To me, it feels a bit like someone who wants to copy your term paper because, after all, you already did the work.
This is how yarn dyer Jill Draper describes how it feels when she gets an email from a stranger asking for her colorway recipes. It happens more than you might expect.
For Jill, these out-of-the-blue emails are actually a sign of potential trouble for the sender.
“Running a business is hard and there are so many stumbling blocks that one really needs to be pretty resourceful and self-reliant to make it work. If your solution to every problem is to email a stranger and ask them what to do you will probably have a very challenging time.”
Sourcing supplies is a time-consuming task for creative business owners, one that can involve many hours of online searches, requesting samples, and traveling to trade shows to meet suppliers. It’s also a task that the uninitiated often assume is easy.
“I would say that I have spent hundreds of hours researching supplies and suppliers,” says handbag designer Cinnamon Cooper. “And I am sure people starting out have no idea how much time this takes. I had no idea.”
Often sourcing is dependent on forging relationships with colleagues, mentors, and suppliers over the course of many years. Forming this network of knowledgeable people to whom you can turn for information is key.
“Finding the right people to work with takes time, effort and plenty of mistakes!” says cross stitch designer Genevieve Brading. “Plus the search never stops as account managers move on, product quality can change and prices fluctuate.”
Designers form relationships with one another and are often willing to share the information they’ve gathered with each other once they are in a mutually helpful friendship. “It needs to be a two-way street,” says Jill. “People who you have a relationship with are much more willing to share.”
It also helps to show you’ve already done some legwork yourself.
“I do what I do because I had mentors who shared their knowledge,” says indie dyer Angela Combest. “At the beginning, though, it came at a price: I took lots of classes and workshops. I attended many fiber events. I traveled to mills and I paid for sample skeins to test. I made connections as a result. Now, some of those mentors are colleagues, and we can have mutually beneficial conversations and share experiences because they know I’ve put in the time.”
But not everyone is willing to share their hard-won sources. Sewing pattern designer Wendi Gratz ran up against a fellow designer who chose to keep her source close to her chest. “A few years ago I was considering selling kits of some of my embroidery patterns. This was before I discovered the wonders of Sulky Sticky Fabri-solvy, so I was trying to find a source for iron-on printed sheets. I talked to several printers – none of whom had any idea what I was talking about,” Wendi recalls. “Finally, I asked another designer who sold kits if she’d be willing to tell me her source for this very specialized type of printing. The answer was a polite but clear no.”
“She was well within her rights not to share the information I asked for,” Wendi says. “If I had decided to sell embroidery kits I would technically have been entering into competition with her, and she wanted to avoid that.”
Wendi has chosen to adopt the opposite attitude when it comes to her own approach toward sharing sources with colleagues.
“I’m happy to share any insider business information that people ask me about – including sources and contacts, and that includes other pattern designers and shop owners – my ‘competitors.’ …If it’s a competition, I want to ‘win’ because customers like my designs and are happy with my customer service. Not because I’ve blocked a new contestant from entering the field by forcing her to go through weeks of frustrating Google searches and inquiries. That’s just mean.”
Having a creative business means spending significant time and energy on so many things other than making. Sourcing supplies is a significant task and one that takes time, energy, and knowledge to do well. Although developing relationships with colleagues and suppliers is valuable, in the end, nobody owes you the information they’ve gathered. Finding sources for your supplies is your job.
Jill put it this way, “As someone who runs a business and does it mostly unassisted, my time is so precious, maybe my most valuable asset and someone sending an email, any email, is requesting my time to craft a response. When they are inquiring about sourcing they are asking to use the benefit of even more of my time for, frankly, nothing in return.”