Taking stock

Towards the end of last year, as a very busy fall show and sales season was winding down, I casually mentioned to a few friends that I was tired and wanted to “take January off”, the subtext being, to relax and recharge. When pressed by these friends as to my intentions and specifics I started listing some of the things I would/wouldn’t do.

I wasn’t going to “work.” I wasn’t going to accept commissions, unless they were really interesting. I was going to tidy up my studio, sorting files that had become disorganized, and dealing with the scattered “to be filed” piles. As the conversations progressed, my friends gently pointed out that I didn’t really seem to be resting. Resetting my studio was still work (it’s where I work after all), and I was listing a pretty extensive set of things to do when I said I didn’t want to do much.

While a part of me was willing to admit that they were absolutely correct, I was also kind of irritated that they weren’t more supportive of my plan once I’d defined for them what I meant by the very vague “not working”.

A chance conversation with my cousin about her plans to start a business gave me a good deal to think about. As another solo-preneur she and I have similar business practices problems to solve and I offered myself as a resource. In the days following our chat one question came to mind that I’d forgotten to ask her, which was how much time was she planning to put into her business? Full-time? Or something less than that?

And then I had to laugh at myself. Because over the last few years as I’ve been building my business each of my friends has patiently listened to me talk about how it is going. These conversations were often a bit angst-ridden on my part as I would relate that I was tired, or not getting to the things that I needed to, feeling guilty about personal stuff that took time and meant I wasn’t working “enough” or wondering if I was “doing it right”, should I be doing X, Y or Z that other business people were doing?

Gently, but pointedly (they’re really good friends), each have asked me the same questions: How much time do you want to spend on your business? How many hours a week do you want to work? Invariably I’d squirm a bit and give one of these answers: “I still need to figure that out”, “That’s a really good question”, or “All of them?”

So, here it is mid-January. My vague “take the month off” plan has been refined somewhat. I’ve done a bit of studio infrastructure work; taking end of year inventory, restructuring my filing system. I’ve accepted a knitting commission, because I wanted to rather than from a compulsion to keep earning. But most of all I’m trying to give myself space. To think, to rest, to stop feeling guilty about taking time to think and rest.

I haven’t answered the How much time? question yet, but I’m starting to get a sense of it and that’s good for right now.

Rainy day bargain

It’s pouring down rain here in my bit of Vermont and rainy days make me want to sit on the couch with knitting and movies I’ve seen dozens of times.

But I’m behind on my weaving quota for the week so I’m at the loom for now.

Birds eye twill scarf. Variegated warp, solid weft, both Tencel.

The quota is, of course, self imposed as I am my own boss. So I bargained with myself. If I wove this morning I could knit this afternoon.  I don’t dislike the weaving process at all, I was just more inclined to something else today. I already feel great about the weaving progress and will likely finish this scarf and start the next before I call it quits at the loom today.

The eternal struggle

What I want to do today vs. what I should do today…

The luxury of being your own boss comes with a need for responsibility. Sure, I can take a day off whenever I want to. Or always prioritize the fun projects. But since I don’t have any employees, it only gets done if I do it. And my overarching business goal is not just to have fun.

I’ve just gone through a business assessment process with a fellow business owner. We reviewed our 2016 goals and set plans in place for 2017. We each have a good idea of what the first quarter looks like and we are creating the action item lists that will get us to our goals. For instance, it’s all very well to say I want to increase sales by 10% over last year. But I’m not going to get very far with that if I don’t work on my marketing consistently. Much as I like to pretend otherwise, serendipity is not my marketing tool.

Which brings me to today, and a little bit of self-back-patting, for putting aside the sweater I’m knitting for a client (the fun project) and setting up for a photo shoot (the responsible task.) The sun was out this morning and it was a perfect opportunity to take pictures without setting up all the supplementary lighting.

At the end of it, I’ve come away with fodder for this blog post, additional photos for an Etsy shop listing, some future instagram photos and most of my February newsletter (subscribe here.) And I’ve banked some time against my marketing goals, which in turn lessens my guilt when I next sit down to knit.

 

Getting back to normal

Does January feel like a let-down to you after the holiday flurry? For me it is a chance to breathe again. The busy show season is over and now I just have a few well-spaced winter farmers markets to attend. I’ve got a reasonable inventory of scarves, so I really only need to produce socks right now.

There are very few deadlines this time of year, so work here in the studio feels less like a mad juggling routine. It’s a time to clean out the corners and find the projects I deferred during the last quarter of 2016.

I’ll do my end of year inventory, counting cones and balls of yarn.

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Barely started, I’m on page 1 of 10

As I’m working through these counting and tidying processes it is an opportunity to let my mind wander a bit through the landscape of my business. What is working? What is frustrating me? What do I want to be different this year? And, inevitably, am I ever going to use some of the yarn that’s been sitting idle on the shelf?

During the rest of this week I’ll be doing 2017 planning. Running the sales and expense reports for 2016, pulling together social media stats, and digging up the Q4 goals are the start of the process. I’ve already started making notes about directions for this year. Having the numbers in the mix will help me figure out what is practical in my goal-setting. A meeting with my business buddy (we each are self-employed, running our own companies) will add a good reality check. Not only will she tell me if I seem to be taking on too much, but she’ll give me a nudge if she thinks I’m ignoring or shying away from a key area.

I usually have to force myself to work on this kind of planning. It doesn’t feel so much like “doing”, as weaving and knitting do. But I’m waiting for these swatches to dry.

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They’re for my next sweater commission, and as impatient as I am to start, I’ll be really, REALLY upset if I have to rip it out because it is the wrong size.

So, as the swatches dry, I’ll fire up QuickBooks and see what I can learn.

Happy New Year!

Tipping point

Things on my project list with no firm deadline have always been a challenge for me. These aren’t things that shouldn’t be on the list because they’re not relevant to my current goals. And they aren’t things that will never get done.  They are commitments I’ve made, to myself or others, that just need to get done sometime.

This happens when the client says “whenever you can get to it” and I look at the current list with firm deadlines and say “OK, sure” because I know I can get to it eventually. In some cases the “client” is me. I may assign a far future due date as I put it into my queue, but I’ll let myself slide that date if something more time-critical comes along.

And that’s when the trouble starts. Soon that thing has been hanging out on the list for an embarrassing number of months. It’s easily brushed aside. It doesn’t take offense. It knows I’ll dredge it off the back of the shelf sooner or later.

It doesn’t take much though for an “I’ll get to you soon” to morph into an “Oh my gosh are you still here!?!?!?!” I’ve reached my tipping point. At that moment “do sometime” turns into priority one. It happens with unstarted projects and it happens with things that are in progress.

My knitting is more portable than weaving or using the sock machine. I can pick it up when I have just a few spare minutes, or spend hours on it. Lengthy projects have tipping points too. It isn’t that I’m not enjoying the process, but I’ll get close enough to the end that 15 minute stints are just frustrating. I want to be done. I want the thing off my list, off my couch and out the door.

The current knitting project has enjoyed both of these scenarios. It took me forever to bubble it up to the top of the list and now that it is going I can’t finish it fast enough.

I’m trying to be better about this. I’ve considered that I might need to say no more often. Or maybe “yes, but not for n months”. Or perhaps I just need to set those deadlines and stick to them.


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A day in my studio

I often get ideas for my blog posts while weaving. In this case I was hemstitching the leading edge of a scarf.


Before I sat down at the loom this morning I was doing a bit of mental whining. As I write this, it is a gloomy day, heavy with humidity with a large blob of rain heading our way. It’s the kind of day that whispers “curl up on the couch and knit” but I’m not giving in to that tempting voice just yet.

My day starts with yoga or stretching, coffee and the morning email check. Then I consult my schedule. I’m writing this on Tuesday and the plan is weaving in the morning and socks in the afternoon.  I don’t always adhere strictly to the schedule, but I’ve found it to be a useful defense against the knitting whisperer. I have three products: handwoven scarves, knit socks and custom knitting. Allocating time in the week to each of them helps me stay on track with my production goals.

It’s all posted on a whiteboard in my studio. I’ve also got my goals for that week, the chart where I tally how much time is spent in each area of the business and a list of long term projects to consider. The board can be something of a nag. Since I see it constantly I’ll feel guilty if I’m straying too much from the plan.

Throughout the day I snap pictures for Instagram and Facebook. I try to resist the urge to check email often, trying to limit myself to 3-4 times per day. Every interruption in the flow is an opportunity for me to be distracted from my current task.

After a quick lunch and email break it was time for socks. But as I passed the loom I realized that I was nearly done with the scarf and decided to finish it.


A quick session with the fringe twister and I can wash the scarf to “finish” it. This one is tencel so it will shrink just a smidge. At this point in the day I’m not feeling the sock machine love, so I settle down to cast on a new knitting project, the first of two Christmas stockings. A couple of hours later it is time for dinner and time to stop working.

It was a good day. Some finishing, some starting and not too many self-generated distractions. Oh, and it finally rained sometime in the late afternoon.

 

Flying Solo

Working alone, as I do, presents challenges to be overcome (or at least managed.) Generally speaking, I know what I need to do. I make stuff, I sell stuff, I keep track of what I make and sell. But anyone who has ever read anything about getting things done knows that it isn’t quite that easy.

You set goals — “make” 5 scarves this week. You set interim tasks to reach that goal — wind 5 warps, weave 5 scarves, twist fringe on 5 scarves, take pictures of said scarves, sew in labels, add tags, upload to online store and stash away into finished inventory.

Easy as pie. I could do it in my sleep. And that general process of detailing steps? I know that process. I used it when I was a computer programmer. You don’t just start at the beginning and write until it is done, there are subprocesses and segments that make up the whole. And I took enough project management classes to have that method fairly well ingrained.

But you know what? Sitting here in the studio, trying to figure out and do everything I should be doing, even after a few years, is still a challenge for me. Make stuff? No problem. Something like marketing? Whoa, now what do I do? It’s big, scary and not well-defined in my head.

Fortunately, I have some resources to help me through all this. I stumbled on this great podcast called Explore Your Enthusiasm which led me to Tara Swiger’s website. Her focus is on helping crafters like me build the business they want to have. Her weekly podcasts and other lessons and activities have given me lots to think about. Right now I’m participating in her #monthofbizlove challenge, 30 days of tiny actions to build the business you love. You may have seen some of my responses in my Instagram feed.

I have you, my readers and customers. Your comments and my blog stats prove that I’m not just talking to myself and believe me that helps me show up consistently.  You buy from me and that’s incentive to keep going and figure out the hard stuff.

And now I have a “we’re both running a small business” buddy. My friend Sarah lives a couple towns away from me. She’s the owner of Vermont Natural Sheepskins and like me she works solo. We’re facing some similar challenges in our respective businesses and it has been great to be able to brainstorm with her, share ideas, and help each other think through problems and solutions.

So now, if you need a fabulous scarf, check out what’s available from Heron Pond Designs. And if you’ve always wanted a sheepskin go visit Sarah’s shop. They’re lovely, so soft and cozy. I have two already!

Needle natter and peer pressure

My friend Sarah and I visited WEBS recently to take advantage of their anniversary sale.  She was hunting up yarn for gifts and I was restocking my supply of weaving yarns (and succumbing to a few colors I haven’t tried yet.) I think we hit every corner of the store, some more than once, and I was doing pretty well with only restocking for the business.

Then Sarah showed me the 100% Baby Alpaca yarn that she was buying to knit a Color Affection shawl. As she described the shawl to me, I’d heard about it but hadn’t seen the pattern, I decided that I needed to make one too. The yarn was on sale and very reasonably priced so I chose three colors different from hers and we planned a knit-along.

Sarah and I both had personal projects in progress so we decided to knit our swatches to see what needle size to use, but maybe not start in on the shawl that very evening.  Sarah’s swatching adventure  is a bit different than mine.

We’ve purchased lace weight yarn for our Color Affection shawls and for that the pattern calls for a size 2 1/2 or 3mm needle.  I knit loosely and generally go down two needle sizes from what a pattern calls for in most things, but not necessarily so with lace knitting or very fine yarns. I don’t own a needle sized 2 1/2  so I decided to start with a size 1 and see how it goes.

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The swatch on the bottom is with the size 1 needle. It is supposed to measure 4″ and comes in at about 3″. I like the stitch definition but the shawl will be much too small.

Here I should mention that the pattern calls for a long circular needle (32″ or so) but I chose to use short double pointed needles to knit the 22 stitches for my swatch.

I went back to needle storage and found my size 2 double points and did the second swatch, the one on top. It’s slightly larger than it should be and the stitch definition is, shall we say, messy.  What I really needed was a needle somewhere in-between and closer to the size 2 than the size 1.

Sarah was having her own swatching adventure and had decided to use the yarn doubled. Meanwhile I took another look at my needles.  The long size one that I thought I’d be using is a 2.5mm. The size one that I swatched with is a 2.25mm. The size 2 that I swatched with is a 3mm.

Lesson #1: check the needle sizes carefully. The swatch only gives you a good answer if give it the right inputs.  I had pretty much decided to go ahead with the long size one (2.5mm is close to 3mm) but I have, like Sarah, ordered more yarn in case I want to use it doubled as she is going to do.

While all of this was going on I was getting frustrated that I wouldn’t be able to start immediately on my new shawl. My inner child was having a bit of a “I want it now!” tirade. So when I should have been working I took a few “breaks” to paw through my stash and see if I had any fingering weight yarn that I could use instead. [The pattern is written for both weights.] At one point I had a pile on the floor, a pile on a table and a pile on a chair and I was rushing back and forth with the pattern trying to make any of them look like a good idea.

After a bit too much of this insanity I stepped back. My boss (me) gave her employee (also me) a little lecture about work time vs leisure time. Also an important reminder that I don’t get paid if I don’t finish the work. And finally, that we like money (if nothing else it supports the yarn habit) so getting on with the working is really the priority right now.

I put away two of the piles. The one that has the best chance of working has been moved where I can’t see it easily. I made great progress on a project for a client, and decided that the next bit of knitting should be done on the porch where I can’t look at all the yarn I have that I want to knit into things “right now!”

Binges or stints?

I’m coming to realize that I tend to have a binge work style when I should be a “stint” worker. When I settle in to weave scarves I tend to do a bunch in a row. Likewise with sock knitting. I have quite a few knitting projects in the queue and when I settle down with one my inclination is to keep at it, to the exclusion of all other work, until it is done.

What I need to be doing is pecking away at building my scarf and sock inventory while still making progress on the knitting. I’ve always struggled with prioritizing my production work. When I have a choice between knitting, for which I will get paid upon completion, or building inventory, which I hope will sell in the future it is too easy to focus on the knitting.

I know, of course, that I can’t sell inventory that I haven’t created. An empty booth at the craft fair isn’t going to bring much income. So I’m trying really hard to be realistic about what needs to be done, and dole out my time between all of the projects.

I’d like to blame my work habits on not having the right planning method. I’ve tried a few different ideas for how to track what I need to do and still haven’t settled on one that I love. But really? I do know that if I spend a week knitting then it probably means I didn’t do any weaving. So I can’t really say the tool, or lack thereof, is the problem.

Right now I’m back to the weekly planner with the to-do section at the bottom of the pages. I’ve written in show dates and other obligations, and set target numbers for scarf and sock inventory. I’ve also noted the current quantities. I’ll update these numbers as I move to each next week which should make it pretty obvious whether I’m working on the right projects. [It has just occurred to me to flag the pages that have shows as a quick way to remind myself how soon they’ll be happening.]

So, back to that question. I think that bingeing on a project makes sense if it small enough to be finished quickly. Think knitting a hat vs. knitting a sweater. Or if the deadline is very close. If neither of those cases are true then stints on each area of work are a better way to reach my goals.

Although it tempting to schedule weaving on Mondays, socks on Tuesdays, etc it turns out that bingeing on one type of task for the whole day isn’t so good for my body. So smaller stints on a variety of projects is the new mantra.

And maybe it is working. Over the last week or so I’ve woven 3 scarves, remembered to post to Instagram occasionally, put in time on three knitting projects for three different clients and kept up with my business bookkeeping. I didn’t get to socks, other than counting them up for that weekly tally, but I’m sure they’re going to come up soon in the rotation 😉

And a p.s. to my fellow blogger Kerry who not too long ago wrote a great post about working in stints. You had such a great idea about using a reminder app that I had to try it for myself. Turns out that when I couldn’t complete the task when it was scheduled I just agonized over whether I should give up and skip it or mark it done, even when it wasn’t, just to make the reminder go away. It was too silly to let the tool control me like that so I’ve put the idea aside for now until I can figure out how to make it work for me.

Feeling lighter

Yesterday I finished knitting a sweater. This is not such a huge accomplishment until you consider that it has been in process since November. It was not a particularly complicated nor large sweater. It was all in the timing. And in this case my timing was exceedingly poor.

The sweater had been commissioned in the fall and when a lull opened up in my schedule I told the client I could start it. How I could look at a lull in November and decided there was going to be time to work full-force on a sweater mystifies me. [This has been added to the Never Again list.]

Because you know that what happened was the holiday crazies. Orders and shows and visiting relatives and baking.

And then the post-holiday push. Stock replenishment, breathing, taxes, addressing deferred projects.

But now a huge weight has lifted. The sweater, when it dries, will get sent to the client. I made progress on a couple of little things after washing the sweater and now I can start on a new bigger project.

Furthermore, the daylight part of days is longer, the sun is shining. Maple is being tapped. Mud season seems early this year.

And best of all, my own personal harbinger of spring has arrived. There is a red-winged blackbird at my bird feeder. I’d know that skree call anywhere and it is the one thing above all else that says spring is right around the corner.

Happy Leap Day!

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