This is from a feature I did for Get Crafty. I get emails every week about it. I’m just posting our story, but if you check out the original feature, I give a bunch of tips on running your own indie crafty business.
Patrick and I have always led very nontraditional lifestyles. As Mexican-Americans, his family expected him to land a lifelong job at the City of Phoenix, and my family expected me to have his dinner ready when he got home. Instead they got a Rasta Chicano reggae musician and me, his quirky soul mate who served as his booking agent. It was the early ’90s and we were heavy in the Bohemian lifestyle scene, living off our wedding dollar dance donations, his gig money and my kitschy crafts that I would sell at his shows. It was all fluffy flowers and reggae rainbows until one day when I noticed the electric bill was more than the contents of our dwindling till.
We took pride in our combined artistic talents and dreamed of one day relying on them as a means of making a living. There was no better time to turn that dream into reality than at that moment. We journeyed to the craft store to find the least expensive material to transform into tantalizing tangible goods. A pad of watercolor paper, six .99-cent bottles of acrylic paint, brush-on varnish and fishhook earrings did the trick. At home, we cranked up Pato Banton and Ziggy Marley for inspiration, whipped up some funky ethnic accessories and hit the pavement of our local arts and shopping district. Oh yeah, all the while we begged our Aztec warrior angels to pleeeease help us sell enough art that day to pay our bill.
After being declined by several store buyers, I plopped my butt in the middle of the sidewalk and began to sob uncontrollably. Embarrassed, my dread locked hubby went into his spoken word version of Get Up Stand Up. Literally. He picked me up by the arms, looked me in the eye and said,
“Get it together, woman! Think positive!”
So we forged ahead into the next shop. That was where we captured lightening in a bottle. A petite, friendly lady greeted us and actually listened to our whole enthusiastic sales pitch. At the end, she asked to see our work. I confidently turned around to pull out my nifty display board. I was horrified to discover that most of the earrings were stuck together in a nasty, tacky clump. (TIP: Cheap glaze will getcha every time.) I quickly grabbed the ones that were still presentable and showed them to her, a la Vannita Blanco style. Goosebumps went up my arms as this retail buyer lifted them to her nose for a closer look. She then placed an order (that we later filled in 24 hours) and it was more than enough to cover our electric bill.
The day was saved, then the first scary event in our story soon followed. “Do you have a rep?” she asked. “A rep?” I asked. “Well, we’re kinda new at this, so we don’t really have any kind of reputation, good or bad, at this point.” “No, I mean a sales rep: someone who shows your work and brings you orders,” she replied.
This wonderful woman had a business associate in New York who was going to have a huge booth at a trade show. She encouraged us to send samples of our Chicano pop art to this NY rep so our work could be featured in the display. Patrick and I looked at each other, then at her, and said, “Sure, why not?” “So you two are certain you’re ready for a big trade show, right?” she asked. “You make more of these if requested?” “Oh, no problemo!” I chimed. “We’re ready for anything!” We shook hands, said adios and left.
With our faces glowing in delight, Patrick and I knew our Aztec warrior angels had done their work and answered our prayers. But there was just one little thing: “Patrick,” I said,”what exactly is a trade show?”
Now we were on a sample-making mission. We created two-dozen items including painted flowerpots, picture frames, jewelry, boxes, magnets and more. Like all our artwork, we made everything with extra care and love, using bold, bright paints to celebrate our colorful heritage. I was so elated and excited that I topped every item off with an extra helping of glitter and high gloss varnish, not knowing the combo would become our trademark style.
The samples were shipped off and we returned to our normal lives, this time with jobs. Weeks later, a thick manila envelope arrived in the mail from NYC. It was a stack of purchase orders from museum shops, department chains, mom and pop retail stores, interior designers and all sorts of other cool places. Our wildest dream was coming true, and we celebrated our good fortune and naively thought we would be millionaires.
Now, scary story part dos.
From the “Whoa, we never expected this” files: Some of the venues where we purchased our supplies for the samples no longer carried the items we needed. The birdhouses went up in price. We noticed our high-gloss varnish came with a cancer-warning label. Our little rented house had no extra room to produce this work. Plus we hand-painted and hand-made everything. Did I already mention we were expecting a baby?
Everything happened so fast. There was no time to outline an agenda or production schedule. But we addressed each crisis as it came up. We found a woodworker, transformed all but the bathroom into work areas, and found masks for glazing. This whole circus arts and crafts adventure continued non-stop for three years. It was nice for a while. Every day was like a Saturday and we had the luxury of a self-employment schedule. Patrick and I were able to stay home with the kids and work together. But by the time we finished a stack of orders from one show, a new one was just beginning.
It became a vicious circle. Remember, we were broke when we started, so even though we had a healthy cash flow coming in, it was barely enough to cover our living expenses, the sales rep’s commission, and art supplies, much less hired help. And there was so much more involved than just making our art: invoices, phone calls at all hours of the night, finding and packing boxes, shipping, bounced checks from customers, Net 30 payments, rush orders…the list went on and on. As far as orders on the “To Do” clipboard, there was one for 300 flowerpots for Bloomingdale’s, another for 150 clay crosses for Saudi Arabia – you get the idea. Eventually, we grew to detest the beautiful designs we had so meticulously and lovingly created out of a passion to express ourselves. And we had another bambino on the way.
One night, Patrick returned home after a band gig. There I was, in zombie mode with the remote in hand, on the couch. The room was dark except for the flashing TV screen flipping from channel to channel. The babies were sleeping, which meant I should have used the quiet time for painting. Patrick flipped on the light and scoped out the setting. “Um, what’s that green stuff on the wall and the ceiling?” he cautiously asked me. “It’s baby food. I think I had a breakdown tonight,” I replied in a non-chalant and monotone manner. “I don’t want to do crafts anymore. I want an office job, with other people. And a copy machine, free coffee and a time clock.”
Only a few hours earlier, I had put the kids to bed and sat down to paint. Normally, applying fresh paint to raw wood is extremely therapeutic for me. But at that moment, it made me want to hurl. I started to sob. I hadn’t cried like this since the whole electric bill sidewalk episode.
Everything had come full circle. I was so incredibly frustrated I grabbed the closest and least harmful thing I could find: A little plastic bowl of Gerber Stage 2 Green Beans. I chucked it at the wall as hard as I could to release my anger. I had never done anything like that before! Luckily, my Melrose Place moment didn’t wake up the kids. I pulled myself together and shamefully cleaned up the mess. However as Patrick pointed out, I missed a few spots.
Ironically, the next day we got a call for an order for 10,000 small flowerpots from a perfume company in Japan. Thinking of how hard we had worked the past few years, I felt obligated to accept the account. Patrick on the other hand, turned into a crafty Cesar Chavez.
“I don’t want to paint anymore either!” he said sharply with disgust. “I’m sick of it and it’s unhealthy for us! I went to art school for this? What do we need to do to get out of this mess? Let’s do it. NOW!”
Twist my arm. We terminated our relationship with our sales reps. Or rather they ditched us because we were waaay behind on their commission payments. The home-business foundation we thought we had spread so evenly, was crumbling. I then took a mindless part-time job in the tear sheet room at the local newspaper – all I had to do was rip newspapers apart for four hours a day. Life was looking better.
The time away from the house worked wonders. Even though Patrick and I sucked as business people, we were still talented, ambitious artists at heart. There was no way we could give that up, even if we tried. We were meant to make art.
I researched the crafting industry and compared notes with others who had similar stories. I devised new rules – we trimmed our line, raised prices, incorporated color copies, focused on local accounts. We now have one art studio in la casa, we act as our own sales reps, we change our offerings frequently so we never tire of making them and we set up booths at local events. Sure we still fill national wholesale orders, but we’ve learned to be realistic in the turnaround time, no more high rush jobs. The only mass production work we offer are custom pieces for occasional corporate events (we still have to pay electric bills, you know). The best move we made was launching an e-commerce website.
I worked my way up the ladder at the paper to a full time spot in the Features newsroom. As it turns out, all that late night painting to cable television turned me into a highly valued entertainment junkie. The company paid my way through school and i am now a full time features reporter covering entertainment and crafts.
Patrick has his band, I have my newspaper gig, and together we have two happy camper kids and our art company. Despite the sticky situations, we really did fulfill our goal of crafting for cash. The only difference is, now we live by the “less is more” concept and we refuse to get in over our heads (most of the time). The best part is painting and crafting is therapeutic again.
The ultimate moral of our wacky story? Be careful what you ask for. Those Aztec warrior angels really do deliver, glitter and all.