Experimenting and adapting your business in a changing market

When you figure out what works in your business, it's such a relief! But frustratingly, the saying is true: What go you here won't get you there. Adapting is hard but necessary. Member and maker Andrea Bruns Vickery shares how she made changes in her product and marketing, but stayed true to herself.

Q: Introduce yourself and what you make and how long you've been doing it.
My name is Andrea Bruns Vickery. I run a jewelry line called Andrea Vickery: I make hand painted modern jewelry and original art inspired by nature and science. I’ve lived my whole life in California, both north and south California, and most of my influences come from California and the West. I worked in high tech industry for 15 years and took a little time off after my daughter was born. When my daughter started preschool, I started my business and have been doing this now for 3 years.

Q: What's the biggest lesson you've learned in the time you've owned a business?
The biggest thing I learned is to be adaptable; in order to have a sustainable business, you have to accept that the business (products, marketing tactics, target customer) is going to change. You’ll find yourself learning new skills that you’ll want to use to enhance the business. You’ll want to change pricing and this could change who your target market is. You’ll want to move into wholesale and this will change your packaging, branding, and communication. Products that once sold like hotcakes will not sell anymore and you’ll have to design new and different products. You’ll want to move into new product lines as you expand your business. All these examples are ways your business will change over time.

One thing however I’ve found that hasn’t changed is the core values that I wanted for my business from the beginning: delighting customers with a totally unique product; running a business that can help protect the environment and nature; and creating my product in the US. Establishing these core values will help you to drive change but also be stabilizing factor when change feels tumultuous.

Q: In terms of experimenting with new things, what is that process like for you?
I’m always experimenting with improving my products, improving my marketing, improving my sales. I consider my whole business a work in progress, so I’m never done; I can always do better.

I start my experimentation with something that’s bugging me: usually there will be a business problem nagging at me, like I’m not happy with my product quality or show booth or online stats. I start the process with research, usually on the internet and sometimes books. Sometimes I will invest in a class, like when I was researching wholesale last year, but since I try to be conservative with my finances, I try to find the data online or at the library. Next I try to generate lots of solutions; most solutions are dogs, so if I try a lot of ideas I’ll have a handful that could work. Then I start to implement the solution and work at it until it’s fixed to my satisfaction.

One of the problems I found when I first starting to work with resin is resin often yellows when exposed to UV light. I noticed at shows, when some of my pieces were in direct sunlight, they turned slightly yellow in just a few hours. So was obviously a no-go problem: I couldn’t sell a product that could be damaged in a few hours.

So I researched different types of resin and why they turn yellow. Most of the non-yellowing resins were very toxic and would require special equipment, so I wanted to stick with a 2-part epoxy resin which is less harmful.

As I started experimenting with different resins, I found some were too soft and left a fingernail imprint after they were supposed to be fully cured. Some left a ripple on top of the resin. I went through about 5 kinds of resin and then came the final test: leaving it out in the sun. I left all my tests out in the sun for 5 weeks, to see what would happen. Almost all of the resin turned yellow, except my final choice, which was a marine-grade resin designed for the hulls of boats.

Q: How do you measure whether or not an experiment is working? What are your criteria for success?
I have two criteria for success: am I making money and is my product getting good attention.

Money is the easy part: it’s all in the numbers. It’s really important to track your money; make sure you’re tracking profit, not just revenue. You should always be making profit, or you can’t invest in or grow your business.

“Getting attention” is a softer science, but you can put metrics against it. This is one reason I do like craft shows: I can instantly see to which products customers pay attention. I have a scale of interest in this order: pausing to look at, pointing out to a friend, picking up, trying on.

If a product gets none of these, then it’s not going to be made again! This also works online, but it’s a little harder because you don’t know how the person found you; on social media it’s harder because you don’t know how many people are looking at the product. But you can do some of the research by posted a different product everyday to Instagram or Twitter and seeing which get the best response.

Q: How do you know when it's time to let go of something in your business? How do you process that and what do you do? 
The process starts with the feeling that I’m not connecting with people, I’m not getting any traction. For instance you’re at a show and not getting any sales, or you’re not getting any hits to your site or likes on social media. My first question to myself is always “Have you tried everything?” Because if I haven’t tried out new ideas, then there could be something I’m missing. If I feel that I’ve tried everything, and worked hard to make my ideas work, then I conclude that it’s something that doesn’t work for my business, or is not working at the time. I usually then drop it pretty quickly. I don’t have much time and try always to be efficient with the little time I have.

One of the problems bugging me last year was Instagram; there were so many stories about business success on Instagram, and I wanted to try it myself. I had already taken a course on it, so I felt I had some knowledge of how to make it work. I figured out how to take better photographs, I researched hashtags, I researched successful users.

After a few months of steady posting and implementing the advice, I just wasn’t getting any traction. Most of likes I was getting were from other business (someone try to sell me something), not potential customers. I wasn’t getting any significant interaction with customers and no sales. And it was a lot of work to take new photos and post time several times a week. It was fun, but I had to drop it because it was just too much work for no return. I will probably pick it up again in the future, but I’m going to focus on some other social media platforms this year to give them a try.

Q: How do craft shows play into your decision making process and experimentation?
I’m kind of an extrovert, so I actually really like connecting with people at shows. At craft shows, you can get immediate feedback on what’s working and what isn’t; there is no faster way to get client feedback. I can put out a new piece and within a few hours, know if it’s going to work or not. However, the craft show needs to have a good amount of attendees (even a few thousand can be enough; it doesn’t have to be a large show) and has to have some of the attendees be in your target market.

If a show doesn’t have enough of my target market, I won’t base any product decision on the reaction of the crowd. Another area that really good to test at shows is packaging and booth display. Being a jewelry vendor with a very small product, it’s hard to get people from across the show into my booth. So I experimented with the height of my booth and with vinyl signs of different sized to get people’s attention. You can still test if you’re booth works even if it’s not your target market.

Q: What advice would you share with a fellow maker who feels overwhelmed/afraid at the prospect of branching out and trying something new?
If you’re unsure about trying something new, just make a small change and see how it goes. Change doesn’t have to be radical or sudden or extreme; it can be a very small step. And if the small change works, try a bigger change, or try another small change in another area. One area which I think all makers are scared is pricing: we want to make money, but we’re afraid of alienating existing customers. So what I did this year and used craft shows to experiment, is I raised all my prices.

At the shows I marked down a lot of the products to their previous prices, but I left some of the products at the new higher prices, just to see if people would only gravitate to the lower prices, or if they would purchase at the higher prices. I just marked prices down on the tags; I didn’t put up any sales or discount signs or make a big deal of it.

And yes, some people were specifically looking at the lower prices items and asking me about sale items, but I also sold a lot of pieces at my higher prices. The people who purchased at higher prices didn’t flinch at all at the higher prices, and this allowed me to be confident that my higher prices would sell to the right person.

Change and adaptation is all about confidence, and sometimes small changes give you enough confidence to tackle bigger changes.

Q: Where can people find your stuff?
You can find my jewelry and artwork at my own web site, AndreaVickery.com, and on Etsy. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add?
Running your own business is hard and there is so much to learn! When you read the expert articles, it’s easy to feel deflated, especially when you’ve just started your business. I’ve been working at this part-time for 3 years now, and I feel like I still have a long way to go.

But for me, the most important thing about running my own business is showing up everyday and just doing the work. I organize myself with project plans and tasks lists for one purpose: on those days when I feel frustrated, I sit down and say “OK, you don’t feel like working. But just read one article on using Twitter.” Or work on one piece of jewelry. Or sign up for one new show. For me, it’s not about the giant leaps forward or big successes, but just the everyday small tasks that get me closer to my goal!