As small business owners, we cannot become so bogged down in the minutiae of business that we don’t see the forest for the trees.
For handmade entrepreneurs, this is especially challenging because we love what we do so much, it’s tempting to spend most of our time creating things, and not enough time marketing and selling them and planning for the future. This often results in lots of nice products, but few sales.
If you find yourself in this situation, or want to avoid it altogether, don’t panic. I created a list of 10 specific essentials that will help you focus on revenue-generating activities, without sacrificing your passion for the making the products you love.
1. Develop consistent systems. Systems create structure and help things run smoothly and efficiently, but handmade entrepreneurs, who often start as hobbyists, often resist them. The shift from hobbyist to business owner is a critical one to make — I know because I made it. I want you to assure you that it’s worth it.
Set aside specific days of the week when you will make specific products. This will help you plan how to organize priorities. You won’t waste a moment wondering what to make next. You can even share your manufacturing schedule with customers (wholesale and retail) so they know what to expect.
Use a tool like Google Calendar to plan and schedule blog posts, Tweets and Facebook updates. You don’t have to be rigid, but a basic schedule will allow you to lead your business with more predictability, and you can tweak it you grow.
2. Embrace technology. Each year, business success depends more heavily on effective use of technology. Handmade businesses are very high touch in terms of products and physical interaction with customers, but tend to be less so when it comes to using technology to increase sales. The good news is that I have seen people who were once fearful of technology fall in love with it when they begin tracing sales directly to the use of a once scary tech tool.
Begin by discovering what technologies are used by businesses that are similar to yours. Make a list of 3 or 4 things they seem to use effectively and watch their methods. Adopt similar approaches in your business and put your unique stamp on them.
If anyone with credibility offers classes to help you get started, it’s worth it to buy the instructions. Technology is like arithmetic in the sense that new technologies build on old ones. You will have more difficulty figuring out the new Facebook, for example, if you have never used the old one. The further behind you get on technology, the harder it is to catch up. Don’t delay. Get started today!
3. Don’t identify yourself as a “crafter.” There’s nothing wrong with being a crafter. I’m a crazy girl and I love making all kinds of things. I still make many of my own soaps and cosmetics, but I no longer sell them. Why? Because I’m a crafter, not a cosmetics business owner. Once you start selling the products you make, you are a business owner. Linda Balon Stein of Zosimos Botanicals  in Gaithersburg, Maryland, puts it this way:
“The personal care products we sell are handmade, and when people ask what I do, I say I own a cosmetics company. To me, that implies a professional career creating handmade products. Even though I know there are people who make high quality products and travel around the country exhibiting and selling their wares as “crafters,” there is a big distinction between what we do and making crafts to sell at markets and shows. We pay taxes, follow good manufacturing practices, get a merchant account and many of other things that “crafters” may not do.”
Identifying yourself as a “crafter” minimizes your professionalism as a business owner. It does not instill trust when you ask total strangers for their credit card number either. If you want to grow your business, be very wary of using this term to describe yourself.
4. Invest in yourself financially. The reason many people say they don’t have a coach or sign up for classes or attend a great conference is because it costs money. Here’s a different approach. Don’t think of it as spending money on a coach (or a conference or a class). Think of it as investing money in yourself. I host the annual #IndieCruise to so entrepreneurs can MasterMind together in an unplugged environment, and come out on the other end with guns blazing.
The transformations I witness every year are amazing. Coaching, classes, conferences and similar events are experiences that enrich your life and challenge you to push yourself, to maximize your talents, to stretch the limits of your capabilities. What’s life anyway, if you don’t do that? Create a 2013 professional enrichment budget for yourself and make it a point to go to at least one event that will force you out of your comfort zone. Your business, not the mention the world, will thank you.
5. Toot your horn. Many handmade entrepreneurs tell me they are uncomfortable with marketing because it feels like bragging. Well, it is, in a way. If you are proud of the products you make, and your are confident that they are worth every penny you ask for them, then you have every reason to proudly to tell the world what you have to offer.
Share, share, and share some more. It’s not about holding a megaphone and deafening everyone within ear shot. It’s about using your natural personality to share what you have to offer, and you’ve got to do it.
6. Solidify your niche. When I launched Indie Beauty Network, I could have tried to service every single type of small business there was. As an attorney and entrepreneur, I had the background to do it. But instinctively, I also knew that if I tried to be all things to all people, I would drown.
So I decided to focus exclusively on handmade beauty products and that’s that. Since then, we have expanded some to include items like handmade candles, jewelry and baked goods, but our core is still handmade beauty, and I like it that way.
Maggie Hanus of A Wild Soap Bar  sells Texas-themed handmade soap in Austin, Texas. According to Maggie:
“Deciding to narrow our line down to “native plant soaps” was the best business decision we ever made! I mean, everybody has a plain old Lavender Soap, but you won’t find many lavender scented Bluebonnet Soaps, which celebrate the Texas state flower and which contain real Texas blubonnets.”
Since starting her business over a decade ago, Maggie has gone from her core handmade soap products to other items including body balm and facial oils.
When you have a niche, marketing and sales efforts are magnified because you’ll know exactly what you are selling, and who you are selling to. You won’t spin your wheels trying to sell everything to everyone. Instead, you’ll invest your energy in selling specific products to specific people who want those products. Score!
Ask most any successful entrepreneur and they will tell you that having a narrowly defined niche is how they built their businesses — and continue to do so.
7. Leverage success in your niche to create new revenue centers. If you have solidified a niche for yourself and your business is on solid footing, you can consider how you can leverage your brand to sell new products, or sell your existing ones in different ways. For example, Tisha L. Morris  has leveraged her expertise in feng shui to develop several lines of products, including a smudge spray.
By offering a variety of products in “sub-niches,” Tisha appeals to more people without losing focus. Says Tisha:
“If it is not in someone’s budget to hire me one-on-one, they can access me through an online workshop, an ebook, a hard copy of my book, or my iPhone app.”
A quick word of caution: as you expand, be careful that you don’t introduce complementary products without first making sure your core is strong. If your core is solid, and running smoothly, it may be a good time to consider adding new sources of income that complement your existing niche and create new ways for you to boost revenues.
7. Brand yourself. As your business grows, you will find more people wanting to identify with more than just your products. Your repeat customers will start talking about you *and* your products, and in some ways, the two will merge into a single brand.
Handmade entrepreneurs are in the unique position of making the products they sell. This means that when a customer sees your product, whether you like it or not, they also see you. Take advantage of this by letting people experience you personally as you market your products.
Sharing photos of you in your production studio making things people love to buy is a good way to leverage yourself as a person, as you also promote your products. In time, if you’d like, you can translate this visibility into new streams of income as a speaker, a blogger or coach.
A quick caveat: unless you think you’re the next Thomas Kinkade or Martha Stewart, you’ll want to try to keep some distance between you and your business, so you can preserve the non-you part of your business for the future. If you become inextricably intertwined with your business brand, it could become difficult to sell it or move onto something else in the future. It’s a delicate balance, and there’s a great deal of overlap.
It takes time and practice to find the unique balance of personal brand and business brand that works for you. Take this one step at a time. Evaluate how it’s going each quarter, and make adjustments as necessary.
8. Involve your family members. If you are a business owner with a family, then whether or not you like it, you are not in business alone. My members and laugh all the time about the importance of integrating life and business. As a wife and mother of two, I say:
“If mama is in business, then everybody is in business!”
There are so many practical reasons to be intentional about this … first of all, you family can help you. They can take products to the shipping office, restock office equipment, help with filing and calendar maintenance, or watch the kids so you can work. These days, many of them can even train you on how to use computer equipment!
Involving family is also important from a teaching perspective, especially if you have children.
9. Find time for fitness Personally speaking, this is the single most challenging part of business ownership for me, and I’m terrible at it. In my prior life as an attorney, I became used to sitting all day long. I was either thinking, writing, strategizing, meeting, deposing or reading, and I did all of it in a chair.
Today, I have all the flexiblity I want and I still find it hard to get to the gym. But there is a distinct difference between how I feel when I’ve worked out and how I feel when I don’t, and I prefer the former. And so does my business.
Whether you’re fit today or not, try to make it a point to do something each day that allows our body to move, stretch, and flex. For me, running usually does the trick. It seems to clear my head and make way for new ideas. After a run, I feel like I can tackle anything — a good feeling when you have to slay small business dragons all day! For you, it may be yoga, tennis, or just walking around the block. Find what works and fit it in as best you can.
10. Collaborate with your fellow entrepreneurs. Now for the most fun part! As your business grows, you will have much more to offer than just your products. For example, if you blog, you’ll have intellectual property. If you Tweet, you’ll have followers. If you publish an email newsletter, you’ll have subscribers. Look for other people with similar appeal and connect with them to create new business opportunities.
For example, my members Mary Humphrey and Alyssa Middleton teamed up earlier this year to write a soapmaking book entitled, “Essential Soapmaking.”  Another example is how this month, four of my members teamed up for a Holiday Ladies Shopping Night where local women paid $20 a person to shop and enjoy a Peppermint and Chocolate martinis and crudité. (Notice: they paid a fee to enter the store to spend money … did you catch that?)
Dawn Fitch of Pooka Pure and Simple  provided the venue (her retail store), and the goodie bags included handmade candles from Yum Yum Candles , handmade soap by La Shonda Tyree, the “Handmade Soap Coach” , and lip balm from Naturally Good Soaps . Dawn told me that the event was such a huge success that they are going to grow it and make it an annual event.
Collaborations like these help everyone’s business grow, but they cannot happen unless you have something to bring to the table. An audience is a big part of that. After all, it doesn’t do any good to co-host an event with you if you don’t have anyone on your list or Facebook page to announce it to.
A Final Reminder
I am not sharing all of this to overwhelm you. On the other hand, as a seasoned business owner, I feel it’s my duty to tell you the truth about what it takes to be successful.
Do not start tackling all of these things at once. That would be too much.
Select the ones where you are weakest and start there. Add a new goal each month, and by this time next year, you will have advanced both personally and professionally, your revenues should increase, and you’ll be having more fun in your life and your business.
More fun? Yes please!
Handmade Soap  Photo via Shutterstock