I met with a SCORE mentor the other day and got a few helpful business advice. (And no, it has nothing to do with banana split… :D)
SCORE (https://www.score.org) is a non-profit association that provides free or low-cost resources for small business owners, including free one-on-one mentorship from an experienced business owner.
I’ve known about them for many years but never used their services before. I just recently decided to take advantage of their offerings after reading a very informative newsletter from Meighan O’Toole and her positive experience working with the SCORE mentors.
I’ve been feeling a bit lost in my creative business lately and thought talking with an objective business mentor would be a good thing!
So I contacted them through their website and made an appointment to meet with a volunteer business mentor, Bernard, at their downtown Seattle office.
Bernard has been a mentor for 13 years and has built a very successful real estate business. I was a little surprised to be matched up with someone whose experience is in a totally different area. But he’s helped his wife grow her art business and has lots of artists in his family, so he was familiar with many of the struggles I’ve been experiencing as a new-ish creative business owner.
You might remember in January I spoke with a business coach and decided to focus on increasing the sales of my art products this year. (I talked about my process in this post if you’re interested.)
Though I still prefer making and selling art to be my main income source, I quickly realized running a product-based business is very expensive!
It requires certain up-front cost to have an inventory of products to sell, and it could take a long time before you actually start making a profit.
My sales have been increasing gradually over the last year (yay!), but I’ve been constantly running out of money to restock my products on the shelf (boo!)
It feels like I have an expensive hobby rather than a thriving and profitable business. Yikes.
I knew I needed to shift my focus and try to meet my short-term financial goals so I’m not actively going out of business!!
I shared my thoughts and feelings with Bernard, and he validated what I was going through. And that validation right there helped ease my anxiety quite a bit. I tend to think and analyze things very deeply in my head, and it gets overwhelming! Even one small external validation helped take the pressure off my overworked brain and offered me a sense of clarity.
After hearing my pain points, he gave me 3 pieces of advice:
Advice #1. Expand teaching to increase the cash flow.
Doing more client work is one option to fix the cash flow problem. You do the work, get paid, and move on, right? It’s a lot more straightforward than building a successful product-based business for sure…
But I hate client work.
OK, hate is a strong word… it’s just not my favorite. I talked about my high sensitivity and the struggles I have with conflict and rejection in this post, but making art that needs to align with someone else’s vision is very stressful for me.
I love working on a commission where the client trusts my process 100% and gives me a total creative freedom. It happens, but it can be a lot of work to build that kind of relationship with a client, and I sometimes wonder if it’s worth all the stress…
Teaching can also be a good source of income for an artist.
And teaching is definitely a better fit for me. It gives me an outlet for creativity and also satisfies my need to help people 🙂 As an independent teacher, I have a lot of freedom to decide what/when/how to teach, and I can experiment to improve my students’ learning experience as I see fit.
[My Follow-up Action] I’ve reached out to a few more art schools and art supply stores to inquire about teaching opportunities. My block printing workshop has been my bread and butter lately, and I have more ideas of what I could be teaching in the future. Helping people realize their creative potential is so rewarding!
Advice #2. Have my greeting cards and art prints available at more retail shops.
Bernard suggested I identify retailers who serve my target audience and pitch them my products to provide more buying opportunities to my potential customers. It turns out his wife is a jewelry maker, and he’s done in-person marketing and promotion going to galleries and shops door to door to sell her work.
Making cold calls/visits give me an anxiety – you know, I’m an introvert and am NOT comfortable with that kind of marketing!
I’d toyed with the idea of wholesaling my goods before but never took any action to move it forward. I just didn’t feel ready. I felt overwhelmed thinking up all the “what-ifs” – what if a major retailer wants to order thousands of my cards?? I can’t afford to fill that big of an order! And what if nobody wants to sell my products?? Sad face… 😦
While it’s fine to be cautious, I realized neither scenario was likely… 😀 I realized I had to start somewhere. I can start small, which has been my motto since I started my art business.
[My Follow-up Action] I’ve made contact with 5 retailers (galleries, gift shops, art museum etc.), introduced myself, and dropped off samples or emailed them my product info. And I already got 2 wholesale and 1 consignment accounts that want to carry my cards and prints! YAY!
It felt awkward to walk in to someone’s space and pitch my work at first, but really, you’re just asking a question. AND if your products are a good match, you’re actually helping to make their customers happy, which is what the retailers want! So it’s a win-win 🙂
I reached out to retailers that I’ve been admiring a lot – they carry beautifully designed, unique, and high quality products for home and gifts. And when they tell me they like what I create and want to carry them, I feel like I’m walking in the clouds 🙂 Such a nice validation and a confidence booster!
Advice #3. Lower the cost of production to increase the profit margin.
This is like – duh, but something I’ve been putting off tackling because it’s overwhelming to think about.
Since I don’t have a ton of cash to invest in up front, I end up just ordering small quantities of my products from the printers and keep ordering more as I sell more. I also want my products to be high quality, so the cost of production tends to be higher. Naturally, my profit margins are pretty slim especially when I do wholesale or consignment where I usually get 50% of the retail price.
I don’t want to compromise the quality of my products and can’t afford to have a huge inventory right now.
If I could order my products in thousands at a time, it will save on the cost per unit… It’s a conundrum, and I don’t know what to do about at it… :p
[My Follow-Up Action] Well, I haven’t really done anything with this except to casually think about it and then forget about it… I know it’s important for me to figure out the solution, though. If I keep doing what I’m doing, I won’t be able to effectively scale up, or worse, I’ll definitely drive myself out of business!!
I need to sit down and do more research on manufacturers and some serious number crunching. Two things I’m not excited about…but it’s not an option if I want my business to thrive! And if I work on my advice #1 to increase my cash flow, it will naturally help.
Our meeting was short and sweet but very helpful. I left their office feeling motivated and energized!
Support from family and friends are great – I couldn’t do this without them! No doubt.
But often when I get an unsolicited advice from people I know, I get annoyed and defensive. It’s not that their advice isn’t helpful – it’s more that I’m not ready to hear it. I get vulnerable and insecure. My focus isn’t on what they’re saying or how valid they are. I instead start wondering why they’re giving me the advice when I’m not asking for it. Uh oh, do they think I’m doing a bad job?? Do I need saving??
That’s why I find it so valuable to get an advice from someone who is not emotionally invested in your success.
First of all, I’m less defensive and more willing to listen when I’m actually seeking for an advice. And it’s easier for me to not react emotionally to their feedback when there is a clear expectation of our roles (i.e. a mentor and a mentee). I can accept their input as an objective observation and nothing more. It’s very refreshing!
SCORE has 320+ chapters throughout the US, and you can find your nearest SCORE location here. You can meet with your mentor multiple times, and if your first mentor is not a good fit, you could request to meet with someone else too. They’re there to help!
I’d definitely go back and use their services in the future when I’m faced with new challenges or need a sounding board outside of my regular circle of people again.
Here is to our growth!!