The seductive trap - of cowls and fingerless gloves  

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People who are newly starting a small business run a real risk of thinking, "What can I make?" rather than, "What's really wanted?".

The overwhelming number of cowls and fingerless gloves on Etsy provides a wonderful example. When did you last, honestly, wear a cowl? When have you found fingerless gloves preferable to ordinary gloves with fingers?

The reason for this stuff is that it's far, far quicker to make than full-sized scarves and conventional gloves. It uses less yarn too. So you can sell it for a much lower price - within more people's budget. AND it can look spectacular in a photograph. Seductive for a maker, no?

But... it's a trap not to fall into. Ultimately, these products are - in person rather than in a flattering picture - not all that practical or desirable. Okay, make them beautifully and photograph them well and you may well sell a few. But do you honestly expect to sell many? Do you think there will be repeat customers for something as quirky and niche (and maybe not in a good way) as this?

When you are planning your products, ask yourself first and foremost what customers really want. If it's something you can't make to realistic timescales or budgets, consider if there is another way - maybe you can use some ready-made components? Perhaps you can get lower-cost (please not lower quality) supplies? If there is no way - move on and think again.

In the end, you can't compete by offering people something they don't really want. You CAN compete by offering your own beautiful, unique or better version of something that there is a real demand for.
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Small disclaimer. This is not aimed at any particular Etsy sellers, including those shown in the screen shot. It's intended just as a general observation and comment.

The wonders of the web.  

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web-based social promiscuity is definitely the way forward. Facebook and MySpace were used with devastating effect by the Obama campaign. So, too, his own beautifully-designed website. Its organisational and money-making power were extraordinary and election-changing.

Barack Obama has become the commander-in-chief by being the social networker-in-chief. If Jack Kennedy was arguably the most telegenic presidential candidate that America has seen, then Mr Obama is surely its most web-genic.

From BBC analysis of the election



In upcoming posts I'll be saying a lot more about using the web - and using it well -for your own communications.

The intimacy of the web  

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This US election has shown ways of using the internet for political communication as perhaps nothing has before. There has been a strange merging of the old ways - town hall meetings, stump speeches et al - and the new - such as wonderfully expressive youtube videos made by "ordinary" people , Twit voting and of course thousands upon thousands of blog posts.

I realised about a year ago that Obama actually understood the web. He felt like "one of us" in that way - and that was entirely new. It was a Youtube interview I saw him do that shocked me into the realisation that he understands how the web works and he understands, above all, its intimacy. Look at the way he turns to the camera at the end and talks directly to the viewer, it's only a moment, but it's an immensely telling one - McCain would never know to do this. When I saw that I realised, for the first time, that Obama might actually win.



A few hours away from the results this evening I still think that if - no, let's say when - he does win, it will be in large part due to his understanding of the way new technology works - not as technology, but as a messy, amusing, outspoken, immediate and popular way of communicating not to people but between them.
There's a huge amount that a small business can learn from this. I'll soon be talking more about what I've personally learned from the way Obama has been able to touch us - right across the world - and how even a very small business might benefit from emulating his extraordinary campaign.

14. Don't judge your own work and business by others' successes  

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Perhaps what I really mean is don't be intimidated by the apparent success of others around you. Of course, other people's success can be inspirational and encouraging, but it can also make you feel "Why bother to start? I'll never be able to emulate that." Don't fall into that attitude, it can become an excuse for not making even the first small moves in building your business.

For some years now, I've had regular Skype conversations about design, marketing and - well, life in general - with Monicka Clio Sakki. One of the things we tend to do during and in-between those conversations is to swap online finds - "Have you seen what these people are doing?"- accompanied by a barrage of urls.

Michal Negrin is one company we've discussed quite often - not because we particularly like the design (it's a bit too sugary for me and I think way too sugary for Monicka) but because we are both a bit awestruck by the way Michal Negrin has taken her company from a market stall selling jewellery to an international franchise.

I doubt we - as in Baba Studio, I can't speak for Sakki-Sakki - will ever be anywhere close to this kind of international operation - although I would like to build up more and more worldwide distribution and perhaps eventually do some of the things that franchises do. Meantime, there's a danger in looking at others who already done this and telling myself things like:

  • She had amazing financial backing and advice, I don't. So things are possible for her that aren't for me.
  • She was lucky. I may not be.
  • She started at the right time. It's far harder now.
  • Her work is more mainstream. Mine is "edgy" and therefore won't attract a wide audience.
  • She's driven. I want to have a life.
All these points may or may not be true. But what's vital is not to allow yourself to use them as "get outs". Your business is your business. If you constantly compare yourself unfavourably to those who seem to have achieved way more than you (and note, all may not be as it seems - in the dotcom era I well remember seeing companies that appeared far more successful than mine go out of business overnight) it can quickly become an endless source of excuses.

Just get on with what needs to be done. Use others for inspiration and role models by all means - keep swapping those examples with peers and mentors - but focus on growing your own business in your own way. That way, one day soon someone may be sending your URL to a friend and saying, "Wow, have you seen what these people have achieved? I remember when they were tiny."