Almost a year ago I spoke at Midwest Craft Con and from the stage I asked by a show of hands how many of the 200 or so people in the audience had a day job in addition to their craft business. From where I stood it looked like nearly every hand in the room went up.
It’s hard to make craft your full-time job. It’s not impossible for sure, but it will likely require piecing together a whole variety of different income streams including designing, teaching, writing, and speaking, and it will likely take time to build. Despite what the Etsy blog glorifies, it may not be a great idea to quit your day job, at least not right away.
I’m always struck by how much time and perseverance it takes to build a successful business. This morning I interview Mimi Goodwin of MimiG Style for the podcast (tune in on Monday to hear the episode) and we were tracing the history of her wildly successful blog. “Oh I’ve been blogging since 2008,” she told me. “I just didn’t get serious until 2012.” Between those years she had a runway show and learned that she didn’t want to make couture clothing collections. She made clothes to order and learned she didn’t want to do that either. The whole time she had a day job. It wasn’t until she hit upon selling video tutorials that she had was able to create a business she both enjoyed and turned a profit, but that took years. And it took even more years after that before she got sponsorships from big brands like Target and Revlon.
There’s a saying, “It takes 20 years to become an overnight success,” and while the internet seems to have sped things up a bit, I think there’s a fundamental truth here. And yet, we seem to be in this sort of gold rush moment in the creative entrepreneurship space. You read these stories all the time about six figure course launches and astronomical revenue growth and they almost always come with the promise that you can do the same. And that you can do it fast – in seven weeks or 10 days even. It feels like the Wild West.
This year I’ve been thinking about where I fit in all this. I have no interest in being a “guru” or “building a tribe” and I’m not a #girlboss, but I do give advice to creative people about how to build a business online. And I just launched an ecourse which 114 people bought. I thought about and worked on the content for that course for six months and one of the reasons it took me so long was my discomfort with gold game, to learn more about this market, readhere about the best gold ira custodians reviews. It’s not that I don’t believe in growth, or even quick growth. It’s that I don’t think that model is replicable for most people, nor is it desirable. But I do believe that a solid email list will help you grow your creative business so I went for it and made the course.
I was talking with my friend from Biticodes, Vanessa Lauria, about this not too long ago. She’s a weaver and she had some smart reflections on the moment we’re in.
Making art while under a cloud of financial responsibilities can really dampen creative expression. There is so much #girlboss floating around social media lately, that there’s almost shame if it isn’t working out quite as you’d imagined and, in some ways, been promised. All the solo entrepreneur 20-something gurus with webinars every other day explaining how to ‘double your following in a month’ or ‘learn how to make 4-5 figures a month’ can be misleading and overwhelming. I think it’s important to realize that success comes in many forms and there is no determined timeline for a careerpath (or lifepath).
I think we need to ask ourselves where we cross the line from offering helpful advice to offering predatory get rich quick schemes. Is it really fair to pressure someone to invest in expensive software, to create landing pages and sales funnels, when they’re just getting off the ground? What about the benefits of slow growth, the kind that allows you to figure out your hidden talents and forge real relationships with colleagues and customers?
Nobody has a formal education in social media marketing and even if that existed it would become outdated almost instantly, which means becoming an expert is as easy as declaring yourself one. When you become successful the expertise you gain does have value to people who are striving to do the same and, as many of us have found out, you can sell that expertise. Is it unethical to make big promises of fortune when that’s likely only realistic for a small minority of people? Or is it empowering?
Thank you for this extremely thoughtful and sensible article 🙂
ooops forgot to say Happy new year !
Mallory Donohue says
You need your own hashtag. I just read the #GirlBoss book, because someone gifted it to me at Christmas. And while I believe the author was mostly truthful and suitably humble, it did not ring as true for me as reading your blogs and listening to your podcasts.
My creative business has ended up taking off in directions I never could have imagined, and the advice you give as a biz owner, mother, and sewist are invaluable. The knowledge you have amalgamated through your experience and through interviewing others is so valuable- but do you have to be on a Forbes list or have a hashtag in order for someone to think you should publish a business book?
Maybe “success”- as we define it- is limiting our access to valuable information. I guess what I’m trying to say is- I would read a book by you about creative business. I would welcome a more contemplative, long view of the current business environment, versus a fairy tale about how someone made a million dollars 8 years ago.
Thanks again for an engaging, honest read.
Patricia Belyea says
The problem that I face with the Gold Rush effect is being overwhelmed and discouraged before I begin. It’s fun to dream, but the reality of what it takes to create a business online is, as your friend Vanessa Lauria says, a creativity killer. While I am opening my business online this year, I’m not excited about it or looking forward to doing it. Marketing, emails, customer service with people you don’t know or see, getting products noticed — it’s incredibly complicated. And etsy is huge. Will I even be noticed when I reopen my 2010 shop there? I’m hoping that slow growth will work for me because I’m going to do it at my own pace. I’m also going to unsubscribe from those blogs that want you to have 10,000 emails in a month or buy their $1500 course. I so appreciate your site and your words. Thanks for this sensible reflection on another way of building a business.
Kim Duclos says
Bravo for this article! I too hold myself back being uncomfortable about being too “salesy” and playing the gold rush game! Your newsletter is one of the only ones that I actually read from first to last word because it has real content and useful resources. I tried for a year to play that game as I was moving and thought I would be out of a job, so I wanted to have some kind of income to rely on. I just couldn’t make it work because I couldn’t put myself out there as the “guru” and sell, sell, sell. I also felt too old to run with that crowd! I like to make and create and ponder and try to provide actual useful information and not a lot of fluff. So, I’ve taken a step back and started a shop making things I truly enjoy making and am taking the slow growth route (I actually was able to keep my day job and work remotely so that helped). I’m exploring my personal style, design direction, and product line, as well as getting into surface pattern design. We’ll see how it works, but at least I’m enjoying it and building something I can be proud of.
PS – Thank you for your insights and thoughtful writing!
Like other creatives, I have had my ups and downs with my business. The 2nd year was more amazing than the first (doubling sales and beginning to sell in retail locations). The 3rd year was slightly disappointing with only moderate growth. However, I will say that last year I spent more time investing in my business (and knowledge) than being creative, so I feel my products suffered some (in my opinion….though my fans still really loved alot of what I made).
This year, I have plans to take my business yet another direction, and while I am very excited about it, I am also a bit overwhelmed. There is alot of planning and testing that will go into this new path, and with my studio still a wreck from holiday making I am finding it a bit harder to get focused than I would like.
With that being said, I know that continuing to build my email list is essential (for the current direction of my business as well as the future one). Making myself stand out from the crowd is also something I need to work on. However, I have always found that difficult, as my goal for many years was just to fit in….. Maybe I need to focus more on embracing the side of myself that I have always tried to depress (but I digress).
Thank you for this article. I do find it overwhelming all of the advice that is out there. I honestly only look at and listen to those (like yourself) who have had years in the business as well as to my community of local makers (of which there are quite a few here in Columbus, Ohio). It’s nice to have a group of folks who do truly try to build eachother up vs. compete with one another.
I think the internet is a really good home for people who don’t fit in.
Cherry Heinrich says
And people who want to share openly and honestly their knowledge and understanding in the way Tim Berners-Lee has done!
Teresa Ascone says
As usual, good advice from you, Abby. I appreciate your thinking and realistic attitude. Your theories and practices fit perfectly with my business needs.
Andrea R says
This is a really good post and needs to be said more often – and my day job is part of those sites that do this very same thing and show you how to be a social media rockstar, build your lists, create those courses etc etc ad nauseum.
I may get in trouble for saying this but I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people buy into these programs time and time again, and do nothing. Sure they may think it it “work” and they are working on their business, but they are hopping from course to course, mastermind group, private forums and all to find the magic bullet to ensure they can finally MAYBE THIS TIME make enough money to quit that day job.
Guess what? It’s actual work. You have to take those things you’ve learned (or even read – I see a lot of people but a $500 course and not even use it) and actively apply them to your business. And that takes time.
So people have to spend time doing those tasks that make them money – not spending time with others trying to figure out what task that is. It doesn’t matter, really. Just pick one things and DO IT.
What the bigger businesses don’t tell you is they really are just trying things randomly to see what works. If it doesn’t work (and they measure results) they do something else. Then they create a course and say “Hey this is what worked for us.” 😀
Abbey, I mean this when I say it – if someone followed the advice you give in your blog here,and it’s the only thing they did, they’d still be better off and have an increase than buying yet another course. You know your stuff, and I say this from being on the inside. 🙂
It would be interesting if course creators shared the completion rates of their courses. I listened to a podcast interview with the founder of Teachable and he was sharing different strategies course creators can use to help students to actually work through the material and finish the course. I really liked that emphasis, rather than feeling like if you just spend a few hundred dollars on an Instagram course Instagram will suddenly work for you.
Andrea…you mean every time I buy a diet book with the intent of losing that final stubborn ten pounds that I have to actual READ the book and eat DIFFERENTLY? Damn. I am always sure that just joining the yoga group or buying the book is enough. ????????. I suspect some marketing course buyers suffer from the same magical thinking that I do….
Andrea R says
Ha ha! Yes, just like the diet book and the gym membership for the year you forget about by March. 😉
Nicole Clement says
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I too have come to the conclusion that the online craft sales business is a gold rush. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but it applies exactly. It isn’t that there isn’t gold to be “mined” and it isn’t that the reward isn’t worth the effort. And it isn’t that there are some very talented people out there selling great products. But it is completely unrealistic and even dishonest to tell people that they can have overnight success with no effort. Any business will have ups and downs, and the market is always fickle. And even if you are extraordinarily creative…if you are running your own business single-handedly you are going to discover there are aspects of it that you don’t especially love and may not have realized would be such huge time suckers. I so enjoyed your article. Thank you for shedding honest and refreshing light on this subject.
Nicole Clement (Oakhiti patterns)
Annika deGroot says
As someone who writes email campaigns for a major software company, I’m wondering how successful email may prove to be in the future, mostly because the open rate usually isn’t all that great, and, if you’re like most people, opening email every morning is a chore. (Most of my emails get deleted right away. I just don’t have the time.) Someone whose business relies on strong email click through rates has got to spend a lot of quality time making that email interesting enough that their audiences looks forward to reading it.
I ALWAYS look forward to reading your newsletter every week, Abby, but you’re an anomaly. I found you through the class you taught on CreativeLive and have followed you ever since.
There’s such an inundation of bogus “small business guide” information available on the web today it’s really hard to wade through it all.
I don’t follow most people who tote how profitable your small business will be on Etsy or Shopify or Big Cartel or Artfire or (insert online store system here) because:
A. They’re perky 20 or early 30 somethings who’ve been extraordinarily lucky selling what they sell and at some point, perhaps a lull in their business, they’ve turned to selling how they did it to keep making money.
B. Their business model doesn’t even come close to fitting in with what I do or how I want to market myself or my stuff.
C. In many cases, they started on some social media app when it was just taking off and since there weren’t that many other people on that app, they became popular. It’s much harder to grow a fan base when you’re competing with hundreds of millions of other users. Also, social media sites change their rules all the time; your reach on Facebook is now determined by how much money you want to spend in Facebook ads (They’re totally worth it, I’ve found.)
D. Once you’re on their email list you’re barraged with desperate-sounding emails what seems like every freaking morning, reminding you what an internet failure you are for not “pursuing your dreams of a small business.”
As for SEO expertise, as you mentioned, no one’s a real expert. (I recently saw someone asserting they’ve been an SEO expert for 20 years. How’s that even possible? :D) You could pick up most of this stuff just reading a few choice articles on the internet. Search engines change their algorithms constantly so what worked 3 months ago is probably obsolete. There’s no magic formula other than being persistent, perhaps indulging in some AB testing if you have the time or money, and staying creative. A little hard to do when your main focus isn’t on social media, but actually fabricating your items.
And often doing something completely differently than what’s recommended is the key to success.
I totally agree – and as a separate aside, would be interested to see if some sociology researches investigate more into the language and subculture that the “girl boss” and “stay at home mom hustle” has developed into. I see parallels between the MLM mascara/clothes/diet pills and the online small business, quit your day job scene. It makes it incredibly difficult to sort out who might actually help people who are aspiring to building an invested audience slowly.
jamie bichler says
As someone who has been a full-time metalsmith for ten years, I am glad I built my business slowly, keeping my part time job(s) for six years before going full time. From what I have seen of those who “strike it rich” is that they are either pulled away from the maker part of their craft that they loved in the first place or are sales people who love the business side of things rather than the crafting. Taking the time to figure out what you love spending your time doing it crucial to avoid getting sucked up in the business controlling your life instead of choosing how you want to make your money. Of course I would like to see more success but I am happy I going for the slow build.
Jennifer Johansson says
Thank you for writing what I have been thinking for ages! I’m enjoying all the comments as well.
You’re welcome and me too!
Just when I was feeling inadequate, this is in my inbox. ..Ringing so true for me once again. Some of us don’t have the time or inclination to “build our social following ” even though I really want to…. there is too much of real life happening. So, for 2017 I decided to just let things be. Work hard, but knowing my slow path is ok too. Thanks Abby..
Stacey Trock says
I think what’s practical depends on what you’ve accomplished. If you’ve made 6 figures, it seems pretty reasonable to teach others how you did it. Just like how you have 20k newsletter subscribers and are teaching others your techniques. Of course, it takes effort to follow through and very few of your students will reach that goal, but that doesn’t necessarily imply you’re selling a pipe dream.
Lots of people take classes with the goal of getting juicy tidbits but not finishing. I took a bread class taught by a world renowned baker and stopped after the first lesson. That loaf is good enough for my life. It’s the same with girlboss-things. They’re selling a dream, and a few people will get there. I think as long as they aren’t lting, it’s ok. (There is one woman who talks about her 6 figure income… but she means over the life of her business, which means she barely made minimum wage and I think that’s horribly misleading)
Kiffanie Stahle says
Yes, yes, and yes! the artist’s J.D. would not survive without the income from the law firm. And while my subject matter probably adds to my slow growth, there are lawyers out there on the “grab a template and solve all your legal problems!” bandwagon.
I’ve really pulled back the last few months and been thinking intentionally and strategically about how I can make sure that my content and courses actually lead to action. Especially after reading Breanne Dyck’s book where she says that in the online business space the “industry leaders” have 3-4% course completion rates and 15-20% refund rates!
That makes me wonder what the course completion rate is like for the big players like Craftsy, Creativebug, Creative Live, and Skillshare.
Kiffanie Stahle says
I don’t know. My guess is that they might have a bigger spread based on course length. A three-day Creativelive class or 30-day Creativebug draw-along would have a lot more content and probably a lower completion rate than a 30-60 minute craft technique course. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they were dismal too. Although Creativelive might be the highest of all because they could count those who attend the free live stream, but don’t purchase the course.
I see Creativebug rather like a library, where I take books off the shelf and consider whether I want to borrow them: I start a course thinking “I wonder if I feel like learning embroidery today? [watch a few minutes] … Ok, no I don’t” and also “I wonder how she does that? [navigate to relevant part of course] Oh , I see, cool, that’s all I wanted to know”. I don’t fully invest in all the courses, although I have completed the videos and made projects from some. And even Craftsy, I see it more like buying a book I can dip in & out of, not necessarily like a school course I need to attend.
So much truth! I loved trying to sell on Etsy (currently taking a break while I build up inventory) but I would have very poor, very hungry and like homeless if I had quit my day job!
Abby, if I didn’t love you before, I would now! Because these musings of yours absolutely cut right to the heart of what I’ve experienced this past year. I rebranded last April and really started focusing on my business. I soon found myself getting pulled in to the “Girl Boss” Phenomenon (oh, if I never hear that phrase again it will be too soon) and the constant barrage of emails for “the next thing you HAVE to do to have a successful online business” – facebook groups, email funnels, landing pages, standalone websites, Pinterest pages, twitter, instagram and on and on. I was so overwhelmed and demoralized because I knew there just wasn’t time in every day/month to get even a fraction of all that done – not to mention having the time to actually create my product. It all just made me frustrated rather than excited. Fortunately, two things happened – I began to see the weakness of the Girl Boss carnival barker’s claims – all of the things you mentioned in this article. And the second thing was a very successful and influential maker/businesswoman told me I was on the right track, and that it took time to build a following. That person was you. It was as though a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I could focus (and enjoy) the path I was on. Thank you for that, and for expressing publicly that the slower path really is better.
What’s funny about this story is that the day I said that to you the girlboss whose Facebook group I said it in blocked me from her group! She was angry that I gave you those words of encouragement because they didn’t mesh with her message.
Thanks for this post, Abby. I’ve struggled with the “ick factor” of advice from internet marketing gurus for a long time and it’s always refreshing when people I trust and respect echo those feelings. I guess there’s a fine line between being motivational/empowering and misrepresenting the work it takes to be a #girlboss. In the long run, I’d much rather see myself as a hard working, and not very shiny, tortoise than a glitzy, get-rich-quick, hare! Happy New Year!
Leanne Parsons says
Great post, Abby! I’ve been seeing those posts about the six-figure course launches too and thinking, there’s no way I can do that with a quilting course, mostly because no one in their right mind is going to pay $1000+ for a quilting course! That being said, I am working on a course. I doubt it will make me rich, but I’m okay with that. I just would love for it to be one of my income streams.
Heather Lou says
I’m so glad you wrote about this. You know how I feel about the gInstagram marketing charlatans. I immediately distrust anyone (rationally or now) whose sole business is to sell courses on how to do business. I mean, get those dollars, but I just want be signing up for any of your courses unless you have a proven reputation and track record, like you for example Abby.
It took me 6 months to get my first sale and 3 more years to grow my biusiness to the point I could quit my day job. Now my business grows about 12% a year thanks to social media. It was all worth it. I couldn’t be happier!
sharon | the teacup incident says
This is an interesting topic to see discussed – both how you, Abby, feel about your role in advising creatives and your perceptions of the “get 10,000 followers in minutes” hustlers. Online selling does seem to be a mixed bag for many people, constantly in a race to keep updating marketing skills, your toolbox and new content for your readers. The lure of free “learn my tricks” seminars is strong but many end up being no more than a time suck with a sales pitch. I invested in your latest newsletter e-course because your products have a lot of “meat” to them, not just the upbeat selling of an unrealistic concept.
As for Creativebug, I use it the way Kiffanie described, as a library of sorts to learn about different techniques and play with new materials. Sometimes I do complete an entire course, but more often I skip some exercises to get to the ones I’m really interested in. Its especially great in winter when I need a daily dose of color even if I’m not actively creating the pieces I’m learning about.
Mallory Donohue says
I have your same sentiments- and I’m in Abby’s newsletter course too!
Thanks, Abby. I have run the gamut from trying a little bit of everything I hear, to becoming so discouraged that I walked away from my online shop for 4 months in 2015. My personality is much more slow and steady but that is certainly not what is loudly touted out there. Comparison is the thief of joy. Your post on this subject is so perfectly timed and encouraging.
Annika deGroot says
Reading this post again a year later I realized what wonderful small business acumen and insight you have, Abby. In my initial comment on this post last year, I disparaged email lists and newsletters a bit, partly influenced by experience with them in big business.
Today we are even more beleaguered by get rich quick online schemes, it seems, than last year. I’ve come around to thinking a strong email base remains one of our most valuable tools for a small online business.
I couldn’t agree more!
Allison Dey says
This line struck me the hardest “Making art while under a cloud of financial responsibilities can really dampen creative expression.” This has been such a problem for me and only recently have I realized it so obviously. After working on a never-successful online business and doing everything in my power to follow the advices, and while doing a great deal of work offline and seeing more success, I have decided to focus on the offline where I do more making/art, more connecting, and more teaching. At the same time, this success gives me more courage to take what I “really” do and bring it online rather than try to make a business out of what I think I “should” do online because that’s the market. But the stress of needing an income from the online business completely clouded my thinking. Financial pressures are now enough less to give me pause to see more clearly and only bring to the online table what I can, what I love, and without these weird expectations I think so many believe about the magic of the internet.
Deb H says
Dear Abbey (sorry, couldn’t resist. Did I just give away my age?).
Thank you so much for the dose of reality. I’ve been slowly coming to the same conclusion as I have been unsubscribing from a multitude of newsletters promising me success. They all think you need to focus on something different and the result is that I can’t focus at all!
Over the last few weeks I’ve realized that I have to do it one step at a time and in the right order while ignoring the “noise”.
Slow growth, at my own pace and my own priorities.
Thanks for helping me articulate it!
So glad this was helpful, Deb.