Going Pro: Marketing Your Work

By Douglas Bittinger
Smoky Mountain Woodworks 


OK, so now you have your tools collected and arranged in a suitable workspace, you have your friends and family on board with the idea that you are a professional, you have created a legal business entity, set up the bookkeeping and found suppliers for the materials you will need to produce your product and have decided how much to charge. Now all you need are customers to buy that product and you are on your way!

Where do we find buyers? Buyers are everywhere, but getting them to notice your work – and feel a need to own it – that is the trick!

There are many venues you can employ to market your work: the Internet, art and craft shows, woodworking shows, art shows, festivals and fairs, a store front, consignment to retailers, wholesale to retailers, a wide spot in the road, direct marketing to friends, relatives and neighbors, direct mail marketing, e-mail marketing, television and radio advertising, magazine advertising, local newspapers, and gifting to charity auctions. All can be effective sales mediums; all can be a waste of time and effort. Partly it depends on your product. Partly it depends on local society. Partly it depends on you and your personality. In the end, only you can determine what works best for you, so let's look at each of these sales possibilities and help you decide what will work for you.

People Helping People

One of the most often overlooked marketing tools is simply allowing other people to help you. For example, I was in our local hardware store where I buy some of our supplies. Vern rang up the sale. He knows he's seen me in there lots of times and asked, "What do you DO with all this stuff?" I explained about building custom furniture and his eyes lit up "Oh! Do you have any cards? We've had several people in here looking for someone like you. They just built log homes or cabins and want local made furniture." So I gave him some cards. I get quite a few referrals via word-of-mouth.

I used to do a lot of woodturning: bowls, pens, bottle stoppers, goblets, you name it. But lately I haven't had time for such things. When I come across people needing something turned, I refer them to Lynn, a fellow I know in Del Rio just a few miles from here. One such referral has kept him so busy he's been turning down additional work.

Come to think of it, I'm fortunate to be part of a loose knit group of local woodworkers, wood turners, cabinetmakers and woodcarvers. Nothing organized, just acquaintances. When a client asks me for something I am unable to provide – either because I lack the skills, equipment or time – I can send them on to someone who can. And my fellows-in-woodworking do the same for me. I learned long ago that by helping a customer find what they need instead of just saying 'no' earns you a place in their minds. Even if I don't do this job for them, they will remember me and come back when they have something I can do.

Internet

Selling over the internet can be done through your own private website, through a co-op website like Hand Made In America or through a major player like Amazon, E-Bay or Craig's List.

Using your own website to sell takes the most effort to set up, but offers you the most control over content and will usually end up costing you the least. To do this you need a hosting service – a place on the Internet where your website will live. You will also need a domain name. This is just the name that your website will go by – usually it is the same as your business name, or at least some recognizable derivation of it. The key word there is "recognizable." We'll get into that more when we discuss "branding."

There are many, many hosting services available. Many are quite inexpensive ($5 to $10 per month), many are reliable, some are both. Any that will be any good to you will offer tools to help you set up a website using templates and a basic shopping cart. This way you do not need to know how to "program" in HTML, XML or PHP, the languages of the Internet. If you can produce a flyer or brochure on your computer, you can use templates to set up a website. Just find one that you like the looks of and plug in text, pictures and pricing. It really is as easy as that. Ask around, shop around, but most importantly check out the customer service of any hosting service you are considering. Most do not lock you into a contract, but moving a website because you've decided you don't like the hosting company is a real pain. When you need help, the last thing you want is to be ignored for a week, or to be told that there is no problem, when you know there is.

Co-op websites are usually run by an organization, often a non-profit organization like a club or guild which promotes an interest in a certain topic. If your area of woodworking fits into their topic of interest you can sell your work through their website. How this is done varies widely from offering you a basic listing displaying your work with a phone number where buyers can call you to negotiate price and shipping, to a fully functional on-line mall. The more they do for you, the more likely it is that they will be needing compensation from you for their efforts. Compensation is usually handled by means of a monthly membership fee supplemented by a transaction fee, percentage of sale, or both.

Major on-line vendors like E-Bay and Amazon are generally easy to use because they provide everything needed to get your item on the web, will process the payment and notify you of the sale so you don't even have to be watching it. They do all the marketing and have millions of people visiting every day. You just post your item to their listings and wait for it to sell. But... you are also just one of a million vendors selling your wares. Getting those shoppers to find your item means learning the ropes of search engine optimization, which means posting a good listing, using the right key words, photographs, and effective descriptions. Study listings in the site you want to sell through. And, no, you don't always have to use the auction format. Even E-Bay has gotten to where sellers can offer an item for immediate sale rather than taking bids if they so choose. The fees for all this convenience can get steep and complex. Check them out carefully before posting an item and setting a price or you may not end up getting what you need out of it.

Craig's List is much more basic: a listing of things for sale, jobs and services available. Not nearly as snazzy, but they don't charge for the service. And they do get a lot of traffic.

Shows, Festivals and Fairs

This topic includes anything from a craft show at your local church to the State Fair that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors. Most of the time doing shows means displaying your work outdoors so you will need proper shelter for you and your work as Mother Nature can be contrary. You will need the ability to transport your work to the show safely, and you will need to be able and willing to stay with your display all day for as long as the show lasts. If you have a "crew" you can take turns. You will also need the ability to "hawk" your goods. If you sit meekly in the back of your tent and hope your work will sell itself, you will probably be taking most of it back home with you. You don't want to become a sideshow carney, but you will need to greet people, engage them in conversation and be readily available to discuss your work, point out its benefits and features, and tell them a little about "the artist." People respond well to this if you can do it in a polite, engaging manner. Demonstrating your work is a great attention-getter too, even if you're just sanding something.

You will also need enough of your work on hand to be worth going to a show. Most show customers don't like to place an order at a show for delivery later... unless it's a trade show; then this is standard operating procedure.

Select your shows carefully – find ones that fit your product. If you turn high-end segmented bowls, you won't do well at a church craft bazaar. If you make twig birdhouses, you will have no fun displaying in a fine art show.

The better shows are juried. Be prepared to supply quality photos, careful descriptions and pricing information for your work to the Jury Committee. Juried shows often have a non-refundable jury fee as well as the entry or booth fee.

Fees vary greatly. Community craft shows often charge booth fees as low as $20. The big Craftsman Fair in Gatlinburg TN routinely charges $1,000 to $2,000 per vendor. The big fairs are often inside a climate controlled exposition center, draw huge crowds and offer security guards at night, but to make a profit you will need to sell enough product to cover the entry fee, your travel expenses and your lodging and meals during the show. Then the profit making begins.

One comment I have heard often at shows comes from vendors who do the smaller shows regularly; they develop a sense of community and friendship between them. These groups of friendly competitors often watch each others' booths so someone else can get away for a moment, and help each other set up and take down tents. I can recall several heartwarming tales of this nature.

A Storefront

A "store" can be anything from a spare room in your home (or a converted shed in your yard) to a brick and glass building on a main road downtown. The biggest advantage of a storefront is customer accessibility; buyers can come in and browse, see your work up close and personal and ask questions as they come to mind. Having your work in one permanent location means never having to load, unload, and travel around with it. Selling out of a store direct to the public usually means not having to deal with shipping your items – they go out the door with the customer.

But to be any good to you, customers must be able to find the store and it must be open on a regular schedule. A store that is not open is no good to anyone.

A spare room or a converted shed offers the advantage of minimal cost and maximum convenience for you, but unless your 'store' is in a heavily trafficked location, you will need advertising, and lots of it.

A proper storefront building in a good location will be convenient to your customers and increase traffic with less advertising but will carry with it lease or mortgage payments. Also, will you leave your woodworking to play shopkeeper, or hire someone to do your selling for you? The higher the operating costs, the more goods you must sell just to break even – then you can start making a profit for the month. But a great location greatly increases your chances of selling your goods. You must find the balance.

If you know one or more other craftsmen/artisans who want to open a store, you can partner up to run a joint venture, rotating as shopkeeper and sharing the expenses and profits.

Another way to get your own "store" is to lease space in a craft mall. These expenses are much lower than a building of your own and they will generally ring up sales for all their vendors so you don't have to be there. They will not stock your store space for you and accept no responsibility for damage or theft of your goods. But a good "mall" will do lots of advertising and bring in crowds of people looking for hand made items – maybe the things you make. Check your local yellow pages for craft malls in your area. Spend some time hanging out in each one, look at the traffic, look at the sales. Are they lookers or buyers? Talk with the vendors you find stocking their space about their thoughts on the mall. This will give you good information for making a decision.

Consignment / Wholesale

These two are very similar in appearance, but quite different in function. Consignment means that a retail store allows you to put your work in their display area and they will try to sell it for you, then give you a portion of the proceeds. I've seen consignment fees run anywhere from 10% to 60% of the selling price. The consignment fee is the portion the retailer keeps – you get the rest. High consignment fees mean that either you are making next to nothing from the sale or the price has to be jacked way up for you to get what you need from it. Reasonable consignment fees benefit all: you, the seller and the buyer. Again, the consignee (the shopkeeper) usually does not accept responsibility for damage or theft, but a good businessman (or woman) will take reasonable precautions to prevent this. The only drawback to consignment is that you make no money unless a piece you have on display sells. If it does not sell by the end of the consignment period, you get it back to try somewhere else. Sales are not guaranteed.

You can find local consignment shops in the yellow pages and newspaper advertising. Quite often, regular retail stores offering work similar to yours will take in consignments if you ask about it. Finding them may mean expending some shoe leather to take an example or two of your work around and inquiring, politely, if they do consignments.

Selling your work to a retailer at wholesale means they pay you for the goods on delivery and you walk away with cash in hand, but they will expect deep discounts. Typically, wholesale pricing is no more than 50% of the retail price. Most of the time selling wholesale only works with items that you can make quickly and in quantity. By using mass production techniques you can reduce the man-hours put into each piece and realize a small profit on each of many pieces to yield a decent return on your labor.

Selling wholesale is often a tough job. Prospects are easier to find: anyone who sells woodwork – unless they sell exclusively their own woodwork – is a candidate. They buy their stuff somewhere – why not from you? You'll have to know exactly how much you must get to make the profit you need and a good idea of what the item will sell for locally. Using prices posted in a Paris art show or New York boutique will be of no value in Boise, Idaho. Be realistic. Be prepared to haggle, but hold to your bottom line. The warm glow of having made a sale fades quickly once you realize you made nothing on it. You are in business now; you must DO business with others. Don't rip them off, but don't let them cheat you either.

I get e-mail messages from people like David Thibos, Director of Merchandising at WiseRep.com who claims to want our woodwork to sell on QVC and through major retail stores. We don't mass produce anything so I've never looked into this. If you do make items in quantity, this may be an avenue for you.

Direct Marketing

Remember the Fuller Brush Man? That was direct marketing. This is you selling directly to other people in person: no store, no website, no front men, just you. You can do this by pulling off the road in a wide spot and opening up the back of your truck, or by talking to friends and relatives, maybe inviting them over for a little get together and mentioning that you made "this," do they like it, would they like to have one like it? Hucksterim at it's finest.

It also leads to one of the most effective, as well as cost effective, forms of advertising: word of mouth. These days they call it "viral marketing" because if you tell 5 people and they each tell 5 people, that's 25 people who now know you. If they each tell 5 people that's 125 potential buyers, and it grows like a virus from there. Just make sure that what they're saying about you is GOOD!

When you do make a sale, give the buyer a few of your business cards and explain that you are just getting started and would really appreciate their help in spreading the word. If you have impressed them as a decent human being who does good work, they will help.

Direct Mail / E-mail Marketing

In my opinion this is a waste of time, effort and money for this type of work. Maybe if you're making a compellingly-priced product that will appeal to a broad base of people, mass distribution of postcards or newspaper inserts will get you some customers. Printing and mass mailing a catalog of products is prohibitively expensive for a start-up company. How many mail order catalogs do you receive in the mail each month? How many *new* catalogs do you actually buy from? Not many I'll bet. Producing a catalog to mail to people who ask about your work is one thing. Mailing to everyone in a specific zip code is another.

A former associate of mine (who has moved on to form his own woodworking business) told me that he got good results from printing up flyers hundreds at a time and placing them under windshield wipers of nice cars at mall parking lots or hanging them on doors in upscale neighborhoods. This required a considerable investment of time and effort, but it got him 4 or 5 good contracts, one of which has blossomed into an on-going job for a major company. So mass distribution of printed matter can work out, but even here he was targeting his customers, not blanketing everyone in the city.

You will no doubt receive notices from mass e-mailing services offering to make you instantly rich and famous by broadcasting your promotional material to trillions of Internet users all across the world. The fee may even seem attractive. But these days everyone is using spam filters (which have nothing to do with canned lunch meat) to trash-can just this sort of e-mail before they ever see it so they don't have to deal with it. Again, if someone e-mails you and asks for information, by all means respond. If you have a list of former customers, drop them a note to let them know of a new product, but stay away from sending unsolicited mass e-mail.

Television and Radio Marketing

Rates for local TV and radio advertising seem to be coming down, but are still pretty stiff for us small guys to use very much. However there are some opportunities if you seek them out.

Sometimes you can even glean some free air time that will benefit your business. For example, we sponsored an annual 4th of July festival for several years. Somehow we caught the eye of NBC Nightly News in New York (they said they turned us up with a Google search for 4th of July celebrations) who sent a film crew out. They spent an entire day at the festival, interviewing our craftspeople, musicians, and filming the festivities. When they aired the piece they were working on, the 8 hours of filming distilled down to 37 seconds of air time. But that 37 seconds sure got a response! For months people were saying "Oh, I saw you guys on the NBC News!" Do you have any idea what it would have cost to BUY 37 seconds of national prime-time broadcasting from NBC?

The same effect can be had by getting involved with local organizations and charities. Helping them with their events and operations will often benefit you with an on-air mention of your business's involvement.

If you get to know some of the local radio personalities, learn what they're looking for in future programming. You may be able to help them, thus letting them help you too. Also check with the local programming arm of the cable TV company. Local or regional programs often visit local businesses or spotlight an artist's work. Be creative – be bold – after all, the worst they can do is say "no."

If you've got money to spend, consider becoming a sponsor for a local radio or TV show. Smoky Mountain Woodworks underwrites some programming on a local Christian radio station for less than what it would cost to run a decent sized ad in the paper. We listen to broadcasts of NASCAR racing on another local radio station and have often thought that we should get our name added to that program's list of sponsors. The University public radio station in Knoxville is always looking for sponsors for special programs. These don't cost all that much because several sponsors can throw in together and split the underwriting cost and all get recognized for their support.

Again, you will want to target your market audience. If you sell antique reproduction furniture, the local rock & roll station may not be the best venue for you. Listeners of classical and PBS radio tend to be moneyed individuals who might be interested in custom furniture (which is what we do).

Newspaper and Magazine

My wife is often told by people we know that they see her picture in the paper more often than even the Mayor. This is because she is active in our community. We are both involved in a variety of local efforts but she is the "face" of Smoky Mountain Woodworks. I am more of a behind-the-scenes fellow, but I have been presented with a few awards from the community for my efforts on its behalf. These involvements also mean that we get to rub elbows with the political potentates and business bosses of the area. As a result we have done a number of furniture pieces for prominent folks who tend to entertain groups of people in their home – who will sometimes ask their host about a piece of furniture that catches their eye. This can lead to referrals (see the comments about viral marketing above) or at the very least, greater awareness of our existence.

For several years I wrote a regular column for a local paper. Instead of paying me for the column, they traded it out for a quarter page of display advertising which brought in quite a lot of visitors to our store. By trading out the column for the advertising, it cost neither of us anything and benefited both.

Just sending your story to the local paper is a good way to get introduced to the community. Many will run a good story about a local fellow realizing a dream and they reach thousands of people. And the best part is that it's all free! Even if you are not comfortable with writing your own article, letting them know you are available may get a reporter to come interview you. But generally, the easier you make it for them, the better results you will get. If you can't write an article, find a friend who can.

Also, if you submit articles to woodworking magazines, occasionally they will publish one. Even if you don't consider yourself to be a writer, you might want to try your hand at a short piece, especially if you have some clever tip or technique to share. The magazine's editorial staff will polish your spelling and grammar. And again the worst they can do is to say "no thanks."

Trade magazines are always looking for new material. Make sure you send them information on what you are doing on a regular basis. There is no guarantee that they'll use it, but if you don't send them anything, it is guaranteed not to be seen. Use those fabulous photographs that you've taken of your latest piece or project to introduce yourself to a new publication. Granted, woodworking trade magazines cater primarily to woodworkers, but interior decorators and general contractors read them too as a way of finding woodworkers to hire for their jobs. Even a small blurb about you and a photo of a nice piece you've done may catch someone's eye and get them to call you about doing a job for them.

As for buying display advertising in major magazines – this is very expensive. Just a little block ad in the back will usually run several hundred dollars. A quarter or half-page ad in the main section will cost thousands. But then I'm naturally cheap about things like this. We make a part used by another small company to make a product that they sell direct to the public, mostly through magazine advertising. For them, display ads in large circulation, national magazines have been their bread and butter. So, maybe I'm wrong on that count. I'll let you know once I have a few thousand extra dollars to try it out.

What to Expect From Advertising

One of the first things an ad salesman will tell you, if he is any good, is that it is unrealistic to expect any form of advertising to bring immediate or dramatic results. Advertising is a long term proposition. People need to see an ad or a sign many times, not just once or twice before your company becomes memorable. Then when they need your services you will come to mind. Of course they might be searching for a woodworker and stumble across your name the first time you put it out there. But don't bank on it.

People who study such things tell us that on average, you need to contact a hundred people to get one interested prospect and you need ten prospects to get one actual sale. So don't get totally deflated if your first advertisement doesn't yield a landslide of clients. They also say that – on average – we need to see or hear a company name or brand a minimum of 9 times before we remember that we've encountered it before and lend it credence. On a rare occasion they will be searching for what you do, see your name and follow up right away, but... not often.

You may find yourself saying "I spent $xxx on this ad and I didn't even get one call. What a waste of money!" At that point probably the last thing you're wanting to do is to buy another ad. But think about how many ads you see over and over. These are the ones that are effective because they are hammering the message home and people remember them and the products or services they are promoting.

One company that advertises in our local paper asks the paper to print it's 2x2 block ad upside down. It certainly does get attention! Of course the paper also adds a disclaimer stating that this was done intentionally.

The problem is that this kind of persistent advertising is expensive, and most small start-up businesses don't think they can afford the cost of an ongoing ad campaign. You may be tempted to buy cheap ads in local "junk mail" flyers that most people simply toss in the trash. Don't be surprised when these ads produce no business. The bottom line is that if you are going to invest money in advertising, you need to spread it out so that you can keep your ad "live" for as long as possible and you must put it where the people you want to sell to will see or hear it. Choose your advertising vehicles carefully, then stick with it long enough to get a true reading on its effectiveness. Also, the longer you commit to running an ad, the cheaper it is on a per-impression basis, so ask about their "campaign" rates and do some comparison pricing.

Gifting / Donations

My final sales outlet topic is that of promoting your work by giving it away. One of the first things we did when we got here was to make up a bunch of wooden fountain pens, and join the Chamber of Commerce. When we went to the Chamber meetings, we met the City Mayor, the County Mayor, the big business bosses as well as a bunch of fellow small business people. We then went around to the local officials and gave out these fountain pens as a thank you for welcoming us to the community. It wasn't long before the local office supply store was calling us wanting to buy a bunch of those pens. It seems anyone who is anyone in Cocke County was showing off their hand-turned Smoky Mountain Woodworks fountain pen, and others wanted into the club.

When you donate an item to a charity auction the item is displayed along with the donors' name and phone number. Most of the time you may also leave a stack of business cards for people to take with them. Charity auctions are often the domain of the well-to-do, people who can afford custom made furniture. They can be a source of good referrals. When the auction is over, whatever the item brought in for the charity is tax deductible to you as a donation to that charity.

We have donated rocking chairs to the County Tourism office, and when their visitors comment on what comfortable chairs they are, the director gives them our name and number.

Sometimes being generous with others pays you back many times over. Just use your head as well as your heart. Budget for contributions, and work within your budget so you don't give away the farm.

Branding

This is the fancy term for tying all your marketing efforts together. When you see two golden arches, what do you think of? McDonalds, right? Why? Because you've been seeing those arches all over the place for as long as you can remember. They took a very simple symbol and put it on everything they did so people have come to associate it with their company.

We can do the same. Even if you have no 'logo,' pick a theme for your company, a set of colors that you will use like a flag, and a company name that is memorable, then put these on everything you put out: business cards, brochures, product tags, website, envelopes, stationery – heck, have magnetic signs made and put on the sides of your truck. (Just be sure you have commercial plates on the truck or you risk a ticket for improper licensing.)

By tying all of your marketing materials together through the use of a color scheme, logo and naming, you create a memorable symbol that will help people think of your company when they see your colors or something resembling your logo.

If you have a website, make sure the web address is on everything. This way you drive traffic to your website and it will work effectively for you.

In parting...

I'd like to share a few testimonials I've found interesting. You will notice that they offer a variety of products, work at a variety of skill levels, and use a variety of means to sell them. There is no "magic bean" to success in this work. You may have to try a number of things. We will start with our own story.

Smoky Mountain Woodworks started out offering our "Functional Art" to gift shops in the nearby tourist meccas of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, Tennessee. We came here expecting to make a living by consigning and wholesaling our work to these shops who would resell it to the millions of visitors to the Great Smoky Mountain region every year. It didn't work out that way.

Our website www.SmokyMountainWoodworks.com turned out to be far more lucrative than local sales. After we posted a piece of furniture (our first set of TV Tray Tables) to our website, just as an example of what else we could do, things really took off. Soon we were so busy building custom furniture we had no time for the small pieces. Before this if anyone had told me that people were eager to buy custom made furniture over the Internet, I'd have told them they were crazy. Who would do that? Boy was I wrong!

Al Hudson is an incredible woodworker and an even more incredible person who builds some of the most beautiful pieces of period furniture that you will see anywhere. Mr. Hudson is 87 years young and has been building furniture for 73 years!

Heather Jansch produces electrifyingly dramatic horses from driftwood that race across lawns, leap down banks and grassy slopes leading towards a steep magical woodland trail and timeless stream-bordered water meadow.

A.C. Krause, Jr. was launched into a woodworking and design career when his wife bought a porch swing. His yard is his primary marketing tool!

John Sprankel, who started out with a "faith and shoe leather" approach to marketing, expanded to embrace a variety of media and became quite successful as a woodworker. He had been in business making heirloom-quality wooden rocking horses for two years before getting his first big break. At the time, he and his wife Anna could not afford a vacation, so they piled their girls and a few of their handcrafted horses into the car and headed for Gatlinburg, Tennessee, promising the girls that if they sold one horse, they'd get a hotel room and stay overnight. Well, they sold all the horses they had and took orders for 20 more. From there business took off at a gallop. That was 20 years ago. To date the Sprankells have built more than 24,000 rocking horses, and these beautiful, handcrafted horses have been featured on QVC and Tennessee Crossroads. The unique rocking horses are sold in multiple retail outlets throughout the state and on the Internet, and have now been shipped to all 50 states and 16 countries.



Douglas Bittinger has been building custom fine furniture for over 25 years, and has been lead repair tech for a major furnishings retail store chain. Along with his wife, Marie, he currently operates Smoky Mountain Woodworks in Edwina, TN.


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