“I have been described as being like a rubber ball. The harder I hit the wall, the harder I bounce back.”
Sarah Munnings wears many hats; entrepreneur, speaker, leader and skilled artisan. She is in fact, the ‘queen of pivot’. Sarah’s career has taken her from studies in history and archaeology to a career in business banking transformation, project management and compliance – and today, making, leading, teaching and advocating for Australia’s handmade artisan community.
Sarah has an unusual blend of business acumen and creativity. She has taken her silversmithing business from a hobby to a career, creating her own beautiful pieces as well as skilfully teaching and empowering others to discover their own creativity.
Sarah’s work is also heart-led. She is fuelled by a passion for connecting people, reducing social isolation, and increasing social cohesion and positive health and wellbeing through creativity.
Along with good friend and business partner, Robyn Hall, Sarah is a constant inspiration and supporter of handmade artisans. Together Robyn and Sarah have launched two business communities; Grow: A Creative Community and most recently, the next evolution of Grow, named Artisan Society. Using their combined skills, they have spent the last four years researching this sector from the grassroots.
Sarah and Robyn’s partnership is a fusion of creativity and business. Both trained professionals, they have conducted significant feasibility studies and research into the needs of creatives. They identified that traditional work spaces and hot desking didn’t meet their needs, and many artists did not view their creativity as a business.
As a result, the pair were the catalyst for development of a new creative space, Kingston Creative Studios. This Arts and Creative Studios hub is an innovative use of council space to equip creatives with space to work, as well as a resource library, mentoring and business skills to boost the arts and creative economy in the City of Kingston.
Sarah, like many other entrepreneurs, has forged a new path online to maintain income, continue teaching and connect with clients in this challenging time. This is her story.
What was your first reaction to the COVID-19 crisis?
My first reaction was to crawl under the duvet and hide. The core of my business is running face-to-face workshops, and due to restrictions and social distancing, venues were closing fast. I knew I had to postpone and cancel classes.
I contacted more than 100 clients to confirm that workshops were cancelled until further notice and offered a full refund, or credit for a future workshop. It was such a sad time watching money flow out of my account knowing all my income streams – markets, workshops, retail stores – were all going to be put on hold until the crisis passed.
What has been your most successful business pivot during the crisis?
Taking the opportunity to launch online silversmithing classes and workshops delivered by post. This was on my list for 2020 and the COVID-19 crisis just took away all excuses.
I love teaching face-to-face, but had run out of weekends to run workshops and short of cloning myself, could not expand any further. So going online was my option for scaling in 2020.
Having done most of the planning and started to work with great photographers, I knew I had to take the plunge. As a result I have launched four ‘workshops in a box’. I have brand new clients who want additional classes in the coming months and deeper connections with existing clients who are supporting my work.
Now in my workshop in a box packs, clients can complete a beginners or advanced class at home. All instructions and materials are included and there is a full list of tools you need at home to complete the projects, so before they get the kit they know what they need. I also sell second hand and new tools to fill any gaps, and provide email trouble shooting for the packs. I add new packs each month, and take requests for projects as well as creating standalone instructions for people who already have tools and materials.
I am loving this new connection with existing clients and also with people who were unable to get to my classes due to their location or busy schedules.
Launching online has taken some of the sting out of cancelling and refunding workshops, but even with workshops I was blown away by the good faith in the community. I was honest right from the start of March that I couldn’t guarantee that live workshops would go ahead, and many people chose to roll over their booking. I had enough leeway to cancel venues and accommodation that would have been incurred.
There is still some way to go to make up for lost income, but with people keen for face-to-face classes and workshops by post, I have managed to keep my business pottering along. I have even started a YouTube channel and Instagram TV, so I am forced to use channels that I had avoided to survive, stepping outside my comfort zone and continuing to innovate.
What strengths have you relied on and what new strengths have you discovered?
I am naturally cautious with finance. Early on I had set up a client account where I hold funds for workshops. Through this account, I was able to offer full refunds to clients and I knew the money was there to cover it.
I have been described as being like a rubber ball. The harder I hit the wall, the harder I bounce back. Being able to analyse my business, my offerings and my abilities has meant that I could adapt quickly by thinking about what my workshop clients would want in this period. Knowing that I would not see them face-to-face, I chatted to my customers about workshops, and what I could offer and built my product and service offering from there.
What is helping you cope right now?
I have daily contact with my business partner Robyn at Artisan Society. Planning its launch later in the year is really helping me as it is so close to going live. It allows me to focus on something bigger than my individual business.
As Artisan Society, we are consultants specialising in feasibility studies, gap analysis and project management for arts and creative incubators. Our aim through Artisan Society is to connect conscious consumers with artisans – people in Australia who create with skilled hands.
Both Robyn and I create everything for our business, and have chatted to clients who don’t know how to tell which handmade product is made in Australia by the seller, vs designed in Australia and made overseas, or hand assembled in Australia.
We are creating an accreditation that provides that to consumers – so there is a clear way to distinguish between products handmade in Australia vs Overseas, and recognise the professionalism and skills involved.
We all know and recognise the ‘Australian Made’ mark and this is out of reach for many Artisans, as accreditation is per product. For example, if you make and sell beeswax wraps, this requires one accreditation, but for people who create bespoke work, there is no equivalent accreditation.
What has been most important to you throughout this crisis?
Getting outside into nature, and having time to make and create. I need to have quiet time when I am involved in making. This time at the anvil or using a blow torch is so immersive, I can then process all the events in the current world.
When you look back at this in six months’ time, what will stand out as the most successful decision?
Taking a leap of faith and creating workshop packs my own way.
There are a lot of online tutorials and courses, but I knew that with two boys of primary school age at home, recording video without them being involved would be impossible. I fell back on the skills I developed during my years of writing procedures for HSBC, and wrote up my workshop material step by step so that anyone could pick them up and follow them.