Saturday, March 28, 2009

Speech For Maine Women's Fund Luncheon

I was invited to speak at a Maine Women's Fund Luncheon in Bangor, Maine Friday, March 27. The group asked me to give an overview of my business and identify a current challenge. I chose "building local visibility" as my challenge. Though I spoke from notes, I did have a prepared speech and share that with you here.

Jane Searles, Regional Manager of Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community gave the introduction.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to the Maine Women's Fund and take advantage of this great opportunity to receive feedback from the group.

My challenge is "visibility." I mention this at the beginning of my talk to give you plenty of time to think about what visibility might mean to each of you and to frame visibility in the context of the past, present and future goals of my business.

I admit to being a reluctant entrepreneur (at least initially). Not so much in the idea of owning and operating a business--my dad was a self-employed architect for many years, so I knew that, despite some very real challenges, it could be done. In fact, I remember the day my Dad decided to quit the firm he was working for and strike out on his own. It was a very big deal. He must have been frightened but he did it anyway--going on to remain self-sufficient for many years. I have plenty of product ideas, creativity, a certain amount of flexibility and the self-discipline to work by and for my self. Rather, my reluctance comes in the form of confidence: a hesitancy to fully identify myself as business owner and fabric artist. For a long time, I apologized for it.

I while back, I spent time with my friends and their daughter who was two years old at the time. Hanging around her was a sheer delight and, in particular, I found her use of language insightful.

I am not a parent, so this sweet girl's use of "No" intrigued me. She said it a lot. The simple word "no" seemed to have many meanings. Sometimes, no meant no and she said it emphatically. But, in watching her, I suspect that, more often than not, "No" was a strategy for buying processing time. She said "No" when she needed time to figure out what she really wanted. For example, "Would you like a banana?" "NO!"...Then a few minutes later, "Can I have a banana?" This type of interaction happened over and over.

I admit to seeing this "buying time" behavior in myself. Ever since I decided to transition my hobby into a business, I wanted to focus solely on my fabric art. And, as you will see, for eight years, I essentially said "No" to focusing on what I really wanted to do and spent time doing other things.

These were not wasted years by any means. Everything I did for my business--retail shows, a bit of consignment and wholesale, fabrication services, and sewing lessons--was valuable. In many ways, these activities bought me time and the life experiences I needed to understand and commit to what I wanted. This year, I said "Yes" and turned my full attention to developing the kind of business I want.

I started Sojourn Quilts in November of the year 2000. I did one show that year and cleared, probably $50, but at least I was on my way.

A "sojourn" is a resting place along life's journey," and, initially, I viewed my experiments with quilting and fabric art as a way to relax and channel my energy into something creative. When I showed my work to my family and friends I began realizing the color combinations, themes and techniques I used in my work reached people enough to get some positive feedback...and an occasional sale. With this encouragement I did my first, tentative shows.

Before I talk too much about selling venues, let me back up. This venture really began long before Sojourn Quilts "materialized." (pun intended!!)

My formal training is in education. I have a dual Bachelor's Degree in Elementary Education and Speech/Language Corrections from the University of Maine at Farmington and a Master's Degree in Education from the University of New England.

Fast forward to 1998: a pivotal year for me. After years of working in the public schools, I found myself disillusioned with my job. Add to this a traumatic experience as yet to be given light and released and I found myself emotionally and physically breaking down. I share this part of my story not to dwell on the past, but to make the entry point for my development as entrepreneur.

I quit my job, gave up my apartment and moved in with my friend (now partner). I think partly because I was in a safe relationship and partly because I could no longer (emotionally) censor being raped in the early '90s, I began experiencing flashbacks and outward symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. It was not a repressed memory in the sense that I blocked out the rape completely. Rather, I was hurt and ashamed and scared to admit the details of my experience and did not want to give voice to it. I now believe, in looking back, I suffered in private long before breaking down in 1998.

It was a strange time that marked a five year long process of reviewing my life, discarding old or unwanted habits and practices, and redefining how it is I want and need to be in the world. This time period, though painful, came with many rewards and revelations, some of which I continue to use in my present life.

Most applicable for today's talk is the realization that all my life experiences--the good, the bad, the ugly--set the stage for a deeper understanding of myself and an ability to take better, more educated risks; the kind of risks required to be successful in business.

As an aside, I saw a cartoon one time where Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet were charged with watching a neighborhood dog while the family leaves for the day. Of course, the dog escapes and the entire show focuses on how the two creatures recapture the dog before the family arrives back home. It turns out that Piglet saves the day. Winnie-the-Pooh congratulates him and asks how it is that someone so small could act so brave. Piglet says, "I didn't mean to be brave, it just happened when I panicked!" (I just LOVE that!).

During this time, I used up all my savings and needed to find a way to re-enter the workforce in a way that allowed me the flexibility to continue healing and to work unusual hours. I started taking business related workshops, primarily through Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community, that helped me clarify my values, learn some assertiveness skills, set some financial goals, learn more about starting a business, and, eventually develop a business plan. All free to me, by the way. I couldn't have participated otherwise.

I have a lifetime interest in art and other creative endeavors, though I have very little formal training. I took some painting lessons as a kid until the teacher, in an attempt to show me something about perspective, made slash marks in paint across the piece I was working on. It was a seagull sitting on the end of a wharf. I can see the picture plain as day in my mind's eye, though it was probably 35 years ago or more. I never forgot that lesson. As an adult, I appreciate the teacher's intent to show me a skill I did not have at the time, but as a kid, I thought with or without perspective, the painting was mine and I resented her mucking up my picture. I quit the art lessons and, from then on read lots of books about art and artists instead.

I give my parents and grandparents, too, credit for exposing me to all kinds of arts and crafts--macrame, caning chairs, painting, model railroading and rockets, decoupage, card making, knitting, crochet. My mom is an excellent seamstress, though, ironically, I did not take up sewing in any serious way until about ten years ago. A friend and I were in the craft store and she held up a magazine with a miniature quilt on the front. She said, "I think you could do that." I shrugged, said okay, tried it and, though I continue to love all kinds of art, fell in love with fabric. The textures, the colors, the expansiveness of textile, hold within it continuous surprises and delights for me.

I started with mostly poster board sized wall hangings. I added soft sculptured art lobsters as a way to represent Maine and honor the people and lifestyle here. Up until recently, the lobsters were my most frequent sellers. However, with the 2/10/2009 passing of the new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act that regulates lead and phthalate levels in children's products, I voluntarily pulled them from my shops until I can find out more about the law and testing requirements. (The CPSIA is a whole other topic that is affecting small business owners and microentrepreneurs--much of it adversely--but I will not go into it here).

By luck and by circumstance, I am returning to small art, as you can see by the ACEOs I brought today. ACEO stands for Art Cards, Editions and Originals, and, similar to baseball cards, these original pieces of art are collected by people from all over the world. The only rule for ACEOs is that they be 2.5 inches (6.4cm) by 3.5 inches (8.9cm) in size. They come as paintings, limited edition prints, clay, wood, glass, fabric--you name it. They are billed as "affordable art," though some of them go for hundreds of dollars, given the right artist and customer base.

I became aware of ACEOs about a year ago, made a few and got hooked. I use primarily thrift store and recycled fabrics for the fronts and, to my knowledge, all the rest of the materials meet the safety guidelines of CPSIA. Since fabric and plastic storage sleeves do not play well together (the fabric needs to breathe, otherwise, it gets moldy), I started making my own paper envelopes to put them in as well.

I fell in love with working small when I learned Ukrainian egg decorating or Pysanky from my college roommate. For those of you unfamiliar with decorating eggs this way--it is a cumulative technique where you alternately draw on an eggshell and beeswax and dip the egg in wet dyes. At the end of the process, the beeswax is melted off and the colors are revealed underneath. Pure magic!

I love the whole thing--the smell of the beeswax as it melts, the primitive tools, the colors and symbols, the sense of history, creativity and nostalgia that comes with decorating an egg this way. I spent weekends with my Ukrainian roommate learning this craft at her parents' home--with her father telling family stories (he learned from his mother, she from hers and so on) and my roommate's mother cooking wonderful ethnic foods. It was, perhaps, the first time I understood how art could and does tell stories and I try to bring this into my present day artwork.

As part of their tradition, my Ukrainian friends do not sell the Pysanky they make. Rather, they give the gift freely and the "spirit" of the egg with its ornately colored patterns goes to the receiver as a way of passing on good will, celebrating spring and spreading good fortune for the upcoming year. I honor that tradition and do not sell the eggs.

When I discovered ACEOs, however, I felt a sudden connection to the artists and creators in my life. It seemed as if all the art I had done to this point lead to these little pieces of art. I see ACEOs as a way to honor some of the colors, symbols and memories of the people who have influenced me on my journey.

Based on a lot of experimenting with selling venues, I decided my favorite seller-buyer interaction is one of direct sales. I like knowing who my customers are and building one-on-one relationships with them

In 2006, I opened an online shop at Etsy is like a virtual mall: a host site for thousands of individual shop owners. I like Etsy because its primary focus is on handmade products. While Etsy is a true slice of life--with all that entails--I find the majority of shop owners are, if not professional, at least earnest about their desire to make something beautiful and sell handmade, often homemade goods. Likewise, the customers drawn to Etsy are, for the most part, looking also for handmade and homemade products. It is a good fit for me.

To build visibility on Etsy, I joined some Street Teams--virtual shop owner clubs, of sorts, that bring together like-minded individuals: visual artists, quilters, Maine Etsy shop owners and the like. Often, within these Street Teams are planned, joint marketing efforts that bring visibility to the whole group. Through the Street Teams, I am connecting and making friends with people from all over the world. Some of these connections turn to direct sales, though the majority of my sales are from people who find my shop in other ways: word-of-mouth, google searches, blog posts, and other off-site promotions to name a few.

Recently, I opened another shop on 1000Markets to supplement my Etsy shop. This host site is juried and reaches a slightly different market segment than my Etsy shop. I am still building my inventory and, at least for the present, plan to focus on ACEOs. I am interested to see how this venture develops.

I also blog and have a virtual art gallery that taps into the social networking phenomena on the web and increases my overall online visibility. I am a member of Maine Made and other online business directories and all this helps my work be picked up by Google and other search engines.

With so many options online, the trick is to find the sites that are most effective (i.e., bring people into my shops that want to buy my products) and not get sucked into all the Internet has to offer. It can, admittedly, be a time and energy drain and quickly turn counterproductive.

With Internet, I believe it is possible to have a viable home-based business. The new wave of shoppers shop, primarily online and I believe this segment will continue to see growth. After careful consideration, I intend to pursue this as my primary sales venue. In prior years, my other sewing activities supplemented my online shop and provided a steadier income. In a sense, I am starting over in terms of cash flow, but I think within a relatively short time, I will be able to remedy this situation. Perhaps it is like the lottery--paying off just enough to keep me playing--but selling on the internet is a risk I am willing to take.

My question for the group is how to continue selling primarily online and build a local presence at the same time. People from all across the country (and some parts of the world) recognize me and my products, but I am not very well known in my own community.

I am not set up to have customers in my home. Perhaps that will happen in time, but it is not an option at this point.

I have had some items in local shops and galleries. However, this option, also is not ideal. Faced with the current economic climate, shop owners in this area have increased the percentage they take for consignment or wholesale. The costs of owning a brick and mortar store are ever increasing. And, while I understand shop owners' needs to pay their own expenses and make a profit, I find selling directly to my own customers a preferable option.

I am considering other, perhaps, indirect ways to become more involved with and visible to the community.

For example, I volunteer for Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community and am currently co-hosting and online fundraiser with Liz Grandmaison, a local photographer (more information to come). WWC continues to provide me with support as my business grows and the fundraiser gives me an opportunity to give back.

I also co-taught a class last spring called "Steps to Economic Security," and although I felt my teaching skills were a bit rusty, the experience was enjoyable. So, I am considering putting together some workshops to offer locally and/or online.

I enjoy writing as well and, over the past few months, have given this option serious thought. Perhaps, I will turn to writing more...about business...about my experiences with PTSD...about creating personalized fabric art...or the like. On my blog, for example, I interview and write about other artisans and the way they use creativity to understand and overcome life's challenges. The response from interviewees and readers alike has been very favorable. It is rewarding work.

Perhaps there are other ways to build visibility as well: art shows or openings, contests, speaking engagements such as this one, donations to charities and the like. Sometimes, with so many options, I have difficulty choosing a direction.

My priorities as a business owner and fabric artist start with my own physical and emotional well-being and radiate from my my my artwork...and to my business...probably in that order. Hopefully, the framework I outlined here gives you a better understanding of my thought processes as I grow my business and increase my visibility both online and in my own, local community.

I look forward to your questions and feedback.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Note: Following this speech was a lively discussion with the Maine Women's Fund members that I am still processing. I will do a follow-up article soon that reflects some of the ideas presented and how this might affect my business.



Mystic Silks said...


If I would have been part of the audience you were speaking to, after you were finished, I would have been the first on my feet applauding you for the great person you are.

And your quilts are extended creations of your beauty that is within!!



Julie B said...

I wish I could havie heard this beautiful and inspiring speech in person, Janyce. Thank you for sharing it here on your blog. I celebrate the courage, creativity and spirit that make you who you are.

Ilena said...

Bravo! Wonderful & relevant. Thanks for sharing this, both your story and your speech. I too wish I could have been there to hear you.

kimbuktu said...

What a wonderful speech, thanks for sharing it with us, very encouraging. Love the title of your blog, because it's true that we cannot really know someone unless we have walked in their shoes.