Recently I was listening to an episode of a podcast hosted by Kate Ahl, an entrepreneur I respect. Kate, a Pinterest expert who helps clients and others use Pinterest to gain exposure, was talking about how business owners should identify pins that are doing especially well on Pinterest and re-pin them repeatedly. She mentioned that some of her clients balk at this advice, objecting that it’s boring to pin the same thing over and over again. If that’s how you feel, she suggested, it might be time to ask yourself if you really want to be running a business, or if it would make more sense to do what you do as a hobby. After all, she said, if Target sells a lot of sandals one season but few pairs of canvas shoes, you can bet it’s not going to re-order canvas shoes just because it’s bored with sandals.
Kate’s words settled themselves in my mind, demanding attention. On one hand, I agree with her. I believe that to succeed, a business has to serve its customers. No one is obligated to buy canvas shoes from you simply because you happen to be into them. If your customers want sandals, give them sandals! I have my own version of those Target sandals (my teardrop and stud earrings) that I make over and over again because people keep buying them. I periodically update the simple designs with new stones, and the knowledge that people love these earrings enough to buy them again and again feeds my soul and keeps me from getting bored with them.
The money I make from my business means a lot to me. First, it helps me pay bills, do things for my family, and allow myself indulgences I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Since my jewelry biz is a side hustle, I don’t rely on my earnings from it as much as I would if it were my sole source of income, but the money it brings in is nevertheless important. Second, making money with my business allows me to invest back into the business by buying new materials to experiment with and paying for training and other things that enable me to grow both as an entrepreneur and as a designer. And third, knowing that people enjoy my designs enough to part with their hard-earned dollars to own them is a big part of what keeps me motivated and fuels my creativity.
On the other hand, Kate’s words made me feel a bit lame. In the years since I launched my jewelry business, it’s grown little by little, but it’s not making me rich and likely never will. But could it, if I took a more hard-nosed approach? Although I do re-make my most popular items, I just as frequently create pieces simply because I’m excited about them, without much thought as to whether they’ll sell (often, they don’t, but the next time I get fired up about a new design, I do the same thing). Does that mean I’m a failure at business, since I’m wasting time and money creating pieces that few customers will buy? Would it make more sense for me to work on my jewelry as a hobby so I could make whatever my heart desires without worrying about whether it will sell?
Before my jewelry biz was born, I did freelance editing side projects to make extra cash, and I probably made more per hour doing that than I do with my jewelry. Perhaps it would make sense for me to go back to freelancing and relegate jewelry to a hobby, as Kate suggested.
The problem, though, is that the idea of abandoning my jewelry business sounds horribly depressing. Why is that, since the return on my investment of time and effort is really pretty low, if it’s measured in terms of dollars earned per hour of work?
The answer lies in the purpose behind the business, and that’s where I disagree with Kate. Her statement assumes that entrepreneurs want to make as much money with their businesses as possible at any cost, and I don’t think that’s true in most if not all cases. It certainly isn’t for me. I also don’t believe that just because Target didn’t sell many canvas shoes this season, you won’t be seeing any in their stores in the future. Perhaps if they tried that style of shoe made with different fabrics or colors or chose a design that was more comfortable or long-lasting, the shoes would start moving. Part of being a successful entrepreneur means being willing to take risks and try new things. Target might not be bored with sandals, but their customers eventually will be, and if those are the only shoes available, people will start looking elsewhere for fresh footwear ideas.
Every business has lines it won’t cross to make money, although the lines are different for each. Some use only ethically sourced materials, even if it means charging higher prices and potentially selling less. Others insist on certain working conditions for those who create the products they sell. For others, what’s most important is the esthetics of their products—the quality of the design, materials, and workmanship. For some entrepreneurs, it’s all three; for others it might be something else entirely. Even Target, I’m certain, has lines it won’t cross, regardless of whether you or I agree with where those lines are drawn.
I didn’t go about launching my business in a savvy or practical way; in fact, I stumbled haphazardly into it. (You can read more about all that here.) At first, my purpose was simply to find homes for the jewelry I was obsessively creating and to earn enough to pay for my supplies so that I could keep making more jewelry and experimenting with new designs. As the business started to grow, the purpose evolved. I realized that I could make enough from it to quit doing freelance jobs, and the money it brought it became more important.
But the purpose of my business is not to make money but rather to enrich my life, and although money definitely does do that, it’s not the whole story. My biz fuels my creativity (the challenge of making pieces that work for my customers is a big source of my inspiration). I also get a huge amount of gratification from the knowledge that people all over the world are wearing and loving things I made with my own hands—something that wouldn’t be happening if I were doing this as a hobby. Perhaps most important, my business has helped shape my identity (you can read about that here). Although making jewelry as a hobby has advantages, a hobby wouldn’t give me all this.
My conclusion? Kate’s advice is worth paying attention to. I, for one, make many hasty business decisions that end up costing me way too much and benefitting me little or not at all. I’m going to keep Kate’s advice in mind the next time I find myself about to make the next poorly thought out decision and ask myself: is this really going to help me and my business grow, or does it just sound fun or cool? Also, about those new pieces I dive headlong into making just because my imagination tells me to go for it? I’m going to keep doing that, but maybe a bit more thinking and less diving wouldn’t hurt, to avoid spending time and money on designs that simply aren’t going to appeal to my customers.
I have other goals for my business besides stockpiling as much cash as possible, and sometimes that means discontinuing certain pieces even if they’re popular or deciding against doing something that would make me money if it doesn’t sit right with me for whatever reason. I don’t believe this means I need to go back to doing jewelry as a hobby. If running a business stops being rewarding, that’s when I’ll consider pursuing the hobby option or maybe closing up shop altogether and doing something completely different. In the meantime, I’ll keep creating things I love to make, some that are popular best-sellers, some that are impractical pet projects, and, with luck, a few that are both.
Photos by Sarah Marcella Creative and Ruth Barzel