Creative Tenacity: Hard Work, Smoke and Mirrors, Connections, and Time

Welcome to Creative Tenacity! My new blog series that I hope will be full of helpful advice for those of you looking to sell your handmade wares. . . or maybe even start your own handmade business! 

For this first entry I wanted to dwell on some general thoughts and feelings I have, and that many others in the handmade business realm share, about what it takes to make it all work, and especially, what you need in the way of guts, stamina, and gumption to even get started. 

Pretty much all of the advice I’m going to offer here I wish I had taken a bit more seriously when I was first getting started!

1. You’re going to work harder and longer than you ever thought you could/would and it’s not always going to be fun or even make you happy. Yup, that’s right. Especially if you quit your day job and now have the added pressure of paying your bills with your business. Now that doesn't mean it won't be hugely satisfying and rewarding - it will be! - but it's going to demand more of you than sometimes feels possible.

I can remember, when I still had a day job and would day dream about working at Tangleweeds full time, thinking that once I could, then nothing would be too much. There would be plenty of time and I would always get EVERYTHING done on my to-do list. And I thought I would do it all serenely, while walking around in a Zen like state everyday, perfectly content and happy in the mere fact that I worked for myself. 

Boy-oh-boy was I wrong! Very quickly I realized that most days I was barley going to skim the surface of what I hoped to accomplish and that no, I wasn’t going to serenely go about my days completely free of all stress. I struggled with this. I thought that once I was working on Tangleweeds full-time I would find unlimited satisfaction and happiness in my life. I thought that because I struggled so much at first, that I was doing something terribly wrong. (When I look back on the first couple of years of Tangleweeds I think the only thing I really did wrong was simply be too hard on myself.) As time went by I learned the invaluable lesson that I had been pinning unrealistic hopes on Tangleweeds: that my career with Tangleweeds would fulfill me in all ways, would be my ticket that declared I was a worthy person. (As a side-note: one of the enormous perks about being an entrepreneur is you will learn so much about yourself if you’re paying attention on this journey.)

So, in total: Know that you’re going to work very hard for possibly longer than you anticipated (like, years!) and that you might not always be thrilled with every step of the journey. AND, maybe most importantly, just because the journey is hard and at times discouraging, doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong or that you should give up. Quite the contrary, it means you’re doing it!!! The hard work pays off in little bits over time. 

2. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in the handmade business world so don’t compare yourself or your business to others. 

Now, when I was still working my day job (coffee shop for those who might wonder) I loved to read Etsy’s “Quit Your Day Job” series and pour through blogs by folks who had made the big break to pursue their passion full time. At the time that was actually great fuel for me. It energized me to believe that it was possible to sell my jewelry full time. But something I realized very quickly when I did quit the day job was that I had to distance myself, at least a little bit, from keeping up on how everyone else was doing selling their handmade jewelry, clothes, dolls, etc. If I wasn’t careful it quickly became a game of comparison that would do the exact opposite of energizing me. It would deplete me and leave me feeling like a failure for not being further along with my biz. 

The reason this sort of comparison is so pointless is for one basic reason: you don’t know what resources, circumstances, support system, etc this other person you’re idolizing may have at their fingertips. You also don’t know how long they’ve been at it. Oftentimes 10 year handmade businesses can look like overnight successes, especially if you discover them one night in a half-drunk, pity-party Pinterest binge. I know folks with 10s of thousands of Instagram followers who are barely making a dime off of their business. I know folks with a measly following of 50 on Instagram who have ben supporting themselves and a family for years. The surface of things can be deceiving at times, hence what I mean when I say there can be a lot of “smoke and mirrors” when it comes to running a successful handmade business (or any type of business for that matter.) Remember to focus on what you’re doing! If it’s helpful, give yourself social media “black out” periods where you can truly hone-in on and focus on what you’re doing, and especially what makes your work so wonderful.

There are many other resources and opportunities that are going to vary with each person’s unique set of circumstances and lifestyles. Everyone has their own unique set of limitations on their time and money as well. After about two years of full-timing it with Tangleweeds I would often start to get frustrated that I wasn’t feeling “further along” and a large part of this frustration came from comparison (who is it that once said “comparison is the thief of all joy?”) I think though, the best antidote to the unhealthy comparison game that we can all easily get sucked into in today’s social media age is true connection with others who get what you’re going through. . . which naturally leads me to my next piece of advice. . . 

3. Talk to your peers and to others doing what you’re doing. This part is SO important! And it took this naturally inclined introvert a couple of years to realize the importance of it. 

Being an introvert I was totally cocky about working for myself. So many people warned me I would be lonely, it would be hard working by myself and for myself. That I would miss the camaraderie of a true “workplace.” I thought that none of that would get to me. Boy was I wrong! The re-affirming nature of just having someone to give even just 30-second feedback completely evaporated. I didn’t fully realize how much I was missing work cohorts until I started to connect with other makers at the arts and crafts fairs I would sell at every month. Over time those connections grew into something truly sustaining. Many of them are now friendships that criss-cross our business lives and are some of the most valuable relationships I’ve made in my adult life.

Now, I did say your “peers” and not folks that you look up to who are already successful and this is for a good reason. Folks who are where you’re at are often a better immediate resource for info that is relevant to your concerns in the present. They are also a lot more likely to be able to relate to where you’re coming from with your struggles than someone 10, 12 or 20 years along. (As an aside: I do think that asking for advice from folks whom you look up to is a great idea, it’s just not the exact point I’m making right now. It’s also something that I have loads of advice on, but that’s for another time =). 

I think maybe the two most significant things I’ve done since starting Tangleweeds that have really helped create a community around me of like-minded and similarly employed folks, has been -

  1. joining the San Francisco Etsy Team
  2. to co-create with Kyla of Impressed By Nature a small business incubator group that meets monthly and provides daily support for each other as we navigate our businesses and our lives. We named the group Creative Pursuit Collective, and I’ll share more about that group in a later post, but feel free to ask any questions you might have in the comments!

At this point in my Tangleweeds career I feel lucky to say I have a wonderful and supportive group of people around me who help me get through the tough times and offer feedback and advice when I need it. If you’re not sure where to start regarding connecting with others, here are my top three suggestions:

  1. if you sell on Etsy, join the Etsy team ( for your local area. I know not all geographic areas have their own Etsy teams, but you can always look into joining the one that is closest to your locale.
  2. even if you’re not ready to participate in some of the larger, more expensive craft fairs, look into smaller events like pop-ups and local street fairs. Then, bring a friend or a family member along to help you out so you can get away from your booth for a bit and talk to other vendors (while always being mindful that they are there to work and sell their product, so if they’re busy with customers, make sure to graciously step aside.) Sometimes just the briefest of introductions is enough. If you can grab a business card of theirs you can connect with them later, after the event is over via email or other social media.
  3. work on those close connections. While joining groups and meeting people through social media is wonderful, there’s nothing better than one or two people whom you can really connect with, who really get you. I highly recommend making time for lunch or a coffee date with a single real life person once a week, or maybe twice a month, if your schedule will allow for it. And I don’t just mean with folks who run handmade businesses as well. I’m talking about the connections you hd before you ventured into this territory. Fostering and nourishing these relationships is important too!

Most of all, remember that like most things in life, building a supportive community of people around you will take some time. Be kind and gentle with yourself as you navigate this new way of connecting. 

4. And lastly for today: give yourself lots of time. By which I mean, give yourself plenty of time to hone your craft/skill, etc. 

I recently started weaving. As a hobby. I am not interested in trying to sell my weavings any time soon as I want to cater to the creative freedom that comes from not putting too many demands on a passion. I made jewelry for at least 7 years before I ever sold a piece. Mainly because I was so passionate about the work that I didn’t really want to pull any energy away from the sheer act of creating. 

Once you decide to start selling your work, and especially if you decide to start a business, you are always going to have a lot of balls in the air at once. Making time for pure creative experimentation and exploration will no longer be your main priority (don’t get me wrong, you’ll still need to make time for this). There were moments in the first couple of years full-time with Tangleweeds when I craved the time to simply mess around creatively with no concern for the consequences. In the beginning though, I had to push that time to the outer edges of my schedule while I figured out all of the practical business stuff.

In short, if you’re just getting started on your craft, don’t rush into making a business of it right off the bat. Selling your work a little bit on the side though can provide invaluable feedback. I encourage you to give your creative muscles the room they need to grow before launching into creating a business from your handmade work. 

There you have it! The four pieces of advice that I think are pretty damn invaluable to anyone starting out selling their handmade goods:

1. Be prepared to work harder than you thought possible
2. Don't compare your journey to anyone else's.
3. Connect with folks who are doing something similar.
4. Give yourself time to hone your skill/craft.

Now, I'd love to hear from you guys! Leave a comment on the post below about your handmade business adventures. What's the single best piece of advice you received? And maybe, if you were like me, a good piece of advice you didn't take heed of at first but wish you had? 

I'll be back in mid February with my next Creative Tenacity post. In all honesty, I'm not sure what I'll cover in that post just yet. But it'll be something brought to you from my unique perspective, honed by 7 and 1/2 years running Tangleweeds. I sincerely hope you enjoyed this post and found at least some of it helpful!