Tuesday, March 09, 2010

taking the leap: when to start selling your work

I'm continuing my series today on making pottery-- or any art-- a business. If you haven't read my five pieces of sage advice yet, you can read them right here. Today I'm going to write about point #2: Don't sell mediocre work just because you can. And I'm going to add an addendum to that statement: Don't wait until your work is perfect before you start selling.

I often think about what I would have done if things like Etsy were around when I first started making pottery. From the start, people liked my work. My first studio was an incredible selling venue: a garage studio situated right along the ocean in Santa Cruz where dozens of people walked by every day. I kept the garage door open while I worked so I could get some light and see the ocean. People always stopped by and wanted to buy things or place orders, but I wasn't interested in that, yet. I was still learning, and I was advancing so rapidly that when I looked at something I made a month before, I cringed, because what I was making 4 weeks later was so much better. I always gave my work away because frankly, I wanted to get rid of it so I could make more and better work. Trying to sell it would have meant I would quickly be buried under a mountain of my own mediocre pottery.

I think people have a right to sell whatever they want on Etsy or similar venues, and I see a fair amount of work being sold that I think looks like beginner work. But if your desire is to turn your art into a business, I think it's important to consider when is the appropriate time to launch your work into the marketplace. Artists need space to develop without the outside world piping in their opinion about what you are making. If your artwork is still in process of finding its voice, I really believe that turning it out for public consumption interrupts your personal artistic journey. Your art is your precious baby, protect it until it's ready to face the public.

At the same time, public feedback can be an incredible spur to making better and more sophisticated work. If your goal is to sell your work, you don't want to wait too long to begin selling or continually use your fear about getting feedback from the public-- not your mother-- to hold you back from getting out there in the marketplace. It takes an incredible amount of courage to set up that first table and start selling, and you will learn so much about your own work as you watch people pick it up and interact with it. Don't let your fear deprive yourself of that learning experience.

There is no magic formula to when your work is "good enough" for the marketplace, and it is true that most artists will continue to improve throughout much of their career. I still consider myself a student of pottery, I'm learning and -- I hope-- still improving my work. But I do think one needs to be out of that rapid growth and improvement stage, where from month to month your work looks markedly better, before you start selling. I laugh when I see pottery that I made in my beginner years in my friend's houses. I love that I can still see it, and they keep it as evidence of where I came from. I don't know if I would laugh if I saw images of it on the web, or if it were part of my "sold" items in my Etsy shop.

Being able to sell your work is definitely validation that your efforts can bear fruit in the form of money, but it does not make you a better artist than you were yesterday, nor does it make you less of an artist to not sell your work . It's a personal decision whether and when to sell your work, no one else beside yourself can tell you when you are ready.

This blog post is a great example of putting things out there before they are ready for the public. I heavily edited it after publishing, so you may want to hit that "refresh" button to make sure you are reading my final version!

50 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and wisdom!
    I am setting up my Etsy shop, and agonizing over my product line and "sections" and Banner and so forth, and it was quite overwhelming.
    Reading this helped me to take a deep breath and remember that it is up to me to set boundaries and control my creative life.
    Excellent thoughts!
    Thank you

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  2. I had to smile to myself when you mentioned work being sold on etsy that looks like beginner work - I went to a pottery exhibition recently and some of our country's "finest potters" were exhibiting (apparently). One lady's work looked like she'd bought it out of Wilkinsons! (a shop in the uk that sells really cheap items!) If it was made by a 9 year old I would have been impressed, but not one of our "finest".

    Anyway, I waffle too much. A great post full of useful advice as usual.

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  3. I feel an artist's work is good enough when people want to buy it -just price it accordingly. Don't wait if someone wants to support your art. Price it according to your level of expertise in the medium, the final outcome and price appropriate for your geographical area. I think there are many art patrons who enjoy supporting emerging and beginning artists and want to own a piece that says "this was one of her first works when it was still affordable!"

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  4. i feel cindy has a really good point, as well as you do. When in learning stages the growth rate is very quick, much like the 'baby' you were talking about. Eventually it solidifys into a style, while still finding that I dont feel like its a bad things to let your work go. this writing definatly helped me. I'm two months away from my first festival...sheeit!

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  5. Cindy does have a good point, and I think it goes back to selling whenever you are ready-- that is the most important thing. When people wanted to buy my work before I was ready to sell, it was because I simply didn't want any pressure around my newfound love, pottery. Others may feel differently and I truly believe it s a personal choice.

    And good luck at your first show Robert!

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  6. If your first efforts are wildly successful and sell, I wonder how much harder it would be to progress? It might be tempting to keep producing what people are buying for fear of alienating the customers by changing.

    On the other hand, I'm guessing your friends are very happy to be in possession of some of your older work!

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  7. What Kathi says makes a lot of sense too. On the one hand we are never the best judge of how welcome and appreciated our work will be in someone else's home. The fact that we have moved beyond our older art (and may even be embarrassed by it) is unrelated to the joy someone else gets out of the work. These two opinions simply live in different worlds.

    At the same time, putting your work out there and having it well received in the market becomes a validation of where you are in your artistic development and can even be a disincentive to change. If you haven't been pushed to be critical or analytical about your work there may be little motivation to improve what you are doing. "If I can sell this it is as good as it needs to be" is the ethic I see in many community arts settings and especially in venues like etsy.

    Knowing that other people like what you are doing is a powerful influence. The question is what you do with this information. And there is no one right answer. Seeing mediocre beginner type work occasionally outsell technically accomplished art is just a reality we all have to live with. Educating the public and educating ourselves as artists are simply two sides of the same coin.

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  8. Thank you for such wonderful article. I ask myself this question a couple of times a week and I´m still not sure if I´m ready. But you have to go outside and learn and see what people think of your work.

    thanks again!!!

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  9. Good information. Many things to think about.

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  10. What a great blog. Thanks for the information...I was one of those who wanted to perfect the art before I started selling on etsy... but soon I reaslized that it was not the wisest decisions.. so I opend my stroe on etsy.

    www.floreal.etsy.com

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  11. I love this! It is so important to know your creative voice, but then to also here as it leads you to pause and reflect. I'd love to hear your thoughts about taking a break/renewal. (I can look back and see what you've posted thus far!)

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  12. Yes, finding the right time to start selling your own product is tricky.

    Great post!

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  13. Thanks for sharing this! I can really relate to this, and the previous article... I am also from Santa Cruz, starting a boutique with my handmade scarves and various items.
    Great advice!
    -Rachel
    www.rasyehandbags.etsy.com

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  14. I love that you have discretion towards your work! I used to throw pots full time, though it was not for salable purposes....mainly it was because I had a teacher in college who told me that I would never be able to throw pots or become a studio potter. While I did sell things to friends over time, I did it mainly so I could prove to myself that I would one day prove her hurtful words wrong! And so I did! And then one day I stopped, picked up my paintbrushes, and started painting again!

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  15. Carter, well said. A lot of thoughts to chew on there.

    Jennifer, take a break for renewal is vital. I think I will have to write a post about that!

    And Ali, some teachers should be garbage collectors instead. It's amazing the powerful impact words from an authority figure can have, but I'm glad you resisted.

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  16. This really hits home with me... I'm a pretty new seller on Etsy (and seller of my artwork in general. This is my first big leap into that pond) and I sometimes wonder if I rushed it. My style is still developing and I'm still figuring myself out. I don't put anything in my shop unless I really feel good about it as a piece, but my style is likely to shift as time goes on and I get a feel for what I'm most comfortable with.

    The problem is, I do already have some folks chiming in with what they'd like to see...which I appreciate for certain because it gives me an idea of what people want. But I love guinea pigs. I love cats, but I don't feel inspired to draw them. But I have a few people that are like "when you draw cats, I'll buy one!" ... but it's not really what I'm about.

    It's tough to figure out what advice to take and what things you should stick to your guns about.

    This comment was so long, oops! Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for this because I relate to it and I found it a great read. : )

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  17. Some great advice. I too have just started my Etsy shop and I was procrastinating over when to launch it and if it would be good enough! I guess you have to start somewhere and from there keep at it.

    Thanks you. :)

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  18. thank you...you hit upon a dilema we all face when questioning our "worthy-less" to sell.

    there was a time when all the books & inspirational stuff couldn't break thru this imagined wall of skill & artistry i was hoping to acheive AND that's when i knew i had to present to the public...it's a slow & ongoing process, but at least i see improvement...and feel more confidence in my work.

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  19. This is just what I've been looking for, I'm so glad so many people feel the same! I've just set up my Etsy shop although I've been creating for years!

    Leanne (BlackHeartClub)

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  20. What a great blog. I agree with so much of your comments. i have looked at my early wood carvings, and They look like child's play. The years have added character and strength to them now. Thank you for posting this .

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  21. " But I have a few people that are like "when you draw cats, I'll buy one!" ... but it's not really what I'm about.
    It's tough to figure out what advice to take and what things you should stick to your guns about."

    This is a problem that will never go away, and this is always my advice, "Listen to everyone, and listen to no one." I get great ideas from my customers, and I've had new items inspired by them, but there are certain things I'm not moved to make, and will NEVER make.

    As far as the guinea pig vs cat problem, you could draw a cat with a guinea pig mask.

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  22. Ah...this is why I love Etsy so much. For so long, my husband, family, friends, etc., have been telling me that I should sell my paintings. Problem is, they just don't understand that these toddlers aren't ready for the marketplace. And now that my art babies have been sidelined by the human babies...well, it'll be even longer before we're ready. So, I do other fun stuff...and nobody understands...except my Etsy family:) Great post.

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  23. It's really hard to know when to start selling your precious work rather than just giving it away. Will anyone else besides me love it, want it, get it? My problem is that work I did 6 months ago I think aaarrrggghh! And the work I''m doing today, I love. The thing is, no one knows ( usually) that this piece is 6 months old except you! It's a wonderful thing to see someone wearing, using that fab thing you made. Feedback and the thoughts of others, is imprtant, especially to a new to etsy person like me. To gain the confidence in your work, and with the help from all the fab makers, sellers on this site, who knows where it will take you...

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  24. Thank you so much for the valuable information. So much good advice. I appreciate you sharing.

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  25. Thanks so much for sharing! It's so important to people taking That Great Leap Forward that we share advice, successes, and yes, even failures.

    I wish I had run across this when I was setting up shop on Etsy! Really useful tips.

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  26. To Leslie,
    I have found that if you create art work that you love and speaks to you,you are on the right track.At one time I was making watercolor paper earrings and they always sold out.The only ones that didnt sell out were the ones someone else wanted in this color ,that style etc.I wasnt inspired by thier wants and it definitely translated into the art. So I learned that for me,if it isnt my inspiration,coming from my heart,it didnt work.If you love it they will too! Be True to yourself!

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  27. Whitney, I love your work. When I first joined etsy about 2 years ago there was this stunningly amazingly gorgeous vase, I think it was a set of 3 (?) or maybe that was one of the pics, and I think it was white.... Anyway, it was the very first thing I favourited and it was yours and I promised myself one day I'd own a piece of your work. That day hasn't arrived, but it will one day!

    I think you made some really great points in your post. I have had a shift in what it is I create and wonder if you think this same sort of thinking applies to handmade as opposed to art. I don't think what I do could ever be considered art - maybe if you were really stretching the truth with squinty eyes and sticky out tongues. Is it a completely different ball game or does the same principles apply do you think? *I* feel that if I am happy to stand behind and be proud of my product (as opposed to art, and I do feel like I am defacing your blog by talking about products and not art ;) )then it is ready to sell, but I certainly hope this is not the best I will ever be.

    Does any of that make sense?

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  28. Thanks so much for this great advice. I joined etsy just the day before, browsed through it and thought I could spend millions of Dollar (or Euro in my case) at the shops. I am into crafts as well but I don't have anything to sell yet.
    I am somewhat of a perfectionist, so I don't know whether I'll ever be satisfied enough to start selling my pieces.
    hugs

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  29. Yes, I understand what you are saying. And I think the principles apply to anything make with your hands that you hope to turn into a business. And I also think if you are ready to stand behind your item, product, art, whatever it is, then you are ready to sell.

    When I started selling my work, I knew it wasn't as good as it would be in the future, but that doesn't mean it's not good enough to sell right now. Being confident in whatever you make is a huge part of making the leap.

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  30. Thank you for sharing your thoughts regarding "ready to sell or not" Extremely helpful....I'm almost there!

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  31. Thank you for sharing your wisdom on this subject. It took me over 20 years to become comfortable selling my items rather than just giving them as gifts. I wish I had this insight years ago! Thanks

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  32. Thank you so much for sharing with us. I personally truelly believe there are some of us (myself included) that started selling to early.

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  33. thank you so much for sharing this! it sounds very familiair. it took me a long time but I am finally setting up my etsy store. Its a lot of fun and scary at the same time : )

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  34. Thank you for a great post and inspiration. It's helped me feel more confident about a little idea to maybe make an etsy shop and maybe make it sooner rather than later. The blogging started nervously, but is going well, albeit in little steps. You have made me feel like I should grab the bull by the horns and do the next thing on my list instead of procrastinating & waiting for perfection..that's just excuses. I will get onto it v soon. Thank you. xxx. Have a great weekend. x

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  35. I think it is very common for artists to punish themselves with trying to achieve perfection, myself included. There is a difference between making great work and making perfect work, and it takes practice and experience to know that perfect work is not the goal.

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  36. I'm surprised I didn't run across your posting earlier; I'm sorry I'm joining the party late. But it's timely for me to have seen it today, since I'll be doing an art fair tomorrow. I was volunteered to do it before I actually committed, so I have been trying to find the right balance between gathering up enough pieces to fill a table and not bringing the more infantile pieces. But since I am a beginning potter, my prices will certainly reflect my skill. And luckily the fair seems pretty pedestrian. ;) I really enjoy reading your potter AND business wisdom.

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  37. Thanks! Reading this made me laugh. It is so true. I look back over the years at some of the stuff I have made and say "wow, that sucks!"

    Great article with a very valid point!

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  38. Your work is beautiful & clearly you are a professional. I on the other hand am a beginner/ADD artist with many interests, which include, but are not limited to ceramics! I've enjoyed looking at your work & reading your posts. I've read some of your dilemmas & thought, wow... imagine becoming so good one day as to have assistants! For now, I just create what I can, when I can... and still do my "real job" to support myself while trying to change paths midlife. Most of what I make is given away (& yes, to family)... but I'll tell you what.. if someone ever wanted to buy my mediocre work, I'd be happy as a clam!
    Enjoyed reading the comments, too!

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  40. Very inspiring. I set up my etsy shop some time ago and I still havent sold any item. But I enjoy my work and I make it with love and care. Sometimes I feel down cause it doesnt seem to work, and I dont know why. On your Etsy shop, the only positive opinion is a selling. And if you dont sell, and you dont any feedback, its difficult to know whats not working. Thanks for share your experience.

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  41. Thank you so much for the owrds of wisdom. I have recently started selling my craft products, and I am still confused if I should sell or just enjoy creating what I want to create. Your post gave me lots to think about and ponder on.

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  42. Thank you so much for your article. I have been selling on Etsy for awhile now and my frustrations have to do with the fact that Etsy who won’t acknowledge my products. I’ve been trying for years to get Etsy to recognize that Eid should be categorized with Christmas and Hanukah as a major holiday, but they keep ignoring my pleas: http://www.etsy.com/forums_thread.php?thread_id=5813888

    So my question is: how do we get the companies that continuously highlight the same products over and over again to even acknowledge your work?

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  43. Thank you so much for this article. Before I even knew what I was doing, I had people buying my jewelry right off my ears at concerts and things. So I created an Etsy shop. Twas very motivational, but I know that the quality of my work is heaps better now. Live and learn, long and lots!

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  44. I have had an Etsy account for a year and trying to make it all work out while taking care of a family and working a full time office job is tough....my artwork has been maturing for two decades. I no longer care what anyone else thinks about it...to me I have come full circle with how it was is how it is...the style is within you and no amount of schooling or self inflicted wrestling will change it.

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  45. Thanks so much for sharing. I just opened my Etsy shop and as many others expressed, i am not sure this was the right time. . .but i also felt like i needed to move forward with my creative side. . .so hence i looked to 2011 as my starting point! Thanks again for sharing!

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  46. this courage me to be more confident with my artwork.

    thanks a lot

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