4.04.2014

the hungry toddler: Farley's East

The hungry toddler is back, with an all-new toddler (I almost wrote "new and improved" but I think that would be a little messed up, catchy as it is)! Since "baby" #2 is really a toddler now, I thought it would be fun (and by fun I mean only occasionally miserable) to revive this series of posts, since I started a little too late with child #1, now undeniably a "big kid", a decent eater, and relatively well-behaved at restaurants. Where's the fun in that?! I considered moving this series of blog updates to my more family-oriented blog but these posts are really more about the places we go in and around Oakland, not so much an update on the toddler. Right?


Okay, let's get right to it! This morning I met up with a friend and her budding toddler, just a couple weeks older than my own, at Farley's East in the uptown section of Oakland. Initially we were going to meet at Hive, which I know has a kids' play area (more about Hive in a separate post). Then last night this friend texted me asking if I'd be up for meeting at Farley's East instead, because her husband told her it had a kids' area as well. Wait a minute, was this that place that has the outdoor seating in what is essentially a parking space? I've passed by it several times (in fact, I used to work in this area years ago) - it's always packed to the gills with hipster-types (not that there's anything wrong with that). So I checked the Yelp page on my phone, scrolled down to the "good for kids?" area, saw that that question was answered "no" and decided to do a little more online investigating. Sure enough, I came across this article that mentions the loft area upstairs and a little space with kids' toys, puzzles, and books. Okay, I texted my friend, let's give it a shot!


The coffee shop does indeed have an undeniably hipster vibe to it (but really, what doesn't these days, especially in certain parts of Oakland?), and we got a lot of the typical hipster-encounters-child stares, as if we were toting aliens around on our hips (yes, sometimes I wonder and do a double-take, myself), but other than that I found the more negative reviews to be debunked by what was very friendly counter service, a delicious almond milk latte, and a yummy, if a bit early, salted chocolate chip cookie (I mean, really, what's the difference, calorically speaking, between a cookie and a scone or muffin, right?).

As for the kids' area, it's no Play Cafe. My toddler tripped and bonked her chin on the corner of the coffee table and both kids tried repeatedly to put that zebra, which looks deceptively clean in this image, in their mouths. And this area is right around the corner from the stairs which, obviously, pose a slight hazard to the toddler age group. So, ironically, I too would indicate that it's not so great for kids if I left a review on Yelp. I did, however, file it away under possible places to get a little laptop work in while the toddler's in daycare.

4.02.2014

Etsy makers in the middle: Ashley Jackson of JackZenHemp

Well, this is it folks - the second and perhaps final post in the short-lived makers in the middle series (unless other sellers reach out or I stumble across a shop that fits the bill). Today I'd like to share the story behind JackZenHemp, run by sole proprietor and stay-at-home single mom Ashley Jackson. Let's give this one a go good ol' fashioned interview style:

Why and how did you start your Etsy shop?

When I was a mere 8 years old, my great-grandmother brought back a shell and hemp kit from her yearly trip to Florida. I worked with the kit for weeks. I fell in love with crafting and from that age, I was addicted to re-using old things to create brand new creations. I admit that I was a dumpster diver, trying to find things to create everything from rock houses, to piggy banks. As a child, I loved playing "business owner" and would write pretend invoices to my younger sister who played "the customer". I didn't know it then, but I know now that I was destined to become a true business owner. At the tender age of 17, I became pregnant. I was still in high school and knew I needed a job. I suffer from social anxiety and find it VERY hard to communicate in person so when I heard about Etsy from my relatives, I jumped on it as soon as I could. At age 18, with an 8 month old son, I decided to join Etsy. I remembered my experience with hemp while walking through a local craft store. I bought some beads and hemp cord and began learning. I picked up the art of macrame knotting right away! And with the spirit of my grandmother guiding me, I opened up shop in May of 2012 and haven't looked back since.

What else do you do, if you don't do this full-time and how do you work your Etsy process into your schedule?
I am a single stay at home mom to my 2 year old son. At times it's very difficult to balance the two, but even from the beginning I have been motivated to hang on to my faith in my work. I'm determined to make ends meet on my own and I have since age 19. While my son takes his afternoon nap, I work on editing photos and network on social media sites. As soon as my son goes to sleep for the night, I start working on pending orders. I admit, it's very hard sometimes but I love what I do. Making hemp jewelry and caring for my child is my full time job.

You've had over 600 sales - congratulations! What areas have you had success with in terms of managing your shop, promotion, etc., that got you to that impressive milestone? You have an impressive number of Facebook followers as well - how did you build your social media following?
I am so grateful to have a large amount of people supporting my work. I have worked for my fans on Facebook. I collaborate with other hemp artists to create huge amazing giveaways for all of our fans. It's important, to me, that we reward our customers for supporting handmade and not to mention for purchasing ECO-FRIENDLY products.

What are your goals going forward? What are your frustrations or questions about Etsy as a forum as it has evolved over the last couple of years?
My major goal is to overcome my social anxiety and participate in more craft shows to showcase my work. The majority of my family is supportive of my goals, but I want to prove what I believe in. Eco-friendly and especially handmade is the way to go.

Finally, tell me more about your love of poetry. Is this something you'd ever consider integrating into your shop or products in some way?
I love poetry. I wish I knew how to integrate my poetry into my work, but, admittedly I haven't put too much thought into it. Poetry was my outlet in high school. I went through a lot during those years. I wrote about things I couldn't tell anyone. With a toddler running around the house and running a business, there's not a whole lot of time to write like I used to. As a young mom, I've run into the reality that I cannot do everything I want. However, I know now that I can do what I love and believe in while supporting my family. That's what truly counts.

WAHM! That's one heck of a work-at-home mom story, no? I find Ashley's shop and story incredibly inspiring and wish her much continued success. I think her products would do really well at craft fairs and I could see how she might have a niche audience in terms of blogs and other forums where she could pitch her products for further promotion and general buzz.

By the way, I noticed Etsy's last few featured sellers have been more or less sole proprietors with under 100 items in their shops and under (sometimes well under) 1000 sales. So maybe they're trying to mix it up, after all?

4.01.2014

burning bridges: F is for facetious

I've got one more maker in the middle post for you that I'll get to either tomorrow or next Wednesday. Etsy shut down my forum post pretty quickly, citing self-promotion, so only two sellers had a chance to reply before that happened. I guess I can see where they're coming from. And I guess it is a little like complaining about the boss at the office. Actually, it's more like complaining about the office building, or maybe the office manager? I don't know, I'm a little sloppy with my analogies. At any rate, that may be a short-lived series. In the meantime, and in the spirit of potentially burning bridges, I thought it would be fun to take a little stroll down the job section of memory lane since I'm clearly still deciding what I want to be when I grow up.When I was in high school I made the declaration that I wanted to have 20 jobs by the time I was 27 which, in hindsight, is a little nuts! I didn't quite reach that goal, but I've had at least 10 distinct jobs, maybe more depending on how you count different positions at the same place. Skipping over babysitting entirely, let's get started, shall we?

First up is a summer position between junior and senior years of high school. This was one of those high school summer work programs, that paired students with low-paying positions in various locations around Patch Barracks, where we lived at the time. I was assigned to some sort of architectural office and what I remember of the 5 or 6 hours I worked there each day for about six weeks of my summer vacation involves reorganizing their supply closets. Surely I did more than that, right? It was easily one of the most boring jobs I've ever had. After "work" I'd go to the base gym for a couple of hours (really, like, 2 hours!) until my Dad got off work and we'd drive home. There was a real tool of a guy who worked there who kind of gave me a hard time. At one point he laughed and said he was just being facetious. Facetious? I had to look up the meaning of the word and, to this day, I always think of that guy when I hear that word. And I'm not being facetious. Anyway, my career in boring office work had officially begun!

PS: Yes, that's a picture of me from around that time. This image was taken during a soccer tournament, as we waited for our turn to play, but I'd imagine this is how my face looked most of the time I was at this particular summer job.

3.27.2014

chalkboard paint rules

Since work is so slow, I'm using some of my daycare time to catch up on the never-ending list of projects around the house. It's a two steps forward, one step back feeling, with two projects popping  up for every one that you successfully cross off the list. But ever since baby #2 was born, it's been simply two steps back, and two more steps back, and so on. You get the idea. So it's nice to have some time, if not the money, to tackle some of these projects.

I've written here before about making over my son's room when he transitioned from a crib to a "big boy bed." Less than three years later, we've tweaked things again, adding an IKEA Expedit bookshelf on one wall for books and toys and a dresser on the other, using his closet now primarily for overflow toy storage.


When we decided to get him a desk for all of his art supplies that were previously in a corner of the living room, I thought it might be fun, if a bit dusty at times, to add a few half-wall areas of chalkboard paint. And it turns out you can get any color of Benjamin Moore paint as chalkboard paint! Awesome!


I asked my son what color he wanted. Initially he said red but I steered him toward a color already in his room's "palette", thinking red against the green might be a bit too ... festive (not to mention intense!). We settled on Ol' Blue Eyes (not to be confused with Old Blue Jeans which is the color the guy at the paint store initially ordered), a shade remarkably close to the blue on the side panel of the loft bed we have in his room (also from IKEA).



I spent a little time each week over the past three weeks doing the actual painting, giving it three coats to sufficiently block out the bright green underneath. After that, it's advised that you let it "cure" for three days, then apply chalk to the entire surface and wipe that down before using it. Wiping with a wet cloth is recommended over a traditional chalkboard eraser and I have to agree, it works really well. It wipes very clean and there is little dust.


In addition to the chalkboard paint, I added some old-school wooden rulers as a decorative trim between the chalkboard paint and the original green wall. I'm pretty pleased with how that turned out. One is tucked behind the bed a bit for now but otherwise I didn't have to do any trimming or cutting. I used brown furniture nails I picked up at my local Ace Hardware store to match the other bits of brown in his room (my least favorite color in his room but I find I keep tying it in to match the brown of his curtains, always trying to use or incorporate what we already have).


I did a fair amount of touch-up of the green color, you know, while I was at it (a kid can be rough on a wall in 2 1/2 years!). To avoid random push pin holes here and there I added three cork board tiles to his closet door (and another one went into little sister's room, previously known as my studio), for random and temporary things he might want on display.


To decorate a bit more, I used a couple of his art projects from this year so far and from preschool, finally installing the flying hamburger we made together a few months ago and using this crazy long snake he made during his last few months of preschool last spring/summer.


When I first unfolded it (I've been keeping a bag of possible art projects to use as decoration - things that wouldn't fit into his box of saved projects or binders of drawings), I thought it would wrap around his wall like a border.


In the end, the snake twists and turns a bit more than I originally anticipated but I made it work and I rather like the way it winds underneath that set of three drawings by Neal, don't you? Hey, man, I paid big bucks for my MFA; it oughtta be good for something, right?


As with most things like this, I think this probably turned out better than a more straight-forward border-like presentation would have been, winding instead under artwork, below his bed, underground and behind his dresser (not really, but that's the look I'm going for here), and winding back out above his bed.


The snake should make for some sweet dreamin', don't you think??

3.26.2014

Etsy makers in the middle: MegExpressions

Following up on my "middle child syndrome" post this time last week, I thought it might be interesting to try and shine some light on similar Etsy sellers feeling a little stuck in the middle: no longer a fresh shop, but not quite top seller status. Wednesday seems like a fitting day to give a little online love to one of Etsy's fellow middle children, wouldn't you say? Thus I present to you Meghan Corbin from MegExpressions.


Meghan sews together all sorts of accessories from recycled fabric and materials - "recycled fashion" she calls it which I think is a perfect description. I have a sewing machine but I haven't used it in over 20 years (sewing and knitting are two tools I'd love to add to my crafty toolkit but have yet to master) so imagining her products coming together is like watching a magic show! Her shop recently surpassed the impressive 1000 sales milestone (congrats, Meg!) after an indirect path to a creative career and a slow start:
"About 10 years ago I decided/realized that I was an artist and needed to commit myself to pursuing 'art' as a career goal; this was right after I graduated from college (with a business degree!). At the time I didn't have a specific medium in mind; I liked to sew, draw, paint, etc. I had made a quilt when I was about 19 that I really enjoyed, and I think that this love for color and patchwork slowly developed into this 'MegExpressions' line that I have for sale on Etsy."

I would imagine that business degree comes in handy with all of the organizational tasks involved in maintaining an Etsy shop! Meghan works part-time as a nanny now and spends the rest of her time developing her product line and tweaking her shop.
"I started my Etsy store in 2008. After doing a few craft shows selling quilts and small purses in Seattle, and talking with people, I learned about Etsy; it was relatively new at the time. However, it took about 3 1/2 years for things to really click for me with Etsy; I probably had less than 20 sales in the first three years. It took a LONG time to learn to take good photos (and there's still room for improvement), plus understanding things like titles, and tags (improving the SEO) took some time, as well as writing good descriptions. Also, the products themselves took a long time to develop; as I become more skilled as a seamstress the items become more marketable."

One aspect of her process that I find really intriguing is this idea of "purse watching", like people watching! "Whenever I'm out and about, and especially when I'm traveling, I tend to notice people's purses and wallets; there are thousands of purse and wallet styles out there, and I'll often be inspired by something that I see on a bus, or in a coffee shop"


While Meghan has dabbled in blogging and other forms of social media to promote her shop, like me the way most buyers find her items are from searches within Etsy. This is why improving item photos, descriptions, and tags has become so important to the success of her shop, not to mention the satisfaction of her customers. Communicating all the details of a product online can be tricky and there is definitely the double-edged sword of customers wanting perfectly executed but handmade, unique products along with what they've come to expect from online shopping - products that are relatively inexpensive, and fast!


I really enjoy Meghan's process and products - the colorful, patchwork items that come together as a result of sourcing recycled materials. She's got a winning formula there and I think she's got a few products in particular that she could really run with, like the toddler and little girl purses. I mean, c'mon, how cute are those?!

Good luck, Meg - I know I've added the shop to my favorites and look forward to watching her shop continue to grow. Also, I have a daughter now so I'm pretty sure I'll be buying some of those toddler purses!

All images courtesy of Meghan Corbin/MegExpressions.

3.19.2014

an Etsy seller stuck in the middle

Baby #2 has been in part-time daycare for about a month and a half now (give or take; between a gradual transition and about four full days out for illness, I've had about 10 days to work over the past six or seven weeks). And I ain't gonna lie - business has been slow. February has always been my slowest month, even during my steadiest stretch since officially starting my business in 2010. But with just two clients at the moment and my other shop all but flat-lining, I've been wondering if Etsy is the right venue for a sole proprietor somewhere between "fresh shops" and "featured seller."

Right before I closed my shop in anticipation of baby #2's arrival and the start of my year-long hiatus, there was a fair amount of online chatter about how Etsy as a forum for sellers was changing, with some resell operations abusing its policies, sellers unsatisfied, to say the least, with the company's official response, and others who'd made the leap from mom & pop shop (or just mom, as is often the case) to a level of success that includes things like wholesale accounts, hiring employees, and seeking out manufacturers to produce what are essentially handmade prototypes. You could say they'd outgrown Etsy. In response, I'm sure, Etsy seems to have fully embraced such sellers, establishing Etsy Wholesale, featuring more and more shops that have already enjoyed a fair amount of buzz and exposure, small business owners who've brought on one or more employees, makers who work with manufacturers to fabricate what are essentially handmade prototypes, etc.

And I get it. From a business perspective it makes sense that Etsy would evolve in response to the first wave of sellers who came online in its infancy in 2005-07, let's say, having outgrown the original parameters of the online marketplace. To balance things out, perhaps, Etsy still features "fresh shops" from time to time, has increased posts in its Seller Handbook, even introducing a pitch form for sellers to pitch ideas (or themselves, as it were) for blog consideration. And that's great buzz if you can get it, but what about the sort of mid-level sellers who are using Etsy circa 2007-08 - accidental entrepreneurs, "work at home" moms, and other "micro" business owners who haven't yet made the leap to featured seller status?

Granted, I have a lot of work to do in my main shop to get it back up to speed (I have 40 designs and product listings at the moment, compared to around 100 at the time of baby #2's arrival a little over a year ago). But I can't help but feel a little like Etsy's middle child and I'm honestly not sure what my next move should be. I can't help but wonder if there are other Etsy sellers out there who feel the same way? Stay tuned to follow my journey and perhaps the stories of other "middle child" Etsy sellers!

2.14.2014

Valentine's Day round-up (and a bonus muffin makeover!)

As far as holiday shenanigans go, this year I've been more productive than last (what with baby #2 being less than two weeks old this time last year) but less productive than 2012, when the highlight of Valentine's Day festivities included heart-shaped scones I'd made the night before (I do love me some scones). I had ingredients to make blackberry chocolate chip scones but by the time both kids were in bed last night, having handled after-school time, dinner, and bedtime solo, that recipe seemed far too fussy. Instead, I threw the ingredients into Ina Garten's delicious but incredibly unhealthy strawberry muffin recipe (halved the recipe, subbing blackberries for the strawberries, obviously, and adding in about 1/2 cup of mini chocolate chips, making them even less healthy) and baked them up in a heart-shaped pan.


This is the same pan I used for the heart-shaped crayons the 5 year old will distribute to his classmates this afternoon.


I'm pretty sure I got all the melted crayon residue out... Anyway, for the crayons we remelted a 4+ year supply of broken crayons - the 5 year old did all the color mixing in a 24 slot mini muffin pan first then I transferred each "pod" to the heart-shaped pan and popped them in a 250 degree oven for about 12 minutes.


They popped right out of the pan when completely cool. And they turned out really well, I'd say better than my first attempt at this kind of thing way back when the Makery was still "fresh on Mondays".


And that's about it, folks. Oh, wait, I am wearing the festive socks my mother-in-law gave me when she came up for the baby's birthday bash a couple of weeks ago. That's enough, right?

PS - want to make a slightly healthier version of Ina Garten's muffins? If you don't want to use two whole sticks of butter (TWO STICKS!), give this makeover a try (changes to the original recipe are in bold; follow cooking instructions here):

Instead of 3 cups AP flour, use 1 cup whole wheat flour + 2 cups AP flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 1/4 cups 1% milk
2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 stick unsalted butter, melted + 1 mixed fruit/veggie pouch (I used one of these)
2 cups diced fresh strawberries 
(this recipe makes a great base muffin recipe so any fruit will do - I used diced kiwi + blueberries for this makeover, because every once in awhile I forget that nobody in my house will eat kiwis but I buy them anyway)
3/4 cup sugar


The slightly healthier muffins turned out pretty well, all things considered, although my first thought was, "mmm, these would be good with a little butter!" Kind of defeats the purpose but if you can resist that addition, they were still light and moist and plenty sweet. Using a generous amount of baking powder, cinnamon, and adding the sugar at the end is indeed genius. But two sticks of butter is insane, Ina, just insane!
Enjoy!