A Rocky Start, Blog #4: Choosing a Home for the Particles

Confession:  Three months ago, I had no idea what Etsy was.

I’d never even heard the name.

I’m not even sure how I first learned of it, but after I figured out what Etsy was, I got very excited.  Not only was this a potential place to sell my wares, but it was the coolest shopping place I’d been in since…since…since…well, it may just be the very coolest shopping site I’ve ever been to.  I wish I had some (any!) disposable income at the moment, for I have a very strong inkling I’d be spending the vast majority of it on Etsy wares.

As a seller, it also excited me, as it was cheaper and prettier to look at than Ebay, and it had that nice “homespun” vibe that gives the place its oeuvre.  I just spent 12 years living in a place where “handmade” and “sustainable” were everyday bywords on the street, so this kind of atmosphere felt very homey to me.

Now, you may wonder why I was comparing Ebay to Etsy.  Well, as an online seller, I had only my direct-with-the-buyer experiences (from posting things to specific mailing lists) and my years of Ebay experience to go on.  I had actually seen a couple of wonderful artisans doing really well with bead-strung jewelry on Ebay.  Here are a couple of examples that made me believe I could do this myself:

http://stores.shop.ebay.com/Stone-Savvy – Another gemstone artisan like myself, but man, does she have a good eye for design!

http://shop.ebay.com/merchant/robintheraven – She has a very specific “brand” in her style, and it really works for her.  This is a good model for jewelry-makers, IMO.

You can check out a seller’s “completed listings” to see how well they’re selling.

Now, your first reaction may be:  “But they could get more money on Etsy!”

And that may be true–RobintheRaven sells her items under value, IMO, although as she builds a reputation, her auction prices may go up accordingly.  And Stone-Savvy was selling necklaces in the $30-40 range when I found her in January.  Then in February, a fluorite necklace of hers bid up to over $80–and the rest of her prices went up accordingly.  So Ebay isn’t all about “cheap,” depending on what you sell and how well you’ve established your reputation.

So why did I choose Etsy instead?

Truthfully, I haven’t given up on the notion that I may still sell some of my jewelry on Ebay or elsewhere someday, and I fully intend to have my own dot-com biz once my kids are both in school.  But for now, Etsy is my shop home.  Here are my main reasons:

Reason #1:  Price

Yes, Etsy is cheaper.  For startup businesses, this is important.  The cost is somewhat offset by the amount of time most sellers have to spend in marketing (especially the vastly oversaturated Etsy horde of jewelry artisans…alas!), so I suppose the question one has to ask oneself is whether it’s more important to save time or money.  Ebay sellers need little marketing to get their product found, although–and this is a big but–they also don’t get the typical “handmade item buyer” who will frequent Etsy.  Typical Ebay buyers simply don’t tend to value the special-ness of handmade items as much as Etsy buyers might.  Which kind of ties in with…

Reason #2:  Layout

The shop pages on Etsy are clean and attractive and easy to navigate.  To be sure, you have to design a good shop banner and work hard on taking good “Etsy-worthy” photographs, but those are good skills for a craft-business owner to have anyway, right?  Ebay is messy and cheap-looking no matter how nicely you design your store.  And honestly?  I didn’t go with Artfire because I find their layout confusing and artistically hodge-podgy.  Whoever works on Etsy’s layout and branding has a good thing goin’ on.

Reason #3:  Community

This is probably the #1 reason to sell Etsy for most folks:  It really is entering into a community.  Not only can you get e-mail newsletters on featured sellers, promotion, shop improvements, tech issues, and everything else you can imagine, but you have at your disposal an incredibly thriving forum community where a good number of the 100,000+ Etsy sellers communicate about various issues.  Like any online “family,” there are some disagreements from time to time, but generally, everyone maintains their civility, if not resorting to downright warmth.  If touchy-feely isn’t your cup of tea, you can still sell on Etsy and not take part in the community.  But for me, it reminds me I’m not dealing with a corporation, which is always a good thing.

Reason #4:  Ease

I still question whether Etsy is the right place for my items.  It seems that any jewelry that isn’t trendy or Victorian or steampunk by nature tends to struggle for sales.  (Sooner or later I hope to have enough knowledge to write a “Where to sell your wares” blog…but not yet.)  Which means, of course, that I have to go off-site to fish for people to come buy my items.  I won’t say Etsy is easy when it comes to marketing–far from it (this is a whole blog unto itself–watch for it).  But any new business that needs to grow into its potential requires marketing, and keeping my shop at Etsy is still easier than starting my own dot-com and having to deal with my own page layout, shopping cart, payments, and what-not.  That day will come, but for now, I’m just as glad to park my Particles at Etsy and let them handle the grunt work.  I’ll handle the beads.

Reason #5:  I just like the place!

It truly bothers me that Etsy isn’t a household name, that I had to start researching my startup business idea to even find it, and then only tangentially–not because it ranks high in Google searches or gets passed word-of-mouse on Digg or Facebook.  These truths disturb me greatly, not just because I want the benefit of selling on a high-profile site, but because everyone needs to know about this great shopping opportunity!  I have a feeling that, even if I choose to move my shop elsewhere in the future, I will remain an active member of the Etsy forums, and I will still link to Etsy sellers on Twitter and Facebook and my forums whenever I can.  It’s an initiative I believe in, and I hope that they can manage to keep abreast of their amazing growth that is sure to come.

I’ll add one more note about Artfire and other artisan-love sites:  I don’t know enough about them to fully appreciate them yet, but I’m sure that when I’m in the market to shop once more, I may even strike out beyond the borders of Etsy-land and take full advantage of all the opportunities that abound for those who love handmade.  In the meantime, I’ll be over at Etsy…come visit sometime.

E-mail me with questions, tales to share, LOLCats, or whatever strikes your fancy.  I’ll see you next time with Yet Another Exciting Episode of….JoolryNoob!

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A Rocky Start, Blog #3: Running the Business…before it runs you

So I sat, surrounded by a sea of beads, beaming with artistic rapture, ready to begin my creative journey.  It was a heady rush.

But no worries–I came back to earth with a thud when I sat down at my computer to tally the expenses of my venture.

“Entreprenuerial rapture” carried me through the early months of the business side of things, but I admit:  The biz has gotten boring, and I’m behind on my accounting.  So it occurs to me perhaps I’m the wrong person to give tips on starting a jewelry business, but here are some of my early headaches and how I dealt with them.  Hopefully some can benefit–and even better, add to the list of “things not to do” and/or “things to do.”

First off, some people seem to have the attitude of “Why even bother keeping records?  I hardly make any money.”  And technically, that’s true–my understanding is that we don’t absolutely have to report income on our business until it clears $400 profit in a single year.  So here’s my logic:  If I keep track of every single expense I put into the business, be it in a spreadsheet or in Quickbooks or what have you, I can absolutely prove (to theoretical future IRS agents) that have made no profit and will make no profit for a long time to come.  Otherwise, I’m potentially guilty of cheating the tax system, and…I’d rather not.

So the first thing I did was make a Spreadsheet and list every single thing I’d bought for the business, down to post-it notes and packing tape.  I call it “Bead Inventory,” even though that’s not precisely accurate anymore.  In this spread sheet, I enter the item, the cost, the source (where I bought it from), and–if it’s a consumable and dividable item like 16 inches of beads or 30 yards of wire, I calculate a per-item/per-inch cost in the final column.

And yes, I have a “grand total” cell at the bottom of the sheet, but I haven’t looked at it in months.  Far too depressing.

If you don’t know how to use spreadsheets, there are tutorials online, and if you can’t afford Microsoft Office, try NeoOffice or OpenOffice, which can be downloaded for free and do exactly the same things and create exactly the same file types.  Or you can keep track of things in a notebook, or in a simple table on graph paper, or what have you–my point being, keep track.  If you really want to make a business of it, now or later, you really have to.  I haven’t yet tried Quickbooks but I hear good things about it.  That’s on my to-do list.

Next, I made a few more spreadsheets to keep track of the cost of each item I make.  That way, I have a quick “supplies cost” reference when pricing items or attempting to calculate profit,  which of course, doesn’t account for my time and effort…but how much does the IRS care about those, anyway?  I read a good basic book about running a jewelry-making business (Jewelry Making for Fun & Profit by Lynda Musante), and in the book she says that since we are self-employed, part of our monthly expenses have to be paying our own wages.  And if I did that, I’d probably never turn a profit!  😛  So for now, I’m not even bothering with that.  Another to-do list item when business picks up in earnest.

But yes–keep track of every little tube of pencil lead that you’re going to use for your business.  And don’t forget the shipping costs!  I charge for the envelopes & bubble wrap, zippie bags, tape, and about 15 cents for my time to pack it.  (Clearly, I’m running a sweatshop, here.)

So if I’m sittin’ pretty on all these spreadsheets, you might wonder, what were my “mistakes” I spoke of earlier?  Well, here’s the nutshell versions:

1)  Organize!  and other useful -izes

I have my inventory list, all well and good.  But in the beginning, I just threw everything on there without any sort of organization.  Big mistake, when it came time to calculate costs of making items.  “Now, where were those 5mm copper daisy spacers, again??”  So describe your items using a consistent system.  I start out with the actual thing: “spacer bead,” “earring hook” or the specific name of the stone, then add on materials, sizes, styles, etc., after that.  It makes it easy to categorize them and alphabetize them if you’re consistent with the way you describe the items you buy.

Which leads to:  Categorize your items and alphabetize them within categories.  This is easy to do in spreadsheets simply by adding blank rows in between your category sections and putting a new heading at the top of each section.  In my spreadsheet, to use an example, I have sections broken down thusly:  gemstone beads (includes any beads that aren’t metal), spacer beads & caps, findings, supplies (consumable and non-consumable), and tools/misc.  Then everything inside each section is alphabetical.  It’s the only way I can find items I’m looking for, now that my inventory has gone (way) beyond that initial $400 purchase.

2)  If you leave receipts around idle, they begin to multiply…

Yeah.  I know.  For now, I just jam them into a manilla envelope and hope for the best.  I know that someday when I’m really a “Business” per se (as in, making a profit of any kind), I will need to file them according to product type or date or something more helpful.  So I’m creating yet another future headache for myself.  Perhaps you’d like to start ahead of the game and organize them logically from the start.  Also:  Some people don’t send receipts or invoices with their products, so in that case, I’d suggest printing out your shopping cart or confirmation e-mail from that seller to serve in place of a receipt.

3)  Is an EIN something German?

Call the IRS and get a tax i.d. number (or Employer Identification Number) when you can.  I do NOT recommend going through an online service, as they all charge you for the privilege of inducing your headache, when you could simply call the nice IRS people and get one for free.  You’ll need one if you have to file sales tax for in-state sales (I haven’t had to deal with that yet, thankfully) and you can also use them at bead shows and for certain online vendors to get the wholesale rate.

My experience was a headache-inducer, as I didn’t realize I didn’t have to use an online service and pay money for the thing, nor did I realize that, because we hired a nanny for part of the year last year and had to pay income taxes for her, we already had one.  Don’t be confused by their confusing questions:  You are considered a “business entity” when you apply for a tax i.d. number.  Silly me, I’d thought I was a person and my business was the entity, but no.  If you have ever gotten a tax i.d. using your social security number before, that one is the one you’ll use for your business as well.

4)  Have a process

Once I finish a piece, the first step is, of course, photography.  Etsy is a harsh mistress when it comes to photographing your work!  But after that, the bookkeeping begins:   I take the item to my computer and count the parts until I’ve calculated the cost of the item and input everything into the spreadsheet, where it is assigned an item number.  If I’m really smart and my son is asleep, I’ll also write my Etsy description at that time (see below for more on this) so I can measure everything and have it good to go when my photos are resized and I’m ready to list.  Then it goes into a zippie bag with the item number from the spreadsheet written on the outside.

One horrible idea:  Taking everything out of bags to photograph them at once.  That just sent me back to the spreadsheet to make sure everything went back into its proper baggie.  Ugh.  It might be better to hang little price tags on things with their item numbers instead, although that might mess up the photos, too.  So yeah…photos first in any case.

That’s my process, at least, and I’m sure it will be tweaked and improved as I go along and I build up a larger inventory to keep track of.  I do intend to get Quickbooks sooner or later and give that a try–I still haven’t figured out a good way to keep track of each item’s statistics as I sell them (I need to learn to make a database where I can write each item’s description, its cost to make, its sale price and date of sale, cost of shipping, etc., but who has time for the learning curve?  But that’s another blog entirely…).

5)  Keep your item details in a text file for easy reference.

Let’s say Etsy or Artfire has a major crash and all your items are de-listed and the listing details lost.  You now have to re-write all your item descriptions, right?  Well, I know that I’m a moron when it comes to remembering all the things I need to remember, so i started out typing all my item descriptions (and the other schpiel that goes into my listings) into a text file, where I can easily copy and paste them when doing my listings.  This also can be a time-saver, since I might have extra time to write the descriptions on a day when I don’t want to list everything I’m describing.

And one more thing everyone who uses a computer should do:

6)  Backup Backup Backup!!!

You’ve created all these wonderful pictures, descriptions, and spreadsheets now, right?  Can a catastrophic hard-drive failure be far behind??  It doesn’t cost a whole lot to get an external USB hard-drive and back up your important files every couple of days.  I’d also suggest getting a flash drive to keep things on when you might need to transport them, and getting a free web mail account like gmail or yahoo, where you can e-mail yourself files as attachments and leave them there as yet another form of backup.  Don’t have just one way to back up your files; have several.  Send your pics to Flickr and Photobucket (you can set them to private if you don’t want folks to peep at them).  There are lots of ways to store your important files off-site as well as having an on-site backup.  Save save save!

I think that’s all my tips for now.  I’m sure I’ll think of more–there’s always room for more bloggins, right?  Send me your comments, critiques, tips, links, horror stories, success stories, and dirty jokes!  particlesofstone@yahoo.com

Next time:  Tumblin’ Down the Rabbit-Hole:  Entering the Etsy Arena

A Rocky Start, Blog #2: A Noob’s Guide to Buying Beads ‘n’ Things

Okay, so having received the official blessing and some start-up cash from the family coffers and my own Ebay fund, I hit the web, heart a-flutter, finger tensely-sprung in “order” mode and waiting to pounce on a bargain.

I’ll be the first to admit it:  My first few attempts at supply-purchasing were…less than stellar.

Not to be too Eeyore about it:  I did find some gorgeous beads.  Several of the things currently in my shop are still from those first couple of shipments.

Even with $400 or so in my metaphorical pocket, I knew it would go fast, so I bargain-hunted like Scrooge’s bloodhound.  I bought clearance-sale pearls, ebay-lot toggle clasps, and “A-Grade beads at wholesale prices!”  (One of the things in that phrase was not true…can you guess which one?)

So, in an effort to share the wealth with fellow joolrynoobs, here are some of my mistakes, and what I might do differently If I Had Known Then What I Know Now:

Bead-Buying Lesson #1:  You get what you pay for.

That website with A-grade strands at wholesale prices?  Well, their prices are stellar–everything pretty much between $3 and $9 for 15-inch gemstone strands.  It’s the A-grade part that wasn’t quite true.  There were some beauteous beads to be found among those strands, it’s true, but I also had to ditch an uncomfortable number of them into the “wastage” bin–probably 4 to 6 per strand, on average.  Ah, well…live and learn.  In the long run, it may have been a bit better to get cheaper strands of this sort, even with the wastage, in the beginning, because it enabled me to get a greater variety than buying true A-grades would have done, my budget considered.  And speaking of variety….

Bead-Buying Lesson #2:  Do you have an egg fetish, or what?

That particular website mentioned above also hasn’t got a great variety of shapes.  Personally, I’m attracted to ovals and pillows, particularly for swirly/mottled jaspers and such, because it really shows off the patterns in the stones.  Round beads, I think, are better for monochrome or the finely-patterned.  Interestingly-shaped beads good for monochromes in bright colors.  But of course, these were opinions not yet formed when I made my first orders, right?  So ovals and ovals and more ovals, and a few squares.  Yes, I ordered some rounds, and I even got some things absolutely right (Picasso Jasper and Imperial Turquoise require big beads–10mm minimum–to look their best, for instance).  But overall, I had way too many ovals and squares and most definitely not enough of anything else.  As my mother-in-law tactfully put it, “You should try making things with some other beads, if you have them.”  And in the same vein, we have…

Bead-Buying Lesson #3:  Rainbows are Pretty.

Once again, as with shape, I ordered what attracted my own eye rather than my “business acumen” eye (if I indeed have one…I’m working on it) and ended up with a lot of brown and grey.  Brown and grey are nice, but…yeah.  Color.  I forgot to order color.  Oh, and the other problem was–when I did order color….

Bead-Buying Lesson #4:  How can there be so many different shades of green??

…many of them didn’t match anything, and I ended up having to buy more things that matched.  And I also forgot to…

Bead-Buying Lesson #5:  Space it!

What I really wanted, you know, were Bali and Thai spacers, but right off the bat, all I could afford were plated and copper rounds and daisies.  I didn’t want to overuse them, so I barely bought any, and I quickly came to realize that many bead-strings just don’t quite look complete without a little metal tossed in.  So let’s not forget the spacers.  And they really shouldn’t all be rounds, either.  Alas.  Oh, AND…one more really superimportant thing that I forgot?

Bead-Buying Lesson #6:  The Key to Finding(s) Yourself

It’s easy to get so swept up in buying the pretty rocks that you forget you have to have stuff to hold them together.  And even if you do remember, it’s difficult to know how much to buy–very few of the tutorial websites give you much help on this.  I had, of course, ordered some headpins and clasps and such, but I had limited myself to what I could afford, and only small amounts of each, so I naturally ran out pretty quickly.  Clasps, in particular, posed a problem.  They tend to be expensive no matter what you do, and I had thought I could simply limit myself to making mostly earrings.  Not very realistic unless I want earrings to be the main focus of my shop (which I don’t).  So yeah…findings.  Make sure you have plenty.

All of these Rookie Mistakes led to many, many extra orders from various and sundry shops hither & yon–many of which I wouldn’t have had to make if I’d just had a really good plan to begin with.  So here are my suggestions for the Startup Purchase:

-Start with a plan of several real Project Ideas.  Not only does this force you to buy the findings, supplies, and spacers you will actually need rather than whatever happens to be on clearance at Verna and Mo’s Bead Shoppe, but it will also give you a color scheme to follow instead of just buying random Pretty Beads that don’t go together.  I started with my own ideas, but jewelry-making books and magazines (as well as downloadable pdf’s from the web) are good sources of ideas as well.

-Take some time to figure out the requisite basic supply needs.  I thought, for instance, i wouldn’t need headpins longer than 1.5 inches, so that’s all I bought in the beginning.  But when I sat with 25mm oval beads in my hand, wanting to make earrings, I realized (as I have repeatedly realized for the past four months), “I need to make another order, dammit!”  So diversify.  Buy headpins of various size, clasps of various styles, crimp beads and crimp tubes, both open and closed jump rings in many sizes, and mix up your metals.  If you put all your eggs in one basket, you’re going to have a basket full of the same damn eggs over and over again.  Trust me.

-After you’ve laid in your basic tools, supplies, and findings…then, and only then, should you shop for actual beads.  I know–I really, really know–that that’s where you want to start.  But believe me, it only leads down the road of “I Can’t Make That!” and “I Have To Order More ____!”  And one more thing on that same note:

-Order beads as if you were planning a wardrobe.  Make lists or charts of the colors, shapes, sizes and styles you want to buy so that you have as wide–but as complementary–a variety as you can afford.  I personally found that 3mm and 4mm beads (no matter the shape) work nicely as spacers and some of them really do match almost anything.  If you can buy the beads in person, do it, and if you have to buy online, get recommendations for reputable sellers.  I can provide some recs if you e-mail me, though I haven’t used as many different vendors as I’d like…at least, not yet.

A few things, I did get right.  I only bought one strand of each bead in the beginning.  This not only creates a wider variety of combinations for you to build on, but it also ensures that you’re not investing too much in a particular bead-seller until you know whether they provide a good product.  I contained my purchases to sellers in the U.S. and Canada (no matter how tempting those cheap Hong Kong sellers on ebay may seem–it is the land of the pirated product, after all).  I bought as much sterling as I could initially afford (which, admittedly, wasn’t much).  And I found a few ebay sellers who show pictures of the actual bead strand they are selling rather than a “it’s just like this one!” picture.

Nice to know I didn’t screw up completely.  🙂

However, without mistakes, we would never learn, and I have learned much in these past few months.  I hope that my mistakes can be your gain as well.  And if you have any great Rookie Tips or Horror Stories, post them in the comments or pass them along in e-mail and I’ll blog them!  particlesofstone@yahoo.com

Next time:  How to Manage Your Management in Ten Easy Mistakes.  (More or less.)