Monday, April 24, 2006

Needled by the bottom line

Time to reconcile my financial insights with my financially-crippling hobby :P

But first, a preamble: Here are few thoughts on embroidery/stitchy/crafty designers' success factors.
This is a semi op-ed. I welcome feedback if readers actually manage to muddle through this ramble and make something of what I'm writing. I'm not an expert, but I have a lot of opinions which sometimes want to get shared :)

Monday finds me in a slightly thoughtful mood. You see, I've gotten extremely encouraging reviews about my recent creative foray into 'doing my own thing'... and somehow, readers caught the nonchalantly-written "I have this dream to design one day", and followed up with a lot of positive feedback and green lights. Which, of course, means "I have to try designing now!"

Come Monday, reality hits... designing for fun is well and good. But how many professional designers really get the bucks? (trust a financial writer to think about this, huh?) Well, let's look at cross stitch.

So I took a look at Hoffman Distributing, and had a look at the amount of designers there. Then took a piece of paper and took down the number of more recognisable "Brands" or designer's names or their publishers.

Off the top of my head, the ten that were most resonant(those that immediately come to my mind, that is) were:
1) Mirabilia
2) Lavendar & Lace
3) Lizzie Kate
4) Just Nan
6) Drawn Thread
7) Teresa Wentzler (through any publisher)
8) Victoria Sampler
9) Vermilion Stitchery
10) Passione Ricamo

Then there are the ones which are not sold via Hoffman's -- some of these are Heaven and Earth Designs, Chatelaine, Longdog, Anagram Diffusion. These are some of the biggest names in cross stitch/needlework today.

Personally, I don't do drawn thread, and I'm not a Lizzie Kate fan. But LK has legions of fans, just as TW, HAED have their own commercial support base. Longdog and Jan Houtman pretty much almost have a cult following of its own. Never mind the price, if we like the design, we will find the means to get it in our hot little hands sooner or later.

So what makes the X-Factor for these designers? Why do some designers do well, others are middling, and even then, a large number of them fail? Many of the factors that affect a business that is based on creativity differ from one company to another.

So, let's examine this for the sake of trying to see or help an industry work better (and help me pass a really boring Monday watching the stock market ahahahaha!)

a) A constant stream of creative ideas. Stitchers want variety. Yes, we are spoilt for choice, because there is so many to pick from. But cross stitch is also like fashion. There are seasons that are hot (like christmas, july 4th if you're American) and seasons that are not (like, when everyone has stashed too much and needs to go on a shopping diet).

But whatever it is, cross stitchers/needlepointers/embroiderers/whathaveyou are constantly on the lookout for new patterns, because it is a little something special to add to a collection. Whether we want to stitch it or not, it doesn't matter. Buying translates into sales.

Good examples: constant stream of releases. Mirabilia does about one a month or so. Passione Ricamo is fairly regular. Each time a release comes out, stitchers are just waiting to buy. The best example I can give is HAED, which releases an low-end average of 3-4 new charts per week. That's 12-16 new charts people can buy, folks. That's more credit cards being swiped.

b) A constant need to experiment. Designers have to move away from the traditional. I had a mini-msging frenzy on my HAED BB with fudgeykat on the topic getting in the new stitchers. Let's face it again. People age, they eventually die. The little old grannies we all have still stitch, but these little old ladies won't always be around.

What do designers need? New stitchers! An ever changing, evolving and hopefully, increasing population of stitchers. It doesn't matter what we stitch, as long as more people stitch.

She, a former textiles teacher, raised one very good point that some designers have taken note of - stitching is a creative pastime, so people should feel encouraged to learn new styles/techniques.

Bottom line: You need young people interested in it, and new people learning how wonderful this hobby is in order to not just keep it alive, but keep it evolving. Of course, the days of the "flowers and landscape" patterns are long gone since the 1990s cross stitch rennaisance... but I feel sometimes that there isn't enough encouragement for stitchers to test out new things. But there are exceptions.

Once again, Mira as with L&L, makes the list with its beads, blending filament... when I was a new stitcher and I found out about textures, I was fascinated. Why shouldn't other stitchers be?

Drawn Thread and Indigo Rose are also fairly creative with 'textures'. But perhaps the most 'texturally fascinating' one of the lot is Chatelaine. Designer Martina Weber brings in loads of beads (Delicas, I think). Some charts require well over 1,000 of these little suckers. And then there are silks, skeins and skeins of them, from NPI or Caron.

And then there's specialty fibres, like Rainbow Gallery. Expensive? Yes. Do people buy them? YES. Do people go nuts and STILL continue to buy them? Do you even need to ask? Even if it doesn't, Chatelaine offers a chart conversion to good old DMC (thanks, Jenifer/loveforbeanies, for the tip) so that saves cost for stitchers on a budget.

I have a fair inkling that Chatelaine stitchers must number in the high hundreds at the least. But to look at more visible figures, Ebay prices for DT and Indigo Rose often start a 1 dollar and rise up to well above ten bucks. There's gotta be a reason for this, i.e. why they are so much wanted.

c) Value for money. Any crafter who stashes -- and who doesn't -- tends to look for the biggest bang for their buck. This means nice designs, yummy fibres, low price if possible. More crunch time for the designers, but the business world is not meant to be a bed of roses for any player.

Here's what I've seen work: Price something low enough that many people can afford it and will buy without much hesitation but high enough you make your margins work (good e.g - HAED at $15 to $21 per full size chart, $7 for Quickstitchers/Storykeeps...I figure, if stitchers budget properly, they can afford at the very least 1 chart a month, or if you're a super skinflint like me, 1 a quarter or more and bank on the kindness of brothers and boyfriends).

Teresa Wentzler releases one design, prices it at about eight bucks and stitchers go mad). There ARE anomalies like Jan Houtman, Genny Morrow's Nova *drool *, even some of the Longdogs go for higher than average prices, but many people consider these as 'specialty' charts.

Second point: Sales.
Stitchers love sales. I've seen buying and RAK frenzy at sales(HAED again) and it's wonderful. I've seen my local LNS give out year-end coupons for its fabric, and charts and we all make use of it. And it doesn't stop there. Sometimes I think designers make more with discounted charts as stitchers go on a spree of purchases, rather than regular price. But I could be wrong.

Still, Designers and LNSes don't just help themselves with sales. The whole economy benefits from a single little sale! Btw, even your measly 24 cents per skein of DMC at Walmart USA helps to drive the american economy... every time I buy something, I remind myself I am helping the country I am in, less guilt for my conscience, more groans from Uncle Visa, but for the time being, let it groan)

d) A desire or need to constantly connect with fans/High level of accessibility
This is like a 50-50 scenario. I understand a stitcher buying just to get a nice chart, and eventually a nice picture or finish. A fan, however, transforms that whole context into something else -- they identify with the chart/picture, and in some ways, they also identify with the designer.

I believe designers that dont recognise this and impose a 'wall' between them and their stitchers are designers that DON'T know how to mold them into fans. (once again, might I remind everyone - a fan buys lots of charts, a stitcher might buy just one or two).

Designers listen to their stitchers. Yes, they do. Much like an author who writes for himself(don't believe the crap about 'i do this for myself' in mags) is an author with a reader population of 1. Or at most 10, after what you can selll to friends.

Nora Corbett (Mirabilia) makes a remark in the Mira Yahoo! group and it sparks off a flurry of replies. Marc Sastaad (The Silver Lining) makes frequent appereances at shows, and I believe he's even designed a special chart or two... one is for the OLNS 1-2-3 Stitch. Not only do the LNS love that sort of attention, they're more likely to promote it longer and advertise it to their regular customers more.
HAED is also now famed for its attention to customer service, often boasting of a quick turnaround time in replies and chart delivery.
One of the most personal designers I've met is Vermillion Stitchery's Donna V. Giampa, who personally answers emails and queries. She did my two queries in less than 24 hours, and she was polite, professional and friendly. I felt special, like she valued my question. Now that's what I call service.

Letting stitchers know you are "out there and they can find you" (in a positive, non sick unstalker way, of course) keeps you in our hearts and our minds, and I think it is *likely that we look forward to what next chart you will come up to capture our imagination with.

Sort of, a d) Again, new new new things to do! I can't stress this enough. Keep up with the new release, and people will want to stitch more. Even if you develop a 'signature look' of your own (JUlia Line, Long dog, and the ever popular Ellen Maurer STroh, and Stoney Creek which does huge loads of Paula Vaughn .... these are the savvy ones).

THe analogies of fandom are huge. Look at books, look at music ... they know what works. Cross stitch isn't a big business, but the crafting industry is -- so I believe for designers, there are a lot of commercial opportunities out there. All they have to do is grab it with the right tool and right attitude. I believe that positivism, a little hard work and encouragement, ultimately, are the best pointers to success


Milady Insanity said...

Well said!

I have nothing to add on, except that I think the crafts industry isn't doing very much to attract young stitchers, especially since there's no 'bridge.'

Books have the young-adult genre. What does the young cross-stitcher have?

LizzieKate and the like are often too sweet for teens who are edgier (the innovators if you want to use Cool Hunter speak). For the artists, patterns from the likes of HAED are too big--and the QSes are soooo confettied (not Detail stitches), most beginners would give up.

And some LNS owners don't take young stitchers seriously, because they can't afford to buy much. They do not get the concept of grooming AND keeping young customers at all.

Michelle said...

I agree with the previous post. My daughter, who is 12 find LK and Bent Creek very "easy" and so fun to do, because they have instant gratification. However, those teens are a bit difficult to please, as we all know. There really isn't anything USA side that would appeal. Of course, I think we lose the teens during those years... it depends on if cross stitching is "fun" for them when they were younger.

Case in point: I adore jigsaw puzzles. I want them, I buy them, I cannot help myself but put pieces in when I pass someone else's work... why? because I did these with my grandmother. ALL THE TIME. and we had great fun. I was "taught" early that jigsaws were fun...are we teaching our children that stitching is fun????

Another point that i caught was that the designers who take 5 minute out a month to respond to a newsgroup or BB... man, do they have a following... WOW. It's like these people are GODS. Yes, they design, and they design beautifully, but they are not perfect people. case in point here is Martina Weber. I am on her newsgroup and that poor woman has gone through more crap in the last year. It's terrible! Yet she designs the most beautiful pieces! But she is not afraid to get on the BB and tell people that she has left her husband, or that she is feeling ill. All of that makes her a real person. And for all of our stash collecting, people who stitch have -feelings- and we care about one another. I want to buy something to make Martina feel better every time she posts! And really, just because she posts and makes you feel "real", she isn't any more real, but there you have it. It's that whole sympathy thing women have ingrained.

I agree with almost everything you have said. (I say almost just in case I skipped over something that I need to defend later!!!!!!

LOL... you did a good job in looking at the marketing aspect. I have fallen out of love with designers because they released too much too quick ( and actually mira is a good example of this...when I am skimping, by the time I can by the second one, it's old and the three or four new ones are out!) or they use too much or too little of the specialty threads or embellishments.

I am a collector though. I have over 2500 charts and about that many fibers. I am never afraid to try new stuff, and like to be on the cutting edge. Even though my kid doens't xs right now, I have no doubt she will. People like me, and she is, always needs to be creative and constructive in their down time.... and we want our down time to be beautiful.... :) thank you for sharing your thoughts!