Great Handmade Gifts: Gifts to Grow On [Washington Woman]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
Washington Woman magazine
Cover story, page 10
The Birth Of A Business
The idea for Great Handmade Gifts came to me shortly after my husband Mike and I had moved our family from Old Town, Alexandria to western Fairfax County in the summer of 2000. We came in search of good schools and a house big enough to hold our two children and our two businesses (I have been a freelance writer since 1993, Mike has been a freelance illustrator since 1980). We got all that plus three community pools, two tennis courts, tons of tall trees and lots of nice neighbors.
By Christmas I was miserable.
I missed the energy and excitement of being near a city. I missed being able to plop my kids in the stroller and walk to a nearby coffee shop or bike down to the river. I wanted to go home. Only, I was home.
My oldest child Anna, then five, had just started kindergarten and it had taken her several months to feel settled. When I grumbled about wanting to move, she gave me a look that said, “Please, Mom. No.”
I knew, even without even her abject plea, we were staying put. It wasn’t that our new life was terrible. It wasn’t what I was used to. I knew I’d have to adapt.
Opportunity came knocking that holiday season when several neighbors started delivering plates of Christmas cookies. I thought, “How nice.” Then, I started to panic: I wanted to reciprocate their kindness, but having me bake would not be a treat. Trust me. Then it dawned on me. Mike had given me beeswax the previous year so we could roll Hanukkah candles. That was the answer! The kids and I would make candles for all the neighbors, in lieu of plates of cookies I’d surely have burnt.
For the next week, Anna and Dylan, then 2, helped me roll and wrap the waxy creations in tissue paper and ribbon. It was a big hit—and the experience got me thinking. Perhaps I could make candles and sell them in stores? I’d call my company Great Handmade Gifts, sell the art and crafts of others—like my husband—go to craft shops and shows, and put up a website to sell our wares online. The whole company seemed to form itself in a heartbeat.
But what this a good idea?
Growing Great Gifts
Although I knew my seedling of an organization had merit, the economy was shaky in 2000. And with two small children to care for and a freelance career to manage, I was busy enough. I wasn’t sure if it was the right time to add “craft shop entrepreneur” to my resume.
I spent several months pondering my options. Then came the events of September 11. Suddenly, I had a new perspective. It became apparent that life is short and precious, and if I wanted to give Great Handmade Gifts as good a time as any. I began to flesh out my fantasy.
The first task was to test my concept with my own crafts before involving anyone else. Years ago, my best girlfriend Jill taught me how make crystal and beaded jewelry so I knew I could go into production with those. About the same time, a friend introduced me to wine rings, a circle of jewels to place around the base of a wineglass at a party to help track of which one is yours. “I can make these,” I told my husband, holding one in my hand. And I did.
For about a month, I played with a handful of designs before feeling ready to package them and show them to my friend Suzanne McGrath, owner of the Curious Grape wine shop in Shirlington, VA. She agreed to buy a few sets. They sold out within weeks, and she bought some more. I was officially in business.
Soon after, I decided the time seemed right to develop the network and pick a date to share my concept with the world. I booked the neighborhood recreation center for November 6, 2001, made a few thousand flyers, and phoned all of my crafty friends. Many joined in on the fun, and gave me the names of their crafty friends. The Mommy Network was growing.
At last, the big night arrived. The butterflies in my stomach seemed to be having a party of their own as the network’s artists, friends, husbands of friends, and my family arrived to set up the show. As the clock ticked closer to 7 p.m., I poured everyone a glass of wine—and said a little prayer.
Within 15 minutes, more than 100 people had arrived to our makeshift marketplace—and most of them shopped. Hoping to attract more last-minute Christmas shoppers, I scheduled two more shows for December. Quickly, though, I learned why CEOs keep bottles of Tums on their desks: As in parenting, in the world of entrepreneurship few things go as planned.
The Show Must Go On
Weeks before the next big event, I got a phone call from one of my suppliers. It was the eve of Thanksgiving night, and the owner of the delivery company that I’d hired to distribute 2,500 of my invitations to nearby neighborhoods said he had a problem.
He’d handed out 1,000 of the invites before passing one to a resident who upon reading it had become irate. Among the crafts and crafters on our list was a Springfield mom who makes Crone Stones, small ceramic meditative discs born of her years as a social worker and therapist. She had quit her job to stay at home and raise her daughter, and was selling these to make extra money—but also to help other women feel calm, happy, and in tune.
This irate neighbor, however, was convinced the Stones were the devil’s handiwork.
“Are these Crone Stone things like Tarot cards?” the delivery company owner wanted to know. “I don’t think so,” I stammered, for the question was so unexpected, and the complaint seemed so absurd. “Well, this neighbor thinks they are, and we don’t distribute anything that has to do with the occult.”
I went numb. I was sad for my artist friend—and really ticked off that all of those invitations weren’t going to be delivered. How was I going to advertise the upcoming events? By delivering them myself, I decided.
I called several friends who schlepped along with me, and mailed out the rest. It was an expensive, time-consuming approach, but despite everything the events were successful. Customers came. They shopped. We made money.
But I was learning some tough lessons. The biggest challenge was trying to convince the legions of stay-at-home moms that they needed to invest in their businesses to help them grow. What I didn’t take into account was that although making money was important to them, it was a distant second to raising their kids.
Getting into the retail industry was also a revelation. I had no idea that many women prefer post earring backs to wires. I like wires. But of course I started stocking sterling silver and gold-filled non-allergenic nickel-free earring posts. I also found that although many of the Mommy Network gals made beautiful greeting cards—that wasn’t something anyone really wanted to buy. When no one bought their cards, those women dropped out. Handpainted wine glasses also weren’t a big hit; shoppers didn’t know how to wash them.
The bottom line: I was green. Shoppers can be fickle. I began to feel the stress, and so did my family. It was the dead of winter 2002, and I was at a crossroads.
Creating The Life You Love
I called my friend, Donna Maria Coles Johnson, founder of the Bowie-based Handmade Toiletries Network. She writes “Creating the Life You Love,” a column that offers advice to 3,400-plus female entrepreneurs who subscribe to her weekly online newsletter.
Her advice to me? “Don’t give up. To be happy in your life and your career, you have to do what you love,” she said. “Things that are worthwhile are rarely easy. So stick it out, even when times seem terrible and frustrating and you want to give up. Eventually, success will follow. Just
hang in there.”
She was right. In the day since I signed those papers of incorporation, I have watched Great Handmade Gifts go from infant to toddler that’s steady on her feet. Having watched my own two children power their way through this giant phase of life, I know that even though “baby go boom”—a lot—this is really the fun part.
In 2003, we’ll launch our fully functioning e-commerce website, begin publishing an e-newsletter, and open the network to many more artists and crafters.
And, I have a new dream. I’d love to someday open The Great Handmade Gifts Shop and Art Gallery—a spot where people can shop, gather, and have a terrific cup of coffee … just like the terrific spots I used to frequent in Old Town. Who knows? Maybe believing deeply enough in a dream is the secret to making it come true.
After all, my babies were just a gleam in my eye when I moved to Washington, DC nearly a decade ago. Right now, they both need dinner and a bath, So, you just never know.
Hope Katz Gibbs is a freelance writer, wife and mother of two, and the founder of Great Handmade Gifts, Inc. lf you’d like to shop online, join her network, or find out more about the company, log onto www.GreatHandmadeGifts. com, or send Hope an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.