their booth space, and lots of shows that don’t. I recommend to everyone to design ample storage space into your 10x10 footprint, because it is nonsensical to expect every show to provide extra storage.
Last but not least, here’s a close-up of the “check-out” area of my booth.
My sign shows clearly what forms of payment I take (all of them), and gives instructions for those who are writing checks. Customers can help themselves to my card, or sign up for my email list.
(The email list signup pad will be the star of my next post in this series, on Marketing and Sales.)
One final thought about my display … at the show where I took these photos, I was the featured artist in the show’s PR campaign, which comes with a corner booth at the front of the show. This made it easier to take these photographs, but the truth is I prefer a three-walled booth over a corner. A corner booth is more visible from farther away. This is nice, but a customer cannot make a purchase from 20 feet away. I care a lot more about impressing those who are standing inside my space. When I can surround a customer with three full walls, I have their undivided attention.
There are some things you can only get in the fall, such as Honeycrisp apples. And I recently bought myself a tapered rolling pin at an art festival, and wanted to try it. And because yesterday was a true day off (well except for a dentist appointment) which is rare in the fall, I decided to make myself a Crumb-Topped Apple Raisin Pie.
For a single 9-inch pie crust:
1 1/2 cups AP flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
9 tbs butter, cubed and cold
1/4 cup cold water
Pulse together flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor. Add the cubed butter, and pulse 8 to 12 times, until butter pieces are the size of peas. Drizzle water into the feed tube while pulsing. The mixture should look like wet sand, that sticks together when you squeeze it. Place a large piece of plastic wrap on your counter. Dump out the wet sand mixture onto the plastic. Squeeze it into a ball, then flatten into a disc. Wrap it up with the plastic, then let it sit in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. Don't put the food-processor parts in the sink yet, you'll need them for the crumb topping.
For the filling:
6 medium sized apples, sliced thin
1/2 cup white sugar
2 tbs AP flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of nutmeg
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
While the pie crust is resting in the fridge, start pre-heating the oven to 375°F. Slice up all of the apples, and put them in a large bowl. In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Pour this mixture over the apples, and toss together with the raisins and walnuts.
On a floured board or counter, roll out the pie crust. Yes, a tapered rolling pin is very easy to control, and makes a straight-sided rolling pin with spinning handles seem unnecessarily complicated. Gently transfer the crust into a pie dish, and tuck under all of the edges. I like to crimp the edges, but really that doesn't matter. Pour in the apple filling.
For the crumb-topping:
1/2 cup AP flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 tbs butter, cubed
Pulse this together in the food processor until it looks like crumbs. Spread over the top of the pie. Use all of it, even if it looks like too much. Much of it will sink down into the pie while baking.
Cover the pie loosely with foil, and bake for 45 minutes at 375°F. Remove foil and continue to bake for 35-45 minutes longer, until the apples are soft enough to pierce easily with a paring knife, and the crumb topping and crust are nicely browned.
You might be asking yourself, is she planning to eat the entire pie by herself? The answer is, it might take me a week, but yes!
If you have read Part 1 of this series, hopefully you have marked your calendars with shows you plan to visit in the next 12 months. Before you apply for them, right? Good. Now don’t get discouraged by what I say next … getting yourself juried into a “good show” does not equal instant success. It’s just the first step. Even at good shows, there are plenty of artists who are bombing. There are still many factors to consider. This post is about some factors that can be managed through good planning and objective analysis. The recurring theme of everything takes time will be apparent again.
(side note: I got a lot of great feedback for my last post, publicly and privately. In the few instances where someone thought my advice was not applicable to themselves, I noticed that they ignored the everything takes time theme.)
Part 2: Inventory and Pricing
In my last post, I mentioned a show that was 3-days long, where I grossed $9000 in sales. I have done this show for the last three years. I grossed $5200 in 2013 (which thrilled me at the time), then $7700 in 2014, and $9000 in 2015. The show was essentially the same for these three years, so why the steady increase in sales for me? Because the beginning of 2013 is when I started using an inventory tracking system. I suppose a business school professor would call it basic market analysis. It’s not that complicated, the tools required for this system are a spiral notebook and a pen.
Years ago I would make a written list of my inventory before each show. This was not in a proactive planning way, it was just so I knew how much work I had. This was the beginning of my system, but as the years went by it grew more robust, and my attitude switched around completely. Now, I am not just recording how much work I made, past-tense. Instead, I decide far in advance how much work I need for a particular show, plan my production schedule to meet those needs, then write down the inventory list before each show to make sure I’ve met my target. And here’s what I started doing in 2013 that turned this into a complete system: At the end of every show, before I start packing down, I make a list of the leftover pots.
Here are my spiral notebook pages from the $9000 show. These are the pots I packed:
And these are the pots I brought home afterwards:
If you were scratching your head at my above statement “I decide far in advance how much work I need for a particular show” here is the explanation. The “before” and “after” lists that I am accumulating over time are telling me the answers. Sales patterns become clear. Bring more of this, less of that, stay steady with this, eliminate that altogether. I use all of the lists together to see general trends. And when planning for a specific show, I will study the lists for that show from the previous year for guidance.
Here’s a specific example: In 2013, I packed only 12 mugs (which seems so clueless to me now) for the show that I’m using as an example here. Based on sales, I increased the mug inventory every year. In 2015, I packed 27 mugs, and brought home 3. At $35 per mug, that’s an additional $420 in sales, just in mugs alone.
Everything takes time, because when you start doing this, you can only make broad guesses. That’s ok. Once I started really paying attention to this, I did maybe 20 shows before I started to feel some clarity. And I am not done with this process. It is an ongoing slow march of improvement.
Now on to the subject of pricing. I know this is a subject that new sellers find confusing and distressing. It’s not supposed to be easy, and there is no “formula.” Just like inventory planning, proper pricing can be figured out over time.
When I am offering a new design for sale for the first time, it will start out with a low “prototype” price. If sales are poor, the item will be eliminated (hey I thought an individual pie dish was a great idea, nobody else agreed). If it sells well, then it will go through a feeling-out process to arrive at the right price. I will keep inching up the price, sometimes even raising the price in the middle of the show. In my experience, sales will screech to a halt when I’ve overshot the right price. Even by a few dollars, it’s funny how sales will stop cold. When I notice that happening, I will back the price down to the last price that sold well, and call that the “sweet spot.” This process takes several shows, sometimes up to a year.
If a new design makes it this far, then it progresses onto another level of analysis. Does the “sweet spot” price match the amount of material, labor, and kiln space that this item consumes? Sometimes the answer is “no,” and therefore the item is dropped, even if it’s a good seller. An example of this is my now discontinued Personal Teapot. It’s “sweet spot” was $48, but that was not enough to make its complicated production worthwhile (the pot consisted of three parts that had to fit together, and one of them was prone to breaking).
Once a new item has made it through all of this vetting, and officially added to my inventory, that doesn’t mean its price is carved in stone. I am always open to tweaking the prices. In fact, the system that I use for inventory planning is also how I make ongoing decisions about pricing. When I notice trends in sales, my first reaction is to “pack more” or “pack less.” But sometimes “charge more” or “charge less” is the better choice. For example, my dinner plates were always selling out. But plates are hard to stack into a kiln, and I did not want to dedicate more kiln space for these. Therefore, producing more was not a attractive option, and prices went up instead.
Are you getting the sense of how long this takes? Just like with inventory planning, it’s ok that you can only make broad guesses at first. WIth time and experience, the answers become clear.
My final point about pricing … everyone has the right to choose their own prices. Respect that boundary, and defend your own. Don’t let anyone tell you that your prices affect other potters. This is complete baloney. Why? Because pottery customers are not shallow people. They shop based on quality and appeal, not by price. When I am figuring out the “sweet spot” prices for my work, I am not figuring out “the going price of mugs in general” but rather I am determining “the appeal value of my mug.” If I’ve done it correctly, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter if a nearby potter is charging half as much for the same item. Conversely, if my mugs are cheaper than a nearby potter’s mugs, I know that I am not affecting that person’s sales, as long as they have figured out the correct appeal value of their mugs. (And if they have misjudged their appeal value, that’s not my fault.) So don’t spend a minute worrying about anyone else’s prices. It’s much more productive to worry about making the most appealing pots you can.
I combined inventory and pricing into one blog post because these two subjects are two halves of the same thing, otherwise known as a line of work. You’ve probably noticed by now that I don’t make random pottery designs, pack a random inventory, slap on random prices, and shrug my shoulders at the results. I don’t really make individual pots at all. I make a line of pots, which includes about 40 different designs and their “sweet spot” prices. The designs and the prices are developed over a long time. It’s rare for me to make changes to my line, and these decisions are made with a great deal of analysis and proof. All of this time, effort, and commitment means that I show up for every festival with a booth full of proven good sellers, all priced correctly.
Mea Rhee, the potter behind Good Elephant Pottery
Berkshires Art Festival
Great Barrington, MA
Festival of the Arts
State College, PA
Rehoboth Art League's
43rd Annual Outdoor Fine Art
& Fine Craft Show
Rehoboth Beach, DE
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