Shopgirl

The last couple months, business has been sloooowww. I’m not sure if it has anything to do with the changes Etsy has made (allowing bigger sellers to dominate) or the warmer weather, which always slows my sales of cozy items. But it has left me bored, restless and broke. So it was kind of serendipity that I learned that the shop in Sausalito that has been selling my hats and cowls like crazy over the last year needed some help. I had spoken to the manager before about starting some DIY classes at the gallery they also own, so it seemed like a good fit for me to come onboard.

I’ve been learning the ropes and just started working two days a week at their boutique. Almost everything there is handmade by local artists, so it’s fun to talk them up. I even get to sell some of my own stuff! The location in downtown Sausalito is gorgeous. It’s just across the street from a huge marina full of sailboats. And due to the proximity to the ferry and docked cruise ships, there is a constant stream of tourists from all over the world.

The owner also brings his dog in sometimes. Marley is just the sweetest, laziest yellow lab.

I think I didn’t realize how much I needed this. It’s probably been 5 years since I got up and went to a regular job. Certainly I enjoy the fact that most days I can work in my pjs if I want to. But it’s kind of nice to put some effort into my clothes and jewelry again. I’m dusting off a lot of things I haven’t worn in quite a while. And I’m definitely eyeing some accessories in the store.

I’m sure any crafty business owner can tell you that it’s extremely hard to live with the stress of never knowing how much your income will be. So it’s nice to have another more reliable source. And I feel like if I’m going to take time away from my business and work for someone else, I want it to be a job that I truly enjoy. This one feels like a great fit. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s in one of the most beautiful vacation destinations out there. Every time I drive to work I cross the Richmond bridge and get that gorgeous bay view with Mount Tamalpais straight ahead. Sausalito, while humming with tourists downtown, is kind of a sleepy place once you get out of that area. It feels more my speed, and it’s nice to have those getaways. A little toddler-free time works wonders, too.

One day, hour by hour

I really liked Erin’s idea of documenting a day, hour by hour, so I thought I would try it. When you’re home with a baby there is no average day, but I think this day (Monday) turned out to be a pretty good picture of our daily life. 

7:30 a.m.

Because of daylight savings time, Harper woke up extra early and Mike got up with her about 6:45. He usually lets me sleep a little longer since that’s their time together before he goes to work. When I got up, he was feeding her some baby food I’d made over the weekend.

8:30 a.m.

I tried putting her in her jumper to play, but she didn’t want to.

She used to love that thing, but not anymore. She seems to be making a developmental leap — mimicking, clapping, trying to stand/walk — that is making life chaotic lately. Note to self: get some next-stage toys!

9:30 a.m.

Mike left for work, so now I am trying to check some things off my to-do list. One of them was to try to get a replacement wheel for our stroller. After a few minutes with a grumpy customer service rep, I am told a replacement is on the way.

10:30 a.m.

I’m working on some pom-pom projects for an upcoming blog post. 

Harper is starting to get cranky, so I give her a cold teether. Her two top teeth are starting to come in, so that always makes days more challenging.

11:30 a.m.

Harper is an epic nap warrior. She has always taken short naps, and after getting into a routine of 4 30-minute naps a day, she is now down to two. And she fights hard to go down for them. After another major battle I finally get her to go down. I had to sneak in her room to get this photo of her.

After she woke up, a mere 20 minutes later, I realized that her leg was actually stuck in the bars of her crib. Now I feel terrible!

12:30 p.m.

After lunch (leftover pot pie, which I shared with her), I got some dishes washed.

Harper decided to play with a whisk on the floor. She is very into anything that is not an actual toy.

1:30 p.m.

Harper plays with some toys on my lap. I can tell she is still tired from only having one short nap, especially when she starts slumping over. 

I feel like I have to be consistent with her napping in the crib, so we battle again for her to go to sleep in there.

2:30 p.m.

The nap thing didn’t really work. I was so nervous about her sleeping position that I kept interrupting her sleep. When I finally gave up and took her out of the crib, she was not too happy.

3:30 p.m.

I realized that maybe I was being too strict about the naps and that maybe with the teething, the developmental changes, and the cold she has, she probably needs some extra comfort. So I cuddled up to her in our bed and she fell asleep. For an hour!

Poor thing was exhausted. I eventually got up and worked on the computer while she slept.

4:30 p.m.

Post-nap, Harper is in a much better mood. I assemble some cloth diapers while she plays. Usually we get some kind of outing in the afternoon, but we ran out of time today.

5:30 p.m.

I have one order to finish from a big group of orders I got last week. So I get to knitting. 

6:30 p.m.

I make dinner.

Harper feeds herself one of those baby food packets. She used to only eat a few bites of baby food here and there, but now she has a huge appetite. 

7:30 p.m.

Dinner is ready (veggie chili) and Mike is home.

I live for this part of the day when I get a little break! 

8:30 p.m.

Harper’s bed time. She ends up falling asleep on me without her bedtime feeding.

She hasn’t been this cuddly since she was a month old, and I have to admit I love it!

9:30 p.m.

Now that we don’t have cable, we are totally hooked on “Dancing with the Stars.” Tonight Cher is a guest judge. She’s still rockin’ it. 

I use my baby-free time to get a little more work done. This time of year I’m usually stockpiling accessories for the Renegade Craft Fair in December. 

10:30 p.m. 

Bedtime. Sometimes I get some reading done before I go to sleep, but not tonight. It’s been a long day. 

On feeling like a legit business

I’m not sure if it was because of Renegade, or because of my giant knits, or just because, but last month something changed with my little business. I’ve been selling crafts in some form for almost three years now, but not until July did I really start to feel like it was working.

I’d been in kind of a drought up to that point, and my mind was all over the place wondering what to do next. I thought about getting a normal job, going back to school, changing my career path entirely, and a million other options. But at some point my thoughts started to focus, and I realized that the combination of my knitting business, which I LOVE, and my writing business, which has always been something that felt right to me, deserved my full attention. So that’s what I did. I found my focus. I think that’s what I needed all along.

I’m getting to the point now where I have to order pretty much all of my supplies online in bulk because I have emptied my local craft stores (of yarn, batting, foam rolls, dye boxes…). And I don’t have time to make the trips anymore because I need to be at home working.

I’m starting to have problems that are good problems to have. Yes!

That is to say, I really have to start taking this seriously now. My business is starting to look like what I always wanted it to look like. It’s amazing. Also scary.

I know I am doing the right thing, though, because my mind is constantly thinking about more things I can make, ways to improve what I’m already making, shows I can sign up for, giveaways, marketing, all of it. Thank goodness I am an organization freak, because it’s a lot to manage.

In the interest of taking things seriously I read an article (can’t find it now) about pricing your products. I usually have to ignore these recommendations because knitting just doesn’t work in these formulas. I pretty much proved myself right. I determined that my most popular item, the xlg pouf, should retail for $520, the giant pouf for $876, and a small pouf $240. The small pouf currently retails for $35. So yeah, I’m a little off.

But joking aside, what does that mean? I don’t want to just write it off as impossible. But obviously something is going to have to change for this to be sustainable. One possibility is having some luxe products that make up for the lack of profit elsewhere. Another option would be to just stop making the smaller poufs altogether. I hate to eliminate all of the less expensive items, but maybe I could make some smaller things out of rope, which would be faster and more unique anyway.


Darling photo by Sarah.

You probably don’t want to hear all this. But I can’t be the only one with a handmade business that struggles with these issues.

The other thing that is going to change is how I’ve handled shipping. I am so done with the post office! I have put up with their cranky employees, long lines, crazy rules and terrible customer service for too long. No other company could operate so poorly and still exist. The last straw was yesterday when I received an email confirming that my packages had been picked up while they were still sitting on my front porch. Gah!

I have my issues with Fedex and UPS, but I think I’ve learned enough about them now to make it work.

I’m happy to say now that I’m off to start working on my first wholesale order for a new store in San Francisco. It’s in north beach, the same neighborhood as the Jack Kerouac Alley show. I had to turn down another offer to sell at a store because it just wasn’t right for me. That was hard. This makes it worth it.

Big changes

It feels like I’ve been holding in this news for an eternity, so I’m thrilled to be able to announce that in addition to our upcoming marriage, Mike and I will also be moving to Berkeley, California!

Mike got a job with a super cool non-profit journalism group called California Watch, and he will be heading out there in November to start working. We are hoping to officially move Dec. 1.

I have been on an incredible journey over the past year or so with my career, and now it’s Mike’s turn to explore some new options. It is a big and scary change for us lifelong midwesterners, for sure, but one that we’re ready and excited for. Berkeley has the kind of spirit that I love in a city, so I can’t wait to get to know it better. Imagine the possibilities for Nia and yoga!

Waiting to hear about this has been a huge distraction for me the last few weeks, but now it’s time to focus on the wedding and honeymoon for a while. We leave tomorrow for Minnesota, and we are just finishing up the last few details. Yesterday I was a little panicky, but today I am just trying to enjoy the calm before the storm.

Lessons learned in a year of freelancing

I left my full-time job in June of 2009, so it’s now been a full year since I became a freelancer. I guess I thought that since I’d been a freelancer before, I would pretty much know what I was doing. But the last year has been full of a lot more surprises than I was expecting. A few people have asked me for some advice on freelancing (with all the layoffs and uncertainty in publishing, it’s no surprise that more people are venturing out on their own), but sometimes I feel completely unqualified to give answers because I’m still learning myself.

Still, I think I’ve come a long way, especially in the months since I left the temp job I took over the holidays and really had to focus on the solo writing gig.

Here are some of my lessons learned. I would love to hear yours, too.

-It is a really, really tough time to be a freelancer.
That may be a bit of a downer, but it’s the absolute truth. If it hadn’t been for a slew of circumstances that led me to choose last year to quit my job, I never would have done it out of any sort of logic. There are fewer jobs, they pay less (much less) than they used to, and there is much more competition for those jobs. But there is not nothing and it’s not impossible. I would just say that you probably are going to need at least one other source of income to make it work.

-You can live on a lot less than you think.
Having smaller and less steady paychecks has been very tough for me, of course. Add in the fact that we’re saving for a wedding, and budgeting has been crazy stressful at times. I went through all my expenses and cut out things where I could. I almost never buy clothes anymore, and what I do buy is really cheap. I’m working on the ‘little-by-little’ mindset, where instead of buying things all at once, I buy them one at a time. I’ve come up with a lot of free decorations for the house. It definitely forces you to be more creative, and to see what it is that you truly NEED.

-It helps to have a really supportive partner.
I’ve said this before, but I couldn’t have made this transition without Mike’s help. It means a lot that he believes I can do this, and that he doesn’t throw a fit when we have to sit down and figure out how we’re going to get through a month (usually through some sacrifice on his part). There are times when being a freelancer, or business owner, gets you really down, and you want to give up. But he encourages me in those moments, and that means a lot. I keep saying that our relationship is the only thing I don’t worry about lately. I believe this has made us closer.

-Being in charge of your schedule is as awesome as it sounds.
I think my most favorite part of this lifestyle is that I get to do my work when I want to do it. I have gotten so many little projects done around the house, and I have way less stress about things like taking the dog to the vet or being home when the Qwest guy comes. I can say yes to yoga and Nia opportunities that I couldn’t with a 9-to-5 job. As a result I have a workout schedule that I love, and I feel much stronger and healthier.

-…That said, managing your time is important.
A lot of people have told me that they couldn’t work at home because they’d be too distracted, and I would have to agree that if you can’t make yourself sit down to work you’re probably better off with a traditional job. I am VERY guilty of putting things off, but I always do them. And I think I’ve struck a pretty good balance between working on the house and working on paying work. I have a morning routine, and I try to get dressed, make the bed, etc. by a certain time and then “go to work.”

-You can’t do everything you want to do, so figure out what you want to do most.
This is a big one. Part of my journey has been exploring different things that I like to do and seeing which ones are sustainable in the long-term. Many, many, many things that I’ve tried have not worked, and I think I’ve gotten a lot better at being OK when something fails. And it’s been exciting to see the things that have succeeded. But I’ve learned that I can’t do everything. The big thing that has sort of fallen through the cracks is my vintage shop on etsy and vintage blog. I will probably go back to doing those things as a hobby, just because I have too much on my plate, and that takes a lot of time and space to collect goodies and ship them out. Instead I am focusing on teaching yoga and knitting poufs, and I will do a bunch of shows in the runup to the holidays, because I know I have success there.

-If you’re a control freak like me, you have to do a bit of letting go.
My whole life I’ve been one of those people who planned for the future, and didn’t take many risks unless I was sure of the outcome. This past year I’ve had to change. At the beginning of a month, I don’t usually know where my work is coming from or whether or not it will add up to enough. (This is where having a bit of savings is literally a life-saver). I kind of have to go on faith. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some months that were dire. But I’m starting to get to a point where people know they can rely on me, and they assign me regular work. My classes are starting to pay a little more. And when sales are slow, I try to relist items or make something new, so that the numbers go up.

I am way out of my comfort zone there, and I don’t want it to be that way forever. But in the beginning, you just can’t control everything. You absolutely should work as hard as you can to meet new contacts, get your name out there, tell people what you do, etc. But at the end of the day, you do have to surrender a bit. It’s scary, but is it any more scary than spending the rest of your days at a steady paying job that you can’t stand?

-You absolutely can’t put all your eggs in one basket.
I’ve learned the hard way that jobs disappear in an instant, so you have to spread out your projects, or your part-time jobs to fill in the gaps. If something falls through, you can’t cry too much about it. You just have to move on to the next one. Sometimes that door closes so another one can open. Sometimes you have to build the next door yourself.

I have stopped trying to predict the future at this point, and I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this in this arrangement. But I’m feeling a little more comfortable and confident. I’ve tried some things I always wanted to try (and some I had no idea I would ever want to try), and I have learned from that what to do next. I can’t say it’s been an easy year, but I think when I look back I’ll always be really, really glad I took this year to find out what it is that I’m truly passionate about.

Congrats to the DMR

Yesterday I found out that our local paper, and my former employer, won a Pulitzer Prize. Mary Chind won for her incredible photograph of a rescue on the Des Moines River.

I don’t think anyone who works there would deny that the last year has been tough on journalists. Really tough. Something like this reminds you that are still good at what you do, and that the public needs it, no matter how many budgets are cut.

If you get a chance, you should also read this incredible article (another winner) from the Washington Post.

Freelancing: month four

My whole life I’ve been a planner and a worrier. I’ve always had a next step and a good measure of security. It’s so strange to go into each month not knowing where my income will come from or what exactly my job will be. But I think each month I get a little more adjusted to this way of living. It’s almost like a different kind of freedom. It’s scary, but it’s thrilling to know that you’re not tied down to any one thing. If something doesn’t work out, you don’t necessarily have to do it again. It’s just up to you to be resourceful and find a replacement.

The next two months I’ll be switching things up a little and working as an online editor. I did this back in 2004, and in pieces throughout the last three years, so it’s not a huge jump. And it will give me a break from the pace of writing frequent stories, which I sense I need.

Also, November is like the unofficial craft fair month in Des Moines. For some reason I have three scheduled in a couple weeks, and then none in December. Hopefully last-minute shoppers find their way to Etsy. 🙂

I spent the last few days going through my writing clips, picking out the best ones and attempting to make nice digital copies of them (try doing that with newsprint – not so easy). That has actually been really helpful to me because I can see what it is that I loved doing the most, and know what to keep pursuing. Plus, every once in a while you just need a little reminder that hey, I am pretty good at this.

I had a good laugh over this one clip, from a time when I attempted to be Andrew Zimmern and taste weird foods in town.

Yeah, it turns out I’d rather eat stuff that tastes good.

Live and learn.

Freelancing: months two and three

Compared to the last couple of months, July (my first month as a freelancer) was an absolute breeze. In August, everything just became real.

I realized that having lost an assignment that brought in several hundred dollars a month with no replacement, I was getting a little bit behind each month. I started asking Mike to pay for more things while I scrambled for more assignments. But the assignments I’m getting now just don’t compare compensation-wise. I don’t see that changing until the economy changes. Gah!

There’s also this emotional roller coaster that comes with not knowing where your paycheck is coming from each month. You worry and worry, and then sometime in the space of a day or two you’re suddenly fine. I’m getting better at handling it, but it can be really terrifying.

You’re also home all day by yourself, so it’s easy to get lost in your own head, thinking you are doing something terribly wrong, and then realizing that you can do nothing but put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward. Not every effort works out the first time, but that’s how you learn.

Ultimately I made the decision to lower my stress level about money considerably and cash in some stock. I waited as long as I could before doing that, but it I knew that if I continued to get behind each month, I’d really be sorry later.

In better news, the craft selling prime season is coming up, and I’m starting to see a little return on the items I make and find. If I can get to the point of teaching Nia at least once a week, that would round out my income sources. And like I said before, I think that’s the best you can do as a freelancer. Diversify your income sources as much as possible. Always keep an eye out for new possibilities.

The best part about the last two months has definitely been starting to teach Nia. I love it beyond all my expectations. My fitness level has increased to the point that some of the hour-long routines actually seem too easy. And can I just say a little hallelujah for the fact that I pulled out a pair of jeans from last season and they were too big? I will never join a gym again. I’ve found my movement and I’m not turning back.

Mike got me some Web hosting space, so my next big project is to put together all my clips, resume, etc. into a nice site. Eventually it may merge with my blog, but that’s a way’s off, I think. I’m also spending just about every spare moment knitting so that I’ll have plenty of inventory for winter.

I know way too many people, hard workers, who have lost their jobs this year, and it makes me thankful that I made the decision to leave on my own terms when I felt it was right. If it’s hard, I have to be at peace with the fact that it was my decision, and so far, that’s what makes me pull it together and keep on truckin’.

Freelancing: month one

Talking with a friend last night, we both realized it was almost August already. And that made me realize that I’ve made it through my first month as a freelancer!

It’s been good. Really good. Kind of strange, given that a week of it was spent in Lawrence doing basically nothing, a week in Nia training and another week getting ready for and then riding in Ragbrai. But considering that I’ve spent this week actually working, and almost being overwhelmed by work, I feel like things are going well. I even got paid for a couple things today.

There’s always this fear that hangs over you. Like, OK, I can pay my bills this month, and next month. But what if shit hits the fan in October and I’m totally screwed? Which is not a very positive place to hang out, so I try to keep those thoughts as fleeting as possible.

Another interesting tidbit. This month I had time to thrift, and then I put up a bunch of those items on Etsy just to see if anyone would buy them. And they did! My handmade stuff rarely sells as quickly as this stuff has. So now I’m pondering making vintage a larger part of what I sell. It’s hard, because you want to stay committed to your original plans, but eventually you have to decide what’s worth your time. And I so love the thrill of the treasure hunt when I find this stuff at garage sales, so I’m happy to keep doing it.

I would say, though, that the number one reason I’m doing so well right now is that I did take several months to plan my departure, and move my debt payments into saving for this change. I would highly recommend that you do that if you’re pondering working for yourself. A lot of things have not panned out yet (though I believe they will eventually), so you need to be ready if you’re not making a full income right away. Don’t do something crazy like go without health insurance or start spending your 401k money – that is last resort type of stuff.

I’m also still struggling with time management a bit. I’ve checked quite a few things off my to-do list, but I’m finding that the less desirable things (like working out!) will still fall to the back burner if I don’t schedule them in. Because who’s gonna make me do it but me?

If you ever have any questions for me about how I’m making this work, feel free to ask.