KICKBOXING AND ART–What Do They Have in Common?

Who knew exercise could be so educational!?

(This article was originally published on Wednesday, January 07, 2004)

What do kickboxing and pursuing a career in art have in common?

My kickboxing instructor had a handout for us recently. Entitled : “Cycle of Performance/Formula for Success”, it was a brief description of the learning process for, in this case, martial arts. It had four little phrases on it:

INCEPTION: Unconsciously incompetent

DECEPTION: Consciously incompetent

TRANSFORMATION: Consciously competent

IDENTITY: Unconsciously competent

We talked about it during class. It provided “aha!” moments for many of us. Turns out this little handout explains more than how to learn martial arts; It’s an insightful road map into any life endeavor we pursue. It goes something like this:

Inception, the first stage, is that wonderful, giddy stage of learning a new skill, the excitement of potential. I remember the first time I sat down to a wheel with a lump of clay. I was fearless! I plopped down the clay, centered it, made a cylinder and pulled out my first pot. It was great! It was easy! I thought so, anyway. ” I must be a natural!” I remember thinking.

I was “unconsciously incompetent“. I was gloriously unaware of what I didn’t know yet, and how hard it would be to recreate my initial success. I was so thrilled with with my “innate” abilities that I smashed that first pot down, confident I could throw another just as easily the next time.

You know what comes next. The next class, I sat down confidently to throw my next ball of clay.

And nothing happened. I mean, nothing right happened. I couldn’t center the clay for the life of me. I kept trying until I had a sloppy plop of drooly clay. I threw it aside and tried another ball. Same thing. Slightly daunted, but still game, I tried to raise a cylinder from the wobbly mass. What a disaster! I went home discouraged.

My next class was just as discouraging and I turned to slab work, making a few simple tiles and such. But I was overwhelmed with failure. I had entered the dreaded second Deception stage, “consciously incompetent“. I recognized how much I didn’t know, and how much I still had to learn. The ration looked something like 1:1,000,000, if you what I mean.

If you’ve ever taught, you know how difficult it is to even observe this stage in others, let alone go through it yourself. Frustration bubbles to the surface, masking everything else. You are totally aware of how bad you really are at this. No matter how many times you practice, you don’t seem to get any better. You can’t seem to do anything right. Pots plop, your kicks flick harmlessly, the souffle falls, the watercolors don’t blend right. It seems like everyone else is “getting it” except you.

Most people quit at this stage. They become convinced they are never going to get it, they aren’t cut out for this, they just aren’t good at that. They get angry–at their instructor, at the other people in the class who seem to be doing just fine, but most of all at themselves. (That’s me, anyway.) They may complain, or clam up. They quit trying, or even quit coming to class, convinced that this just isn’t for them. I believe most people who are afraid of making change in their life have let this stage totally defeat them, incorporating it into their very image of themselves. “I’m just not good at math.” “I’m just not very graceful.” “I’ll never be able to (insert your dream activity here.)”

But if you persevere, you will come to the next stage, well-named Transformation: consciously competent. This is what happens after thousands of hours of practice and drills. It may take a long time, but you will get there. You eventually begin to find yourself able to perform that skill. You can do it, but you have to think about it. You begin to see what needs improving and what needs strengthening. You may begin experimenting with minor changes, trying what works best for you and what doesn’t. You become more willing to plug away at it, perhaps even enjoying the process of learning for its own sake. (Think of the perpetual graduate student….)

Finally, as anyone who has ever mastered a skill, knows, eventually you reach the fourth stage, Identity: Unconsciously competent. The skill or knowledge has become a part of you.

You don’t even think about what you’re doing anymore, it’s just….YOU. You are a pianist, or a painter, or a doctor, or a black belt.

You may not even remember NOT knowing that skill. Do you really remember how hard it was to learn to ride a bike? Or does it feel like you’ve always known? Do you really remember looking at a page in a book, and having no idea what those mysterious squiggles meant? Surely we thought at one point, “I’ll never be able to ride a bike!” (I believe getting past this stage is what makes a good teacher: Someone who remembers ‘not knowing.’)

I’ve been thinking about this little handout a lot for the last few weeks, especially that deadly little second stage. It occurs to me that as adults, we’ve mostly forgotten the process of learning, and how truly awful it can feel. In fact, it’s so awful, most people probably quit when they hit that stage, feeling they are really “meant” to learn how to paint, how to knit, how to learn a new language, or whatever.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what people need to see them through that second stage, and safely into that third stage…because this is what life changes and pursuing your dreams is all about.

Sometimes, of course, we are forced to make changes. That becomes our determination. But what about when we choose to make those changes? It’s so important to either have a wonderful support system (a terrific teacher, encouraging friends or family, a great book that serves as a guide), or a tremendous sense of purpose, drive and determination. Or both.

How many of us have started out to change something in our lives, to pursue a new interest or tread a new path, hit that second stage and bagged out? What if we simply made a conscious decision to believe in our selves one more day, one more hour, maybe another five minutes–what could we achieve? How far could we really go?

When I started back in martial arts last spring (after sustaining a devastating injury by one of my previous instructors seven years ago) all I hoped for was to gain back some strength and stamina. I could barely do one push-up anymore. But I’m determined to stick with it, and now I can do thirty. (well….on a good day.)

When I started back with a dream of pursing art seven years ago, I was determined to stick with it, even if I didn’t turn out to be a particularly good artist. “Good” didn’t matter anymore. I knew that being an artist was so important to me, I simply had to try. And keep trying. When I look back at what I accomplished in seven years, I am amazed.

Type out this little handout, and post it somewhere where you can see it every day. The next time you feel discouraged about achieving your goals, look and see where you are in the process. Realize it isn’t something about YOU, but about the process. And stick with it, if just for a little bit longer. You may surprise yourself…..!

GOALS OR GOAL-LESS

I’m still not done “processing” my session with life coach Quinn McDonald of QuinnCreative. But today I found a blog post by another good friend and jewelry artist, Kerin Rose. In her essay My 2 Cents, she shares her thoughts, based on her long teaching career, on the dangers of artists setting goals.

All I’m gonna say is that Quinn’s insights led me to a similar place. Which led me to my story about Will and the Mermaid.

As I fiber artist, I have to be amazed by the different threads that are already weaving my life back together.

How to Half Wholesale: #10 Work with Ads

Ninth in a series on how to grow your wholesale accounts in a less majorly way….

If you have deep pockets and lots of patience, you can use advertising to grow your wholesale business.

The problem with most advertising is: 1) It’s expensive; 2) You usually have to do a lot of it, consistently, to get results; 3) Most artists advertise in the wrong places; and 4) It can be hard to tell if it’s actually doing you any good or not. Oh, and 5) Most people don’t read ads….or don’t remember them if they do.

Having said all those disclaimers, I have heard of advertising campaigns that broke all the rules and were outrageously successful.

My favorite is a jewelry artist who was persuaded by her PR consultant to drop a big bundle of cash on one big, splashy, full-page ad in a leading trade magazine just before the three biggest wholesale shows of the season. It was a colorful, trendy, incredibly beautiful shot of her jewelry–and it worked. The assumption from stores was, she must already be successful to be able to afford that kind of advertising. She wrote great orders at all her shows.

But of course, for those of you who think this might work for you, be forewarned that 1) she spent a lot of money on that ad. A lot of money…..; 2) she was able to “follow up” immediately because she also spent the big bucks to be at the shows where the buyers were; and 3) she had very low price points to begin with. (Her wholesale prices averaged under $15 wholesale.)

If you go the paid advertising route, the deal is you must be prepared to do it regularly, in well-targeted venues, and be able to track the responses each ad generates (perhaps by coding the contact info in the ad, or keeping track of the reader response cards from the magazine.

Standard wisdom was, bigger is better. Go with the biggest ad space you can afford. And great images are a must.

But nothing is written in stone anymore. Some research shows that using ordinary classifieds in those same magazines can produce good results, too.

And of course, the internet is changing everything. It looks like advertising on the web is finally effective. Though which, where and why is still not known….

In short, advertising to me has always seemed like a giant crap shoot. Some people win big, others get nowhere, and it can be almost impossible to tell who will get what. And now it’s an even bigger crap shoot.

I’ve used some advertising in the past, usually for very specific events–advertising my new work in a trade publication, show guide or buyers guide that will be distributed at the show I’m doing, for example. I do it periodically for name recognition (and after this year, to let people know I’m still alive and kicking!)

My best advice on advertising is, if you’re going to do it, try doing it where no one else is doing it.

Target those unusual venues and publications that isn’t obvious to every other artist and craftsperson out there. Do your homework! If it’s a magazines, get the demographics for their audience. If you make cat jewelry, maybe you could target a magazine that targets pet boutiques rather than the usual craft store or gift shop crowd. Instead of a buyer think, “Oh, yet another cat jewelry artist”, they might think, “Oh wow, more cat jewelry! Gotta get me some….”

I still believe that new product releases and press releases will get you more mileage on a limited budget. However, this approach do take more time and thought and preparation.

But as Greg Brown says, “Time ain’t money when all you got is time”, so if your overall budget is limited, do not break the bank to splurge on a last-gasp advertising campaign.

How to Half Wholesale: #9 Work with Reps

Eighth in a series of how to grow your wholesale business in a small way….

What is a rep?

I believe it’s short for “sales representative”. It’s a person who carries either actual samples or very good print images of artwork/craft items/jewelry etc. to stores. They “represent” the artists. If the stores like the work (and they trust the rep), they place a wholesale order. The rep delivers the orders to the artist, the artist makes the work and collects the money. A new wholesale account is created.

How much will they sell?
They will follow your wholesale terms, unless you have both agreed to exceptions–say, small sample orders.

How do I get paid?
Reps only carry and show your work, and collect the orders. They turn them over to you, and the rest is just like a normal wholesale transaction. You make and deliver the work, the store pays you according to your terms, and you put the money in the bank.

How do reps get paid?

Typically, reps get paid an amount equal to 15%-25% of the wholesale order. My understanding is that 20% is the norm for our industry. That might seem like a lot, but actually, that’s the amount artists and craftspeople are expected to budget for marketing and promotion anyway. Using a rep is simply another way of marketing your work. If you’ve accounted for this expense in your wholesale pricing, you should be okay.

Every order??
Well, that’s a good question. The answer is, it depends….

And here we get to the issue about whether using a rep is a good thing or a bad thing:

It depends.

Reps are just people. People who sell your work for you. Consequently, some are great, some aren’t.

Some work hard to sell your work, others want a lot of artists (because it makes them look like they got a lotta stuff) but only push their sure sellers. Some are careful to pitch your work to appropriate stores, others will sell to every two-bit operation that is willing to pay your minimum. Some are hard-working and honest. Others are fast-talking, sleazy and sloppy.

Over time, a rep will develop their routine to what works best for them. You must understand how your rep works before you sign on with them, to keep misunderstandings to a minimum. Use a contract, and read it carefully!

Some will repeat their “tour” regularly, writing new orders and reorders for you constantly. And in this situation, since they are actually doing all the selling for you, they expect that percentage from every order.

Other reps simply introduce your work to the store. Reorders and follow-up are up to you. They expect a percentage on that first order (the one they got for you) but they don’t expect a percentage after that initial order.

Some insist on actual samples, others are happy with a good catalog or line sheet. Some want you to give them the samples. Others accept them “on consignment”, and your items will be returned to you after their tour of duty. (Obviously, it’s easy to give someone inexpensive samples like cards or bookmarks, but you probably don’t want to give away precious metal and stone jewelry….)

Reps may expect you to develop new lines and new designs regularly, because it’s introducing these new items that keeps their inventory fresh and appealing.

In short, if you work with a rep, it’s important to know upfront what is expected of you, and what you can expect from them. Contracts are simply a written record of those expectations, with both parties in agreement.

How do you find a rep?
It’s actually not too hard to find a rep. The trick is to find a good rep. One who is a good fit for your work, your work ethic, your goals, your dreams. But when you find one, it can be a marriage made in heaven.

Here are some suggestions for finding a rep:

Ask other artists. When you find an artist with work that’s compatible with yours who’s already wholesaling, simply ask them if they use a rep. And if so, would they mind sharing the name.

Ask a store. If you are already wholesaling to a store, ask them if they ever buy from a rep. If so, ask them for the names of the ones who might work well for you. (Assure them you don’t intend to saturate the area with your work, or sell to their competition.) This is also a way to vet and pitch yourself to the rep: “I’m already selling to one of your accounts, and my work does well there….”

Ask a working rep.
Some reps actually do wholesale shows, representing a variety of artists. If you think your work might fit, talk to them. (Caveat: Show etiquette applies here. These people are working, and their first priority is to sell their current clients’ work. Wait until they are not busy with actual customers, and be ready to simply leave a card or catalog and contact them after the show.

Go where they gather.
Pam Corwin of Paper Scissors Rock has long recommended the Great Rep website as a great source for reps. You’ll find reps looking for specific lines (maybe your work is a good fit?), and craftspeople looking for reps. It’s a directory, so it’s up to you to screen your potential candidates.

Ask everyone!
Spread the word you’re looking for a rep. You might find out the brother of a friend of the sister of your neighbor in yoga class is a rep. Yes, you know it happens!

My caveat up front: I’ve only worked with a rep once, without much success. But many other craftspeople have, and it’s a real option for expanding your wholesale territory without leaving home.

A fellow artist who owned a small framing gallery took to the roads of New England with samples of local artists’ work. She planned to visit various stores and galleries along the way, showing them the samples and hopefully writing orders. She liked my jewelry and took samples with her. Nothing came of it, but the idea was intriguing.

A few years ago, I had a chance to work with a really great rep. He came highly recommended by other artists, and when I called him, he was interested in my work. The reason was, it fit in well with a few other lines he carried–Southwestern/tribal/world art–and he had stores in mind that did well with that look.

The only reason I hesitated was that his territory was New England, and I felt I had enough accounts in this region. In hindsight, maybe I should have tried working with him, and maybe I’ll open that door again someday.

How to Half Wholesale: #7 Network With Others

Networking was the buzz word in the 80’s and maybe you hate the word as much as I do. But it works, so just do it.

By networking, I don’t mean badgering everyone you meet at parties, the grocery store and your exercise classes to buy your work or give you ideas for stores. (That was the bad 80’s networking thing.) That gets hugely annoying fast.

I mean taking advantage of the natural rapport and eagerness-to-help you get from people who already like your work and want you to succeed.

Who can you network with?

Well, one resource we often overlook is our own customers.

They already really love what you do. Hopefully, you have a good relationship with them, and they probably want you to succeed (so they can say they “knew you when.”)

Even if you’ve only done a few small shows, you might easily have several dozen good customers. (Do a few major shows, and you probably have a few hundred, or even a couple thousand customers…. It adds up over the years!) Have you ever asked them if they’ve come across a store where your work would be a good fit? It could be in their home town, or a store they’ve visited in their travels.

Most people are simply happy to help, but if you’d like, you can offer an incentive. If they suggest a store, or introduce your work to a buyer, and you end up with an account, you could offer to send them a little something. This could be a piece of your work, or a discount coupon if your work is too pricey to just give away.

This next suggestion takes a little courage, but what the heck. Try asking your non-customers for referrals.

Sometimes retail shoppers may love your work, but for whatever reason, they cannot/will not actually buy it. Perhaps it’s out of their price range, or they can’t wear metal jewelry anymore (mid-life allergies, dammit) or your work isn’t really their style. They may still be so enthusiastic about your work that they’ll share a store or venue that might work for you.

If you’ve done or are doing a wholesale show, you will have people who are highly interested in your work, but don’t feel your work is a good fit for their store. If you’ve established a rapport, and they seem genuinely disappointed the match won’t work, ask them if there’s another store in their area that would be a good fit. You’ll be surprised how many buyers will help you out here. I’ve even had these buyers take my materials back home with them to show the other store owner. (I think it speaks highly of our industry that we’re all so willing to help each other like this…)

Another good resource is other artists who wholesale. You can do something as generic as ask on a forum you frequent if people have suggestions for you. (This is an excellent way of getting referrals across the country, too.) Or you can offer to swap good store contacts–one of your good customers for one of theirs. This works best if your work and theirs has a similar aesthetic or audience, but is not directly competitive. (Although some artists are so generous, they’ll even help others who might seem to make similar stuff.)

You can even get suggestions from artists you don’t know and have never met. When you’re surfing the net and come across an artist whose work seems compatible with yours, check to see if they sell to stores and galleries. Then check out those stores and galleries and see if they might be candidates for your work, too.

Big caveat here: Just lifting someone else’s store list is a little rude and lazy in my book. They went through all the work of finding those customers, and they offer the listings to help their retail customers. Here are ways to keep this practice balanced and fair:

1) Do the work, and just use the list to do your own store research. Go to each store’s website, and see if they actually are a good candidate to approach. Check out their other artists and price ranges to ensure it really is a good fit.

2) Find a way to give back to the artist. Buy a piece of their work! If that’s too expensive, recommend their work to a store, or send them the info for a potential new venue.

3) Post your own store list, so other artists can do the same. What goes ’round, comes ’round.

Last, if you blog, ask your readers for good leads. It can be a way for them to “give back” for all the good stuff you share with them.

Okay, now let’s brainstorm: Who else could you ask for good store leads?

How to Halfway Wholesale: #3 Work Your Retail Shows

Third in a series on how to build your wholesale business at a more leisurely pace.

This tip is an easy one to overlook. But if you’re already doing retail shows, you can use them to build your wholesale business, too.

This works best if you’re doing one of the larger, more visible, higher quality shows. But you can actually tweak this with small shows, too.

To do this, you need to a) let stores know you are willing to wholesale and b) be prepared.

How do you let stores know you’re willing to wholesale?

Send a postcard with an image of your work to stores that are within reasonable driving distance of the show. You can target general gift or craft stores, or look for niche market stores that might be interested in your work.

If you’re just starting out and don’t have postcards yet, have a good photo taken and make reprints. Tuck it in a nice note, along with your business card, and invite the store owner or manager to the show. Some artists even include a free ticket to the show for a potentially great gallery they want to target. A personal invitation is cool!

Let them know you’re looking for store representation in their area, and they are your top choice. Offer to make time after show hours, or even after the show, to come by for a store visit to show them your work.

You can do this even if you are doing a small local craft show. As you grow and go farther afield for shows, do a little research for potential markets in those areas.

Now, weekends might be a bad time for a store owner to visit a show, and most shows are held on weekends. But if it’s nearby and they interested, they could still slip out for a peek, or send someone else. Or, if the work interests them, they can take up your offer for come by the store on your way back home. You’re already there for the show–why not piggy back on that and make it tour of potential stores in the area, too?

You might worry that store buyers don’t want vendors who do shows in their area. It’s true that some will complain about that, and won’t take you up on your offer. But many understand we may need to do shows, too, or that we are just starting out in wholesale. Many also see that particular show as a once-a-year venue, while they can carry your work year-round. I love stores that see this as a working relationship–I can refer customers to the local store if they don’t see what they want at the show, or for year-round sales. The store can build on the presence of the actual artist being in the area for a weekend. (“Meet the artist!”) It should be win-win, and people who think like this are my kind of people.

If you had a good show, you can use this to vet your work. “This line was very popular at the show–they sold like hotcakes!” (Why are pancakes used as a metaphor for successful selling, I don’t know.) “I believe your customers will like them, too.”

Even if the store doesn’t come to the show, or respond to your offer of contacting them after the show, visit as many of the stores as you can. This is good because you can see if the store is really a good fit for your work or not. If not, whew! You dodged a bullet.

If you think the store is a good fit for your work, ask for the owner/buyer/manager. Introduce yourself, and explain why you’re there. “I’m doing a show in the area and wanted to visit your store while I was in town.”

Be sure to tell them why you thought their store would be interested. (“I was in the area a few months ago, and visited your store. I see you specialize in whimsical gifts for animal lovers, and thought you might be interested in my cat mugs.” Or: “I researched stores in this area I thought might be a good fit for my work, and your store looked like a good fit. You have a beautiful website! I especially liked your on-line bridal registry feature, and thought my line of personalized wedding photo albums might be of interest…”)

Offer to leave some materials about your work–a business card, an image of your work (postcard, photo, catalog if you have one, etc.)

This is important: DO NOT TRY TO SELL YOUR WORK AT THIS POINT.

Make it crystal clear you are only hoping to leave some materials for them to look at, at their convenience.

Dropping in on a store unannounced and uninvited, expecting them to drop everything and look at your work, and pushing for a sale when they aren’t interested, is the most unprofessional thing you can do. You might as well wear a sign on your head that says, “I AM UNPROFESSIONAL AND CLUELESS ABOUT WHOLESALING.”

BUT….

If….IF…IF AND ONLY IF….they show strong interest and excitement about your work…. If they want to know more, lots more…. If they call other people over to look… If they ask if you have any actual samples on hand….

You can then casually mention that you’re on your way home from a show, you just happen to have some samples of your work in the car, and if they’d like to see them…..

You can see this tip takes sensitivity, delicacy, boldness and confidence. And not a little courage. If you think it’s hard to do a store visit, it’s even harder to “cold call”.

You have to be able to just leave your materials and walk away if they don’t take the bait. If you try to force the issue at all (“Wouldn’t you like to see the work itself??”) you lose. Big time.

But when it works, it’s fast and powerful. Sometimes the store will buy your work right there on the spot. (That’s so much nicer than hauling it all back home!)

I know an artist who successfully used this technique to build a thriving wholesale business. He never did wholesale shows, yet he had many, many more wholesale accounts than I did.

Of course, if you’re trying to do this after a show, it means keeping your inventory somewhat accessible. Packing up takes more attention than just throwing everything into the truck and squashing the door closed!

But if you gain a great new account, it’s worth it.

If you can’t do a store visit, you can still send the invitational postcards. You can always follow up after the show with a phone call or email. It’s not over until they actually say they’re not interested (and sometimes not even then.)

If that’s still too much on your plate, then try a discreet sign in your booth that indicates wholesale inquiries are welcome. To discourage bargain-hunting retail customers from simply trying to get a deal, you can add something like “with proper tax identification and resale number.” (Or whatever you require as proof for a bona fide reseller.)

And of course, if someone says, “Do you sell to stores? I have a small gallery nearby and I think we’d do well with your work…”, your answer is “YES!” Know that stores sometimes hesitate to ask outright, because some craftspeople are so hostile to the idea of wholesaling (“Stores want to buy it at half-price!”), they respond badly. So if store owners are unsure, they may not even ask. A sign tells them it’s okay to ask.

Ask your qualifying questions as you have time, or offer to follow up after the show.

So now that you’re encouraging that wholesale inquiry, be prepared.

Always keep a few extra business cards, postcards, catalog or line sheet/price sheet on hand. I’d say the minimum would be a postcard with a great picture of your work, with a note on the back saying something like “handmade jewelry boxes made from deadfall trees on our land, prices from $42 to $240 wholesale, minimum order $250 or six items.”

If you want to get fancy, get some of those ten-cent presentation folders from an office supply store, put in a business card, postcard, catalog, a short FAQ sheet explaining your process, your product lines, prices, terms, etc. and maybe a reprint of an article about your work, and anything else you would give a hot prospect at a regular wholesale show. (You did read the blogs I assigned as homework on wholesale, right? They’re listed at the end of this entry.)

If you aren’t busy with retail customers, be ready to actually write an order. Sometimes stores want to order with the actual pieces right in front of them. Let them know which items are one-of-a-kind and which ones can be reproduced as shown.

This seems simplistic, but know your wholesale prices, or be able to get that information fast. With the stress of being at a show, it’s not hard to get brain lock when the buyer says, “Okay, this piece you’ve priced at $240–what’s your wholesale price on it?” Keep a cheat sheet behind the counter, or check your wholesale catalog. It’s okay. Store owners know that shows are stressful. (Or they should know!) Many retailers of fine craft are–or were–craftspeople, too.

Try it out. Make your current retail shows a miniature wholesale show experience!