Engraving as a Self Employed Career?

Harpuahound

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Thread starter #1
I've been a Goldsmith for ten years, I specialize in custom jobs, in a very fine store. About three years ago I was introduced to a GRS Gravermax. And I fell head over hells in love with hand engraving. I would go into work three and four hours early to engrave and learn as much as I could. I enjoyed a week a GRS with Chris DeCamillis, an excellent teacher. And after three years I can say that Ive sold a lot of engraving work that a can be proud of. But I still spend Much less time engraving than Id like.

Being a self-employed artisan is my dream, and Im confident in my skills as an artist, less than confident in my business skills. I know many of you Hand Engravers out there have made the leap that Im talking about.
And I could qoute numerous hand engravers saying "I have no lack of business."

The BIG questions.

What should I know before making this transition?
What do you wish you would have known?
What advice do can you give for us wannabee self-employed artists?

Johnny S.
 

BrianPowley

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#2
Johnny, The transition to "Full-Time" self employment can be pretty interesting.
A lot of what you need to do depends on your own needs (or the needs of your family)
There's a book written by Steven Covey called "The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People".
A good read........Rule #1= Begin with the end in mind.

In other words, where do you want to go and what are you willing to do to get there?

It's a good idea to have a few months of expenses in the bank, too.

After I made my decision to go Full-Time, it took 2 years to make the transition.
I built up my business until I had almost 2 full time jobs.
My old job actually got in the way of my engraving. When I was making just as much money at home than I was in the Steel Mill, the decision was easy.

You'll also have to figure out your pricing---and almost everyone struggles with figuring out how much they're worth.
You'll be amazed that if you charge a whopping $50.00 per hour, you come out a little better than even.

It's a good business to be in.
 

Lee

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#3
I am often asked this or something similar by my students. Keep in mind that a big difference between self employed and working for a company is there is no benefit package. As SE you need to make enough more per hour to take care of retirement, sick days, vacation, self employment taxes, special equipment and supplies, health insurance, and anything else your employer provided. If you are not at the bench cutting you are not being paid. As a general rule I tell people you need to make close to double per hour to have the same disposable income.:eek:

The upside is you are your own boss. The down side is you are your own boss. I can leave in the afternoon to attend the school program and see the soccer game where my daughter trashes the boys. Great fun. :D Then frequently at midnight I will be making up those hours. Unlike farming, what I did in my formal life, weather and daylight are not a factor. All I have to do is put in enough hours to pay the bills and I choose when.:)
 

Ray Cover

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#4
Johnny,

You have good advice here so far. The only things I can add really is this (its too early to think of much right now).

Every GOOD high quality engraver I know of is busy right now. We all have backlogs of one degree or another but we did not get there overnight. We had to go to show after show and beat on a few doors to let people know what kind of work we are doing and how good of work we are doing.

Along that same line, don't put all your eggs in one basket. At this time I am working in the custom knife market, the hand made fountain pen market, the hand made fly rod market, and I do that occasional special gun job that comes along every now and then.

By By building a reputaion for top quality work in the knife, fly rod, and pen markets I have found that the law of supply and demand works quite well. My work has become desirable in all those markets and it has also become hard to obtain since I am spreading my work out across the three. I am making enough now that I can pay for medical insurance for me and my two daughters, invest for retirement, cover the overhead on the business and keep my bills paid.

Is my work expensive? Sort of. It has to be to do the above.

One more piece of advice. Don't adopt the wrong philosophy. Here is what I man by that.

There are two philosophies in any market.

1. Sell cheap and sell lots. Profit my mass, make a little on each peice but sell it by the tonnage.

2. Sell high but give the best quality available (or at least the perception of the best quality)

It is my oppinion that any artsit who tries to adopt the first philosphy is being foolish. You will hear people in this business tell you this, "if you sell at a lower price you will have more people who can afford your work." Now this is a fact of economics and no one can deny that this is a true statement.

You will also hear people tell you this," What you do is not a needed service. People NEED doctors and car mechanics and lawyers so they are over a barrel and have to pay them a lot of money but nobody needs art or luxury items." Again you can't argue against the validity of this statement.

However, both of these statements play into philosophy number one above and I do not think they are the correct foundation for a business model for a self employed artist of any kind.
WHile both of those statements are true they are missing the point and are miss applied when people in our profession use them.

Why? How? To effectively use philosophy number one you must have two things. 1. The ability to produce in extreamly high volume. Since most of us are a one man opperation we do not have that. At least not without killing ourselves in the process. 2. An extreamly huge portion of that low end market to buy up all those extras. While it is true that the lower the price, the higher the number of people that can afford it. It is also true that just because they can afford it does not gaurantee they are going to want it. Making them want it means you have to spend a ton of time and energy marketing to the masses.

Companies like Rollex and Monte Blanch have used the second philosphy and been quite successful at it. Rollex apparently has found plenty of people that can afford $5,000 watches to keep them in business all these years. Monte Blanch has found just as many people who can afford several hundred dollars for an ink pen. Both companies have companies have disregarded philosphy number one and are doing just fine and have been for years. Orvis came out with a fly rod about a year and a half ago that was one fo the crappiest looking rods I have seen in a while. They had it priced in the $4,500 range and they sold out within weeks of the release date. Are you starting to get the picture?

BTW, when was the last time you saw a TV comercial from one fo these companies? I never have.

These companies can sell things to a luxury market for two reasons. 1. They have developed an atmoshpere in which their product is an exclusive status symbol that only the most descriminating collector can have.
2. They all market their work as high quality rather than the cheapest you can get.

To make a living without working yourself to death you need to think more like Rollex, Monte Blanch and Orvis. Don't think like Wal-mart.

Back to the bench

Ray
 
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#6
I engrave as a hobby at the moment. However I've been self employed for 23 years as a signwriter and learnt a thing or two. Most lessons were learnt the hard way unfortunatley. Such is human nature (sigh)

One lesson that is universal and cuts right across the board is.....Cheap work attracts cheap customers, who tell all their friends how cheap you are, who in turn come to you for cheap work. Before you know it you'll be working 24/7 and still making no money and your family will become strangers.

Ray Cover has hit the nail right on the head.................................

There are dozens of good books out there on being self employed for craftsmen/artists. Before making the transition go to the library and read up on a few business skills. You don't have to be Bill Gates or Donald Trump but you need to understand what's involved. Most of it is pretty basic. A lot of people make the mistake in their first year believing what they earnt is all theirs. Remember that is your gross not your net. You still have to pay taxes, overhead, materials etc on that.

The easy part of being self employed is using the skill you have eg: the engraving, or in my case the signwriting. The hard bit is all the rest of it, communication with customers, fixing mistakes, bad debtors, finances, pricing, taxes, insurance, medical, paperwork, buying food, paying the bills, keeping sane, stress, sickness, holidays, trade shows, local and federal laws, compliance costs, tools, maintenance, budgeting, business plan, debt collecting, getting paid and a whole lot more. All of which have to be accounted for or you will go broke.

In saying that the reward of working for yourself is well worth the effort. You can't moan about the boss any more because you are the boss and your decisions, good or bad, will be yours alone.

Cheers
Andrew
 

Cody

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#7
One more thing to add to what ray was saying is that because you are providing a non-essential service, if a recession happens, average people that buy the affordable stuff can no longer afford to and quit buying. Those that can afford to buy best quality often aren't hurt as much by economy slowdowns and still by luxuries.
 

Ray Cover

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#8
Cody that has proven to be very true.

I have noticed in my career that when the economy has slowed it really has not hurt me much if at all. Simply due to the fact that most of my customer base is not hurt overall if they lose a few dollars in their retirement investment accounts due to an interest rate dip. They know that as soon as the ecomony takes another upswing thay will get it back and will have made more in meantime.

Another thing that most folks don't think about is people buy what they want. Tim Adlam pointed this out to me in a recent converstaion and I ahve concluded he is right. I have seen teenage boys go out and work their butts off to make payments on a fancy hot rod. I can't afford that car but a teenage boy working at McDonalds can. How does this work? He really wants that car.

I fish in a $250 pair of Sims waders with a $2,500 rod (I have about $500 worth of materials in the rod) . I have several reels the cheapest of which is about $150 and over $500 worth of flies in my box. That also is not the only good rod I have. In all my rods and other stuff I have more money tied up in fly fishing equipment than that teenage boy has tied up in his fancy hot rod. Yet I can not afford the hot rod. I made a way to afford the fishing gear because I wanted it. Just like the kid made a way to afford the car.

The point is people spend their money on the things they want.

Ray
 

RoycroftRon

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#9
I think the best advice I can give is to keep your overhead down - but price keeping what you would like to budget your overhead in the future. What I mean is start small like in your home - you can write off up to 15% of your homes utilities without sending up any red audit flags as a home office. but figure in all the expenses that you will incur when you set up a separate shop later on (rent, heat, elec, phone, etc) that way you can save for the growth and not have top jack up your prices as much later to make ends meet.

I have to agree with the second philosophy metioned for several reasons. First i would rather make fewer quality objects that I can be proud of than a bunch of lesser quality items that just pay bills. To that end both take about the same time investment - but the higher quality items keep you enraptured with the art where as making the same thing over and over will burn you out. My second reason is that sometimes it has to be priced higher for the consumer to appreciate it's worth. If youprice it too low it may not sell as well because the consumer will think that you do not value it. It sounds a little odd, but once I doubled my work accross the board and I sold more (quantity of objects not just dollars). Go figure.
 

Karl Stubenvoll

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#10
Johnny,

I am also a goldsmith, self employed, and understand your desire. The above advice is terrific, and I hope you heed it. You should also invest a bit of money talking to an accountant and set up a business plan so that you will be ready for (and aware of) all of the details that must be filed and when and what type of gross income will yeild a workable net for you. How will you market your business? That regular paycheck you've been used to will not be there unless everything else is taken care of.

If the planning is done honestly and carefully and you can convince your family that it is the BEST way to go, then look forward and enjoy the challenge. My best wishes for you.
 

Mike Cirelli

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#11
The hardest thing to do and one thing you have to remember. You must build a business and not just a job to go to everyday. It's not easy, but it is easy to create self employment for yourself. If your not good at multi tasking learn to be. I don't know if you'll make more money because I haven't worked for anybody other than myself for 27 years. If you plan to do only wholesale work get contracts or get a lot of stores. If you plan on going retail be ready for the expenses, and make sure you charge accordingly. There are so many things to learn. Get B. W. Simon's "Run Your Shop Without It Running You" also check out David Geller it's good stuff.
Good luck
Mike
 
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#12
Johnny,

Many of us full-timers have a supportive spouse whose job covers the health insurance issue, and hopefully a retirement plan.
You'd be wise to plan for your own 401K as well...someday you may have to quit.

Make a serious effort to learn business skills, computer skills, and anything you deem necessary to meet your goal.

Pay down debt, and have a contingency fund established.
[If it can cover 6+months of past earnings...you're starting off better than anyone I know did.
Live off one income if possible. Sometimes you have to live like college kids for a short term to get to where you want to be.]

Establish new markets.
Like Ray mentioned, being versatile means you can roll with the punches when markets slow down.
[Several years before I made the jump to full-time, I knew I had to get my gun work commissions up to the level that
I was doing in the custom knife market. Before that, it was about 80% knife work to 20% guns.
I'm glad that I was patient.]

Be honest with yourself about your abilities. Find your weak points, and take measures to strengthen them.
[Lettering is one task many dislike. I decided to make it my friend...I do a ton of it now, and I enjoy it.
I set out with the mind-set to be a versatile engraver. So I took on a lot of unique jobs just to gain the experience.
In the meantime, it helped me sort out what I like to do, and what jobs to steer clear of.]

Network with your peers.
[If there's one thing we have over the older guys, it's the ease of communication.
It's no longer taboo to talk price, clients, and markets with one's so-called competition.
I subscribe to the philosophy that in order to become successful, you must want it for your fellow engraver as well.
I have proven this by experience...and benefited by it.
Through networking, we keep this artform alive and well in an age of hi-tech.]

Your Spouse.
[Without the backing of my wife Kelly, this wouldn't have happened for me.
It took a lot of soul-searching and countless discussions before a decision was agreed upon.
You cannot slight this process...if you're married, you owe her/him that courtesy.]

There's certainly more to consider than the content of this thread, but in the end-game, it will still feel like jumping off a cliff.
You'll never know until you get into the water.

I can say this though, I do not regret the direction I chose for my life's work...it feels right to me.

I wish you all the success towards living your dream.

Tim
 

Harpuahound

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Thread starter #13
I really appreciate all of the advice here, and encouraged to hear every one saying that High-End products is the way to go. That is definetly what I have in mind. I much prefer a custom job compared to 4 hours of chain repairs and ring sizings. Im curious how you engravers pulled in early jobs, outside of word of mouth. I know that trade shows has been mentioned, anybody have any other suggestions?
 

Ray Cover

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#14
Johnny,

Honestly, anything you can do to get your work in front of potential customers is a good idea.

That being said not everything is practical. Going and buying time for a TV comercial or radio spot is a waste of time and money since it is not likely to hit an audience that you need. Plus it would be stupidly expensive.

Things I would suggest.

1. Do trade shows but don't spread yourself to thin with this. Target specific shows where serious collectors are likely to be exposed to your work.

2. Build (or have built) an extremely nice well oraganized website with good pictures. Good photos are a must here. I see way to many engravers with out of focus crappy pics on their websites. You can tell there is a texture on the metal but can't exacly make out any details. WHat is the first thing that pops into my head when I see this? This guy is a poor engraver and does not want people to see his work in detail. That assumption may be totally off base but it is the first thing that crosses my mind when I see that. Most collectors are thinking the same thing. Let your potential cusotmer know that you are proud of your work and have enough confidence in it to let them see a photo that is clear enough that they can examine the actual quality of your work.

3. Submit as many good photos as you can to the trade magazines. Only one out of every hundred may ever get published. Magazines often have gallery sections or articles that are light on pics. Having a pic of your work with a small caption helps to build name recognition and is worth the effort of submitting photos.

4. Participate and publish pics of your work on forums. Knife forums, pen forums, gun forums, flyfishing forums, Pipe smokers forums, anything you are interested in engraving on forums. Folks interesed in such areas will be on those forums. Letting them see a photo and brief description of your work from time to time is a good idea. While this is a very cheap way to advertise you have to be careful. As everyone on here knows a forum for a topic you are interested in can take over your life. Don't spend more time on the computer than at the bench but it is a good way to give your work exposure and.......................build name recognition.

5. Accept the fact that the bulk of your work will not come from a local market. Artist who try to make their sole income from their local market often are very hungry, not always but often. I do a job for someone in my own state maybe once every three or four years. Jesus once said a profit is never recognized in his own town. I have found the same to be true of artist. Expect to have to reach out to connect your work with the client.

6. If you are the type of person that likes to blog that is a good way to promote your work as well.

7. Get friendly and network with your fellow engravers. Here is why. I often have folks who come to me and want something engraved. At the current time I am backlogged and I am not accepting new clients. As a service to the person who thought enough of my work to inquire, I try to hook them up with another engraver who can do the work they are looking to have done. I know other engravers who do the same thing. If your fellow engravers are familair with you and confident in your work they will not mind sending a customer to you if they are piled up with work already ( or it is a specialty type job they don't do).

Now your personality and how you interact with people is important here. There are engravers who I will not send people to because the engraver has a poor attitude or is hard to get along with at times. I am not going to risk my reputation by recomending such a person, good engraver or not.


Back to the bench

Ray
 
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#17
Enjoying reading the responses. First time posting here. I have worked as a push hand engraver for a large jewelry company for almost 25 years. Work has slowed over the past few years, and I'm contemplating trying to find some local accounts to supplement my income. Is this a viable option? Worried about tings like insurance, pricing and actual quality of jewelry outside of the high end pieces I'm used to. Anythoughts would be appreciated
 

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