Weekly-ish notes on navigating big change


The making of an entrepreneur – pottery + marketing

Despite my childhood obsession with small businesses, my first real small-business experience happened quite by accident. Graduating college, I was looking for a job to tide me over until I figured out where Jay and I would live after got married (I graduated in June, we married in August). While job-hunting, I walked in one of my favorite places – Kil'n Time Cafe – a paint your own pottery studio. I got to talking to the manager, and she hired me on the spot.

In 2 months, she was leaving and I became manager.
It was that simple.

Kil'n Time sign

The owner owned several locations, but lived hours away, so I not only managed it on a day-to-day business, but I was also faced with making the big decisions (I talked to the owner only once every few months). It taught me so much of what I know about owning a business, but it happened with no training and no safety net.

A super-recent grad with a BA in French…and I was running a profitable retail + experience business with 12 employees, open 7 days a week, 10 hours a day.

At the Kiln Time, I made my first profit and loss statement (hint: it's a list of income vs expenses and will tell you a LOT about the health of your business).
I hired my first person.
I fired my first person (and several more after that).
I made the schedule for my 12 employees.
But more than all that, I had my first taste of marketing.
I had to get people into the store, with no website (it was perennially “under construction”, and this was 2004), no advertising budget, but one great big window and a location next to a popular breakfast place (which would have been great, if our Ideal Customer was couples in their 70s…sadly, it wasn't).

I had to learn that our best marketing, our long-term strategy was word of mouth and repeat customers (we had one of those buy 9 get one free punch cards). So instead of focusing on bringing more people in, I turned my attention to what made our current customers happy.

I tested and tweaked and tested again, the entire spiel. When a customer comes in, we tell them what the place is (lots of people just wandered by and wandered in), but most people are there with a purpose, they know they want to paint. So the pressure wasn't to convert, it was to delight.

I soon recognized that the thing that least delighted the customer was when their expectations didn't match up with their experience.

Usually, this meant that the item they painted did not turn out how they imagined. My staff wanted to chalk this up to the lack of decent painting skills, but I felt we could do more to help. We could explain best painting practices (for example, one coat of a color will look streaky once fired, you need three even coats to get a solid color; or, paint your light areas first and then your dark areas) and that would bring the customer closer to the desired results. We could explain (and show!) the process of how we glazed the pottery and then loaded the kiln, so they understood the risk of drips of glaze or a piece breaking in the kiln. When we discovered what kind of pieces were likely to break, we could warn customers (the warning never deterred anyone, because we also promised to let them repaint anything that broke).

We had to learn to talk to the customer about the experience of painting pottery. We made it clear that what you paid for was the in-studio experience, the joy of painting, the fun of being with your friends (or all alone). The piece you get is secondary, you've already received the main benefit we offered – the act of being creative.

And that, that's the spark of everything I do today – I help creative businesses talk to their people about what the people care about. I teach businesses small and large to connect with their community on the topics that matter to them.

What I learned at the Kil'n Time is true for every business: it is your reponsibility to delight the customer.

You set clear expectations.
You delight them by meeting those expectations.
You explain it so they can understand: the benefits, the process, the entire experience.

If you've had a bout of unhappy (or confused, or disgruntled) customers – can you see where it went wrong? Could you make things easier or clearer for future customers?

What have you learned about delighting your customers?

Learn to systematically delight your people in my new book. Grab it here before May 10th and get pre-order specialness!

The making of an entrepreneur – studying French

It doesn't make any sense, but my BA in French Lit has everything to do with my becoming a yarn-making, crafty-biz-focused marketing teacher and writer. But, how?

my college campus

As I mentioned back in my first series about quitting my job (written nearly 3 years ago!), it goes back even further – I was a crafty kid, with an eye of doing something with those crafts. I sold friendship bracelets at church camp (and got caught, and got in trouble).

Nearly everyone I knew worked for themselves. My grandpa had a roofing business and my grams was the company accountant. My dad worked for himself as a contractor. My step-grandma built and ran a successful property management firm in southern California.

When I quizzed them (and anyone else who did something without a boss), everyone claimed that it was simple. You just start. And don't stop.  They learned a skill, and then instead of trying to find a boss to pay them to do it, they found clients + customers.

But I grew up smart and college-focused. I never considered learning a “trade” and starting my own business. I loved reading. I loved college. I wanted to hang out on campus with a big library and other smart people for the rest of my life. So, I know! I'll be a professor.

And I loved French. I loved the complex system of a language. I loved that it had a kind of logic, while being beautiful. I loved that there was a right and wrong way. Even better, my college's French program was heavily literature-focused. We read a French novel a week, I wrote 20 page research papers about the French Impressionist movement reflected in poetry and music.  It was Tara-heaven.

Those four years devoted to studying what I loved taught me I could devote myself to what I loved.

It's easy to say “Do what you love!” and “Follow your bliss!”
But it's another thing entirely to actually do it. For most people, it's completely out of their range of experiences. If you've spent the first half of your life doing what you're supposed to do, it's not easy to just snap out of it, it's not easy to try something crazy.

After studying French and surviving four years of everyone asking, “But what are you going to do with a French degree?” I was prepared. I was already weird.
I had already done my own thing. Although I didn't really think about when I was starting my business or quitting my job, that French degree had made me comfortable with risk, with being bold about the things I love.

And that's all it takes, one small bold step, one tiny proof that you can do it, that you can bring at least a little of what you love into your everyday…

and you start building your business, you begin to trust yourself and your passions.

What experience (no matter how tiny) prepared you to do more of what you love? What choice did you make that gave you the confidence to start your business?


PS. Why didn't I go on with my goal to be a French professor, go to grad school, etc? I student-taught one French class my senior year…and puked every day before the class. My nerves just couldn't take standing in front of a classroom of people.  I decided to take a year off…and in that year I found my first business-runnin' job – more on that in the next post.