This morning, I purchased a few domains: ArtByBrett.com and CardsByBrett.com, and the variations in spelling of my name.
Twenty years from now, my hope is that my artwork is recognized well enough that upon retirement, I can make a decent living as an artist. My Christmas cards got a very positive response (I still have a couple to send out). And what surprised me is that one woman even bought a dozen to send to her family. But the conversations that sprung up around it... I love bringing a smile to people when I can, and I'd love to continue that with custom cards. So I'll be working on other flavors of cards: birthday, thanks, missing you, etc.
Hence the CardsByBrett.com domain. I did some searching yesterday for a cheaper printer than Kinko's, who did a fine job to be sure, but at over $30 for 25, they're prohibitively expensive to resell. I think I've found one online, but I want to check with the printers in town here and see if I can strike a better price. I'd like to produce cards, that when given to someone, can be framed to make the memory of the gift/thought linger and be pleasing to look at as well. That meets my goal of selling my art at an accessible price. If people like it and want a signed print, those will be available from the web site. How's that for a mission statement?
Today, I did some work on the model for ArtByBrett.com (domain purchased, but no web site yet...) and in the course of my work on it, I checked out the process for obtaining bar codes. Why? Because if I am to sell greeting cards through retail stores, then having a real UPC on the back of the cards will help the retailer and enhance my legitimiacy. So...
I visited this page and went through the process far enough to see what the price might be. For 100 bar codes (100 products - have to think ahead...) the price was $750, with a $150 annual renewal fee. That's not bad at all, really. That means that my cards would have a unique code in the retail environment all their own. So for the printer fees and the bar code purchase, I'm well over $1,000 to get started at this. There's the risk for me, financially. If nothing sells, that's what I lose. That's okay - it's worth the dream.
Between now and mid-February, when I plan to start selling my cards, I have to paint 8 sellable card designs, and then write a customized shopping cart that integrates with PayPal. I've decided to go with PayPal because the fees are reasonable and I can create the order number and order details in my own database, and then hand off the order number and total sale amount to PayPal for payment processing. Or, I can allow the buyer to print the invoice and send me a check referencing the order number, if they don't like PayPal.
I've been down this road before when I sold my own software. The only difference is that now I'll have inventory - lots of cards on-hand. Software is virtual, unless people wanted the software on CD.
I've worked through the business model, thinking of every possible expense that I can and building a spreadsheet to represent cash flow and margins.
I came up with the text for the "About" page. Here it is:
When I first began to paint, I painted cards for people on special occasions. It surprised me to see how touched they were to receive them, and how long some kept the cards displayed - even to go so far as to frame them!
I realized then that if a card has the quality of an art print at the cost of a greeting card, the remembrance that went into sharing such an affordable card lasts a very long time. And so, Art By Brett was born.
It's my hope that what you find here helps to bring smiles and feelings of warmth to the people who receive the cards you give them.
And then the goal is to come up with 3 to 4 new cards a month and add to the product mix. By next Christmas, I should have several Christmas cards from which to choose.
So I'll have two store fronts: retail stores and my web site. Bulk and package pricing will be available from the web site, where in the store, it will be only individual cards.
Execution is "the missing link between aspirations and results," and as such, making it happen is the business leader's most important job. While failure in today's business environment is often attributed to other causes, Bossidy and Charan argue that the biggest obstacle to success is the absence of execution.
It's not smarts or talent or even luck... it's just getting it to market and putting one foot in front of the other and not giving up along the way. It's putting your money where yours dreams are. A lot of people fantasize about winning the lottery, but the odds are so unbelievably stacked against them that it's truly money lost in sum of the chances taken. But pursuing a business has much, much better odds. Plus you learn a great deal along the way.
I often try to get people to pursue their dreams. But I'm constantly shocked at the number of people who can't budge from that steady paycheck, despite the greatness of their idea and their own potential. I've learned to stop encouraging after a certain point. If they doubt it themselves, it's better that they don't risk it.
For me, I've started quite a few businesses. None have brought me wads of cash. Thankfully, the majority of those paid the bills. Through the years, it's been a wash though. So why do I keep trying? For me, it's the freedom of getting to choose how I want to spend each day if I do get ahead of the game and find the model that truly works.
So, scheming here at my drafting table is fine, but it's all about execution and then not taking "no" for an answer. Persistence. Drive. Heart. And utter belief that I can do this.
I never finished college and have never had a computer class or an education in art, nor have I had any business training. But I am surrounded by a great library of business books that I've purchased and read. And the knowledge of what failed and what worked in my previous endeavors. I think that anyone can jump in and make their own business. Americans began as a largely self-employed lot. In Lincoln's day, it was looked down upon to work for someone else. Self-reliance was the mode. Industrialization brought an end to that. The move toward factories had people moving from farm to city and 100 years later, you needed big bucks to start your own company. But that's not true today. Computers and the web offer cheap store fronts for about $12 a month. People spend more than that for cell phones and cable TV. Or lottery tickets.
They arrived in this country with little money, relying on the American dream that hard work and determination would lead to success.
Bilich and her husband, Bos, brought their two small children to Rockford from war-torn Bosnia in 1994. They have since opened a masonry business, Bos & Son, which saw $800,000 in sales this year.
A lot of people have talent in something - they just need to make the leap, but they're afraid of risk.
I read an article online a few years ago that talked of that problem in Scotland.
[Nicol Stephen, a government leader] was launching a report calling for radical changes to the way in which enterprise is taught in schools. He urged the business community to see risk and failure as part of the normal path to success and said it should stop "sitting back" and criticising teachers for the state of enterprise education.
Highlighting attitudes in the US, he said that American entrepreneurs may fail not just once or twice but several times before they make their first million. "We must be prepared to try and try again."
Similarly there were a couple of other articles that I saw at that time... the links are now dead, but a Harvard business guy said this:
There are many countries -- Japan, Norway, Russia, even England -- where if somebody succeeds, people are sort of mad at them. They used to say there's no sense in being an entrepreneur in France because if you fail people think you're stupid, if you succeed people think you're a crook, so you can't win either way.
And this from an article about entrepreneurship in Africa (again, the link for it is dead.)
Once upon a not too long past, the word "entrepreneur" in Nigeria was a dirty word, and to a large - too large - extent, it still is. Nigerian kids went to school and learnt to become good employees. The investment and industry was left to foreign investors, and, for some time, it worked. The shame is that now, it"s not working, but little else has changed.
My concern is that that sounds more like America every day... we lampoon "the rich" and wonder how they're rigging the system to make it, as though that were the secret... or we wonder how they inherited their money to keep making money as they do. But that's not it at all.
We need people to take risks and not be tied to the paycheck and the security of that. And entrepreneurs need to be rewarded for their risk. The classic entrepreneur tries a new business more than once before succeeding. This is so important because most people learn by doing and most people who've never run a business don't know how. But if it's okay to fail, then you learn and try again and you get smarter and eventually succeed, whether you started with money or not.
(Soapbox: if they figure it out and get rich, it's important that we not tax the bejeezus out of them - because they'll most likely try again and create more jobs in the process. I've never met a successful entrepreneur who got wealthy off a well-executed idea and then stopped there. But I have met those who stopped because of the regulatory climate.)
So, with the new year coming, I hope that among those talented folk I know - which includes everyone who reads this blog regularly - I hope they work to make real their own dreams and try to execute and become successful with them. I know one who has begun to make the leap and I know that she'll succeed. I hope others follow suit.
Marketing has to penetrate all that a business does. And it doesn't have to seem obvious to the shopper... marketing can be seamless in just doing business.
Last night, I built the database for the shopping cart on the ArtByBrett.com web site. In the next two weeks, I'll create the pages for the cart. PayPal will inherit the transaction details and process the payment, and then will send the payment approval information back to my site so that I will know to process the order.
One of the reasons I want to develop my own cart is to allow for some of the marketing options, such as coupons and affiliate sales. Why not allow bloggers and other web masters get some credit for redirecting someone to a completed sale on my site and make some money for themselves, or allow them to build credit and get cards for free in exchange for the link?
I spent time with my mom yesterday teaching her to paint. Prior to yesterday, she would tell you that she couldn't draw a stick figure. Not so now. She knows that she can, and she understands what I say when I tell her that drawing and painting are all about how you see things. She successfully painted a picture of a complicated porcelain dish. Lesson Two in the week after Christmas...
She and I talked about different strategies for selling the cards. I have a few counterintuitive angles that I want to try and I bounced those off her. Mom's a smart woman, and her feedback is always valuable.
I'll need some people to try the shopping cart features after I get them built. If you'd like to give it a trial run when I'm ready, send me an email and let me know.
Books rock. Yesterday, I received Sandra Miller Louden's book, Write Well & Sell. It's the only greeting card book that I could find and while it's not about the retail side of greeting cards, it gives a peek into the greeting card world. Surrounded by books like hers, it's like having seasoned, best-of-breed experts here to teach me what they know. I have about 30 business books that span marketing to accounting to project management. I don't understand how a person can't like reading books...
In Ms. Louden's self-published book, I learned that 95% of the buyers of greeting cards are women. The industry sells over 8 billion cards a year. Birthday cards are the number one market. Louden specializes in writing verse/text for greeting cards and the book is mostly about that. Good stuff. She says:
My own theory on new card companies is that they are often started by people who have the idea it would be fun to make cards; these people often being frustrated writers, artists, or photographers. Once they start the company, they quickly find out the challenge isn't creating a line of cards, it's marketing them in an already crowded arena and selling them to the consumer who has thousands of other cards from which to choose. There are still many "niches" out there waiting for an innovative card company to fill; unfortunately, many new companies run out of money, time, and patience before they find that niche.
She gives categories and sub-categories of cards. Here are the categories: birthday, friendship, anniversary, life transitions, seasonal, get well, and then miscellaneous, such invitations, thank you, and supportive, and so on. It's a big market.
I've been doing some research on my own by going into stores. I'll need to come up with a display stand of my own to make it easier for retailers, as Hallmark (of whatever company is featured) owns the card stands that you see in stores. Enter the engineering aspect of this. Will mine be end cap? Point of sale? Should the display be engineered to allow for both? Probably.
Cards are an impulse buy, so the location of the cards in the store don't really matter so long as it is a trafficked area.
Should the cards be blank? Have some generic text in them? The outside of my cards won't have writing, so I can't go for the hook on the outside and then the punch line on the inside.
Lots to consider, but I'm surrounded by the wisdom of others who can give me great advice in the form of their books. Between the inventions of the press and the Internet, there's a lot of smarts for me to tap, right at my fingertips. Entrepreneurs never had it so good.
And if you like, you can see the "look" of the Art by Brett web site, which is done, though none of the links work. Just go to the site and take a peek.
Okay, so by the end of the year I'll learn whether I'm wasting my time or whether I've got something with legs. If sales are less than stellar, it'll be a little business that I run myself and make some pocket change. That's a problem that I can manage, no big deal. Eventually I'll probably find a way to sell the cards and I can sell the floor spinners, if the thing just tanks.
But let's go the other direction... what if it succeeds in a big way? What if each retail location sells 75 to 100 cards a month? Or more? I'll start out with 10 retail locations. That means that I'm moving close to 1,000 cards a month, which is my goal by the end of the year. If that happens, then my profits will go right back into buying more displays and getting more retail locations. Eventually, I'll max out of my local area. Where do I go then? Out, obviously, to Iowa more broadly. But the pitch to retailers outside of the area is now a story with numbers and real world statistics.
My plan is to paint new cards at a pace of about 5 to 10 per month. Every two months, I hope to rotate the stock in retail locations - new cards in, old cards out. Locally, I can do that myself, but I can't do it in Minneapolis or Kansas City. And I don't think the business owner will care to manage it for me. This needs to be very hands-off for the retailers.That suggests that I have to find area reps. Why is this important? Because paying them has to factor into my pricing model.
So this morning my price for each card went from $2.49 to $2.79 - still reasonable. I'd need to find some detail-oriented and honest salesy soul who knows that this is a once-a-month gig where they drive from store to store in a matter of a few days or a week and pull out the old cards, put in the new cards, and then ship the old cards back to me. I'd need to pay for the help wanted ad, interview candidates remotely, train them remotely, and then trust that they'll represent me well.
I think this kind of position is perfect for stay-at-home moms. It's a bit of socializing with the store owners, the kid(s) could come along, and it's a bit of income. Let's that they have 40 locations for which they are responsible. My plan is to pay them on commission at 50¢ per card sold. If each outlet turns 100 cards a month, and they are responsible for 40 outlets, then they make $2,000 a month, or $24,000 a year. That's the potential; they'd have to grow and maintain the market in that area. It's a good income for home-based, part-time gig.
Will that happen? Beats me. But it could, and it's something I have to consider. It also occurred to me that my display of choice has 20 pockets - I need not 8 cards to start, but 20. "Prolific" needs to be my middle name.
I'll be working on the web site today and tomorrow, and part of the web site will need to have an interface for the sales reps. Work to do!
"Write gallery and associated pages" is now checked off my list of things to do.
I'm 67 pages into my web development for ArtByBrett.com. Many of the pages are behind-the-secenes admin pages. The exposed links now at least takes you somewhere except for the Blog section, but that will be easy because I've written those pages for this site.
Next comes the shopping cart and the order process. I'm taking Friday off work to do more on the site.
No painting for me these days - all business. But first, a fun 10-minute video. Not so much in its visual display, but in its song. It's "Mojave," by Afro Celt Sound System, and it's the theme song of Art by Brett. (Though a bit muddy, it's amazing the quality of the recording that my little Sony Cybershot made from what came through my computer's speakers...) If you like the song, then go buy the CD!
I'm spending my days working on the web site, and getting a lot done. The story is taking shape. My cards are fine art cards, and my purpose in this has been to provide art to people at an affordable price. As mentioned before, I think art at $400 a print is ridiculous. That puts it only in the reach of the rich, rather than just anybody. I know why artists do it, but I can't and I won't. I think there are other ways.
I found a manufacturer to produce frames for me at a discount, so I'll also offer frames through the web site. That came fom a conversation with a woman at work who suggested a direction to me and lo and behold - affordable frames too. Because the price of art might be accessible, but custom frames? Oh my god... but thankfully, this manufacturer will be able to produce frames to fit my cards at an accessible price.
So that brings me to the text inside the cards. I've struggled with this a lot. For some, the text is what really sells the card. And I've been in the situation plenty of times where I found a great and fitting picture on the front of the card, only to find something awful inside. Or just as bad, the card took itself in the direction of a woman when I meant it for a guy. Or it was for an anniversary, when I needed it for a birthday. I'm sure that's happened to everyone. Well, I think I have a way around it. Maybe. If so, I think it's a novel concept - at least, I've never seen it done before.
These days, I'm thankful I can program because I have no clue what web product exists that will offer the options I need on the web site. And for some of the service that I'll provide to customers, having some mechanisms for automation to speed the fulfillment process will make a world of difference in time, for both me and the customer.
Other than great music, I leave one other recommendation: Blue Ocean Strategy, a book I recently quoted. Truly mind blowing.
And a few quotes:
"Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing." - Helen Keller
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" - Mary Oliver
"I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living, or get busy dying." - The Shawshank Redemption (Tim Robbins)
"A man without a smiling face must not open a shop." - Chinese Proverb
I downloaded Firefox a few days ago, and for all the hype about its superiority, there's one element about it that absolutely sucks, from my web developer's point of view.
You can read more about the geek problem below, but here's a simple example. What follows are pictures of the same page inside Internet Explorer, Opera, and then Firefox - in that order. Notice how the page displayed in Firefox looks awkward and unbalanced.
See the difference in the table cell with the option button? The cell appears big and klunky, but these are pretty straight-ahead web pages... the HTML is clean. Two browsers get it right, and Firefox can't. That's just amateurish. I don't get why this much-hyped browser is hyped.
And here's my geek problem: I used the keyword "this" to pass a dynamic form variable to a function. In IE and Opera, no problem. But Firefox doesn't like it. Okay, I'll go explicit.
Then I'm told: "document.getElementById("u_versetext") has no properties."
The hell it doesn't! It's a form element - all form elements have properties!
This is exactly why I have no ambition whatsoever to remain a developer. Good lord, I hope this painting thing flies because in the world of art there is no need for tech support.
ETC: I figured it out, although these anomalies are irritating and a waste of time.
The display problem: inside a cell, the paragraph tag
will expand the text area on both the top and the bottom, which balloons the area within the cell. IE and Opera automatically collapse that area to the text itself, which is why Firefox appeared different.
I had to read a lot of web pages (thank god for Google) to figure these out. And I understand that not all browsers will render quite the same way, but such basics as the paragraph tag should not cause surprises. Firefox takes a high horse and says that this is exactly how the W3 standards declare the rendering. But both Opera and IE say otherwise and perhaps it's open to interpretation, but if one interpretation of the standard exists on the market already, then it's silly not to format by the market's interpretation.
The smart farmers in Iowa where I live don't rely on just one crop; they typically have not just corn or soybeans, but cattle, sheep, maybe some exotic horses and some type of equipment they can loan out or use, like a road grater, to help them make money. That way if one peters out, something else has them covered.
A few years back I started a company that was into the email newsletter business. It's coasting along at breakeven and has been for the past two years, but we brought in a developer (thankfully not me) last fall who is revamping the product and we will relaunch that this spring. I own a third of the company, so if it does well, fantastic. If not, it's not hurting me today. But things are looking good.
Then an idea that I started developing about two years ago (an events search engine) has recently revived and gotten some traction thanks to Mike Sansone (an awesome guy by any measure) and my daughter, Bari. They know each other through the place where she works, and Mike connected some dots and is helping to move this football forward. If this continues as it seems like it will, then I'll end up with a partial ownership stake, as would Mike, and here again, a former project looks promising.
Over the summer, I blogged about the big project at work that I had undertaken and for which I have received some notice since we released it in August. Yesterday, we revealed our development on a resource management module that allows managers to estimate their employees' allocation on projects/tasks/PTO and that too was well-received. There's a possibility, and some VP buzz, that the web site I wrote could go corporate, meaning that all of Wells would use it in tracking/managing projects. Woo hoo!
And of course, lately I've been writing of the progress on my greeting card venture.
None of these things is a shoe-in. The company of which I own a part could tank or continue to limp along. The revision of the events web site could fizzle. My greeting cards might be wanted by no one, or few anyway. And Wells could adopt some other tool than the one I wrote.
But like a farmer, I have the benefit of having four possibilities out there. Could 2006 bring me a good harvest?
I've been watching my friend, Kris, move ahead with her artwork and sell it to get to her dream of being a musician/artist full-time. My friend, Lisa, is not a blogger, but she left her underwriting job to work in a retail setting to learn the retail business and get closer to her dream of someday owning her own store. I recently re-acquainted with my old guitarist, Kelly, who is building his own home studio. Shantyl nears the end of her degree and she's working on her writing. Erin, too, is fanning the flames of her desire to write and do what she was born to do.
A lot of bloom going on... and it ain't even spring!
Here's my point... I could have said "No" to any of these extra hours projects and simply coasted along in a cushy job. But I took the risk and now the possibility exists that I could hit a home run. At least my chances are magnified by the number of efforts out there.
My friends are also taking some risks and moving ahead on their passions to evolve into the dreams of their lives. We could all simply put up with "good enough," but we know that there is more. We do it because we can. And quite frankly, because I don't think we have a choice. To do otherwise is to deny our very nature.
We live in the best country on earth, where dreams like these are possible. We live in a time when it's not quite so difficult to get noticed for what we can do. We can move into "tribes" of like interests through the communication tools at our disposal and we have relatively easy-to-use technology to aid our pursuits.
Bloom is, well, inevitable.
The only thing that can hold us back is our personal refusal to step out on the faith that we can achieve what we dream. Lucky for me, my friends and I step ahead fearlessly. I get to watch this incredible and talented bunch launch into the future.
I've been building the retail web site, going along and thinking it through. As I've been noodling it through, I've grown increasingly uneasy with my original database schema. Started to look more like spaghetti than intelligent design.
One of my favorite development tools is Microsoft Word's outline view. You can access it by going to "View/Outline" in the menu. Here, you can create a quick and easily editable outline for your thoughts. There's a custom toolbar that comes with this view. Be sure to toggle off "Show Formatting" in the toolbar. The default is a bunch of funky text and frankly it boggles my mind why those font choices are the default...
Databases work best when they model real life relationships and attributes. Which seems obvious on its face, but here's where it becomes a matter of how you view things. Where do you associate, for example, the discount? Obviously, it's associated at the time of ordering. But is it on an item level or on the order level?
After a lot of twisting and turning about it, here's my outline:
And so with that, I'll be undoing and redoing some of my work on the web site.
What follows is a screenshot of the administrative interface for ArtByBrett. I've been up since about 2 AM. I'm getting into that mode of my life where sleep is not really essential. I go through rhythms this way. I've been hibernating through late November and most of December, needing about 8 hours of sleep a day. Not now though... energy is restless and I'm getting antsy if I'm not moving the dream forward. "Fervent" is a good word to describe me at the moment. I'm in hyper-productive mode.
I also took those two months away from my diet and exercise regimen. As some of you know, I lost 40 pounds last year, mostly from just dropping refined sugar from my diet. Around the holidays, I allowed myself to indulge in a few slices of apple pie, but for the most part I've been good. I don't if it was the great weather last week or what, but I took the bike to work on Friday and it was great. Still go for a walk through the building each day, but swimming has fallen off... maybe with my new lack of sleep schedule, I'll pick it up. I hope to continue to lose the weight and get to around 250 by year's end. Slow and steady :)
I ordered my first display rack for the cards. I plan to erect it in my bedroom - a daily reminder of the dream and where I'm headed and to keep my ass moving on this. As I paint card designs through February, I'll fill the rack. 20 slots for 20 cards... more motivation. Fervent!
A few years back, I stumbled across something in a book (don't recall which) but I revised it a bit. It talked of four roles. Maybe that played into my concept of four adjectives, but the four roles at which I arrived were these:
These four roles are what each of us do in our lives. At our most existential and basic, we labor - to feed ourselves and have some worth to our lives. But better if we move beyond that to explore. To see what there is to see. As we do, we find things that we're good at doing and we find our passions. Here, we finesse our craftsmanship and become an artisan in our talent. And then finally, we are conductors - we work to orchestrate the network in which we operate. Socially and commercially minded, the conductor keeps a look out for opportunity and for synergy.
I bring that up because on my wall in front of my desk are index cards with those words printed on them. I am to work and discover and refine and orchestrate. Hyper-productive is good. The dream is worth it.
The links on the cart page and the Update Cart button don't work yet; that's tonight's work. But I'm closer!
I've never built a shopping cart for a web site before, and having gone through the exercise with the customization that I wanted for my purposes, I can't imagine the frustration of being a web vendor and dealing with these things without a technical background. It has to often be a case of the technology defining business for them, rather than business defining the technology. I needed bundled items, and wanted a way to offset those to make it apparent that the items were "child items." The quantity of those items shouldn't be adjusted since each is a single-quantity item packaged with the card, and the shopper shouldn't be able to click into those items to edit them, but rather should click into the parent item to edit.
Could I have achieved that with a third-party shopping cart? Nope. Had to build my own. And that's my point... I defined my own technology and didn't have to change the way that I wanted to do business to get my store online.
I have 9 days to finish the web site since my self-imposed deadline is "web site in January." So I keep showing up to do my job and work to get it done.
For what it's worth, I still haven't figured out how I'll handle the calculation of shipping, but I expect that the logic of that will emerge as I work through scenarios on the site. Each thing in its own time...
Behind me on the white board is my development schedule for ArtByBrett this week. The web site needs to be done by the end of January. Of course, that's an arbitrary date, but psychologically important, nonetheless. If I slip, opening shop on April 1 is tougher.
Here's a story problem: let's say that you have to devise a formula for shipping orders in such a way that several factors are considered, such as the printing of shipping labels, the cost of the shipping materials, the cost of each shipment for the order if there are multiple shipment dates, and the weight of each item as it adds to the cost of shipment. You need to do this in such a way that you don't lose money on orders taken, you include payment for the expense of time that it takes to prepare and ship the order, and you don't turn away the customer for the cost of shipping.
I don't know what the right answer is, but mine is this:
Base Shipping Rate per Order
Base Shipping Rate per Shipment Date
Base Shipping Rate for Frames
Shipping Rate per Frame
Shipping Rate per Card
How does that translate?
If you buy one card from me with a single shipment date, then shipping would be $3.15.
If you buy eight cards from me with a single shipment date, then shipping would be $4.20.
If you buy two cards from me, each with its own shipment date, then shipping would be $4.30.
If you buy one card from me with a frame and a single shipment date, then shipping would be $5.40.
Does that work? Seems like it fits my criteria. I'll find out, I guess. Interesting stuff, business.
ETC: The calculation of shipping is now built into the shopping cart.
Next, order processing. Then, the ability for customers to view their order status and duplicate previous orders. Then, the pages to manage order fulfillment.
The greatness of any business plan is not in the plan's thorough rigidity, but in the writer's flexibility. Circumstances change. In a game of survival, adaptation wins.
After a lot of thought, it seems to me that the web store needs to open prior to April 1. For several reasons... but most chiefly is to try out this grand design of mine. I could create the bestest plan in the whole wide world and if the product sucks, then it's not worth a damn. Or if the web site doesn't do what it needs to do, then I've got a problem on my hands. The wrong time to fix that is when I'm getting the retail store market going. Better to work out those kinks now, when the volume can be low and problems fixed quickly and without the distraction of order fulfillment.
So, the grand opening of the online store is now sometime in February. To do that, I've ordered the card stock and envelopes that I need and I'll print them myself. If that works well, I may just continue to do that and forego the employment of a printer for a while until the volume is simply too much. One side benefit of this strategy is that I can respond more quickly to a surge in demand of a design style. Flowers sell? Paint more flowers. People sell? Paint more people. This way, I'm not weighted down with an abundance of extra cards that no one wants.
I've learned that getting the customer's information to process the order is a longer code cycle than I expected. I'll slip past January 31, but only by a few days. Once I have the basics of the order capture down, I'll start to paint and release cards in a gradual and weaved way with the coding that remains. I'll let intuition drive the development.
And I miss painting. I'm anxious to see what will happen. So I tweak the model. I'm tired of programming at the moment... I'm excited for the time that I cease using that skill so much.
Was up pretty late last night after the boys were tucked into bed and got a lot done. I'm now pretty close to finishing the order process - maybe three hours of coding left. Then order management and fulfillment. And then I'm done with the web site for now and I can open the store!
I'm considering opening Art I Can Afford.com, based on the code that I've created here. That site would be available for other artists to post their work and collect payments. Maybe later this year. That site would be pretty similar to this site, so a couple of weekends and it could be done. I have to think through the strategy canvas and competitive matrix before I begin any work on it.
I'm just about done with ArtByBrett.com for the time being. Order Processing is complete. Order Management is now available.
The only things left to do are:
Show a detailed overview of the order, with separated ship dates and custom text when purchased.
Administratively view the orders to be shipped and manage their status.
Test like crazy!
All do-able in the next two days. Web site ready by the end of January. Milestone accomplished.
I spent a lot of time tonight in PayPal's developer "Sandbox," which is a pretty cool feature. Effectively, it's a mirror of the PayPal site, but with dummy transactions for thorough testing. One nice thing that PayPal does is to hand back to me the order details in a posted form, so that I can retrieve the purchase information (payment status, payment date, transaction ID, etc).
I mentioned a couple of days ago that I might work on Art I Can Afford.com later this year. To be clear, that's not a replacement of ArtByBrett.com, but rather it would be a web site for artists to post their work to sell, such as Kris does. She uses her comments section as an auction block - ingenius. If ArtByBrett does well, then I'll work on Art I Can Afford and build auctioning into it. But it would be a completely separate and independent web site for use by multiple artists to sell their work for less than $100 (hence, the "afford"-able theme of the site).
I reworked both the kite picture and the child hug picture. Lightened up the shadowing somewhat in the kite picture and softened yet again the man in the hug picture. And reworked his hair. Much better.
I spent a good part of my day with Mike Sansone, who is one of those people you count yourself blessed to know in life. Mike and I have been working on a business idea, but business idea aside, the better time was spent just talking to Mike. He made it to the blogger bash last night, and had a great time getting to know everyone. Wish I could have been there like last year, but too much going on. Part of last night was also spent buying a new scanner. That's what happens when I put mine on my bed and then absent-mindedly sit on it. The glass broke. I bought a new Epson. I like it better than the HP scanner that I had.
One word about painting for your painters: buy a humdifier. Or two. It makes a great deal of difference, especially with acrylics. My humidifier sits in my bedroom right beside my drafting table where I paint. Perfect.
Off to another painting. And by the way, Erin - my source is "Live Your Best Life," by Oprah.
When people eventually buy cards from my online store, how do I ship it to them in a way that assures me that I don't have to take back damaged merchandise?
Why, the Jiffy Rigi Bag Mailer, of course. I got my order a yesterday and 250 of these mailers weigh a ton, lemme tell ya. The mailers are seriously rigid - almost impossible to bend. The cards will arrive safely!
Speaking of cards, I'm now on row two!
Goal: Fill this second row by the end of next week. That would be eight cards.
I've redone a bit of the ArtByBrett web site. On the suggestion of Kelly, I increased the size of the card images so that more detail is seen. I don't want them too large or people might just use the image that's there and try to print them on their own printer. But he was right, and so I did that.
I also reworked the home page so that it's the latest top three paintings that appear there. No one is going to read my text anyway, so it doesn't matter much. I like this better - a picture is worth a thousand words, you know?
I've noticed that most of my cards are horizontal rather than vertical, which has me thinking that I need to buy racks that support both orientations. Such a rack is only $6 more, so I'll do that, but it also sports 24 slots, so I'll need more cards. Paint, paint, paint...
I have the next paintings queued up. Pirates, Baby Laughing, In The Hole, Joy, Wedding Kiss, Yes!, Birthday Balloons, and Boy In Water. That's eight, and hopefully, that's March.
I've sent an email to a bunch of people (if I excluded you, I apologize... but send me an email, and I'll include you). I'm asking that they go to ArtByBrett and rank the paintings I have thus far. I'll use their input to determine which paintings go to the printer in March.
I got an email today from the printer with the low res proofs. Here's the front and back of the card as it will be sent through the press. (I apologize for wide image...)
Pretty cool. I get the actual card proofs, paper in hand, around Wednesday and the entire order should be ready for pickup on Friday.
In regard to Pirates, the painting I just finished, people like it a lot, but for one feature: the plastic knives. So I'll change that. The knives run counter to a mom's sensibilities. I actually remember painting the second knife and wondering how that was going to play out. Now I know! I love the honest feedback people give me.
I'll buy two more racks today, both of these offering horizontal and vertical orientations.
I got the nicest compliment today. I dropped off Jacob and Austin at their mom's house and then decided to take the next hour and look for more retailers for my cards. I tried a wine merchant ("If you have cards about wine, we'd be open to it.") and a couple other stores ("No, thanks.") and then went to the local "art" district here in West Des Moines, which is called Valley Junction. I went into a store for local artists to hawk their wares.
I gave my spiel.
"Hi. My name's Brett and I'm an artist here in Des Moines. I've created a line of greeting cards based on my art and was wondering if you folks might carry them. Here, let me show you..." and then I reach into an envelope with three cards and my business card and let them see for themselves.
The woman behind the counter pleasantly reached for my envelope and then pulled the cards from within. A big smile came across her face.
"Oh! You are an artist." She was looking at my latest card, "April."
That was the nicest thing she could have said. She also pulled up my cards' web site and loved what she saw. As did the other woman behind the counter.
"We'll recommend that the owner carry your cards," she asserted. "They're wonderful."
Yayy! More of that, please. If they decide to carry them, that would be store #3. The second would be the cafeteria in the building where I work, which has agreed to carry my cards. They have several other locations, but I want to see how the cards do in my building first.
I also stopped at a deli near the new mall that I like, and dropped off my cards in the envelope. And I have my pitch in to another deli that I hope will carry them. Let's see if I can have 4 retailers by April 30th.
I have 10 racks on order: 5 to be delivered in three weeks, and then 5 more to be delivered shortly after that.
I'm having such a good time with this. I suppose this is a bit of what it is to be gambling, but since I've never stepped foot in a casino, I wouldn't know. I do feel like my odds are better than sheer luck with cards or slots. Time will tell.
Well, I'm learning because the market is speaking to me and I'm listening as best I can.
Lesson #1: My market is retailers, not individuals.
Cards with people might be endearing and "Awwww..."-inspiring, but they don't sell. Unless the person depicted on the card looks familiar to the one buying it, the card will sit idle - in the land of misfit cards. No "Charlie-on-the-card."
If the retailer is from Iowa, they're proud to be an Iowan and they want some cards to reflect Iowa. Bring on the pigs, cows, farms, covered bridges, and so on. I need to paint "Iowa." Heck, I'm even thinking of doing a Hawkeyes card and a Cyclones card. But Iowa sells - in Iowa. Note to self: think regional. Minneapolis will want Vikings, for example.
Sometimes, text in the card will be necessary to sell it to the retailer. I had a woman actually say to me today: "My market isn't smart enough to fill up a blank card." So, the poet/English major in me gets to take a crack at this. Fortunately, my cards are intentionally letter-sized when unfolded and therefore it's easy to print on the inside of them. Text...
I need to be able to go corporate. I have some trips in my future to sit in front of the buyers for major retailers. Michael's, for example, does this. To sell my cards at Michael's, I would need to get 15 minutes in front of their buyer and pitch my wares.
I know why the Heart card didn't work for me: I wouldn't frame it to hang in my living room. My goal is not to paint greeting cards, but to paint frameable art.
And finally, I need to change up the style of my painting and do some contemporary designs. My work thus far is more traditional. I missed a couple of retailers today because of this.
All good lessons, to which I'm listening and now steering my work. I'm doing some things right, and I'm doing some things wrong. I'm tweaking the wrong toward rightness.
In my favor:
Universally, the cards are regarded as beautiful and classy.
The size of the cards is a seller.
The price of the cards is seen as very reasonable.
When compared to other cards in stores, the employees believe that my cards are better than what they currently sell, and they're pretty frank about saying so - to other employees and to management.
I picked up another retailer today and perhaps a couple more locations. Tomorrow, I drive to Minneapolis for a meeting and on the way there and back, I'll have my camera for taking pictures of rural Iowa and Minnesota.
It just occurred to me that I have someone with whom I need to meet. I personally know the guy who runs the local zoo. I might show him my cards and see if he's open to me painting some "zoo" cards and selling them there. If so, Terry might have some other ideas for me - he's a top-notch marketer. Plus, he's involved with Iowa's biggest event: the Iowa State Fair. Someone suggested to me today that I paint some State Fair cards. I get that. I may do that. Event cards?? Ragbrai, anyone?
I realized today that I'm selling not just cards, but my brand. Whether the cards sell in droves - or not - may be immaterial. By simply having my brand in various locations around town, I drive up the value of my work. The more broad the reach (think "multi-city"), the higher the value and the more wide the spread and the bigger my audience. Therefore, if I wanted to get a gallery interested in selling my work, the pitch is easier. I'm thankful that I have a logo for my work.
I suspect that this story will turn out different than I expected, but with persistence I will achieve what I wanted: financial independence and making my living by my art. That's the goal. The path to get there is the adventure, and I'm having a great time of it. Pretty scenic!
I'm still missing a birthday card, and I need to do an "Iowa" card or two. I'm working on the friendship card at the moment. I want to do a couple of contemporary designs. I could wrap up all 6 by the end of the month, which would put me on track to have 60 by the end of the year (5 cards a month).
As I've been discovering words, I've started reworking some of my cards that didn't sell much, where it made sense to do so. For "Front Porch," I've added the words, "Home is where you're loved." And for "April," I've added "Life's simplest pleasures are worth the time to enjoy." Inside that card, it says, "Remember to take time for yourself!" In both cases, I think it takes some nice pictures and gives them a context that makes it more obvious why you would send the card to someone.
Johnnie emailed me last night and suggested that I go with $3.49 per card. It's not that the cards aren't worth $3.99, but there is a psychological barrier at certain price points. I agree. After tax, that's still a card for less than $4.00, and so $3.49 will be the new price.
Others have been telling me for some time that I need to have mini cards. I went searching and found an envelope size suitable for such a thing, and got the quote back from the printer to have these printed up. The size will be 2¾" x 3½", which is quite a bit smaller than my cards now at 5½" x 8½". It's exactly half the cost of printing the large cards to print these smaller cards. So here's a matrix of the price points:
Large Card, single
Large Card, dozen
Large Card, 50-pack
Small Card, single
Small Card, dozen
I'm tweaking the direction. I've set the first six mini cards, to be sold in dozen packs mostly, and I think I'll have the printer get 1,200 ready by some time next week.
I also need to reprint my other cards with the $3.49 price on them, and with words, where they've been added.
Lots of money goes into this little venture. But I'm believing, so I'll keep walking toward it.
I almost made a $300 error today. I authorized the printing of my small cards and this morning I went to order the envelopes and discovered that I had misread the size of the envelopes. So I stopped the presses (whew!) and avoided paying for product I couldn't sell.
I came home and found that I could obtain 4" x 4" cards, and though they looked good, it felt wrong to me. I'm pretty smitten with the idea of selling a dozen little cards for $11.88. So I scoured the web and found a site that offers little envelopes in odd sizes. This size is very close to the one I first thought I had. I've re-created the cards to the size of 2½" x 3½". This is business card size, but a little taller.
Order submitted, and once I see the proofs, I'll order the envelopes. (UPDATE: I've replaced the pictures below with snapshots of the proofs, and I added one more card: the sunflower.)
Mercy... I'm glad it worked out as it did, although I think I've driven my poor printer nuts.
Oh, and in a bit of good news... at work, it looks as if I'll be working on a marketing project, and frankly, I couldn't be happier about it. I get to listen, react, write, invite, engage, promote, and educate. Right up my alley. Life is great!
I picked up the card proofs today from the printer.
They're just a little taller than business cards.
I should get all 1,400 on Friday. Of course, I've gotten cards from the printer before, but Chuck, the sales guy, made the comment today for the first time that he finds my work very emotive and that he wants to buy my cards.
That's the first time that a guy has made a move to buy my cards. Could it be?
When I first started my cards, I knew that 95% of all card buyers are women, which to me spoke of the opportunity that men present if I can find a way to tap into the market. These cards, small (heck, even tiny), don't intimidate, where my big cards do.
I get them home and my son, Aaron, says, "These are the perfect size for little kids. Like for party invitations."
Tamara and I spent part of the evening talking about packaging and marketing. She, being a most excellent seamstress, has some ideas that she wants to try. You go girl. Not my bailiwick.
I just love this card business. It's fun... it feels like I'm headed in the right direction.
ETC: The reaction I'm getting is good enough that I've created and ordered seven other designs, based on my work of course.
I picked up the first 1,750 mini-cards from the printer and got the proofs of the next eight designs, which will come in next Wednesday. If I didn't mention it, I'll offer these in a variety package of cards, 1 card each of fifteen different designs. Here's a snapshot - note the quarter at the bottom of the picture.
I was planning to use a zip loc bag to package these, but Tamara recommended, and rightly so, that I use something else - of which I'd never heard - called an "organza bag."
Nice presentation... I have a box of them coming to me to see what they're like.
So - inside the shimmery bag, for $11.99, you'll find the 15 cards, 15 envelopes, and a piece of paper with text something like this:
The Connection Package
Strengthen your personal and professional relationships with these vibrant and unique cards. Small enough to fit in a wallet - memorable enough to leave a lasting impression!
Use these cards:
In the office with colleagues
On gifts as tags
To accompany flowers
As back pack or lunch box notes for your kids
Connect with Someone!
(You can also buy a dozen of the same card for $11.99.)
I feel like after spending over $3,000 of my money, I need to focus on marketing. I'm nearing the right product. How do I pitch it? At work, I have eight orders thus far, which is pretty much an order per person who has seen the cards. That's hopeful!
I now have all of my cards from the printer and the organza bags and I've created the tags. It appears that I have a good and unique product and that my price point is right. All that's left is sales. I have to do some work on my web site to track aspects of the business that I can't track today. There's always more work... but there is movement. I sold 7 Connection Packs yesterday without really trying. People saw them and wanted them. Paying the $12 was a no-brainer.
Less than two years ago I painted my first painting and since that time, I've worked to find a way to make art my living. It's been a bumpy road, with turns I didn't expect. I learned a lot about myself that surprised me. I recorded some of what transpired here on my web site.
If there's a skill that I find most valuable in life, it is listening. When I listen - really listen - life is easier. Rather than mete out my way, I adapt to what life would have me to do. Listening helps me to move not like a bulldozer, but like water. It's a gentle act. It's also hard to do well.
So now I am ear to the market. I've learned that tweaking is more powerful than a new direction, and a'tweaking I will go. The market will tell me how to do this. I'll find the right channels and the right approach - as long as I listen and adapt.
I read Jeffrey Gitomer's "Little Red Book of Selling," and in it, he opens with this:
"Why do people buy?" is a thousand times more important than "How do I sell?" No, let me correct that... it's one million times more important than "How do I sell?" No, let me correct that... it's a billion times more important than "How do I sell?" Get the picture?
It never ceases to amaze me that companies will spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars teaching people "how to sell," and not one minute or tens of dollars on "why they buy." And "why they buy" is all that matters.
"Why they buy" is listening; "How to sell" is forcing my way into the market. Big difference.
In Dorothy Leeds' book, "The 7 Powers of Questions," she gives this story:
The most successful salesperson who ever worked for Equitable Life Insurance sold more insurance than any other employee for more than twenty-five years. His approach was short and simple. Larry would sit down with his prospective clients in their living room, lean in close to them, look them in the eyes, and say, "Tell me, why do you need life insurance?" They would tell him, and within no time, they had sold themselves a policy.
I'm taking the day off and attending to the business. A couple of things:
Between the two local retailers that are selling my cards, I made $100 in the last month. That's cool :)
The local Borders has signaled that they're interested and my UPC code for the Connection Pack is being entered into their system under multimedia. The next step is to figure out the merchandising. What's the display look like? I think I want to go counter-intuitive with that. The easy way out would be an acrylic display. But I'm thinking wicker...
I love today. I've also called other retailers and I'll be following up with them in the next few weeks. Let's see how many stores I can get into. But in the meantime...
ETC: Here's a picture of the big cards in the Village Bean in downtown Des Moines.
Once I hit the afternoon, I worked on the merchandising, aka retail display for my cards.
I could have gone with a simple acrylic stand, but that's flat for me. Everyone does that. How do mine stand out?
I wanted wicker, and so I had a minor shopping spree at Michael's today. I bought the basket, a glue gun (the guy in me shudders just a bit at the thought of me buying a glue gun, but it's in the name of business, so that's a bit of salvation), and foam core for the backing of the signage.
Next stop: Hancock Fabric across the street. Here's the funny... I'm walking out of Michael's and there's a retired guy asleep in the passenger seat of an older family sedan - obviously waiting for his wife, who dragged him along to shop at Michael's. I go across the street and sure enough, another retired guy, asleep in the passenger seat, dragged along so that his wife could go fabric shopping. Gotta be a demographic in there somewhere.
I wanted a white cloth to line the basket, but changed my mind when I saw the navy broadcloth. Bought a yard and went to Office Depot for letter-sized gloss photo paper and double-sided tape.
Thank goodness for my mom, the seamstress. I drove to Ames and she edged a couple of squares of the fabric. Here's the result:
I like it. Next, I work on the signage and then hot glue velcro to the basket, then glue the fabric to the basket, and then print and attach the sign image to the foam core and use the velcro to stick the foam core. Arts and crafts at my pad, eh?
The big question: what if this all goes really well and I get into stores nationally? How do I ramp up production of the cards and the baskets/retail displays?
What a great problem to have... I'll take it!
MORE ETC: And the finished product:
I haven't glued anything yet, but this is how it will look. Yep - that beats an acrylic display any day of the week.
I like this quote:
"You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take." - Wayne Gretzky
It's been interesting to see the reaction of my sons to this. They're watching me start with an idea, and then spend close to a year working on it, honing it, and turning out my money left and right to gamble on a dream.
It's worth it. I'll keep tweaking this until I succeed. I like the little cards. In the next Connection Pack that I release, I'll have this:
I took my homemade displays (wicker baskets) out this morning and dropped one off at the retailer downtown, the Village Bean. Jenny, the woman behind the counter, remarked unprompted that she liked it a lot. "Oh, how nice!" That was comforting :)
Next I went to Border's and walked through their cards section with the other basket. I'm not so sure that it will work unless it's a point of sale display. So I looked online this morning when I got home for some clear plastic boxes that would fit my little cards. This would allow them to fit on the shelf with the other card packages they have there.
I told my son, later in the car, that we live in such an enabling age. In about 10 minutes time searching, I found the exact size that I needed for my cards, a 2¾" × 3¾" × 1" clear plastic box. And I ordered 25, to sample the appearance of them. I'll need stickers for the back of the box, but at least this way people could open the box and browse the variety. Being clear plastic, and not opaque, allows the art to speak for itself. No fancy packaging necessary.
But isn't it amazing? I can paint, scan it in, send it to the printers and purchase 3,000 cards, order the envelopes, find and buy the packaging online, purchase the bar code that I need... no other time in history offers so much to the would-be entrepreneur as today does.
The local Borders, God bless it, has placed their first order for my cards. They want 30 Connection Packs. I was expecting, like, 10.
How cool is that?
It's a nice validation that I'm doing what I need to be doing. Let's see how they sell, and if they sell well, I have a shot at getting them into more Borders stores nationwide.
It does bring up a point, though. Repeatedly, I've found it hard to get my cards into local retailers because most retailers are franchised or somehow connected to a national chain. The purchasing decisions are not localized at all, but centralized at headquarters, wherever that might be. That's unfortunate. The Borders approach is valuable - because it allows a simple test of the market to see if a product might have legs, and if so, then the entire chain can benefit by retailing a popular and previously unknown item. But when centralized, carrying the item comes down to the hunch of a single buyer for the entire chain instead of going with a market test at a few stores.
Lucky for me that Borders will do this. Their sales might help legitimize my product so that other retailers have the confidence to also carry my line. We'll see. But it's a big moment for me... makes me smile to think of the story of this adventure and how it's grown.
I found, when I got my little cards, that size matters. The little cards can't be mailed. Sure, you can put them in a larger envelope to mail them, and I've actually successfully mailed one, but it got delivered with a note warning that the size was non-standard. And people will want to, you know, mail cards...
The Post Office says that the minimum size for mailing anything is 3½" x 5". My little cards are 2½" x 3½".
I feel like Goldilocks, and I've tried Papa Bear's bed, and Baby Bear's bed... how about just right?
(I don't think the little cards are a mistake... they do have their uses. But I need to offer something that's mailable and small.)
That's the smallest size there is, and it's called A-1. Small and mailable. That works, and so I think I'll order up a bunch of those.
I've worked to make both this site and the Art By Brett site work more closely together. The gallery here at beatcanvas now displays and links all of the cards available for sale.
I've also started to grow a representative network. For stay-at-home moms, for example, they can sell Art By Brett cards and make decent money doing it. If they sell just 3 Connection Packs in an hour, they'll earn $12, or $4 per Connection Pack sold. It's slow getting folks on board, but it is happening.
And the Christmas card orders are trickling in.
The only major to-do that I have is to integrate a new payment gateway for internet orders. Currently, I'm using PayPal's methodology, but PayPal occasionally scares off folks who don't trust it, so I need to offer both. Some people swear by PayPal; others won't touch it.
I now offer 23 large cards. This time last year, I hadn't even finished my first acrylic, and it wasn't until December that I printed my first card. A lot has happened in these past 12 months. I've spent over $6,000 to get this venture going and I've made about $1,500 to date. I hope to turn my first profitable dollar in the next two months. In the next two years, I want to make my living doing this.
My recent search engine optimization efforts have spurred a very remote sale. A guy in British Columbia found my art via Google and bought 100 Morning Tree cards. Pretty cool. More of that please...
I had hoped to start my next painting this weekend, but I don't think that will happen. Too much web site work and other things going on. That's okay.
I've had a few people ask me in the past if I would paint a portrait. Time to publish rates:
8 x 10
10 x 13
16 x 20
24 x 30
While I can reproduce a portrait picture, if asked, my preference is to work from something that depicts the person or people doing those activities that best characterize them. Reading a book in a favorite chair, playing basketball, etc.
You can reach me at the email link above in the upper right. I'll be glad to talk with you about it.
Well, I've found a means of marketing my cards that seems to be doing well, so I'll be investing more time into it. I mentioned a while back that I'd thought of a way to have a small army of salesfolk. To do this, I created colorful flyers and posted them in the career centers of local high schools. One counselor at one of the local schools liked my work and pointed out the flyer to a student who wanted to get started selling on her own.
The student did okay and got a few orders, but at this same school, I guess word got back to the counselor that I followed through well in support of the student, and so a couple more signed on. They've submitted their first orders with me and got paid, and so they then referred me to one of their friends, whom I signed up today. So here's the bigger question: can I replicate this model into a larger domestic model that can be profitable?
The students like it because there's no pressure to sell. It's their own time and they're not my employee. They make $4 per Connection Pack sold. If they sell two in a few minutes, that's equal to their job at the grocery store or fast food place.
So... how do I scale this upward? Great problem to solve :)