Episode 1: Everything Starts with the End

Every handmade business needs a vision. Isaac shares a cautionary tale, some great questions to ask yourself, and interviews Holly Marsh (MarshMueller) and Melissa Wert (Print therapy) about their own goals.

I love flying cross-country. I love watching the plane take off and ascend, then I love peering out that tiny window and watching the quilt-like farmland from 30,000 feet in the air. Semi trucks on highways move about like tiny ants, fields in different shades of green, brown, and gold, and shapes blend in and out of the more natural landscapes. And then I start to wonder: Do the farmers, truck drivers, and other people way down there ever realize that they’re part of a larger whole? That they contribute to something larger beyond their day to day? Or are they stuck in the moment with blinders on, unaware of the bigger picture?

Different businesses have different needs, but when it comes to growth and goals, intent and direction are universally essential. We must constantly ask ourselves: Where am I going with my business? How will I get there? How will I know when I’ve arrived?

It’s January, and for most of the Western world, it’s the time for New Year’s Resolutions. This usually means looking back on the year prior to see what you’ve accomplished, then resolving to improve certain aspects of your life. Just as we do this for our personal lives, reviewing and goal-setting for our business is equally important. If you don’t, you risk looking up one day and not realizing how far you’ve veered off your path.

Several years ago I was told a story that’s since stuck with me as a cautionary tale about the importance of planning ahead and looking at the big picture:

Rebecca Pearcy is the owner of Queen Bee Creations in Portland, Oregon, a design and production studio making bags and accessories with quintessential put-a-bird-on-it style. Arguably, she’s the original putter of birds on things! If you can believe it, Rebecca started her handmade business twenty years ago now, and it steadily grew in popularity and size each year. By 2010, she had a dozen production sewers and staff in her studio and retail shop and product demand to match. But amidst the hustle and bustle of running her business with blinders on, she came to a stark epiphany—she had been so caught up in the administration of her business and growing to meet demand that she was no longer creatively fulfilled. She didn’t have the time or the energy to design, to create, to make on her own. She had ideas for new product lines in her head that she just couldn’t muster out on paper, and something had to give.

Thankfully, she had two trusted staff to help. Together, they devised a plan to reorganize the business, downsize the staff (a decision that I must say was initially met with much local criticism), and turn her production workshop back into a design studio and retail outlet. Soon thereafter, she launched a textile line and got back into making and designing, something she had longed to return to. And her newly unemployed production staff? As part of the strategy, her two trusted employees, also unemployed as part of the transition, spun off and started a local cut-and-sew production business, hiring the same production staff, and they continue to produce Queen Bee bags and accessories today, along with products of many other independent designers.

I share this tale of Rebecca’s turning point not to give you a roadmap for how you should run your business—far from it! Not everyone’s handmade business is suited for small-batch manufacturing or growth of that nature. What I’d like you to take from this story is the importance of avoiding that critical turning point in the first place. Of being more thoughtful about where you’d like your business to be this year, next year, five and twenty years down the road so that you can always keep track of how today’s decisions fit within that.

Without a vision for your business, you’ll flail. I didn’t say you’ll FAIL, but that you’ll FLAIL. Plenty of people can go about their days and weeks and months not paying attention to the bigger picture—this in and of itself is not a failure. But if they lose sight of their goals and their intentions, they’re flailing. Think of your business vision as a guiding force that allows you to be decisive and strategic, not reactionary or wandering.

Developing a vision for your business will help you measure smaller decisions against the larger goal. When it comes time to grow or to pivot or to change, will you do so in a way that helps you achieve your goals? Are you still doing what you’d like to do, or are you veering off in the wrong direction?

So where do you want to be? What’s your endgame? January is the perfect time post-holidays to spend a little time visioning for your business. Now it’s important to emphasize here that the picture you paint doesn’t have to be perfect. Please for the love of all that’s handmade it shouldn’t be perfect! Broad strokes are often plenty, and you can and should refine them as you go along. Don’t get too caught up in the details, and don’t catch yourself copying other people’s visions as your own. Looking to mentors can be helpful, but each maker’s business vision is unique to them and them only. Your vision is yours to conceive and own.

Your big picture vision can take many forms based on your learning style or personality, so I’m not going to prescribe one particular method and guarantee it will work. It might be a moodboard, a journal entry, a written manifesto, or anything in between or altogether unique. I will, however, pose some questions that might spark some thought or point you in the right direction:

  • Do you always intend to work by yourself or with a team? How big is that team?
  • What parts of your business do you most love doing? Which can you delegate or let go of as your business grows?
  • What do you want to feel when you’ve reached your business sweet spot?
  • What’s your dream magazine, news, or blog feature?
  • How much personal income would you like your business to provide?
  • What are your core business values?
  • What makes you happiest about running your own business?

Your business vision is a living thing, and you should revisit it often—not just annually—to make sure you keep your goals and values in check and top of mind. Rebecca’s in a much better place now and her business continues to thrive, but let her story warn us all that we can’t just keep our head down in the weeds, making like makers do. Look at the patchwork, bird’s-eye view of your business and use that as a guide.

Episode Guests

Holly Marsh is a maker and nerd living on the Oregon Coast in Goonieville, aka Astoria. She is the owner and designer of MarshMueller, a line of quirky yet necessary accessories for babies, parents, and humans like you. She is attracted to Japanese fabrics and textiles in funky and weird prints. She has a background as a Buyer for a national retailer and a locally owned independent fabric store. She also has a background in branding from her work in private label branding for a national retailer. Her products have been sold in Made in Oregon locations, Powell’s Books, among many others. During her free time (HA! What’s that??), she can be found playing with her two boys, attending Portland Timbers matches (the soccers for those not in the know), or hunting for the latest fabric for her line.

When it comes to the challenging moments in life, Melissa Wert believes you should always be able to get to the heart of the matter, without losing the heart of the matter. She and her husband are the co-founders of Print Therapy, a stationery company that marries hand-painted watercolor designs with emotionally honest and heartfelt sentiments. She is happiest hanging at home in Massachusetts with her husband trying to illicit giggles and dance moves from their sweet boy.