10 Things I Learned During My First Year of Self-Employment

At approximately this time last year, I was finishing up a temp job working at Honeybaked Ham for Easter. After you establish a sort of baseline level of awfulness, considering that I was showing people sugar-glazed, non humanely-raised pig butts all day, it was a decent job. The people I worked with were great, it always smelled like croissants in the store, and most of the customers were excited about the holiday meal they were preparing. The pay was bad, but that was to be expected.

Since that job ended, and discounting a couple of short term jobs working with unschoolers, I’ve been self-employed making and selling pottery for a full year. That was my goal when I moved to Asheville- to make a living by being a potter. But I honestly didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Looking back over the past year, I realized that I’ve learned several things.

1. I will sacrifice a lot to have complete autonomy over my work

Being a potter in a solo studio is often lonely and always physically demanding. Especially when Blake is traveling, there have been more than a few days when my most intimate daily interaction was with the grocery store clerk who was ringing up the avocadoes and black beans I was picking up on my way home from the studio. On days when I throw big pieces, I often go home totally wiped out and spend the evening eating dinner in my pajamas while lying in bed. This isn’t a complaint- it’s just a trade-off, and one that I’ve realized is worth it to me.

2. I don’t like working with other people

I don’t like admitting this. In the era of Teamwork In The Workplace, you’re supposed to enjoy Collaborating With Others. But I don’t. I don’t enjoy joint leadership, I don’t enjoy group projects, I don’t enjoy deciding things by consensus. If I’m forced to work with others, I want someone to be the leader and tell me what to do, or let me be the leader and tell them what to do. I’m sure Blake would say that there’s some aspect of my Myer’s Brigg’s Type that explains this tendency, but I just tend to think of myself as being a little anti-social. Luckily, by running a sole proprietorship I don’t have to work with other people. Unless someone tries to commission me to make something for them, but usually when that happens I tell people I’m too busy, even if I’m not.

3. It’s important to distinguish yourself in a saturated marketplace

As someone told me when I first moved to Asheville: “you can’t throw a stick in this town without hitting a potter.” Sometimes it seems like half the population of Asheville makes pottery for a living, and when I moved here my work looked a lot like everyone else’s. There’s a particular style that’s very popular here: traditional appalachian pottery. As soon as I realized this, I knew I needed to do something different. I was really interested in crystalline glazing, and when I found a crystalline glazing apprenticeship I knew right away that I wanted to transition to only making crystalline pottery. I quickly went from having my work look like that of several hundred other local potters to being one of only two or three crystalline potters in town. As soon as I made the leap, my sales increased dramatically.

4. I love selling

Don’t get me wrong, I hate hard selling, the kind you find in a used car parking lot. But I love the thrill of the sale: of pricing my work, and taking it to shows, and chatting with people about the process, and sitting in the same chair for ten hours and taking two bathroom breaks and a quick moment to eat some falafel from a food booth while someone watches my stuff. I didn’t anticipate enjoying that, but I do.

5. Not having a paycheck is scary and motivating

There’s something in me that really likes stability, and that’s something you don’t get when you’re making and selling craft. In a given month, I never know how much money I will make (though I can often make reliable predictions based on current inventory and past experience.) Sometimes that’s stressful, but it also makes me work harder than I probably would if I had a guaranteed paycheck.

6. I got lucky

I stumbled upon crystalline glazing, and upon a particular palette of colors that happened to be popular. I solved some of the biggest problems that most people have with crystalline glazing (such as chipping and base breakage) by lucky accident. And I started making canister sets (my biggest seller during months when I’m not doing shows) because someone asked me for one. Many people will tell you that it’s almost impossible to make a living selling things you make. I’m not one of those people, but I also realize I got several lucky breaks along the way that made this easier than it otherwise would have been.

7. It’s good to be aware of trends

Emerald is really “in” right now, did you know that? By keeping track of what’s happening at fashion week, what’s trending on etsy, and what everyone’s talking about on Pinterest, you can tweak your work in small ways so that it remains in vogue during different seasons. For example, I have a lovely brown glaze that I’m not really using right now, but I’ll probably beef up my production of that color in the fall because it will be more seasonally appropriate.

I’m not saying that you should jump ship on your fused glass work to start making Chevron bead necklaces, but if you’re aware that bold geometry is really popular, you can incorporate that into your current work- or even just change the way you “tag” it on etsy.

8. This is a seasonal business

Summer shows are profitable. Pre-Christmas sales can be insane. And January through March is a tough season to weather, because everyone’s cut up the credit cards that they maxed out over the Christmas holiday and buyers are trying to be conservative. Putting money aside like a mad squirrel in the fall and winter will see you through.

9. Being self employed is awesome

Yes, sometimes I have to go in on weekends to unload a kiln or trim some pieces that are getting too dry, but I can also take off on a hike in the middle of the afternoon with no planning or forethought, just because it’s a beautiful day and I feel like it. I set my own hours, I answer to no one, and I’m rewarded for good work or good ideas or increased speed by increased profits, which is a carrot I don’t mind chasing.

10. The work changes while you’re working

I can sit down with a sketchbook and big plans to come up with a new teapot design, but that’s almost never how I end up with new work. Instead, I make a form over and over again until something shifts, or I see something in a new way. Then something new happens, and most of the time I hate it and the piece gets used as a glaze test. But every so often something shifts and it’s like the same piece but it’s evolved into version 2.0, and then I keep that form for a while, until something shifts again.

Every so often I begin with a radically new idea. This week I’m making wall clocks that I hope to crystalline glaze. But it will be through making a bunch of wall clocks that they’ll change and become better- not through sitting and thinking hard about the perfect wall clock.

That’s what I learned this year. I hope you found it useful. As for me, I’m ready to take these lessons and start in on year two of self-employment.


Categories: Uncategorized | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “10 Things I Learned During My First Year of Self-Employment

  1. This is fabulous, Brenna! I have a few people to whom I am going to forward it who always grill me on “but how will your kids ever make a living if they don’t work for a big corporation?” (They don’t say “a big corporation” in so many words, but that’s what they mean.) Here’s to an even more successful year two!

  2. Phil Biegler

    I think it’s really important for people to determine ‘how’ they like to work (as you say, you like to work alone). I find a lot of folks who don’t fit into their jobs, not because they don’t have the skills, but because they are in the wrong type of job/company/industry. Me – I learned about 20 years later than I should have that I prefer small companies, not large companies.

    I also am impressed by your vision to ‘distinguish yourself’ – often times it’s easier to do something a little differently than to try to be better than everyone else at what they do. It’s not selling out – it’s being realistic and considering multiple ways to do well.

    Congratulations on your success!!

  3. I love your post; however, I wonder if you aren’t giving yourself enough credit with number six. Luck is a funny thing. Louis Pasteur is credited with saying, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” And Ben Franklin wrote, “Diligence is the mother of good luck.” Perhaps you aren’t lucky at all, but just hard working, observant, and smart. I like to leave the word “luck” for the people who aren’t so smart, hard working, and observant to use when explaining why others are successful. ; ) Best wishes for your continued success in business.

  4. Pingback: 10 Things I Learned During My First Year of Self-Employment | Clarifications

  5. Hugs to you and congrats on your first year!! I totally remember all of the feelings you’re having – and to this day – I still feel similarly about things like working for myself and having a lot of control over my work. It’s so interesting that I found this after writing my retrospective on what I’ve learned in 9 years of doing business as a freelance photographer (which is also a seasonal business.) If you’re interested, take a peek to see how you might feel after you’ve been self-employed for almost a decade: http://anneruthmann.blogspot.com/2013/03/10-ways-i-saved-my-business-my-life.html

  6. sue patterson

    I’m so glad to share your story with other unschoolers through the Unschooling Blog Carnival. Great to hear how the first year went! I really want some of those gorgeous pieces of pottery! Take care!

    Unschooling Blog Carnival

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