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.

Week in Review

The past week has been very eventful for me. I got more expensive plastic bracelets, made a lot of sales, dyed a ton of roving, invested in and started dying commercial yarn, met a new doctor, worked a little bit on some knitting projects… I’m sure I’m leaving things out.

I’ll start from the beginning. On Monday, I was watching tv with Michael when I got the sudden, stabbing chest pain I’ve become so familiar with. I’m not surprised, really, because since I’ve been having more problems with POTS, it ups the chance for me having restrictive cardiomyopathy and reduced blood flow to my heart. No big deal, now that I know what it is. I just lie flat on my back and put my feet all the way up, restoring blood flow and allowing my heart to slow down. The pain was stronger than usual this time, so I had to have Michael move me into position (good thing he wasn’t on yet another business trip) while I waited it out. A half hour passed, but the pain had not, so Michael told me he was taking me to the hospital.

I was still in pain when I got to the hospital, so they hooked me up to the EKG machine and took some blood. I began to improve while I was hooked up to the machines. “You’re fine,” they told me, and sent me home. I got the blood labs back on my way out the door, and I noticed that there actually was something wrong – I had low potassium. It was just below the reference range, but I am sensitive to very small amounts of chemicals (1/8th of an infant’s dose of Metoprolol scrambled my brain, after all). Low potassium can be dangerous, as it causes arrhythmias and muscle cramps. That was my problem. For once I fit inside the box for someone with this problem, and they still didn’t catch it. I believe in my heart that it’s because I’m “too young for heart disease,” so they dismiss that right off the top. It didn’t matter that I told them I had a history of POTS, or that I could usually fix the problem by getting into a position that returned blood flow to my heart. Honestly, I didn’t really need a doctor to interpret the tests for me, I just needed one to run them. Bottom line is, I’m ok now. Adding a potassium supplement has helped, except for today. I am not sure if I took the supplement yesterday, and I didn’t want to over do it (too much potassium can have bad effects, too). I think I must not have, given that I woke up feeling awful. Of course, it could have been the work I did yesterday that I’m paying for.

I spent all day on Saturday dying wool. I definitely plan to list most of it for sale as is, but I may spin one or more of them into yarn. I dyed some commercial sock yarn, too. I saved one skein to knit up for myself and see how it looks and to check if it’s really enough to make most pairs of socks. I only got 360 yds in 100g of yarn, and usually I see around 400 yds in that weight (and most patterns call for a minimum of 400 yds). Of course, I measured the yarn on my niddy noddy, and I’ve always questioned the accuracy of that method of measurement.

  This is some of what I dyed. I had so much that I needed the space in two bathrooms to dry it!

I also met a new medical doctor this week. Well, he’s a DO (doctor of osteopathy), but still, he has access to some things the chiropractors don’t. He is also a chiropractor, which informs his approach to health care, and thus informed my decision to interview him and see if he’s good enough for my team. I’ll cut to the chase – I am going to use his services. I like the guy (Dr M) – he’s personable, he listens to what I have to say, he believes in ME/CFS (a tall order in a medical doctor), he prefers a nutrition and lifestyle approach before pharmaceuticals are introduced, he says I’m not telling him something he hasn’t heard before (never heard that before – seriously!) and most importantly, he has new ideas. I’ll admit, the idea he’s fondest of was something I’ve already explored with Dr B, but maybe different testing and a new approach might yield some results. He thinks I have a problem with mold, that it is living in my airways and maybe even my heart. I’ve seen that on Mystery Diagnosis, actually, so what the heck – let’s give it a shot. I really liked that he gave me a disclaimer that not a lot of doctors do – he said I’ve been sick for more than twenty years, and he doesn’t expect me to be better in less than two years (and that there will be ups and downs). I already knew this, but I appreciate that he isn’t claiming to have “the answer” and a quick fix. He also correctly guessed that a lot of doctors wanted to offer anti-depressants to treat me, because ME/CFS is, in their world, a psychiatric disorder. There’s only one thing I really don’t like – he failed a test that I give many of my new potential doctors. I gave him a copy of the ME/CFS Guidelines for Medical Practitioners, explaining that that document had a very accurate description of what I have been dealing with for the last two and a half years (and longer on a less intense scale) and what treatments have and have not worked for me. He took it, flipped through, then gave it back. It has been my experience that practitioners who keep the copy and read it on their own time have been a better fit for me – it shows that they are interested in what I have learned and what I believe is going on. The ones who don’t look at all or give it back tend to arrogantly think they know everything and ignore any input I may have, and they miss the fact that I am fine on paper but obviously sick in person (and subsequently declare me “just fine”). I think this may not be the case here, but I am alerted to the possibility that he is, in fact, just like the others.

In knitting news, I have had very little time to work on things that for myself or my friends – my time really has been devoted to my shop. However, I did manage a little knitting this week. I’m making socks for Dr B’s nephew:

and I’m making a Baby Surprise cardigan for Dr B and his wife’s expected baby. I have no pictures of that yet, but I hope to remember to get a few before I visit them next month. I’m not making promises – my memory has been pretty terrible lately.

So, that’s it this week. I need to get back to editing photos, and maybe even get a little sleep tonight. Wish me luck!

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.