Glassblower and guest blogger Jake Pfeifer grew a solid business selling his work. Here’s his story and best advice for other new entrepreneurs.
Creating glass art pieces is my life’s work. I have known this since I was 14, when I visited an open air glass blowing studio in Bermuda while on a family vacation. I have never had any other job.
According to Ty Kiisel, contributor to Forbes Magazine (July 16, 2014), fewer than half of the small businesses that open today will be around five years from now. That is a scary fact. l learned early on, that to be a successful glassblower and make a living doing it, I needed to start down a path of lifelong study that will eventually put me among the best glassblowers around. So, the first step for me was and continues to be gaining experience, and taking opportunities to study glassblowing with the Masters.
I also needed to know how to start and manage a wholesale/retail based business. I began by taking a workshop with The Arts Business Institute. I continue to learn from my mentors, friends and those who have experience in a successful business. I read their art business materials and always come away with a piece of helpful business information that I didn’t know before.
Next, I needed to determine my style, my brand. It is important for the artwork to be recognizable as belonging to an individual artist. That is difficult to do and takes time. This is a work in progress for all artists, that is, to be current, always bring fresh work, yet rooted in the artist’s chosen style.
A critical step that I learned at Rochester Institute of Technology, from my mentors and colleagues in this business, is that I need a well-thought-out business plan that spans year 1 to 5. That plan must be based on data. My business plan drives decisions, spending, and keeps me focused on my goals and the benchmarks I’ve set to measure my success.
I first needed to decide on my business model. Is the model wholesale, retail or both? I look at the sources of my revenue, e.g. wholesale, retail from art/craft shows, commissions, giving lessons, sales from a web presence, owning a storefront, gallery, and then I make revenue projections. Projections for future revenue also include factors such as economic development of the specific geographical area, incomes, age of the population, is the community a destination spot, competition, foot traffic versus being a destination business, data on how people spend their money. All of this information is publicly available.
Regardless of your business model, success is driven by some basics:
- Being skilled at what you do is the first step
- The artwork must be of high quality
- The artwork must be unique, your brand and style
- Marketing, promoting yourself, informing people about you. Name recognition is important; and marketing is a context for getting people’s attention in a hectic world.
- Selling, or helping the potential customer realize why they need or want your product. This means selling the story about the art, and the artist.
A bit more on marketing: you absolutely must create a well-thought-out marketing plan. And, this cannot be underestimated. Your customers will not know you or find you if you don’t make yourself available, and let them know how to find you. Marketing is expensive and will be a big line item in your budget. It is critical to success, starting with a website, utilizing other social networking outlets, creating ads for trade magazines, brochures, line sheets, and being able to speak to groups of people.
Building your business cannot be rushed. It is the long distance run, not the 50 yard dash. And, if something can go wrong, it will. Everything will take longer than you thought. Supplies, advertising, rent, etc. will likely cost more than you budgeted. Be prepared to live on very little for the first few years, and take opportunities to utilize used and refurbished equipment. I consider every opportunity, no matter how small or how large. I ask myself, “Will this help take me to the next step?”
Lastly, the artist cannot be all things. I’ve been blessed to have others help me along the way with everything from answering the phone and taking orders, to packing and shipping, to setting up a wholesale show, helping me at an art fair, ordering supplies, taking excellent photographs, doing inventory and managing the website. The core team at Hot Glass Alley each has their specific responsibilities. We have a weekly business meeting where we review all aspects of the business, problem solve, review lessons learned, go over a business-related article and strategize together.
Surround yourself with positive energy and people who believe in you. Keep them close and let them be your confidantes. While starting a small business is not the most difficult process I’ve lived through, it certainly ranks at the top. I am only into year two of my plan, but so far, I am on track. The good news is that every day I get up and am doing what I love, and I am living the life I envisioned for myself.