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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This month:

So You Want to Turn "Pro?" – Be Careful What You Wish For!

"A Reverence for Wood"

Zerust NoRust Non-Slip Drawer Liner

Lie-Nielsen Medium Shoulder Plane

Turning Pro - Be Careful What You Wish For!

With a nugget of an idea and a few scattered and incoherent sentences, my thoughts about "turning pro" started creating controversy as soon as it was mentioned as "upcoming" in last month's column. A couple of reference points might quell the passions or fuel the flames further, but it is important to understand the perspectives from which this article approaches the subject.

First, some perspective on the word "professional." One dictionary gives nine definitions of the word "professional" when used as an adjective, and four more when used as a noun. With all these nuanced definitions, only three reference the word "professional" as connoting quality or expertise. The majority of definitions imply that "professional" simply means that the activity is undertaken for money, as opposed to other reasons (leisure, pastime, altruism, etc.).

Comparing unpaid amateur athletes to paid professional athletes might be a plausible analogy, but in our world of "professional" sales and marketing the sports analogy is insufficient, because while it is true that some world class amateur athletes turn professional, I doubt seriously that a mediocre amateur athlete could turn professional and make much of a living. Contrarily, in the manufacture of products and the provision of services, it is entirely possible, through creative marketing, to successfully sell a mediocre product or service. Because you are a professional does not necessarily mean you are better, more talented, or produce a superior product… it simply means you do it for money.

"Hanging out your [woodworking] shingle" should probably be more accurately characterized as turning "commercial" as opposed to turning "professional," but with so many articles previously dedicated to the concept of "turning pro," I have chosen to keep with that verbiage.

A second important angle to the perspective from which this article stems, is that the intended audience is a broad swath of down-to-earth woodworkers who dream of making a living doing what they most enjoy. There is another group of woodworkers who are contemplating, and likely will, turn "pro," for whom this article is not intended.

Thousands of us have entertained the thought of making a living doing what we love. Business books abound that agree we will ultimately be most successful if we enjoy what we do. If your dreams include designing, building, and copywriting that earth-shaking and popular new furniture design line that ultimately gets licensed by a major furniture manufacturer, and you thereafter are able to bask in the notoriety and riches you so deserve, this article is not intended for you. If you dream of holding court by the pool at your luxurious new seaside mansion while elite fashion designers and architects hang on your every syllable seeking clues as to your next ground-breaking design release, or if you fantasize about guardedly handing out scarce and exclusive tickets to your next private showing, you really need not read further. But, if you are like the majority of us, and have made "nice" candlesticks, bookends, bowls, casework, birdhouses, deck chairs, or jewelry boxes and think that you would like to turn them out by the hundreds and make a living doing so, this article is laser-aimed at you. It is a cautionary tale.

It should also be noted that my perspective is decidedly pro-free enterprise… I am an unabashed champion of the entrepreneurial spirit and do whatever I can to support new businesses. I will endure bad coffee if I know the local coffee shop was started by a puckish, bootstrapping entrepreneur.

Most past articles on the subject of turning "pro" fall into one of two categories: (1) How to go about the transformation, or (2) The joys of doing what you love for a living. A third viewpoint, however, is critical to the ongoing discussion… be careful what you wish for… you might just get it. As stated previously, it is a cautionary tale.

Be careful what you wish for…

One of my earliest boyhood recollections is of playing with a chemistry set. Probably the second earliest memory is of mixing the chemicals needed to develop film. I cannot remember a youthful time when I was not enamored with photography. I started with an old Yashica 120mm twin lens reflex camera when there was not much film available other than black and white. I learned to develop the film to save money but soon grew to love the creative control and additional artistic freedom the darkroom provided.

Eventually an enlarger joined my battered old chemical trays, then another camera expanded my repertoire, and somewhere along the line I acquired a tripod, then a light meter. By the time I was fifteen, I had a darkroom permanently set up in what had once been a closet, and was becoming a fair photographer. There was no part of the photographic process I did not love.

Take the pictures, develop the film, make the prints… it was all fun and creative. In high school I intended to join the school paper solely to have access to the school darkroom, but soon found that my photography was also keeping me busy. I became editor of the school paper, won a couple of awards and even a scholarship. Somewhere in there, I also began to write a few words.

College was a complete blast. Despite the three part time jobs and the crushing costs, the world was my oyster and I was eating them by the dozen. After school I taught for a brief period of time and wrote for a newspaper, but nothing seemed as alluring as photography. So, at a tender age I begged, borrowed, and scraped, and borrowed some more, and opened a small photography studio.

Looking back, it was a rather pedestrian affair. Eight hundred tiny square feet in a nearly defunct, off-the-beaten-path strip shopping center, with a display window, an open area that became my studio, and a small storeroom and bathroom that I converted to darkroom use. Perhaps some other time I will describe the table that was hinged to the wall and held film processing supplies… it had to be cleared and lifted up in order to use the toilet. My next-door neighbor manufactured potato salad. In the future I might also explain the reasons why I have not eaten potato salad in over thirty years. But for now, I will stick with the genesis of "turning professional."

The first studio portrait job I got forced me to borrow materials from a variety of places in order to set up suitable backgrounds. With the money from that first job I drove 120 miles and bought some seamless background paper. And so it went.

Like small business people everywhere, I did what was needed to make the business successful. I shot weddings, school pictures, crime scenes, advertisements, portraits, dirt track car races, little-kid sports, and more. The business took off.

Soon I had a second photographer, a new building, then a second building, and a full-blown custom commercial color laboratory. I was even providing film processing and printing for other professional photographers. I averaged shooting twenty weddings a month, had major contracts with advertising agencies, furniture-makers, electronics manufacturers, lingerie designers and more. The studio became the de facto choice for political advertising, executive portraiture, and portfolio shots for aspiring models. I still made a little time for "art" and landscape photography, and even had a one-man traveling show where I sold "signed and numbered" prints, but the "meat and potatoes" photography was consuming me.

Just barely four years after my humbling start, I sold the business and its almost fifty employees. In the thirty years since, it has only been recently that I have been able to half-heartedly snap a photo without cringing, grimacing, and mumbling. A few years ago, outside a museum, a gaggle of young tourists innocently handed me their point-and-shoot digital camera and asked that I take their picture. They must have thought I was the most dour and sour American alive – I probably set international relations back a few years. What happened to that pie-eyed idealist who so loved photography? Why had I become the photo-curmudgeon?

The answer is simple, really. Once photography became a business, parts of it, for me, became drudgery. Then more parts became drudgery, and soon, the luster was completely gone. It was just not "fun" any more.

In the last year before selling the business, I snapped over one quarter million exposures. The thrill was going fast. Ad agencies annoyed me, sniping newlyweds and in-laws arguing over poses annoyed me, vacuous models annoyed me, and self-important executives annoyed me. I vowed then and there to never let commercialism destroy another hobby. To this day I have most purposely never sold a piece of furniture, and I never will.

Please do not misunderstand me for even a nanosecond. I am firmly, solidly in the camp of free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and small-business start-ups. This is, as stated before, merely a cautionary tale. Do not allow the allure of doing what you love to overshadow the realities of small-business ownership.

There is no doubt that you loved building that stool (nightstand, birdhouse, table, box, chair, etc.) or turning that gorgeous bowl (pen, candlestick, etc.); but when you have to turn them out day-in and day-out, dozens or hundreds of times, will you still love it as much? If familiarity breeds contempt, as the old saying goes, then repetitiveness must breed boredom.

When what were before adoring recipients of the gifts of your craft become instead paying and demanding customers, will the psychological rewards be as great? When "Gee, this is great, thanks!" turns into "I was really hoping for more (less, straighter, curvier, etc.) grain" or "I thought the finish would be a little darker," will you love your craft as much?

This is not a discouragement, but rather an encouragement to make sure that you enter any business venture with eyes wide open. Entrepreneurs invariably ask themselves "What if I fail?" I am encouraging you to ask the other question, "What if I am successful?"

What if I fail? What if I am successful?

Steam may currently be about to exit your ears and your fingers may be poised above the keyboard to fire off an e-mail (which is encouraged), but do allow me to add one additional note first. It was, more than anything else, sheer numbers that spoiled me to my once-loved photography hobby. Had I been able to make a living photographing only what I wanted, when I wanted, and selling my prints like artwork, I would undoubtedly still love doing it. But business demands and lack of talent forced me to rely on volume and numbers to drive success. If you are good enough (and many of you are) and confident enough (you know who you are) to build one-of-a-kind masterpieces or custom furniture, sell them for top dollar, and live the life of a true artiste, you will probably never suffer the tedium of repetition. But if your business plan indicates breakeven at twenty-five birdhouses a week, think long and hard. Decide now if the twenty-sixth birdhouse each week is going to be as much fun to build as the first one is today. If you can honestly answer "yes," then go for it!

Some might feel that I feel disdain for some types of marketing, or you may feel that anything that sells must be good, otherwise why would people buy? Some, correctly, will posit that beauty, and by extension, craftsmanship, quality, etc., is in the eye of the beholder. Still others will take exception to my preferred definition of the word "professional." Indulge me for a moment more, with one additional story of my photographic business experience.

As stated previously, when starting out, I did whatever was necessary to make a buck. I once photographed garbage for a government study and nights I worked as a stringer for a local paper, mostly chronicling late night crime scenes.

Weddings are potential goldmines for photographers. The "holy grail" of profit is the post-nuptial reprint frenzy, when relatives and friends order multiple copies of everything from the cute little ring bearer, to the kiss, to the cake cutting, to the first dance. Weddings generate copious profit through reprints, so the key to success is simple - get the job. Get the job, at any price, and the reprints can make you rich. Knowing that, I priced my original "starter" wedding package at $39. The package included forty small proofs in a little book and a black and white portrait for the newspaper announcement. With a "loss leader" to get my foot in the door (or more accurately, the wedding chapel), the business quickly grew to average almost twenty weddings a month.

As months slid by and the other studio business increased, I became less enamored with weddings as a source of revenue. I was reciting wedding vows in my sleep and knew a couple of dozen clergy by first name. In my sophomoric business mind, I reasoned that raising my basic wedding package price would decrease the number of weddings, and that I could work less and make the same amount of money. So, I raised my prices. And then I raised them again. Then again, and then again. In less than one year's time, I was charging $1,800 for each hour of my time at a wedding, the customer got no pictures for that price and had better commit to huge reorders or I would simply refuse to shoot the wedding (these are circa 1975 dollars, by the way). If the wedding was more than a few miles away, I charged travel-time. I delegated the reception photos to another (junior) photographer. My demands put me in greater demand than ever. People changed their wedding dates to accommodate my schedule. It just was not considered a proper social event unless I shot your wedding photos.

Genius Marketing, By Accident

Unwittingly, I had marketed my limited skills and sold my marginal capabilities by creating a mystique and thereby developing a cult-like following through a combination of price and personal indifference. When I started the business my conversation was "Please consider using me as your photographer." When I finally stopped doing weddings altogether, my conversation had become, "Tell me about your wedding plans and convince me why I should (deign to) do your photographs."

My skills had not improved significantly from the guy who shot $39 wedding packages, and certainly my "bedside manner" had not improved (in fact, it got worse). It seems that the more a wedding or a wedding party annoyed me and the more I showed my angst, the more it added to the mystique, and the more in-demand I became. I could feel guilty for the intellectual dishonesty, but my customers were always happy with their photos and the experience. I thus learned a valuable marketing (and life) lesson. "Professional" simply means you do it for money and the word should never be automatically conflated with expertise, skill, or talent. It is possible, through marketing, to sell average quality ice cubes at premium prices to residents of the polar region.

If you have the moxie, the skills, and the marketing wherewithal to drive your prices higher and put yourself in ever-higher demand, while always pleasing your customers, go for it. Build a mystique and panache and the price of admission to your world of craftsmanship will soar. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there is intrinsic value to a one-of-a-kind hand made piece of furniture that only future generations will learn to accurately appraise. You will surely be less likely to suffer from the boredom of repetition. I can still recite wedding vows from memory.

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