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Santa, The Christmas Spirit, and Business? December 23, 2014

Filed under: Business,Family,Thoughts — Meghan Hamilton @ 5:03 pm
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We celebrate several holidays this time of year.  As a Christian, Christmas is very important to me as it’s the day we celebrate Jesus’s birth.  (Yes, historians, I know it isn’t the actual day, but that isn’t very important to me.)  My husband has all but formally converted to Judaism, so I also celebrate Hanukkah.  I have Pagan friends and wish them a blessed Yule.  “Happy Holidays!” is a very appropriate greeting around here, gladly received and warmly given.  No one is trying to take away anyone’s right to say “Merry Christmas!”  Wish me what you will and I will accept and return the warm wishes.

As for Santa, we invite him over every Christmas Eve.  To us, he represents that spirit of giving that seems to go around this time of year.  I’ve heard several reasons for parents to not invite the jolly guy to their house.  Some of them I understand. He’s tied to Christmas and you don’t celebrate Christmas for religious reasons (You aren’t Christian.  You are Christian, but wish to focus exclusively on Jesus rather than Santa.  Etc…).  Perhaps you feel that lying to your child about a magical man that can fit through chimneys and unlock doors while everyone sleeps is hypocritical as you try to teach your child not to lie.  Maybe you just don’t want your kids to be very disappointed when they inevitably find out he isn’t real.  These sorts of reasons make complete sense to me.  These are the reasons that I have some reservations about keeping the Santa Myth alive here.

romeo-and-juliet-salzburgThere is one reason to deny Santa that I will never understand.  There are some parents who want to make sure their children know that they are the ones who worked hard to make the money and spend the time acquiring those gifts.  They don’t want there to be any mistake about the origin of those presents.  To me, this is the exact opposite of giving a gift.  This is providing yourself with a stage for people to glorify you and give you attention.  When I give a gift, it’s because I want someone to have that item.  It isn’t because I need thanks or the adulation.  When I receive a gift, I am grateful and express my thanks.  But I hope that people are giving because they want to give, not because they need to receive some sort of glorification.  I’d rather give anonymously and simply let the recipient enjoy the gift without the pressure to thank me or feel like they need to reciprocate.  For me, Santa is an avenue for an anonymous gift.  Alex can simply sit back and enjoy those presents.  Then, when he gets older, perhaps he’ll have a taste for wanting to give for the sake of giving.  Isn’t that part of the original Saint Nicholas story?  Selflessly taking care of people and sharing what you have?

Selflessly sharing.  People have shared so much with me over the years with absolutely no expectation of anything in return.  I can’t thank them enough.  We have gotten through some difficult times with the help of family and friends reaching out in love.

imagesWhat does this have to do with business?  I am very turned off by typical corporate operating procedure.  While I understand that the point of a business is to be profitable, thus you must take in more money than you spend, there is so much greed.  Many gifts to charity are less about giving because it’s the right thing to do and more about saying, “Look at me!”  Additionally, many “successful” businesses look upon employees as expendable tools rather than people.  Some seem to look at customers this way as well.  “Oh, you want information or help?  Pay up!”  I want to do this differently.

One of the people that caught my eye a number of years ago is Marla Cilley of FlyLady.  I originally went to her site because I am not a natural born housekeeper.  I’m still not, but that’s for another blog.  What I like about her business model is that all of the information is free.  Perhaps it’s because she didn’t start out with the intention of starting a business, but information and access to the website is free and open.  You don’t need any sort of account to look at any article.  She supports herself and a growing staff by selling organizational books, cleaning tools like sweepers, and various other things they simply enjoy using.  It isn’t about getting attention.  It’s about her compulsion to share what works for her and if people want to try it, she makes it available.  That’s what keeps me going back to her site.  That’s what keeps me buying things from her site.  From what I can tell, her staff is more than cogs in a machine to be replaced whenever they break.  They are people to be cared for.  This is what I want.

How does that apply to a completely different business?  I’ll gladly share my knowledge.  If I learn how to make something from an online tutorial, I’ll share it.  If I find a supplier that I love, I won’t keep it a secret.  Would I like you to buy my products?  Of course.  Some of you do.  I hope more of you will in the future.  I hope to have a staff one day.  But I refuse to force people to pay for information.  I refuse to treat potential employees like machinery to throw away when I’m finished with them.  As my business expands, I want my advertising to stay in step with current markets and how things work.  I recently watched this video on YouTube.  It struck a chord in me.  Matthew Santoro has over 3 million subscribers on his main channel and over 300,000 on his vlog channel.  That’s a lot of people watching him.  I watch grav3yardgirl review products for her millions of subscribers.  She doesn’t get paid by those companies.  There are countless others.  They don’t want sponsors telling them how to talk about products to their audiences.

But what does that have to do with Santa and giving?  The products that these, and other YouTubers, are most likely to review were simply sent to them by the companies or were purchased by them independently.  There was no expectation of a review.  There was a package sent and if it made it onto their channel, it did.  Even sponsored reviews where there is an agreement to talk about the product are risky.  The reviewer may find it’s a faulty product and give it a negative review.  In this video, only a few of the products sent were even mentioned.  Makes you wonder what else was in the package that maybe wasn’t so awesome.

Word-of-mouthAnd again, how does this apply to selling soap and crocheted items?  Word of mouth still seems to be the best way of gaining new customers.  I have given things away to people because I think they will like them.  Some of it has gone as extras to paying customers.  Some of it has gone as samples because I wanted the person to have it.  Some items have been steeply discounted because it seemed like the right thing to do.  I don’t want to be stingy.  I don’t want someone to be forced into my script when they speak about products to their customers.  If you love my soap, tell your friends, customers, family, etc… in your words.  If you love a scarf I made, wear it, give it away, tell people.  This blog isn’t my stage, it’s my vehicle for connecting with people and sharing my knowledge and my opinions.  I don’t expect anyone to whom I give a product to reciprocate.  I give for the sake of giving.  Whilst I have no proof, I believe that this attitude is what has gotten me some very generous gifts over the years when I least expected them.

Happy Holidays!  May you freely give and receive love.

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Marketing Myself – A Pep Talk November 10, 2014

Filed under: Business — Meghan Hamilton @ 4:24 pm
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She’s cheering me on when I get discouraged.

I know my products are very good.  I know people will like them if they try them.  I don’t want to have to go around telling people to try them.  But how else will they know how wonderful my products are in a culture glutted with advertising for other people’s products?  One of the most difficult aspects of running a business of my own is my insecurity combined with introversion. I don’t want to actually talk to people in person to sell my products.  It’s draining for me.  But I don’t have the money to hire a salesperson and I know from past retail experience that I am good at it when I do put the energy into it.

Over the weekend, I was invited to participate in an open house hosted by another crafter.  I did pretty well with sales considering I don’t yet have regular customers of my own.  That did a lot to settle my insecurities.  I know in my head that I need to get on the craft fair circuit to get my name out there.  I just dread the way those events drain me of all my energy, leaving me a cranky mess for my family to have to deal with later.  Even as I write this, my brain is spitting out more reasons not to do craft fairs.  But how will people find my website if they don’t meet me first?  Try searching for “handmade soap” online.  I got 562,000 results.  If I want to stay at home as my ultimate goal, I’ll have to spend time out in the world.  (Yes, this blog is about giving myself a pep-talk to do what I have to do.)

As part of marketing, I’m struggling with packaging round soap.  People respond to being able to see and feel and smell it without any wrapping in the way.  But it needs some kind of label.  Squares and rectangles are easy to wrap a band around without it falling off yet leaving the ends open.  Round soaps slip out way too easily.  Yet in terms of actually using the soap, the round discs are so much nicer.  They fit in your hand nicely.  They don’t break into pieces when you get to the end of the bar the way rectangles do.  So, my options seem to be, compromise on shape, compromise on packaging, or find a brilliant new package.  Truth be told, I detest the packaging process.  Once I get it settled, I’m sure I won’t mind so much, but right now it’s a major pain.

One of the things that’s different about my soap is the scents are very light.  To me, this is a wonderful thing.  And other people like that idea in theory, but when they smell mine next to another maker’s who uses heavy scents like patchouli, they go with the heavier scent.  So, do I keep trying to find a market for the light scents or do I keep the soaps for myself to give away as gifts and abandon the idea of selling it altogether?  I don’t mind working hard and trying to find the right way to do this, but I only have so much time, energy, and money so I need to discern between ideas that will work and ideas that need to be laid to rest.  For now, I’ll keep at the soap.

Realistically, I’m seeing that this crafting business is a more a labor of love than a labor for profit.  However, I am still determined to make money at this.  Feeling my way through this is incredibly challenging.  I’m up for the challenge.

Watch my marketing evolve here: Meg In Stitches

Or here: Facebook

Give me a like or a favorite on those sites to let me know you like what you see.  Maybe even order something.  And if you’d like to speak to me in person before buying, I’ll arrange for that.

 

What Soap Making Process Do I Choose? October 26, 2014

Filed under: Business,Soap — Meghan Hamilton @ 4:08 pm
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When I started this soap making journey, I had some decisions to make.  I knew I wanted an all natural product free of synthetic fragrances and petroleum products.  Those are my own body’s enemies.  The petroleum products make me itch and can even cause me rashes.  The synthetic fragrances make me dizzy and can trigger migraines.  I suspect they also are the trigger in my son’s stuffiness when I use synthetically fragranced laundry detergents.

So that narrowed it down to:

  • Melt and Pour – the soap is already made, you just melt it in a double boiler and add your own fragrances, then pour it into whatever shaped mold you want.
  • Cold Process – you make the soap from scratch with minimal heating of product and let it sit for six weeks until ready to use
  • Hot Process – you make the soap from scratch using low heat to speed up the reaction between the lye and your oils/fats

Melt and Pour finished product

Melt and Pour Pros:

  • You already have usable soap without having to do anything.  There are several wonderful products on the market that list their ingredients, so that if you are like me and have allergies and sensitivities, you can avoid the things that hurt you.
  • You don’t have to worry about proper storage and use of lye. (Note: lye or sodium hydroxide is a naturally occurring substance that we used to extract from ashes.)  It is caustic and makes some awful fumes.  If, like me, you have a small child underfoot, this is a very big pro.  The last thing you want is for your family to be burned or breathe this stuff in.  Storing lye out of reach of little hands and then measuring it accurately when making soap is a very big deal.  I nearly went with melt and pour because of this, but realized that given the personality of my son and our schedule, it probably wasn’t going to be a big issue.
  • It is the fastest and easiest way to make fancy looking soap. You can make fancy soaps with the other processes, but you first have to make the soap.
  • Minimal equipment – all you need is a double boiler, the scents and the colors you want, and molds to shape your product.

Melt and Pour Cons:

  • You don’t have control over raw ingredients.
  • Can be just as expensive as buying soap at retail stores, especially if your primary objective is all natural ingredients.

Cold Process Soap

Cold Process Pros:

  • Control over raw ingredients.  If you have a sensitivity, you don’t need to use it.  If you have an ethical problem with an ingredient, you don’t have to use it.  (Many palm products are a source of controversy from farming methods to farmer salaries.  Some people want to use 100% organic and/or free trade products.)  You can experiment to see which recipes work best for your skin.
  • Less process time than hot process.  Once you’ve mixed your ingredients, pour them into the molds.  Next day, remove and cut the bars as necessary, then leave them to cure for six weeks.
  • You can make up large batches of plain soap to use as melt and pour later if you wish to add different shapes into the centers of your product.
  • It’s easy to use detailed molds and swirl colors together to make a marbleized effect.
  • You know that the glycerin hasn’t been removed, leaving your soap to be much gentler and more moisturizing.
  • If you have particularly dry skin, you can formulate your recipe to leave a bit more oil unused in saponification so that you have an extra moisturizing bar.

Cold Process Cons:

  • More equipment: all of the oils, lye, colors, scents; a thermometer to make sure your lye water and your oils are both at the proper temperature; accurate scale for weighing ingredients; stick blender (unless you enjoy stirring for hours at a time); pots, bowls, spoons, etc… that won’t react to lye; protective clothing/gear to prevent burns should the lye spill or splash on you; molds for shaping product; and probably a few more things that I’m forgetting.
  • More learning time so that the soap comes out correctly.  You wouldn’t want to give yourself or anyone else a chemical burn.  On the other end of that spectrum is you want to use the appropriate amount of oil to avoid a greasy mess.
  • Long curing time: You have to wait six weeks to use your soap.
  • Proper storage and use of lye:  It needs to be kept sealed so it doesn’t react with moisture in the air when in storage.  You don’t want children getting into it, so it needs to be out of reach and childproofed if that’s a concern in your work space.  When you use it, you must have adequate ventilation and consider wearing a mask to avoid breathing in the fumes.  It can be very nasty stuff.  You should always have vinegar on hand to wash any spills off of yourself as it will neutralize the lye.  Also, plastic gloves are a good idea to protect your hands.  If you’re clumsy, have kids, or need to work in an enclosed space with little ventilation, this is not the stuff for you.

My Own Hot Process Soaps

Hot Process Pros: Almost identical to Cold Process

  • Control over raw ingredients.  If you have a sensitivity, you don’t need to use it.  If you have an ethical problem with an ingredient, you don’t have to use it.  (Many palm products are a source of controversy from farming methods to farmer salaries.  Some people want to use 100% organic and/or free trade products.)  You can experiment to see which recipes work best for your skin.
  • No curing time. You can use it immediately. I use mine the next day. Leaving it to air out makes it even harder and nicer, but there aren’t any safety concerns if you’ve cooked it up correctly.
  • You can make up large batches of plain soap to use as melt and pour later if you wish to add different shapes into the centers of your product.
  • You know that the glycerin hasn’t been removed, leaving your soap to be much gentler and more moisturizing.
  • If you have particularly dry skin, you can formulate your recipe to leave a bit more oil unused in saponification so that you have an extra moisturizing bar.

Hot Process Cons: Almost identical to Cold Process

  • More equipment: all of the oils, lye, colors, scents; accurate scale for weighing ingredients; stick blender (unless you enjoy stirring for hours at a time); pots, bowls, spoons, etc… that won’t react to lye; protective clothing/gear to prevent burns should the lye spill or splash on you; molds for shaping product; and probably a few more things that I’m forgetting.
  • More learning time so that the soap comes out correctly (even more than cold process).  You wouldn’t want to give yourself or anyone else a chemical burn.  On the other end of that spectrum is you want to use the appropriate amount of oil to avoid a greasy mess.
  • Longer process/mixing time.  Once you’ve mixed the batch, you need to heat it to speed the reaction between the lye and the oil.  This means checking it and mixing it every 15 minutes or so.  Some people do it in their slow cookers or on the stove top and constantly stir to keep it from bubbling over the sides of the pot.  I use a tall pot and take my chances in the oven.  This can take anywhere from one to two hours.
  • More difficult (though not impossible) to get multi-colored swirls and to use finely detailed molds.  The hot product out of the pot is rather like a stiff cookie dough or bread dough, but it’s very very hot, so pressing it into molds can prove problematic.  If you like “pretty” soap, go with one of the other methods.  If you just want a plain bar, this works great.
  • You must be more careful with essential oils used to scent the soap.  Your soap out of the pot will likely be too hot for the oil and can burn off the scent. But if you wait too long to add it, your soap will begin to harden and even mixing becomes difficult.
  • Proper storage and use of lye:  It needs to be kept sealed so it doesn’t react with moisture in the air when in storage.  You don’t want children getting into it, so it needs to be out of reach and childproofed if that’s a concern in your work space.  When you use it, you must have adequate ventilation and consider wearing a mask to avoid breathing in the fumes.  It can be very nasty stuff.  You should always have vinegar on hand to wash any spills off of yourself as it will neutralize the lye.  Also, plastic gloves are a good idea to protect your hands.  If you’re clumsy, have kids, or need to work in an enclosed space with little ventilation, this is not the stuff for you.

My choice: Hot Process

I chose hot process because I didn’t have any place to set bars of soap to cure in a well ventilated area for six weeks.  Most of the advice I read advised against starting with hot process if you’re new to soap making, but I went for it.  I’ve had good luck, but then again I did a lot of research and was willing to lose a few batches in the learning process.  I also wasn’t interested in the decorative potential for soap (though there are some people who manage it with hot-process).  Mine was and remains to be a purely functional interest.  That is my personality.  I like plain and simple.  I also like the near instant gratification while remaining in control of my ingredients that hot process gives.  If you get gratification from making beautiful looking things, go with either melt and pour or cold-process.  The loss of ingredient control, or the wait time on curing will be worth your while.

If all of this sounds fascinating, but you’d rather just buy some soap, you can find me on Etsy and just order some.

 

Adventures in Starting a Home Business October 25, 2014

Filed under: Business,Personal Growth — Meghan Hamilton @ 3:46 pm
Tags: , ,

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When Alex was a baby and I stopped working outside the home, I needed something to keep my hands busy.  So I took up a crochet hook and relearned what to do with it.  When he was about four years old, he had decided baths were something Satan invented and the only redeeming value was being able to play with bars of soap.  With extremely sensitive skin all around, this amounted to me having to choose between watching $5.00 or more go down the drain every time I bathed him, or listening to him scream.  We didn’t have that kind of money.  I didn’t have enough strength to listen to the screaming.  Maybe bathing was invented by the devil?

Along comes a Facebook page post about frugal living and saving money.  The admin posted a link to how to make your own soap from scratch.  I had one of those light bulb moments where I’m sure there was an actual bulb above my head.  I could handle making soap!

Challenge #1 was finding a source of lye.  It used to be readily available in grocery and hardware stores.  Not anymore.  I found a source online.  Hooray!

Challenge #2 was finding a method that didn’t involve me letting the soap cure in a well ventilated place for six weeks.  I don’t have that kind of space in my apartment.  Hot process soap would work.  I’d only need to take up space for a day or two.

Then people started showing an interest in the soap and oohing and ahhing over the crocheted things.  Could I sell this?  Hmm.  I started an Etsy shop and held my breath.  I haven’t had a lot of sales there, but I’ve had people buy stuff from me outside of that.  I may close the Etsy shop.  If I keep it open, I’ll have to give it an overhaul and do some serious editing.  I’ve repackaged my soap to what you see below.  It’s been tough not having an Internet connection to our house and trying to have an online business.  Now that we’re back online, I think I may give it another go.

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I have had some wholesale soap orders from another crafter.  That seems like the way I’d rather go.  It’s less money in my pocket, but less dealing with direct sales.  The older I get, the less I like the general public.  There are plenty of individuals who are wonderfully gracious, but those few jerks out there grate on my nerves more and more.

I’m trying to stay focused and let the business grow little by little.  I’ve seen people try to do too much all at once and crash and burn.  I want to keep a job where I can work from home.  So, I keep reminding myself that I need to do what I do and do it well.  As I get more orders and more money to put into more equipment and supplies, I’ll expand. And as I sit here with a check in hand, I’m trying to decide whether to upgrade supplies, or join a few craft shows.  I’ll let you know.

UPDATE:  I made several changes to the Etsy site.  I’ll continue to add better photos and see what I can make of it.  Someone go buy something and support my writing habit?