On National Entrepreneur's Day, we take a delve into Helen's insights into her work, why she became self-employed and what advice she would give to others considering following the same path.
Why sea glass?
Whenever I wander along a beach, I can’t help but look at the ground, searching for tiny jewels that the sea has offered up. It’s ingrained in me now because it’s my job but I did it as a child too and I often see children searching when I’m out and about. There’s something magical about the fact that the sea has turned what is essentially a waste product into something precious. Even sea glass engagement rings are fast becoming a thing now as sustainable alternatives to traditional precious gemstones. There is just something about sea glass that captures the imagination and evokes memories of childhood treasure hunting.
How did it start?
In the summer of 2019, I travelled to Canada with my partner. We chanced upon a craft fair where we met a lady selling sea glass artwork and I was entranced by it. We walked away and Tom said to me, “you could do that” (by the way if you ever think this when you’re at a craft fair, please say it out of earshot of the artist!). That was where the seed of the idea was born but it took a while longer before I made it happen.
On returning to the UK full of motivation, I booked a glass-collecting trip to Seaham for October time and paid for a table at a craft fair in December, but little did I know that it wouldn’t be plain sailing. Towards the end of the year, Tom and I had a serious bump in our relationship and I took the trip to Seaham alone. It was therapeutic in the sense that the cold and blowy beach days with an engaging task kept my mind occupied, but when I returned, I put my treasures in the cupboard as I associated them with sadness. Needless to say, the craft fair didn’t happen and by the beginning of 2020, the world had something major to occupy its thoughts, Tom and I were focussed on rebuilding our relationship and it all got side lined.
At what point did you decide to move this from a dream to a reality?
In April 2020 I was furloughed from my finance job with a global company. It wasn’t personal, I knew that, but it affected me in ways I wasn’t expecting; due to the specific nature of my job, I was furloughed when others in my team weren’t and that affected me deeply. The biggest realisation was that when the chips are down, what I had done for that company day in, day out for several years of my life really wasn’t that important in the big scheme of things. The other big personal revelation was that I don’t like not being in control, I don’t like others making decisions about how I spend my time and I wanted to be in control of my own destiny.
Around the same time, I was supposed to be running the London Marathon which wasn’t happening either for obvious reasons. The London Marathon is one of the biggest fundraising events for UK charities in the calendar and everyone was worried how their targets would be met. Participants were challenged to raise money in other ways so I bought 6 little frames, made 6 little sea glass pictures and advertised them on my personal Facebook page where the response was phenomenally positive.
For me, one of the biggest blocks I had was the fear of putting myself out there for judgement, so by keeping my creations within my trusted circle of friends, under the guise of doing this for charity instead of making income, it felt like it reduced some of the risk of negative judgement. It seems crazy looking back now that I felt like that, but I really did!
Receiving positive feedback helped develop my confidence and towards the end of 2020 I set up a virtual Christmas market Facebook group in my town of Pershore where local crafters could advertise hand-made Christmas gifts and crafts. It was hugely popular and I suddenly found myself selling to strangers and taking orders for items. I also began to grow my network and became known locally as ‘The Sea Glass Lady’. This led to me becoming part of the ‘Pershore Crafters’ group in May 2021, with a permanent craft stall in the retail market, and the decision to give up my office job and become a self-employed artist was made in the summer of 2021.
I should say at this point that becoming self-employed is not a decision that I took lightly. Yes, it did feel like a natural progression, but I did a lot of groundwork and planning behind the scenes. I spent nearly a year saving money to enable me to work for very little pay for the first year, I had the support and backing of my partner, I undertook training in how to set up and run a small business and I applied for grants. The hardest decisions in fact weren’t related to those practical issues, but they more mental questions – how would I cope with problems when they arose without a team around me to support me? How would I keep myself motivated? How would I have the confidence to negotiate, stand by my prices, sell my work in required quantities to make a living? How would I feel when some days I feel like my art was more like a factory production line?
I would strongly encourage anyone who is considering this to give a lot of thought to those very important questions as well as understanding that as an artist the reality is you don’t get to spend all day in your studio. In fact nearly half of your time is spent marketing, networking, accounting, planning, talking to customers, selling, researching and basically being a jack of all trades.
What 3 pieces of advice would you give to other aspiring artists?
Have a purpose behind what you do – the arts and craft industry has grown massively in the last few years and it’s very competitive. You need a good handle on what sets you apart from the others and that needs to come across in your work.
Develop a thick skin – not everyone will love what you do, many people won’t even like it, but it’s important to learn how to graciously acknowledge that and move on, if you know who your customers are and you’re fulfilling their need then you have nothing to fear. Your energy should be focussed on those people who love what you do and are following your journey - fear only their opinions.
Define what success means to you and articulate it – if you can write it down, you can use it as the starting point for everything else, you can plan for it and you can measure it. I find it helpful to do this annually, setting myself a target for the year and planning for it. For me, it also takes away a lot of doubt, all of those moments when you stand next to someone at a market and you feel like their smashing it, doesn’t matter because you’ve got your goals and you’re achieving them your own way.
How do you deal with challenges?
Face them head on, no hiding, it’s the only way to learn and improve. If I’ve let someone down, then I’ve let them down, I have to acknowledge that, resolve it and learn from it. My biggest challenge really is my own confidence, it leads to procrastination at times, I know this about myself and I usually allow myself a bit of breathing space before returning to the task but if I do that then the deal is I get on with it at that point!
What are the day-to-day realities of running your own business?
It occupies your mind 24-7 and you need to be prepared to drop everything in your life if the business needs your attention. No matter how much planning you do, the unexpected can always happen and it’s helpful be mentally prepared for that so it doesn’t floor you. Obvious ones but there is no holiday pay, no sick pay and sometimes (often) you have to forfeit leisure time to go to work. The pay is crap for the hours you put in and if you work from home, you have to find a way to live alongside it without allowing it to become the beast that takes over your life.
Essentially everything that happens within the business happens as a result of something you have (or haven’t) done so the highs, when they come, are immense, but likewise the lows can be catastrophic. You have to learn how to celebrate the wins and how to deal quickly with the problems so you can move on.
How has becoming an entrepreneur changed you as a person?
It has hugely developed my confidence – I still need to work on this but I’ve definitely changed from being the person who ‘turned up’ to the person who confronts challenges, puts herself out there, and wants to learn new things. When I was employed, I would see a staff development day as a chance to get away from the emails but now it’s an opportunity to glean something new that’s potentially going to help me expand my business and develop me further as an individual. It’s given me a greater appreciation for my down time, relationships and the support that friends and loved ones provide.
And finally, since you started Craft Happy, what is the best thing that has happened?
Without doubt it was the day that I sold a wind chime to a film production company.
I was still working in my old job at this point and one day an order came through my Etsy shop, I think I was in a meeting so I made a mental note to deal with it later. Then at lunchtime I noticed an email from a customer saying a member of their team had purchased the wind chime and could I sign the attached release papers giving permission for them to use it. She went on to say that the movie was soon to start filming, would be called ‘The Son’ and was a sequel to ‘The Father’ starring Anthony Hopkins. The Son was starring Hugh Jackman and was being directed by Oscar winning director Florian Zeller. I can just remember sitting there in my kitchen with this massive smile on my face as I was working from home and had nobody around me.
I realised that this would be the reality of working for myself, celebrating the highs and dealing with the lows totally alone… but do you know what? There is no greater sense of achievement knowing that something amazing happened that day because of something I did and nobody can ever take that away from me!