Anyone who’s ever dreamed of leaving their day job, starting a business, and working from home is going to LOVE today’s interviewee. I met Tara Swiger via the glory of the Internet, and she’s here today to tell us about how she did all of the above.
Now, onto the good stuff!
Tara Swiger is the kind of gal whose brain you’d want to pick. A French major turned yarn-maker, the pink-haired professional knows a thing or two about working on your own terms—and successfully. After a series of unsatisfying office jobs, Tara took matters into her own hands, left her job, and went full-time with her business. Curious as to how she made it happen, countless aspiring and struggling entrepreneurs came to Tara for guidance. That’s when she organized the Starship—a yearlong series of classes, goal-setting, and map-making to help members’ crafty businesses take flight. It was such a hit that it led to her first book.Though she spends most of her days talking with and encouraging creative businesspeople, Tara doesn’t work the grind. That means weekends are totally off, along with a weekday here and there. This enviable schedule keeps her energized, and it gives Tara enough time to read 100 books in one year, bake cupcakes once a week, and explore the flavors of veganism.
Read on for some thoughtful insight from Tara!
More and more, it seems women in the blogging world are becoming successful businesspeople by selling their craft or art online. What do you think of this growing trend?
I actually think this trend is the other way around: women have always been making money by selling their art and craft (long before the internet!), but now they’re adapting in the blogging world. There have been people blogging about their craftyness since the very beginnings of blogs (there were already tons of large ones when I found knitting in 2004). But as blogs change, and the way we consume information changes, we have to change the way we approach our blog, especially if you want it to be an effective business tool. As my friend Diane says, blogging started as a personal medium but when you use it as a business tool, you have to think a little differently.
In working with creative businesses, I see a lot of the two extremes: blogs so about-the-person that you don’t have any idea what they sell (or their subject matter isn’t related to what they sell, so they aren’t attracting people who would be buyers), or blogs-so-businessy that it’s a constant pitch-fest. The balance is in finding what you need people to know about your product (in order to make it easy for them to buy) and in what they actually want to read about.
Of course, there are a zillion ways to blog and to have a business, and to mix the two together, and finding the perfect blend for you takes lots of experimenting. (I could go on… I wrote a whole workbook about finding this balance!)
What are some of the success stories you’ve had as a direct result of someone reading your book or becoming part of the Starship? How does it feel knowing you helped fuel that success?
Ooh, I’ve just started collecting these and they make me so so happy. The newest one is Ana, a yarn-maker and knitter who joined the Starship three months ago and has already reached her income goal. When she joined she said the goal felt completely vague and distant, but we helped her make a map and then she stayed accountable in the weekly chats…and in September she was there, at that big, unreachable goal! Now she’s so busy with orders we’re working on scaling up, and making sure she can keep in touch with the holiday orders when the season slows down in January and February.
I can’t even express how thrilled I am to watch other people define their own success and reach it. When I hear their “yays” (we have a weekly “yay time”), I just know I’m doing the exact right thing, even if I can’t explain it to my in-laws.
Has there been any trial and error with your own business? What methods did you attempt that fell flat or didn’t work out the way you thought they would?
Everything! I am constantly trying and error-ing! I don’t know that any method or tool has fallen flat all on its own, it’s always a combination of implementation, audience and timing. Usually, things don’t work as quickly as I think they will. If I give up on something after a few weeks, I don’t see any results (this includes everything from a new product to a new marketing channel to a new supplier). Giving something time, and then course correcting in little ways, can make just about anything work. The question is: Do I want it to work? Do I enjoy it? Is it worth the error time? For some things, yes! But for the things that are meh, I try to non-guiltily let them go.
Was it empowering leaving your former job? Describe how you felt in cubicle land and the decision-making process you went through to take that step to leave it behind.
Yes, it’s so very empowering to work for myself. The actual leaving-of-my-job was much more conflicted. I was miserable at my job, and I had been working on my yarn company for three years with the express intent of working for myself. So when the time came, it was as scary as trusting that your biggest dream really can come true.
But how it actually happened is more boring than all that. I set a goal for what I’d need to earn on a regular basis (super specifically, how much each week for how many weeks?), the number of wholesale accounts, and the amount of bills I’d pay off. And then my employer was going to lay off a big percentage of the workforce and offered a buyout. I had reached all my goals, so I applied for the buyout (instead of losing my job!) and… that was that. I was thrilled, but terrified.
Unfortunately, you dealt with a negative response from your coworkers when you announced you’d be leaving. Why do you suspect they wouldn’t talk to you? Were they jealous?
I think that they took my leaving personally, as if it reflected on the value of their own jobs. My bosses were completely sweet and kind, but it was all the other women who had my same title (basically: secretary) [who] seemed to believe that if I wanted something different (and better for me), they should too. I never was suited for office life (and black slacks every day), so I was surprised that they took it so hard.
What basics do your book and classes outline to ensure stamina and growth for fledgling business owners?
There are a few basic principles underlining everything I do:
- I write, talk and teach about discovering the wonders in your business. I’m not interested in finding the “right” way – only the way that’s right for you, your goals and your people. Your biz, no matter how new or old, is an entire world, filled with a culture, a people (your buyers), and adventures. Although there are some business basics that we all use, you get to use it in your own way, to build your own kind of business, exactly as you want it. Exploring your business means doing experiments to see what will work (and what won’t). There aren’t easy answers, only exciting adventures. (So everything, from the book to the classes is FILLED with apply-it-to-yourself worksheets.)
- One-size-fits-all doesn’t fit anyone. Experimentation is key. The business you want is different from the business I want. And that means that we each have to find our own way. Business takes time, and you’re not going to get everything right the first time (or you won’t know if you will right away, it takes time!). So you’ve got to be willing to try again and again. The Starship and classes provide support for this experimentation (along with ideas for other things to try, and ways to measure if it worked or not).
- Finding your own way can be lonely, so we do it together. Gentle accountability and realistic goal-setting (followed by do-able to-dos) are in every class, and a weekly part of the Starship.
- Comparison sucks. Compassion (especially for yourself) rules. Looking at what someone else has and trying to recreate it only leads to unhappiness, and it blocks you from seeing the amazingness that you really want, and the biz you can build. This is a hard thing to remember, so we talk about what that feels like, a lot.
Is your work rewarding? What do you love about it?
LOVE LOVE LOVE it! Really! My best days are the ones where I’m connecting – whether through teaching via video, or answering a question via email or meeting someone for a cup of coffee. That said, I’m an introvert, and I need lots and lots of quiet time to think and write and synthesize what I’m learning into something useful. I love that I can get a mix of both (and that I’m responsible for getting both!).
Does it ever become hard to support yourself financially, or have you ever felt like you were running out of steam?
Yes. Honestly, it’s hard every day! There is stuff I don’t want to do (bookkeeping!) and stuff that’s discouraging (just a few months ago my steady income was cut by more than 60%, when a long-time client had a budget crisis and another client finished the project we’d be working on, much earlier than expected). But that’s the risk. And as long as I keep looking forward, and coming up with new ideas, and thinking about what my people need and want, it works out.
To keep from running out of steam, I take WAY more time off than anyone I know! I’m offline (except for Instagram, but that’s just to take my photos!) all weekend, and I take a short day on either Thursday or Friday. And sometimes I take a whole weekday off, just to go out of town and see a friend and her new baby.
But because of my experiments, I know my business is better when I do! Every Monday, and every day after a short day, I just kill my to-do list. I’m inspired to write my best stuff. I’m more helpful and friendly and, well, smart!
How do you envision your own business growing? Could you ever see yourself switching it up entirely down the road?
I dream about switching it up all the time. Sometimes I think I’ll write another book, other times I think I’ll stop talking about business-y help altogether and just make stuff and sell it in a new tiny Etsy shop.
But then I get an email from a Starship captain that just made more last month than ever before… and I know I’m doing the exact right thing for right now.
Have you made a lot of friends and connections through your work?
Absolutely! Everything from co-teachers to collaborators to students and readers. I love ‘em all!
Where does your book leave off its readers? Feeling challenged, empowered, a little bit of both?
At the end of the book, you’ll have a clear idea of what you offer (and what’s unique about that), who you’re selling it to, and how to reach them. And you’ll have a marketing plan so you actually do all the long-term connecting and communication involved in building healthy relationships with your people!
What are some books (other than your own, of course) that you would recommend to blossoming business owners?
I always recommend Kari Chapin‘s books. If you don’t know anything about how you’d start selling your handmade goods, check out Handmade Marketplace. And if you’re just starting your store, check out her new book, Grow your Handmade Business. Whereas my book is for the already-selling maker who wants to reach more people, Kari’s books tell you all the technical stuff about setting up your shop for the first time.
I love Boss of You. It’s the book that helped me most when I was transitioning from selling a little to selling a lot – all the inside stuff of the business, the admin and day-to-day stuff.
Thanks so much for chatting with me, Tara! You have such an inspiring story. Have any questions for Tara, or didya just like what she had to say? Let her know in the comments!