Sell Lots of Small Things
We often talk to younger artists about selling their work and a common question that we hear from them is: How do I know what to make? And the answer we always give is probably not what they expect: Make and sell lots of small things.
We started our business in 2012 as side project, but we hadn’t really done anything with it. Then a few months later, I was laid off from my job at a book publisher. All of a sudden we had no income, no savings, and no real concept of what our business should be, except that it was us (Rusty and Ingrid), it would be “creative” (because we are artists), and it would be a company. Yet, we still decided to take the leap and to build our business full time.
We were desperate. We had three months severance pay and then we’d be broke. The first thing we had to do was to bring in some money, any way we could. As artists, we knew how to make things, but we had never had much success selling them, so we didn’t have a clear idea of what to make.
What we decided to do was:
1. ) We booked as many selling opportunities as we could:
We weren't picky. We sold at sidewalk fairs, craft fairs, farmers’ markets, church fairs, food festivals, holiday fairs, VFW/ AmVets fundraisers, local coffee shops, gift shops, co-op art galleries, and family parties. We also sold online on Etsy and our website.
2.) We tried out as many different products as we could (while still keeping our sense of artistic integrity):
Oil and watercolor paintings, reproductions of paintings, linoleum block prints, greeting cards, handmade silver jewelry, children’s books, tea towels, printed yard fabric, pillowcases, coasters. We even tried glazed pottery.
We didn’t make many of each product. We would just make a few and then try to sell them. The key was to get the items in front of customers and hope they'd sell. If they didn’t, we’d try something else. We didn’t just try anything, though. We had some vague idea about being true artists so we didn’t want to copy what was trendy or mass-produce some trinket. We were oil painters, and we wanted to sell paintings, but they are too expensive to produce and sell, so we tried out digital reproductions. These were expensive to print, didn’t look right, and we didn’t feel good about them. What we really wanted to do was make high quality, handmade artwork that people like ourselves could afford. This led us to make linoleum block prints, which are more affordable than paintings. With these, we sensed we were moving in the right direction. We enjoyed making them, we were good at them, and customers started to buy them.
In the beginning, we had no idea we would make screen prints. In fact, we had never tried screen printing before. The block prints were a great start, but we were a bit frustrated by the slow, inconsistent production process. We couldn’t get the colors we wanted, and we wanted to make larger prints. We soon realized that screen printing could solve some of the issues we were having with our block prints. We got some cheap hobbyist screens and an instruction book from the 1970s and taught ourselves to screen print on our kitchen table.
We had a few early successes with selling our screen prints, and that directed us to make more. But we still continued to try many different products over the next year or so (like pillowcases, etc). Our idea was that we were a “creative company,” so we should sell all sorts of art products, but the more we tried, the more we realized that the thing that we were really good at and what customers remembered us for was our travel poster style screen prints. We eventually decided to kill all of other products and just focus on what was working. The more we narrowed our focus and defined our brand as “handmade fine art screen prints,” the better response we had. Our brand was more memorable to customers, and we produced more successful designs (because we weren’t constantly second guessing), and our sales increased to a sustainable business.
We eventually found our success through editing down our product line, but in the beginning, we would never have gotten our start, except that we tried out a lot of small products and responded to the feedback we were getting from customers (and from ourselves).
- You may not know what you are best at, yet. You may have not have even tried it yet.
- You may not know what to make until you get some feedback.
- Try out lots of small products and get them in front of customers (in person, if possible, so you can have conversations, and judge their responses).
- Small sales will give you encouragement, start to develop a cash flow, and give you sales data to respond to.
- Ask: Why did the products sell? How can I improve and build on the successful products
- How can I build a single successful product into a product line?
- Once you have some momentum, edit down your product line to only what you are best at, and what you are remembered for.
- Be willing to respond to your customers, but also hang onto your own integrity and vision. There should be a balance between what people want to buy and what you're most excited about making. You're usually most skilled, insightful, and fluent in what you're most interested in, and customers will sense that passion, originality and quality in the product.
- If you've found a successful product line, don’t be afraid to test new products to expand your business, but be sure to build off of what you know is working.