Bruce Baker has a long history in the field of art. With a background as a jeweler, retail store owner, writer, teacher, consultant, and mentor for artists and craftspeople, Bruce is a major force in educating creative entrepreneurs who are building their businesses. He teaches a course for the Arts Business Institute called “Wholesale 101”, and agreed to speak about his students and the challenges they face.
ABI: Who comes to learn at the Arts Business Institute?
Bruce: It ranges from young people entering the field and not having a clue how to start – especially if they come from the “DIY” side of making art, to aging boomers who have already worked in a job, and are now entering the field as a part of retirement plan. It extends to both ends of the spectrum.
I also see people who worked in the medical profession, having worked hard all their lives taking care of other people, who now want to take care of themselves. There are teachers, and others who have always worked for someone else, either admin or sales, and also a lot of ex-military people who are taking early retirements.
Having their own business is their dream, but they don’t realize how hard it’s going to be in the handmade realm.
They may have taken art in school, if only as an elective, but it planted a seed. They loved art, but somebody in their family said – “Don’t do that, you can’t make a living”, and they weren’t taken seriously. So that little seedling that was alive in their soul just knew someday it was going to get out.
ABI: What about art majors who didn’t get business education at art school?
Bruce: There are people who have art training, but I find that ironically, the ones who do best in the field, prior to going to ABI, far and away are people who come through business school, and art kind of leaks in. They have a better shot at making a living than the people who are artists who try to launch a business and just want to create art, but don’t know what to do with the business end.
There are others who aren’t as creative or as technically astute, but they have a better shot at making positive cash flow and a viable business. It all boils down to left brain/right brain balance.
If you are going to be successful, you have to have some level of balance, or hire somebody to fill in the gaps, who knows the business side. That is really what separates the wheat from the chaff. I meet fabulous artists all the time – they just can’t make a living because they don’t have a business model, a business plan.
ABI: What are some of the biggest mistakes artists are making in their businesses?
Bruce: Coming out of college, the biggest mistake artists make is thinking they are just going to walk down the street, walk into a gallery and all of a sudden be off and running. It does happen once in a blue moon that somebody comes out of nowhere, but not normally. Artists need to remember that it is a building process.
For other people, I think their biggest mistake is not sitting down and taking care of their business plan.
Sometimes, artists think they can stop doing shows and just sell retail from a website. I hear that frequently. It’s a dream because if you do retail shows and you make a sale, it is possible to have customers go to your website and buy MORE PRODUCT, BUT AS A COLD SALE (MEANING THAT YOU HAVE NOT MET THEM FACE TO FACE) IT’S REALLY HARD ON THE WEB.
ABI: What are you teaching them in your Wholesale 101 class?
Bruce: Product line is first and foremost. A product line that is marketable, that has a price range, and a cohesive body – and an artist’s identity. Some artists have a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and there is no cohesiveness to it. They believe that because they have made something, it will sell. That’s not so.
How you display it is second. If you don’t capture the buyers attention, at both wholesale and retail venues when they are walking by, and literally pull them into the space, you don’t have a shot at selling them. It’s a lot of merchandising techniques – from using multiple levels in your display, large format photography on your walls, not having your booth look overcrowded. You create that artist identity.
A lot of people fail in this by turning their booth into “interior design” when they make their booth a work of art, rather than making it operate so that the booth works to showcase their products. It’s a missed opportunity – you go up to a booth and they will have product on what they think is the perfect table covering, but it’s so busy that you can’t even see the product.
Third is how you deal with the prospect who comes into your booth. What do you say that doesn’t turn them off? You pull them into the space, and whether you can engage the customer determines whether they will write an order or walk away.
On the back end, Wholesale 101 is about knowing the language and protocol of selling wholesale. This includes terms, payment, and other topics.