Building Your Handmade Online Empire {A Five Part Series} Tip #3

Welcome to my five tip series to help get the web on your side, a little bit at a time.  Each month I will provide a new tip to get you inspired!

My last Tip #2, "Harness The Power Of Stats" gave you a crash course in approaching stats for your various websites, social networks and shops. I hope you cracked open a few stats pages and got excited about the wealth of information there. Did you find my article helpful? If you missed it, please be sure to read it here!

Tip #3. Ask Yourself The Hard Questions About Being In Business

I see it all the time: new sellers open a shop, list their wares and then get extremely discouraged when no sales happen right away (hey...that is where I started too!). If you're a handmade seller, you simply cannot ignore the part of the puzzle that requires you to be a business person. Here are some hard but necessary questions to ask yourself if you are at this crossroads.

Question: Are you ready to run a business?

Most handmade sellers don’t start out with a huge budget for advertising, paying employees, hiring accountants or business advisors. Being a one-person business means that besides making awesome stuff, you’ll be in charge of:

  • Accounting (Taxes, Payroll, Inventory Management, Banking, Pricing, Billing)
  • Marketing (Branding, Websites, Blogging, Writing Copy, Social Networking & Advertising, Product Photography)
  • Customer Service (Sales, Packing & Shipping, Correspondence, Inquiries, Tracking, Refunds)
  • Research & Development (Product Testing and Quality Assurance)

That amount of responsibility can be stressful, overwhelming and discouraging at times. It is a lot for one person to manage, but it can be done. 

Approach your business as a business, and create a schedule and a plan for handling all of those elements. Be sure to research legal issues concerning safety, insurance, taxes and licensing for what you sell. I know it isn’t any fun, but if you want to do this for a living, it needs to be taken seriously.

Question: Do you have a plan for getting traffic to your shop?

I’m sure you’ve seen this topic before. You simply cannot expect that if you put something on the internet that anyone is going to find it. On a tight budget this can be especially daunting.

Think of marketing like a starter home. Have you heard the term “Sweat Equity”? Well, when applied to improving a house, it means do-it-yourself to increase the monetary value of the house. If you apply it to marketing, the value is increased traffic and sales.

Here are some examples of marketing techniques that cost more time and effort than money:

  • Bring business cards everywhere you go. Hand them out. Yes that part is important!
  • Put your shop and facebook links in the footer of your email.
  • Mention that you are available 24/7 online at xyz.com on your voicemail and your email footer.
  • Use social networking to get your brand some visibility.
  • If you sell at craft fairs, hand out business cards to people who stop and look.
  • Swap packs of 20 business cards with other sellers. Package up the cards as a “freebie” to send out with your orders, and have yours go out with those you’ve swapped with. There is a Craft Cafe group for this. Request to be added in the comments of this post.
  • Add a coupon code to the back of your business card to entice visitors.
  • Wear and gift your own work, and hand a card to anyone who asks about it.
  • Donate a product to a local fundraiser, as in return they may add your business name and link to a website or flyer.

Most of all: be willing to spend a great deal of time getting your links out to potential customers. Organic or "guerilla" marketing is different for every seller. There are myriad ideas for marketing on the cheap. Be bold, be patient and be willing to try new things. In time, this will pay off!

If you have a budget for advertising, things are just as tricky. Where to spend it? What ads will reach the most potential buyers for your products? What can you risk for the potential success or failure of any given ad investment? Again, different for every seller.

Question: Do people want to buy what you’re selling?

Have you ever seen someone posting links to something they are selling that makes you wonder “who would buy that?” I have. In fact, I’m sure some of my products have inspired such a response. We all have our own style and that comes through in our handmade work. It is tough to admit, but sometimes people won’t want to buy what you make, be it the price it needs to be for you to make a profit, the style of the product, the nature of the product, and so on. 

If you've made it, priced it right to make a profit, listed it, marketed it and it just isn't selling: you might be trying to sell something nobody wants. Not a fun revelation, but a really really important one.

Question: What makes your shop, product, business different AND better than your competition?

This is Marketing 101: “Differentiation”. If you can’t determine what makes your business or product better than the rest, I suggest you sit down and think about it. If you can’t explain why someone should choose you over the rest, you’ve got some soul searching to do.

If you’re struggling with that question, keep it simple. Is it your superior customer service? Fast turn-around times? Do you use premium materials or ingredients? Do you use a special technique? Perhaps your background makes you an expert in your craft.

When you determine one or more reasons you’re brand is better than the rest, you’ve created a resource for your sales and marketing. Now you know what to say that will make people choose you over the others. Talk about it in your listings, your social networking and on your business cards.

Determining differentiation for your product, service or brand also provides a road map for how to run your business. If you sing the praises of orders going out the door within 24 hours, then I suggest you make that your number one priority. If it takes two weeks to turn around an order because you make custom knitted accessories upon order, then you’ve got a different angle. You offer variety based on the customer’s EXACT preferences, and you go make what they tell you to make, when they tell you to make it. That is pretty cool too. So brag it up, whatever your strengths.

If you’re still struggling to figure out why you’re better....head back to the drawing board and see if this whole business thing is for you, or if you’d rather just make stuff and not have to compete in the marketplace. I know plenty of creative people who decided after selling for awhile, they realized they weren’t even spending half their time on making what they love to make, and it just wasn’t what they set out to do. That is perfectly reasonable! Give it some thought and keep on moving the right direction for you!

Question: Are your prices working?

This topic challenges handmade sellers to take a leap of faith that what they’re making is WORTH IT. You are not competing with Walmart. Not everyone is a handmade customer. If somebody wants the $5 version of what you can sell for $25, then let that customer go. It is not judgmental or exclusive to say no to a customer who wants what you have for less than you can offer it. You can be polite and consider it a good time to educate the customer about why yours is more expensive. An opportunity to help raise the awareness for you and your fellow handmakers....who can resist?

Wait for your customer. That is, a customer who understands the value of your work, creativity and product. The handmade, DIY wave is here! Those customers are everywhere, so don’t give in to desperation and self-doubt. It takes time and hard work to get your products in front of those customers, be willing to wait!

No-nos of the pricing variety:

  • Don’t simply price your items by guessing.
  • Don’t price based on what you think people will pay.
  • Don’t price based solely on what your competition is charging.
  • Don’t follow a pricing algorithm that you find doesn’t actually work for you.
  • Don’t price low out of desperation to make a sale.
  • Don’t allow a customer to tell you what they are willing to pay.
  • Don’t price materials & labor only (consider how to compensate expertise, design, service, overhead costs of your business within your pricing scheme)

If you’re pricing your products with these practices, you’ll have a hard time making a profit and getting paid to be in business.

Handmade sellers frequently devalue their own work and products (and the handmade marketplace in general) by pricing to compete with the market at-large. Don’t do it! If you truly plan to become a full-time business owner, you’re going to need to let some customers go. I hereby give you permission to be polite, but inform customers that your work is handmade and custom and your expertise costs more. If you need support or advice about pricing, please comment here. The community of handmade sellers on Craft Cafe and elsewhere offers a giant pool of talent and expertise.

Question: Do you have what it takes emotionally to make it through the tough stuff?

I’ve talked about all of the hard work, skills and other nuts & bolts of what it means to run a business...but there is another side to it all. EMOTIONS! Yes, I said it. Emotions are a HUGE part of getting somewhere in business. So, if you have a thin skin, prepare to get a few blisters and toughen up. 

Dealing with the many first time situations, slow sales days, confusing paperwork challenges, budget issues (or lack there-of) and crazy customers can make you want to scream. I can’t change that, but I can offer some techniques for dealing with it all gracefully.

Here are a few general guidelines to managing the rollercoasters you’ll certainly encounter.

  • Negativity is poison. If you are frustrated and discouraged, don’t expect your peers to talk you down or be responsible for helping you when you’re being a jerk. Did you read an article hoping for a particular answer and it wasn’t there? Just ask nicely and maybe the author or other commentors will give you some advice or input. Complaining and being insulting will get you nowhere. Plus people tend to remember negative experiences longer than positives. Sad but true. So don’t go poison a group or a comment thread with a bad attitude. Just don’t! One more thing...this includes being snippy! Don’t comment if you’re just here to minimize or sabotage. Contribute positivity, and watch it come back to you!

  • Are you having a slow sales day? Tell your peers in a private group that you need some cheering up, or ideas for dealing with it. Ask for tips. Say you’re discouraged. But please remember to bring a pro-active attitude to the party. If somebody encourages you to try A B or C and you already did, it might be nice to say “I’ve been using those techniques, and I’m not seeing results. I wonder if you could take a look at my product description and see if you have any insight” instead of “I’ve tried everything and nothing works. Nobody is buying anything and I think I might quit”. Especially DO NOT BLAME THE INTERNET! It is not anyone’s job but yours to make your business work.

  • Do you feel like you can’t take another article, piece of advice or slow sales day or you’re gonna go insane? This is a real trick, but I promise you it works: Walk away. Close your laptop. Go on a walk, meet a friend for coffee, GET OUT OF YOUR WORK SPACE!!!! We all need to give ourselves permission to give up for the day once in awhile. If you find yourself being negative about everything and anything, you need to go enjoy something. ANYTHING. Ice cream, coffee, a walk with your dog, play with your kids, have dinner out with your friends. Tell somebody you love that you’re discouraged. You’ll come back with new energy. Bonus points: you won’t associate being in your work space with negative feelings. That rocks!

  • Do you have a customer who is borderline abusive, insulting or making you feel scared or unsafe? Never write to a customer who is insulting you until you’ve had some time to cool off. It isn’t worth it. Don’t argue. If a customer becomes abusive, report them to your shopping host such as Craft Cafe. There are policies that handle this stuff. Don’t let into fights. If you’re in above your head with a nutcase, get help!

One last question: Did you survive the tough questions?

Have a healthy relationship with your business, just as you would a significant other. You need open lines of communication. You need truth. You need boundaries, and you want a rewarding future together. A hobby is like dating. Going in to business is a real committed relationship to your craft. One that involves planning, ups and downs and putting up with the annoying stuff...because you’re in love! The passion should get you through the moments where you want to just throw in the towel.

If you read this, you were willing to face some scary stuff, and maybe it seems a little less scary now. Remember that not every day involves every issue I’ve gone over here. But the nature of being a one-person, or a very small business will guarantee that some days will be over-the-top with lots of the difficult stuff. If you can get through it all one day at a time, you will get somewhere.

I recently created a web page to handle the issue
Create some guidelines for making progress on the business side of things. Make some rules about working hours vs. non-working hours. Look to your fellow online sellers for advice and encouragement, and observe their methods of success. Pay attention to issues that arise and create Policies & Procedures that give your business structure.

Whatever you daydream about spending less time on...that is where you’ll want to start thinking about your long-term plans for growing your business. When something is hard, think of what would make it easier, and then work toward that goal. Create a vision for a future where you spend more time doing what you love. Without that vision, you may be looking at burn-out in the not-so-distant future.

Creative businesses take lots of love, but what you get back can change your life.

I hope asking yourself the tough questions has already made you tougher! Rome wasn’t built in a day. Give yourself time to think things through and come up with the answers only after lots and lots and lots of careful thought. I am happy to share my experiences, so please do comment on this article if you would like my input!

Be sure to follow my shops on facebook to get announcements about more articles like this!

Melissa Machowski

Why listen to my advice? I believe in getting perspectives from all over the place. I have learned from other people succeeding at what I am trying to do. I’ve tried a lot, read a lot, failed a lot, and ultimately found some real success at running an online handmade business. My lessons learned can be yours too...at least, I hope so! ----> next tip coming in one month! Follow Craft Cafe and Spoiled Cowgirl to get the anouncement!


  1. Wonderful advice! Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and tips :)

  2. Wonderful and incredibly on the mark advice! Just what I needed to read today :) Thank you so much Melissa!!!!!

  3. Melissa one of the questions always is how long do you give something before you decide that maybe you should stop trying it and go in a different direction? Or maybe tweak what you are doing? For example participating in a sample box program, or having an ad on a particular blog, or using a specific social network without getting any visitors from there. Those sort of things. I have had some sales in my first year, but it's never one day of no sales. I hear lots of people say that the summer months are really slow and especially so since the the economic decline of 2008.

  4. Oh and sorry, forgot to say thanks for such a detailed article.

  5. Great article ...Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting. I will be waiting for your next post on Cafe website

  6. The contents has provided meaningful information thanks for sharing info...
    Restaurant Website

  7. Other than having a 1300 number, being able to come up with unique ideas is very important.

  8. Thank you for posting such amazing and informative post. All the complicated work like pricing and labeling can be made easier by using craft software.

  9. Thank you Melissa Fouch Machowski, for the invitation to read your advice and link up with like minded people. The problem I'm having is marketing custom paintings. I do abstracts and some (my daughters) faces of many aspects. I also custom make mask for b decorations. I'm really not sure how to market my ctafts. Any advice would be great.
    Thanks Again
    God Bless you and your business.

  10. Thank you Melissa Fouch Machowski, for the invitation to read your advice and link up with like minded people. The problem I'm having is marketing custom paintings. I do abstracts and some (my daughters) faces of many aspects. I also custom make mask for b decorations. I'm really not sure how to market my ctafts. Any advice would be great.
    Thanks Again
    God Bless you and your business.


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