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Making It

The art of growing a crafts business.
September 1, 1998
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/16320

It's a fairly simple concept: Take something you're good at, and create a profitable business. Talented artisans are taking heed: According to the National Craft Association, the past three years have seen a steady 43 percent growth in the crafts industry, and sales of crafts and hobby products topped $10 billion in each of those years. Entrepreneurs who create everything from handcrafted candles and jewelry to dolls and woodcarvings are seeing their sales soar.

Yet that very popularity often proves problematic. Handling growth is difficult for all business owners--but more so for craftspeople, whose businesses are based on their own creative talents. How can you expand beyond your individual capacity when you're the only person qualified to create your product? "It's a huge issue for all businesses, but the transition from being solo to being an employer is especially hard for crafters," says Madeleine Homan, a business coach in Dobbs Ferry, New York, who works with creative businesses.

The secret is to delegate tasks to others so you have more time to concentrate on growing your crafts business. The following six steps will help you learn what to delegate--and how:

1. Learn to let go. For many craftspeople, the most difficult part of the transition from going solo to owning a business is learning to let go of the production of their crafts so they can concentrate on activities that will grow the business, such as conducting market research and developing new products. After all, the success of a crafts business depends on the owner's unique style, and it's understandably difficult to turn over to others a craft that took years to develop.

One solution is to take baby steps by hiring workers to handle only a small part of the production process. René Reiser, owner of Paradise Candles in Idaho Falls, Idaho, has three part-time employees who are trained in certain parts of candle production, such as the final buffing of the candle. That way, some of the burden of meeting the increasing demand for her botanical candles is lifted, but she still controls the production process. "The initial letting go is hard, but it gets easier and easier," says the 35-year-old entrepreneur.

Jack Wolcott and his wife, Barbara, both 40, co-own Handcrafted by Jack and Barb Wolcott, a Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, company that makes yard ornaments, glass canisters, candle boxes, candy machines and other crafts items. The company has two part-time employees, but because Jack, like many crafters, believes that buyers value the crafts for his unique style, he has employees do only the basic work on the crafts, while he puts on the finishing touches. For example, he hired a worker to stain the wooden pieces, but he paints the designs himself. Says Wolcott, "We'd be misrepresenting ourselves if we sold something someone else had painted."

2. Hire the right employees--on a budget. If you've decided to enlist assistants, you'll probably discover it's difficult to find employees you can trust with your valuable product--especially on the tight budget that constrains most crafts businesses.

Your most obvious source of employees is your own household. Martin Hodge, owner of The Wooden Wheel and Crafts in Ithaca, Michigan, recruits his 12-year-old stepson to help clean and stain wood products when demand picks up. "Hiring family members works out well because they have more of an interest in your business than outsiders," says Hodge, 43. However, he warns, you must be clear about your expectations and the amount you can afford to pay so there are no misunderstandings.

If you're hiring workers to take over just one small part of production, homemakers and students may be the way to go. Reiser hired one part-time worker through an organization that helps homemakers get back on their feet after a divorce or other hardship; her two other employees are local high school students who work just a few hours per week for minimum wage.

Jack Wolcott suggests finding workers through word-of-mouth. "There are lots of people who do crafting but don't sell their products," he says. "You can find out about them by asking around at crafts stores. You can also check out art schools for students looking for work."

Nancy Koch, 46, owner of Brookhaven Designs Ltd. in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, is another advocate of the word-of-mouth school of hiring. Her seven-employee company produces fabric-covered keepsake boxes. "Wherever I go," Koch says with a laugh, "I ask people if they can sew and use a glue gun."

3. Test their abilities. How do you know if that hard-working homemaker or smart high school student can handle a band saw or a paintbrush? Most crafters can't afford to hire first and ask questions later, so they rely on hands-on testing to separate the handy from the hopeless.

"I don't use a written [job] application," says Koch. "Instead, I show them how to perform a certain task, such as using a glue gun, and ask them to duplicate it. I can tell a lot by the way people work with their hands."

Hodge, too, likes to see job candidates handle the equipment before he hires them. "I can tell right away whether they know how to use [the tools]," he says. "A lot of people say they have experience, but they really don't. There's not enough leeway in a crafts business's profit margin to mess around with employees who can't hit the ground running."

4. Train them well. Training employees to duplicate a style that took years to develop is another hurdle the crafter with a growing business has to overcome. "Most artisans are very particular about every detail and insist on perfection, especially because their name goes on the product," says Ann Barber, director of membership benefits at the National Craft Association (NCA) in Rochester, New York. "Some are also [leery of] teaching others their specific technique or trade style, which may have taken them years to perfect. Some consider their design techniques as sacred as Coca-Cola does [its] Coke recipe."

In the long run, however, training your employees to create your product means you don't have to constantly supervise them--which equals more time for you to plan your growth strategy. "The key is training and trusting so you can move on," says Koch.

Training is an ongoing process. "You have to communicate your values to your employees early on, then continue to coach them and reinforce their goals," says Koch. "Make them understand how important their task is to the finished product." Reinforcement is especially important if you've hired relatively inexperienced workers due to cash constraints. "What I think is easy isn't always so easy for others," says Reiser. "[Sometimes] I'm under pressure and I think I can show my employees just once how to make a bow, but then they don't do it right, and I realize I need to train them more."

5. Job it out. If demand for your product is outstripping your ability to supply it--and taking on new employees isn't an option--consider hiring independent contractors for certain aspects of the production. "Crafters you meet at shows who are talented but just starting to get into the business often need extra cash," says Wolcott. "You can hire them as subcontractors." Wolcott saves time by contracting a local crafter to cut the wood for his candle boxes; then he adds the decorative touches himself with a scroll saw.

6. Take care of business. To succeed as a crafts entrepreneur, you need management ability, a vision for the future and technical skill. If you aren't adept in all three areas, you must hire people who have the abilities you lack.

When the business starts growing, most craftspeople's first thought is to hire someone to handle production, but this isn't the only way to go. "If your craft is of a type that, once designed, can be easily reproduced, and you're comfortable handling the business end, then [hiring employees to take care of production] is a good option," says Barber at the NCA. "More often, however, the success of the product depends on the craftsmanship of the creator. In this case, [you're] better off hiring others to handle the business aspects."

Martin Hodge recognized this and hired a marketing manager, who works on commission, to drum up business while Hodge spends his time making crafts. "You can't mix sales and production," Hodge says. "I was losing money being on the phone selling all day." Hodge also has 12 wholesalers who sell his product to retail stores.

Decide what you're best at; you can delegate the rest. If you hire part-time workers to help with the crafts or commission-based employees to do the selling, you can do it on a budget. With a little creative thinking, you can turn running a business into an art form of its own.


Linda Formichelli is a writer in Attleboro, Massachusetts. She can be reached at linda@tp.net.

Contact Sources

Brookhaven Designs Ltd., 3375 Industrial Blvd., Bethel Park, PA 15102, (412) 854-0254

National Craft Association, 1945 Ridge Rd., #5178, Rochester, NY 14622, (800) 715-9594

Paradise Candles, P.O. Box 3570, Idaho Falls, ID 83403, (208) 522-2431

The Wooden Wheel and Crafts, (888) 359-9746, http://www.crafters.net/crafts/wheels