Guest Post by Rena Tom: Too Much Success Part II

Guest post by Rena Tom

Lisa Congdon

First of all, thank you to everyone who read the previous post and left a comment. It's good to get feedback about this topic, and also to see that it is a common problem when you are a creative business owner. Perhaps I should have titled this series "too busy" instead of "too much success" because I think there are lessons to be learned by everyone who is trying to run a small business.

Meighan gave us a great tip in the previous post - keep a good schedule and stick to it. Here are four more ways to help manage your workload.

Plan Ahead

"I can entirely relate to this. Last holiday season, about a month before Christmas, my Etsy sales quadrupled. It was great the first few days, but after a few weeks of this, I was unbelievably stressed out. I was getting further and further behind -- yet everyone wanted their order delivered asap because it was a gift for Christmas. All I can remember about that month was working, working, and working."

-- Rachel from Elephantine, commenting on the previous post

Contingency planning is a lifesaver, especially for the high season for your work. This is generally the last two months of the year, but if you make wedding-appropriate items or picnic/outdoor supplies, it might be summertime instead. Here are ideas to help you create your plan:

1. Put a 12-month calendar on your wall and try and fill it in as completely as possible. For instance, figure out your drop-dead ship date for the holidays, then work backward from there, adding in vacation dates for suppliers, lead times to get components shipped to you, other events you will be involved in that may take up time (like craft fairs), etc. Don't cut things too close, as bad weather can easily throw everything off; a giant snowstorm can prevent a wholesale order from reaching your store, or a retail order from reaching your customer.

2. Decide if you want to hire help this year, and if so start looking early. Plan to look for more help than you need as some people will inevitably not be able to fulfill their commitment. Figure out a budget to make sure this is right for you. Also write down *exactly* what you expect them to do, and a review process for their work. This lets you avoid awkward conversations later on, and also keeps you from micromanaging people.

3. Find alternate suppliers and shippers for as many aspects of your business as possible. You never know when a company will run out of something you need to fulfill an order, or stop working entirely (see the Canada Post strike going on right now - yikes) and leave you in the lurch.

4. Don't promise what you can't deliver. Customer service is so important for small business owners. If orders are pouring in and you can't fulfill them in the usual amount of time, stop taking new orders if you must, and let your existing customers know immediately,. Some people will cancel and be upset but most will be sympathetic, and even congratulate you on your success. This happened at Rare Device one year and while we lost some money and felt embarrassed, we came out with our reputation intact.

Work Smarter

"Profits flow from businesses that cost-effectively meet their customers' needs—not because a desperate entrepreneur works until midnight seven days a week. No question, when a business is caught in an economic downturn, and especially when key people have been laid off, there are times when you need to work extra hours. But the long-term solution to the problem is to work smarter, not to burn yourself out with 15-hour days."

-- Bethany Laurence, Save Your Small Business (Nolo)

"For me the harder part to becoming more 'successful' is making some of the larger decisions about growth. Do I just keep upping my prices so I sell less and have to make less? Do I get more help in the studio to make more? Do I get a larger studio to accommodate more production or out-source some of the production?"

-- Heather from Dahlhaus, commenting on the previous post

Look at your business plan every 6 months, or every year at minimum. If you don't have a business plan, try to at least set goals for 1 to 3 years out, and also write a mission statement for your business, and a statement listing the values that are important to you and your business. Revise the plan as necessary - your requirements and feelings and interests will change!

These documents will help guide your decision-making about how much money you want to make, if you prefer to make everything yourself or if you want to step back to a designer role and have other people produce for you, what kind of stores you want to be in, or what kind of customer you want to attract. It will also prevent that uneasy feeling you get when you feel like you are doing something out of character, or not true to the vision you first had when making a product, or selling a certain kind of goods in your store.

Learn To Say No

My former business partner Lisa Congdon had a heck of a schedule in 2010 and early 2011. Besides running Rare Device with me, she had numerous, labor-intensive book illustration jobs, group and solo art shows and even published her first book! However, it was starting to take a toll on her. She says:

My career as an artist was taking off, but at what cost? As much as I tried to exercise regularly and take care of myself, I often felt run-down and awful (mentally and physically), and my time with my partner and friends was seriously compromised. I was working 6 days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day for nine months. Something had to change! I made a goal that 2011 would be different.

I am focused now on returning to balance in my life. I realized that one of the great things about being self-employed is that I get to be the boss and make decisions that are the best for me. This includes not saying yes to every illustration job that comes my way or to every publicity or interview opportunity. Every time an opportunity comes my way, I weigh the costs and benefits before committing. I often turn off the Internet at my studio so I can focus on painting without distractions. I'm including regular exercise and a healthy diet and plenty of sleep. I still work a lot and I still occasionally pull late nights, but I'm focusing on maintaining a thriving art + illustration practice that also allows me down time for fun and relaxation.

Be strategic with your yeses. It can be very hard to say no to people and projects, especially if you are starting out, but once your business is underway, evaluate what saying yes will mean in terms of what you will get out of it. Reasons to say yes:

Is it fun? Will I learn a new skill? Is there a measurable benefit, or are you at least banking goodwill that will benefit later on? Does it further a cause or mission that I believe in? Is there a lot of money involved? (Let's be honest: that can be a valid reason.)

If none of the above applies, go ahead and say no. You can always find a way to turn someone down gracefully, or say "not now", leaving the door open for an opportunity at a later time.

Slow It Down

Even though you are an entrepreneur, slow growth or no growth is a viable strategy. You might have a plan that allows you to make a certain amount of money but also build community, offer great customer service and retain the values that were part of your decision to be in business in the first place - and that's great! Don't get caught up with anyone's ideas of success except your own.

If you look at your numbers and have not met your goals, you are still in a growth phase, but if you are making a profit and are happy with your standard of living, perhaps you don't need to think about taking on a trade show or creating new product designs just because you "ought" to. This New York Times article talks more about some business owners choosing to stay small, and this insightful post about growing a graphic design business (or not) can be applied to other creative fields as well.

Interview with Kelly Lynn Jones

Kelly Lynn Jones - Little Paper Planes

This is a long, long post but I wanted to leave you with an interview with Kelly Lynn Jones, an artist and also founder of Little Paper Planes. Since 2004, LPP has been assisting artists in their careers through prints, publishing, curatorial and licensing projects. I met Kelly when we were both selling at a craft fair in Oakland about a zillion years ago. She is one of the busiest people I know and she was kind enough to take time and answer some questions I had about her business, her life outside of work, and how she separates the two.

>>What are the projects you are involved in right now?

I just finished a couple of huge projects which included a book deal with Chronicle Books, preparing for and attending the Surtex Licensing Show, launching the new LPP website which was a year in the works, and lastly moving studios for both LPP and my own practice. We rented a storefront in Oakland and had to do all the demo and build out of the space so it was an intensely laborious experience. All of the above happened at the same time over 3 months.

Right now, I am trying to decompress from that, though I am always moving forward. I'm working on some potential licensing deals for some of my artists, working on the next exhibition for LPP which opens online on the 19th of July. I am working on the very first product line for Little Paper Planes; it is a line of leather accessories. For my own practice I am working on a collaborative project with Collin McKelvey that is for the gallery Sight School in Oakland as well as a video that will be screened at the INDEX Festival in NYC in August. Lastly I am working on an upcoming show for my own work at The Lab in San Francisco in August.

>>Is this the busiest you've been or can you tell me about a previous time that stressed you out?

HA, no, this is how my life is always, or at least for 12 years. I am always juggling at least 3 projects at a time. When I lived in LA, I was having a bunch of exhibitions for my own work, manufacturing and designing a clothing line, running Little Paper Planes and waitressing. During that period I realized it was all too much and that's when I decided to give up the clothing line. However, the following year I started graduate school so all the craziness came back in full swing.

>>What are some methods you use to get a handle on all that you have to do?

I don't think I have figured out the best method. I am not going to lie, I get stressed and completely overwhelmed and question everything, though I also like the hustle and trying out lots of various projects. In the past year, I have been trying to set boundaries for myself - of course I often break them. I only work on LPP stuff Mon-Fri and have to stop by 5:30. As far as my own practice goes, I schedule 3-4 days a week to work on stuff whether it's researching or making. I do well with deadlines and schedules. For me, it's the only way I can fully balance all I do. I also have a hundred lists. There is a huge satisfaction in crossing off a task that is completed.

>>Do you ever defer requests from people, and how?

Yes. If it something that I do not feel passionate about and I am overextended already, I have to say no, but I always like to keep invitations open. So, depending on the request, I try to make something happen for the future when timing is right.

>>How do you prepare for what you know will be a busy time, like holiday orders, or a show opening, or getting press?

For holiday orders, I usually start working on that in early October to get everything in line for the crazy. For a show, I try to give myself a timeline with small deadlines so I can easily meet and manage things realistically without rushing and getting overwhelmed or cracking under pressure. The worst is a creative block. For press, I don't know if I am ever great at press, but I usually send stuff the day of a featured artist or [when I have] something that is worthy of press. I find that in our mass media, fast-paced life, press seems to work better when things are 'right now'. I only send PR packages for press in advance when it is for print, not online.

>>Are you in a growth phase or holding steady right now? Is it by choice? If so, why?

For Little Paper Planes, I think I am always in a growth phase. Since everything I have done is by myself without financial backing, it's a slow n' steady pace. I also am always interested in evolving, as our world is constantly evolving, whether it's through media, economically, artistically, etc. I like to try new ways of collaborating with artists which is the main reason I run my organization.

For my own practice, growth is a must. The moment I feel 100% confident in what I am doing, I have to switch it up. As an artist, I am always searching out new ways to look at the world. I like to be in a state of not knowing and let myself learn from mistakes and failures. I guess this can be applied to running my business as well. The only constant in life is change.

>>Do you feel like you have to do everything yourself, or are you happy to get hire help/get interns?

I battle with this often. I have been running my business for almost 8 years. I have had a handful of interns in the past 4 years. I now have a group of 4 people right now who assist in various operational aspects for LPP. Even though they are all amazing and talented, I do have a problem with wanting to do everything. Maybe that is part of [the business] being my baby. Slowly I am learning to let go, since I know it is important for the growth of the business.

>>How do you stay grounded in your business when it feels like things are getting out of control?

Well, I don't know if I completely know how to fully stay grounded. I am making baby steps in letting go of being such a workaholic. This weekend I am going camping and last weekend I went hiking. So I am actually trying to get more in touch with nature and get out of my immediate surroundings and away from my computer and my phone. I try to make a lot of time for my good friends who are all artists as well. We have potlucks and just hang out and talk about everything that is going on. I feel like I have an amazing support system since we are all trying to make things happen. Also having a partner who understands your lifestyle is so rewarding. I have an amazing boyfriend who tells me daily it's all going to be ok, which sometimes is all you want to hear.

This way of life can at times be crazy, intense and makes me wonder if it's all worth it, but in the end when I go to sleep I know I wouldn't want any other life. Despite always thinking about money and surviving, I think it's all worth it. I think you should only do what it is you're passionate about. There are always sacrifices but getting the opportunity to meet and work with so many artists is truly amazing. I feel so lucky to be surrounded by art and be an artist. It's a wonderful way to navigate this life.


Rena Tom is a retail strategist for creative business owners. She previously owned Rare Device, a boutique and art gallery with locations in New York and San Francisco that was renowned for its carefully edited collection of design objects, books, housewares and accessories, and for supporting small, innovative designers and artists whose work was not easily found in stores.  Rena blogs about personal projects as well as retail trends and small business tips at She lives in San Francisco with her husband and baby boy in an apartment filled with too many laptops, Sprecher root beer, half-finished craft projects and overdue library books.

Jan Halvarson


elisa said...

great insights on the tricky balance. not so easy! i'd love to hear about more folks who like to keep their business small.

Fiona Cartolina said...

Wow - great post - best I've read on this topic - will refer my clients to it.

Luna Levy said...

I thought this was an excellent post! Thank you Rena, Lisa, Kelly, Jan and everyone who shared their thoughts. Very helpful!

Cez said...

great post and interview!!!!! thanks for sharing!!
have a nice week

shannon said...

love this post and all the insight! it's so great to hear how our peers are handling the same 'problems' we are and their very appreciated advice!

Kelly Lynn Jones said...

Thanks for asking me to be a part of the conversation! :)

Dusty said...

Its not a strike, its a lockout.

Lily from Birch + Bird said...

Great post! Time management is our greatest challenge...running our shop and writing our blog while juggling kids and family life is an ever evolving process. Still looking for that perfect method!

plcpeggy said...

Hi all,

agreed, interesting discussion (that I felt I just had w/you recently, Rena) about the choice to stay small. Always trying to balance making enough green and not growing beyond my (mental) means.

thx for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Such a great topic! I feel like good things can come flooding in all at once and we are often unprepared. Here's one of my super simple organization tips: I love using a huge paper desk pad calendar for my blogging & writing schedule. I fill in a whole month in pencil, put it on the floor and literally stand over it to make sure everything flows and there aren't gaps or holes. The size and scale of the calendar helps keep me in line.

Rena said...

decorativity - love that idea. sometimes having it in front of you at all times (physically, so you can't switch it off or avoid it) is the kick in the butt you need to get things done.

Janine said...

excellent post.

it made me feel better on a very stressful day.