You’ve heard all the stories about the great quantities of money it takes to start a business. Consultants from everywhere will tell you that unless you have thousands of dollars in reserve, don’t even think about starting in business for yourself. They’ll point out all the “T’s” that have to be crossed… an all the “I’s” that have to be dotted. The infrastructure of paperwork and administration that must be created. The inventories that you’ll have to accumulate and countless other “hurtles” that must be crossed before the first dime crosses your hand. When you talk to local authorities they will be happy to educate you about all the taxes and licenses you’ll need to acquire and the cost involved with inspectors coming by to make sure you’ve complied with everything they require. The phone company will want to charge you more and the power company will want to invoke their “commercial” rate for you. At the same time, the banks will want to close your credit cards, call in any loans due and won’t even offer a small line of credit for overdraft protection! Then they’ll double your monthly service charge and start coming up with fees for you to even deposit money. In short, everyone has their hand out trying to suck every last nickel out of you before you even get started!
Now if you have just inherited a couple hundred thousand dollars from a rich relative or if you were lucky enough to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth then the traditional route of starting into business is for you! Unfortunately not many of us are in that position… and if we waited for it to happen we’d be punching that time clock and collecting someone else’s idea of “just compensation” for the rest of our lives! At this point here’s an important thing to remember… All these rules and regulations were made by people who were already in business and who wanted to keep you from becoming their competition! Then, they hire a bunch of “employees” to enforce the rules who have never ever created their own business. Collectively this group of people conspire to do whatever they can to keep the elusive door to self-employment closed. You can’t blame all the established businesses from attempting to maintain the “status quo,” after all, they are making money and they want to keep it that way! But there is a way around the conspiracy and art and craft shows offer the perfect vehicle.
To begin with, whether you choose art or one of the crafts, the choice is irrelevant because the system works the same. There is no reason to “cut yourself off at the knees” right from the beginning, so as you start creating your work, don’t bother to tell anyone. Sure you’ll eventually have to comply with everything, but until you have a product and someone to sell it to, you have no business… only an idea. Why burden yourself with all kinds of concerns until you know you’ll be creating things on a regular basis. Once you do start selling, then is the time to make certain you comply with the proper business requirements. Most of the time though, you won’t have to pay for commercial utilities unless you’re using those utilities in great quantities. For the most part we’re just creating a small “sideline” business… not a factory.
Since we’re working with our “non-existent” budget, you’ll want to choose an art or a craft that is labor intensive… not material intensive. Stay away from t-shirts, dresses, wood products and other items that require a sizeable investment. You may want to consider something more like calligraphy or carving which is low on the materials side, but high on the talent side. If you do choose something that requires a fair amount of material, you’ll want to create something out of someone else’s junk. For instance, I have a friend that tears apart shipping palettes he gets for free and then he makes a wide array of “primitive” sort of wood products and signs. Another exhibitor I met creates beautiful garden lanterns out of old tin cans! Mother nature can supply a lot of great materials too. Grape vines are everywhere for wreaths, pine needles for basket weaving, seashells for all kinds of things from jewelry to picture frames, driftwood for carving, decoration, old barn siding makes wonderful picture frames, furniture, carving material and lots more. Free materials for your projects are virtually everywhere, you’ve just got to let your imagination run wild!
Don’t have the money for a canopy just yet? You will eventually need one (or a good doctor for the skin cancer you’ll get instead.) But to begin with, there are plenty of events that you can do in outdoor shopping centers where your canopy will be the overhang from the shops in the center. You can also find quite a few shows that offer limited indoor space… make sure to explain your situation to the show promoter. Another alternative is to simply gear your display to an outdoor sort of setting. This is a particularly good idea if you’ll be using “natural” sort of materials in your work. Chances are even bad weather won’t harm the work and your “canopy” can be as simple as a chair with an umbrella.
In an attempt to save money I’ve also seen a lot of people use some sort of a wooden frame with tarps stretched over it or clear plastic over a frame. These kind of things usually don’t work out to much of a savings and they really look bad. Here’s a case where someone is trying to be a bit too cheap and the result is neither attractive, functional or inexpensive. Some of the inexpensive “garden” type canopies are a possible alternative. Although these usually don’t last very long because they aren’t designed for this type of use, they may get you through a show or two so you can then afford to invest in a more durable, professional canopy. Sides are important in most cases because of unpredictable weather and I’ve seen people use cheap shower curtains as sides. Just put the shower curtain rings over the canopy side poles and there you go… a whole set of sides for under $10.00!
Creating a display doesn’t have to break the budget either. It’s always nice to have one of those professional looking displays that make your work look simply outstanding… and they really do work. But the reality is that they also cost a bunch of money which if you remember… we don’t have. So there are a number of creative solutions. In the past, we’ve used cardboard boxes covered with contact paper… Coke crates we got from a bottle vendor… fruit packing crates we got from Publix for free… old jewelry displays we rescued from Wal-Mart’s garbage and more! We’ve even used our storage bins turned upside down with a piece of $.50 per yard fabric elegantly draped over the side to disguise what was underneath. I’ve seen people use rocks they’ve gathered up, barbed wire, hardware cloth, chicken wire, old doors, you name it and it’s probably been in someone’s display. Here’s another area where you can be creative and the materials to create an interesting and effective display are laying all around you to be had either for free or close to it.
Now lets pick a couple of shows. Although you may like to participate in some legendary show you’ve heard of with hundreds of thousands of customers, chances are you’re not going to get in with your non-existent budget. They also usually require huge show fees because that’s how they afford the advertising to get those huge crowds. But there are plenty of inexpensive shows listed in our guide… even some free ones. Some of these events will let you pay after the first day’s sales too! Even some of the bigger shows will let you do that from time to time. There are also some events that will let you reserve space with a small deposit rather than the entire amount up front. Find a couple of these type of events, make some money and then reinvest it back into some of the shows that require up front fees. Remember, an exhibitor without a show has nowhere to sell… but a show without exhibitors doesn’t have a show at all! Particularly if your work is real nice and you’re an honest sort of person you’ll be surprised at how many people will “bend” the rules a bit to let you in. If they’re inflexible, don’t worry about it. With the thousands of shows we list in our guide every year you’ll find someone to let you in… it may be the next call you make!
We’ve chosen what we’re doing… we’ve created the work… the display is in place… the show is booked… now lets figure out a way to get there. Personally I’d like to arrive by Silver Eagle bus after I’ve disembarked from my private aircraft and arrive at the show with everything already set up by the road crew who arrived the day before to make certain everything was setup perfectly so I could sell like crazy to the long lines of buyers waiting to give me money. Fantasy you say? Well yeah it is… but what they heck as long as we’re dreaming it might as well be good! Actually I remember arriving at my first show in my old diesel VW Rabbit with two tables strapped to the top with ropes. We wrapped everything in plastic in case it rained (which it did… hey, we’re in Florida). That poor old car was so loaded that I just prayed I didn’t hit any bumps in the road and it took me two exits on I-95 just to get up to 55 mph. Unfortunately the road crew never showed up, so I dragged everything off the roof and apologized to the shock absorbers for testing them so much. I was really hoping to sell at least a few things because I came to the show with enough money to only buy about half the fuel it was going to require to get back home (provided I didn’t eat or drink anything all day). The moral of the story here is simple… you can adapt just about anything that will roll to get you to the show! If you don’t have a car, you may be able to cut a friend in on a percentage of the take if they’ll give you a ride to the event. At this point you probably won’t have a $10,000 inventory so the type of transportation you use isn’t as important as getting there. When you use this type of transportation method it is best if you don’t book an event too far from home. Even when we got our first van we didn’t like to book an event any further away than AAA would tow us home!
While you’re at the show you do have to eat, so always try to pack something from home. The food vendors at the show are trying to make a living too so their prices will be geared toward the shoppers not toward the other exhibitors. You can fill up a gallon jug with water and make a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to pack in a small cooler with ice you get from your freezer. Even if you have to bring the kids with you chances are you can keep you entire food budget under a couple of dollars which is the amount you’d spend even if you never went to the show and stayed home. If you’re lucky, you may find a food vendor that likes your work and would be willing to trade food for product. This is a good deal for both of you and everyone gets what they want! You may also be able to trade with other vendors for items you want. At a slow show this is a great way for you to stock up on birthday, wedding or Christmas presents without laying out any money. When both parties want to trade everyone wins!
Everything’s in place… here come the customers. A lot of people will probably pay you in cash, but several will also want to write checks. Since you’ve kept all your expenses to a minimum you won’t have a business checking account… but you probably have a personal one. Just have everyone write a check to your personal name rather than some business name. Most people expect that at these kind of events and have no problem with the practice. PLUS… you save hundreds of dollars in bank fees by maintaining a personal “Free” checking account which many banks offer to non-business customers. Accounting software is a great way to track all the sales you’ll be making, but a simple 50 cent notepad will work just as well in the beginning. Make certain to write down every sale and keep track of how much goes to you and how much goes to sales tax. You’ll need both figures to properly file both Federal and State taxes… and yes… cash sales do count! At the end of the day you count up your money (to make sure it matches the sales on your notepad), pack everything back into the car and head down the highway toward home so you can do it all again next week. You’ve just completed your first show and chances are you were able to do it without laying out much up front cash at all. In fact, by watching every dime carefully you can probably do everything for less money than you’d spend for a pair of shoes at a mall. You don’t have to be rich to start out in this business… sometimes you just have to think “outside of the box.” The reality of limited finances forces you to find alternative ways to create, market, transport and sell your product. In fact some of the most successful businesses in America were started on a shoestring. It’s wonderful to have this kind of opportunity to succeed in business, and we’re glad to be a part of an industry that offers everyone the chance to make the most of their creative abilities regardless of finances. Every day exhibitors are proving the old adage… “Where there’s a will… there’s always a way!”