Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thoughts on Business: How Our Day Jobs Impact Our Crafts

Over in one the Designers group on Ravelry, a member posted an interesting thread which she started by referencing a blog post she had just written about how her experience as a business analyst has impacted her process as a now-full-time knitter. The purpose of the thread was to ask how it has impacted the rest of us. I was going to just respond there, but I thought this was a really interesting thing to write about in a bit more depth, because I think all of us might find it very interesting to step back and see how our educations and prior work experience has impacted our craft. :) Which is my way of saying: here's my answer, but I'd really love to hear yours, in a comment, in a reply, in a blog post (but please share the link with me!) because I learned a lot by reading the things in that thread, and I think there's something really interesting in this.

So. A little background. I have two bachelor's degrees - one in history (focus on Japan) and one in East Asian Studies (focus, surprise, on Japan). I also took a lot of course work in science. I have a masters degree in Library Science. For my professional experience, I worked a couple crappy jobs, and I worked for a year and a half in the library conservation lab, which was awesome. And starting when I was 19, I've done what I do now (though now I do it a lot, lot more) - education consulting. This means that I write grants and conduct evaluation of grant programs. I also help with strategic planning, conflict resolution, and more. I use statistics, I write reports, and I frequently work under tight, absolute deadlines in a very unwieldy bureaucracy that likes to make unnecessary additional requirements with far too little time to actually meet them. I currently balance the evaluation of 10 completely distinct projects, and have to keep all of the information about each one organized and make sure that all of the different things that have to be done at different times for each program get done - and when those deadlines overlap, I have to prioritize but also get it all finished. All while frequently communicating with clients. In between, I visit loads of teacher classrooms for observations and attend lots of the professional development (aimed at teachers) that I evaluate. has all of that impacted my attempts at starting a crafting business? Some of them are obvious - prioritizing, deadline meeting, high-pressure situations, working to meet certain criteria/specifications, I think all of these require no explanation for how they would be helpful in running any kind of business! But here are a few that are perhaps a little less obvious. :)

1. Breaking work in to steps. When you first look at a grant application package, it's completely overwhelming. The only way to get one done is to break in to bite-sized chunks, and tackle it one chunk at a time. If you do them out of order (say, skip one that is annoying or boring) you botch up all the later ones. The good habits I've developed because of this have really helped me with pattern writing, especially when things get annoying. Do I really want to make a project a third time just to take photos of the one step my testers found annoying? Of course not! But if you just knuckle down and get it done, you can get on to the more fun steps, like publishing the pattern! It also has been very helpful for figuring out how to construct a doll. I get an image in my head of the animal and the pose I want to make, and then the next step is, how do I break that in to crochetable pieces? Once I've got a clear idea of that in my head, I just tackle one step at a time...

2. Writing. The key to successful grant writing is clear, concise, completely accurate, non-flowery writing. This does NOT come naturally to me. I like commas, I like decorative adjectives, I like run-on sentences that cover lots and lots of ground and wander all over the place and maybe digress a bit in the middle or later part to cover some other piece of information before meandering back to the main point which is of course about how I tend to write ridiculous sentences that never quite seem to get to the point - but that's the point, right? Oh, did I mention I also like dashes - and ellipses...(oh, and parenthetical asides, too!) Well, in grants you can't do any of that. Yet, I'm a very good grant writer - grants I've written or co-written have won more than $25 million for our clients, with a better than 50% success rate for submissions. (okay, tooting done). I had to teach myself to write that way (and often, say, for blog posts, I don't bother). And all of the things I do to write clear grants, I use when I write patterns! I think: what, exactly am I trying to say/describe? How, exactly do I want to say it? Then I place myself in the reader's shows: I've never seen this before - do I understand what it means? If I read this, what would I think I was supposed to do? And if I find I'm not sure, I re-write until I am. And one of the main pieces of feedback I get from testers is how clear my patterns are, so I guess I'm doing something right!

3. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again! As I wrote above - I have around a 50% success rate in grant writing. And that's a pretty good percentage. That means that 50% of the time, we DON'T win. Now, we don't get paid to write grants. We only get paid if we win. So there is a LOT of frustration that goes in to this process. But it also builds patience and fortitude and a thick skin when it comes to rejection. It also breeds a willingness to do a whole lot of work for potentially no reward. All of this comes in handy for reasons I should think are pretty obvious to anyone with a craft business. :)

4. Tools for improving product. As an evaluator, my main job is to look at the programs I work with, and - through observations, surveys, rubrics, focus groups, and other tools - figure out how they can be improved, which parts are most successful, which parts are least successful, etc. We set definite goals, and measurable objectives based on these goals, and then setg performance measures and benchmarks to assess if we've met our objectives. Though I've never written it all out, I've done this for my business, and my believe me, I think everyone could benefit from doing so!! And if you don't meet them, that's fine, but by making them solid and tangible, you've at least thought about them - and how you are going to achieve them! Whether you hit them or not, you've done the background work necessary to take a step back and think - this is what I did, this is why I did, it here's what worked, here's what didn't work, here's what I'd like to change, here's what I should do more of. This is why I gave a photography survey. Surveys are now in my blood. ;) But really, it's taught me to look at business as a series of achievable benchmarks, and then work towards each of those benchmarks. (now that I think about it, I really think I should write mine out in more detail - sounds like a future post! :) )

5. Keep on pushing. When things get busy with my job, I can't stop working. The deadlines MUST be met. The flip side of that is when things aren't busy, I don't have to do much - but I still have to get through the minimum. The positive work habits I've learned to get through both busy and slow times are very helpful in running my own business. They help me push past the "blahs" to get done crafting work even when I don't really feel like it. Do I always win this battle? No. Some nights, I just can't. But more often then that (like, say, last night) - I can find the energy to pick up the hook and get at least a little bit done, even when I'm tired enough that I don't think I should.

6. Teaching strategies. I work with teachers constantly, and have now seen over 100 different classroom lessons (gah, I never thought of it that way!) - and attended tons of high-quality professional development aimed at teachers. As a result, I've inevitably learned a lot about what goes in to being a good teacher (though whether or not I could use any of that in classroom is highly questionable). However, what it has shown me is that different kinds of information is accessible to different people. Some people look at a paragraph of dense description and completely shut down, but if you show them a photograph, they can immediately see what's expected of them. Other people (like me!) will sit and piece through the paragraph, but if you give me a picture it's like, uh, great, what do I do with THIS? All of the writing I do for the business (especially the blog and the patterns) I try to keep this in mind and give a range of types of content - pictures, detailed explanations, simplified explanations - posts of mostly writing, posts of mostly pictures, posts that are in between - keeping material accessible to different kinds of learners.

Now, is any of this good, generalizable advice for running YOUR businesses? I have absolutely no idea. I am not the poster child for success over here - but I haven't given up! (see #3, above :) ) But these are the ways that what I do every day for my regular job (which, by the way, I'm procrastinating working on this morning by writing this post...) have helped give me useful skills for my craft business. :)

So...those are the first things that spring to mind of how the skills necessary for my job have translated in to useful supports for my crafting business. I hope it's of interest! I could easily go in to way more detail, but I think I've said plenty (in fact, I've just gone through and cut a bunch cause I think I said too much! :) ) - now I want to hear from all of you!! How have skills from jobs you've had or still have impacted your crafting?

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