Mrs M’s 100th Event: We’re Smarter Now   Leave a comment

When we started, we had a borrowed canopy using concrete blocks for weights. We had mismatched table cloths, a pocket for a cash register, and no clue what was coming next.

We didn’t know we needed storage for boxes of boxes of containers. We’d never owned a hitch carrier. I didn’t even know what a tottle was.

Today, Mrs M is just back from attending her first ever national convention … about making soap. She even took a test, and has been certified by the Handcrafted Soap & Cosmetics Guild as a Basic Soapmaker for both cold process and hot process soap. She got a certificate. It was signed. In ink.

So after years of being certifiable, Mrs M is now certified.

Mrs M’s Handmade is now 3 years old, and we have just completed our 100th event. Whatever we’re doing, we’ve done it a lot. And I can say with certainty, after 100 events, we’re smarter. A lot smarter.

We now know what it means to lose a hallway and 2 bedrooms to a “hobby.”

We now know what it means to stay up into the wee hours because you “must” have more product ready for the next day’s event.

We now know that no matter what anyone tells you, you will never, never, ever know what an event will bring until you actually set up and do your thing. There’s a reason you have to play the game, because you just don’t know until you know.

That stated, here are 13 things we’ve learned from when we go a-vendoring.

1. Going Big

When we started, we fit everything into a Jeep. Soon, everything was fitting into a Jeep & a Honda.

Barely.

Or, occasionally, the younger Mrs M would bring her truck. I learned all I know about ratcheting straps, but not before a lid blew off one container on a freeway one dark night. That’s when I knew I could only buy locking containers.

No matter. We decided that the only way to do what we wanted to do – whatever that was – was to go big. Soon, we were only booking double booths, and we had to fill a 10×20 space with display pieces, products and customers.

Packing everything into the limited space in our cars was a constant challenge … and having to drive 2 cars to events that were 200+ miles away was somewhere between no fun and a bad idea. But, it was the best we could do at the time. We thought.

Today, we have a 6’x10′ cargo trailer to haul the roughly 70 locking containers, a 5-gallon bucket, 1 tub & 5 coolers full of product, 2 rolling storage/display cabinets, a shade canopy, 5 tables, 10 display crates, 6 gallons of water, 1 fire extinguisher, 3 rolls of paper towels and 150 pounds of concrete that are in our typical load out these days.

Other items of note that we carry everywhere: 4 different paper inserts, gift tags, shredded paper, raw newsprint, a canvas bag of paper bags, scotch tape, paper ribbon, a logo stamp, and 8 kinds of cellophane bags. And that’s just for the on-site packaging of things we sell.

As a wise man once told me, be careful what you wish for.

When this is the view, you’re in trouble.

2. Hunting For Events

One of the hardest things to do is finding good events.

Unicorns, they are.

Beginners and low budget operations usually do very small, very local boutiques in churches & schools … which are impossible to find until you’re “in the know.” Networking with other vendors is the best way to find these events, though it’s important to know that everyone’s results are different. You need to find your audience – upscale, downscale, family-friendly or hipster-reliant. Will car shows work? Chamber of Commerce events? Foodie events? Art events? Swap meets? Farmer’s markets? Music events? It’s a big world out there, and I’m just getting started.

When you are a vendor at an event, you’ll often be pitched by other event producers to come to their event. The only good way to find events is to get out there … and sometimes, they’ll find you.

Mrs M is a member of FestivalNet.com, which does have a good database of events – especially the larger ones. We always use this resource to check out regional events that are outside of our experience (which would be most of them). At this point, we’re willing to drive about 250 miles for the right event … and we won’t leave home for an event that doesn’t pass our sniff test. Here are our key questions:

  • Estimated attendance? (of course this number is hyped)
  • How many vendors? (this counts all kinds of vendors)
  • How long has the event been done in this location?
  • Typical sales from other vendors? (you almost never get a straight answer to this question)
  • Is the website/marketing pitch professional?
  • How is the event marketed to attendees?
  • Does it sound like fun?
  • Does it fit into the existing personal, professional and Mrs M calendars?

There’s really only one solution: network obsessively at events. Find more experienced friends (especially those that have different products!), and they’ll share info on events that might work for you. You’ll then get to do the work and choose what you want to do.

Not our best display, but I was limited to one 6′ table. Is it good to only display half of your merchandise at a new event? If current customers see your half-baked display, is that bad?

3. Know Who You Are

And, in context, we’re not who we used to be. We used to go to every vendor event we could find – as many as 4 in one weekend! Today, we only want to go to big, weekend-long events, and the bigger the better. We may never eliminate one day events entirely, but we’re on that path. Go big or stay home.

As beginning vendors, we were ecstatic when anyone bought anything. We had so much to learn. Today, we are choosing what we want to make, and then working to find a market for those items. I’ve stopped taking one-off commissions on things I don’t really do … so you won’t see me making backgammon sets. Or counter tops. Or picnic tables. Or wine barrel decor. I just don’t wanna.

And since that which is Mrs M’s Handmade is our hobby – our serious, totally out-of-control hobby – then we get to choose what we want to do. After all, if you don’t choose, the world will choose for you, and that could be a very bad thing.

4. Sometimes, Events Require Things

We’ve been required to have a city business license for a 2-day event. We’ve been required to leave a $200 cleaning deposit in case we don’t leave a city street as clean as we found it. We’ve been told that being a couple doing 2 things in one booth is too confusing for the event; we have to register as 2 vendors, not 1.

Being unusual can be such a burden.

Every event is different, and they are sometimes, uh, creative in what they make you do to be a part of their event – you know, beyond paying 100% of your fees in advance in a “no refunds no matter what” environment. You have to pay to play this game. You have to read every application very carefully and make sure you check every little box when you send in the application.

Every time.

When your canopy is held together with duct tape, it’s time to get a new one.

5. Sometimes, You’ll Need Stuff

I knew that we’d need stuff to go a-vendoring, but I really didn’t know. Truly, what we needed was a surprise to me … and the list keeps growing.

We’ve ordered 3 shade canopies, custom table cloths and boxes by the bundle. We fret over UPS rates and pay them with an automatic monthly charge. I still weigh cutting boards for shipping on our bathroom scale, though!

I’ve broken a table, a shade structure, a rolling cart, untold numbers of plastic tubs and much more. Buy quality display pieces … and then if you keep at it, you’ll wear them out.

Don’t forget that you’ll need patience – and a lot of it. Unfortunately. I’ve dropped and ruined product. I’ve had customers drip rain on my glass-smooth finishes … and had to re-finish those boards. I’ve had customers tell me I’m doing it wrong because I’m not doing it like they think it should be done. I’ve taken on too much to do, and missed at least one Christmas delivery.

I’ve built 3 iterations of our booths, and I’m sure there’s more in front of me. We’re in search of the perfectly portable, perfectly viewable themed product display. Seen one?

We now have liability insurance that covers both Mrs M’s skin care products and my handmade wooden creations. I’ve had to submit as many as 3 different Certificates of Insurance to a single event with unique language that is always dictated by some lawyer you’ll never meet opining on what they think protects their interests. Not yours.

6. Can They See You?

It’s really important that your customers can see your products (who knew?). It took us a year to have good verticality in our presentation … and another year to have a great display for the varied products that Mrs M brings to the market. It takes a long time to figure out a good display, we’ve found, and it’s really the second-most important thing. If they can’t see your good products (those good products are the MOST important thing), they won’t buy them. Oh, and on that note, Mrs M used the google machine and found the best lights ever for events in the dark. I installed full spectrum, low watt bulbs, and our booth stays breathtakingly bright. Every time we use this setup, vendors go ga ga over our lights.

Here are our lights in use in the daytime, at an indoor event that offers less than wonderful lighting. Note the brightness of our booth compared to the one off to the right. Who do you think had the better day?

7. Prices Gotta Go Up

There are 3 ways to increase profits: increase selling prices, decrease costs, or increase your volume of sales. When you can do all 3, you’re doing it right.

When I started, cheese boards were $25. Lazy Susans were $50. I priced an end grain, full-sized cutting board at my first event for only $75. I soon learned … prices gotta go up. And they have.

I have received many compliments on my price tags, which identify the woods in each board. Some have told me my prices are reasonable; others have definitely communicated the prices are too high. Who should I believe?

Back then, I was using about 7 species of woods and my largest cutting board was 12″ x 16″ x 1″. Today, I’m using over 20 species and the largest cutting boards that I have on display are 16″ x 21″ x 1-1/2″, which is over 2-1/2 times larger than the one in my first display.

Size comes at a price, of course, as do boards that feature the most expensive woods.

The good news is that today I can give customers those options, and they now get to choose what they want.

Today, my least-priced board is $35. My highest priced board is currently $375 and I have done commissioned orders that are many times that amount.

I make no apologies for the prices as displayed (which, as I explain, are dictated by the size of the boards and the woods used). I don’t negotiate price. I’ve seen people jerk their fingers back from a board like the price tag was burning them, and I truly appreciate that many people don’t want to spend $300 on a cutting board. I have no problem with that.

When people find the price list, they are happy. When they don’t find the price list….

I also have no problem charging $300 to the people that do want to spend that amount on a quality, handmade, hardwood cutting board.

8. Helping Customers Find You

Most entrepreneurs are great at product development and terrible at marketing. They have a great idea – and expect customers to find them. That’s just not the way it works.

You have to find the customers. You have to make a great product, yes, but THEN you have to find a way to market that product. That means you’ll have to:

  • Talk to people
  • Embrace website development
  • Talk to people
  • Spend time developing marketing strategies and promotions
  • Talk to people
  • Sell strangers on the benefits of your product

If that’s not you, you’re in trouble. If you want to go a-vendoring, it HAS to be you.

9. Unending Social Media

I admit it, I’m old.

But I’m going to say it: it’s impossible to engage in every brand of social media out there and do so well. You are far, far better off to choose one or two and do them very well, rather than try and do them all … because you will fail.

In my case, I run our 3 websites (!) including this daily blog, and post on Facebook with some regularity. I am the photographer, but I don’t do Instagram. Or Tumblr. Or Snapchat. Or YouTube. Or … well, you get the idea.

I very much appreciate it when Mrs M or Little Girl does share a post on Instagram, as I know that gets reactions. Mrs M has played with Facebook videos a bit, and I have a vendor friend that does a lot of nice videos from her events (way to go, Kathy!). As Hamm said in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, “Each to their own speciality.”

10. Information Overload

I have a spreadsheet that simply tracks events of interest, and keeps track of where we are in the internal approval/application/payment/acceptance process with each event in real time. This spreadsheet is already tracking events into 2019. We have 2 confirmed events in 2018. Already.

I keep a copy of every application sent to every event. I have copies of the checks. Copies of the pictures of products I submitted and the forms I’ve filled out. And, I still don’t remember every single detail on every single application when I go to the next weekend’s event. I’ve got standard lists of products, pictures of products, pictures of booths and pictures of myself and the Mrs. actually making the handmade goods we propose to take to targeted events. Many of those events are juried – and if you don’t submit a good enough package, or a complete package, or the right package, then you will be rejected by the event. We’ve been rejected by one event already this year and rejected and encouraged to properly reapply by another. We get a rejection or 3 every year now, and I think that’s a good thing. It keeps us sharp.

And frustrated.

But, no worries, because we’re doing this for fun.

11. What’s Your Goal?

Thinking you can retire on your BBQ spice recipe’s sales?

Hoping that you’ll be able to make Christmas ornaments out of pine cones and make enough to buy a new car?

Good luck.

Most crafters believe if they sell 3 times booth costs, they are successful. Most professional vendors think if they’re selling 10 times booth costs, they are approaching doing it right. There’s no right answer here … but you better know what you’re trying to accomplish. Paying for an annual vacation? Possible. Paying the mortgage? You better be doing everything the right way, or you’re in trouble.

Not the best way to brand a board, especially when you’re making a few hundred of them!

12. Get Help

Mrs M’s fingers are not compatible with putting the shrink wrap tubes on the lip balm containers she uses. Little Girl can do this much more easily, thank goodness.

Labeling soap with the cigar band wrappers favored by Mrs M is a challenge for me: I type the labels and get them laser cut, but putting them on the bars? Not for me. MrsMowry is much better with paper crafts & glue sticks. She views it as therapy and an escape from the toils of teaching 13 year olds. Thank goodness.

I started making boards and branding them (literally) with an electric brass stamp. The Engineer is the one who told me that there was a better way … and we eventually found Lavene & Co. Teri Diamond has a pair of laser engravers and delivers a very professional branding to every board I make – and she laser cuts the labels on every bar of Mrs M’s soap, as well.

Mrs M is too busy making product (and doing whatever she does at her “job”) to find her almost-new sewing machine, so we reached out to a friend to help get the skirts done for our new rolling cabinetry.

You can’t be expected to be an expert at everything and do everything. Find help, and you’ll have a better result on many levels. And, possibly, a bit more sanity.

13. Do Multiple Ideas

Mrs M currently has a website, and that retail site (which costs $300/year just to start) is paying for itself, but annual sales are still less than one good event. I am getting custom orders on a consistent basis, so my “through the front door” sales are a signficant part of Mr M’s Woodshop. Do those custom orders surpass event sales? Nope.

Together, Mr & Mrs M do 30 or so events every year, and that’s the mainstay of what we do. The majority of our sales happen at these events. Is it possible that we could cut back on the events so that we’re not working as hard on weekends? Perhaps … but then where would those sales come from?

I haven’t embraced online sales yet. I just don’t have the time. I think.

Mrs M hasn’t embraced blogging yet. She just doesn’t have the time. She thinks.

We almost never do email marketing, though Mrs M was just told by a supposed-expert that 30% of her sales should be email-driven.

What should we do? What should we stop doing? Should we stop having a family life in order to excel as entrepreneurs?

Guess what my answer is to THAT one!

So, we’re 3 years in and we’re smarter … but not nearly smart enough. Here are the things we still haven’t figured out; any wisdom you can share will be most appreciated:

  • Printing labels for Mrs M’s extensive product line is a real headache. Should we go to professional labels, or stick with our semi-pro approach using our laser printer?
  • Mrs M is not always a perfect communicator, nor a visual thinker with good spatial awareness. In my opinion. The next time I have to design a display piece based on what’s in her head but not what I can hear coming through her lips, who will be willing to mediate? It will either be very entertaining or very scary. You choose.
  • Is it more important to open new markets or service the home crowd that got you where you are? Last year, we did 6 “hometown” events. This year, we plan to do 4. Is that a good trend? What should we do?

Your thoughts & opinions are welcome. I hope that these hard-earned ideas will help you, should you decide to go a-vendoring.

More

Mrs M’s Handmade

Mr M’s Woodshop

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