Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Done with school...Now what?

This is another blog post which can be considered part personal journal entry, part Deranged Designs update. I’ll warn you now that it will probably end up being pretty long!

This is where I am right now: I have finally completed the fashion design program at my community college. I am graduating with AA degrees in fashion design and fashion merchandising. I like to joke around and say that I now have two completely useless fashion degrees, but it isn't meant as an insult to my school or to fashion degrees in general. I have learned a lot in the past four years and I have also had a lot of fun. I just know that if I were to apply for a job in the fashion industry, these degrees won't take me very far or differentiate me much from all the other fashion students.

So the question is: what’s next? Most people expect that the answer to this question is to transfer to another school and work on another degree, but I kind of gave up on that idea a while ago. I want to see if I can do anything with Deranged Designs. I have been working part time at this little business since 2005, and I am itching to work at it full-time and see how far I can go with it. I have gone through six years of trial and error and I have learned a lot about the basics of running a business. I figure that I can give myself a year or two to see what I can do with it, and if I don’t make any decent progress then I will probably end up going back to school. As much as I have enjoyed college, I don’t want to go back and start over, and I think that now is the time to take a risk and see if I can make a career out of my business.

Before I elaborate on any of my ideas for the future of Deranged Designs, I need to make a few things clear. I do not support myself solely with my business and I never have. I have been going to school for the past four years and working less than 20 hours a week on my website and my handmade clothes. My parents have helped support me through school and I have been able to make enough off my website to move out of their house and pay a lot of my own bills. Basically, Deranged Designs has been my lucky alternative to getting a part-time minimum wage job. I am explaining this because I am getting increasingly annoyed at the myths that websites like Etsy spread around to crafters and people who sew and sell clothing. It is nearly impossible to make a living from selling one-of-a-kind clothing. I could get into a long rant about this topic but it wasn’t what I wanted to focus on for this blog post, so I’ll keep it short.

This article about Etsy from Inc. Magazine describes my situation pretty well. I haven’t bothered using Etsy for a while, but I am dealing with the same issues as any successful Etsy seller. This quote about Etsy sums up the problem:

It seems fair to assume, using statistics the company has released, that there are fewer than 1,000 sellers who make $30,000 a year or more, and a mere handful who make more than $100,000. As one of the site's top sellers wrote in a blog post in 2009: "Your odds of making $10,000 per year [on Etsy] are better than winning $10,000 through the Powerball, though not by a ton." The only Etsy millionaires, it turns out, are Etsy shareholders.

Etsy requires that all new products listed on the site be made by the people selling them—the use of mass production, that wonderful innovation of modern capitalism, is verboten. "Etsy has made it possible for a lot of small businesses to get off the ground," says Dale Dougherty, co-founder of O'Reilly Media and the publisher of Make magazine, which covers the do-it-yourself economy. "But even the most successful crafters run up against the limits of their own labor. Handmade can be a limited idea."

In other words, the very qualities that make Etsy so attractive to new sellers put the most successful Etsy sellers in an awkward position: They must stay small or abandon Etsy. For Kalin and his investors, the questions are even tougher: Can a site dedicated to DIY scale? Or is Etsy, despite Kalin's ambition and grandiosity, just a small idea?

Since I sell through and through an eBay store, I don’t have to follow Etsy’s “handmade only” rule. My income comes from a mix of made-to-order animal print hoodies and a small assortment of items from other manufacturers. My one-of-a-kind handmade items bring in a fraction of the sales of my other types of products. If I want to grow Deranged Designs, it looks like I need to focus on what sells well, which means drawing a firm line between the parts of it that are my hobby and the parts that are my job.

My JOB is the business part of Deranged Designs: making the same hoodie over and over again after people order their custom size and print. Trying to design things that can sell for a reasonable price. Updating my website, keeping records, looking for other clothing lines to sell to complement my own. Paying taxes. You get it. My HOBBY is the fun part of Deranged Designs: making one-of-a-kind clothes and not worrying about how long it takes me to sew something up or whether somebody will buy it. Doing photoshoots and taking silly pictures with my friend Laura. Spending too much money at thrift stores so I can alter and deconstruct clothes.

Honestly, even the job parts of this business are fun for me. I enjoy almost every part of what I do. Sewing the same leopard print hoodie for the 800th time can even be fun. But I need to separate the job part from the hobby part so that I can manage money better and not worry about whether my favorite designs are selling or not. With my job, I can do what I need to do to pay the bills and keep customers happy. With my hobby, I can have fun sewing whatever I want without worrying about making a profit.

So the real question is: can I turn my Deranged Designs job into a career? I’ve been going over my options for what to do to get more website sales. If I ignore the one-of-a-kind clothes, there are basically two types of things that I sell a lot of: clothes made by other brands and my handmade to order clothes (mostly animal print hoodies, as I mentioned before). I don’t want my store to focus only on selling other clothing lines, because there are already so many other online retail stores that are able to sell the same brands that I sell. Buying clothes wholesale and reselling them online is ridiculously easy (I started doing it at 16 years old!) and I’m not good enough at advertising or marketing to pretend that my store is better or drastically different than all the others. I also can’t compete on price because my business is so small. So the only unique thing going for me right now is the handmade-to-order clothing.

I can expand my own clothing line by getting it produced in a sewing factory, but that would probably require a big initial investment and I would end up storing a lot of inventory that may or may not sell. I get a lot of emails from overseas sewing contractors that offer to manufacture clothing for me at very low minimums, but I’m not sure if I would want to work with a factory on the other side of the world. I’m really attracted to the alternative idea of buying more industrial sewing machines and setting up my own sewing shop, but I still have a million things to learn about industrial sewing. Also, producing AND selling my own clothing is not a job that only I can do by myself, unless I want to work 90 hour weeks. The only experience I have working in a sewing factory is when I interned for the wedding gown shop for three months, and going to fashion school didn’t teach me anything about manufacturing. I have enough money saved up to buy a lot more industrial equipment, but if I were to buy just the basics of what I need I would also have to rent out a separate space to work out of. I can’t run a sewing factory out of a punk house!

So that is just a sample of the things that have been running through my head ever since I decided to finally finish school. I haven’t made any absolute decisions about what to do. I will probably spend the rest of this year doing the same thing as I have been doing, while at the same time testing out new ideas. I will probably write up a business plan just to get my head organized. The idea of finally stepping forward and trying to turn this into a career is a little terrifying. I know I still have a lot to learn and I hope that I can keep learning as I work, without making any fatal mistakes. I want to make small, gradual changes to my business instead of jumping out and spending all my savings or trying to get a loan. I don’t know how much longer my parents are willing to help me out while I try to get this thing going, so I am filled with anxiety and doubt. At the same time I am optimistic and determined enough to feel that I have the potential to be successful, but I can’t predict the future. All I can really hope for is to not let success or failure get to my head. Basically, I don’t want this business to drive me even crazier than I already am!

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