4 Reminders for Days When Running a Handmade Business Seems Pointless

In December, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, working on my laptop, and Etan springs in the doorway with a cardboard box, crusted with packing tape. He hands it to me, and I immediately notice the return address: Gopi Shah Ceramics. When I see this, I’m thrilled -- I’ve wanted a Gopi Shah mug for years but haven’t gotten one, partly because of the tyranny of a small business owner’s budget and partly because we didn’t have a steady home base.

I rip open the package and both Etan and I read the card Gopi included. In it, she thanks us for inspiring her to grow her wholesale business and giving her the confidence to do it. And she tells us to enjoy our TWO! CUSTOM! Mugs.

Etan raises his eyebrows -- he only ordered one mug. Nestled in the newspaper are, indeed, two mugs with a sweet “E+E” stamped under the handles. They’re gorgeous. And bigger than we expected. And feel just right in your hand. I immediately start crying. They’re just mugs, of course. But the combination of Etan’s thoughtful gift and Gopi’s creative, lavish generosity and the loveliness of the mugs themselves -- plus the affirmation of the value of what we do in our business -- it just all meant so much. And, in the months following, every time we use our mugs we feel that same gratitude, groundedness, and joy, just in using them.

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Opening that box of mugs was a moment when I really felt the value of what we do in this handmade world. It showed me so viscerally that these products can be deeply meaningful, in themselves, and in how they connect and bring meaning to people.

But the truth is, there are times when I don’t feel that way.

I get discouraged and tired, sometimes. I ask myself: does all this churning out, and selling of, and taking Instagram photos of products add up to anything? There are refugees making journeys on wooden boats and there are people suffering and we are thinking about colorways for knit cowls or what to put on yet another greeting card?

I know there are times that many of you feel similarly. I know there is a vibrant heart to your work, but that it can be hard to keep the faith. It can be hard to stay grounded in the value of what you do.

So today I wanted to share a few reminders, for the days when it all seems pointless.




Reminder 1: The work matters, for itself.


The work -- whether you are a maker, an artist, or a creative business person like me -- matters because it gives us a place to stretch our wings, raise our voice, and learn about ourselves. It gives us a way to grow.


As Parker Palmer says, “Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.” 


Reminder 2: We connect through this work.


My experience of those Gopi Shah mugs is emblematic of so many experiences that people have in this handmade world. I’ve never even met Gopi in person, and yet she’s a sweet little humming part of my life, through her work, through social media, through our emails, and through these ceramics she makes. In showing up with our art (whether that’s a painting, a product, or a business), we connect with others -- store owners, makers, customers, suppliers --  in ways that are valuable, tangible, and inspiring.

When one of our makers got an order with a shop across the country, she was more thrilled with the relationship than even the order: “This store has taken me on and I am so touched by the connection. The store owner even re-emailed me after her order [with the most meaningful note.] I mean, I'm stoked on the order, but being on the same page as another maker who is on the other side of the US totally made my stressful-anxious just ok-day to a wonderful one. I love making, but I love the relationship side of business too.”



Reminder 3: We can employ and inspire and contribute and make money.


You can and you do. You inspire, you contribute, you make money, which you can use to invest in your life and the lives of people around you. You employ. You purchase goods and services from other business owners. You feed your family from the work you do with your hands and heart.



Reminder 4: Sometimes, the things you are making matter for themselves.


I do certainly value the people and experiences in my life more than I value the things in my life. And yet...

As Megan Auman shares in her great project Stuff Does Matter: “Objects play an incredible role in shaping who we are as individuals and cultures. Stuff communicates meaning and identity. Stuff connects us to others, past and present, and to ourselves. Stuff provides aesthetic and sensory experiences. Stuff has the power to nourish us physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. Not all stuff, of course. But the good stuff does all of this.”

And Heather Ross reminds us: “I have taken part in many discussions about why making things by hand feels so good. Is it such a mystery? If consumerism has become about our physical dependence on others to make things for us, then making things for ourselves is one of the most empowering -- if not downright rebellious --  things that we can do.”




Overall, remember:


I do think that sometimes a little healthy skepticism about our work is a good thing. We must stop to consider whether what we are creating is, quite literally, worth our time. We owe it to ourselves to not create, as Demetria Provatas says, “empty merchandise and shallow work.”

But if you know you are in the dance, the struggle, the practice of creating things that are meaningful, and meaningfully made, then trust that. (Even if you don’t always succeed.) And if you are building a business, relationship by relationship, stand strong in the joy and honor of that. Let yourself see all the value that you create through your work every day -- even as you endeavor to deepen it.



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