When you first started selling on Etsy, did you have dreams or goals of eventually quitting your day job?
I didn’t just have dreams, I had hardcore, serious, white knuckle determination. I was going to find a way to make a living as an artist. The truth is I had already quit my day job when I was fortunate enough to find Etsy. I had been out of work for about a month and had just finished building my personal website when my best friend Heather, a hair stylist in New York, called me up and said, “You really should check out this handmade site called Etsy.” Apparently all the girls at the hair salon were talking about it, and if all the girls at the salon are talking about it, well, I suggest you listen!
I really found Etsy at just the right time and quickly realized that Etsy’s built in community far exceeded my hope for traffic on my personal site, and this was when Etsy was still relatively new. I immediately began dedicating my time to learning the ropes of this new handmade marketplace. Etsy boosted my business and gave me such an amazing ability to connect with buyers all over the world that would have been extremely difficult otherwise. There is no way I could have become so successful without Etsy.
How did you originally get into ceramic jewelry making?
My grandmother painted amazing landscapes of upstate New York and my aunt paints beautiful life-like fairy paintings. All of my cousins are artists and even my great grandfather is legendary in my family for his painting ability. My mother has published books on paper making, the art of making puppets and marionettes and how-to books on stuffed animals. Those books were published in the 70’s when I was just a little squirt and you can see photos of me clutching the toys to my chest. I’m pretty sure the stuffed toys my mother made were my best friends growing up. One of my earliest memories is playing under the table at a craft fair.
I was raised to create. Whenever I said I was bored my mother or grandmother would tell me to go make something. I made all of my own clothes in high school and I painted prolifically with acrylic paint on canvas, wood, paper, used furniture, walls, and anything else I could get my hands on. One time I even painted all the phones in the house in floral designs. Not sure if everyone else in the house appreciated it, but it sure was fun! I was taught that artists are special and to be creative is the best thing you can be. Artistic expression is simply my way of life. I went to school for graphic design and worked in the field for about 8 years and I also worked for a short time as a professional photographer.
I first began working in clay by helping my mother (Charlene Roth) when I was just a kid after school. At the time my mother had a small business that made porcelain awards for horse shows and about that same time my mother began seriously sculpting in clay. So I would be painting the designs on the plates or applying decals to the porcelain mugs in her studio and I would watch her form her creations. She made huge earthenware pieces that would totally blow your mind. Like a smurf with a skull face with the skyline of Los Angeles growing out of its head and hundreds of little creatures with deconstructed arms and legs, and the whole thing would end up being a completely functional cookie jar. She makes salt and pepper sets that can completely change the way you look at dinner time.
This was my mother and I was really, very influenced by her work even though I probably didn’t know it early on. I had always painted. I had never formed anything or sculpted anything at this point myself but I had been raised with such extreme creativity. Her highly detailed ceramic work and use of color has without a doubt influenced my work. More on how I actually began making jewelry in a moment.
How long had you been on Etsy before taking the plunge into selling full time? What made you decide to do so?
I had an art business before I had Surly-Ramics. It was an art gallery in North Hollywood, California and it was called The Art Coalition. I was so darn proud of myself. I really honestly thought I was making a difference in the art community and that I was born to be a painter. I was young and had absolutely no idea how to run a business or sell art, but I tried. I displayed the work of up and coming outsider and low brow artists in Los Angeles and provided wall space for unknown artists. It was so romantic. I sold some of my mother’s ceramics pieces and then together we started making jewelry. We were trying to come up with things we could sell to keep the struggling gallery afloat. I had a little too much idealism and not quite enough foot traffic.
Looking back, the jewelry was the best idea we ever had! If I would have focused on the jewelry then like I do now, it may have saved the gallery! Unfortunately, after a two year run, a bad location, combined with my lack of business sense at the time, the gallery went belly up, leaving me bankrupt, without a car or a place to live. (Of course my mother let me come home for a spell.)
But, I had stopped making art. I was truly heartbroken and literally flat broke. Art was my life and that gallery had meant everything to me. I filed bankruptcy and then I got really depressed. A year went by. I got a job as a waitress. Anyone who has ever worked in the service industry knows it is a much harder job than it seems. I had been waiting tables in a Hollywood diner for about a year and a half and I started to get more and more annoyed with people and I had really become SURLY! The service industry can really suck the soul out of you, especially if you’re a creative type and you do it for too long and it starts to show.
It was somewhere during that time that I thankfully started creating again. I think at one point during that time I painted 8 paintings in 3 weeks while still waiting tables at night. You hold in the creative energy for too long and it can just explode out of you! I remembered how much I enjoyed making the ceramic jewelry in my mother’s studio, so I started making necklaces again and wearing them into work. I loved making them and when I wore them it reminded me that I was still an artist despite my job title and that the creative spirit was still alive in me. It gave me hope.
Then a funny thing started happening. People fell in love with the jewelry. All the girls at work wanted to wear them and the guys, too! Then suddenly people wanted to buy them. I had people buy them right off my neck! I literally couldn’t make them fast enough! It was amazing. Surly-Ramics was born! Within a few months I had started a new business, one where the location didn’t even matter and I no longer needed to wait tables. Luckily it was right around this time that my path crossed with the wonderful world of Etsy!
Did you do anything to prepare ahead of time?
I had definitely planned to start a new business, but I did it with a very tiny start up account. I had saved up enough money from my waitressing job to buy a Mac, a Canon Camera and a 1980 Mercedes. I sold the car for $2,000 and used that money to get a business license, some clay supplies and to sign up with some well respected craft shows. I set the remainder of the money aside to pay for rent and online costs for a few months. The rent in my apartment was very low, so I was lucky. I had learned a lot from my first business, like not to spend more than you have. Often times people start a business and quickly get themselves into debt by thinking, “Oh, I will earn that money back when I sell this or that.” The reality is that small businesses have a lot of hidden costs and you need to have money set aside: you must stay within your budget or you will regret it. The art and craft shows got me through the first few months by putting me in contact with a some boutiques who decided to carry my work, and luckily I found Etsy soon there after.
What are the most effective ways you have promoted and marketed your Etsy business? What’s your best marketing tip?
Running an Etsy business is absolutely a full time time job and I can honestly say that not a single day goes by that I don’t do something to promote the business. I pass out cards and stickers to anyone who gets near me, I practically force my friends to wear my art when they go out and I post on blogs and forums and social networking sites daily. I participate in a lot of art and craft shows in and out of town where I pass out cards and tell anyone who will listen about my site. I occasionally pay to advertise online and in magazines. I also regularly donate pieces to charity events.
I honestly think that the best advertising or marketing tool for my business has been from the online blogging community and I highly recommend participating in forums and other networking sites in (and more importantly) out of Etsy. I am personally a big fan of the science and skeptical community and I try to design jewelry that scientists and educators might enjoy. This particular aspect of my design work has opened the door to a large customer base that has really boosted my bottom line. I started designing my “smart jewelry” line just because I am a huge science geek but it ended up being great for my business. I donated a lot of pieces to bloggers and podcasters that I respected to keep or give as gifts to their audience and in turn a lot of people who never thought of buying handmade found out about me and became loyal customers. So I would recommend looking for niche markets in an area that you love and then bringing your product to that market.
What have you found to be an unsuccessful promotion?
There have been a few events that I donated work to that did nothing for my business at all and were time consuming, but you have to take the good with the bad. I have done a few lame art and craft shows as well, but I have never done an event where I didn’t at least make a new friend. So the moral is to research events and don’t waste your product or your money but still try to put yourself out there as much as possible.
Walk us through what a typical workday might entail.
- I wake up and before I can even see straight I have the happy Mac up and running so that I can print out orders and respond to any emails or convos. Nothing makes me happier that getting in orders while I’m asleep. I’m sure there are a lot of Etsy-ers who feel me on that one! It is such a happy feeling to wake up to sales, makes me feel like everything is right in the world.
- After the orders are printed and the emails have been replied to it’s time to pack up orders. I love packing orders. It is so satisfying. I take great care in packing my pieces. I think it is very important that the customer receives a beautiful package. Part of the handmade buying experience is knowing that a person who really cares made and sent what is purchased.
- I ship everything in gift boxes with matching colorful tissue paper. Anyone who has bought from me in the past knows that I send a different special quote from a famous artist, writer or philosopher in each box. I like to think of my packages as artistic fortune cookies.
- Next step after everything is packed up is to head on over to the post office. Luckily for me it is right across the street from where I live. I’m there everyday Monday through Friday. Everyone at the post office knows me by name. I think of the local postal employees as extended family now, they are so nice to me. Sometimes Suling (one of the employees) brings me avocados that she grows, I bring her necklaces. It is a happy part of my morning routine.
- After the post office it is time to either form pieces out of wet clay at home or head on over to the ceramic studio where the kilns are (a 2 mile walk) to paint the already bisque fired pieces. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I make art everyday. I have to in order to get everything done.
- I usually work on the clay pieces either forming or painting them till about 7pm, then I fire the kiln, then it is time for dinner with my husband (Surly Johnny), then back to the computer at home to check messages and post new items in my shop. I try to post everyday, and at the very least every other day. I’m usually done with my day around midnight. I don’t watch TV.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job? Is there anything you miss?
I am very self motivated and I am passionate about creating and marketing my work. I never felt like I was truly reaching my potential at any of the jobs I held in the past. I am grateful that I had the experiences that I did, some good and some bad because they prepared me for all of the hundreds of little jobs involved in running a small business and put me in a position to truly appreciate my successes however small and to overcome my failures however large.
I don’t really miss anything in particular about a day job other than “actual” days off, but even that is no big deal because I absolutely love what I do and so it’s not a sacrifice to do it everyday.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself, knowing what you know now?
I would have to say that I made the most mistakes with my first business, the art gallery. The best advice I can give is to be realistic, don’t overspend, avoid using credit and be willing to work 7 days a week for the first few years and if you fail, pick yourself up and try again. One other important aspect I have learned about this type of work is that you must pay attention to the customers’ needs and wants. It is important to create from your heart and to produce items that are unique to you as the artist, but you have to ultimately create something that people will pay money for. Therefore, it is important to design with the customer in mind.
Pay attention to trends and colors and be willing to cater to the need of the market. Ultimately all businesses provide a service and one must listen closely to the subtle demands of the marketplace. I adhere to a Darwinian approach to my designs. I create a lot of different designs and then I put them out into the selective pressures of the marketplace. The pieces that sell well get reproduced and replicated. The designs that don’t sell well slowly vanish from production. I as the artist am involved in the creative process of their evolution, but ultimately the customers and the market dictate what jewelry designs will remain and be reproduced. It is important to distance yourself emotionally from the finished product so that you can make rational decisions. Some of my most favorite designs simply did not sell. I had to learn that was okay so that I could dedicate time to designs that did sell.
What goals do you wish to accomplish in the coming year for your Etsy business?
I am always interested in expanding and perfecting my designs and product line and I make sure to stick to my mission statement:
- To provide our customers with affordable jewelry created with innovation, quality craftsmanship and attention to detail.
- To produce beautiful little works of art that are accessible to the everyday person.
- To create and to offer new styles on a regular basis.
- To pursue beauty, creativity and truth.
- To make art you can wear.
- …And of course I hope Surly-Ramics will grow along with Etsy. I am also interested in finding ways to educate the public through various visual art projects and I plan on dedicating some time to exploring that avenue in the coming months.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I would have to be completely out of my mind if I didn’t mention my husband “Surly” Johnny (we were just married 6 months ago). He is literally my right hand man and the love of my life. He encouraged me to start this business and dusted me off after the last one tanked. When he isn’t diligently working at his job (TV editing) he helps me with Surly-Ramics in so many ways. I taught him how to make the ceramic jewelry and now he works right along side of me. There is actually no way I would be able to produce the quantity and quality of pieces that I do if it wasn’t for him. As I sit here answering these questions he is quietly sitting behind me at the art table forming little masterpieces out of clay. It takes a special man to put up with a crazy, ambitious, entrepreneurial artist/crafter and I truly love and respect him for it.
I read the following quote each morning when I start my day and again sometimes when the “technical work” part of my day wears me down. It is posted on the wall right above my computer: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” – Andy Warhol
I’d like to thank the entire Etsy community and staff for being part of my favorite art project, life.
Thanks to Amy for sharing her story and business with us! Check out the related items below to see some of her work.
You can find some of our previous Quit Your Day Job posts here.