Live the Life You Have Imagined - Important Updates About Our Direction
This past weekend I traveled four hours to take care of my almost two year old grandson while his parents were at the hospital having his new baby sister. When you are spending the day with a two year old, everything slows down. Don’t get me wrong; my grandson is a very busy, active toddler, but…the thing that ground to a halt was my own busy, active mind in the context of my professional life. Thoughts of the next marketing task, the next inventory buy, the continual chess game of making the financial pieces work best for Parris House Wool Works were silenced in favor of, “Let’s go play on the swing set” and “I have missed so much by not being able to spend more time with this sweet child.”
For over a decade now I have poured just about everything I personally have and am into my small business. I will be fifty-eight years old in just a few weeks. It’s long past time to re-evaluate and this reality was brought straight to me, express delivery, by the day spent with my grandson.
But that delivery was a long time coming and I have been feeling the effects of burnout for quite some time. This blog post is not an appeal for sympathy. Rather, this post is an appeal for all of you to re-evaluate your own priorities, a cautionary tale, an offering from a life slightly misdirected.
Let’s start at the beginning when I opened Parris House Wool Works on Etsy as a side gig to my full time real estate career. I would be making a killing at real estate in today’s market had I not abandoned it in 2013 to make space for Parris House Wool Works to become what it is today, but I don’t regret leaving that career. We’ll get to what PHWW has become today in a minute.
I started Parris House Wool Works because I had fallen in love with rug hooking following the death of my mother in the spring of 2011. At that time, I needed a hands on, tactile art that was meditative, serene, and expressive. Rug hooking was, and still is, that art for me. At that time also, I was starting to experience burnout in my real estate career. The effects of the real estate market crash just prior were dragging on here in rural Maine and I was making very little money for very long hours and hard, frustrating work. But the worst part was that it was becoming evident that the big banks and government were only interested in helping the big banks and government. There was no federal bailout for the homeowners themselves and the banks were cash drunk on taxpayer dollars and were therefore not motivated to compromise in the interest of their borrowers. Injustice galls me. I had to make a change.
So, I purchased the inventory from a local hooking shop that was going out of business and shortly thereafter, left real estate to pursue running a rug hooking studio full time. I knew that I did not want to be tied to a bricks and mortar storefront and that’s why PHWW has become a primarily online venture. I started by following the business model of the shop owner I’d purchased my inventory from, but it soon became apparent that what ostensibly worked for her would not be a great fit for me. And I have worked sixty to eighty hour weeks ever since, discovering what works, what doesn’t, and earning hard won experience along the way.
Parris House Wool Works is a success by many measures. I’ve built a favorable reputation in this niche, I have a wonderful online community on our social media platforms and am building another on Mighty Networks, our gross sales figures in most years have been enviable relative to many other small rug hooking businesses, I have been given the opportunity to write two books and teach at some of the best venues in the country as well as in my own studio. My work has been published in magazines I’m very proud of, featured on a major national television show, and written up in newspapers multiple times. I have wholesaled my work to much bigger retailers creating associations I treasure.
Let me go back for a moment to the part about our gross sales being enviable in most years. This is absolutely true. Our customers have been very supportive of this enterprise, beyond my initial expectations. However, the operative term is “gross sales.” In rug hooking, actual profit margin on retail sales of supplies is razor thin. I mean looking-at-the-very-edge-of-the-razor-straight-on thin. So a studio that has a comfortable looking gross sales figure may be netting out next to nothing, nothing, or end up in loss territory. This was true for many, many studios in 2013 when I first took this business full time, and it is true for them today. This is what we are up against in rug hooking:
- We have just survived and continue to survive a two-plus year pandemic that has seriously interrupted our supply chains and raised the prices on all of our material inputs while making many customers more conservative about what they will spend.
- I have needed an assistant who makes a respectable hourly wage. No one working for me is going to make only minimum wage, especially if they are working as an independent contractor, part time.
- There is a market limit to what customers are willing to pay for any particular good or service.
- Our customers are feeling the same economic pressures everyone else in North America is experiencing right now.
- We are a very small niche within the small niche of fiber arts. Our audience is limited, although I think I do a pretty good job of bringing new hookers into the fold.
- Professional studios are continually undercut by hobbyists who “just do it for the love of it” and have other means of support to subsidize their hobbies. Many small business owners are not subsidized, and love of the craft won’t keep the lights on.
- Customers will price shop (no judgment; it’s just true), which puts pressure on the smaller studios and gives the larger studios, who can buy in larger quantities to achieve better wholesale pricing, an ever increasing competitive advantage. For a smaller, newer studio to catch up, a miracle might be required. Please pray.
- Access to business capital in America is somewhat easier if you have the newest, mass-producible widget to pitch on Shark Tank. If you are a small artisanal business, you’re either going to bootstrap it on a cash basis or go into some form of personal debt to attempt to get it off the ground. If you are thinking of launching a business, heed this warning above all others in this piece: do not let that debt swallow you and your business alive. For the record, PHWW is relatively debt free, but that was not always the case.
- The fixed costs for keeping an ecommerce site online are not trivial. There are costs associated with the ecommerce platform, webmaster assistance, our accounting system, our event ticketing system, our newsletter platform, our ISP, and more. For the in-person studio we have to carry special insurance, have the kitchen state licensed, etc.
This is the scenario behind the possibly glazed-over, far-away look in a studio owner’s eyes when a customer asks for a discount, says “I could just make this at home,” “I’d like to return this half hooked kit; it’s just not for me” or, “I think I’ll save the two dollars and buy this from (insert big studio name here).” And although every studio owner’s “why” and every origin story is different, the market forces are the same. The one caveat is that studio owners in Canada have it even tougher because of the exchange rate, shipping charges, and import duties on American raw materials that they may depend on.
In short, retailing rug hooking supplies is brutal. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that there are lots of other ways to be a professional in rug hooking than putting the primary focus on retailing supplies. After a decade of working in this niche and at least a few years of wear and tear on my body and mind as I approach a burnout state, I am looking at those other ways more seriously.
Here’s what I will be doing.
- I will be finishing my second book, a complete guide to rug hooking unlike any other you’ve seen before, this year. It will be published in 2023.
- I will be teaching more. I will be seeking out the best, most beautiful, most inviting teaching venues and bringing classes and workshops to new and new-to-me rug hookers. I love to travel, so if there’s a venue you have in mind for me, drop me a note. And, of course, we will continue to host classes online and in studio here at the Parris House.
- I will continue to grow and improve my offerings on our paid membership community, the Parris House Creative Community. It’s been absolutely wonderful so far and I am grateful to everyone who’s leapt into it and is contributing so richly.
- I will be writing more; more blog posts, more magazine articles, more guest blogging, more books in the future.
- I will continue to run periodic weekend retreats at the Parris House as paid events, bring in paid guest teachers, and continue our monthly free open-studio/pot luck.
- I will be finally making more art. If there’s one thing a retail operation stabs through the heart, it’s the owner’s time for actual creativity. My goal is to have my work shown at a public gallery or venue, even if it’s just our local coffee shop for starters, in 2023 and move forward from there. It is looking like I’ll have some pieces at Sauder Village Rug Hooking Week in 2022 as well.
- And it follows, I will be selling my fiber art, launching it under my own name, Elizabeth E. Miller, and an umbrella venture associated strictly with the art side of things, North Atlantic Fiber Arts.
- I will keep my pattern line. I confess that I have contemplated selling the rights to it to some larger enterprise, but no, I’m going to keep it and we will continue to offer it and new designs as well through our website and in my studio.
- We will be launching more instructional video content, both free on YouTube and paid content through the website. I have been consulting with others experienced in video production on this and expect to have some of these offerings up by the late summer/early fall of 2022.
- Overall, valuable content creation across multiple media will become a focus of what we do.
- I will be keeping my wholesale accounts with my retailers and looking for new ones on a selective basis.
- We will be redesigning the website to reflect the shifts in emphasis for the company.
- Tee shirts, mugs, hoodies, tote bags, custom jigsaw puzzles with our hooked art on them. Yes, after lots of customer requests, we’re going there, hopefully as soon as summer 2022.
Here’s what I will not be doing:
- I will not be selling as many types of supplies generally. If there is something you’ve been eyeballing on our website, you should buy it before it’s sold out. There are many things we will no longer be carrying. In short, we are streamlining and focusing the retail shop considerably.
- I will be doing very little finished piece commissioned work unless a) there’s a story associated with it that I want to contribute to and b) my rate of $250/square foot or more, depending on design and complexity, can be achieved. No commissioned work will be accepted until after my 2023 book is finished.
- I will be doing no custom, one-off pattern designs for customers to hook on their own. All of my custom designing will be for my own line or the rare, commissioned piece.
- We will be doing no custom wool dyeing.
- Moving forward, I will not be putting anything on sale or discounting. We don’t have the margins. Every time we offer a discount, we are making a sacrifice that is only short term sustainable for us. If our customers want us to be around for a long time, we need to charge our long-term survival prices.
- Parris House Wool Works will not be on Pinterest. I thought about this pretty hard, but Pinterest is a site rife with intellectual property theft and I personally don’t like using it. I will be closing our Pinterest account. We will remain on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and, depending on whether or not it remains stable, Twitter. We might look into TikTok. Instagram is currently our preferred social media platform.
- I will not be using predatory selling platforms like Etsy or eBay.
- I will not be working more than forty hours per week. In fact, some weeks, when I have the opportunity to spend time with my children and grandchildren, I will not be working at all.
Making changes is not without risk. In fact, there are elements of this shift that are anxiety provoking for me, and your own shifts may be scary for you too. I go back to, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” It’s all any of us can do. I have much bigger changes planned along a longer timeline that may well change the “where you are” part of the adage, but for now, this is what I can do with what I have where I am.
In writing this “manifesto for my survival,” I have found clarity around what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. I highly recommend grabbing a pen and paper, or your preferred laptop or device, and doing the same.
I would like to thank a two year old and a newborn for this final shot of clarity. Additionally, I would like to thank my body and mind for sending up attention-getting stress responses, hoisting high all the red flags of burnout that I’ve been ignoring. I would like to apologize to my intuition for ignoring it also, way too many times.
Again, this is not about garnering sympathy. This is one woman speaking to mostly other women – you know who you are – who may be on the same trajectory, whether you are a small business owner, a stay at home mom, a corporate employee, or something else. Burnout is real, it can be devastating, and we have to watch for and address it.
I joke that Henry David Thoreau is my dead soul-mate. I should listen to him (again). We all should. He said:
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
- Elizabeth Miller