Matt Thomas attended an Arts Business Institute workshop in 2009. He shares his story, and secrets to his impressive success at wholesaling.
ABI: You literally started your business “by accident”. Can you tell us what happened?
MT: Before my success at the Buyers Market of American Craft in 2012, I worked as a General Contractor. I worked on all phases of construction, from concrete to roofing. At that time, I also built some furniture and handmade gifts as a supplement to my construction work.
That all changed when, approximately one year ago, I took one wrong step on a wet roof and I fell 16 feet to the ground. I found myself lying in a hospital bed for three days with a broken vertebra in my lower back, desperately trying to figure out what I was going to do now to support my family of 5 (soon to be 6).
In the months that followed, all the pieces seemed to fall perfectly into place. The Tamarack Foundation visited me in the hospital and offered to do anything they could to help me recover. They provided me with some immediate financial relief through their Artisan Relief Program, and then offered far more help when they chose me to participate in the February, 2012 Buyers Market show.
The Tamarack Foundation made all the show arrangements for me to participate, which enabled me to continue refining my product and developing my marketing materials. The Foundation also defrayed the booth fee, provided the ProPanel display material and mentored eight West Virginia artisans to ensure our success.
When I was chosen to exhibit at the show, I was elated. I hoped that by making the most of the opportunity I was given, I could regain the income source I had lost, and to work from home. With the support of the Tamarack Foundation and the possibilities made available at the Buyer’s Market of American Craft, it happened! At the show I wrote orders with 58 galleries, from Maine to California.
ABI: What type of work do you make, and what are your bestsellers?
MT: Thomas|work is unique because it blends both metal and wood into a variety of products. As a self-taught woodworker, I apprenticed with an internationally recognized blacksmith to obtain both skills. My high-end production work incorporates hand-forged iron vines that wrap around Cherry Accent Tables. We also offer products that are singular in their materials. Our bestsellers are the Sushi sets. I wholesale them as a complete set, with the footed plate and the chopsticks, for $25.00. Customers that are not sushi fans will often pick up one of our Serving/Cutting boards instead, wholesale $16.00-25.00.
ABI: When preparing for your first trade show at the Buyer’s Market last February, how did you publicize your work?
MT: I took the advice that Rebecca Mercado offered in the webinars and I ran with it. One of the main pearls of wisdom that I took from the forum was to send out an advanced mailing that introduced my work to shop owners.
I put together an impressive mailing that consisted of a full-size folder which held glossy photos, a brochure, postcard, and a press release. Everything was branded and personalized with the Thomas|work logo and with Thomas|work product shots. At the time I thought I was potentially wasting a lot of time and money with the mailing, but it worked like magic. Approximately 60-70% of my new accounts came as a result of the mailing.
In keeping with the handmade spirit, virtually everything was done “in-house.” I did the photography myself and created all the marketing materials online. Including postage, I spent about $1,000.00 on the materials for 200 mailings. I am certain that if I had contracted a professional firm for photography, layout and printing, the cost would have been much more.
I also ran an ad in the BMAC show guide.
ABI: What techniques did you use to entice wholesale buyers to place an order at the show?
MT: I intended to simplify the buying experience with a “show special.” I grouped together a small variety pack of my work that makes a nice showing in a gallery. As an incentive to purchase the show special, I reduced the wholesale price approximately $40.00, and offered free shipping. It worked like a charm! It gave me a great way to “break the ice” as I explained the features of the show special to interested buyers, and nearly every order that I wrote started with it.
ABI: Matt, given such great success out of the gate, you must have some secrets! Can you give some of your best recommendations for other artists who wholesale?
MT: My best advice… move to West Virginia, and befriend the great people at the Tamarack Foundation!
Short of that, you need to develop a product that has three main elements. It needs to be desirable to the consumer, it needs to support keystone pricing easily, and it must be profitable for you to make. Most importantly, you have to put your work in front of gallery owners in some way.
I had several buyers tell me that in the world of e-mail and social media solicitation, it was refreshing to receive tangible marketing that was well done and informative.