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Creativity Counts

Discover how to take your crafting hobby from downtime to big time.

It was a logistics question Lorrie Veasey was reluctant to answer: How was she going to cart two tables and $1,000 worth of pottery from her Brooklyn brownstone apartment to the craft show 20 blocks away? She was alone, had no car and couldn't take the subway. So she did what any self-respecting New Yorker would do: She walked.

It was 1984, and Veasey, like many other twentysomethings in the city, was just trying to make a living selling her crafts. She started selling pottery from the stoop of her apartment to pay for college classes at a studio nearby. Soon after, she migrated to other parts of the city as art fairs invaded the streets.

Today, Veasey is the 44-year-old founder of the $6 million handmade-craft empire Our Name Is Mud. But she's quick to recount her days as a struggling crafter in New York City. It was there that she learned how to take her love of crafts and turn it into a successful business.

"When I first started out, I literally had a Post-it note above my [potter's] wheel that said, 'Stay focused,'" says Veasey. "I looked at it every day just to remember where I wanted to go and what I wanted to be doing."

The crafting world has changed quite a bit since 1984. A 2007 study by the Craft & Hobby Association found that crafters make up a $31 billion industry, a figure that has grown exponentially over the past decade.

Today, crafters have a palette of options to choose from before creating a plan that will turn their hobby into a successful business. It's just a matter of finding equilibrium between two age-old rivals: business and art.

Ready, Set, Sell
For many crafters, the idea of being artistic and entrepreneurial is a foreign concept. But starting a craft business doesn't necessarily mean turning in your paint and scissors for a suit and tie. It takes an ability to juggle creative talents with analytical skills while maintaining a passion for crafts.

"You still have to fire people, hire people, get loans and negotiate real estate," says Veasey. "It's business at the end of the day."

Although handling business affairs may not be as much fun as creating your art, it does require an element of creativity that most crafters can appreciate. Here are some points you should consider during your startup phase:

Marketing: In a market where uniqueness is the norm, standing out can be a challenge. So when it comes to marketing your product, everything from packaging to mailing materials should convey a message about your business. Keep a detailed mailing list to alert customers about new products or business happenings, and explore the marketplace for unique opportunities. Give people a reason to talk about your art. Word-of-mouth is a crafter's greatest tool.

Patents: On top of the general marketing, packaging and mailing that go along with any business, crafters should also focus on legal concerns such as obtaining patents and a seller's license. Advice on how to obtain a patent can be found at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website (uspto.gov), and a local courthouse can offer information on acquiring a retail tax permit, which is essential for selling at craft shows.

Pricing: Harnessing your business side also means deciding on reasonable prices. "The number-one mistake for people just getting started is pricing [incorrectly]," says William T. Lasley, a guide for arts and crafts business for About.com. "They might put $10 worth of wood into a bench and sell it for $12, and then they're not paying themselves for their time."

Lasley recommends monitoring the pricing habits of other crafters in the same field to get an idea of what's reasonable. In general, prices should be high enough to cover production, operations and craft casualties, but not so excessive as to make customers turn to Target or Wal-Mart or a generic product at half the cost.

Selling: Explore various sales venues and test the market. Common venues include craft shows, church bazaars, house parties and online marketplaces. No matter what sales forum you choose, set yourself up to accept credit card payments from your customers. You can find more information about credit card payments at entrepreneur.com/payments.

A Craft Menagerie
In many ways, Veasey is a craft business purist. She discovered how to turn crafting into a living the traditional way--through hard work--and she suggests others do the same. "[Crafters] should not be too proud to set up a table at the church Christmas bazaar if, in doing that, they learn the information that will help them build a million-dollar business," she says.

Most experts and crafters agree that frequenting both craft shows and online marketplaces is best for a sprouting business, especially in the first few years. Aside from functioning as a convenient marketing tool, a craft show gives customers a chance to see products firsthand and connect with the business on a more personal level.

Sisters Donna, 43, and Robin Barger, 38, of Four Idle Hands have spent several years selling their "devilishly good" jewelry at craft shows in Los Angeles and say the shows give them exposure to customers, fellow crafters, retailers and media personnel who might not know about their online store.

In 2006, Donna helped organize Los Angeles' Bazaar Bizarre, an indie craft show that caters to hip crafters with innovative ideas. "We handpicked everybody in the show," says Donna, adding that organizing the show helped her meet other craft professionals and garner attention from crafting magazines.

Though craft shows may seem like an easy way to display your crafts, there is an art to successfully participating. Even setting up a booth can become a creativity competition, as artists try to make their 10-foot-by-10-foot spaces into ministorefronts, art studios, classrooms, and in one crafter's case, a replica of her '50s-inspired kitchen.

"Making a really appealing display is crucial," says Sue Daly, co-founder of Renegade Craft Fair, an all-day DIY event that invades Chicago, New York City and San Francisco every year. "Most fairs have more than 150 vendors, so it's important to put a lot of time and effort into it and stand out."

Daly says exhibiting at a craft show can involve months of preparation, and crafters should make sure to handle legal issues like registering their business to pay sales tax before showing up for an event. Many times, organizers will facilitate minute legal details, but it's a good idea to check the fair's website for last-minute information you may have missed.

Getting Glued Online
For crafters and artists, the eBays and Overstock.coms of the world aren't the most business-savvy instruments for selling online. Sites that cater directly to crafters are becoming more and more popular among artists who don't want to be pushed to number 52,456 on a web search for jewelry.

Online craft markets are an easy way for crafters to build a web presence without the hassle and cost of creating their own websites. Thousands or even millions of visitors may browse through a particular site each day, meaning free exposure for your growing business.

The cost to set up an online store depends on the site's policies and how many products you choose to sell. In general, it's free to create a shop, but the site will charge a small listing fee and/or sales fee. Etsy.com has become hugely popular among crafters because of its clean design and unique features that let visitors choose different methods of browsing through the site's 125,000 vendors. For example, visitors can use an interactive color palette to find products of a particular hue.

"You can really use the innovation and design of your products to gain market share and to attract the audience you want," says 28-year-old Rob-ert Kalin, who founded Etsy in 2005 with Chris Maguire, Haim Schoppik and Jared Tarbell.

Some crafters and shoppers prefer sites like HomeGrownMarket.com, which aims to make craft shopping as effortless as possible. Christa Waydo launched the site in September 2006 to promote entrepreneurship among American crafters. She posts outfits that she creates from handmade apparel sold on the site. Last winter, she introduced a gift-shopping feature just in time for Christmas. "We're pretty basic and straightforward, and customers like that because we give them the ability to shop quickly and easily," says Waydo, 29.

Both sites offer unique features for crafters and craft-lovers alike, so explore a potential site in detail, and talk with other sellers before deciding on a particular venue for your crafts. Says Lasley, "See who's selling particular products on a site and how well they're doing, to make sure you're not putting your dollars in the wrong spot."

Time to Quit Your Day Job?
Part of creating a craft business is the difficult task of knowing when to streamline production to keep up with demand. "It's surprising how many people aren't willing to compromise a certain level of their work to meet production demands," says Veasey. "But it's a choice you have to make." Whether it's eliminating aspects of your work, finding help or quitting your day job, most crafters find that sacrifice is just part of the business.

Even Kalin finds himself brainstorming ways to help artists deal with demand as the Etsy community expands. "Find other people who can do a good job and take responsibility for each unique part," advises Kalin, who has gotten requests to set up an office assembly line to help crafters with their work.

The other prospect--quitting your day job to pursue crafting full time--may seem daunting, but if you've laid the groundwork, it shouldn't be.

When Anne Taintor quit her job as a cartographer to become a collage artist, she wasn't terribly worried about her well-being, although she kept careful watch over her spending patterns. "I had a bulletin board near the table I worked on that had a list of what bills I had to pay and when I expected the checks," says Taintor, 54. "It was pretty much a beans-and-rice existence for a few years."

Today, she runs Anne Taintor Inc. out of a small studio in Coyote, New Mexico, where she pairs advertisements from the late '30s to early '50s with saucy sayings on various merchandise. She projects sales of more than $2 million this year.

Artists like Taintor and Veasey are the adventurers of the craft world, but there are more than a few paths to success. Whether you decide to ease into the business or fully abandon your current career for artistic pursuits, finding your niche is much like crafting itself: It takes a clear vision, creativity and a passion for crafts.

"The thing that kept me going was remembering what it would be like [having] a real job," says Taintor. "No matter what happened, it was better to be working for myself."

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This article was originally published in the May 2008 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: Creativity Counts.

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