An early (and kinda sad) farmers market booth, from 2011

While I incorporated my business in 2010, I didn’t sell my first product until June 1st, 2011. So I recently passed my 10 year anniversary of being in business! I was fielding a question online from a new business woman about selling herbs and spice mixes, and it got me to thinking. What are the top ten things I’ve learned from being in business for 10 years?

In no particular order…

QUALITY FLOATS ALL BOATS. The original quote is “a raising tide lifts all boats”, attributed to a speech given by John F Kennedy in 1963. But I heard it stated as QUALITY at a farmers market conference years ago, and it stuck with me. Competition, while healthy, does not mean that in the end there needs to be ONE winner. They say the most profitable place to build a gas station is on a corner that already has three other gas stations.

I’ve seen this play out over and over again at farmers markets. More quality vendors = market develops a reputation as a worthy weekly destination = more foot traffic = every vendor makes more money. I’ve always gone into farmers markets with no expectation of exclusivity, and that I was absolutely expected to compete with my fellow vendors. I’ve worked hard to differentiate myself, and to offer products that dove-tailed well with existing market offerings.

This practice turned out to be essential when I shifted away from markets to selling most of my products through Hayshaker Farm’s Online Marketplace. I had curated my produce offerings for years, being positioned right next to Hayshaker’s sometimes triple wide farmers market booth, to offer products slightly different than what they were already doing so well. Lemon cucumbers, a different variety of cantaloupe, unique pepper mixes, a different mix of heirloom tomatoes, broccoli and kholrabi in the spring. I count several fellow soapmakers I’ve met as vendors at markets as my friends. I’ve had people buy soap from me while holding a bag of soap from the other soapmaker. We all make different products even though they all get you clean! If I don’t have what a customer is looking for, I send them to someone who does. THAT kind of customer service is memorable. Plus, it just feels better!

If you want to pursue Farmers Markets (which is a great way to get direct feedback and refine your product offerings, even if its not the end goal of your business), walk through existing markets with an eye to what isn’t already there, or that you have a different spin on, and offer THAT, but know that someone else might come in behind you offering something similar. Let’s all lift each other up rather than tearing each other down.

CHARGE FOR YOUR TIME When you start out in business, especially as a maker, and maybe even more especially as a woman, its easy to devalue the time it actually takes you to make the product. What it costs you to buy ingredients and packaging? Sure, we’ll count that. But the actual time to make the thing? Easy to ignore that and not factor it into the price. After all, we’re not used to getting paid for the laundry we do or the dishes we wash or the meals we cook. But imagine if you will that you become wildly successful at your current price point, and now you need to hire help to make 100X as much product as you are currently making. Now you have no choice but to pay someone for their time to make that product. And your current price point may not be remotely adequate to pay for that help.

Keep track of your time. Figure out what it would cost to hire help (I use $15/hour for basic labor and $25/hour for highly skilled labor). And factor that into your price (along with overhead – the cost to keep the lights on, the insurance paid, and the hot water flowing – 15% is a good starting estimate if you don’t have these numbers nailed down). If you can’t sell a product in your market for what it would cost if you had to hire someone, you’re either making the wrong product or are in the wrong market.

PICK SOCIAL MEDIA THAT FITS YOU So many business advice gurus will tell you that you MUST be writing a blog, or be on Facebook, or Instagram, or YouTube, or Pinterest, or SnapChat, or whatever the flavor of the month is in social media. That you need to build a following in order to sell your product. And yes, sometimes people are wildly successful using those platforms to build their business. But you know what? Those wildly successful people are few and far between.

How often have you visited someone’s website/blog/social media platform only to realize that its not being updated? That they created it because it was what they were “supposed” to do, but didn’t normally use it themselves, and so sucked at creating content. How often do YOU personally make a purchase because of how it was presented to you on a social media platform?

Yes, we’ve all probably fallen under the spell of a well placed Facebook or Instagram ad a few times. I have several funny cat t-shirts and a hair shampoo bar that came from algorithm based advertising. But as an overall percentage of my spending? A drop in the bucket. I’m much more likely to buy from people I have a personal relationship with, whether its the grocery store down the street or my farmer friends.

So, if you do want to participate in a social media platform for your business, pick the one you are most comfortable with, that you most enjoy already, and create authentic content THERE. Or outsource this task with someone who really gets you and your brand (seriously). For the record, the most current recommendations from the “experts” for driving traffic to your online sales platform is to create an email newsletter (see link to sign up for mine in the final tag on this post).

A bit dated, but still fun.

ITS NOT JUST ABOUT MAKING THE THING You have this idea for a product. You’ve made it and given it to friends and gotten great feedback. Now you want to sell it. Well, there’s an adage that if you are in the business of making things, about 20% of your time should be spent on the making and about 80% of your time on other parts of your business. EIGHTY PERCENT! While I spend more than 20% of my time making product, that 80% is not an unrealistic number. If that seems crazy, consider:

  • Ordering/maintaining raw product inventory
  • Tracking existing finished inventory/online updates
  • Accounting/taxes and maybe payroll
  • Regulations/licensing
  • Product liability and general liability insurance
  • Branding/packaging
  • Advertising/marketing/social media/photography
  • Good Manufacturing Practices/Standard Operating Procedures/Record Keeping/Recall Plan
  • Maintenance and upkeep of space and equipment/replacement equipment
  • Year end summary & reporting and future forecasting
  • New product planning/testing/implementation
  • Actual selling, be it at farmers markets/craft shows or online with packaging/shipping/mailing
  • Training employees/interns/volunteers

DON’T RACE TO THE BOTTOM. You’ve made a product. You’re not sure what to charge for it. You go to the big box store and see what a similar product is selling for there. You price similarly. In a year, you’re likely either out of business due to lack of profit or you’ve worked yourself into a state of exhaustion working 80 hour weeks and have no quality of life.

A friend of mine with a masters degree in marketing once told me people spend their money for one of three reasons. Price, quality or status. In general, small business customers are NOT the ones buying for price. They are there for quality, and the other triple bottom line benefits of people (community dollars staying in the community) or planet (local products usually have a smaller carbon footprint). They are probably also spending $5/day on a coffee drink. They can afford to spend more for your product.

This can be a VERY hard concept to get your own head around if you come from a lower income background where making every penny count became an art form. Or if your goal is to make your quality product more accessible to lower income customers (produce sellers in food deserts is a great example). But you have to remember, YOU ARE NOT YOUR TARGET CUSTOMER. There are other ways to give back to lower income communities (gleaning donations, asking customers to buy product for others – ie paying it forward, having a % of purchase go back to the communities you’re trying to support). I WISH we lived in a world where we were all on an equal playing field and no one was left out. And I work towards that world every day. But what’s AS important as you supporting those with less is that you’re around for another year to continue your impact on the community. Don’t price yourself out of the ability to do that out of guilt.

FARMERS MARKETS CAN BE AN INVALUABLE PROVING GROUND. Not every product can or should be sold at a farmers market. But for my own journey, they were SO critical. Both in trialing different products to see what my local and regional customer base responded to, but also in building my own confidence. I don’t have a business background. My degrees are in Biology and Behavioral Science. I was wholly unfamiliar with terms like cash flow, profit and loss statement, return on investment, enterprise budget, target market to name a few. I was very intimidated to put out a table of my products and ask people to spend their hard earned money buying them. I have made, and then dropped from my line, at least 20 products over the years, either because they didn’t sell well, didn’t have the appeal I thought they would, didn’t pencil out to continue making, or simply made me miserable when faced with making them again.

Over the years I learned how to hone my farm and product message and find my line in the sand on what I am and am not willing to say in order to sell product (you won’t find me promising that my “rescue hand salve” will improve your eczema”, for example). Figuring out your “pitch” and then doing it over and over and OVER again can fine tune your message not just to the customer, but in your own head.

MARKETING/PRESENTATION MATTERS Every sign, every table cloth choice, every color, every font telegraphs something about your business to your potential customers. Yes, you can buy a clip art looking logo on Fiver for not a lot of money. But does cheap clip art really represent who you are and what you’re trying to say about your product and your business?

If I were to suggest ONE place where I think spending valuable capital is well worth the investment, its in figuring out your branding. Are you down home/red checked gingham? Chrome and shine and stark modern lines? Old timey western fonts and themes? They say that if you do it right, you should not only be able to describe your ideal customer by age and gender, but right down to the type of car they drive, their favorite coffee drink and the last TV show they binge watched.

I’ve done most of my branding/design myself by the seat of my pants (I DID have the logo on my jam jars designed, mostly as a way to throw some money towards a struggling fellow farmer/artist – it did not go well, though I’m happy with the end result. I chose her for the wrong reasons and I wasn’t clear enough on my own expectations. Live and learn.) And because of this, its not quite as cohesive as it could be (I’m OK with that). But I also have an aptitude for it, and am very clear on what I like and what I don’t like. And I’ve studied and read enough to know the basics, and where the gaps are in my own presentations. My husband is also brilliant at this, and will help me think outside my very square, very linear box when necessary. It’s always a work in progress.

JUST BECAUSE YOU DON’T ALREADY KNOW SOMETHING DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN’T LEARN IT. So much of what I’ve done in the last 10 years I started out having NO idea how to accomplish. Doing farmers markets. Making jam legally in a licensed kitchen. Keeping track of my income and expenses in Quickbooks. Branding a product and designing labels that are aesthetically pleasing but also meet legal requirements. Designing and maintaining an ecommerce website. Hiring employees and interns. Keeping track and paying sales tax. Navigating shipping of products in an efficient way. Converting a home recipe from volume to weight, and then from weight to percentages, and then back calculating how much I needed of each raw ingredient to end up with X amount of finished product…the list is endless.

But I have a lot of confidence in my ability to learn new things. To ask questions. To ask for help in a myriad of places from licensing officials to online forums to friends with more expertise than I have. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Sometimes it might take me months to get the hang of something depending on how on-fire it is and how much time I have. But I keep coming back to it, taking small bites, until its where I need it to be.

And before or after you’ve got something where you want it, you can outsource it to others and focus on what you ARE excited about if you have the cash flow to do so. (I’m a control freak, and so am not good at handing something off to others until I fully understand it myself). I will never hire another employee without outsourcing the payroll! Know your limits. But beware of the stories you tell yourself. If your sentence starts with “I can’t…” or “I could never….”, well, then you never will.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO GROW FAST Everyone has a different tolerance for risk and debt. Mine happens to be VERY small. Most business don’t turn a profit in the first few years. And that’s even when they have the capital to invest in infrastructure to begin with. But as long as you’re not trying to pay the mortgage with your small business right out of the gate, there is nothing wrong with growing slowly as you gain experience, confidence, and solvency. And there’s a lot to be said for being micro and debt free!

I’m at an interesting place with my business. I’ve really maxed out what I can produce with the current system and the current amount of help (which, lets face it, is mostly just me). I’ve made about $35,000 gross each year for the last three years. In order to be able to make a lot more product than I’m currently making, bring down my costs a bit with volume, and expand into additional markets, I’d need to be in a larger space with much more expensive equipment and a lot more inventory and help. The conventional way to do that would be to take out a bank loan and build or lease the space, and then retrofit it to my needs. A price tag that could easily reach $500,000. Honestly, I have zero interest in doing that. And from a conventional business perspective, that makes me seem like a big fat failure. Because I don’t want to go big or go home, and go into debt doing it.

But you know what? I’ve built this entire business debt free. I think I made about $5,000 my first year. I’ve been able to roll profits back into infrastructure and inventory for the last 10 years, with the exception of a few draws (cash out to our personal bank account) for things like winter vacations. And that’s just fine for our situation. (I DO realize its a privileged one!) I may be as big as I ever get, and transition to other enterprises (teaching, writing, farm visits) as I get older. I would invest capital into a shared space if one became available, but I’m not going to shoulder that debt load alone, and if that means I don’t get any bigger, that’s OK too.

Small can be better.

CREATE TIME FOR SELF CARE, AND TO REEVALUATE EACH YEAR There’s a favorite story about holistic farming that I love, where this couple work their tails off for 51 weeks a year, and then they take a full week off, get the dirt out from under their fingernails, put on nice clothes, go out to dinner, drink coffee shop lattes, and have a serious conversation about whether or not they want to commit themselves to doing it all again next year. Is is still worth it? And if so, what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to change.

Farming has built-in cycles, though there’s never the down time people imagine (when you aren’t actively growing or raising things, you’re working on all the back end stuff that needs to happen, including PLANNING for the following year’s crops). But from mid March until mid December, it can feel like a 24-7 job. I quickly learned my first year of doing multiple farmers markets that I needed a few markets off per season in order to mentally take a break, or I simply wasn’t nice to people anymore come September. Yes, I lost sales by taking that time off. And leaving for a week in early September necessitates finding house sitters and a lot of other drama. But it is SO SO worth it. Some of my best ideas and inspiration have come when the pressure is off and I have time to think about something besides the endless to-do list in my head.

I sometimes see posts from farmers in online forums who wear their 70 hour work weeks/4 hours a sleep per night like some kind of crazy badge of honor and superiority. Like that makes them a REAL farmer, and everyone else is just playing at the edges. Meanwhile, they have almost NO joy in their life, are risking both their mental and physical health, and will likely have a shorter small business owner career because of it. Work-Life balance isn’t just a phrase. It’s a real thing with real life consequences for you and your family. I’m lucky. I get joy and satisfaction out of many of my business tasks, from reconciling a bank statement to designing a product label. But I’ve learned to trust that downtime is an important reset button.

So, that’s it. That’s what I’ve learned in 10 years of putting myself and my products out there. It’s been an amazing journey. I’ve loved almost all of it, and I’ve loved sharing it with you all as well.

I’ve recently become enamored with the Roots And Refuge Farm YouTube Channel. Jess is a consummate story teller, articulate and vulnerable, and a great teacher as well. I often watch gardening videos with an eye to what they get wrong, but her gardening advice is also spot on. This is one of my favorite quotes from her (one mirrored by Joel Salatin, who also encourages beginning farmers to just START, not wait for everything to be perfect). Do what you can NOW, keep learning, keep growing.

© 2021, where we’re miles away from knowing all we need to know about being in business, but sure have more confidence than we did 10 years ago. Want more content? Sign up for a monthly newsletter to your email inbox HERE.