Too Much Success, Part III

Guest post by Rena Tom

Yellow Owl Workshop

This is the third and final installment of a discussion on having too much success in your life - here are parts I and II. If you are still reading, I salute you!
The first two posts were a bit more philosophical, so today I’m going to go over specific online tools that can help you manage your workload so that you can more readily pursue your success, whether that’s being able to stop working every night after dinner, or getting into a showroom or trade show.

Finally, I have a wonderful interview with Christine Schmidt and Evan Gross of San Francisco’s Yellow Owl Workshop, who produce handmade paper goods, plus fun extras like rubber stamp sets, ceramics and even jewelry. I’ve taken some key points from their interview and the previous posts, and found applications that will help you address these areas.

Know Your Audience

Knowing who you are selling to – both actual and ideal customers – is important to all aspects of your business. If we look specifically on the logistics side, it will help with scheduling production (see today’s interview), pricing your work to maximize profit for effort, narrowing down your product line so you don’t waste time producing work that will not sell, or informing product selection for your retail store.

Surveys are your friend here! Online survey-building tools include Formstack, Zoomerang, SurveyMonkey, and PollDaddy, and there are many more. Some of these apps offer analysis tools as well so you can make the most of the data you collect.

Learn to Say No

I talked about this a bit in the last post but it’s really important so I’m going to cover it again!

You may be uncomfortable saying no to people, but it’s a necessary part of staying sane. Try to come up with different ‘no’ situations and then think of polite responses – and use them. There’s a great article by Celestine Chua here that talks about saying no, and teaches you how to do it.

You also need to learn to say no to distractions. Even if you’ve carved out time to get work done, there is email to check and Twitter to watch and blogs to read. It’s easier today to get less done than ever before. When you really need to buckle down and work, and sitting at the local café or the library with headphones on isn’t enough to make you focus, try out an application that makes sure you do one thing at a time. A few good ones I found are Think, Concentrate, Self Control and Vitamin R. Some grey out your desktop, some keeps email from hitting your inbox, some have timers – they all have a different approach so see what feels right for how you work.

Delegate What You Can

Check out this great graphic with respect to delegation from the folks at

You should ideally be spending your time as a business person doing what no one else can do – the creative stuff. For more specifics, you may need to write your own job description! Once you have that in hand, find a way to offload the rest. Even if you are a one-person company, there are ways to get help. You may spend some money but if you spend less than what you would pay yourself for a task, you win!

Virtual assistants are a somewhat new phenomenon – there are people who can handle tasks for almost any field, even the creative ones. A few VAs suitable for creative business owners are easywk, LongerDays, and oDesk.

Another interesting service (only offered in a few cities right now, but poised to grow) is TaskRabbit. If you need physical errands run, you enter a task and qualified people (a lot of college students, retired professionals and moms) bid on it. This is great for also handling personal tasks as well as business-related ones, so you could hire someone to drop things off at the sample maker and also pick up Uncle Jerry from the airport.

Finally, we come to shipping, which is a big timesuck for makers. If your volume is sufficient, consider a fulfillment center like ShipWire, and stop running to the Post or FedEx, wasting time waiting in line!

Don't Leave Home Without It

If you are waiting – in line to renew your driver’s license or in a parked car with a sleeping child – and you want to review some images or documents, you can still be productive. Store your files in the “cloud” (and back them up), and get work done anywhere. Dropbox or SugarSync store all kinds of files, and Evernote is a flexible note taking system that personally acts as my brain, since my memory is not as good as it used to be.

NOTE: I have a tech-y background and live in San Francisco so there’s no app I won’t try at least once, and many of these are Mac-centric. There are non-tech or non-Mac ways to address these points but I’m not as familiar with them – if you have suggestions, please chime in!

Interview with Yellow Owl Workshop

>>What projects are in progress right now, and what have you just wrapped up?

We just introduced our new summer/fall line for the National Stationery Show, which was a huge undertaking. We typically plan new design introductions around the big trade shows every year (winter gift shows, then National Stationery Show, then summer gift shows) and the number of new items we introduce depend on how crazy things are leading up to those shows.

For this latest show, we went all out, introducing something like 20 new card designs, 3 new pendant designs, and then 2 new product categories: boxed card sets and stamp activity kits. At the same time, I was working on a few projects related to my new book Print Workshop, including a tutorial video and creating pieces for some upcoming book signing/workshop events. So for right now, we are just unwinding a bit!

But starting next month, we'll be working on new designs for early next year (the fun never ends!) as well as a possible new book proposal. I've also been trying to find the time to develop a wedding invitation line, so the goal is to get that started as well. I've had some success with custom wedding invitations, but they can be extremely time consuming so I've had to turn most inquiries down, which I regret. I'm hoping that a wedding line, where people can choose from a variety of template designs, will make it more feasible to take on wedding projects.

>>Can you tell me about prepping for a product release: concepting the idea, creating samples and getting it just right, figuring out production issues, packaging, and marketing?

Each product release evolves differently, depending on the nature of the product. But in general, I'll start with an idea that I've been thinking about (which may be something I've been thinking about for years or could be something that just came to me that day) and decide what the best format would be for it - does it make more sense as stationery, as a stamp, a pendant, a print, or something new that I haven't tried before? It can be a little tricky trying out new things, and can be risky financially, so the next step (and often the most time consuming) is to research sources for materials. We've been lucky enough to find a supportive community here in SF, so our first stop is asking around to our creative friends to see if they have any ideas. And then if that doesn't work, we check with our current suppliers to see if they either can help or know someone who does. We work mostly with small suppliers and manufacturers of raw materials, and they often are a wealth of information for contacts to other types of manufacturers and suppliers. If that doesn't work, then Google it is!

Once we locate a source for whatever we need, we work on getting a few samples together for approval and for upcoming trade shows. With a sample in hand, we consider any redesigning needed to make the product more viable for retail - it's usually not until you have a mock up in hand that you can really sit down with the product and think about it from a consumer's standpoint. Is the packaging too fussy? Too easy to mess up? Does it convey all the information that a customer needs to know what is inside? This is less of an issue when thinking about our indie retailers who might have a small shop where they can talk to each customer and see what they are doing, but it's something that definitely needs to be considered as you think about selling to larger retailers.

In terms of marketing, this is where those trade shows come in. Once we started doing them, we realized that life would be a whole lot easier if we stuck to a production schedule that coincided with the trade show schedule. That makes marketing much easier, because now once we get the product the way we want it, and we've figured out the cost and whether we can price it right (a whole other topic in and of itself!), we will take photos, which will eventually go into a catalog. The items are then introduced at the show, and stores and press see it there and can take home a catalog. Also, once they are introduced at the trade show, we will send images to a few select bloggers that we love and any contacts at print magazines that we have. A nice blog post on a new product, coupled with showing it at the bigger trade shows, and you're on your way!

I would end with a quick word on trade shows. When we started selling wholesale, we figured the trade show was an obsolete idea. Who needs to pay $2,500 for a booth in a convention center when you have the Internet? We figured we could just email stores with some images and viola! Now, we've come to see trade shows as a necessary evil. Store owners are just as busy as we are, and they don't have all day to read through all their emails and surf the web. A lot of stores (and especially larger retailers) rely on gift shows as a centralized place where they can find lots of new products at once. So, as much as it pains us to say it, trade shows are a really efficient and effective way to market your product.

>>I know you have employees; how do you make time to manage what they do and also have space to be creative?

This is a new development for us, and quite honestly, one that we struggle with regularly. Getting our first employee was a major step for us, and one that we probably took far later than we should have. But it's scary! Then, once we got a few, we started to realize that it's almost a full time job just training them and giving them new responsibilities all the time. So we hired someone who could basically manage the day-to-day operations - including what each employee would be doing. We were lucky in finding someone amazing who we could trust to handle all of that. This way, we really only need to communicate with one employee, who can then delegate accordingly to the others. That's probably the best tip we can impart. Even so, it is definitely a challenge to make sure things are being communicated properly, and it does eat into the amount of time you have to be creative. It's a process we are still working out, but the good thing is that we have employees who are really reliable and responsible, so even when we are a bit too crazed to manage everyone, they are good enough to understand what needs to get done.

>>Do you ever feel you have taken on too much stuff? What do you do in those situations? How do you prioritize what needs to get done?

All the time! It's so hard to say no, especially when you don't have ESP (not yet, at least, though we are working on it) and can't tell what might be around the corner. When an opportunity comes in, at that moment you might look at your calendar and see that all of next month is wide open. So you say, sure, I'll do it. And then a week later something else really cool comes to you, and it needs to be done urgently. Then what do you do?

You have to learn to prioritize, and you have to learn to say no. The most important thing that we've learned in this regard is to just say no up front to anything that you are not 100% jazzed about. That way, you at least minimize getting into these situations. Still, sometimes it's inevitable, and at that point you have to just make a list - or sometimes we'll list it all on a calendar on our chalkboard so we can visualize it better - and decide what is really and truly urgent and what isn't.

Everyone always wants everything right away, but some things you just know are more flexible than others, and so you just have to make choices. For example, custom wedding invitations are one of those things that usually don't have flexible dates, so those almost always get top priority, whereas making a new design is more flexible. There have been times when we've had to push back introducing new designs until the next round of trade shows simply because there were other priorities that had to be taken care of first!

Also, you have to always be honest with yourself. We strive to be reliable and dependable for all of our customers, but sometimes you can't be afraid to piss someone off. There are times when it can be totally overwhelming, and many tears have been shed in our household as a result. At those moments of sheer madness, you have to feel comfortable with telling someone that you've already said yes to that you can no longer help them. So another example - I agreed to do create a custom DIY project based on a project from my book for a magazine story, and when the deadline was approaching, I realized I simply didn't have the time to do it. And because they are on a strict deadline, I had to just suck it up and tell them the truth - that it wasn't happening. There is of course a risk that they won't try to work with us again, and that sucks, but we had to be realistic about it. When there is only one person doing all the creative work, there are limits. And if you stretch those limits too far, you'll break.

Thank You

When Jan came to me, asking me to lead a discussion on this topic, I was a little worried – it’s like a giant iceberg that is mostly under the water line. I want to thank Jan and Earl and all of the wonderful designers who have contributed – Meighan, Lisa, Kelly Lynn, Christine and Evan – and the commenters as well. This has been fun, and I’m open to taking on another topic, so please let me know what you’d like to hear about in future business columns. - Rena


Rena Tom is a retail strategist for creative business owners. She previously owned Rare Device, a boutique and art gallery with locations in New York and San Francisco that was renowned for its carefully edited collection of design objects, books, housewares and accessories, and for supporting small, innovative designers and artists whose work was not easily found in stores. Rena blogs about personal projects as well as retail trends and small business tips at She lives in San Francisco with her husband and baby boy in an apartment filled with too many laptops, Sprecher root beer, half-finished craft projects and overdue library books.

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