Urban Craft Uprising and the Fear of Selling Your Passion

Urban Craft Uprising is a craft/art/food/t-shirt/soap/artisan tea/skateboard jewelry/cat bowtie/knitted cactus/whatever fair that takes place at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. Hundreds of indie crafters and entrepreneurs set up booths and present their wares to potential customers. It’s a great place to build your awareness of the small artisan businesses that may exist all around you. Earlier this month I attended my third UCU; fortunately for me, there are two a year (Summer and Winter) which is just enough to quench my craving.

At shows like this there’s always an interesting combination of creative energy and weary tension. Observing the almost hidden frustration of vendors who have been on their feet all day, making change and watching people briefly pause at their tables, meanwhile posed brightly against the backdrop of the pleasingly-arranged product displays- it gets me a little buzzed. I’ve been on both sides of the table.

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This time I attended with two purposes: Christmas gift shopping, and reconnaissance. It’s no secret that a near-future goal for SNOWCOYOTE is to open a store, and I’m toying with the idea  of debuting at UCU next year. As a 4-time comicon Artist Alley alum, I do have some experience selling my art, but only at a small venue, and my inventory was mostly Kinko’s prints of video game fan art. It’s a very different story to be an established business and running a booth as an extension of that business, and for the financial future of that business possibly riding on the success of that booth. 

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I made the rounds several times taking mental notes as well as pictures of booths that caught my eye. I also ended up taking on the role of walking billboard for Spokane Doesn’t Suck, since I happened to be wearing my sweatshirt. There may as well have been a question mark at the end of the phrase because many people took it as an invitation to come to me with their thoughts. Mostly positive- “Where did you get that?”- and some fighting words- “I like it but I’m not sure I agree.”  Everyone was fairly polite though. I bonded with two guys from Portland who were selling peanut butter and we determined that maybe Seattle just doesn’t like things that aren’t Seattle.

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the planning of the SNOWCOYOTE site, it’s that there’s something so invigorating and scary about picking up the responsibility of turning your passion into a business. My excitement for this idea first began in college and it still hasn’t fizzled out like so many projects before it. At this point I think I’ve reached that place in life where I have the independence and income to actually do these things instead of dream about them. 

However, I am using my time doing work that won’t see me any income for a very long time. I’ve chosen to sit in my room planning for the site launch instead of spending time with my friends. I put my freelance paychecks aside in anticipation of building the store inventory that is still months away. I spent too much money at this hipster cafe so I would be motivated to write this post instead of getting distracted at home by Fallout 4. I’ve been doing it almost every Saturday for two months now and will most likely continue. Neptune Coffee in Greenwood, you’re welcome.

But it’s fun. That’s what you get out of it, hopefully. Though in the moment, sometimes it may not be fun. As I strategize the best way to pay a vendor a compliment  (“I appreciate your drive that got you here today!”) while trying not to inflate their hopes that I’m going to buy (“But I have no need for an $80 pillow with a furry monster face on it. Thanks for noticing my shirt though!”), I sense that a lot of the journey is not fun. I have to believe though, that if you spent the energy making the product, marketing the product, and delivering the product, and you plan on doing that all over again- it must be worth it. There is the alternative of the nine-to-five job you can stop thinking about between the hours of five-to-nine. But you’re doing this instead, because when you look back on all the work you think, “I did that myself. And I did it exactly how I wanted to.”

Selling fan art for comicon, I never really thought of my target audience. Or sales strategies. Or networking. I drew pictures of what I liked, printed them out, and sat behind a table waiting for people to decide to take them home. Every year was an experiment. I guessed how many prints I might need and in what sizes, and every year I learned more about what sold and what didn’t. The pieces I spent the least amount of time on often sold better because the subject matter was more popular at the time. And of course, because I assigned the least personal value to them, I never printed enough. After my fourth year, I was still pretty baffled by my results, but at least there was one thing about which there was no doubt: People gravitate toward what is familiar to them. It’s the whole concept of a comic convention. Hordes of fans gathering to obsess over one beloved thing.

However, once you leave the world of profiting from another company’s copyrighted IP (if they’re big enough they won’t catch wind of little ol’ you, am I right?) it gets a lot harder. No one knows who you are. When did you ever prove yourself to them? What fulfillment should someone get out of your blood, sweat, and tears? Yeah, they can respect the fact that you did it, but in the end they just may not have use for your fuzzy pillow with a monster face on it. The not-secret is that it has to be meaningful. Even if it’s your obsession that drove you to create it (like a small-batch craft beer you refined for months), you cannot forget that factor that will make it valuable to others (that beer better be tasty to more people than you.)

I can only hope I’m making something that will matter to people. Whenever I get those creeping thoughts (well, not really creeping, they’re pretty loud and clumsy) of how I have no business telling anyone how to do anything, I have to remind myself that I do have about 10 years of experience Making Stuff on a Computer, and not only that, but I have a degree in Making Stuff on a Computer, and I also Make Stuff on a Computer all day for a living. If I can help others get started doing that too, I think that will be enough. As much as I have all these lofty goals of engendering brand recognition, and someday having 1000 True Fans, there’s quite a few points to hit along the way before I get there. 

As scary as it is in practice, the saying is true: If you want people to notice your stuff, the first thing you have to do is put it out there. It may not be ready. But the thing you will put out there next will be slightly more ready. Repeat into infinity.

At the end of the day, I had bought this beauty:

Have you seen that illustration going around on the internet of the sloth in the suit with the caption, “Dolla dolla bill ya’ll”? Ryan Berkley drew it. Some other dude put the caption on his art and it went viral via Reddit, without credit to him. This is my second time seeing Berkley, based out of Portland, here at UCU. The first time, we chatted for a little bit, and the story came up. He seemed weary about it, but at this point I think he was trying to move on. This year I had to grab a print of this smooth gentleman, for obvious reasons. I’m going to frame it. You should check out the rest of his extensive collection of well-dressed animals.

After I left, I stopped at the Barnes and Noble near my house and had a soup-and-sandwich dinner in the cafe. Going over my notes on what I had learned that day, I sketched a layout of the booth that SNOWCOYOTE will have someday. I think I’ve got some good ideas. Want to see it? I’ll let you know when you can stop by.

Do you have any milestone goals for your indie business? Talk about it in the comments.