Friday, 25 March 2011

Revenge of the taxonomy fascist!

Picture the scene... you'd really like a packet of Skittles, it's understandable enough; Skittles taste great, worth every dental problem they cause. So great is your desire for a packet of Skittles that you go to a shop and ask for them, after some deliberation the shopkeeper comes back with a packet that is 50% Skittles and 50% M&Ms and asks if this is O.K.

Clearly it is not O.K - it is only 50% O.K in that the packet contains 50% Skittles.

I'll now ask you to imagine that rather than Skittles, you have asked a supplier for 60 litres of Pomace Olive oil, you have specified the word Pomace and have been told to pick it up before 5pm that same day. You arrive there to be offered 60 litres of Pomace Olive oil that is blended with 50% sunflower. Now, Accuse me of taxonomy fascism if you will but surely Pomace olive that has been mixed with 50% Sunflower oil ceases to be Pomace olive oil - it becomes something else. Specifically, it is something entirely worthless to me.

The only reason this has garnered such a diatribe is that, basically, Kate and I had to drive across Manchester (a city whose road layout resembles a drunken toddlers' first attempt on a Spirograph, a superficially damaged spirograph at that) when I was feeling the acute affects of Red Stripe Lager from the previous evening. The drive to the supplier was fraught and basically fraught, coupled with the full spectrum of frumpy Manchester drivers, was the last thing I needed.

Punishment for an unnamed Manchester Supplier...

I suppose the lesson for all you crafters out there is that a reliable supplier is like your best friend who, unlike your actual best friend, won't ever want to borrow your money or C.Ds. Treasure them; a delay in supplies causes a delay in production which causes a delay in me earning money (I'll spare you a more detailed financial breakdown - I'm not great at capitalism)

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Sunday, 13 March 2011

Ten Seconds to Midnight...

Before I begin this blog entry I'd just like to direct the readers attention to the terrible events in Japan and, if you have any spare money, to please donate to a recognised charity for the disaster.

I began thinking about this entry at around 2:03pm on Friday the 11th. The mundane grind of my University job slips from my shoulder and shatters amongst the financial statements, letter-headed stationery and is lost amongst the interminable noise of the students (their youthful energy and their bizzarre tastes in music appal me)

I cycle home, invigorated as the Manchester sun beats down on me - arriving back at 2:23pm I begin work - what I see as my actual job - at BarSoap. I prepare an order for posting and deal with some Internet correspondences (mainly detailing my last blog, though with a couple of informal inquiries) and begin preparations for making a batch of soap (Goats Milk, Honey and Oatmeal) I have neither Goats Milk or Honey so I plan a trip to Tesco (a simple plan: Walk to Tesco) for the ingredients. Such are the minor obstacles of soapmaking.

On the way back I stop by the post office with the package. Now, my local post office is a fascinating place; the worker, far from being grateful for my handing over money for the service he provides, views me with intense distrust as though I have some insidious motive for sending a package. He will not speak to me, he will not smile, he will take my money but that is it. Once again I leave questioning myself, did I do something wrong there?

My post office manager.
I return home to make the soap, I won't bore you with the details. At some point later I return to the P.C and discover that my chemist (the man who checks over our ingredients and methods and deems them safe) has responded to my request to allow us to make Lip Balm (BarSoap is expanding its product range!); he wants money from me... they all want money from me. So, I am currently in negotiation as to what the bare minimum of money I can give him is (I also want money, I just love it so much)

At some point Kate returns home, I am obliged to stop working on the business and spend some time with her. I'm sure fellow craft makers can relate to occasionally having to speak to loved ones when there's work to be done, it's frustrating but it's a slippery path towards becoming a sociopath otherwise. After some perfunctory snuggling, we have a brief discussion about marketing and postal options (now postage to the U.S works at a loss in order to encourage trade, bah) it is then time for bed. BarSoap ends for 8-9 fleeting hours.

It is Saturday. We wake and deal with the correspondences of the morning - there are two sales to be packed and posted. Whilst negotiations are ongoing with the chemist I decide to waste no time in designing labels for the lip balms. Using MicroSoft Publisher is an emotionally neutral experience; the process is so dull and yet the program itself is so efficient... it gives the user a sort of glazed mental state - I sit there for 40 minutes adjusting this and modifying that, a vacant smile on my face throughout. I felt pleasure when I'd finished the designs though remember nothing else of the preceding 40 minutes.

I attempt to print the labels and stick them on the lip-balm tubes though our printer seems to have finally perished. It makes incomprehensible whirring sounds, complains of a lack of ink then a lack of paper and, when I finally coax a print out of it, gives a smudged, horrendous copy of the labels. The Devil moves in mysterious ways, though he is very real; I feel his hand in designing the Epson Dx8400 printer, the printer makes sinners of us all. I calmly imagine myself pounding the machine into atoms, my fists bloody and bruised though the infernal machine is dead. I discuss my feeling with Kate and we decide instead that I should order a replacement printer from Amazon.

It is Sunday now; there are no orders to prepare this morning - instead we've been in touch with a graphic designer to work on some sketches and ideas for both our online store and our promotional material, also a customer has a query about the oils we use and I am happy to oblige him (I really, really love talking about soap) In-between disparate episodes of Futurama and Family Guy I do a quick stock check and decided to make some Gin and Tonic soap (I've had Gin on the brain for 30 hours now) Making the soap I cut quite the figure, wearing a Dressing gown that can only be described as "stained", yellow rubber gloves and over-sized tinted Elvis shades to protect myself from chemical burns.

You might say I looked utterly insane, but that's the joy of working at home: I can listen to music I like, if I want to momentarily pause for thought and then watch the action scenes from Terminator 2, I can. That's what this is all about really; hopefully the business will take off and it'll be my inalienable right to watch Terminator 2 at any time during the day. So, that's fifty hours in the life of a SoapMaker - certainly it's more work and less money but, although it's now ten seconds to midnight and my 'official' University job is a mere nine hours away, I am not resentful.

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Thursday, 10 March 2011

Results night for the Etsy Oscars!

Well, this is exciting! The first thing I'd like to do is thank the lovely Kate for "Suggesting" I write this review, it's been nothing but a pleasure to research the 70+ shops that entered this competition. My eyes may be bleeding, but they're tears of seeping, bloody joy. Yes, it was genuinely humbling to look over some of these shops; usually when I come across people more talented than me I sulk and try to avoid making eye-contact with them, though in this case I have to write a blog celebrating their superiority so... thanks again for this Kate.

However, let's get started. Initially I drew up a shortlist of 25 shops which, fundamentally, really is far too long for a shortlist. So I was able to whittle this down again to 9; Jenn's Zen almost made it through sheer descriptive power alone "Mouth Watering and Delicious Fuscia Pink Chalcedony Earrings" - Well played, I was almost interested in earrings for a short time (Kate thinks they're lovely too) There were also several promising Burlesque entries; basically I want more women to look like this and this (not safe for work) - it's shameless but I have noticed 80s fashions making a comeback and I'd do anything to stop that happening.

I think my sub-conscious desire to be able to draw anything beyond stick men is why I choose this from Sunny Lee Studios. The featured pieces seem so vibrant - I always think watercolours are one of the more organic and exciting painting styles (also, there's a freakin' Pterosaur painting, which is always terrific for a young man to see!) The same goes for Firebelly Art even though none of them look like anything specifically (it's abstract you see) I could imagine looking at them from time to time and enjoying the colours if there's nothing on T.V. Oh and Andralynn for the sheer whimsy of it, I just love whimsy.

Also, have you ever wished a greeting card could double as a Basil plant? I know I have. Well wish no more friends, I really think this kind of juxtaposition is indicative of a mind that sees the world not as it is, but as it should be. And, from the ecologically prescient to the pragmatic, I think this stuff might be the only thing to prevent me actually slipping into a waking coma at my current job so thanks for that Peachy Keen, I need that job to pay the gas/electricity bill.

Well, I think I've gone on far too long... onto the main event. It's a hearty congratulations to Penny Farthing!

The style of Steam-Punk Victorian Gothic has, until now, been a criminally under represented fashion chic. However, this ring...
... is somewhat eye-catching I'm sure you'll agree; something Edward Scissorhand might wear for a night on the town and anyone who thinks that's a bad thing is -actually- insane. Now, I'm not claiming I'd be able to pull off wearing such a ring (especially given the amount of cardigans and knitted clothes I've been wearing recently) but I'd love to meet the man who had both the confidence and the wardrobe to match an item like this. Not to mention the lady who'd carefully apply her make-up and make arrangements for the evening before casually slipping on this...
No, it doesn't tell the time - but that's not the issue. I appreciate the minutiae of detail in some of these pieces and, whilst some pieces can lean towards the ostentatious, the style seems to almost insist on a certain esoteric fan-base. Certainly, this fusion of melancholy and the mechanistic presumably isn't to everyone's taste (my friends certainly wouldn't permit me such body adornments) but it's certainly striking - sure, a gold ring with a diamond in it looks pretty, but it's been done... I must have seen at least 10 people last week wearing a gold ring (maybe more!)

Also, I defy anyone to tell me they wouldn't look dapper wearing these cufflinks to any given formal event...
They're unisex which doubles their potential user-base and this is me, right now, throwing down the gauntlet for someone to mix and match with them. I know there's a tuxedo or female garment out there that is screaming out for domino cufflinks, I -actually- know it and I want photographic proof to show that the reality is as beautiful as it is in my head. Is there no-one among us who will take up this challenge? (I'd do it, but the chances of my ever being invited to a formal event are akin to finding a needle in a haystack where there isn't a needle)

So, as I've been researching and writing this for almost 5 hours now I'm going to wrap it up. A heartfelt thanks for everyone who entered; I think Kate is going to do a treasury featuring some of the shortlisted artists; there's too many to feature you all and for that I apologise (you're all just too talented, feel free to give yourselves a round of applause, all of you) I'll try and write another one at somepoint - so thank you again, you're beautiful people.

This is Dan, signing out. 

P.S - Fr33na, Coquette Bath and Buddhakitty Glass you almost made it for this, this and this.

P.S.S  - This is directed at Custom knit treasures I don't know if you're reading this but Kate mentioned your concern about a sales drop off; I've looked into it and as you sell scarves in Florida I'm guessing the sales dip is related to the weather...

This Google search of Florida reveals that scarves are pretty seasonal there, I hope you don't think I'm being presumptuous but I suggest Sunhats for the warmer months. Apologies is that sounded flippant I do genuinely hope it picks up for you.
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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Customer Service

Customer service should be the easiest thing in the world; this is a group of people that want to give me money for a service which I provide. Their money allows me to continue providing the service and, as a by-product, allows me to purchase much needed food from time to time. I also find that the better my products become, the more customer revenue is generated and this is why I strongly believe in the notion of meritocracy and, to a lesser extent, the capitalist model itself.

I find the process whereby people give me money to be, frankly, beautiful.

However, this seamless revenue cycle wasn’t always so smooth. Back in December 2010 (BarSoap’s debut) both Kate and I were particularly green as salesmen; we knew wanted money, but how to get it? I can very simply outline our problem with this flowchart.

Desire for Revenue   >   Create Saleable product   >   ???   >   Revenue

Basically, we lacked one vital element.

Although we sold a respectable 41 bars that day I felt our customer interaction could use some work. We were friendly and enthusiastic but, if you’re asking people to pay £3.50 for a bar of soap, you need to lucidly explain why this is twice as expensive as supermarket brands. Initially we tried to encourage discussion with the informal query “This is all hand-made, so if you have any questions…” Unsurprisingly, no-one had any questions about hand-made bars of soap – I’m a Soapmaker and I’d struggle to come up with a suitable question about soap if someone put me on the spot like that, I’d just stand there gawping like a dunce.

Me, selling a moisturising Goats Milk and Honey Bar

Our shortcomings were pointed out to us at the next fair by a stall owner who sold bits of newspaper fashioned in the shape of animals (quite a market for them apparently) and bless her tiny newspaper animals, she was right. Kate decided a better line of questioning would be “Have you tried handmade soap before?” which invites a response of at least “Yes.” or in other cases “No.” thus allowing us to explain the benefits to people who haven’t previously used handmade soap.

Now, I have noticed that other stall holders don’t actively engage customers as much as we do; I can understand that if someone had made a knitted jumper or fashioned a bracelet encrusted with diamonds and other shiny things then they’ll pretty much sell themselves. However, whilst I don’t like to think of us as pushy, this is a heathen age of shower gel, alcohol wipes and misleading beauty products, the humble soapmaker has to scream, shout and fight to survive. That’s right... fight to survive.

We at BarSoap do try to engage our customers and be friendly *and* informative though, at present, we don’t subscribe to the “Customer is always right” maxim. For example, the three customer who smelt each bar several times (and spent over 15 minutes at our stall) constantly intoning “But I don’t use soap” in an ever increasing vocal pitch… they were wrong (though did buy something to which I thank them) The customer who started using our soaps as lego blocks whilst making strange tutting sounds and asking Kate if soap would make his girlfriend love him, he was wrong (soap alone isn’t going to make anyone love him, I fear) and the customer who very vocally wanted a 50% discount on one bar of soap… he was wrong too. That said, customer service, for better or worse, does expose one to the gamut of human personality traits and I eagerly await out next stall – be it profitable or anecdotal.

A virtual hug to the person who posts their most disagreeable customer…


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Friday, 4 March 2011

The Woman in front of the Man

Self-worth is an important trait, I like to believe that I can achieve things with a little effort and rational thought; in fact, I find it hard to operate without that assumption. Just today for example; I made some toast, made a cup of tea, I managed to cycle into work and I’ve been at work for 44 minutes thus far; I haven’t done anything in the time I’ve been here save write this blog and yet I haven’t been sacked or even reprimanded, quite the achievement.

However, it should be noted that none of these events happened in a vacuum; my significant other (the delightful Kate) had a hand in these tasks: I asked her to take out the toast when it was burning (I was busy trying to repair the P.C) she fetched the mug and tea bag and –actually- made the tea when all I did was turn on the kettle and she was also able to financially support us through the previous 2 jobs I was sacked from for dilly-dallying. The only thing in my morning routine she didn’t help with was probably the cycle to work; it would be unreasonable to expect her to help with that.

Up to now, Kate has been a largely unsung commodity in this blog; my blog hitherto being a platform for me to express my rage at the price of coconut oil. That said, I should point out that during the process of the soap’s creation to it arriving freshly at your doorstep there are other hands at work aside from mine. Although the idea of making alcohol themed soaps was mine, what’s a theme without a clever wordplay? Yes, that’s right the moniker “BarSoap” was punned by one Kate Griggs, the name references the structural form soap is likely to take and then pairs it with a licensed establishment where alcohol is consumed; it is only then that a Mojito Soap Bar seems to make sense. Semiotics, a powerful force.

Also, it should go without saying that the use of Jules Cheret paintings was proposed by Kate; I like paintings of things in a very general way I suppose (I’d enjoy a drawing of a cow under a nice tree on a sunny day… a cottage in the background, maybe) However, if someone were to suggest we packaged soap with 19th century paintings evocative of a gaudy, burlesque style – the father of Belle Époque era French painting – to give a sense of period chic and boutique desirability then I’d most likely stare blankly at them until they started to think something was wrong with me. I’ll have to commend her on that though, people seem to like it; a word to all budding craft makers out there, an over-riding theme or style can really give your work a unique sense of direction and identity. 

Kate's role in BarSoap
Also, there’s the day to day stuff like networking and social contact which I neither have the patience nor the aptitude for. It goes hand in hand with selling and I’m happy to let someone else be the public face of the company (just last night she at a legal gathering, she gave a presentation on soap, to strangers… I would find it very hard to approach strangers and engage them on the subject of Soap). Whilst I do make the soap, without generated sales all we’d be left with is a house that smelled very pleasantly and a stockpile that made walking in the living room very difficult. Granted, whilst looking at people’s necklaces and knitted items on internet sites like Etsy and Folksy doesn’t really constitute hard work for a girl, it needs to be done nonetheless.  

That's all for now Soap fans...

P.S. Kate reminded me after proof reading this (she does that for me too) that she also came up with the logo.. though due to restraints of the Blog format I've had to tell her she's literally too awesome to fit into one blog entry.

P.P.S. I'm definitely, definitely not being forced to write this under pain of forced abstinence. Definitely not.

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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Humble Beginnings and Humbler Finances...

Never Again...
Cast your mind back… it was a garish time of baggy clothes and drum machines – yes, it was the early 90s. We didn’t have a lot; we had Conservative rule and the first Massive Attack album. Whilst we did have Coca Cola, I’m not altogether sure my generation could be classed as Generation X; we just didn’t have the energy on these shores.

However, what my luminaries and I did have were hopes; one day we would be adults and our roles were not yet defined. Brutal realities hadn’t permeated my idealistic notions of meritocracy and, happily, my vague comprehension of nepotism and class based injustices remained comfortably vague.

In short, if I -just- worked hard enough, who’s to say that I couldn’t become a rally driver? Who indeed would shatter my unshakeable belief that I could hold a Chemistry role of importance; my discoveries were a force for good and that my name was spoke in reverence (like those other noteworthy chemists, whose names escape me just at the moment)

Now, of course, I’ve yet to learn to drive and if someone were to ask me the chemical makeup of salt then my eyes would cloud with self-doubt and a forced grin would vie for position over a mask of outright terror (NaOh?). However, I had these dreams at one point or another in my mentally capricious youth. Nowadays, in this climate, I can’t imagine what young people imagine their roles to be: perhaps homeless? Maybe the more ambitious ones dream of securing DSS payments from the Government? Either way, the conflagration of negativity the media is bombarding students can’t be a force for good.

Irregardless of social background and economic privilege, I can only assume that no little boy or girl harbours a secret desire to make soap. Frankly, I see this as a positive; there’s charmingly esoteric and there’s just weird. Parents, look to their offspring to be figures of consequence and means – gender specific roles such footballer or model (generalities aside) are expected… doctor, film director, accountant are afforded prestige in this regard, but Soapmaker? My parents asked me “who uses soap?” “How can money be made from soap?”

“What is wrong with you?”

Like many businesses, there was single defining moment. The foundations were laid over a 45 minutes period as Lord Sugar dispatched two teams to create and sell soaps in hit BBC show the Apprentice; I was coming to the end of a fruitless 9 weeks working at o2 telephonica in a call centre and the prospect of being my own boss (or, more accurately, Kate being my boss) seemed so appealing I literally couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life – one of the teams made a profit and I supposed I could make a profit too. Subsequent to this, I’ve never had a conversation with people who care about specific phone applications of differing Nokia handsets. In this regards, I’ve never been happier.

It might seem a banal observation but it really is so liberating to work for yourself; if you had a job where the manager can, in good conscience, reprimand you for taking 2.3% of your working day on non-scheduled personal breaks as opposed to the company stipulated 2% - it is a scientific impossibility for you to attain a quantum of satisfaction from your work. The financial rewards are not immediate, the learning curve is steep and I’ve had more conversations about soap than any heterosexual male in history but, crucially, I can listen to music I like whilst doing it and, in accordance with Thomas Hobbes’ natural laws, I am free to make the journey to bathroom with the minimum of bureaucratic red-tape.

To those about to entrepreneur, I salute you.