Saturday, December 31, 2011

What a Year!

Toy Car Still Life; by Dorian (and/or Callan)

 2012 already? When I look back at the year; I can hardly believe how much my life has changed; looking back; it seems like this year was a very LONG year; simply because of all that has happened. The beginning of 2011 found me with a brand-new etsy shop; I had just listed my first few items; and was surprised right off the bat to get a few orders! Looking back; I can only imagine what my poor customers were thinking; my pictures were terrible; my shop back then was a far cry from professional. I was content throughout January to get the few sales that I got; and worked on my shop just a few hours a day.  I remember it through the haze of reminiscence as being a simpler time.

I remember somebody saying to me early on in my etsy "career"; probably in March; "You're going to be an etsy star; I can tell!". I still remember flattered I was that ANYONE thought I had potential; I feel mostly like a fish of out water with the online selling stuff; and every day is a learning experience. Starting out; I didn't have any experience with any kind of selling; and my limited computer knowledge made a steep learning curve. I still come up against "techy" type things everyday that I don't know how to do; I have shed many a tear of frustration trying to learn the ropes at being an online business owner. With the support of some AWESOME etsians and others; I've muddled through; and I do feel proud that a SAHM with a high school education and a sparse resume has hung in there even though there were many times I thought I couldn't do it.

Of course; I'm no "star", and I'm bowled over often at some shops on etsy that are wildly successful because I know how much work this all is. 2011 was a huge learning experience for me; and I know I'm a better person for having done everything I've done along the way. I've made lots of friends; and feel like I've "come out of my shell"; after 10+ years where I was consumed with raising babies and was fairly isolated.

I've given up some things; too; I used to spend hours a day cooking elaborate meals; and my house was spotless all the time; it's been an adjustment trying to be less hard on myself when I look around and the house is not clean (again) and I "mail it in" with dinner. But I feel like what I am spending my time on is more lastingly important; and I also know that in time I'm get everything figured out and hopefully have more time for my hobbies. For now; I'm enjoying growing my business; and taking pride in the little bit of success I've managed to achieve. But as a perfectionist; I'm never satisfied; and every day; I plot and plan my next move.....2012 will hopefully bring some great changes and innovations for me!

Today I was thinking that it will shortly be the centennial of 1912; I year I've always thought was a benchmark of sorts; a time before The Great War changed people's way of life; so I made this fun treasury on etsy:

Party Like it's 1912

Tonight I'll be drinking some sparkling Riesling and eating some late night burgers with my husband; Welcome 2012!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hello, Migraine; My Old Friend

Illustration of visual migraine aura from a participant in the National Migraine Art competition. © 2007 Migraine Action Association and Boehringer Ingelheim
I've really enjoyed giving my blog-ees a little behind the scenes look at my business (and by extension, my life), and migraines have been such a part of it all; I wanted to share.

First of all; I've always had migraines; but until last summer; they were occasional to rare and never really affected my life. I just took to my bed, and tried to get through them as best I could. When I was pregnant with baby Elvis; I started having an upsurge in the visual disturbances that accompany migraines for most people; but I thought it was just a weird pregnancy symptom. So I went along, blissfully unaware of the storm that was about to rage out of control in my nervous system. When I look back at that time, I wish I had enjoyed all the pain free days I had!

Very suddenly last summer; right in the middle of a busy summer; and an unexpected upsurge in my business, I had what I think of as the "life changer". A migraine that was so bad it caused me to have an emergency CT scan; and Labor Day morning found me sitting in a wheelchair in front of the hospital, attempting to vomit gracefully in front of the nurse and all present. Not the best day I've ever had! After that migraine; it became clear that the "migraine gods" were not smiling upon me; and this was going to be an affliction I'd have to bear, probably for life. I was thrust into a whole different world. I felt like I went overnight from a healthy, vibrant, go-getter to a shell of myself. The pain was often overwhelming; and my entire family was affected. For a short time; I really felt without hope. i imagined myself not being able to care for my children; not being able to attend to my business; and my entire life being over. Chronic pain is a whole different animal from the pain I was used to; and believe me; as a mother of five naturally born children; I thought I "got it". Nothing could have prepared me for the emotional impact of living in fear of pain.

I had so much support from my husband and family; but still I floundered all through the autumn, trying to come to grips with not being "myself". I often joked with James that if I could just remove a quarter-sized section of my brain; all my problems would be over! (and so would higher reasoning). But, we adjusted. James took over 100% of the shipping duties for my business; and even Andrew stepped up by making simple dinners when I needed it; or watching a few of his brothers while I took quick trips to the store or the PO. Finally, just as the holiday "busy season" kicked off on etsy; I started seeing a doctor that has had great success helping migraine sufferers using a combination of traditional chiropractic treatment; along with physical therapy of the jaw, electrode treatment, and neck traction. One problem? Our insurance only covered a small portion of this treatment, which is considered experimental. Thankfully; my etsy business was now healthy enough that my soapmaking paid the bill for the treatments; which were three times a week for four weeks; by now I feel I practically live at the doctors office! But it has helped tremendously; bringing my migraine frequency down from a torturous every other day; to a much more manageable once a week or less. And my migraines are much less severe and I'm thankful to say that after my Labor Day debacle; I have never experienced a migraine that severe again.

Now I feel lucky that I can function so well "considering", and I appreciate the lessons I've learned from my migraines; mostly not to take good health for granted. I've also become much better at tolerating pain in general; and much more responsive to the signals of "I'm tired!" that my body gives me. I'm hoping that in the fullness of time; I'll look back at this time of my life as a "trial by fire", and that someday; there will be a cure!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

How We Did It

This last month has been a wonderfully exciting, exhausting learning experience. I'm so grateful for my customers' support of my little venture; and my husband's help. I could not have done it without him!

So how do this "details" guy and a "big picture" gal work together to make this etsy shop run? I thought it would be fun to do a little "behind the scenes"!

First of all; I make every item in my shop, from scratch. All the formulas are rattling around in my head and I have certain items (probably 50+) that I keep in stock all the time. Without James' help; I would have ingredients, products and bottles strewn about every which way; I'm not the most organizationally minded person, and when I'm "in the zone" of creating; I simply can't be bothered with trifles like putting items back on the shelf....that's where James comes in. He's a very level headed, precise, methodical person (everything I'm not), and he invested in several industrial shelving units a few months back. He's spent many a weekend organizing my ingredients; packaging, and items. There's a place for everything, and everything is in it's place. He even found tiny bins that perfectly fit each flavor of lip balm; for easy order pulling. I try really hard to maintain the system he has in place; however; after I've been out in the workshop packing orders it has a tendency to look like a tornado hit it....he's very understanding; although he did look at me like I was crazy when I explained that having everything in certain places makes it so I can't think....if you'd ever seen my desk; you'd understand!

Being in a marriage is a lot like working together; so over the course of our 13 year relationship; James and I have settled into our roles and that helps. James is the detail guy; he pays the monthly bills, organizes our house, calms me down when I'm in a tizzy. I'm the "big picture" girl; I make wild plans (like telling James in 1998 that I wanted to have five boys and name them alphabetically); and usually manage to execute them. I'm the dreamer, and the "make it happen" one; and James keeps me from crashing and burning; or cleans up my drama when I do.

So, soapmaking. It's not as exciting as it sounds, really (because it SOUNDS so exciting right?). I make two different kinds of soap; my hot process soap that I mold in my old style molds, is cooked in a crockpot until done; then molded and cooled. It looks like this:

Riveting, right? It cooks for about an hour and a half; stirring, sometimes boiling over, until it tests done; which means that I touch it to my tongue; and if it's not fully saponified; it will "zap" my tongue. NOT fun; fortunately; I'm good at knowing when it's ready now; so I rarely get zapped.

My other kind of soap is a modified hot process; meaning that it's cooked in the molds; in the oven at 170 degrees. I heat up and melt the oils and butters in a pot; add the lye mixture; stick blend until "trace" is achieved; then pour it in the molds and pop it in the oven. A combination of the temperature of the oils when the lye is added (I soap "hot") and the heat of the oven; cause the soap to go through the "gel stage" while in the molds. I let it cook for about an hour; and then allow it to sit, stacked in the oven with the door closed for several more hours. This causes a much shorter cure time than cold process; and again; this is tested with a combination of tongue testing and ph testing. It looks like this:

I use these disposable trays to stack my molds because I can just toss them instead of cleaning them. Consequently, the inside of my oven always smells lovely, like whatever soap I just cooked in there. BUT......I have to always remember to unload the oven before preheating it; I have had melted molds before from a careless preheater! I'm going to get yellow warning tape for my oven; because I've been known to shriek, "DON'T OPEN THE OVEN!".

Someday; I'm going to have a dedicated soap oven, I'm working on a design that is self contained and energy for an engineering degree.....

So that's the basics for "how we do it"; lots of work; cooperation; late night movies, and coffee! Always coffee!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

We Did It!

The last bin of Pre-holiday orders! Whew! 

600 items sold
299 orders
2 cases bubble mailers
1 pound activated charcoal
8 gallons olive oil

= A tired and grateful me!

The last month has been beyond my wildest expectations as holiday buying season on etsy was in full swing. I approached what is generally considered "rush time" with a healthy dose of scepticism, because I don't consider my items terribly "giftable" and being my first real holiday season on etsy; I didn't want to get my hopes (and my supply stock) up and then end up disappointed.

So, I stocked up, but not overly so; I prepared by buying a fresh case of bubble mailers and bubble wrap; and then I prepared to have my hopes dashed. Well, the hope dashing was not to be! On Black Friday alone; I had over 50 sales; and in the last 30 days have averaged 20 sales per day. WOW! I had a few memorable days over the Thanksgiving weekend where I did nothing but stare at my screen in amazement as the sales count rose; and click "renew sold" 24 hours a day.

The last month has been a blur as I made my unexpected smash hit, Blacksmith shaving soap in my dinky new crockpot. There were days where I made batches and batches of the stuff and ended the day looking like I was about to break into "Chim-chiminee, chim-chiminee, chim chim, cheree; a sweep is as lucky as lucky can be.....".

Every day I raced around filling orders all day; and had late into the night labeling/packing sessions with my husband; who spent his evenings in my workshop (formerly the garage), which, although insulated, was so cold he could see his breath! Fortunately; he worked tirelessly; requesting only that I keep him in imported beer and Pandora radio! Often at 3am, I had to beg him to go to bed, and then he'd be up at 6; dressing the boys for school and letting me sleep. I'm completely serious when I say that without him keeping me grounded, I would have run away to Bermuda when the pressure was on!

We ate a lot of pizza; some fast food (I tried to mix in a veg or two or the occasional home cooked meal to avoid the "Worst Mother in the World" award). I stopped wearing makeup (no time!); wore yoga pants 24/7, drank endless rounds of espresso, finally buying this machine to save money (or something) Ok, ok; I bought it because it was cool. But presumably I will end up visiting the coffee shop less with this....

$1.00 per coffee! And it makes a mean cappuccino.....yum!

So now that all my blacksmith soaps are blacksmithed, and the last order has been packed and shipped, frantically at 3pm on Saturday; I have spent a glorious Sunday sleeping in, eating brunch (late), milling around on the internet, cuddling with my boys and husband, and generally becoming bored out of my 2012; bring it on, I'm ready for ya!