Running a Business by Trial and Error

Because I had another improvement in my health since starting the new treatment, I decided I could put some effort into making Kitty Mine Crafts grow. I think my search engine optimization is decent, because people do find me, but I think I suck at advertising. I tried advertising by using Ravelry first, then by using search ads on Etsy. I didn’t feel like I had a whole lot of success with the Ravelry advertising. I got maybe a 1% click rate on my ads, and that tells me that either they aren’t good ads or that the ad placement wasn’t good (or maybe I have expectations that are too high). I think the problem was that my ads aren’t good enough – Ravelry is a place where knitters and spinners gather, and I make products for those people in particular. These are some of the ads I made (the others won’t display in my browser – they worked just fine on Ravelry, though, and got the same number of views each):

 KMC Yarn Ad2 KMC Batt Ad

The ads rotated throughout the notebook section of Ravelry. I designed them myself – I’m no expert at graphic design, but I’m also not a professional photographer and my shop photos seem to work out. I might try to figure out what went wrong and redesign the ads.

I read both positive and negative things about Etsy’s search ads, so I thought I’d try them for myself. At first, it worked well – I got sales right away. I think that it had an effect on me like gambling has on some people (early payoff makes me unrealistically expect more payoff in the future if I just wait long enough), and I stopped getting sales from the ads but kept them running too long. Now I’ve spent more on advertising than I made in sales.

I realized that I need to learn how to more effectively use what advertising I have, both the free stuff and the paid stuff. Someone had great advice about how to make the ads more effective on one of the Etsy forums – choose a few items with “clickable” photos and only advertise those. It doesn’t mean that your other items aren’t good, it’s just that some pictures make people want to click more than others do. Fair enough – that’s what I’m trying now. I just started this approach a few days ago, so I’m still tweaking my selection.

In the meantime, I’ve gotten more foster kittens.

8 - wandering

I thought that since my business is called “Kitty Mine Crafts”, and I do sell a few cat toys,  that it would make sense to post pictures of the fuzzy babies on my Facebook and Twitter pages. This would serve two purposes: 1. It gets the foster kittens some exposure, so that maybe someone will fall in love and want to adopt them, and 2. Kittens are cute and will make some people come to my page just to see them, and maybe they’ll see some yarn or wool that they like, too (there’s a huge overlap in the knitter/spinner and kitten lover communities). The kittens seemed to have at least expanded my Facebook membership. Maybe the Twitter membership as well. I’ll call that a win.

I’m also trying to develop some unique products that I can repeat. I’ve developed these batts that I call Opalescent Batts (they will be available next week):

Opalescent batts

I can repeat these because the wool is commercially dyed, so I can get the same colorways again and again. The great thing about a listing like this is that I only have to take photos once, because all of the subsequent batts will look exactly like the first ones. I spend far more time photographing, editing photos, and listing items on Etsy than I ever do in making them. Most of my other rovings and batts are one of a kind, so I have to put in a massive amount of work every time. This should make my process more efficient.

I’m also going to try to repeat roving colorways that sold quickly. If they’ve sold once, maybe they’ll be good again, right? I’ve also learned to dye more than one item for each listing of “limited” items. Again, more products for almost the same amount of work.

I feel like I’ve done a good job so far, given that I haven’t had a single formal business lesson in my life. I’ve been open for eight months and have sold a total of one hundred and eighty items to over a hundred people. I know the first year (or more) of a new business is harder, that it takes time to grow a client base. Despite all that, I get frustrated that I will get sales every day for a couple of weeks, then none for long stretches of time. I see other Etsy people/businesses posting things they make on their Facebook pages and people want them so badly that they sell out before ever having to list them on Etsy. I need to figure out how to make that happen.

I also hope to be able to attend craft fairs some day. Right now, I am so small that the cost of renting a booth is prohibitive. I also worry that, because I sell a niche item, there really won’t be an audience for my wares at the local craft shows. If I could get a booth at a wool market or other specifically knitting/spinning themed gathering, I’d have a shot, but it’s really expensive. The Estes Park Wool Market, for example, costs $350 for the weekend. I’m just not that big yet – I can’t be sure I’ll make that back in sales. I’m also not healthy enough to put in those hours. I think the by the second day (and quite possibly half way through the first) I’d be half dead. I could hire someone to cover for me, but that just adds to the costs that I already find to be too steep.

With all this talk of wanting to grow, I should add that I also need to figure out just how big I want to be. Right now, I run my business from my home. When the ME/CFS  tells me I can’t work, that’s ok. If I get too big, I’ll need to consider a studio, maybe even a brick and mortar store. I’d have to have employees, and I’d have to have regular, predictable hours. This is just not something that I can do right now. Also, I travel a lot. If I get too big, I’d have to either stop traveling or deal with a giant backlog of orders while I am out. I get anxiety when I get orders while I’m gone. I always check to make sure buyers have gotten my message that I will ship upon my return, but almost none of them read the shop announcement or the automatic email in which I point this out and give them the opportunity to cancel the order if they just can’t wait. I fear that one day someone will leave me bad feedback about being slow because they didn’t read my messages. I have too many items in my shop now to edit each listing with this information. I don’t want to put my shop on vacation while I’m gone because people aren’t seeing what I have to offer, and I keep reading nightmare stories about people who have done exactly that and lost all the progress they’d previously made getting found (and no one can buy your items if they can’t find them). The solution I want to try for my next trip is to deactivate all but a manageable number of my listings and put a note about my travel dates right at the top of the few active listings.

So, you can see that any success I’ve had in my business is not pure luck – it has taken some exhausting work. I’ve had to set limits on the time I put into this (and I’m getting better, but not great, about enforcing them) because I work too hard. The process is constantly about learning and adapting to the sales environment. Speaking of, I’m off to learn some more about how to make my shop successful.

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As Good as I Hoped… Almost

The last couple of weeks have been eventful, and almost everything has been going as well (or even better) than I hoped. My shop is exactly where I wanted it to be much faster than I expected. This week I have gotten sales on most days. I thought I was going to reach fifty items in my inventory for sale, but things are going slightly faster than I can replace them. This is fine. I don’t need the inventory, I was trying to drive business. There is a minimum number of listings that makes the shop appealing to buyers – they get drawn in by a listing, then look around to see if there is something they like better or want to add to the item that drew them in. If there isn’t enough, they leave or just buy the one thing. When there are more listings, there are more purchases. I thought the magic number was going to be one hundred, but it seems the number is actually forty-six (but I wish it were forty-two).

I realized that I needed to add more inventory in a hurry, so on Wednesday this week I dyed a bunch of new rovings (the first one isn’t listed yet)…

..and then I had a dying accident. That pumpkin orange you see on the right was going to be a first attempt at the candy corn color in the middle. I mix the dyes in a glass jar because if I pour boiling water in a plastic bottle, the bottle melts. I can use a warm dye, but I can’t move it to the squeeze bottle until it cools nearly all the way. In any case, I had my rubber gloves on and was carrying the jar of dye over to the undyed roving, when the jar slipped and broke. Plenty of the dye went into the roving, so I just went with that. Plenty more got on my countertop (fortunately, it’s a silestone counter and the dye comes out with Dawn, vinegar, and a long scrub with a magic eraser), a fair amount ended up in the utensil drawers in my kitchen island, and a little ended up on the floor. I also splashed some onto my dish towel, so I tried (and failed) to even out the color. The worst is that my tennis shoes are partly orange as well. 😦

I’ve made it my policy to limit my listings to one new item per day. There is a really good reason for this. If I list or relist something daily, it helps my visibility. I do not like the idea of paying another listing fee for something that doesn’t need it, so I just stick to new listings as often as possible. I can only work so much before I am exhausted (and not at all on Tuesdays when I have acupuncture, massage and bowling – too many scheduled events leave me overwhelmed). The photography and listing are very time consuming, and I like to have some photographed items ready for days when I really just can’t put in much effort at all. The problem is, I really don’t like to have a list of things that need to be done. I learned in college what it felt like to not procrastinate, and man, the feeling was so good that I have given up the sport of procrastination entirely. Well, almost entirely. In this case, it’s better not to just get it all done at once.

Health has actually factored in to my work lately. I have known for the last nine years that if I work too many hours (what constitutes too many varies from day to day), I pay for it inordinately. I try to limit myself, but I really like working, especially at this job. I put in nineteen hours a day the first few days, then maybe twelve hours the rest of the first few weeks, then eight from then on. The work was huge at first because I had to set up a Facebook page, create a Twitter account, make a Ravelry group, become on official yarn brand and shop on Ravelry, and read and implement what I learned about marketing and Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

I started to feel the impact of my activity pretty quickly. The first few days were ok, but the ME/CFS often has a delayed onset – I do something today and pay for it a few days later. I get tired, and the fibromyalgia pain acts up. I think what really happens is that stress hormones over-activate my nervous system, and then all the bad things come up. I started having more problems with my POTS, becoming breathless when simply standing up. I was also having insomnia and nightmares (from adrenaline surges at night) – first the scary vampires-chasing-me kind, then the soul crushing defeat that leaves me waking up in tears kind. This is the heart of what took me out when I got sick two and half years ago (can you believe it’s been that long? and also that short?).

The disabling fatigue is actually easier to handle this time, for many reasons. The most important reason, as far as I’m concerned, is that I am not also dealing with the brain-burn from the undetected soy and estrogen sensitivity I had the first time. The brain-burn can take me out on its own, and with the post-exertional malaise, well, it’s catastrophic. Another reason I’m finding it easier is that Dr B has an idea of what might have led to it. You see, I did another gallbladder cleanse a couple of weeks ago. I was gaining weight even though I had not changed my diet (about fifteen pounds in 3 months). Dr B thought I might have been holding on to hormones, so I took calcium d-glucarate to help my liver process them out. Well, it stopped the weight gain, but didn’t really lead to the weight going back to where it was. Through some testing, we learned that my gallbladder/biliary pathways are under-functioning, so the cleanse was supposed to clean it out and help it start over. For the week after the cleanse, I was rapidly losing weight (a pound a day). This is exactly what happened before I fell off a cliff those years ago. Dr B’s theory is that the hormones that I was storing as fat became water soluble from the cleanse, and that I was reabsorbing toxic hormones that were, in effect, poisoning me. I think he’s right. I am still taking the calcium d-glucarate to support hormone detox, but there isn’t much I can do about the toxic dose of whatever was stored in my fat cells. Just wait it out, I guess. What’s good is that I have a very viable answer, and this gives me hope that I can heal some and that I can prevent this level of function loss in the future.

Now don’t mistake me – I will never be cured. I’m always going to be prone to developing these symptoms if I overdo it or lose weight too quickly. But I know so much more about exactly what’s wrong and how to minimize the impact of the ME/CFS on my life than I did when this first happened, and more than I did even when I finally found the diagnosis a year and a half ago. I’m still not going to realistically be able to work in a full-time job outside of the home. But this is the dream, isn’t it? To work for yourself in a job that you love, when you want and how you want? It’s almost what I hoped for in my life. I could live without the chronic illness, but I can’t have everything.

Always Improving

I’ve been working hard on the shop. I got the new camera in the mail, so I started working on getting better pictures of my merchandise. I still have a lot to learn about photography, but I did improve dramatically with the better camera. Here are just a few of my new shots:

This was the old “Enchanted Forest”

and these are the new ones:

Closeup

Lead Photo

This was the old “Pacific”

Old “Pacific”

and these are the new shots:

“Pacific” Rolled

Lead Photo

The new shots barely look like the old ones, yet they are the exact same product. I’m hoping these more accurate pictures will help sell the product better. I’m not claiming the photography is great, but it is so much nicer with the extra detail.

I experimented with flash photography and kitten pictures last night as well. Most of these shots aren’t what I want for adoption photos (they need to be looking at the camera because it evokes a feeling that the kitten is looking you in the eye and asking for a home, and some need better focus), but there are some neat effects.

Action shots:

Neat focus effects:

And a really great closeup of Duck’s fur. (This makes a cool desktop background, and I don’t mind if you use it for yourself, so I’ve loaded it in it’s complete size – HUGE! Click to enlarge.)

 Not that I believe this to be an amazing piece of art, but please don’t redistribute the pictures. If you want someone else to see it, link to my page. This is my cat, and I do own the copyright, after all!

I still have a long way to go in the way of taking pictures, but I’m off to a good start!

 

 

 

My First Sale!

As of yesterday, I’ve managed to get my first sale at Kitty Mine Crafts! The buyer purchased these two batts:

Van Gogh’s Palette

Princesses and Ponies

I honestly expected the Watermelon batt to go first, but I’m happy to have sold anything. It’s thrilling to think that someone else wants something that I made.

I’ve also spent time updating the shop – it turns out that I can work a 19 hour day if there are no distractions. I doubt that I can keep that up long, but it’s great that I can do it even once in a while. Just a few months ago this would have been inconceivable.

I joined a group on Ravelry that advises owners of Etsy shops on pretty much any relevant topic. I asked for a review of my store, and the suggestions were that I needed to have my name on my banner (a task I was considering anyway) and that I needed to improve my photography. I edited the banner, but the photos are another matter entirely. I have a point and shoot camera – I am a yarn crafter after all, not a professional photographer. One of the reviewers said my banner was out of focus, so I sharpened it in Photoshop. She still didn’t think it was in focus even after I fixed it, so I sought out the opinion of Vickie, my friend who does professional photography. She didn’t agree with the critics. I guess it’s really subjective. I value her opinion more because she is a good friend of mine and I like her work a great deal.

In any case, I wanted to consider a better camera because I have foster kittens to photograph, and they’re hard to capture. I’ve wanted something with burst mode so I can catch them running. A friend of mine caught pictures of a bird in flight that way, and they were so cool. It’s just that SLR cameras that can do that are so expensive. I can justify the cost a bit more now because I have a business to run, so I got an entry level SLR (Canon Rebel T3). It should come in the mail next week.

I’m still working out the idea of the pictures themselves. I generally take pictures in daylight because I want to the colors to be as accurate as possible. The flash on the camera seems to distort them. The critics on Ravelry tell me this is not the way to go because it creates “harsh shadows.” They also didn’t like that I had a sheet with soft folds (they referred to them as wrinkles) as the backdrop for my pictures. I experimented in Photoshop again, cutting out just the picture of the fiber I have for sale (it’s not listed yet, but I may do so tonight) and dropping it on a nearly white backdrop to simulate what it would be like in a light box.

The original picture

With no background

It’s not a perfect comparison, but I do see a difference in the pictures. The thing is, I think I like the backdrop better. The shadows make it seem more real (maybe there would be some in the light box) and the gentle folds in the sheet lend a softness to the picture. I want people to get the impression of softness when they see my stuff, so I’m not actually sure that I want to change that. Again, Vickie said that “not every product photo needs to look like it doesn’t have a background.” I think she’s right. I wonder if the problem they are having is that I chose white as the sheet color. It kind of straddles the line between “no background” and “artistic background.” There is something called the “uncanny valley” in which a robotic humanoid looks and acts almost exactly like a human, but not quite. Apparently, that freaks people out – they either want something completely real or obviously fake. I think my background problem might be like that.

I’m thinking there has to be something I can do with creative cropping as well. Hmm…

If you ever wonder how I spend my time these days, now that I’ve significantly improved health-wise, this is pretty much it. I like that I can generally do this stuff even when my head is on fire from soy contamination because it’s happened a few times this week. It turns out I am so sensitive that I can’t even eat things made in a factory that processes soy. Good to know, but really hard to avoid.

The next thing I really have to work on is my packaging. I printed a band with my banner and relevant fiber care/weight/fiber contents and wrapped it around the fiber that I sent, but I’m not thrilled with it. I think I want to tie it up with yarn and have cute tags that convey the information I want the buyer to have. Stay tuned for that process!

Never Bored Again

I realized today that, as long as I keep running my own business, I will never be bored again. If I’m not dying, carding or spinning fiber, I am photographing it and putting it online. If I’m not directly making things happen in my shop, I’m reading advice about how to make things happen in my shop. I’m putting up tweets, pins, and Facebook updates. I’ve joined groups on Ravelry that support fiber artists who open Etsy shops of any sort. I have not really stopped working in the last couple of days.

On the bright side, I’m proud of a lot of my work. I’ve made batts that look like these:

(the watermelon batt has been the most popular by far!)

I’ve dyed roving that looks like this:

I spun a skein of yarn:

and I’ve made cat toys like these:

 

These are just a sampling of the work I’ve done. I really need to perfect the photography, but I think I do well considering that I don’t have a fancy SLR camera or particular training in photography (but I do have a dear friend who is a photographic artist by profession, and I suspect she can give me pointers if I ask. She’s been AMAZINGLY helpful with setting up the harder parts of my shop).

In addition to the above work, I’ve also been setting up a business center in the basement. I’ll take a picture of what I’ve got, but it’s going to be a place where the drum carder and dying equipment lives, as well as a place for Michael to put the business supplies for his game.

I plan to make a formal inventory in the next few days, and maybe scan the receipts that I don’t already have in a digital format so I can have accurate books.

I’ve still not sold anything, but I have been getting a lot of views for my shop as I have increased my advertising. I have hope that the first sale will be soon – I’m betting it will be the watermelon batt that goes first. Another friend of mine hasn’t had any sales yet either, so she’s due (she makes baby/child things and blankets). Another friend does very well with her shop (she makes great jewelry, mostly for babies), and she’s had some good advice for me. I’m still very ok with the fact that getting my first sale will take time. I may not feel the same way in another month, but I will cross that bridge when I get there. I plan to do paid ads when I get a hundred different listings in my shop. I have twenty now.

The kittens are growing and doing quite well now that their mother has moved on. Duck has been the best nanny I could ask for – he plays with the kittens and keeps them clean, so they aren’t missing the best parts of their mom.

Buckley isn’t all that visible on the first picture, but I think I will be using the shot of Saxon in the second picture for his adoption photo.

I like this litter because they have a very good herd instinct. If I’m in the living room, the kittens go to the living room. If I go to the kitchen, they follow me there. The greatest part is that when we go into their room, they all come in, waiting for their next meal (and they eat a lot – they’re going through two 12oz cans of cat food a day, which is double what the four of my adult cats eat!). I can shut the door and put them down for a nap with no fuss.

So, yes, I will never be bored again. I will be sick and unable to work sometimes, but I will never be without something to do when I feel up for it.