I get regular questions via many of my online points of contact about my business (es). The fact that I run it from a tiny little room from a tiny rural village is what most people find fascinating about it. Most want to know how they can also get into the internet business from the villages...so I thought I would do a post about what I am learning about the experience.
How did I start?
I actually started selling drawings, paintings and handcrafted items when I moved to California to go to college. To avoid eating potatoes for weeks on end I had to find a way to generate some extra income. This is probably where I learned the most about selling handcrafted items, especially when it came to quality and durability. I found a local Native American shop that sold many different types of Native art, they would buy at wholesale prices. The buyer was a very formidable woman who knew her stuff, and who probably taught me the most about selling my craft in the very short meetings we had together. She would pick the item up, examine it closely for a few minutes, ask me very specific questions about the construction and then tell me what she would give me for it or tell me what I needed to change to sell it to her. It was the 'telling me what to change' that really taught me something. I learned about using the correct materials, glues, and techniques and everything else from her. The first time she suggested the changes I got incredibly mad at her. I stomped out of the office in a huff of insulted pride. I was, after all, 19 ...the age where you pretty much know everything. A few weeks later I swallowed all that and made the changes, and she bought the item. I began building the blocks of knowledge that would help me sell my items. True craftsmen and craftswomen never stop learning their crafts. I found that over the years those who stopped learning, also stopped selling.
How do I successfully sell online?
In my head I am not quite successful yet, but I do use my generated funds to supplement our lives and since my husband has never told me to get a 'real' job I figure it has to be somewhat successful. The secret is this: Spend way too much time online, and get a very comfortable chair to prevent back problems. I spend on average a minimum of 4 hours a day just promoting and running my online business. It's usually not fun stuff either, just repetitive and uninteresting stuff, like uploading photos, responding to emails and queries and doing a massive amount of research and reading. I have tailored my online presence specific to what I am selling. I tend to my contact spots like a gardener will tend to their plants. I visit them a couple of times a day to ensure that my customers and future customers are aware and comfortable with me. Being an online presence can become impersonal and distant which can be detrimental to your business. People always ask me how I promote online and can I tell them where to promote. And my answer is always the same: Go to where your customers are. My customers will almost always be completely different than yours. I cater to a wide age group, mostly women, almost always educated, and almost always they already have an interest in fine art and cultural art and health alternatives. There is literally a huge list of attributes that I keep to target specific people, but this list is gleaned from years of research...mostly via google and Alaska state research. I have a point of contact where they can ALWAYS get ahold of me quickly and can safely purchase my items. I used to run my own site but found it to be quite expensive. So now I use Etsy as my main access point. The other places I have a presence are:
1. Deviant Art - attracts many ages, mostly on the young side, worldwide presence but literally MILLIONS of people on there. I update my art regulary (or I try to anyways.) Great place for inspiration and learning also! My deviant art account: Eskimoscrybe
2. Facebook - I made my own page and I hold giveaways and regularly post neat stuff, I also use it to promote other artists that I find amazing. There are also some awesome groups on facebook to promote selling your items. For local Native crafts I love a new group called ALASKA BARTER AND SELLER'S PAGE , but there are many many out there. My facebook account: CLICK HERE
3. This section changes all the time: Online groups. I have been a member of many many groups to promote my work over the years, everything from yahoo groups to ebay . They often change but google is your best friend here. Just google your types of items and look for online groups and get comfy with using the different types of chat rooms and boards. I often use keywords like 'Inuit Art' and 'Alaska Native' products and art. I never make myself a nuisance to these groups, just let them know you exist, you can also find good opportunities to promote if you see where alot of them are going to purchase items.
4. A blog. Need I say more? Here not only can I expose people to my random art and products but I can also let them see where I live and enjoy my experiences in this world. And my equally random thoughts. I become a person. Albeit a person made of a series of words and paragraphs. Showing up on other blogs is also super awesome!
5. Other businesses. I do sell to other businesses, mostly business that are in the Alaska tourist industry. Sometimes they contact me, sometimes I contact them. I have sold artwork and health products both, though it is sometimes time consuming and sometimes stressful I found that this is a great opportunity to reach customers in other locations. I regularly send free samples or artwork samples out and work to build a continuous relationship with that business.
~Be ready to embarrass yourself. 80% of the people I approach say no, I never see this as an insult just that they are not looking for my type of art or product. Rejection is education.
~Don't just build customers...build repeat customers. They will in turn promote your product and service. There are many many ways to do this the main ones being awesome service and awesome products.
~Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. I probably could spend 8 hours a day on the computer if I wanted but I know after a certain amount of time my focus drifts off. I also am aware of my I can produce in various amounts of time, I am still human.
~Educate yourself. Find things that inspire you to learn different things. Expand your horizons and knowledge base. This also keeps you from getting bored. I am an avid buyer of 'how to' books and I will eat up magazines. I also find other artists and business people and stalk them and mimic what I like so much about their business and art.
~Educate your customer. 80% of my customers are not from my culture, so they will need to know basic things that you might think everyone would know (in Alaska). It also promotes the uniqueness and amazing of your item. I have made it a goal to use my business to bring money into the villages, rather than selling to my village alone. This means that I will use less Inupiaq words and terminology when I write the descriptions of my product. Keep your customer in mind always. Imagine if you went to a different country...what would you want to know?
~Take good pictures. There are many many sources online for taking good pictures of your product and art. Use it.....your photos will be the ONLY connection to what you have to offer which can be a barrier.
~ Expect the ups and downs. For me I expect to take a hit in the tourist off season and get a surplus in the tourist season. As a consequence I tend to stash money and supplies like a ground squirrel.
~ Be a real business. Keep real records and learn what that means for you. I absolutely throw a fit every time the tax season rolls around. I stomp around the house and moan and complain. But I always do what I supposed to do to run a business, you don't want to get in trouble later. This also includes knowing the rules about buying and selling Native crafts. For way too much information you can visit the Alaska state site, and look up CITES.
Well that's the quick and dirty Business post! I hope it helped some and I would be happy to answer any questions I can. You can also post your info and contributions in the comments as I know all input is always valuable!