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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.

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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?

Shannon is crafting a (publishing) business

This is the second in a series of  interviews with smart people who are crafting a business. Part friendly chat, part case-study, all helpfulness! If you know someone I should interview (even you!) let me know.

Today I'm delighted to be talking to Shannon Okey of KnitGrrl.com. and Cooperative Press.  Designer, author, publisher, editor; Shannon has done it all in the knit-publishing world and generously shares her expertise in her recently released book, KnitGrrl's Guide to Professional Knitwear Design.

Shannon, let's start with how you got into publishing?

I set up my publishing company a few years ago because I had big plans for my own projects, but the first book we actually published was Purls Forever, by the owner of South West Trading Company, whose yarns I really loved. She was getting barraged by publishers who wanted to work with her, yet didn't want to include what she thought made her book idea so unique and valuable. It's that whole “water it down to appeal to a broader audience” conundrum… yes, you MIGHT appeal to more potential readers, but there are so many overly-general books out there already.

I want specificity and personality! I suppose those two things are what have really driven my move into independent publishing.

(Note I say “independent” and not “self” publishing, because my company Cooperative Press is not just doing books by yours truly).

Do you suggest new knitwear designers go the self-publishing route first or build a reputation through other publishers?

I think these days they might not have a choice! The economy has driven many larger publishers to scale back, and it isn't as easy to get a contract as it once was. I know that there's an argument to be made for the PR value of having a big company behind you, but after the initial release, you're pretty much on your own and it either sells or it doesn't. If you're the one in charge of making sure people know about the book (through good social media use, getting out there to events, etc), you're personally invested, and you're more likely to do a good job of it.

Don't get me wrong, you need to allocate a decent amount of time to marketing, but you'd be doing much of the same even if a big publisher put out your book. I'm not going to be quiet about my book on Twitter and Facebook and Ravelry or whatever just because Big Publisher X's PR people are out there promoting it, too.

What about writers?

The craft niche is a unique one — we have a fairly small circle of places for people to find out about things. Print knit magazines, Ravelry, Knitty, the popular knitblogs, etc. If you're a novelist, it's going to be a little more difficult, unless you are already well known or unless you have a very very very specific audience you can target. (See: Debbie Macomber and her knit-related books).

However, it really boils down to quality — if your work is good, and people like it, word will get around! Give them tools to recommend your book to other people, whether it's offering up a sample chapter they can send to their friends (with ordering info at the end, of course! think Kindle and how they offer samples of their books), or planning an interesting online event, or…?

So which comes first: building an audience or self-publishing?

It definitely helps to have SOME kind of audience going in, but as I said, if your work is good and you help people to spread the word on your behalf, you'll GET an audience.

Is this changing as the industry (both yarn industry and publishing industry) changes?

I think so. I think people are more willing to purchase independently-published work now than they once were, and I think that pattern PDFs had a lot to do with it! The convenience coupled with the large selection of items available online (thousands upon thousands more patterns than you could buy in print magazines, for example) influenced purchasing behavior for hundreds of thousands of consumers around the world. I suspect that companies who don't offer digital options will see people moving to the ones who do — it's important to assess what your customers want, after all.

Why did you self-publish your latest book?

It's a topic no big publisher would touch, it's too niche-y. Despite the fact there are 5200+ people in the Designers group on Ravelry (and if every single one of them bought a PDF copy of my book, I think I'd earn more than I've made on my 12 big publisher books combined), there's this assumption that designers — and people who want to be designers — are in the minority. Spend some time on Ravelry and then tell me that's true. (Hint: it isn't).

In addition, this book (ignore the title!) holds plenty of solid information for creative professionals of all kinds, so there's an even bigger potential audience than those 5,200 people. I don't think a book needs to sell 50,000 copies in order to be a success. It's about getting the right information to the people who need it when they need it.

What have you learned from self-publishing (marketing, business skills)?

I know a lot more know about ebook file formats than I ever thought I would! The marketing skills I already had, I was just pushing them into a different direction. My new challenge has been forming the right relationships with distributors so we can get into more of the craft chain stores, etc.

Other than the scale of the project, what has been different from publishing your own patterns, to publishing a whole book?

It's much the same — you have a lot of prep work followed by doublechecking everything over ten times, staying in touch with various people (for example, all the people I interviewed in the latter half of the book), designing the layout, figuring out how to optimize the PDF version, etc!

Thanks Shannon, for answering all my questions, I've learned tons!

My favorite bits of Shannon-wisdom, that apply to ANY business:
  • “I want specificity and personality!”
  • “It really boils down to quality — if your work is good, and people like it, word will get around!”
  • “I suspect that companies who don't offer digital options will see people moving to the ones who do — it's important to assess what your customers want, after all.”

If you are a knitwear designer who'd like some help getting published, definitely check out the book and Shannon's Get Published! class.