Talkin’ Shop (and business)

April 17, 2013 · 20 comments

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I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea. I’m still not sure, but since I have a tendency to sometimes overshare, I’m going for it. I’ll be pulling back the curtain a little bit on my business Red Onion Woodworks. If you only want “Happy! Pretty! Fluffy!”, then I suggest you just scroll through and look at the photos. If you want a little bit of reality and wonky shop talk, keep reading…

The gem of an idea that eventually became Red Onion Woodworks surfaced in the spring of 2006. I had two part-time jobs, one apprenticing in Henry’s parents’ custom woodworking shop and the other doing odd jobs and ranch chores for Stu and Carol Hemphill. Working for Henry’s parents, I had a Karate Kid-esque experience, learning the particulars of each unfamiliar machine and tool by repeating tasks over and over and over. Henry’s parents were methodical in their lessons and were unfazed by my clumsiness and inexperience. I learned so much in the time I labored in that shop. Working for Stu was completely different but life-changing as well. We spent a huge amount of time outdoors, splitting firewood or sorting and cleaning up entire barns full of lumber that Stu had milled over the years. Having never worked with wood before, I certainly got a crash course on the material with those two jobs.

After a few months of working for Stu, it became clear to me that he needed a retail outlet for his inventory of mostly natural edge lumber, so I turned to what I knew best for a solution: the farmers’ market. I had worked at the local farmers’ market pretty much every Saturday for previous six years, and even before that, my mom had been selling her wares there since the year I was born, so I was pretty familiar with the scene. Lumber was not something I’d seen before (or since) at the market, but I figured it was a local agricultural product, and when I pitched my idea to the market board, they were quite pleased with it.

I spent a good deal of time prepping the booth. With Henry’s dad’s help, I built a rack to hold upright lumber and a display board with samples of the different species of wood Stu had for sale. I rounded up tablecloths and makeshift tables, and I designed a pretty nice price sheet/flyer. At some point during this process, Henry’s late grandma (sweetest woman in the world) handed me a little clipping from some fancy schmancy (now defunct) magazine. It showed a cutting board made from a single piece of wood with one natural edge and large hanging hole. I decided to make a similar board as an example of a project that potential customers could DIY with the wood I was selling. Henry’s dad helped a little to turn that design into reality, but really, it wasn’t rocket science.

During the summer of 2006, I set up my lumber booth at the Corvallis Farmers’ Market every weekend, and every weekend, (in addition to the million stories people told me about wood in their garage and the million times people went around the booth sniffing things) I was asked the same question, “How much for the cutting board?” The farmers’ market association has pretty strict rules against selling crafts, and I didn’t want to sell my sample board anyway, so I held onto it, but the wheels in my head started to turn.

That summer, I got married, and a few months later, I was pregnant. Any vague plans I had for a career were shuffled onto the back burner. Levi was born in 2007, and Charlotte came into the world in 2009. For most of three years, I was “just” a stay-at-home mom, and let me tell you, I was starting to go crazy. I know other stay-at-home moms who truly love the job, and I totally respect that, but I felt isolated, bored, and mentally soft. I was not happy, but when I’d broach the subject of returning to the working world to Henry, he’d simply ask, “Well, what do you want to do?” and I would have no answer. It made no sense for me to go out and get a minimum-wage job just for the sake of having a job, so instead I waited for inspiration to strike and opportunities to present themselves.

And then I found Etsy, a magical place on the internet where individual sellers and customers could connect. I had never forgotten the enthusiastic response to that one cutting board I’d made years before, so it didn’t take long before I was convinced that Etsy was my golden ticket to success in business.

I planned and prepared for months before I uploaded the first items to my Etsy site (when Charlotte was just 9 months old). Henry’s brother let me borrow a few tools and gave me advice about which other tools to buy. Henry’s dad helped me come up with a production model for making boards. Henry found wood for me to use. My parents babysat a lot and let me fill up my old bedroom with tools, lumber, inventory, and the stuff one needs to run a small business. No one, I repeat, NO ONE believed that my business would be profitable, but they humored me, maybe because they thought I needed a hobby or something. I, however, knew in my bones that this thing was going to work.

And it did work. I made my first sale within a week. A few months later, I was accepted into a (at the time) powerhouse Etsy team, and shortly after that I was chosen to be an Etsy featured seller, which catapulted my business to a whole new level whether I was ready for it or not. The next year, one of my boards was featured in the December issue of Sunset magazine, and things went crazy. I had nothing but unconditional love for Etsy and all the opportunities it brought my way.

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2012 was a little bit different (read: less profitable) for several reasons. First off, I had another job that took up some of my “free” time and a lot of my brain. I had a hard time maintaining my priorities (Red Onion Woodworks, my contract work for Gathering Together Farm, this blog, volunteer duties at the Marys River Grange and my home/farm life), and I got confused about which was the most satisfying, most lucrative, most good-for-my-future, or most good-for-my-family. It was too much of a good thing, and my business definitely suffered because of my inattentiveness.

There were some big changes on Etsy, too. The search function switched from organizing by “recency” (like craigslist where the newest stuff comes up first) to “relevancy” (where supposedly the stuff you’ll want comes up first). Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried to game the algorithm, my boards kept falling farther and farther back. In a search for “cutting board” (pretty much the only search term potential customers use to find my boards), the first board of mine comes up on page 20, and when was the last time you made it to page 20 when looking for something online? Yeah, never. I thought so.

In the early months of my time on Etsy, one of my favorite aspects of selling was the community of sellers, particularly the Etsy team I used to belong to. I relied on the that team tremendously for several reasons. First of all, the group of 70+ Etsy sellers communicated actively through a Google Group, and they passed along some of the most valuable business advice I’ve ever received. We also committed to creating a certain quota of Etsy treasuries per month, which as a result, gave all of us regular exposure on Etsy’s home page among other places. My team members were the first folks I ever felt connected to that I’d never met face to face before. I never before imagined that I’d be the type of person to “meet” people on the internet, but it happened, and I liked it.

The power of my Etsy team, however, began to dissolve. Over time, the number of treasury-centric teams on Etsy multiplied, and the number of treasuries being put together grew exponentially. At the same time, some of the more experienced members of my team left and took their wisdom with them. The hours I was putting into building treasuries seemed more and more wasteful, so I reluctantly quit the team and more or less dropped out of the Etsy community.

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Etsy was the first place where I connected to folks on the internet, but after a while a found other avenues for meeting people online. I started this blog, I began to read other people’s blogs, and I joined Instagram. These online spaces have opened up small and large communities for me. When I go to New York at the end of the month, I’m hoping to meet at least six different people that I first encountered on Instagram, and I am so excited about it. The point is, Etsy is not the center of my online universe anymore (though I’m still connected to many of my Etsy friends through Instagram and blogging), and I’m okay with that even if it some potentially negative consequences for my business. On the flip side, this blog and my connections to moderately influential folks has upped the exposure of Red Onion Woodworks. I wouldn’t say an exceptionally large number of my blog readers or Instagram followers have actually purchased boards from me (and that’s okay), but it’s helped.

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At the beginning of 2013, I was fired up to revive my business. I ordered supplies, I spent days working on new boards, and I started pitching my product around to bloggers. I felt like I was doing everything right, but what I heard back in response was…for the most part…silence. January and March were the two worst sales months in my three-year history on Etsy, and April isn’t shaping up to be much better.

As it stands now, I have a pretty full inventory of products in my shop. Those products are at least as good as they’ve ever been, and the product photos are a million times better than when I started out. My packaging, though still not fancy, is better, and my customer service is more or less the same as it’s always been.

What’s different is that everyone and their dog is selling a version of a natural edge cutting board. When I started on Etsy, my boards were not only unique to Etsy, but there was almost nothing like them anywhere on the internet. I think the fact that customers, bloggers, and Etsy employees alike had never seen anything like what I was offering had a lot to do with my early success even if my product photos weren’t that great. (Gray Works Design and Herriot Grace were launched around the same time as Red Onion Woodworks. I have tremendous respect for both companies, and although I’m sometimes aggravated by the competition, I swear up and down that I never copied either one.) I think I got in just at the exact right time when the market was primed to love my product. Now, however, the market is fairly saturated, and my little shop is being buried by hundreds of other vendors and thousands of other boards. I could spend five times as many hours and five times as much money on marketing my products, but that’s not really what I want to do, and I don’t think my business would be much more profitable because of it. I really had it easy for so long (even though I was pretty clueless in the beginning), but I think this new landscape is just the reality of online retail.

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I knew this day would come eventually, and I’m discouraged but not that sad. I’ve always insisted on keeping my overhead extremely low, and though that strategy has been less than ideal or efficient at times, it’s also meant that I had no debts, and if I had to shut things down without any warning, I’d just own a few nice tools that I could use for other projects.

I’m also in SUCH a different (figurative) place right now than I was when I started my business almost three years ago. I have more friends and more hobbies, and my kids are no longer tiny, constantly needy babies. I don’t NEED my business to be the defining characteristic of my identity other than my status as a mother. And let me just say that even if it dwindles to nothing eventually, Red Onion Woodworks has been more successful than I ever could have imagined, financially, socially, educationally, self-esteem-ily, and door-opening-ly. I’m still actively selling on Etsy and moving along with things, but I’m also rustling up some freelance writing gigs as well.

Red Onion Woodworks serving board

I have over a hundred finished boards in stock, a pretty significant stack of unfinished lumber, and a few potential features on the horizon, so I’m planning on riding this one out for a while. In the meantime, I’m researching selling wholesale and scouting out possible stockists. This is new territory for me, but I’ve always appreciated a learning opportunity and a challenge. I’m particularly interested in finding a home/kitchen/food-centric store or couple stores in the Portland area, so if anyone has any leads, I’d appreciate it if you could send suggestions or contact info my way.

Okay, after all this blathering, I just want to say thank you for supporting me with your dollars and your kind words over the years. I’m not trying to guilt you into anything, but if you’re so inclined, use the coupon code “WAYWARD10″ for $10 off any Red Onion Woodworks purchase over $50 between now and April 26. You are all so very appreciated.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole April 17, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Hi Camille,
I just wanted to let you know that I simply discovered your work through your blog, and I purchased one of your boards for my brother and sister in law for the holidays. So, you have definitely reached at least one customer via blog land!
Thanks for this candid post. I really enjoyed it. And I know exactly what you mean about needing to go back to work for sanity sake. I did the same thing when my (now big) kids were little. It can be very isolating, especially if you’re far out of town.
Anyway, your work is beautiful. My brother-in-law and his wife loved their board. And I just might have to get one for our family with your generous offer!
Thanks!

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Camille April 18, 2013 at 9:04 pm

Thanks, Nicole! I’m aware of a few blog readers who’ve become customers, and that’s awesome. It hasn’t exactly been a stampede from Wayward Spark over to my Etsy shop, but I do appreciate the folks who do choose to support me and get something nice for themselves (or friends/family). I’m hoping that as this blog grows, slowly but steadily, I can also attract more people to Red Onion Woodworks, hence the “ad” in the sidebar, which feels a little tacky, but hey, it’s my blog, right?

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Suzanne Serra April 18, 2013 at 8:17 am

Get in touch with Kitchen Klutter in Florence (down on Bay Street). 541.997. 6060 :) Not too far from you and a nice ride to the Coast. :)

Oh, we used to have a shower outside along the protected side of the house and we loved it.
I really enjoy your work on IG and have been following the blog since the ‘kids’ were born. Thanks for sharing, so much of your writing and photos bring back memories.
‘Darkreader’ :)

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Camille April 18, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Thanks for the suggestion! I need to go visit my Etsy friend, Abby, in Florence one of these days. Maybe this is the motivation I need.

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mae April 18, 2013 at 11:36 am

I feel you on so many of the things you brought up in this post, particularly the relevancy/ease of getting your original work found on Etsy, the change in the feeling of community there over the last year, the difficult choices surrounding how much effort/money/time put into your business vs. the potential growth/financial outcome. You’re not alone! The first few months of this year were also less than stellar for me and others. Etsy’s weather report said March sales were up only 9% from Feb, and that’s with 2 extra days. My shop also having trouble with the relevancy search issue on Etsy as well as the influx of unsurprisingly similar products (I post a painting and in under a month 4-5 nearly identical quotes & lettering to spring up from brand new “artists”, and get deeply discouraged when they pop up in Etsy searches way before mine.)

I so treasure all of your posts about life, work, nature, homesteading, etc. and I’m glad ROW isn’t the sole source of your financial or personal identity… although the Wayward Spark blog and ROW shop is such a killer brand combination! I loved being able to purchase a board and share your blog along with it… it was like a fabulous extra add on to the gift. I’m guessing I’m not alone in this since anyone giving/receiving a homemade rustic cutting board is likely the type to appreciate what you write about as well. Many handmade buyers are buying your product but also your story and personality, which those copiers don’t have going for them. Keep up the great work!

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Camille April 18, 2013 at 9:19 pm

It used to be that just having items listed on Etsy was marketing enough to sell things without even trying very hard, but now I feel like I have to bring in practically every single customer on my own. I think this might be similar to what it was like to try selling earrings, knitting, or zippered pouches on Etsy three years ago when the market was already saturated, and it was really hard to stand out from the crowd.

In my case, a few of the natural edge board sellers are obviously or probably copying me (I’ve found entire paragraphs of my text cut and paste into someone else’s shop on several occasions), but I also think I was on the leading edge of a trend that’s now here in full force.

I do so appreciate blog readers that turn to customers, and I hope they’re satisfied to be buying a little bit of my life and story along with the board. I’ve definitely made a few non-essential purchases from bloggers that I love who also sell stuff (most recently a Blockshop Textiles scarf from the brilliant Lily Stockman). I feel like “branding” is one of my weaknesses in business, but I think having this blog helps people connect to me in a really good way.

Thanks for sharing your own experiences, Mae. Sometimes I look around at a bunch of other Etsy shops and think everything is going along fine and dandy for everyone else when things aren’t so great for me. It’s nice to have some perspective on things.

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mae April 20, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Your blog list turned me on to Lily’s blog! I think I read two years worth on the way down to NYC last month. I love Blockshop’s scarves… lucky you :)

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Kathy April 18, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Camille,
Your cutting boards are amazing, they are art, they are simply beautiful, as all of nature is. Maybe I am weird, but I love looking at mine, seeing the details and marveling at the process of it coming to be…a work of art. Thanks for the insights on Etsy, good information. Your photography is excellent, too.
Have you considered going whole hog and submitting to kitchen specialty companies like Williams Sonoma, Crate and Barrel, or others? Or local venues ala the Inkwell? Just a thought… I agree with Mae, and keep on truckin’.

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Camille April 18, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Thanks, Kathy. I don’t think I really want to go whole hog because a) producing the kind of volume they’d want would probably kill me and b) they probably wouldn’t pay very well per board. I really should pitch my stuff to the Inkwell, but it doesn’t look like they carry many things made by local/independent folks.

I do think my history in business and many satisfied customers does count for a lot. I’m not closing up shop anytime soon. Don’t you worry.

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Eve Geisler April 19, 2013 at 4:43 am

Hi Camille,
I hear what you are saying about treasuries. I finally gave up. Nobody is looking unless you get to the FP and the likelihood for that is too remote to worry about. All of the changes over at etsy have been very frustrating. I have been trying to work up the magical tags that will get me seen in the browse section, but nothing seems to work. I am glad that I still show up in search. I have always wanted to be the featured seller, that in itself was quite an achievement for you and is how I found you originally. As an urban gardener, chicken keeper and former farmer, I am always interested in your posts.
It is always fascinating to see how people get started in a creative venture. It’s unfortunate that people have been copying your descriptions etc. I always wonder how they have the nerve to do things like that!!

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Michelle April 19, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Just thinking off the top of my head, check out:
Portland Homestead Supply in Sellwood, Portland.
Mirador Community Store on Hawthorne.
Rebuilding Center on Mississippi; I know they sell some reclaimed furniture.

If I think of some more I’ll let you know. But good luck and I wish you the best.

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Michelle April 19, 2013 at 7:37 pm

and Livingscape Nursery (also has kitchen items) on N Vancouver Ave

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Alicia April 19, 2013 at 9:42 pm

I hear you Camille, I find it really hard to get traffic through my Etsy shop. I’m in love with your boards, I’d buy one (or several) if I lived in the US. I recently started selling to two local shops, one on consignment and one wholesale. They both support local, environmentally friendly artisans. I find my clothes sell a lot quicker in their shops, than I sell through Etsy. It doesn’t make as much money, but at least it’s more regular money, and it gets my name out there. I also do the occasional market, but it’s a lot of effort, for an unknown outcome. Good luck with it all, love your work and your blog xx

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Malia April 20, 2013 at 5:34 pm

There’s always the ‘fairs’ that are around if you’re up for that. My sister has her own handcrafted business making ‘beach boxes’ and about 15 years ago sold them at the annual Corvallis Fall Festival. She made over $10,000 that weekend! She has slowed down her production in recent years, but has sold them thru various gift shops around the state, many at the coast. Also she contracted with ‘Made in Oregon’ and sold through them for many years. I also have a friend that makes pottery and has also sold her ‘sun faces’ through ‘Made in Oregon’.

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Sherry Reuter April 21, 2013 at 12:42 am

Hi Camille, I was just looking up how to make a tree swing and was remembering the swing my grandpa had made at his house when I was about four. It was a simple piece of wood with holes on either side for the ropes. It was my favorite swing out of any. As I looked tonight at pictures of possible tree swing ideas, I longed for that simple wood swing and thought, “That’s what Camille should turn her boards into!” With more natural playscapes and the ‘Last Child in the Woods/nature deficit disorder,’ you may be able to make tree swings with your boards. (How many of those are on etsy, I wonder!) Just brainstorming, Sherry Reuter

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Sherry Reuter April 21, 2013 at 12:48 am

Well, I looked up ‘swing’ on etsy and they’re already there. Ug. Oh, well, your boards are too beautiful to just sit on anyway!

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Jess April 22, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Camille, I love reading your epic posts like these. You are so refreshingly honest and candid about your work and your learning experiences, and it’s always great to hear from another creative that everything doesn’t always just fall into place and it can be a real learning curve sometimes. Thank you. Keep writing these “blathering” (NOT) posts!!!

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Michelle May 10, 2013 at 10:09 am

I’m not from Portland, so I can’t help with a physical space, but… Have you ever checked out buyolympia.com? I do some online shopping with them, and I think they also have a physical space in Olympia, WA. I don’t think I’ve ever seen cutting boards on their site, but it’s all local artists doing cool, unique stuff, so I feel like your boards would fit in nicely. Just a thought. Good luck!

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Michelle May 10, 2013 at 10:29 am

Ooh, one more! You could also look into sponsorship at http://www.soulemama.com. She has a HUGE readership, and glancing at her site, doesn’t have anything like your product currently. Seems like her blog would attract the kind of readers who would be interested in your product. Again – good luck!

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Camille May 14, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Interesting that you should mention SouleMama because I tried out sponsorship on her blog for the month of April, and it didn’t really amount to much.

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