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  • Writer's pictureSue Halstead

Lessons from a studio clearcut....

We currently have a lot of work taking place on our home here at Halstead HQ. Over the last few months we've been insulating our external walls, FROM THE INSIDE. Every room in our house. It's quite a big messy job, but is making our home noticably warmer and more energy efficient. Anyhow, finally, it's my studio's turn. As we began to discuss our strategy for tackling this, it also became apparent that it is high-time to swap my studio room with our boy's (much smaller) bedroom. A full evacuation of the room would be necessary.

As I began to empty out the room, I reflected on the changes to my working practise that have taken place in the time that I have worked in here. When I first moved into this room, I was a new mum to a child with a disability. I had vacated my old art room, to create his nursery, and now was looking for a place to re-find my creativity and come to terms with his diagnosis. Back then I was primarily a watercolour painter, of quite large and very layered landscapes. Here's one:

It became clear to me early on that I would not have the time, or the space, to continue creating work of this scale, or complexity. I would ned to develop a new way of working, quicker, more digital perhaps, more commercial. I think I was already dreaming of creating a viable design business, that would work around my son's needs. Once I returned to teaching, it became clear that my job wasn't going to be able to do that. No matter how part-time I became, I was doing the same amount of work, in less time, and for less money. I began taking online surface pattern design courses, and learning how to use the software that I now rely on.

Many many ugly pattern collections later, I finally started to produce work I felt OK about. I began creating designs for cards and wall art, getting stuff printed, investing in display equipment and hawking it around craft fairs. Nothing much sold. I went for higher-end craft fairs. Nada. I went up another rung. Nothing. I was giving up precious weekends with my family to drag my wares around the midlands, only to bring it all home again. I decided craft fairs were not for me. Here's some of my early stock laid out, ready for a craft fair.

Looking at my studio now, I have boxes and boxes unsold stock from that time. As I pack them away, I realise how very naive I was, from a business perspective, in the beginning. Here are my top five lessons learnt (so far) about running a product-based business:

  1. Always have an ideal customer in mind. What do they want? How can you help them? If you are making only what you like and want to make, you have an expensive hobby, not a business. I realised too late that I was only really making this stuff for myself. I would have an idea, decide it was cool, and make it. I didn't think strategically about who it was for, who would buy it and for whom. I didnt think about what those people actually wanted. These days, I have a very detailed ideal customer profile, which I fine-tune as I go.

  2. Don't get suckered into bulk buying to get discounts, on untested products. Carried away by my ideas about what products would be cool, I calculated it was much cheaper per unit, to get loads made. Untested and unseen by anyone, I bought in tens and hundreds, things I should have bought maybe twenty at a time. I thought I was investing in my future business but in reality I was throwing away my money. I still have a lot of those products. I stand by them. They're good quality products and nice designs. But I have way too many. Now, I do my market research. I send prospective designs out ahead of a product launch to gauge customers reactions. Then I do a short print run, to test out their commercial viability, before ordering in larger quantities.

  3. It is NOT true that 'if you build it, they will come' When I first started making products, I naively thought that if I liked them, everyone else would too. I thought people would be hammering on my door to buy my things. Ridiculous as it sounds, I actually even worried about how I would cope with demand! Of course, over the years I have now sold a lot of products, and people DO like them, but it's been slow growth, over a long period of time, with a lot of trial and error. Do not expect instant success.

  4. Have a very clear offering. While doing craft fairs, I realised that although my stall had a lot of very beautiful things on it, it was jumbled. There were some coasters, some fat quarter bundles of quilting fabric, tea towels, greetings cards, wall art, notebooks, gift wrap, lampshades, cushions........ I applied my patterns to ALL the things. So anyone passing by my stand couldn't tell at a glance exactly what my main offering was. Now, although I mainly sell on etsy, I try to streamline my product lines more. For now it's mainly greetings cards and art prints, so there's more clarity about what I'm offering.

  5. Develop your signature style. I think as artists our style is always evolving and moving forward. But when I began, I had several pattern collections in vastly different styles applied to my products: some abstract, some painterly, some geometric; some in hot colours, some cool, some muted. So again, it was difficult for customers to interpret my work at a glance. What exactly was I about? What was my aesthetic? Now, I'm consistently honing my style, my work is much more coherent, and my skills and workflow have developed enormously. Nevertheless, it remains a work in progress. Here's a little taste of how my style has developed.

Eventually, I stopped doing craft fairs, turned to etsy and print-on-demand services such as spoonflower, both of which I use to this day. But as I've been packing up, I have found reminders of many other failed projects and attempts I have undertaken in the last few years - a personal tutoring service that never got off the ground, a portfolio consultation service I planned to set up with a friend for students applying to art college, which never happened. A scheme to turn children's drawings into seamless repeat patterns on fabric for their parents - two clients. A pattern portfolio showcase for buyers, set up by a design agent, which never lived up to it's promise. So much time and energy and money has been poured into these aborted attempts to get my business off the ground. Confronted by all of this evidence of projects gone south this week, I began to feel like I had failed.

And so, I made lists of everything I had learnt. Of how far I have come. Of everything I know now. Here are three more major lessons from all of my experiments

  1. An emailing list is essential. I should have started mine sooner. As they say, you can't build a house on borrowed land. If the social media platforms change their algorithm overnight, (and they do) your followers stop seeing your work. That's no way to build a business. But meta doesn't own a mailing list. So, now I have one. And it's growing. Sign up here , if you're interested!

  2. Go where your customers are. Having spent forever plugging away at instagram, because I like it the most out of all the social media channels, I finally realised my ideal customer does not hang out there. She is on Facebook though. So now, that's where I spend more of my time. I have started to put more effort into my Facebook posts and building my relationship with potential customers on there. It's not my preferred platform. But it is hers. You've got to go where your people are.

  3. That there are lots more avenues still to explore. And probably more failures to be had, and more lessons to be learnt. My business is still evolving, and hopefully growing into something that can sustain us as a family. That was the very clear message I got as I looked at the heap of abandoned projects this week. That I don't regret it, I learnt the lessons, I'm not giving up. I'm will keep trying and refining and tweaking. It's a work in progress.

In the time this room has been my studio I have also left my teaching job, and brought all of my teaching resources home. I miss the students and the classroom, and most of all my colleagues, but the actual teaching and assessment, not so much. We've been through the horrors of Covid, which was a very tough time for our little family. My partner has long Covid and for a long time I was sole parenting. At this time, I took an online course on creating art for self care, and did it religiously in this little room. It honestly saved my sanity. Since then, I have taken up lino printing, and been enjoying getting my hands dirty again.

Since I started working out of this room, so much has changed. My art work has changed. I have changed. My family has changed. We have grown, failed, learnt. It's bittersweet to be moving my practise back into a smaller room again, effectively downsizing, to accomodate my family. And perhaps my practise will alter again as a result? It's too soon to tell. I only know that I'm incredibly fortunate to have a dedicated room at all, and that perhaps none of these failures and learnings would have been possible for me otherwise. And that I am also very fortunate to be able to juggle caring , working part time and this. So now, I'm ready for new failures, new lessons, new learning. Bring it on. But right now, I have a lot of stuff to clear out. Where's the skip?

I expect my next post will be on setting up my new studio space! In the meantime

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