The Communist Snake-Oil Peddler

It’s maybe only happened a handful of times, but I never forget it. Someone approaches my craft fair or trade show booth, picks up a Snackhole--it’s almost always a Snackhole--checks the price tag, and makes some form of aghast remark. It might be like, “Whoaaaa,” (widened eyes) or maybe an even more spiteful and incredulous “For this?” Sometimes I am approached by bargainers, as if at a yard sale: “Will ya take twenty dollars for this?” And just once I had the pleasure of responding, ever so courteously, to an email that more or less expressed all of the above remarks.

 

I cringe and--defend myself? Launch into an explanation of the materials and time and effort that go into creating such a product? Just fucking cry and ask myself what I’m doing with my life? It doesn’t seem like these bargain shoppers are genuinely looking for more information concerning cost and value, so would they prefer I agree with them, tumble into a self-deprecating hole where I admit I’m a shameless price-hiking snake oil peddler?

 

What’s really going on here is my own insecurity, of course. These interactions, steeped in retail tension, touch on every self-doubting nerve in my body. These price-shamers are almost invariably sharp older women; they manifest my mother, an art professor who was forever unimpressed with my work, an ex-boyfriend’s disapproving mother. Who do I think I am, anyway?

For every naysayer there is, luckily, an encouraging patron of handmade things who gets it, and will say so.  At my first handmade fair ever, I’ll never forget a woman who spent a good ten minutes fully engaged in my booth, a look of concentration on her face as she picked up each bag, examined seams and tags, caressed wool. She told me she was opening a retail store, and had been in the handmade/boutique business for years. “This is so much work, this must’ve taken you months,” she said. “You should charge more for your work. Two or three times more.”

Today I told my partner I was uncomfortable with the new prices, to which he pointed out that I say the same thing every time I’ve made price changes. Increasing prices on my products--which has happened incrementally as Makeshifter transitions from a hobby to my day job--is about establishing the value of my work and my place in the business of handcrafted goods. It’s about believing in the work that I do, believing it when I say a Makeshifter bag is an investment that will last you a long, long time. It is at the encouragement from retailers, entrepreneurs and other creative self-employed types--those who understand the struggle of paying yourself properly--that I am again able to talk myself into making this little jump.

So I am ready to commit to actually paying myself and covering my costs, and staying in business. Even if customers still buy Makeshifter stuff at the new prices, and feel it is a good value, my starving artist/communist*/working class/practical leanings will forever be at odds with high prices. I get it--and it’s important to me to have the opportunity to explain what goes into running this business. In the interest of transparency, I’ve made a list of expenses with some brief explanations. If nothing else I hope it  will make me feel better, and if you’re anyone who does something creative and independent for money, I hope this will be meaningful to you as well.

  • Materials cost: I buy high-quality stuff that is, whenever possible, made in the USA. I work in small quantities, so don’t always get major bulk discounts on stuff like hardware. Made-in-USA stuff includes the cost of paying people American wages, which I find valuable enough to pay a little extra for.

  • Labor: I need to pay myself for my time, and consider what wage I’d need to offer if I hired an experienced stitcher. I have all kinds of intense feelings about what a living wage means, and have not hired anyone yet for this reason. Right now if I screw up and lose money I’m the only one who needs to worry about it, and the thought of bringing on another person who relies on Makeshifter for their livelihood gives me hives.

  • Overhead: I currently have workspace dedicated in my home that I’m quickly outgrowing. Renting a space (in Portland, eek!) would increase my overhead tremendously, but also my production level. If I ever want to grow, hire, add and maintain better machines and make better products I need to figure this into costs as well.

  • All the other stuff: legal stuff, accounting, web design, professional photography, product design and testing, fees for trade shows and craft fairs, tools, shop furniture, time spent sourcing quality materials, advertising, and a million things I don’t even know about yet. Most of these things I fumble through myself and go unpaid, sometimes I find punks who will work-trade, sometimes I just pay a professional because they are worth it.

Those are most of the things I need to think about to make money and stay in business--simple enough. To complicate things, I want my livelihood to be infused with meaning, to be a brand that is more than just stuff. And ironically, that costs money too. Now here is a vague list of things I want to do with my time that I feel are integral to running a meaningful business:

  • Teaching workshops & hosting info sessions at low cost to participants

  • Repairing bags that I’ve made to keep them out of landfills

  • Thinking, writing, and sharing insights about running a business, riding bikes, and creative endeavors

  • Testing my own gear on fun bike trips, and giving free bags to other nice people to test on their bike trips

  • Donating products to charitable events

  • Offering sales, specials, and discounts

  • Engaging with cyclists/customers/curious humans and building long-lasting connections

If I am going to encourage others to ride bikes more, I need to make serious investments of time and effort to engage people. I didn’t think that involved money until I realized my time is not unlimited, and if I am to do everything I want to do, I’ll have to pay someone for their time to help me. It’s funny and terrible how easily your life can be reduced to dollars. This is a feeling I wish I could ignore or avoid, and mostly I do (hence the periodic freakout price raising). But again, this is me talking myself into getting serious about running a business. And a business makes money, or it doesn’t, and then it isn’t a business anymore. I want to keep making good things for good people, ok?

 

*By “communist” I mean “uncomfortable with capitalism.” Or poor, whichever you like better.

 

 

Becky Newman2 Comments