What scything has taught me about business (and everything else)

I have had an exceptional summer of scythe teaching this year and now that I consider this design more or less done, I wanted to think a bit about what scything has taught me about running a business.  Though it’s only a little business (some might say a ‘hobby’ business), I have learned so much from it.

One of the main things I learned was to think about your business model carefully before you launch your business.  The reason scything can’t be more than a hobby business/one of a number of income streams is that I can only do it for four months of the year.  Though my day rate is pretty good, being restricted to this timeframe is really quite limiting.  In fact, I knew that this would cause me issues when I started and I always intended this to be a ‘tester’ income stream designed to hone my business and marketing skills.  To be honest, the scything season is so full on (especially with a part-time job and other projects on the go) that by the time it’s finished I am pretty tired and looking forward to a winter sit down!  So, I suppose the upside of this limiting factor is that it allows me to develop my other interests and income streams (or be a dilettante, depending on how you view it).  The next income streams that I intend to develop (or as I like to call them ‘elements of a cohesive career’) will not be restricted by the time of the year.  Many of the projects I am developing at the moment are designed to be restricted by as little as possible.

Lesson number two that I learned from scything is that if you’re going to try and sell something as crazy/pioneering as scything, then expect it to be hard.  I have a friend who has started a business making curtains.  When people ask her what she does, she says, “I make curtains.”  When people ask what I do and I tell them, “I teach scything,”  it requires a little more of an explanation (“You know, the tool that Death carries…”).  If you have to explain to someone what your thing is, then it’s going to be a hard sell.  The flip-side of this is that there aren’t that many people doing it, so when your thing starts to catch on, as scything is doing at the moment, then you’re in a brilliant place to surf the wave.  You can be the person who is there before everyone else and makes the rules.  There are many other benefits to being a rarity.  You don’t have to compete with other people on price, so you can raise your prices to a level that feels right for you.  You don’t have to do sales or special offers.  You don’t have to offer freebies to catch people’s eye in crowded market.  People – who are often extremely excited about what you are doing – will seek you out.

Another important lesson is that I have learned is that your target market might not be what you think it is.  When I first started teaching scything, I thought I would get a mixture of folks with allotments, smallholders and people developing wildflower meadows on my courses.  It has not turned out that way.  Almost to a man, the people I get on my courses are developing wildflower meadows – either for themselves or for an organisation.  Knowing this means that should I need to do some targeted marketing, I know exactly who I should get in touch with (I’ve actually got enough students through website links, word of mouth and a newsletter so I don’t need to do this at the moment, but in the future, who knows).  I guess a down side of this is that my customers are in a different demographic from me, they aren’t ‘my people’.  The upside is that being mostly retired and owners of land, they aren’t short of a bob or two to spend on courses and scythes.

I expected scything courses to take off a lot more quickly than they did.  It has taken me three years before they have become pleasurable and easy to do.  In fact, the three years that it has taken to get me to this pleasurable and easy place hasn’t all been taken up with the gradual and slow growth of the courses.  Much of it has been taken up with me making some pretty bad mistakes.  I made bad decisions, for the best of reasons, and it cost me years.  But actually, that’s fine, I learned loads along the way.  And now that I am coming to approach other business-related projects, I know that periods of time where nothing seems to be working is just part of the process.  That’s a massively important thing to learn because it’s those moments where you feel like giving up.

I haven’t done any ‘marketing’ this year, because with all of the other things going on, I would not have been able to cope with more work than I already had.  This is an example of the 80/20 rule in process – I spent a lot of time marketing in the first years, now I am reaping the benefits (boom boom).  Last year I worked out where people were finding out about me, and I worked out that its 50% word of mouth and 50% links from the Scythe Association site.  Word of mouth really works – far more than ‘big’ publicity, like being on TV, does for actual money-in-your-pocket bookings.  I still think the big publicity is important though but more as a way of raising awareness about the thing you’re doing.  More awareness = more bookings down the line.  It’s just not immediate.

My last course this year was for one guy.  It was supposed to be a group course, but all of the other folks who had missed out on the courses I had already run this season couldn’t make the date.  I could have cancelled it, but I have developed a policy of running courses no matter how many people I get booked on.  Usually they are full, but sometimes it happens that there are only a few folk.  There’s no way that someone who has had one course cancelled is going to book on again and that means that you have essentially lost a customer – perhaps more if you think about the word of mouth effect that that person would have had.  I am in the lucky position of only having to pay for venues if I get a critical mass of people, so I can do it this way.

Actually, that leads me to another point…  Always pay your way.  I have been using venues who would probably be happy enough if I didn’t pay them anything at all.  BUT, for me, not paying for something means that I can’t ask for things.  For example, I can’t ask that they get back to me promptly to confirm that it’s ok to run a course.  I can’t ask if I can run a last-minute course for some people who desperately need it.  Or at least I could, but I feel terribly guilty.  So, I pay for the priviledge of not feeling guilty, getting swift responses and being able to run last-minute courses.  Plus, it makes me feel good.

A final point prices and day-rates: I work out my prices by ‘gut-feeling.’  It has proved the best way of doing it for me.  I started marking my prices against what other people were charging and then I realised that I was getting pissed off that I was doing so much work for that amount of money, so I put them up by £15.  I lived with that for a year (my courses were £60), then I booked on a food photography course that cost £120 and I didn’t blink an eye.  That really made me stop and think, so I put prices up to £90 with no decrease in bookings.  The next time I teach scything, I will charge £100 and after that I will keep my prices moving (upwards obviously).  Next time I teach scything, I might do a trial run of a ‘pay what you want’ course.  I’m really interested in this pricing model (and I know that it works), but I am not sure whether number-restricted courses with an older demographic is the place to try it, but we’ll see.  Recently I realised that while the day rate I was happy to ‘get out of bed for’ used to be £100, it’s now £300.  That’s thanks to scything and to developing skills in something that you can charge £300 a day for (at least) – photography.  I can’t wait for the day when it’s £500 or £1000.  Not so that I can earn more money but so that I can do less work and spend more time with my as yet imaginary children on my as yet imaginary smallholding.  Live the dream, guys, live the dream.

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One thought on “What scything has taught me about business (and everything else)

  1. Beth says:

    Having just read this post I feel like you would get bloomin loads out of the book ‘Book Yourself Solid’. You provide a service & it helps people tell others what they get out of taking your workshops or hiring you. Get it from the library- it’s by MIchael Port.

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