Tips For Running a Part-Time Craft Business
Written by Patrice Lewis   

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Over the years I’ve learned that my husband and I are unusual in the crafting world because we are supported solely by our craft business. It can be a precarious existence, but we enjoy the benefits of being our own boss and setting our own hours.

We’ve also learned it is the dream of many craftspeople to do just what we did—chuck the nine-to-five routine of drudgery and become full-time craftspeople.

But with our current economy, it might be too risky to try to support a family exclusively with a craft business. So let’s think about how a home craft business can supplement rather than supplant your income—at least until better times.

Irons in the fire

Nationally, we are poised on the brink of an unknown financial future. It seems that everywhere we turn, we hear reports of Company X laying off hundreds or thousands of workers.

Therefore, if you’re lucky enough to have a job, now might not be a good time to quit in order to start a home craft business. It is, however, the best possible time to supplement your job.

Investment experts commonly advise their clients to diversify their portfolio. In laymen’s terms, it’s called not putting all your eggs in one basket. If all your eggs are in one basket and you drop it, you’re done.

The same advice can be applied to your income sources. Diversify your “portfolio.” Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. In this case, if your “basket” drops (i.e. you lose your job), you still have other revenue sources to fall back on.

Obviously, you’ll still have problems if you lose your job—the job that probably provides benefits and the income necessary to pay your bills and buy food. But if you also have dribs and drabs of income coming in from other sources, then if the worst happens you’ll at least have those dribs and drabs. At that point, you’ll have to prioritize where your money goes.

My husband and I have what we call the “many irons in the fire” theory of income. In other words, we suggest bringing in cash through whatever (legal) means possible. This is where crafting can work beautifully. A wholesale customer here, a craft show there, a few items sold to friends and you’ve got those critical dribs and drabs of income. The more moneymaking irons you have in the fire during uncertain economic times, the better.

Adding (or amplifying) a craft business while maintaining an existing full-time job is difficult but not impossible. It mostly requires a change of mind-set. The “free time” of evenings and weekends must often be given over to crafting. This may not be too onerous since, for most craftspeople, making our art is something we love to do.

Diversify

There are a number of techniques you can use to broaden and expand your home craft business, even in this economy.

Think about ways your product can be modified to appeal to a broader number of people. One of the reasons T-shirt vendors do so well is because they can cross-market their products under virtually any condition by putting appropriate slogans or pictures on their T-shirts. While not every product is quite that adaptable, think about how can you tweak your product to make it more interesting to people outside of your normal market.

For example, I’ve seen women who sew teddy bears start making teddy bear outfits that appeal to everyone from little girls to tough leather-wearing motorcyclists (think about a teddy bear with leather and chains and you get my drift). Can you make your quilts with different themes, i.e. tractors or antique cars or ballerinas? Can you put a picture of a spangled singer or a starship on your handmade candles and take them to an Elvis or Star Trek convention?

The broader your appeal, the more income-producing irons you have in the fire.

Cheap ’n’ local

In our particular case, we discovered long ago that our craft product does not sell well at regular craft fairs. We make somewhat pricey hardwood drinking tankards that have a masculine appeal, and we’ve found that most of the buyers at craft fairs are women on a budget—not a match. Therefore, we seldom do smaller craft shows.

The exceptions are what we call “cheap ’n’ local” craft fairs. This means the booth fee is inexpensive and we don’t have to travel far to get to the show. These craft fairs don’t net us a lot of money, but they’re fun to do and they more than pay for themselves. They also have the advantage of fitting very well into the “part-time craftsperson” line of thinking.

If you’re looking to maximize your craft income, start looking at all opportunities to sell your product. What’s your “cheap ’n’ local”? Can you set up a booth at the local car show and sell a car-themed version of your product? How about a fishing rally? A homeschooling curriculum fair? A farmers market? Anytime you hear about a local event with vendor spaces, think about whether you can match your product to fit the theme. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth thinking about.

Remember, irons in the fire.

Passions never fade

In an earlier article, one of my suggestions was to market your product in a way that caters to peoples’ passions. This advice still holds.

In stressful times, people still like to loosen up. And they loosen up by indulging in hobbies, for which people can be ridiculously passionate (I know I am about mine!). Here’s the chance to broaden your sales by tweaking your product to the appropriate hobby and then target-marketing toward those hobbyists.

This doesn’t always mean you must attend, say, a motorcycle rally if leather-clad bikers make you nervous. Alternative ways to sell your product could include eBay or Etsy, selling wholesale to a specialty retail store that carries items geared toward that hobby or marketing wholesale to catalogs.

Will your product be suitable as, say, a movie prop? Start investigating prop companies. Could your product be a wonderful addition to gift baskets? Contact companies that specialize in gift baskets. Can you offer your product to a business as a potential gift or giveaway for their customers? (“Buy a yacht and receive a handsome set of engraved wooden tankards absolutely free!”)

As people become tighter with their money, tap into what they still like to spend their money on—think passions.

Think practical

On the flip side, now may be the time to think about altering and marketing your product in such a way that it appeals to the newly frugal mind-set.

There is undoubtedly a resurgence of thrift in this country. People are becoming more interested in the practical rather than the luxurious. How can you adapt your product to take advantage of this? If you are an expert knitter, say, perhaps you should shift your skills into useful items such as gloves, mittens, sweaters and scarves rather than decorative items.

For example, a close friend has superb needlework skills. A few years ago she was making CR-Current_Feature_picMarch2011exquisite but (let’s face it) unneeded doilies and tatted lace items. However, she learned of a dire need for skilled needlework in making vestments for clergy. She started a business making liturgical garments that supplements her family income very nicely.

What niche can you think of that needs filling? What kinds of skills do you have that could be put to good use with a practical application? Remember, the more dribs and drabs of income—the more irons you have in the fire—the better.

 

Go with buzzwords

Here’s something a lot of people fail to capitalize on with their home craft product: the fact that they’re made in America. Yes, there really are a lot of people seeking items that are not made by huge factories in China. Your job is to find those people.

After Sept. 11, we expected our sales to tank because of the national grieving process. But to our surprise, our sales actually increased because people wanted American-made products. We heard similar stories from other craftspeople. A quick Internet search for “made in America” products may lead you to places you might be able to list your website or individual craft. Networking among businesses that specialize in homegrown (so to speak) items is never a bad thing.

What about the “Greenness” of your craft? Are you particularly skilled in working with recycled materials, reclaimed supplies or other aspects that may be interesting to those with environmental concerns? It behooves you to capitalize on anything marketable.

Never forget frugality

If you voluntarily or involuntarily (i.e. a job loss) downscale, one thing that becomes critical is frugality. Had my husband and I not scaled down our standard of living drastically in the early days of our business, we would not be where we are today.

Most people understand this, especially with today’s economic climate. Many people have already pulled the plug on any number of unnecessary expenditures (cable TV, restaurant meals, etc.) and have learned how to live a more streamlined life than they did five years ago.

Taken to the nth degree, this new frugality can help tremendously in transitioning from part-time to full-time crafting. At the very least, getting out of debt will bring you peace of mind even if the crafting never goes full-bore.

Bend with the wind

There’s a Japanese proverb that says, “the bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.” We may have a gale-force economic wind heading our way. If this is the case, now is the time to learn to bend and sway with the wind. Your home craft business can be a superb supplement to help you withstand the battering. Good luck! 

Patrice Lewis is the author of The Home Craft Business: How to Make It Survive and Thrive

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