Sunday, November 29, 2009

potter's seventh circle of hell: redux

I know this is totally cheating, but I'm so busy my brain cannot focus on a blog post, so I'm doing rerun of one of my favorite holiday posts from last around this time. I think it bears repeating!

A quick perusal around some of my favorite pottery blogs confirmed what I suspected: few are writing, including myself. If I know ceramic types—and I do-- I suspect everyone is holed up in their studios, and going through something like this:

1)“I don’t have enough work, I don’t have enough work!” (repeat 500 times a day)
2)“I need to make more work, I need to make more work!” (Repeat in head at least once every 60 seconds and yell this phrase at spouse/significant other at least once a day, especially when they try to get you to relax.)
3) Feverishly make work while repeating above mantras, first one, then the other.
4) Have repeated breakdowns and self-loathing sessions as work you so feverishly made cracks, sticks to the kiln shelf, or just kind of sucks.
5) Repeat.

I’ll call this the potter’s Seventh Circle of Hell. I know it well. I’ve slept by the Lake of Fire for weeks on end trying to keep ahead of Christmas orders. I’ve been fielding a few panicked phone calls from my potter friends as they feel the flames licking at their little heels. I’m really a good person to call when a potter is ready to jump because I have been there so many times, I can talk anybody off the ledge.

I’m going to give a tiny little lecture here that I’ve given to more than one artist this season: Hire some goddamn help. If you can’t sleep at night as you consider all you have to make the next day, you need some help. If your stomach or spine is burning as you contemplate your order sheet, you need some help. If you are at the studio, missing dinner, ignoring your boyfriend’s cell phone calls, you need some help. Don’t tell me that you can’t afford it. A half-decent assistant pays for themselves. Don’t tell me you don’t have time to train somebody. You’ll get all that time back and then some when you send that assistant on their own. Don’t tell me you are a lone wolf who creates alone. Hire someone who doesn’t talk too much. There are so many people out there dying to work for you, in your dusty little studio. Go and find them!

Friday, November 20, 2009

the cost

I have been following the saga fellow ceramic artist Heather Knight has been enduring with a nightmare customer. Nightmare customers usually do us the favor of throwing out red flags that they are a total pain in the ass, but they often come bearing lots of money too, so we ignore the red flags. Reading her latest post, it made me think about how we, as artists working to fill orders for customers, are affected by money, and how it influences our decision making process.

I have already been contemplating this question. Right now, I have an international customer who received a cake stand from me that they are not 100% happy with. Normally, it would not be a big deal to make a new one to replace it, but the international shipping cost on this baby is almost a 1/3 of the value, which changes up the dynamic a bit. But should it? Fortunately, my customer is not being a nightmare, and is open to my suggestions on how they may learn to appreciate the quirks of this particular cake stand. I thought the cake stand was perfect, and it's hard for me to imagine a harder critic than my own self, but I guess that is another issue. I've been thinking about this problem, and wondering what is the right thing to do here. How much money should I be willing to lose to make a customer happy? Should the specific amount make a difference? Should my international customers get screwed because I don't want to spend another $40 from my own pocket shipping out to them?

Within this last year, I made the decision for myself that I was no longer going to allow myself to get stressed out by orders. (Yes, I fail at this all the time, but I keep practicing.) Whatever amount of money I was getting for an order was not worth my body getting stressed out and the negative affects it leaves behind. I gave myself permission to simply return the money to any customer when an order wasn't working out, and not feel bad or even more stressed out if I chose to do so. Knowing that I can and I will do this really helps me deal with problem orders and the stress they bring. Also, to run a successful business, I believe that you have to lose money sometimes. One cannot get maximum return in everything one does, that is not realistic. Attempting to stay in the positive column all the time is simply going to lead to more stress. Losing money sometimes is actually just spending money, and we all know you have to spend money to keep a business running.

Breaking it down like this really helps me in making the right decisions: for myself, for my business, and for my customers. And now that I've reiterated my beliefs & practices about money and dealing with orders & customers to myself, it is clear to me that I know what I need to do with my international customer, if they decide they cannot fall in love with my perhaps slightly imperfect cake stand.

Friday, November 13, 2009

training day

My new assistant, Ruth, started this week. Her first day was Tuesday, and I walked into the studio that morning feeling short-tempered and slightly angry. I had insomnia the night before, and if I'm missing more than an hour of sleep, I'm emotionally unbalanced. Unfortunately, I miss a lot of sleep in general because I have hard time staying asleep. Though I now recognize when I'm feeling snappy and weepy for no reason, it's because I'm short on sleep, and I need to be very patient with myself and the people around me. It doesn't mean my life is totally doomed, which is how I usually feel when I'm tired.

I've been really excited to have Ruth start, so I was disappointed in myself that her on first day I was not at my best. Then, I realized that as excited as I am to finally have a new and experienced person in the studio, it is still stressful. Training is a huge investment of time and resources, no matter how well-trained the person already is.

Training assistants and having other people handle my work has been a huge learning experience. With my first few assistants, I learned how to trust people to handle my work without standing two inches away from them. That was a very long learning curve. With Sara, I learned to trust someone to go beyond my own comfort level and to be better than I am at certain things. With the assistant I fired earlier this year, I learned the importance of trusting your instinct about people's abilities and personality, and to not think you can train them into being a different person. With my other current assistant, Hanna, I'm learning the benefits of steady feedback and consistent management. With the exception of the fired person, I've learned from all the people that have worked from me that they will almost always exceed my expectations, that their ability to learn is boundless. But that requires a lot of my time and attention, it doesn't happen by itself.

Despite the fact I was not my usual perky and delightful self with Ruth on her first day, she totally rolled with me, which bodes well for her. I slept way better that night. By her second day, she was already handling many things without my complete supervision, which totally exceeded my expectations.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

hiring the help

I had a new intern start yesterday, a high school student obsessed with clay. Next week, I have another person starting as an assistant who I've been wooing since the summertime. She's coming from another studio so she has experience, a quality that is difficult to find. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, but it seems that the under staffing problem I've been having since the beginning of the year since losing Sara to grad school may be coming to an end. And not a moment too soon.

You've may have heard me talk before about the importance of having help in the studio when you are always under the gun meeting orders. I've had people helping me in the studio since about 2004, and my life is better and more sane because of it. Some people, who shall go unnamed, and who really really need the help, have yet to take this step. There are several reasons for this: 1) some artists don't want to take the time away from their work to train new assistants. 2) some artists don't want other people messing with their work and changing its character, or worse, damaging it. 3) some artists think they can't afford the help. 4) some artists just don't want other bodies in the studio, making noise while they breathe, and changing up the dynamic.

I get all of these reasons. A lot if these fears can be overcome by finding the right person to work for you in the first place. I have always been extremely lucky in having really talented people work for me, individuals who can fit into my flow smoothly and pick up the work quickly. Each assistant I've hired has been better than the last. This year I had my first exception. I made a really bad hire. All of my instincts told me this person would not be a good fit, and I hired them anyway because the first person I hired totally flaked, and I was desperate. My studio can actually no longer function without extra hands, and the flaker put me right up against my deadlines, so I went ahead and hired someone who promptly drove me crazy. Not only because they simply could not handle the fast pace of a production environment and do the work in the way I wanted it done, but because of personal habits, like walking really really slowly. And dragging their feet while they did it. After about 8 weeks, I fired them. And vowed to never again hire anyone I had doubts about.

Finding the right person is more difficult than any of the reasons for not hiring someone in the first place. Unfortunately, suddenly putting the word out that you are hiring does not usually bring a flock of qualified applicants. My technique over the years has been to keep my eye out for people constantly, even if I'm currently all set. All of my friends know I hire help, so sometimes people will send me their nieces or random people they meet in workshops. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't, but staying open to the possibilities of new hires keeps a fairly steady flow. And I can't wait for my new person to start!