Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Clap if you believe in crafters

There's a lot of information out there on being self employed in the handmade arena, that really pushes the idea of branding not just your work, but yourself...a whole package deal to sell to your customers. I can understand why this is - the whole handmade movement is about buying from an individual person who spent time and effort on the product, and the feeling that the thing you've bought has a story behind it, other than just being another mass produced thing from a factory.
But the idea of branding myself, selling myself as some kind of concept, has always been a little uncomfortable for me. I live a fairly ordinary, unglamorous life. What magical spell can I possibly weave to inspire a stranger across the country or across the ocean to buy into Brand Catherine? I try to let my products speak for themselves, and I try to sell things that I feel are good quality, that people will like. Is that enough, in this cut-throat, super competitive handmade world?
Yesterday, I went for a bracing walk with a friend in the cold and the wind, and this friend very patiently listened to a lot of talk from me about my recent feelings about my work and the whole branding issue. Like a lot of creative types, I'm not that outgoing. I don't often go out to gallery private views. I'm not a party person. I don't have a very active social life. I don't wear beautiful clothes, or live in an especially beautiful home. There isn't always much to say about my day to day life that really differs from many other single peoples. And sometimes, I have doubts about my work. Even saying this feels like I'm breaking a taboo...
"NOoooooo!" cries a voice in my head. "If you don't stay positive about yourself and your products, your customers will walk away!" And maybe in some cases this will be true.
I talked to my friend about this difficulty of feeling that I had to develop some kind of fascinating ultra-positive persona to generate excitement in my brand. And he said something that really struck me, about how honesty is sometimes more respected, and that its important not to try to separate your real self from your work. I realised he was right...if Brand Catherine is going to have any real meaning, it should be the real deal.
So, yes. Sometimes I make something, or sketch out an idea, and later I think...was that the best I could do? Will anyone like this? Does the design work? Whenever I feel that the answer might be no, I tend to hold off on listing the product, or at least I'll try and sell the item at a discount and be upfront about it if I don't feel confident that it's my best work.
I have just set up a discount sale in one of my shops, Treacle Toffee. Everything listed there is a product I still have faith in, but I want to be honest that I plan to close up that shop in the near future, at least temporarily but probably permanently. I think the products are good, they're well made with good materials. But my ideas, style, taste and creative drive are taking me in a different direction now, and the honest truth is I think I can do better. So this is the time to buy from Treacle Toffee! The 30% off sale will be on for the rest of November.
In normal employment, performance is pretty clear cut. If you're not doing as well as you could or should, chances are your boss will tell you. Goals and expectations are clearly defined. When you work for yourself, its a different story. My customers are my bosses, and I rely on feedback and sales figures to gauge if things are going right, as well as for the income that sales generates. Especially during this recession, with the flow of money slowing down and listings so easily lost in the sea of competitors, that feedback about my work is all the more difficult to come by. I still check my shops on Etsy for 'hearts' on a regular basis and feel a little buzz when I see that someone's taken the time to add something of mine to their favourites list.
There are many sellers of handmade goods, like me, who love their craft and really want to make a living out of their creativity, or at least a supplementary income. And I think a lot of us have our moments of doubt, mired in the need to perfect our products and our brand. It is so easy to lose morale, ever hiding behind that shopkeeper smile. And then the creative flow gets blocked, the fear of not getting it right holding you back from keeping on with your work.
There are a lot of great products out there, by sellers who aren't that well known, who don't get featured on Etsy's homepage. Some of us don't get found that easily, because Etsy's search results are limited to the most recently listed 50,000 items. That sounds like a lot, but in some categories this is just the tip of the iceberg of what's actually available on the site. Small sellers who don't have a lot of financial backing to invest in paying the listing fee again and again to go back to the top of the search results can very easily lose their search visibility now. But if you delve into the later pages of the search results, or type in a more specific search term, you may uncover one of Etsy's best kept secret products.
So, dear blog reader. If you can, next time you find a handmade product you really love, especially if its by a seller who isn't raking in multiple sales each day, please let it show. Vote with your wallet if you can and you feel moved to, or just vote with your mouse and click that 'favourite' button. Tell a friend, or write a blog post. Tweet about it, if you're that way inclined. Chances are you'll put a genuine smile on someone's face, and it might just be enough to help them keep believing in themselves.
Clap if you believe in crafters...