Friday, 30 December 2011

Dec 30, 2011 - Year in Review

Craft fans, I haven't blogged much during the peak season, but here I am with an hour to spare before a dinner date, and some of the highlights of the past year at the shop are filling my head.  I always enjoy year-in-review articles, whether about news, culture, food, trends.  So here are some of my best experiences as the proprietor of Wise Daughters this year:

  • receiving $10 more than the ticket price for a ceramic bowl from Inspirations, because a customer felt it was undervalued
  • renting out my button-maker for uses as varied as the relaunch of Joel Richardson's mural on Dupont, the launch of Chris Kay Fraser's Toronto kiss map, and somebody's 75th birthday party
  • helping not one, but two husbands choose Wise Daughters classes for their wives for Christmas 
  • hearing that a baby who received a U Rock onesie from Wise Daughters appears in it in every photo
  • hosting various bouncy Sparks and Brownie troupes for crafting sessions
  • collaborating, communicating and sometimes commiserating with the lovely women behind Nathalie-Roze, Distill and Beadle 
  • handing out donated yarn to a local woman in her late 90s who returns it knit up into blanket squares and scarves for Streetknit
  • helping a brother and sister choose a really good present for their parents with their pooled coins totaling $14
  • making babies laugh with Banjo Puppets' hilarious popcorn monsters (including one wee boy who laughed for the first time here!)
  • making adults laugh with Coy Clothes' saucy, silly t-shirts
  • getting a note just today from somebody who loves her Wise Daughters sleep wear so much she hasn't taken them off for the better part of a week
  • serving ALL the wonderful people who choose to shop local
It's been a wonderful year. Here's to another (and another, and another).  

A very happy 2012.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Nov 30, 2011 - Occupy Your Wallet

Craft fans, I have been remiss.  I took a holiday, then I got too busy making and doing to write. 

But today it snowed, and that made me hopeful that holiday shopping will soon begin in earnest (when it's 16C outside, it's hard to think about Christmas, I know).  And I will be very curious to see whether shoppers are taking up the cry to "occupy" their wallets this season. 

The current global occupy movement is about a lot of things, and is being manifested in many creative ways; one of its messages is to act with one's wallet, choosing to shop locally.  I copied a sign I read on Facebook that reads, "If you really want to occupy Wall Street, do your holiday shopping at a small independent merchant." 

Of course, this begs the age-old question, how much difference can one person make?  Will Walmart notice if you don't join the line at their checkout?  No, Walmart will not notice your absence, but your neighbourhood merchant will certainly notice your presence, and that is the point. 

This photo by Justin Sweeney travelled the social media circuit after Black Friday, and it makes a great point, I think. 

You don't need to camp out, or even wait in line, to make a difference in the life of a local artisan.  Hope to see you this December!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Oct 5, 2011 - How to Approach a Retailer

This is a blog post full of obvious advice for handmakers who would like to sell through a shop like Wise Daughters.  Obvious, and yet today I have had at least two faux-pas committed that kind of boggle the mind.  So here goes.  Six simple rules for breaking into retail:

1. Take 1 minute to go on my website (or that of any other retailer you want to approach).  If you visit, you'll find a page called "Info for Makers" that tells you what to do.  Easy!
2. While you're there, please find out my name so you can use it when you email.  My name is not "Hi there" and especially not "Hi there!!!"
3. Do not send ME an email that tells me how badly you want to get your work into, say, Arts on Queen.  Proof-read, please.
4. Do not try to promote your product by telling me it's better than what I already carry.  Nothing is more off-putting than an artist who disses craft, or other artists' work.  And for all you know, that object you're critiquing could well have been made by me!
5. Do not pitch stuff made in Poland, China or anywhere else.
6. After I've said no, for whatever reason, please do not expect an hour of free consultation about where/how to sell your product.  I have a class on that very subject, for which I charge a small fee. There are also lots of other resources at your disposal.

Remember, selling is all about the relationship.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Sept 27, 2011 - Good Packaging

One of the topics I touch on in my Art of Selling workshops is packaging. This in the context of branding, but there are several other important considerations too, like choosing sustainable materials while creating a professional look.

I thought I'd take a minute to share a few really good examples.

1. Melissa of Ladeebee/Vintage Baby Revival has taken the humble luggage tag and turned it into an affordable, simple and eye-catching packaging tool.  She also uses them to tag her knitwear, so there is consistency.  Look how cute!  With very little effort, her product is ready to present as a gift.  The only info on the back is her website, which is really all that's required much of the time.

2. Adrianne of Vintage Love needs to go that extra step and put her switch plates in a small plastic bag to keep them clean and to enclose the accompanying screws, but the bag is just the size of the product to keep waste to a minimum.  What's fun about this packaging is the language on the back.  Adrianne lists ingredients, directions and the following tip: "Sit back relax and enjoy your fresh and funky piece of nostalgia!" 

3. Katie of Eclectic Media Artist makes owls so cute they pretty much sell themselves, but if a buyer needs a nudge, this is it: a simple cardboard tag that gives Katie's website and says "(happily) made in Canada."  Brilliant.  Suddenly the buyer is happy too. Made in Canada is a key message for artisans to share (or Made in Toronto if only locally available). 

4. Leila Cools puts her fused glass jewellery on simple cards, but creates a consistent and attractive look by fabricating her own stands for shows and shops.  Not only does a retailer like me appreciate a ready-to-go display, but it gives Leila control over her brand.  Repeat customers can see at a glance what they want.

The package needs to be an extension of the product in look and feel.  Using as few words and as little material as possible, you need to present your brand, make it easy to find you, and tell buyers what they need to know (contents, care, etc.).  The extra thought and time that goes into packaging will absolutely pay off.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Sept 15, 2011 - Welcome Wise Daughters Wear

Yesterday was the photo shoot for the first product in what I hope will become a line of Wise Daughters Wear.  Six fabulous volunteer models trotted over to Phillipa C Photography in the Junction; here are a couple of the group shots:

I could not be happier!  Everybody looked and felt comfortable in the pyjamas/loungewear, and they beautifully showed off how flattering Wise Daughters Wear looks on different body shapes and sizes.  The models ranged in age from 20 - 62, and I hope women within and beyond this wide age range will enjoy the design. 

Wise Daughters Wear gets its official launch Sept 24 here at the shop.  I'll make my famous carrot muffins.  Buy or order in person that morning and you'll get 25% off.

After Sept 24, Wise Daughters Wear will be available online with shipping across Canada.


Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Sept 7, 2011 - Express Yourself through Art Journaling

A number of people have asked me to explain what happens at Art Journaling (starting up next week and happening monthly this fall).  I realize I should take a stab at describing why it's such a delightful way to spend an evening.

Anna Redish teaches this class; one thing you should know about Anna is that she gets more excited about craft supplies and techniques than anybody I know - and I know some very crafty people.  Another thing you should know is that Anna is never without an art journal on her person.  She started making them out of tissue paper so she could always have one in her bag or pocket.  Anna believes in the power of self-expression, and in striking while the muse is with you.  She also believes in being prepared for creativity.  She told me to read Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit, which I did, and I immediately identified some ways Anna has applied Twyla's advice.  Advice about how to overcome your fear of the blank page (or studio), how to build your skills so you'll be ready to implement ideas when they strike, and how to challenge your assumptions about the way things work, so you'll be willing to try something else when they don't work.

So what do we do in art journaling?  Well, it's a lot like regular journaling, in that it is uncensored and all about the process.  Making marks on the page, not judging the finished product.  Sometimes we do write.  My favourite activity was when Anna fired us up to write a rant, as full of expletives as we liked.  We wrote in 4 directions, rendering the finished page illegible.  We put a finish coat of colour over top too, just to be sure our secrets were safe.  Sometimes Anna gives us a starting phrase and we write from there.  Here's an example:

One night we wrote ourselves letters on a particular theme and learned how to fold them up like this:

Another time we learned photo transfer, and I had fun making pictures of 40s stage actors from an old theatre magazine appear in my journal.  And one night we played with paint and bubble wrap, entertaining our inner children no end.

This fall, Anna will be sharing all kinds of techniques for applying marks to a page - all of which are great to use in other projects - but the best part will be in the doing.  Focusing on artistic expression as a way of silencing the chatter in your head and being in the moment.

This workshop series is offered on a sliding scale to help make it accessible to everyone.  Whether you're an artist looking to unblock your creativity, or somebody who wants to explore your artistic side without any pressure to be able to draw or paint a certain way, I really encourage you to give this time to yourself.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

August 30, 2011 - Carpe Diem!

There are few people untouched by Jack Layton's parting message to Canada, or by the tributes so eloquently paid to him in the last week.  Of all the calls to action and words of advice that have been expressed, something Mike Layton said has stuck with me.  It's not a new idea, but it's a vital one. In his eulogy, he talked about how Jack knew conditions would never be perfect (the anecdote was about sailing), but you have to make the best of things the way they are, and just go ahead anyway.  As Gracie Heavy Hand of the Dead Dog Cafe used to say, "Stay Calm. Be brave. Wait for the signs."  I'm not one for "signs" from above or anything like that, but I am a big fan of following one's own intuition or gut feeling.  The older I get, the more confidence I have in listening to myself.

It's so easy to live in fear: of failure, of poverty, of loneliness... but to do so is a terrible waste.  I've been close to a number of people who have died far too young, so I am perhaps especially aware of how time can run out before you've realized your dreams. 

A lawyer recently wrote in a mean-spirited letter to me that it was not reasonable that I was not earning an income.  There is so much wrong with this statement.  First of all, it is perfectly reasonable and part of my business plan to derive a living wage from my business in year 5, not year 3.  To expect differently is to set yourself up for failure.  Secondly, what's unreasonable about choosing to follow my passion instead of slogging away at a meaningless job?  And finally, there are a lot of earnings to be had besides money.  Doing this job isn't just how I spend my days; it's how I spend my life.

I chose to seize the day when I started Wise Daughters.  I don't live up to my Carpe Diem motto every day, but I try to seize the majority of them.  Because what is the alternative except to let them slip by?  I'm not going to let that happen.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

August 17, 2011 - The Importance of Listening (in Business)

The other day, as I was informally sharing strategies with a sister entrepreneur, I realized just how crucial listening is to success in business.  By listening, I mean a lot of things - collecting data and feedback, inviting suggestions, and actually listening to people's anecdotes.  There is so much useful information to be gleaned!

By contrast, I think about a recent experience I had with Bell, where listening to my very legitimate beef seemed systemically impossible.  The upshot of that episode was that Bell lost my business.  A behemoth like Bell doesn't care, but the loss of even one customer to a business like mine has a negative impact worth avoiding at all costs.

So, ways of listening.... Technology has made it very easy to ask for and receive instant feedback.  An example: I asked my Facebook fans what kind of knitting class they most wanted in October, and they answered "socks."   Easy. 

All kinds of software programs are both idiot-proof and free these days.  Mail Chimp is fantastic for sending newsletters, and has great data-gathering features too.  You can see who opens their email, how often, what they link to... it's a goldmine if you know what to do with the information.  I was initially shocked to find that only about 40% of the people who voluntarily signed up for my newsletter bother to open it, but then I thought about how often emails I receive go straight to the delete folder.  Sometimes I know I'm too busy to do whatever it is the email is proposing to me, but that doesn't mean I won't take a good look another time (point in case - theatre listings).  My newsletter recipients have months where they are gung-ho and open the email repeatedly, and months when they don't. But unless they unsubscribe, I can assume they're content to be receiving my information.  People often say, "I'm glad you get your newsletter, even though I haven't had time to come to a workshop lately."  Staying connected to your customers is critical!  We all want to feel a part of something.

Survey Monkey is another fabulously simple program that allows people to anonymously give feedback.  I've sent out two annual surveys, and had a surprisingly high return rate.  People are busy, but we all like to be asked our opinion, and will give it freely as long as we feel somebody on the other end is listening.  Consumers are too smart to fall for trickery, so there is no benefit to offering a chance at a prize for joining an email list or answering a survey, in my opinion.  Let your customer do it because they want to.

On the low-tech side, there is tried and true white/chalkboard.  I have one in the shop where people can add their workshop suggestions, and I record and keep them.  I also ask workshop participants to fill out a evaluation which ends with an invitation to suggest more workshop topics.  People almost always take the time to do so. Just ask!

My final thought is this: customer service is all about the relationship.  People are becoming less and less comfortable conversing without a screen, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.  A lot of customers are only too happy to share stories with just a little prodding.  About how their grandma used to make these... and how much their sister loved the... these anecdotes are the best market research tool of all.  I discover all kinds of new things about why people are buying certain products.

And I can respond with tidbits about how something was made, or who made it, and the customer gets a story to go with their purchase. 

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Aug 4, 2011 - Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!

The bloggosphere is a strange and wonderful place.  Using Blogger permits me to see all kinds of stats about who is reading my musings.  Hello dear readers from Latvia, Ukraine, Romania, Bahrain and Singapore, among other far-flung places!  How you ended up on this Canadian arts entrepreneur's blog is a mystery to me, which I hoped to solve in part by checking out the phrases people googled to get here.  Among the most intriguing:
  • bike sticker stencils
  • Shakespearean quote "truer words were never spoke"
  • Jian Ghomeshi
  • great Canadians you've never heard of
And then there was "Is Mary from Wise Daughters a lesbian?" and the strikingly similar, "Is Mary from Wise Daughters gay?"

Shaking off the various distasteful reasons one might pose this question to the Almighty Google, I choose to believe I have a secret admirer. 

But it's a two-headed beast, this Internet. I get inspiration from other people's blogs when time permits, and am pleasantly flummoxed by the number of people who read mine. 

At the same time, it disturbs me that Facebook knows way too much about me, and I worry that my daughter's youthful photos will come back to bite her in the bum when she's in the running for a post at the UN, for example.  On the other hand, everyone will be in the same boat.  There is no such thing as privacy.

Anyway, I'd love to hear from you, kind readers.  Let me know why you're here, and what you'd like to read about!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Aug 3, 2011 - Crafts are for Grown-Ups

Back from a brief but refreshing break from the shop, I'm busy putting together the fall workshop schedule. The kids are getting their turn with Wise Daughters' summer craft and knitting camps, but the rest of the year is all about the adults.

This is my favourite part of the job, and the reason I opened the shop. I wanted to foster creativity by providing a welcoming space where everybody could try handmaking without breaking the bank or making a huge commitment of time. To that end, all of Wise Daughters workshops are either one-offs, or a short series of 2 - 4 sessions, supplies are always included, and previous experience is never required (except for the odd knitting or crochet project).

I keep track of all the suggestions people make, and try to squeeze as many into the calendar as possible. Some favourites will be back this fall, like knitting, crochet and felting (the ever-hilarious moose head trophy class). Silkscreening was a hit last spring and will return, and lino-cut printing will be on offer for the first time. Bookbinding is on the roster, and mosaics will be back after a long hiatus.

And for something completely different, I'm very excited to invite people to join a weekly hand drumming class (I did it myself in the spring and loved how it exercised my brain).

For crafters considering selling their handmade products, The Art of Selling and The Art of Marketing via Social Media return.

It's going to be crazy busy, and wildly creative, and I can't wait!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

July 27, 2011 - This Sister is Doing it for Herself

It's awesome being the Chief Curator and Benevolent Dictator of Wise Daughters, don't get me wrong.

But sometimes I get so caught up running the business, I let my own creative pursuits fall to the bottom of the to-do list. Summer affords me time to make stuff. A couple of weeks ago I felted a bunch of chocolates, actually destined for Distill Gallery, but will soon make some to sell here too.

This morning, I finally pulled out the silkscreen supplies I bought after Christine Pensa's excellent workshop here in the spring. I had made some stencils, and found a local supplier for organic cotton napkins, but had been a bit tentative - fearing screwing up, I suppose. But it was a triumph! I happily screened away until not a single blank napkin remained, then promptly ordered 100 more! I plan to sell cheerful sets of 4 this fall. Here is my first design:

Making stuff myself is not only satisfying, but a rather important income stream for Wise Daughters, given the greater profit margin. I make soap that sells here, at Wonderworks and at Red Tent Sisters. It's great to have a presence in different places, without saturating the market, of course.

The next big thing for me is my Wise Daughters Wear - the jammies/loungers about to go into production.

It feels like my baby is experiencing a growth spurt, and it's very exciting!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

July 19, 2011 - All You Have to Do is Ask

Over the past three weeks, I've had to move. It was unexpected and upsetting, and would have been a logistical nightmare as well, had it not been for a lot of help from my friends. Faced with little time and no car, I did an unusual thing: I unabashedly asked for help. All my friends said yes to my requests to drive me places and lug things, graciously and with genuine good humour. One friend let me drag her around Ikea, desperately hunting for the Snurgleblorg bin before closing. Another hauled my futon up 3 flights of stairs then took me grocery shopping. One wrote me a cheat sheet all about internet, cable and cell phones so I could speak reasonably intelligently about the services I needed and not get fleeced. People I don't even know that well let me borrow their cars. At some point, a friend commended me for asking for help, and I realized how rarely we do that.

Maybe we women of the feminist era are loathe to show weakness, or maybe we're all just inculcated with the American dream - you can do it, but on your own. I have always been fiercely independent, but have also learned that asking for what you need can be really beneficial. This absolutely applies to my business as well.

Never one to cower before banks or large corporations, I have always demanded better rates and prices. Much to my children's mortification, I will haggle anywhere (except with artists, of course!). Did you know that all you have to do to lower your merchant credit card rate is phone the bank every six months and demand it? I mark it in my calendar. It's harder to get one's way with behemoths like Bell or Rogers, but not impossible. It's remarkable what happens when you cheerily start a sentence with "I'd like to arrange a better deal on..." 

Fortified by the generosity of my friends and my capacity to get things done, yesterday I sacked my lawyer in favour of his much more attentive and competent colleague. I had to practice all the way there on the subway (what is it about doctors and lawyers?), but when I got to his office I looked him in the eye and said, "I am unhappy with the service I've received from you."  It felt so empowering!

What do you need help with today/this week/this month? Who can help you? Chances are, all you have to do is ask.

Monday, 11 July 2011

July 11, 2011 - Things People Do (Or How my Faith in Humans was Restored)

Last week I had to rant about the woman with a head the size of her Mercedes who said very impolite things to me while I was on my bicycle.

Today, I have a much better story to share about human behaviour. 

Some background: for my 40th birthday, I got some new phobias, notably height and enclosed spaces.  Mostly I cope.  A year ago it got pretty severe (apparently phobias are connected to menopause symptoms - yet another phenomenon not covered in the manual).  I worked on it, and by spring I was doing much better, blithely riding the subway and taking airplanes.  But when one gets stressed (and I am under a crushing amount of stress right now), phobias and other mental health annoyances rear their nasty little heads.

So... Saturday night I had enjoyed a play downtown and was waiting on the westbound platform at Bathurst station when I felt my breath start to shorten and my palms start to sweat.  Whenever I'm about to ride the subway, I pick a secret helper to stand next to - somebody who looks sympathetic in case I freak out.  I had pre-selected a woman in her 30s and moved closer to her.  I was doing my damndest to breathe slowly, but I was starting to get light-headed, so I said to her, "Excuse me, I'm claustrophobic, and I just want you to know I might be about to faint."  She was awesome.  Without skipping a beat, she reached in her purse, pulled out some mints and said, "Have a mint - it'll distract you.  Lean on the wall.  And look how close the stairs are, right over there."

That was really all I needed.  Assured that if I did faint, she would know not to send for paramedics to perform rib-crushing CPR, I stopped feeling light-headed.  I felt ok to walk to the stairs.  Then I took a cab home. 

I don't look on it as a defeat.  I didn't faint, and that was my goal.  I didn't ride the subway either, but in the overall scheme of things, who cares?  I rode it the next day with no problem. 

And best of all, this kind and sensible stranger did just what I needed her to do in the moment.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

July 7, 2011 - The Things People Say

This blog post has nothing to do with the shop, though the story takes place during my ride home from work last night.  I just need to write it down to get it out of my system, and maybe to get others' thoughts.

So there I was, calmly riding south on Runnymede in the bike lane, when I was obstructed by a large white Mercedes SUV stopped not only in the bike lane, but in a construction zone, and maybe 50 meters from the intersection at Bloor. Altogether, about the most inopportune spot a person could find to stop.  Her window was wide open, so I sidled up and said (without raising my voice),

"Really? You chose this spot to park?"

The driver let out a squeak, as I had totally startled her.  This because she was absorbed in the task of clipping her toenails.  She was in her late 20s, very blond, and very tanned.  It would be a more interesting story if this Mercedes owning foot groomer was not such a cliche, but there you have it. 

The woman quickly regained her composure and screamed at me,

"Go fuck yourself, you dumb bitch!"

Now, maybe I've lived a sheltered life, but I don't recall anyone ever speaking to me like this before.  I don't think anyone has requested that I fuck myself within my hearing, and I'm sure I've never been called a bitch to my face.  It is one of my least favourite words.

I'm not offended so much as gobsmacked by this incident.  How is it that one person can address another like this?  Not in the throes of an impassioned political argument, say, but on the street, with the one in the wrong doing the yelling, to boot?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

June 22, 2011 - Musings on Being an Entrepreneur

Recently, I did an interview for the radio program/blog These Things That People Make. Interviewer Sarah Mangle wanted to know about the circuitous route that led me to Wise Daughters Craft Market. I told her a bit about my former life as administrator/executive director of various organizations: Ontario Literacy Coalition, Storylinks, Workers Arts and Heritage Centre, Kensington Youth Theatre and Employment Skills, and Women's Future Fund, to name most of them. Working in the non-profit sector often means a series of lateral moves, as funding winds shift. I had a particularly unerring ability to choose jobs just prior to elections, the results of which pretty much guaranteed my employment insecurity. For example, I went to work for a labour museum just before Harris took over from Rae in Ontario. Apparently, I like a challenge.

I retired from the non-profit sector for the first time in 2003, the year I turned 40. What started as a proposal to barter for Pilates classes turned into a full-time job managing a successful Pilates studio. I learned a lot about how to run a small business, and quickly discovered it's way easier than running a non-profit. That's when the entrepreneurial seed was planted. I was lured back to work for a national feminist organization, but of course, mere months later, Harper dismantled Status of Women Canada. When I was laid off from that job, I decided I was done. After a while, one's spirit starts to crack, if not break.

My path to entrepreneurship was delayed a bit further by a really interesting contract to do with feminist archives, but ultimately the idea took hold.

Now that it's been 2 1/2 years, it's hard to imagine ever giving up the freedom of running what I jokingly call a "benevolent dictatorship." No boards to report to, no meetings, no minutes, no schmoozing, no compromises. The mistakes are all mine, but so are the triumphs. This work feels like play, and that's pretty priceless.

Monday, 13 June 2011

June 13, 2011 - Public Acts of Beauty

This past weekend marked both Worldwide Knit in Public Day and International Yarn Bombing Day. Wise Daughters celebrated both with a knitting party that brought out knitters for one of the most relaxed community events I've ever organized. Knitting is just so calming and lovely. Everybody should try it. A bunch of novices did just that, including one young man who decided to come see what it was all about, with a view to knitting his brother's new baby a blankie. People found him nearly as adorable as the 4 year-old who made yarn bracelets for the band (The Girls are Back in Town - a very talented group!).

This was the scene early in the afternoon. Note the green coverings on the traffic bollards. In the right foreground, you can see Dawn Juruc getting ready to attach the crowning glory of these yarnbombs - hot pink crocheted flowers. There is nothing I love more than a good yarnbomb. This anonymous, seemingly random act of beauty serves no purpose other than to bring pleasure to passers-by. What could be more perfect?

It's entirely possible people will not be able to resist taking these flowers home with them, so I encourage you to pass by 3079B Dundas West (facing Quebec Ave, south of the corner) asap!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

June 9, 2011 - Summer is for Creative Adventures

Right at the beginning of 2011, I had a creativity coaching session with Lisa Pijuan-Nomura. I promised her I would "make" for an hour a day for 90 days, and I did (I am very disciplined when somebody gives me a task). Then I had a spurt of creativity when I dreamt up my Wise Daughters sleep/lounge/everything wear, soon to go into production.

Last week I took Christine Pensa's silkscreening workshop here at the shop, and I was instantly smitten. The urge to silkscreen everything in my path has overtaken me. In the workshop, I made a stencil loosely based on the Wise Daughters flower. Now I have all kinds of design ideas.

Being a business woman with one eye on the bottom line, I thought about what I'd like to make that I think my customers would want to have. Full-sized fabric dinner napkins came to mind. Eco-conscious consumers want reusable, sustainable products, as do I. With a quick bit of googling, I found a local supplier of lovely organic cotton napkins, perfect for embellishing with colourful images. My order is in, and as soon as they arrive, I'll be happily whiling away the quieter summer shop hours playing with my brand new screen, squeegee and inks.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

June 7, 2011 - Embracing Social Media

Last week Wise Daughters hosted a workshop on The Art of Marketing via Social Media, led by Erin Calhoun-Mangat. Erin really knows her way around not only Facebook and Twitter, but a whole host of social media sites I'd never heard of. She effectively demystified the whole confusing business, helping participants - all small arts entrepreneurs - figure out where to focus their energies.

Two short years ago, I thought Facebook was strictly a vehicle for youth to post stupid pictures of themselves, mostly drinking. More than 400 fans later, I realize how vital a tool it is for marketing Wise Daughters. Especially because I run workshops and events, it's a highly efficient way to get invitations out to my target audience of crafters. It's also become an important source of information for me. I'd never hear about many of the cultural or political events I attend without it. How did I manage before FB?

I struggle a bit with the separation between personal and professional online circles. Earlier this year, I found I had "friended" a bunch of people who are really business associates. At risk of offending them, I carried out an "unfriending" exercise, just so I could feel more comfortable posting family photos or other personal bits of information on my own profile page. Unlike many FB users, I prefer some privacy.

I have also embraced Twitter, despite stronger initial reservations. At first glance, it looked like nothing but banal lunch menu musings to me, but all that changed during the G20, when it was the single best way to find out what was really happening to people. I've also seen its effectiveness as a marketing tool. There's no better proof than a customer who barrels in to see whatever new item I've just posted.

It's kind of funny writing instead of talking to people - it can feel like my words are just floating off into a vacuum. But then days, weeks or even months later, a customer will refer to something I posted. This isn't at all how I have thought about community in past decades, but I have to acknowledge it's community nonetheless.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

May 25, 2011 - My Nest is Empty

I just turned 48. Many mothers my age have kids under or around 10 years old. Mine are nearly 25 and 19. Yes, I became a parent freakishly early for my era. And it was a fairly crazy thing to do. Yet as I listened to a group of women friends tell the bald truth about raising kids at a recent dinner party, I felt affirmed in my reproductive course of action. As one mum pointed out, if you've never had the pleasure of disposible income or leisure time as an adult, you don't miss it when kids arrive. The main theme of the discussion was energy - as in the vast energy it takes to care for small children. By the time I turned 40 and acquired a penchant for rest and comfort, my daughters were leaving and entering adolescence, respectively. They were welcome to stay up later than me if they wanted. They could take themselves places on the TTC. It was awesome.

I could never have opened Wise Daughters two years ago if my kids had been at more dependent stages. A small business sucks up huge resources of time, as well as money. I don't know how parents of young children manage, frankly. Not that I didn't work hard when I was young, and my kids were young. But this is all-consuming in a way a regular job simply isn't. I don't remember how I coped with commuting, challenging paid work, constant housework, school projects, extra-curricular activities and all the other demands of parenting, but I did. And I'm guessing my youth helped a lot.

Now here I am, settled in a condo my partner and I affectionately call "Club Crone". Neither daughter lives at home. One has been criss-crossing the country and may or may not land nearby when she wraps up her Master's in the coming months. The other is taking off for European adventures before university. It's a funny sensation. I'm thankful modern technology makes it easy to touch base with them daily, no matter where they are or what they're doing. It's amazing how close we can remain when we're physically far apart. But it still feels odd to have an empty nest already.

At least I've increased the odds that it'll fill up with visiting grandbabies before I'm too old to get down on the floor and play with them.

Friday, 20 May 2011

May 20, 2011 - Flirting with Fashion Design

I have written in this space about how my mother wanted to be a fashion designer, but her father dissuaded her, arguing it was a frivolous pursuit.  I never even learned to sew, yet one night a couple of months ago, I  dreamt up the perfect pyjama - actually dreamt it, in vivid detail, in my sleep.  At least I thought so when I woke up and drew my design.  This perfect pyjama answers several needs I feel are not satisfied by my existing sleepwear: to breathe, flow, keep me warm enough but not overheated, to leave the sweaty cleavage region exposed, and to be beautifully flattering and lovely to the touch.

I promptly phoned my friend Anna Redish, who often teaches here at Wise Daughters, to ask her to help me.  Being a wildly creative type, she fully embraced the idea that I had created a viable design without knowing the first thing about sewing, pattern-making or fabric.  In no time, we were on the phone to a local bamboo supplier, and over the course of a few afternoons, Anna created a first draft of the pattern.  She sewed a prototype, which I put on and she pinned in all the places we decided small adjustments were necessary.  But even this first garment is phenomenally close to what I imagined in my dream.  It feels fantastic. 

When I had it on over my tights and tank top yesterday, a customer exclaimed that she would absolutely wear this out to dinner with a snazzy scarf or bold necklace.  Being made of beautiful bamboo, there is no reason this outfit couldn't be worn pretty much anywhere, as well as in bed.  This revelation opens up a world of marketing possibilities.

Now Anna has made a second draft of the pattern, ready to go to the grader (I have learned this is a person who sizes patterns; Cynthia of Black Daffodil referred me to hers).  It's getting real!  After we have the patterns finished, we'll sew up more samples in the smallest and biggest sizes (and by we, I mean Anna), and try them on women of different body types to see if they find them as comfy as I do.  I'm hoping that if it makes my modest bust and immodest bum look good, it'll do wonders for anyone.

The next step will be to produce a small run. I have determined that it will be more cost effective to have the bamboo supplier manufacture them, here in Toronto, than to contract the cutting and sewing to individuals. This will mark a departure from Wise Daughters' primary mandate, but I feel like I need to give this a try.  If it works, it will literally be a dream come true.

Look out for the launch of Wise Daughters Wear this fall!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

May 18, 2011 - Creative Round Robins

Last week a group of 10 women celebrated the end of a six month round robin with a potluck at my house. Every three weeks, we'd been getting together to swap books (usually over dinner).  In between, we'd write - any style, any length - on the topic chosen by each member of the group for her book.  Mine was aging (a current preoccupation).  Other topics included life lessons, relationships, unsung Canadian heroes, and my personal favourite, "as luck would have it..."

As a recovering A type, I need an assignment and a deadline to make time for creativity.  I loved having to write. It inveigled me to write more, for example on this blog. 

I encourage everyone to form a small group and start one of these round robins.  It doesn't have to be writing.  Last year, some of the same people were in an altered book round robin, which was equally inspiring.  We each chose themes for our books, which the participants interpreted in varied ways, using various media (collage, painting, drawing, beading, fibre).  Here are a few examples:

It costs virtually nothing, and requires no special training or talent - just a willingness to express yourself somewhat publicly.  There's all kinds of informal learning that happens along the way.

My group can't wait to reconvene in the fall, this time with another sort of art project to be determined. 

Thursday, 12 May 2011

May 12, 2011 - Gendered Gifts

Wise Daughters carries lots of lovely baby sweaters, onesies, booties, bonnets and blankets, and most are sold as gifts.  Often I hear, "I can't buy the baby a gift yet, I don't know the sex."  And I wonder, why can't you just get the baby whatever you want?  Nearly everything I carry is what I would consider "gender-neutral", meaning neither blue nor pink.  Like the items pictured here. 

But it amazes me how many people are uncomfortable even with colours that are of indeterminate gender.  As if all kids have to be clearly labeled via their wardrobe.  A whole lot of people only want to buy pink for girls and blue for boys; some share that they'd choose something different, but this is what the baby's parents prefer. 

I have to wonder what harm people think - consciously or unconsciously - will come to baby girls who are mistaken for baby boys or vice versa.  What if every infant wore green or orange and people didn't know if they were addressing a boy or a girl?  Then they'd have to ask the kid's name, and the answer might well be "Cranberry" or "Clog" and they'd still be stumped.

There's lots of evidence to suggest gender divisions are getting more pronounced than ever - princesses in this corner, and tough guys in the other.  It's got to be homophobia, or perhaps more precisely a backlash against the relative fluidity of gender and sexual orientation that's come to be accepted among adults (in Canada anyway).  And it sucks.

I feel badly for all the boys whose parents actually dress them entirely in navy blue, grey or brown.  I've encountered shoppers who won't even put a boy in red.  Girls can get away with a lot more, but you can be sure the ones in the plain duds are still going to be in the back row of the class picture.

Wearing a particular colour won't make you gay any more than it will make you good at Scrabble, prone to hives, tone deaf or lactose intolerant. 

Thursday, 28 April 2011

April 28, 2011 - The Sticky Business of Pricing Handmade

I started offering my workshop for crafters called "The Art of Selling" last year, in large measure to address the question of appropriate pricing. There are those makers who would argue you can never charge adequately for handmade, so you might as well either give it away, or underprice. I don't agree.

Some items, such as handknit clothing, are very hard to sell for what they are worth. An adult sweater is a very time-consuming project, and the sad truth is that very few people can afford one. But children's handknits and accessories like hats and mittens are marketable, to the right people and with the right message. That message is about the quality and durability of handmade. The math stands up to inspection: a $50 hat that lasts 10 years is way better value than a $15 hat that lasts two. Handmade will never compete with Walmart, and there is no point even comparing.

I always ask artisans who are at a loss as to how to set prices to do this obvious but often overlooked exercise: decide how much you want to pay yourself per hour, count the hours, add in the materials and overhead costs (ink, paper, phone calls, internet...if you're not sure, just add 20%) and you'll arrive at what you should consider your wholesale price. Unless you are going to sell exclusively person-to-person, there will be mark-ups, whether it's the cost of a booth at a show, or the commission a retailer takes. 

So, if your beautiful handmade whojeeflip takes 90 minutes to make and uses $12 in materials, you need to charge $34 to earn minimum wage. You should be paying yourself more than minimum wage, of course, but it's surprising how many people realize belatedly that they're making under $5/hour. Next, you need to consider whether this whojeeflip, gorgeous as it is, is worth roughly twice that to the consumer. If you don't think anyone will buy it for $68, then you have a few options: see if you can reduce either your time or your materials costs, consider modifying the design, or go back to the drawing board altogether. I made a charming felted reindeer ornament last year; the prototype took me 3 hours, and it was pretty clear I couldn't sell it for upwards of $75. But I kept making them, taking a few shortcuts and simply getting faster with practice, until I could make one in 15 minutes and sell it for $25.

If you underprice, you take several risks. One is that your product will be popular, and you will set yourself up to make virtually no money filling unmanageable orders. Another is that you will create a demand then piss off your customers when you have to jack your prices up. You can always mark down, but it's pretty difficult to mark up. Most importantly, when you underprice, you contribute to the undervaluing of handmade in general. It's like any labour... if somebody is willing to do a job for $10/hour, what compels an employer to pay a living wage?  But if you join a union and nobody agrees to work for less than $20/hour, the work is valued at $20/hour.

I have occasionally turned down work that is too cheap. Sure, I might sell a bunch of whatever-it-is, but I'd be selling short the other artisans in the shop, and myself.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

April 19, 2011, On Hipness

Ever since I went to a live taping of Q last month, I've been thinking about what it is to be hip or a "hipster." Jian Ghomeshi used this term a number of times. I think he was referring to people rendered blase by constant exposure to the latest trends in music, art, fashion or food. I'm not sure if hipsters are meant to lead or follow trends, but I know I don't do either.

I was hip briefly. It lasted about 6 months, in 1982. I was still a nerd, really, in hipster's clothing. The clothing was mostly from my friend Glenn's wardrobe; he was a very snappy dresser. I did all the necessary things - leaving the house at midnight to go dancing, ending up at Fran's for 5 a.m. pancakes, refusing to squish my hard gelled hair under a hat. But flirting with hipness was pretty uncomfortable, if not downright painful. Being one of the cool kids is hard work, and almost inevitably requires camouflaging oneself.

One of the great pleasures of being middle-aged is that it pretty much precludes being hip in any way, shape or form. Instead of being hip, I can be enthusiastic, outraged, outrageous, silly and comfortable. I'm letting go of the impulse to give a shit what anybody thinks of my point of view or behaviour, much less my appearance. And I've got no need to go anywhere where the drinks are overpriced, the lighting is too dim to read the menu, the music is too loud to hear your companion, and you're (ironically) invisible if you're bigger than a size zero.

Shari Graydon has just put together an anthology on aging, called I Feel Great about my Hands, in which the indomitable Mary Walsh describes herself as a "brassy bit of aging crumpet on the slippery slope side of fifty-five". You can read her hilarious piece, published in the Toronto Star by clicking here.  Given the choice between hip and Marg Delahunty, I'll take Marg!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

April 12, 2011 - Puppets (Battery Not Required)

Wise Daughters is experiencing a happy and unusual serge in sales of popcorn monster puppets, made by local puppeteer Joel Brubacher of Banjo Puppets.  It seems to have started with a neighbourhood birthday party about a month ago.  The young guests admired the birthday girl's very appealing puppet, and soon a few had also acquired them.  They took them to the local school and daycare, and pretty soon a fad was born. I've sold about 30 since, and it's been interesting, for a number of reasons.

The first is that some parents are expressing their genuine pleasure that their kids want a locally handmade toy, not the latest plastic piece of crap.  Some have even taken the opportunity to share with their kids the concept of a carbon footprint.  These puppets come to Wise Daughters by bicycle, from about 6 blocks away.  If ever there was a teachable moment about sustainability, this is it.

These same parents do not balk at the $19 price, understanding that handmade = labour intensive.  Others, however, do a little ranting.  I understand that $19 is a lot of money for a lot of parents, and absolutely respect those who say "no" or better yet, "You'll have to save up for that."  Some grown-ups have wondered aloud why Joel doesn't just have them manufactured offshore somewhere.  This is also a teachable moment, but these are my customers, not my students, so I have to tread carefully.  I explain that a mass-produced version would not and could not be the same as the lovingly handmade one - not in the quality of the materials nor in the craftspersonship.  And I try to work in a mention of the merits of local goods, without sounding too much like a self-righteous hippie. 

But the most interesting aspect of this puppet fad is the discussion around what this product "does".  A dad turned it around and around in his hand today, asking his son: "But what does it do?"  I'm not suprised when kids look for the "on" switch, but I kind of expect adults to know that a puppet is operated by the imagination. 

Friday, 8 April 2011

April 8, 2011 - It's a Mystery

Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman: How?
Philip Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.

I used to run a theatre program for homeless youth.  The theatre director had this quote from Shakespeare in Love  (and film stills from the scene) on his wall.  It pretty much sums up not only theatre, but non-profit work, and the world of small business.  It would seem my career choices reflect a lot of blind faith on my part.

I never really know if things will, in fact, turn out well.  Plenty of things in my life have turned out really badly, entirely by chance. I don’t necessarily expect or assume that things will turn out either well or badly, but I guess I choose not to worry too much about it.  As a recovering perfectionist, what I do know is that worry is useless.  So is guilt.  You can’t learn anything by worrying or feeling guilty, so why bother?  Regret is different; you can learn from regret and do things differently the next time.  But most of what we worry about never comes to pass anyway, while much worse things happen unexpectedly.  Better to be able to cope in a real crisis than prepare for an imaginary one.  And guilt is a terrible motivation for anything; acting out of guilt will almost certainly not turn out well.

In the end, it’s a mystery.  Why spoil it?