Supporting a Family
With a Home Craft Business
How to Succeed by Really, Really Trying
Picture the following: You have a hobby making crafts. You build them in your home workshop. You sell them. You make enough money from this to support your family. You can buy that small farm in the country you’ve always wanted. You can ditch the commute and stroll across to your shop each day, smelling the fresh air and hearing the birdsongs. You see your kids as much as you want. You have time to take the dog for a walk after lunch.
Is this your fantasy? And can this fantasy become reality? Yes and no.
There are something like 115,000 craftspeople in the U.S. (numbers vary from 106,000 to 126,000), and 22% of them are entirely supported by their craft business. Yes, that fantasy can become a reality.
The benefits of supporting your family from a home craft business are enormous. No commute. Flexible hours. Creative freedom. No bosses. No office politics. More time with your kids. The list goes on and on.
How can you tell if your particular craft will support a family? Keep in mind that not all crafts are suitable for turning into a successful business. “Successful” for the purposes of this article means a business that is capable of generating the primary income for a family. I am going to set an arbitrary profit of $2000 a month as a definition of “successful,” knowing full well that most folks need a higher income than that to survive.
But these dreams of supporting a family from your hobby are frequently laced with a heavy dose of unrealistic expectations about the craft’s money-making potential.
We make hardwood drinking tankards. Y’know, like beer steins, made of wood. We’ve been making them for fourteen years in our home workshop, and this business entirely supports our family of four. We own a forty-acre farm in the country and a variety of livestock. We don’t commute, we see our kids all the time, and we can even take the dogs for a walk after lunch if we wish.
How do we do this? By practicing the tips outlined below.
Find a Niche
Remember that old expression that you must find a niche and fill it? Never is this truer than in the craft industry.
This will probably be the single most enormous hurdle to overcome. Can you find that empty niche and create a product to fill it?
The reason this is so hard to do is that people are often focused on making crafts that they themselves like, without considering either (a) what the competition is for that particular craft, or (b) how many others share that interest. Sometimes a person becomes so enamored of his or her own particular craft product that they either won’t do the necessary market research to determine if their product is saleable, or they ignore what their market research tells them.
Remember: in order to make a living from your crafts, you must provide what your customers want, not merely what you like making.
For example, if you make jewelry or wooden cut-out country crafts, the competition is enormous. Thousands and thousands of other crafters make these types of items. Your particular version must be unique enough to stand out with the competition.
Alternately, let’s say that you make beautiful lavender-velvet frammerjammits because you simply adore lavender-velvet frammerjammits. You decide to go into business. Then you are bitterly disappointed when only four or five other people purchase them because, let’s face it, LVFJ’s have a limited appeal. Your niche is too small to support a family.
The price you set for your crafts can also be a “niche.” You can fill the empty hole of framerjammits that are either cheaper or more expensive by supplying mid-priced frammerjammits.
The reason we started making tankards was because we loved going to Renaissance Faires, where people dress up and create a village as it might have been five hundred yeas ago (without the plague or vermin, of course). Whatever Faire we attended, we noticed that most people walked around with two items: a knife, and something to drink from.
We aren’t metalworkers, so making knives was out of the question. The only options for drinking vessels at the time seemed to be limited to extremely cheap imported metal mugs with glass bottoms, or high-end hand-crafted pewter goblets, neither of which is suitable for hot beverages. However my husband, a talented woodworker, started tinkering with designs for a wooden cup at a mid-price range. Friends started clamoring for them. We decided to take the plunge and go into business making them.
We had found our niche.
How Fast are You?
No matter how unique or how large your niche is, it won’t do you any good unless you can make your craft fast enough to meet demand.
If you can only make one lavender-velvet frammerjammit per week, you won’t be able to support your family with your craft. The LVFJ would have to sell for at least $500 before you could consider going into business making them. Is the item worth that price?
I knew a crafter who made stunning hand-woven shawls of exquisite, shimmering beauty. She longed to turn her craft into a business. The trouble was, each one took at least a week or more to make.
No matter how lovely her craft was, it would be hard to find customers willing to pay upwards of $500 apiece for her items. I suggested that she look into the very high-end specialty boutiques in large cities to market her shawls. It is possible that the boutiques would purchase her shawls for a “wholesale” price of $500 apiece, and then turn around and sell them to well-heeled customers for $1000.
Another woman I knew made beautiful hand-assembled beaded necklaces. She faced the same problem as the weaver: she couldn’t make them quickly enough to fill a niche. Her best turnout was approximately two necklaces a day, meaning she would have to sell them for at least $130 apiece to make her $2000/month minimum.
Unlike the weaver, however, the beader was unlikely to make her business a success. Few people would pay that much for a beaded necklace unless the item was truly unique.
The Henry Ford Technique
Can you make your craft assembly-line style? This is probably the most efficient method for making enough lavender-velvet frammerjammits to fill your niche.
People often ask us, “How long does it take to make one tankard?” My standard reply is, “One tankard takes about a week to make.” This usually brings gasps of surprise. Then I add, “But it also takes a week to make a hundred tankards.”
This is true. Given the drying time for the necessary components of our craft – glue, varnish, epoxy-resin coating, etc. – it takes about a week to make either a single tankard, or a hundred. Guess which is more efficient?
The secret is to be able to make your craft rapidly enough that you can sell them for a moderate price. If we made only one tankard a week, we would have to sell each tankard for $500 to make our $2000/month minimum. But, since we can make about 100/week, in theory we can sell them for as low as $5 apiece (which, of course, we don’t, because this doesn’t factor in what we pay ourselves or the cost of materials).
However, as you can imagine, having the ability to produce something assembly-line fashion greatly increases the chances that your craft business will succeed.
Wholesale vs. Retail
Where do you sell your products? Do you go to shows and sell them yourself? Do you place them in stores? Do you sell them online?
The issue of how to market your product will come down to determining if your craft business will be wholesale or retail.
A retail business means that you, yourself, are selling the item. You go to the craft shows. You open the store front. You start the webpage. You you you.
The trouble with this, of course, is that while you are selling your item, you are not making any new items. The time it takes to sell your product is time away from the production of new product.
There are some exceptions to this. Some crafters are lucky enough to have portable production techniques (hand-knitting sweaters comes to mind – you can knit while you are sitting in your store front or craft booth). However, for those of us who need machinery or a large workshop to produce our craft, any time spent selling the product is time spent away from making new product.
When we first got into the tankard business, we ran ourselves ragged. We lived in a place that was far away from any of the major craft shows that we needed to do in order to sell our tankards. This often meant that we were away from home four days a week – driving on Friday, selling on Saturday and Sunday, and driving home on Monday. We had food, gas, motel, and booth fees to pay. We only had three days a week to make new product. We were stressed, exhausted, overworked, frustrated and, frankly, scared.
Then some business friends gave us the best business advice we ever got: go wholesale.
These friends had built a successful oil-and-incense business, starting from a card table in their garage and mushrooming into a wildly successful enterprise. They explained that by selling wholesale, we don’t have the expenses associated with being on the road peddling our product. We get only half the money per item, but we sell more items at a time.
So instead of sitting at a craft show and selling one tankard at a time for $50 each, we sell twenty tankards at a time for $25 each to a vendor who then sits at a craft show and sells them for $50 each.
The vendor doesn’t have to worry about the time and expense associated with making the tankards. We don’t have to worry about the time and expense of being away from home. It’s a win-win situation.
Statistics have demonstrated that, while most crafters still prefer retail shows, more revenue is generated from wholesale markets. Wholesaling accounts for 27 percent of annual sales for crafters.
So if your craft product lends itself to assembly-line production, it behooves you to consider developing the wholesale side of your business. You stand a much higher chance of succeeding in a home-based business if you can…stay home.
Catering to Passions
Another secret to building a successful home craft business is to be able to cater to peoples’ passions. Remember this: people are fanatic about their hobbies.
Your next door neighbor might be CEO of the local bank – it’s what he does for a living – but by golly what really makes his eyes sparkle is talking about the 1911 Model T Ford that he’s restoring. He will spend thousands of dollars and endless hours of time tinkering on that Model T.
You – the crafter – have the potential to cash in on that kind of passion.
We cashed in with our tankards by noticing that people who attend Renaissance Faires will spend lots of money making sure their costumes and accouterments are authentic. Since our tankards are (mostly) historically accurate, they’re a natural fit for history buffs. Same goes for just about every living history re-enactment group out there – Civil War re-enactors, Medieval, Renaissance, etc. We also cater to Oktoberfests, beer festivals, Shakespeare groups, and other passionate people.
So how does this apply to your craft?
It applies in two ways. First, you must target your marketing appropriately. You won’t do well selling your hand-crafted lace-doilies and crocheted doll dresses at a motorcycle rally. Motorcycle people are not passionate about lace doilies. It’s not a marketing match.
Second, if you can modify your craft to cater to passions, then you gain a lot of flexibility to cross-target your market.
If you take your selection of hand-crafted candles to a candle show, for instance, then you’re surrounded by nothing but other candle-makers. However, if you take your specialty Elvis/ tractor/ airplane/ cat/ speedboat/ whatever candles to events that cater to people who love Elvis, tractors, airplanes, cats, speedboats, or whatever, people will buy them.
Hate Elvis or tractors or airplanes or cats or speedboats? It doesn’t matter. Remember, if you can’t tap into your own passions, tap into someone else’s. That’s how to succeed in a home craft business, by tapping into what people like to spend money on.
Why do you think that people who sell T-shirts do so well? They modify their product to cater to peoples' passions in whatever market they’re selling by silk screening appropriate slogans and pictures. If you can do the same with your product, your sales will increase.
Don’t Quit your Day Job - Yet
When building a craft hobby into a craft business, you need to recognize that it takes time to build your base and become successful. You don’t want to quit your day job and plunge into the uncertainty of a startup craft business until you have a solid foundation.
I speak from experience. In 1992 we moved to a different state. I went to graduate school and my husband (unable to find a job in his field) started our business. From the beginning it was virtually our sole source of income…except, of course, the income was almost nil.
For the next ten years, we struggled. To say our finances were shaky is a massive, enormous, colossal understatement. We scraped, literally scraped, for money. In the end, by learning the hard way what works and what doesn’t, we made our business into a success. But it would have been much easier if we’d had the cushion of a day job to keep us solvent while we built the foundation for our craft business.
Of course, until such time as you are rolling in dough from your home craft business, it behooves you to live frugally while you are building your business. It does no good to make $2000 in a month selling your products, only to blow $2000 on a large screen TV. Wait until you are making $10,000/month from selling your craft products before you buy that TV.
There are endless resources available on budgeting and thrift and other related matters, so I won’t cover them here. However, just keep in mind that those crafters who are considered “successful” in their business live within their means.
So before you take the plunge into a home craft business, ditch the debt. Take the time to pay off that credit card, pay down your student loans and vehicle loans, and otherwise watch your spending. A home craft business has a much better chance of being successful if you are not tottering under the load of debt from your more lavish days.
By looking at your product unemotionally and rationally, you will be able to recognize what crafts have the potential to be built into a successful business, and what should stay a hobby.
This is often difficult. We love our hobbies and our crafts, and that’s why we have dreams of turning it into a successful business. To suggest that not enough people are interested in buying our crafts is…well, insulting.
But – trust me on this – it will save you a lot of grief in the end if you can distinguish between what can support your family, and what should be just a weekend hobby of earning pocket change at local crafts shows.
- Approximately 22% of crafters report that craft income was their only source of household income.
- While retail shows are the most popular selling venue, more revenue is generated from wholesale markets.
- Wholesaling in the United States accounts for 27 percent of annual sales.
- The direct economic impact of craftspeople in the United States (not including craft shops and galleries) in 1999 is estimated to be between $8.1 billion and $9.6 billion.
- 64% of craftspeople are female.
- 41% are between the ages of 46 and 55. The median age is 49.
- 79% of craftspeople work in a studio located on or in their residential property.
- 78% are members of a craft organization.
- 64% work alone in a studio, 18% work with a partner or family member, and 16% work with paid employees.