How to Match Artisan Storytelling with Your Corporate Mission

Sitting at an end table in a busy local restaurant, we began a conversation about how to tell the story of living a healthy lifestyle through elements of artisan work. Our contact was looking for a way to give custom hand-crafted gifts, and at the same time, represent a corporate brand of health and wellness. Between spoonfuls of soup, we picked through sample ceramic pieces and bantered about ideas.

Big meetings with special clients require a lot of planning, agenda outlines, and logistical coordination. At the end of all that planning, a client gift had better cap off a productive day with surprise and delight! Deciding on the contents of a meaningful gift can be tricky because these professionals represent many international cultures, and you likely have never met them before. Still, you want to leave a lasting, positive impression of your company. The question becomes how does one give a thoughtful gift, in line with the company brand, without crossing any cultural boundaries that may inadvertently offend someone.

The beauty of artisan work is that it offers variety, and the ability to select unique pieces that are both meaningful and reflect a company’s mission. In working with this global corporation, we considered different options and challenges. Food items were off the list when we evaluated transit times and the guests’ travel plans. Avoiding any direct implication of alcohol was another variable we removed. Their brand encourages healthy living and outdoor activity, so how best to blend those ideas with artisan appeal?

The solution was twofold, first to select elements created by artists located in different areas of the country, places where their employees live and work. This was a creative way to showcase the company’s geographic diversity while highlighting the craftsmanship of a unique set of artists. And, in picking certain pieces, we accomplished the second objective, which included a subtle reference to healthy lifestyles (cutting board and veggie/cheese slicer) and enjoying the great outdoors (National Parks postcard book, woolen to-go-cup holders, and brass hiking bells).

To complete this story, we chose styles from upstate New York, the Hudson Valley, Vermont, and Maryland to create the gift boxes. We also shared the individual artists’ information, and how each element represented a different local region.

In these times when our differences are often the focus, it was rewarding to see how artisan gifts so beautifully aligned diverse cultural connections with a positive corporate mission.

Hazard of the Job

I was sharing over lunch with a friend the number of ceramics we bought at the recent art shows when she said, “Sounds like a hazard of the job?!” Indeed. So many pieces so little shelf space.

After the NCECA Claytopia event in Minneapolis, I had to figure out how to bring 12 ceramic pieces home, of all different sizes and shapes, in my backpack and carry-on luggage. Not easy when they’re all packaged in bubble wrap. Fortunately, I packed only one pair of shoes to wear over three days, in preparation for this dilemma.

In my meetings with artists in Minnesota, I asked what trends they are seeing from customers and they all shared similar perspectives, unique is what clients want. How that’s defined changes by client, but when customers invest in artisan, it means it’s worth it to have something special, a different piece than what’s on the shelves at other places.

On the flip side, artists have to marry unique with good business. (Read more on this here.) As one artist said, he’s been coached to “tighten things up,” which make sense. Every item can’t be a one-off unless it carries an unusually high price tag.

There’s so much to consider, but for a moment, let’s enjoy the beauty and craftsmanship of these ceramic pieces acquired across the show season…

Is the Extra Juice Worth the Squeeze?

When you’re a creative in a workshop, discovering new woods, finishes, tools and edging can make for a mighty fun sandbox to experiment. Our workshop has been bustling this year as we’ve made pieces for special events, increased our custom shipments, and created additional options for our Collection. When you’re a craftsman, it’s not only an evaluation of can we make a lovely gift box, but can we make it in a quality, timely and profitable way?

Changing out the type of wood, for example, can add significant time to the finishing and refinement of a gift box. Another variable is using rough cut lumber versus commercial lumber. It’s beautiful, however, the time from start to finished product has to be considered. We’ve realized, if we can’t be confident that we can repeat the quality, for a minimum order of 25+ boxes, in a reasonable amount of time (and the time part is key), then the answer is no. Beauty can’t outweigh economics.

Adding decorative corners made from other hardwoods is another place that can add unique detail, yet impact timelines. For now, the cost of that time commitment still outweighs the benefits of adding those specialty additions. And that’s okay.

Part of building a business around craftsmanship and creativity is knowing when to be done, at least for a time. An endless supply of choices often results in confusion as clients try to choose and become overwhelmed, and the attention of the team is spread across too many offerings. Part of creative talent is understanding customer needs upfront and adding value by narrowing the field. A curated line of beautiful options is a wonderful thing. Sometimes, the extra juice of “more” isn’t worth the squeeze.

Working the Second Shift

In recent weeks I’ve had several conversations with folks who’ve hit a season in life where change is looking pretty darn attractive. The voice calling them to blaze their own trail, launch a new company and step out of an unsatisfying office environment is growing louder. Many of the issues in the current corporate culture make it appealing for people to launch a second opportunity. They feel compelled to leave an uninspiring environment to forge their own path. Going out on your own is an exciting proposition filled with promise, high expectations and the thrill of tackling the unknown. It also brings a new level of unpredictability. One question to ask upfront, is this a business or a hobby?

Here are a few thoughts on the realities of this decision:

  • Should I stay or should I go? The dilemma of deciding to move to part time in your day job or save money while you’re full time is complicated. I’ll say upfront, it’s also very personal. Remaining full time means all your business activity is relegated to evenings and weekends, which I’d suggest isn’t viable long term if business growth is the goal. On the flip side, scaling back your day job has a real impact financially, one that requires serious considerations of the ripple effects. I’ll address the part-time option here, since that’s the decision I made one year after we launched Red & Rugged. While going part time means you do have more hours to focus on your business, it also means you have to bring a daily focus to time management, because you’re now splitting that time with another role. Jumping back and forth between emails and phone calls related to two different roles is not ideal, and it decreases your ability to focus consistently on issues at either company. I dedicate full days to one role, to stay on one agenda and one business. I’ve learned to be more diligent about planning the week and what I have to produce each day – appointments, client communication, web content, social content, writing etc. Otherwise, the days slip by and little is produced. You have to be committed to the Sunday evening planning time, even if it’s 20 minutes. Discipline is key.

  • Sustaining the pace. In the first year, you’ll have crazy energy due to the excitement and enthusiasm of the new business. Long hours can even be fun, especially if you love what you do. I’ve seen it many times with co-workers and colleagues. And I’ve learned this lesson the hard way in years past. Year two of a business is different. Assuming you require some level of normal sleep, self-care, from the beginning, is crucial. Translated, if you burn yourself out in year one, with late nights, all work, no play, you’ll burn yourself out for future years too. Looking ahead, you’ll need that energy to sustain, persist, and plow through the long days. Year one is setting the foundation, however, year two and beyond will test you even more as you learn valuable (some say painful) lessons that are inevitable and unpredictable. Brand building, closing sales, product development, finding talent, and of course, financial management, are just a few of the tasks that require a founder’s attention.

  • A business or a hobby? You read it all the time in the business books: it takes twice as long and always costs more than forecasted. So true. That’s why investors love serial entrepreneurs. They’ve learned on someone else’s dime first. It’s also why the stats on successful businesses that make it past year three and five are so dismal. People run out of money, and/or the energy and will to keep going. (Remember, you are supposed to be enjoying the business.) Sales are key, and consistent, predictable sales is the goal. Revenue matters, and cash really is king.

Nothing happens without capital to invest and grow. If the decision is to run a business, you’ve got to attract revenue to gain momentum and offset your personal investments. This moves your company toward being a financially viable business, not an expensive hobby. There’s nothing wrong with a hobby you love, just make sure you know the difference.

Creating Festive and Functional Gifts

A memorable gift isn’t just about the “wow” factor of the opening, the best experience spurs ongoing enjoyment. Sparking joy, (and isn’t that what it’s about?!) means creating a “multi-merry” combination.

  • You want people to be delighted by a gift and compelled to use the contents early and often. It could be the attraction of an artisan piece, for example, and pouring a beverage into the tumbler to admire the look and feel of it. Perhaps it’s the aroma of fresh coffee and the urge to brew and sip from a steaming cup. Or to grab the spoon and start mixing. Think of combinations that say, “use me now!”

  • People love a quick taste of caramels or flavored mints in gifts. It satisfies the instant gratification need in all of us. And, as a side benefit, it adds color and texture.

  • Now to the functional issues, the number and size of items in the gift matters. Sweet and savory flavors, or accessory items, need to be small, or at least compact – and preferably light. Big jars of food don’t work well. Neither do bulky air-filled bags of nuts or popcorn where there’s more air than snacks.

  • Next, think about how recipients will use the gift container. As makers of a hand-crafted gift box, we have fun with recipients, encouraging them to “Clink Outside the Box.” A postcard of ideas on how to use the gift box, complete with a photo on the back, now goes into each one. This way the recipient can pick and choose what works for them in terms of box use: Inbox for mail? Programs on the wedding day? Coffee and tea supplies? And the gift box is on display for the recipient to enjoy and for others to see and comment (multi-merry!). Placing the gift in a thoughtful container – basket, bucket, box - makes it both unique and functional.

  • A note on engraving here… many people like to personalize with engraving. Consider that the engraving will still be on display 10 years from now, and plan accordingly. Sometimes a corporate logo is a perfect choice, other times, it might be best to use the recipients’ initials instead.

We’ve learned to pay close attention to these small but important details that have a lasting impact. It’s a careful combination, but a winning one!

Finding Artisan Works in this Season of Urban Craft Shows

The aroma drifting through the afternoon air might be one of hot Philly cheesesteaks, or the sounds could be those from the boats arriving on the Chesapeake Bay in Baltimore. Artists will be converging on both cities in February for major shows featuring handcrafted décor. A little farther away, on a plane ride to the chilly Midwest, ceramic artists will descend on a third show in Minneapolis. Buckle up, here’s a preview of the roadtrip ahead.

In the midst of a flurry of chocolates and red wine, we’ll be exploring the tastes and talents of Philadelphia. For the first time, our travels will take us to the American Handcrafted show, touted as the largest handmade wholesale show in the U.S. It’s been recommended by artists we already collaborate with, and who will be exhibiting. This event includes juried American and Canadian artists, promoting more than 500 artists in attendance. As luck would have it, we had already booked a weekend in Philadelphia, that same show weekend, to enjoy Valentine’s in the shops and restaurants of Center City. The narrow streets and festive storefronts around City Hall offer a genuine creative vibe, not to mention their proximity to Reading Terminal (Hello! Breakfast pizza!). A lucky twist of fate for us to enjoy two adventures on the same weekend.

We’ve mentioned the American Craft Council show in Baltimore before, an annual event we regularly attend. This show is ever-expanding beyond ceramics and forged metal, with more than 550 artists showcased. We particularly enjoy the shared Hip-Pop booths for emerging artists. We recommend you research who you want to see in advance. It’s a big show, and strolling the aisles to admire and engage with artists takes us close to four hours. The good news is, there’s usually a bourbon tasting right at the perfect rest spot on the conference floor. Even your taste buds will be stimulated!

The Midwest will be home to the NCECA show this year, quite the shift from Pittsburgh where we were lucky enough to drive last year. As an educational event targeting ceramic artists, NCECA is more focused on the skills and tools ceramicists need to enhance their craft. The beauty of this event is the collection of pieces aggregated in regional showcases on the exhibit floor.

We plan to share the fruits of our show travels with you in upcoming newsletters so be sure you’re signed up (see bottom of this page to sign up). A few gems will make it into our home, as is the case every year, and some will be the highlight of future custom gift boxes.

Rules of the Road When You're Partners in Life and Business

Talking business over morning coffee, finances over lunch and operations at dinner. If you’re not careful, this is what happens when you’re married to your business partner. To some, this might seem exciting, others terrifying. Long term, I’d suggest that a constant integration of the two worlds isn’t optimal.

Walking the marriage/business partner line requires a different awareness level than working with a business partner who leaves at the end of the day. Here, our goal is to have both a successful business and a fulfilling marriage, and avoid having the business become all-consuming. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when you’re both passionate about the business and like to work.

The single most important change we made to separate work and personal, was to get back to a regularly scheduled business meeting. No missing it for our favorite TV show, or because I need to practice yoga, or he wants to get to the gym. Nope, our meeting time is sacred.

Consider these points, and the value of a set partner meeting where business issues get addressed on a predicable schedule. By absorbing most of the casual discussion around business issues, this meeting leaves more personal time for enjoyable conversation (or naps!).

Make note of the topics you need to discuss. I admit, I’m normally the guilty one when it comes to bringing up business issues randomly. With a set meeting now, I document the things that pop into my mind on our white board. They’re all in one place and the majority don’t require an instant answer. The spontaneous peppering of questions, however innocent it may seem, isn’t a great way to set the mood at home. Plus, it’s important to have a focused conversation and not be addressing business issues while you’re trying to cook dinner or do the laundry.

Consistent data points. Create a set of data points so both people are informed of key metrics. For example, when one person is doing the finances, the other person needs to be updated consistently. Data eliminates gray areas of question. If both partners are buying products, in our case wood vs ceramics, we both need to know the current status of the income statement. Other data points include social media and email marketing metrics, and web analytics. My partner is the “maker” in the business, however, he’s also a co-founder. He has good, objective business insights even though he prefers the maker space.

Regular communication. Talking about issues such as the timing of shipments, the hand-off of projects, the arrival of items, is necessary. In our case, I need to know when the gift boxes will be in the studio and ready for fulfillment. I can’t get gift boxes the day they ship and he can’t be expected to hand-craft a gift box overnight. Surprises aren’t good, discussing timelines is critical to a streamlined process and lower blood pressure.

Plan time off for the year. We looked at calendars during our December meeting and set time off throughout the coming year. Now we don’t have to pry open a long weekend, in the midst of projects, which is way more stressful. We have some flexibility built in, however, it’s marked on our calendars.

I won’t kid you and say it’s a perfect plan. There’s still overlap. However, the scheduled meeting has cleared the way for more relaxing personal time together. Namaste!

Let the Textures Do the Talking

A ceramic piece doesn’t have to be flashy or fancy to capture your mood and end up as your go-to cup, forever claiming a spot on your kitchen counter. It can be the color or texture, the feel of it in your hands, that makes it the perfect choice. This is what makes artisan work so different, it’s like a living piece of your personality, right there in your cabinet, ready to serve.

Part of an artists’ gift, aside from throwing a ball of clay on a spinning wheel and turning it into something beautiful, is their ability to create unique textures and finishes throughout their career. Years of studying, practice and persistence often yield something truly special. The lines, drips, curves, flecks of color, each one adds to the finished work. Mix that with the different kiln firing techniques, and it can be hard to narrow the choices some days.

When you’re looking for defining pieces to gift or for yourself, keep an eye out for the extra details that give a piece it’s personality. The detail can be subtle or dramatic. The finish can be a single shade or blended across colors. You’ll know it when you hold it in your hands, and imagine it in its new home, as the next coffee mug to hold that trusted spot on your kitchen counter or whiskey cup perched on your bar.

The Value of Playing Outside Your Sandbox

After five hours of driving through snow, sleet and rain, I answered my cell phone to hear the manager at our bed and breakfast destination tell us they were out of power – an ice storm. By now we were only fifteen minutes away. The Inn, and the associated event (the entire reason for the trip), he said, were in the dark. We pulled over and were still in shock trying to figure out what to do next, when the phone rang again. “Nevermind,” he said, “the power is back on.” False alarm.

This is just one example of our traveling life adventure. We drove five hours through dicey weather for an evening dinner, and then drove back the next morning to meet other commitments. The manager of the Inn laughed when he told us at breakfast the next day, “You get the award for the longest ride for a dinner.” It was a long twenty-four hours, but it was worth it. We received quite an education on how to showcase a spectacular evening of food, wine and hospitality, in a beautiful setting outside of Charlottesville, VA.

This business requires a lot of creative energy, as I’m guessing yours does. I get asked why we spend the money to travel to dinners and abroad if it isn’t directly related to a specific sale. But I say it is. It’s important for us to see first-hand how different professionals select their décor, host an event, and display their wares. How do others put on a show? How do they show off their products? What are their products? This is how you see trends and spot new ways of doing things. Or see what’s possible. Sometimes, you see what not to do.

Our travels have taken us down the road to Philadelphia and the Eastern Shore, up north to Vermont, along the Hudson in New York, and flying west to Colorado. We’ve also journeyed to Rome and Paris. These trips have inspired us to figure out how best to bring the beauty of the world around us into what we create in our artisan business - in terms of color, accent pieces and textures. We have a better understanding of just how many choices there are, with a lot more to learn. It has broadened our minds.

The expense of travel to locations and events outside our niche, or sandbox, is tied to business growth, creative energy and our own inspiration, I’m sure of it. You don’t have to travel around the world – although that would be nice – it’s amazing what you can learn from people just down the street. Saddle up, start your engines, hit the road. Play in someone else’s sandbox and see where it takes you.

Notes from a Living Postcard: Rome

Our recent trip to Italy was quite an excursion, this being our first visit. I’ve highlighted a few notes from our journal of adventures in Rome, to give you a sense of each day. I won’t get into the details of each tourist stop, for that I’d need an e-book, and more time. This is about how it feels to be immersed in the neighborhoods of the city. Ciao Bella!

Are those Palm trees? It was one of the first things we noticed getting off the plane. It never occurred to us that Rome was in a climate of Palm trees. Sorrento, we expected it to be balmy and Mediterranean. But Rome? We had not expected it. We need to get out more.

The minute you step outside and into the streets of Rome, you are in the thick of it. That’s the best way I can describe the feeling. It’s loud and boisterous, yet friendly. On the other hand, crossing the street, navigating between motorcycles and cars, is an act of pure survival. Riding in the backseat of a taxi is even more so. We’re still unclear how the drivers know when they can turn and drive on the active train tracks of the above ground transit lines.

It must be the narrow streets that seem to put you so much closer to the action (than in NYC by comparison). There appear to be minimal rules-of-the-road too, mere guidelines, except for the fact that motorcycles can do whatever they want, go wherever they want, and park wherever they want. The few times we were inside a car, I stopped looking out the front windshield at the chaos, and focused on looking out my passenger window. I figured, if I was going to go that day, I’d be looking at something lovely when it happened.

Black is the new black. Women sport chunky boots and black skirts or jeans, with helmets in-hand. And they wear it well, even in 90 degrees. It almost made me want to come home and buy a motorcycle. My rugged half definitely wanted me to do it.

Live music is everywhere. From Piazza Navona, to the Saturday morning market, to the side streets near Trevi Fountain. A budding musician plays at every turn.

We stumbled into an area known as the Ghetto, after being lost for 90 minutes when we tried to navigate our way home from the Colosseum, in the rain. (Note: The blue dot on GPS does not always show where you’re really located.) This streetscape was the silver lining discovery of Rome, with outdoor restaurants lining each side, and pedestrian only foot traffic. Pasta was being hand-cranked outside by the front door of the restaurant where we decided to eat dinner. The live entertainment arrived at dark to attempt back flips over a hand-held bar, in the middle of the street. I tried not to consider what would happen if they miscalculated and landed on our tables. The waiters seemed unconcerned.

Then there was the marching “tin man” as we called him. It was hard to imagine the miles he must cover in a day. (Remember, it was almost 90 degrees at the end of September.) He marched around the market, then showed up hours later at the Pantheon. And he was still marching. He carried the drum like a backpack, with the beat of the drumsticks tied to his shoes. Every time he walked forward, the rope pulled and the drum beat. His free hands then played a tune on the accordion. We had to give him a tip. As I said, a musician at every turn.

After four days in Rome, we were ready to hop our train and head to Sorrento to indulge in the warm breezes, Aperol Spritz, and relaxation of the Amalfi Coast. Rome is both intoxicating and exhausting. There’s no denying that you feel alive and energized in Rome, as all your instincts and senses are on alert. The people, and energy of the streets, command your full attention.

From left to right below: The Ghetto, Pasta making in the Ghetto, Trastevere neighborhood, Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, “Tin Man”