Weekly-ish notes on navigating big change

We are Adventurers

Adventures in business: with teacher Gwen Bortner

Today I'm delighted to have teacher, designer and Starship Captain Gwen Bortner sharing her experience with us. You can learn to teach your own craft with Gwen's Craftsy class, How to Teach It

Gwen Bortner, teacher at Craftsy


You're a full-time knitwear designer and teacher, which sounds like you get to spend all day knitting with beautiful yarns…what's a typical work day actually like for you?

I actually consider myself a teacher first, so much of my time is spent marketing myself as a teacher, preparing to offer classes and since I travel around the country, a surprising amount of my time is spent in airports and airplanes.  However, that is some of my most productive knitting time, so I don’t begrudge it! When I am in my home office, most of the “work day” is spent at the computer doing administrative things, publishing type activities (for handouts or designs) or marketing. There really isn’t near as much knitting and playing with yarn as one would think (or hope).


There are so many ways to make a living as a designer and teacher – how are you doing it? What have you combined and how has that changed through the years?


My original business plan went through a number of iterations before morphing into what it is today. And I think that is one of the keys to my success, my ability and willingness to be flexible. But once I realized that teaching is my gift and what I really love and then made that the focus of my business, it almost immediately became profitable.  So now my income is about 85% teaching and the remaining 15% is mostly from some sort of designing either for my own Knitability pattern line or for magazines or other folks purchasing designs. My continued focus is always to increase my teaching income even though that means I am away from home quite often.

 Gwen Bortner teaching on Craftsy

What's surprised you most about what full-time teaching?


I wouldn’t actually say I was surprised because I have been self-employed before and worked in the yarn industry for a short time in college, but this is a tremendous amount of work for a relatively small income. There is always a few folks who make it “look easy”. But once you get to know them, you also find out that they had to work really hard and for the most part are still working very hard. And in the end, there is no formula, everyone seems to have to find their own path.


What new thing are you exploring (in your business)?


The newest thing in my business has been teaching online via Craftsy.  My first course, Entrelac Knitting  was filmed just about a year ago and was easily one of the highlights of my career thus far. So I was very excited when I was invited back to film a second course.  This one is called How to Teach It  and is designed to help both new and experienced teachers of any type of hand craft develop a teaching business. I have long believed that the more good teachers we can develop the more likely our crafts will continue to prosper. Hand crafts just are not “handed down” any more, so teachers are just that much more critical. So I am also looking at developing some of my own online courses for much smaller markets and right now I am taking a course from Diane of CraftyPod to build my skills in that area.


What's your definition of success for your business?


For me, a successful business is a business that is profitable (providing me my desired level of income) and allows me to do what I enjoy. So specifically success means I am making a reasonable income while sharing my love of knitting, sharing my passion for teaching and encouraging and developing new people. And the bonus is I get to do this while getting to travel, meeting new people and making new friends.


What's the next destination you're working towards?


So my next destination and the reason I joined the Starship is to figure out how to move beyond the yarn industry.  The Craftsy class, How to Teach It, I think will open some of these doors, but I believe I have even more knowledge and inspiration to share outside the fields of knitting and teaching. So I am not exactly sure where my final destination is going to be, but I know I am ready to start moving beyond where I am right now!


Thanks, Gwen!

Now how about you, Dear Reader? Do you teach your craft? Do you want to?

Adventures in business, with artist Amy Crook

Today I’m delighted to have Amy Crook, an artist, designer and Starship Captain,  sharing what a life (and business) as an artist r is really like. You can find her work here and here.

Amy Croo

You’re a full-time artist, which sounds like you get to spend all day doodling and playing with art supplies, but what’s a typical work day actually like for you?


I'm a chronic insomniac and not a morning person at all, so the first two hours usually involve reading email, getting caught up on the internet, and blinking sleepily a lot. Then once I'm more or less conscious, fed and showered, I take a giant mug of tea and either do some kind of small biz development (like Starship chats on Wednesdays!) or move over to my art table. There I've got some lists of things I want to draw/paint, plus I have easy access to a lot of my everyday art supplies so I can just noodle around and create things. Since I post art every day, this is an important part of my day, plus this is when I draw up designs for new Etsy cards, and work on client commissions. Plus, it's fun!

Once my energy starts to flag, I'll move back over to my comfy chair and do client work, emails, art posts, Photoshop, and all the other work that needs to be done at the computer instead of on paper. I take frequent breaks to get water, eat little snacks, play with the cats and noodle around on the internet, which helps keep my stress levels down, but when it's time to buckle down and work I get done what needs to be done.

I usually get up around 10am and try to stop working by 10pm, but I take tons of breaks in the middle so that it works out to 8 hours of work, more or less. It's funny that I spend a lot more of my time these days working than I used to, but I'm much happier because I love the work I'm doing. My days off happen when I need one rather than on a fixed schedule, so sometimes I just don't do anything work-related on a Thursday, for instance, and instead spend the day watching movies, reading books, or playing iPhone games.

There are so many ways to be a full-time artist and I know you've tried a lot of them. How are you combining the options now? What has changed through the years?

For a long time I just did graphic design with the occasional bit of illustration work. These days, I have my direct sales of original art to patrons, my Etsy shop that sells cards and a few prints, commission work for both fine art and illustration clients, and I still have a small stable of design clients that benefit from my years of experience.

Amy Jelly Fish

What’s the next destination you’re working towards?

I'm working to skew things away from design and more toward art, and increasing my overall income while still remembering to stop working once in a while. There's a lot of smaller destinations hiding in that big end, like another coloring book, more non-holiday cards, increasing my visibility as an illustrator and artist, and finding more art patrons. For Q1 I've been focusing on really getting my website in line (I'm taking a class, that's another of my business development things!), and then Q2 is going to be about building my email list.

What new thing are you exploring?

I'm working on exploring more interesting watercolor techniques for my fine art, and also more ways to bring the things I love into my work. In my Etsy shop, I'm making more cards that are adorable but not holiday-related, so birthday cards and apology cards and prints of different things. I've got a tendency to do everything really slowly, one step at a time, so I'm being really patient with the slow shift, though some days it feels like watching tectonic plates move!

What’s your definition of success for your business?

For me, success is being able to live decently well and not feel stressed either by the work or by working too much. Since I've been freelance since 1998, I'm very keen on paying the bills, but I try not to let that get in the way of doing projects and art just for the fun of it — or just having fun, period.

I've got hard numbers, of course! For instance, this year one of my number goals is to increase Etsy sales by 200% overall. I'm working to keep up a steady stream of new products, which conveniently gives me art to post on my blog and originals to sell to patrons, so it fits into several of my other goals as well.

Amy Dr. Who card

What’s a recent lesson that you’re now applying?

Right now I'm trying to find the place where what sells meets what I love, and work there. It's a moving target, of course, but it keeps my enthusiasm up both because I'm making art I adore, and because I see money coming in, which is the best form of feedback. No matter how many people tell me they love X, if all they buy is Y then that's a much clearer path to success. But if I hated making Y then there's always Z to try next, as long as some things are paying off well enough to keep the lights on.

Adventures in Business, with knitwear designer Mercedes Tarasovich-Clark

Today I'm delighted to have Mercedes Tarasovich-Clark, knitwear designer, teacher and Starship captain, sharing what a life (and business) as a knitwear designer is really like. You can take her awesome online class for the lovely Artemisia sweater  or drool over her patterns.


You're a full-time knitwear designer and teacher , which sounds like you get to spend all day knitting with beautiful yarns…what's a typical work day actually like for you?

Not too many days are typical, exactly. I usually need to fit in some combo of marketing (either by blogging, email, or social media), email, freelance writing (I do craft writing for a few websites, besides my own blog), designing (making up submissions for new work, or doing the technical writing for current projects), and production knitting. The knitting is usually knitting while taking exacting notes, but is usually the more relaxing part of my work. I have a sort of rotating to-do list, where new things get added in and prioritized as old tasks get shuffled around or accomplished as needed. I love the iPhone and online app called Orchestra for this; a fellow designer introduced me to it, and it’s been my fave to-do list app so far because it lets me prioritize well.
For the new year, one of my big goals is to try to make out a weekly schedule to have certain regular tasks assigned to fairly regular weekdays, since the place where I lose the most time and momentum is switching between tasks. That’s one of my Starship goals for this quarter!

When I talk to new designers, who have just one pattern on Ravelry, it seems like a ginormous leap to go from there to an actual, regular income. What was that leap actually like?

My path to full-time designer was so circuitous! I went from being a dedicated knitting hobbyist with a degree in fiber arts (Savannah College of Art and Design, 1999), to owning a local yarn shop, to designing part-time for magazines and yarn companies, to being a yarn dyer selling online and at fiber events, to designing full-time. At any point in that path I would usually be juggling more than one career goal. Even now, when planning toward 2013, I would have thought I’d have been more focused on moving to selling my self-published patterns wholesale, but instead I’ve found myself picking up increasing income from freelance writing and teaching. When I developed the Artemisia Seamless Sweater class with Craftsy, it was an unfamiliar experience, and a little scary, but it’s been a great step forward for my indie biz!
Hands knitting
I think you have to plan your path up to a point, but not get your focus so honed in on one thing that you miss other opportunities. I’ve gotten to a place in my business where flexibility is key to my success. I say no to some projects, but more often I say yes, because it’s worth exploring and extending past my boundaries.

What's surprised you most about life as a full-time designer?

How many different business models there can be! As I’ve talked to other designers, our ways of planning for our businesses are so different and individual. While some friends make most of their income through their self-published patterns, others make more of their income via traveling and teaching, while others work for yarn companies for their main income source. It’s all based on full-time design work, but the business goals are incredibly tailored to the individual and his or her needs. We get great ideas from each other, but there is no one “right” answer for everyone.

What's the next destination you're working towards?

I just signed on with Interweave Press out of Loveland, CO, to write a book to be published (tentatively) in 2014 (it’s all super top secret for now). Most of this year will be dedicated to the project, with tons of designing, knitting, and writing to be accomplished. It’s exhilarating and terrifying, all at once! While that’s going on, it will be hard to juggle too many other projects, but by the end of the year I’d really like to revamp my pattern collection to get it ready to wholesale to indie yarn companies and local yarn shops.

What new thing are you exploring?

Better organization and planning. From using spreadsheets to organize my projects for the book, to utilizing better apps for my to-do list, to planning out dedicated personal time so that I don’t burn out. I tend to be pretty laid back and just wing it most of the time, but as my schedule gets busier, the chance of missing sight of a long-term goal or dropping the ball on an important task increases. It’s one of the reasons I signed up for the Starship, so that I could begin to put some better planning habits into place, and check in with other indie biz owners for ideas and support.

What's your definition of success for your business?

For me, it’s partially about income goals, like knowing I’ll have enough money every month to pay for my health insurance and build a nest egg, but also having a truly healthy balance of doing the work that I enjoy and having personal time to spend with friends and loved ones (and my dog, Leelu). I’ve been through burnout and health problems that have followed it in the past, so having enough time to take care of myself is a huge goal for me.

What's a recent lesson that you're now applying?

Ask for help when you need it! It doesn’t make me (or any other indie biz owner) less independent or successful. We really do need to take advantage of community, both emotional/moral support and making it clear how people can support us through our business. Make it clear that buying those $5 patterns or signing up for a class really does help us keep producing great work.
On the other side of it, getting together with other biz owners is important, too! My word for 2013 is “collaborate,” meaning not only actual collaborative efforts, like a joint design project or a project with a yarn company, but meeting up with other creative business owners to bounce ideas around and use each other as sounding boards as we plan and grow. The Starship has been a great place for this! I’m finding that as I make an active effort to extend outward and make connections rather than being overly independent, my business has been better for it, and I’m less sabotaged by feelings of self-doubt as I work.

Thanks so much Mercedes!

I love Merecedces' focus on flexibility and collaboration! How do you stay flexible in your planning?

Melissa makes a map

There's nothing so exciting as finding something you've made, in the wild. Living in someone else's life and totally transformed by them. And there's nothing I like better than seeing people's maps! I don't get to see many of these, because this is a personal process. But every once in a while a Starship Captain will share it as it unfolds, and it seriously the best part of my job.
Today, Melissa of Pressbound is sharing her map with us. You can read all about her process (trial + error!) on her blog*, but she also answered a few of my (squealing) questions:
*My favorite part of her post? She says “Tara and the Starship (this sounds like a band name, right?)” I am TOTALLY naming my band that! 
What did you learn during the process of map-making? 

It's really important to break every goal up piece by piece until you have small manageable tasks that can be completed within a day or two.

Before, I would state many smaller goals that would eventually lead to me achieving one larger goal and gave myself deadlines but didn't really think about the smaller steps beyond that. But that wasn't working well because I was constantly falling behind and unable to get everything done. I was overwhelming myself and expecting too much in too little of a time period. Once I broke it down and saw how many steps it would take towards achieving smaller goals/metrics that lead to the main goal, then I was able to determine what can actually happen in a certain amount of time (or what was unrealistic).
What surprised you?
The sense of clarity I felt once I finished my current revised map.

I've spent too much time flailing and not knowing what to focus on in my business. This map has given me the direction I needed and eased quite a bit of stress.

Now that it's been a few weeks, how's it going?
I've been working on developing 2 new card lines. I'm still in the design process. I've picked a launch date and gearing up for promoting the lines and developing a few launch offers. However, I'm realizing that maybe I should have broken some steps down even further and figured in marketing efforts into the map as well. A few products I thought I might develop may change into different products too. I'm realizing that this kind of map is organic and flexible and it's okay if some goals and actionable steps change as I move closer to my goal.
I asked Melissa these questions a few weeks ago, and since replying, she previewed one of the lines! 
Have you made your own map? 
If so, share it in the comments! 

Amy makes a map

I am SO excited to have Amy, artist, map-illustrator, and Starship Cadet, sharing her map with us today! Amy illustrated the Fairytale map that you get with the guide, so I love seeing how she took her idea of what to share with YOU and actually used it in her own business.
Amy's Map

What’s the endpoint on your map, the thing you’re working towards?

It's coming up time for me to get a new work computer, and there was a symmetry that pleased me in paying for the work computer with art money. So, my endpoint is to sell original art, commissions, and Etsy items equal to the money for the computer and some new software. I gave myself a 6-month timeline, from July 1-December 31, which felt reasonable to me since a lot of the work was prep in the first three months towards sales in the second three.

How is the map helping you work towards this endpoint? What tools did you use to make your map?

It really helped me see where there was specific work to be done, and when in the process it needed to happen. I used the Fairytale Map, since it was my art and idea  and because I really liked the little extras I'd made for it.

First I put in my goal! I wrote the number I was going for on the pot of gold and pasted it at the very end of the path.

Second, I added the extra path-loop with the castle at the top labeled Etsy, so that the two Etsy-related milestones would be visually separated from those more focused on my fine art business.

Then, I added in the other 8 flags in the spots along the path, including some things that needed to be done right away, and some that were longer-term.

After that was done, I took the other little clip-art things {which come with the Guide!} and put them in the places that felt right. For instance, I stuck the dragon down with rewriting the copy on my sites, because copy is always a monstrous task! I put the little purple monster up with “New Online Venues” (and wrote “Scary! Rawr!” on him) because that's a hard thing for me, increasing visibility when my instincts are always to stay in the background.

I peppered the pine trees in the blank spaces, and then put the apple trees near the end and wrote “fruits of my labor” on them to represent the delicious moment when I go to the Apple store and buy my new laptop. Daily Art, which is my 6-times-a-week blogging of a new art piece every day, went near the end because while it's not the sort of milestone where you can say “there, done!” it's an ongoing part of my business that I felt deserved acknowledgement in my Map.

I cleaned my painting studio while I was still working on the Map, so I added a shiny sticker and a note in one of the open spaces to commemorate unearthing my easel again. I also got some ridiculous shiny bling to go on the flagpoles as I complete things, too, so that I don't just let the Map stay static. I think that show of change as the Milestones are reached will help keep me focused on my goal.

Did you learn anything new about your business during the process?


I actually spent a couple of weeks contemplating my Milestones & all the steps they're going to take to complete before I finished the map, and it really helped me to see where the things are that I'm avoiding or wishy-washy about.

For instance, I was totally comfortable putting Daily Art on there as a forever-milestone, because I've been doing it for over a year now and it's quite habitual at this point to keep track of it during my week. But I waffled a lot about doing some kind of birthday celebration on the blog in September, because last year's was largely unsuccessful — it really showed me that I have a hole in my knowledge of what my audience wants in a promotion.

How has this changed (or not) what a normal day or week looks like in your biz?

I've really stepped up the time I spend on making and listing my art on the site — I take more photos, and I've set up a much easier-to-browse Art Shop on the site where people can find just the art that's for sale.

I also have put a higher priority on new projects and collaborations — I'm going to be doing some awesome laser-cut necklaces in collaboration with  Shannon of Polymath Labs (who I met through the Starship!), and I've started a whole line of awesomely gothy fabric designs on Spoonflower. Both of these things totally count as New Online Venues, but I've managed to sneak them past the monster because they're not things like blogs or forums.

Sssh, don't tell him!

I love having the metaphor of going on an adventure to my pot of gold — it reminds me of Neil Gaiman's wonderful poem “Instructions,” and really makes my goal seem like more of a game than a job. And, weirdly, makes it feel more attainable at the same time.

Even if I am still wishy-washy about my birthday celebration.


Thanks for sharing with us Amy! My favorite part is your use of dragon and that you have an apple tree at the end to symbolize your trip to the Apple store! So cute!

If you are thinking your craftybiz could use some direction and insight, check out the Map-Making Guide and you'll get 2 full pages of Amy's art (which includes the dragon and the path she used!), along with step-by-step instructions and a friendly make-sure-you-do-it email course. Get yours here.

Kristine Makes a Map

 I'm thrilled to have one of the first Map-Makers sharing her story today!

Kristine  designs stories into her knitting patterns and makes one of my favorite podcasts, Yarnings. You can find her at kadyellebee.com, on ravelry as kristine, and on twitter.

What's the endpoint on your map, the thing you're working towards?

My goal is to publish a specific number of patterns by the end of September.
I started with a longer time frame and was then encouraged (by Tara and the other Starshipers) to keep my goal manageable over a shorter time frame, with one very specific goal.
This makes a lot of sense because it's easier to be specific in the map-making process when my goal was over 3 months instead of say “the rest of the year”!

How is the map helping you work towards this endpoint?

Making a map helped take the plans I had in my mind and make them concrete and ACTIONABLE.  By putting together my (spoiler alert!) 10 mile-markers, now I can see where I am: if I take a side-trip to something shiny and new, I can see how to get back to the PLAN!

Did you learn anything new about your business during the process?

Working on this map reminded me how much I like having a list.  I am a structured thinker and seeing my To-DO list gives me a chance to check things off.  Reminds me of the Holiday Sanity class where we put together a master to do list, and that was very successful for me as well.

 How has this changed (or not) what a normal day or week looks like in your biz?

I think that this process will help me over the next 3 months and beyond: determining my deliverables and events over a specific period of time is important.
 But also, it's flexible enough that I can work at my own speed any time I use the map to plan – there's no set deadlines, just what works for the specific goal at hand.  I can see where I'd have a couple of maps going to define my goals.
Whether you are opening an Etsy store to sell cupcakes or releasing a series of knitwear designs, map-making can help focus your plans!

What tools did you use to make your map?

 A good pencil and a composition book help me be in a brainstormy mindset.
I print out each day of the map and then free-write anything I think of on the margins as I read through the steps.  A lot of my lists are then transferred in a neater version onto graph paper with dates by them!
I loved sketching out my map with hills and mountains just like my view is locally, giving a personal touch!
Thanks so much, Kristine!
If you'd like to share your map-making story or if you have questions for Kristine, just leave a comment below!

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