In the winter of 2012 I was facing a pivotal time in my life. With just two more semesters of college left ahead of me, I was forced to face the pressing question of exactly how I was going to make my way in the world. As a college student at Western Michigan University, I had stubbornly pursued my passions instead of choosing a so-called “safe” career path. I was four years into my Bachelors of Fine Arts degree program in Art Education with a studio emphasis in Metals/Jewelry, about to begin two full semesters of (unpaid) student teaching.
For most people in my position, the answer is easy. Finish student teaching, then get a job as an art teacher. Substitute in the meantime if you have to. For me, however, it was never that simple. I was searching for a different path, one that I would ultimately end up making for myself.
While I was beginning to address this question in my own life, my mom was facing a similar crisis. She had recently lost her bank job in the wake of the recession. Instead of looking for employment, I hoped to inspire her to start her own artistic business. In the winter of 2012 I bought Craft, Inc: The Ultimate Guide to Turning Your Creative Hobby into a Successful Business, by Meg Mateo Ilasco.
Before giving the book to her for Christmas I read it from cover to cover. I had never had anyone approach the question of how to make a living via art in such a straightforward way. After giving it to mother, I bought myself a copy. I was inspired- obsessed. Questions constantly raced through my mind, and I spent the next few months seeking answers to them.
Is it possible? Could I actually make a living doing something I loved? What are the practical steps needed to get something like that off the ground?
Thankfully, Meg's book helped break down the required steps for an endeavor like this. I needed a name, a concept, something to sell, and to get my paperwork in order with the city, state, and feds. The legal steps no longer seemed like an impossible challenge, just a few hoops to jump through and paperwork to fill out.
No longer daunting, the possibility seemed to expand. I started to talk to others, including my internship mentor teacher, who had a successful run with a creative business. I started to believe that it was possible. It was the creative aspect that nagged at me.
What kind of business would it be? What would I sell?
In some ways, this was obvious. I was both an aspiring art teacher and a metalsmith. I was obsessed with metals, and loved the long hours in the studio, tediously handcrafting elaborate works of wearable art that took weeks to dream up and create. That was it, right there. I can dream things up, and then make them real. Not just real, but also permanent, lasting longer than I will.
I had skills in a medium that had obvious potential to be valuable to myself and others. These days, it's a rare skill. To that point, most of my making was geared toward wearable art as jewelry. Jewelry became the obvious, yet still not-so-obvious answer, as it led to a few more challenging questions.
What would be my voice? What would my jewelry look like? How would I brand myself?
These were perhaps the hardest questions to face. And looking back, I wish I had put a little less pressure on myself to find the right answer, and just encouraged myself to make as much as possible instead. If only I had treated myself the way I treated my student artists- with encouragement, emphasizing experimentation and growth, and appreciating the process as much as the product. I didn't. I wanted to have all the answers before I had found my way. I was really hard on myself. I didn't have answers to these questions.
I had a few things I really loved- materials like sterling silver and copper, hand fabrication techniques like hand cutting with a jeweler's saw and soldering, and a strong urge to make jewelry with unique character. These things greatly influenced the original identity of my brand. My studio was equipped with only a few basic tools, like a tiny handheld butane torch, which greatly limited the scale at which I could work. When I first opened up shop, in July of 2013, six months after reading Craft, Inc., it was with eight original sterling silver earring designs (none of which are still part of the brand).
Shortly after opening up shop we were at a park, and I was sketching out jewelry designs, inspired and hoping to drastically expand the shop and make a sale. I was playing with ring ideas, and had an insight for an open bypass ring with Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas.
Looking back, my sketch of that ring just looks like a scribble, but I saw it so clearly in my mind. Mixed metals, round band, hand cut peninsulas. It was a design that played on all my strengths and passions- attention to detail and the value and personality of hand cut metal, playing with mixed metals, soldering on a small enough scale to work with my tiny torch, connecting to ideas of identity and place [themes that had been strong in my fine art practice], an open ring band to allow for some size flexibility, and thus an easier ability to sell online- it was perfect. I ran with it. I expanded the idea, played off variations of it, experimented from there.
A few weeks later, the shop was full of rings. I received an inquiry from a local art store, Amy Zane Store and Studio, who wanted to carry my work, and to this day remains one of my most treasured partnerships. Someone- and someone who mattered in the world of selling art- was interested in what I was doing. It meant the world to me. And shortly thereafter, I had my first sale. And then another. The brand started to take on its own identity.
Would my jewelry sell? How would I sell it? Where? Online? In person?
The first place I opened shop was online through Etsy. The book advocated this platform as a natural option for a handmade business like what I had in mind. Within a curated platform, Etsy has a great deal of internal traffic seeking unique goods that is unmatched by other options, and is by far the easiest to establish a creative business on.
I also moved forward with my partnership with Amy Zane, which forced me to get up to speed quickly about the ins and outs of wholesale and consignment. After our first holiday season on Etsy, I worked endlessly to open up my own independent website (yes, this one! Although it has gone through many revisions at this point), and then ventured into our own live sales at art shows.
This evolution took so much time, energy, and investment, and it involved constant evaluation, learning, and growth. As we expanded, the brand matured into something so much bigger than I could have imagined at the beginning.
How will this all work financially? How can you start a business without a significant investment? How do you put a price tag on the things you make?
The financial questions were endlessly daunting. Part of my crisis in seeking this path is that I wanted to have an artistic business, wanted to be self employed, but had absolutely no investment to get it off the ground. I had no backers, no savings, no ability to hire help.
When I finally did open shop in the summer of 2013, I had finished my first semester of my internship, but had another to complete in the fall. That means working full time as a teacher and paying full tuition. With the summer in between these semesters, I was faced with the question of, do I get some dead-end job, if I can even find one, and try to save up a few scraps?
I decided to take a leap of faith instead. At the time, we had just $500 in the bank, and no significant source of income. I took $150 of that and bought a few basic branding tools: packaging, custom stamps for the brand, business cards, shipping envelopes, and a tiny bit of silver, and stretched that as far as I could.
Looking back, it was a huge risk, and maybe a little unwise. But it worked. We made it back, and bit by bit, tool by tool, I built this studio and this brand.
The other side of the financial question is just as painstaking. It's one thing to be able to make money from the things you make, but putting a value to these things is an immense challenge.
What to account for, what to leave out. How much of your time is just invested in growing the business in general, and how much is time you are actually paid for? How much is my time worth? Are people willing to pay a fair value for my labor? What is fair?
One question led to many, and they are questions that we still ask today. We are constantly revisiting prices, calling our thinking into question, and making changes. Finding the right price isn't easy.
I opened LettersToSarah Metalsmithing on June 13, 2013. After nearly five years in business we have some clarity on these questions, and the problems and considerations that arise when growing a business. We will continue to dive deeper into the fundamentals of starting a business. This includes the legal side to starting a business, developing your brand, getting started with online and in-person sales, and how to price your work.