Monday, 28 November 2011

Happy Mega Monday!

It's the last Monday in November, the day that some bright spark with a marketing degree has dubbed "Mega Monday" (also known as "Cyber Monday"). The trend over the last few years is for this day to be the busiest of the year for internet retailers, marking the start of a 2 week online shopping spree. Being the first Monday after the November payday, everyone knows exactly how much they've got to spend on the festivities. In America, it's the first Monday after Thanksgiving, which is when the nation's psyche switches towards thinking about Christmas. Ordering now also gives plenty of time for goods to be delivered in time to be wrapped without a last minute panic.

Visa are predicting 4.8 million British people will buy online today, spending around £303 million on their credit and debit cards. It's also expected to be the first year when Christmas shopping on smartphones becomes mainstream, with an estimated 12.2% of purchases made on mobile devices.

So if you're one of those browsing the web for gifts, this is a good time to remind you to shop around and don't just go to the obvious sites. The world is full of small independent traders who depend on your purchases much more than the major companies do. You'll end up with very unique arts, crafts, clothing, food, furniture, etc which your loved ones will treasure a lot more than all the mass-produced stuff you'll find in the big retailers.

So, in the hope you'll want to spread a bit of Christmas cheer my way, here's my handy guide to everything you can currently buy from me. Just click the pictures to take you to the appropriate stores:

Café Press:
13 individual stores, each one containing around 200 clothes, gifts, homeware and more. All the products shown here are available in each of the stores.

There are 4 special shops for Christmas. Here you can stock up on unique Christmas cards and decorations...

...winter warmers...

...essentials to get you through the festivities...

...and mementoes of baby's first Christmas.

•Note: Prices shown in GB£ are converted from US$ are may therefore vary due to international exchange rates.

My Zazzle store currently stocks 3 product ranges.

Font Islands: Stunningly detailed and realistic 3D graphics available on mugs (which can be customised with the recipient's name), mouse mats and shopping bags.

Flags: Grungy flags on a variety of background colours can be bought on badges, magnets, keyrings and an assortment of T-shirts. Currently available for the UK; USA; France; Germany; Ireland; Italy; South Africa; Japan; Canada; Australia and New Zealand.

Animal T-shirts: Illustrations based on a salmon, peacock and stag.

A lot of the work in my DeviantArt portfolio is also available for purchase. This can be bought on wall art; greetings cards; coasters; magnets; mouse mats; mugs; postcards and puzzles. Look for the little bag symbol to see what's for sale, here are a few samples to whet your appetite.

Happy shopping!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Sink Or Swim!

After 2 long weeks of being told "wait until your next appointment and they'll sort it then," on Thursday I actually managed to sit down with an advisor at the Job Centre and made them sign me up for the New Enterprise Allowance scheme (NEA).

You can imagine the look of bewilderment on the man's face as he clutched entirely the wrong forms and had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. Even though my clearance had been sitting on their computer for a fortnight. I had to feel sorry for him though. He'd just come back from being off long-term sick, so hey, who better to administrate a programme he's had absolutely no experience of?

Cue the typical arse/elbow recognition lesson. It took 3 members of staff before anyone knew which buttons needed pressing, but even he couldn't tell me those tiny little details like... well... when the heck I can expect to get any money. I guess it's going to be lucky dip at the cashpoint for the next couple of weeks!

Eventually, the forms were signed, I'd taught the advisor a bit about how to do his own job, the little signing-on booklet that's been my constant companion for the last 2½ years got left on the desk and I walked out of that Job Centre officially self-employed.

Oh boy.

Even though the NEA provides me with a benefits cushion for 6 months, I know that time will soon fly by and I've got to make sure I'm in a strong enough position to strike out and survive on my own.

That's the scary bit I mentioned in my last post. The trouble that could trip me over and see me end up finally bankrupt. I've got to master something I have absolutely no idea how to do and which frustrates me when people don't respond in the way I need them to.

I've got to get people to part with their money.

I'm not one of those charismatic sorts that has people hanging on my every word. I haven't got a cute sob story to trade off. I've never had people rushing to my aid when I've been in trouble or who'll go singing my praises to someone who could be a great help. I don't have thousands of Twitter followers or get long streams of comments on my Facebook. I've only got 12 people following this blog and another 3 on the Electric Scrapbook.

All that's going to have to change if I'm to get enough trade to make a living. I honestly don't know how I'm supposed to make people care. Am I coming across as a whinger by saying that?

Please don't confuse that with me having no confidence in my work. Far from it, I love what I do! I have my big ideas, hone them to perfection on this computer, upload them to my shops, post the links to all my readers, then... nothing. That little masterpiece I thought everyone would go crazy for just sits there gathering virtual dust.

A few little reminders of some of my favourite designs, none of which I've ever sold. These are all available from my Zazzle store.

Of course I have a few notable exceptions who have been excellent supporters. They know who they are and how much I appreciate them. I just wish I had many more of them!

So now I have the challenge of working out how to make people want to spend their hard earned cash with me. I really want the art to do the talking. I want everyone to see they're getting something very special and unique. It's not often you get the chance to own something that literally nobody else in the world has got, but if you shop with me you will do. Owning a one-off original would normally cost thousands but here you can get it for a couple of pounds. What's not to love?

I'm currently loading lots more new products onto Café Press. The Snowman and Christmas Tree shops are now complete, I'll finish the other Christmas shops over the weekend, with the remaining designs to follow during the week. I'm also planning to squeeze in a couple of new Christmas card designs if I can do them in time, which will mark the start of a major new (and VERY unique) art and greetings project over on Zazzle. Then I've got another big surprise to launch over at Café Press which will give you a whole new shopping experience.

I'm already lining up my new projects for 2012, some of which will be totally unlike anything you've seen from me so far. Getting the ideas is the easy bit. Getting the money to bring those ideas to life is a heck of a lot tougher.

Christmas is fast approaching and this is the perfect time to get involved. If you bought even one little gift from my Zazzle or Café Press stores instead of the big retailers you'll get something extra special and thoughtful for your loved one and you'll be doing me a massive service. Even if you can't afford to buy something yourself, please pass this link along to someone who you believe would be interested. I can only make my business work if YOU help me out. Yes, you. Not that other person. You. Yes. Thank you.

• To visit my Zazzle store for flags, Font Islands and animal T-shirts, click here.
• To visit my Café Press stores for hundreds of clothes, gifts, homeware and more, click on the design you like from the buttons on the left hand side of this page.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Tide Turning?

It's been 2 months since I last wrote to you but rest assured I've not been idle. The rare quiet time I get has been spent on a very important task. One that could launch me to a whole new level of success. Or see me down the nearest bankruptcy court. One or t'other.

If you remember (or can be bothered scrolling back to previous posts) there are health issues within my family that make it unwise for me to leave the house for long periods of time every day. That's assuming I could find a damn job anyway, which is a lot easier said than done.

I've spent most of my adult life working for myself and it was always my aim to get back to being self employed. It's true what they say, once you've worked for yourself it's really hard to enjoy working for someone else. Since I left college over 3 years ago I've always put my efforts into starting projects that could lead me back to self employment. The only stumbling block has always been money. To be precise, the total lack of it in my bank account.

Considering that for about 4 years we've been in a recession/credit crunch/whatever other fancy name economists want to put on it, you'd think the government would have wanted to do whatever it could to encourage people to start their own businesses so they can use their skills and initiative to graft their way back to solvency. It's always been my attitude that if someone didn't want to take me on then I'd make some sort of opportunities for myself. Yet up until recently the help offered to get the jobless to try self employment has been pretty poor. You had to be signing on for between 6 and 12 months only, attend a start-up course at the local Business Link centre and then you'd be entitled to about £50 a week for a certain amount of time. So that's fine if you could guarantee to make up the £15 a week you'd be losing (or more depending on your benefits). For an art and design business, where my cash flow would consist of larger but irregular payments, that was too much of a gamble and I didn't have a cash reserve to fall back on.

That and the fact the 2 guys running the course were idiots.

Now though things have changed and this year saw the reintroduction of the Enterprise Allowance, which actually helped me start my first business back in the late '80s. This time you have to attend regular mentoring sessions at your local partner agency (in my case the Black Country Chamber of Commerce - the disappointing Business Link service thankfully no longer exists although their website's still up and actually very useful). Over the space of 8 weeks you're guided through filling in a template for a business plan and, once that's approved, you can decide whether or not you really want to start your business. If so, you're passed back to the Job Centre who'll switch you from receiving Job Seeker's Allowance to New Enterprise Allowance. This is the same amount (£65 a week) as JSA for the first 13 weeks, then drops down to £33 for another 13 weeks. There's an optional cut-price loan of up to £1,000 if you need it and you can continue to get help from your business mentor. So at least I won't be any worse off for 13 weeks plus obviously I can keep whatever I earn. Whilst unemployed, if I'd cashed in any of my royalties from my online shops, for example, that would have been deducted from my benefits so in effect I'd have been working for nothing.

Creative people tend to have a phobia of business plans. Too many facts and targets for our expressive brains to handle. Thankfully this mentoring process made it pretty painless. I could easily complete the sections where I explain the vision for my business - oh boy do I have LOADS of ideas I want to try out! My mentor Sarah then broke down the market research questions into bite sized chunks and told me exactly what type of competing businesses to look at and what sort of information I should be finding out about them. Having a check list to tick off made it a lot more focused and manageable. Then for the REALLY scary bit, the financial planning, it was just a case of filling in a form listing my incomings and outgoings and she ran that through an Excel spreadsheet to form a 12 month financial projection. Phew, I'm glad she tackled that one for me!

The process of writing the business plan turned out to be a useful way to mull over my ideas and put my priorities in order. Projects which I thought would form an important part of my business got put on the back burner when I realised others would be easier to expand and reformat to use in various different ways. So I now have a business plan template I feel comfortable using and I can rewrite it whenever I want to examine the feasibility of a new project idea.

All I need now is for the Job Centre to get their backsides into gear and sort the paperwork for me. It'll have been 2 weeks between the end of mentoring and my next Job Centre appraisal. It should have been today but I got a phone call postponing it, literally 10 minutes before I was due to leave the house. At this time of year, when I was hoping to start the business off with a big Christmas giftware push, that's a lot of valuable time being wasted!

Of course, a business plan can't prepare you for everything. In my next post I'll explain the bit I'm REALLY not confident about, which is why I started this post by saying my gamble could land me in the bankruptcy court!

•If you live in England, Wales or Scotland and have been unemployed for over 6 months, you may be eligible to apply for the New Enterprise Allowance.