Luann Udell / Durable Goods
Ancient artifacts for modern times

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Wednesday, December 11, 2002
Be Careful What You Wish For..... might get it!

This has to be my least-favorite proverb in the world. It sounds like those folktales about fools wasting silly wishes ("The Fisherman’s Wife") and bargains with the devil ("The Monkey’s Paw.") People get their wishes granted, but regret it afterwards. Making wishes is dangerous business, these stories seem to warn us. You can wish for the most wonderful thing in the world and the powers that be will twist it against you. Fairies’ gold turned to dry leaves the morning after.

It takes the very joy out of wishing, doesn’t it? And what a depressing view of the universe! The universe nothing better than to give with one hand and take away with the other. Yow!

Taken another way, though, this proverb is actually excellent advice. Instead of a dour caution, you could see it as an entreaty to think about what is really in your heart. Did you dream big enough? Dreams and wishes can come true, if you know what you really want, then work to create the conditions for them to happen.

When we regret a wish we’ve been granted, it’s often because we unconsciously limited the dream before it left our heart. We down-sized it to increase our chances of getting something. We don’t allow ourselves to dream big, to ask for too much. Because we don’t really believe our wishes can come true.

You can see this limiting process at work when people take their first tentative steps into selling their art or craft. I did it. You’ve probably done it, too. You ask for so little, then when you get it, it’s not enough. Or it's just all wrong.

Years ago, I began to reclaim my artistic self. (I know, it sounds like I picked up my dry cleaning....) I didn’t ask for much at first. I attended a seminar about becoming the artist you were meant to be, and told a roomful of strangers my dream was to make small, wonderful toys—tiny dolls, miniature knitted sheep—that could be held in one’s hand and marveled at. I couldn’t imagine affecting people in a more profound way than to appeal to their sense of playfulness. I didn’t think I had anything deeper or more substantial in me.

I wished I could find a way to sell lots my little toys. Of course, each one took a minimum of two hours to make. And I wanted to make sure they would sell, so I kept the price really low. After doing some very small local craft shows, I got my heart’s desire. A local store requested four dozen sheep, and they wanted them ASAP.

I spent the next two weeks doing nothing but knitting sheep. It was...  Hmmmm...  Let’s just say that knitting sheep—lots of sheep—gets boring fast. At first it was fun. Each sheep was so cute! After five in a row, the joy faltered. After twelve, I never wanted to see another skein of cream-colored yarn again.  At 24, all I could think of was, "24 down, 24 to go." I managed to squeak out all 48. And swore I’d never make another. I kept one or two, because they are so darned cute. And also as a reminder of a lesson learned. Because in addition to all that knitting, I messed up on figuring my wholesale price. I’d simply cut my retail price in half. So I got $5 per sheep. ouch. I probably made less than $2 an hour, after materials.

I didn’t see this granted wish as a disappointment. (Okay, I'll be honest.  At first I did.)  But then I saw it as a blessing. Thank the Creator I hadn’t gotten more orders! I learned production work was not for me and I learned how to establish a decent wholesale price. And I had a couple hundred dollars in my pocket, enough money to finance my next endeavors.

In time, other ideas crossed my path. . Each time I’d think, "Maybe this is the thing that will take off!" They always did—enough to buy more supplies and make my hobby pay for itself—but not in the way I’d hoped.  I followed them til they petered out or grew into something that took me too far away from my heart’s desire

Along the way I learned a lot the process of making work things and selling. I learned how to sell wholesale to retail stores. I learned about signage and display. I learned how to price my work, create a distinctive and original product, locate wholesale sources for supplies. I took my profits and reinvested in my business.

I learned the pros and cons of building a strictly local audience. I learned the limits and potential of advertising. I learned how to promote myself and my work. I taught classes when I could, but learned my heart lay in teaching myself the way to take each new step. Teaching was enjoyable and rewarding, but ultimately distracted me from my own goals.

Finally, I learned what I really wanted, what was truly in my heart. It turns out there was a story there, a story about how my dreams were echoed in the prehistoric artwork from a cave in France. I thought about why this story was important to me, and how I was going to share that story with the world.

I had a focus and a drive I’d never experienced before. Everything I’d learned about business was now focused on getting my story and my art out into the world. When I ran into what seemed like insurmountable difficulties, I solved them through perseverance, research and experimentation. And I loved the entire process, even the parts that drove me crazy. I was learning so much about myself, my art and my business.

Everything began to fall into place. Opportunities lay everywhere, more than I could take on. Doors opened, people appeared in my life, solutions beckoned. I still experience failure, but it doesn’t stop me. It’s a call to evaluate what I really want and whether I’m still on task to achieve it. And I see the presence of something in my life that treasures my creativity, that supports me achieving my dream.

If my true wish had been to sell lots of knitted sheep, there are business models to support that. I could have hired knitters, located a sales rep, done gift shows. But my real wish was to make something totally of myself, so fulfilling and intriguing that I would not tire of the production process; and to make something with such value and power, people would pay a lot to own one. I had a wish big enough to last me a lifetime. That was the right wish to be granted!

Most small business experts say it can take five years to get a new business off the ground. Even the IRS recognizes that it takes that long. Look at what you’re doing. Will you outgrow your current dream? Will you still love it five years from now? If I had been given what I wished for five years earlier, I would have outgrown that dream within six months.

When it seems like nothing you wish for comes true, ask yourself, "Am I dreaming big enough to last a lifetime?"

comment [] 8:57:14 PM    

Thursday, December 05, 2002
Dealing with Failure

A reader saw my story on Meryl Streep (we have *so* much in common!) She commented she has overcome her inner critic from time to time, had some success—and then encounters failure. In one case, resulting in a large financial loss. It stopped her dead in her tracks. How, she asks, do you buffer failure? Is it a sign that we’re heading down the wrong path?

Buffer failure? Embrace it!

No, I’m not crazy. I hate failure as much as the next person. It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t look good, and it usually doesn’t smell very good, either.

But I’ve learned to call it something else. It is now a "life learning experience." Or "an experiment." A "calculated risk." Or "an opportunity/possibility that has been tried, and simply did not pan out." Whatever you called it, you met it, you got through it, and now you have a precious gift. You can decide what you learned from it. And what you learn from it is entirely up to you.

We hear all those stories about Edison trying and discarding 423 different materials before he found one that could successfully be used as a filament in his electric light bulbs. Supposedly, he would say, "I didn’t fail—I found 423 things that didn’t work!" In reality, I doubt he was that chipper at trial #218. I’m sure he had some choice words.

But the important thing to remember is, it wasn’t a failure. It was a process. He didn’t take each failure as a "sign" he should not continue. He took it as a challenge, an opportunity to explore new possibilities.

There’s a book I read awhile back, title escapes me. A collection of stories as told by assorted famous people, on their failures. Yep. Every single one of them had failed somewhere, along their road to success. You don’t take on risk without encountering failure at some point. Not one person achieved their dream by accepting failure. Every single one of them walked around it, climbed over it, punched through it, ignored it, learned from it or changed it into a victory.

Look, these people aren’t really smarter, more beautiful, more creative, more talented, more anything than you or me. They’re people. Real people. They’re just incredibly persistent. Their common denominator was once they knew what their heart’s desire was, they kept after it. Just like me and Meryl, talkin’ down that buzzy whiney voice and doin’ the work.

It’s not easy. And it doesn’t come naturally, at least not to me. I’ve had to work at not giving up. And I’ve had to work at growing a new attitude about "failure."

I don’t put it in terms at "what did I do wrong?" I think "What did I do well? And how could I do better? What did I learn? And do I have to do that same thing again to learn that particular lesson? Or is it okay to move on to try something else?"

My first few small town craft shows were "failures." It would have been so easy to get discouraged. Fortunately, I was committed to making what I loved, not making what would sell at a church craft fair. I realized my work was not the bargain gift item one expects to find at such a show. Although, oddly, after every show, someone would call me and buy one of my very expensive pieces (around $125 at the time.) The lesson I learned was to find a better venue for my work.

I’m still recovering from a more recent, bigger "failure." I tried a new summer wholesale show, traditionally more of a gift market. I not only did the show, I redid my booth—new floors, new walls, new lighting. I even took a larger booth space. I did the work—did two pre-show, advertising, updated my catalog, sent out my newsletter to customers and hot prospects, created new products. I set up my booth, put on my professional artist clothes, and went to work.

I bombed. I wrote enough new orders to cover some of my expenses, but not the major improvements I’d made. And many of those new accounts, because the economy still sagged, ended up modifying their orders downwards as the months went by.

Did I fail? To be honest, it sure felt like it at the time!

A fellow exhibitor at the show asked me how I did, and I started to list all the pluses from the show. He cut me short and said, "Why don’t you just be honest and admit it sucked?!" I didn’t know what to say. Was I being a Pollyanna?

To help me put it in perspective, another friend in the biz said, "Do you only measure your success in monetary terms?" Wow. I had to think about that. Yes, I eventually want to be financially successful with my art and business, and I consistently act and plan accordingly. But I also evaluate my progress by other standards. Money is an important measure, but not the only one.

I took a reasonable risk—to introduce my work to a new audience and to try a new booth design/layout.

What did I do well? The pre-show preparations were excellent, the booth was great. The improvements were pricey but they are a long-term investment in my business.

Everyone loved the work, so I know it’s viable. Most of my press kits were taken from the media room—always a good sign! I picked up a dozen new accounts. I made valuable connections, including an editor at a highly respected trade magazine who was fascinated by my work. The new director of an arts foundation, referred to me by a mutual friend, found me, lined me up for a show and has proven to be a source of valuable experience and information about my targeted market. My booth neighbor was curating her first show at the museum where she works, and invited me to exhibit in their first high-end craft show. A favor for a friend at the show with equipment problems netted me his lovely glasswork in return. My daughter, assisting me for the first time, bought a faux-leopard skin cowboy hat from another exhibitor—oh my!), met the charming teenage sons of another exhibitor, and was in seventh heaven. We had a great time.

And how could I do better? I honestly can’t think of a single thing I could have done better.

What was under my control, and what was not?

Sad to say, the economy is not under my control.

In hindsight, would I have skipped the show? Well, I’m not sure. I think I would have done it, and perhaps triaged the booth improvements. But maybe not. Doing the show forced me to make those improvements, and though it would have been nice to recoup their expense with that show, I know I eventually will.

What did I learn? I learned that something awful can happen, and it was okay. I survived. No one got hurt, no one died. I’ve weathered my first truly bad show, and lived to tell the tale. I didn’t accept it as a sign my dream was unattainable. I kept the good stuff, I examined the bad stuff, then tossed it. Dug in and got back to work. In August, I did another show, made some slight adjustments to my business model (took more custom orders, learned a new technique for closing high-end sales) and did my best retail show ever.

Buffer failure? No. You don’t get anywhere with that approach. Sometimes the manure life deals you is fertilizer for your garden to come.

comment [] 12:52:40 AM    

Wednesday, December 04, 2002
When is a WYSIWYG Not a WYSIWYG?

Last week I got a call from someone on committee. They were in a bind. They needed someone to help with a project--could I volunteer for half an hour? I checked my calendar and thought quickly. I’m a full-time artist, and usually work all hours of the day and into the evening to manage all the aspects of my business. My schedule is full, but somewhat flexible. I have volunteered to read in my children’s classes once a week for the past 10 years. I have two out-of-town boards I serve on two days a month. I checked all my dates and commitments, and said I could do it one morning.

I went in today for my assignment. I was greeted by the person in charge and I went to work. Half an hour later, the task was done, and I asked the person in charge, "Is that it?"

She said, "Yes. Now, wasn’t that easy? That wasn’t such a big deal, was it?" with a kindly smile.

Being a grown-up, I managed to bite my tongue before the words "I think the word you’re looking for here is ‘thank you’!" popped out. I simply smiled and left.

At my next stop, I related my story to the woman behind the counter.

"Oh, that’s nothing," she said. "Last year my fiance was at a local organization. He saw their Christmas tree in the lobby, covered with dozens of tags. Each tag had a child’s name, a child who was in one of their community outreach programs, with the child’s age and one wish for a gift. It was a week before Christmas, and no one had taken any of the tags."

He found the woman in charge of the program, and said he wanted every tag on that tree. The woman went shopping with him. He bought every single child not only their designated gift, but lots of other presents as well. He spent over $2,500 in all.

They returned to the facility and stored all the presents to be distributed the next day. He told her he preferred to remain anonymous. As he was leaving, the woman said, "You said you don’t even have a tree for Christmas yet. Why don’t you take that tree home with you?" He did, and as he walked out the door, the facility director saw him.

This week, the man saw this year’s tag-covered tree in the lobby and approached the front desk, where the director was standing. "I’d like to help out again with your Christmas program again this year," he said.

The director looked at him. He only remembered seeing this guy walk out of the facility a year ago with the tree. He sneered, "I don’t think we’ll need your help this year."

What you see is not always what you get.....

I told the woman to have her fiance write a letter to the director, cc’ing the board of directors, the woman in charge of the Christmas program, and the local United Way, which supports and funds this facility. He should explain that last year, he had donated his time and $2,500 of his personal money to make sure no child in their care was left out at Christmas. This year, he had repeated his offer, and had been told his help was not needed this year. And he should say how delighted he was that the facility had been so successful in their efforts that they needed no other help from their membership or the community to ensure every child had a wonderful Christmas.

Kill ‘em with kindness, I say.

comment [] 2:06:31 PM    

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