May 10, 2014: Looking back at 10 years in business “outside the box”
Yesterday, I pulled out a file to verify a date. Yes, as of today, it has been 10 years since I filed for my business license for the first time at the Westborough, MA, Town Hall. In the year leading up to that date, I experienced a layoff from the computer industry, followed by a couple of months of career counseling, and then a course on starting a business.
Today, I decided to reflect upon the ten years to see what has changed and what has remained constant in my business philosophies. It all begins with “Why do a business”? My process of deciding what to do after the layoff was more a process of elimination than anything else. In high tech, I worked with IT customers in many different industries, though ironically none were artisanal since they did not have computer budgets high enough to merit a visit. I enjoyed the exposure to widely variant corporate cultures, but was always aware that I was outside of their boxes. The people in the boxes went home at night and weekends with beepers and stress that I rarely experienced during my twenty years in industry. The morning after my layoff, I got a call from a customer whose mail system hardware I had been tuning, offering me a “consult until he could get me a req.” kind of job. I started the process of elimination by turning him down after thanking him for the offer. I already knew that I wanted to live outside the “box” and be happier without having to pull down the salary I once had.
After the outplacement counseling ended, I decided to take a two month business course from Center for Women & Enterprise on how to design, start and run a business. The course had lots of nuts and bolts and some tools to screw them together. I wanted to give it a try selling the glass art I enjoyed making, so I might as well start off knowing what I needed to do.
Over the years, I’d read about people starting businesses that started off small, but went viral and grew so fast that they went from working at their kitchen table to taking out a loans on leasing industrial space and materials, and hiring people to make and distribute the stuff. I was terrified of the whole idea of that ever happening to me (and it sure hasn’t, thanks to my planning)! It seems that Rule #1 in business school is that “Growth is Good”. When I went through orientation at my last employer, 15 years before, they had just become a billion dollar company and as part of the orientation I learned that the company was designed from the beginning to be a big company. After a series of mergers, they’re a lot bigger than that now. The founders of it had another reason to start their company, which was “to have fun” as opposed to what they were doing at their previous employer.
From the beginning, I was planning to violate Rule #1, and pursue a size that was right for me. My business was to be what I called a “lifestyle business” and its first rule was that if it was interfering with my enjoyment of life, I was doing something wrong. (See Susanka, Not So Big Life, for a similar view.) So, perversely, I was really doing what my former employer set out to do, only they wanted to be huge and I wanted to be small, but above all, to have fun!
With my Rule #1 as my guiding principle, I started off and adjusted things as I went along. Though I went through certification on teaching Art Clay Silver fabrication (fused glass looks great set in silver!), I gave it up because I knew I’d never make a profit making products with it, and I could not get enough teaching business (much more profitable) to make it worth my while. I also found I was getting repetitive stress in my hands and wrists from polishing the work, so I sold off the supplies and classroom tools. I still call my business Quicksilver Glass, but if you notice, the actual website reflects the reality of nanburkeglassart.
A second effort in my business was flattening bottles in my kiln and making cheeseboards. I sand-etch designs on many of them. I meant for them to complement my products made from art glass, but they were steady sellers and profitable from the beginning. I developed a reputation for making some of the best. I always thought demand for them would dry up, but green product trends have managed to keep the bottle business afloat. A few years ago, I decided to make fewer cheeseboards and concentrate more on fine craft. This is a balancing act, since the cheeseboard side of the business will always be more profitable….but the glass art is lots more fun (but less profitable).
I discuss profit as a relative term, but it means specific things to me and my business. First, the IRS requires me to make a profit in order to make certain deductions for my taxes in business. Second, I want to maintain a certain level of funds in my business checking account from year to year. Basically, it comes down to this: the cheeseboards pay for the art glass I use in making glass art.
How I sell what I make is highly determined by my Rule #1. Often, when people see my work, they say, “Do you sell on the web?” I say I have been working on a website, but I do not intend to actually sell work there. Where do I sell? I’m strictly local. I have a couple of local wholesale accounts, am in a couple of co-ops, and I do local shows. No way am I selling cheeseboards on Amazon or Etsy!
Another product of mine has been writing. GLASScraftsman (now defunct) engaged me as a columnist after the editor saw articles I wrote for the International Guild of Glass Artists’ newsletter Common Ground: Glass. The Cool Tools and Hot Ideas column had a five year run, and I also wrote a series on studio design when I converted my two-car garage into a studio in 2008 (hey, my former employers did business in garages, why not me?) Fortunately, I retained full ownership rights to these articles and will be updating and putting them on this blog.
After GLASScraftsman went away, a former editor engaged me to write a series of articles I called Out of the Box for Glass Patterns Quarterly. A GPQ advertiser would send me a product and I would make something interesting with it. My favorite one was the “On Getting a Head” project. A company called 1Glassimpressions.com sent me box with a glass head (used for modeling hats) and a stand with LEDs inside (they still sell LED kits). I decided to do a mosaic, coldworking glass globs (“jewels”) and doing a brainmap on the head, then using black glass and frit for the face and hair line. I then wrote how to do the project. It was a fun one. Later on, it was less spontaneous, and for my last project I was sent glass and a pattern of a design to make with it—not really out of the box. I did the project and article, but the article never appeared, and the column ended. The other GPQ articles can be found in back issues of GPQ. They retain ownership of the articles and images that I submitted to them, so if any images appear on this site they will be ones I didn’t submit.
What I’ve found during the last 10 years is that I have become involved in a community of artists and artisans: people who do shows, people in guilds, people who work in co-ops, and of course, people who buy my work. I enjoy my community as much as the craft itself. This is the biggest lesson from my first 10 years.