Don’t Give It Away

Trade Secrets – Are you telling too much?

A recent email conversation with a wonderful polymer clay artist, who specializes in making buttons, reminded me of something that I think many crafters fail to do. By our nature, crafters are a friendly bunch who like to help each other. But, how often have you found a conversation with a fellow crafter leading to you giving away the farm?

I had invited Tessa Ann of the Button Shop to participate on Crafty Tips and requested that she email me a crafting tip to include with her listing. Rightfully so, Tessa Ann questioned sharing secret techniques on how she makes her lovely buttons. I assured her that I in no way wanted her to divulge her true secrets and was looking for something she might tell someone new to working with polymer clay.

Her hesitation was smart and a good reminder that too many artisans practically give away the farm when they talk to other crafters about what they make.

Our conversations reminded me of an incident at a craft show. It could have been any show anywhere as I suspect this happens all the time. Two art photographers were talking about equipment and the conversation migrated to the pictures on display. The visiting photographer started naming off the locations where the photos were from. (We live in the mountains of North Carolina – a wonderfully enchanting place full of old farms, fields and waterfalls with seemingly limitless locations for landscape photographers.)

What had started as a friendly conversation between two fellow artists was cleverly turned into a fishing expedition to learn a competitor’s trade secrets. The visiting photographer started asking about those locations with which he was not familiar. Having been effectively smoozed by him, the booth owner began sharing her favorite “secret” spots.

Realizing what the visitor was doing, I interrupted the conversation to ask the booth owner if she always gave away her business secrets so freely. The smoozer interrupted saying he knew where most of her pictures were from and had taken more than a few photos in those locations himself. “Sure,” I replied “but you didn’t know where that one, that one and that one were taken” I said as I pointed to some of the seller’s most interesting shots. At that point, the smoozer sauntered off and the booth owner looked at me as if she had been hit by a brick.

Another artisan took a slightly different approach that had me laughing out loud at the utter ingeniousness of her approach. A metal smith offered a “free” tutorial on how she made one of her most popular items. I admit that the item looked like something that wouldn’t be all that difficult to make and questioned the price of her pre-made ones. It was a clear tutorial and was fully illustrated. It approached the entire process along the lines of all you need is a bit of skill, a bit of know-how and yeah, oh by the way, you will need this, this and this equipment. It became quickly apparent the entire tutorial was a clever marketing piece to show why she charged as much as she did for that little something as all that equipment was far from cheap, the skill required was significant and the work required facilities not available to most home crafters.

I think part of what makes meeting with other crafters so much fun is the sharing of new ideas and techniques. I’ve learned a great deal from other crafters and have shared quite a bit myself. I think for years the adage, “sure it look’s easy and you could do that, but you won’t” was fairly true. With more and more people trying to make money with their crafts, “loose lips sink ships” might be a safer adage.

The smoozer photographer obviously knew what he was doing. He played on that community aspect of crafters and was turning sharing ideas about which lens to use into an inquisition that could have negatively impacted the booth owner’s future revenue. After all, she had exclusive permission from one of the property owners to go onto his property to shoot her pictures. She told the smoozer the name of the property owner and the location. Those wonderful photographs of hers that everyone was admiring for their uniqueness would not be so special if other photographers had access to the same location.

So, my question to you is how much do you share, when do you share or do you share at all? Do you play it by ear or are you Fort Knox and allow no access?

A few suggestions for further reading...

4 Responses to Don’t Give It Away

Wow, I love the idea of creating a tutorial that shows exactly why your work is worth what you charge. That’s a fabulous idea. Thanks so much for this, I’ll be linking.


Comment by Rachel on

It is a great idea! When I found it, she had me laughing at how clever she was. What made it all the more clever was that it was a serious tutorial and was in no way snarky.

I could see it working for many different kinds of crafts. For example, costume jewelry – 5 blue seed beads (you can’t just buy 5, you have to buy a whole tube for $2.95), 4 jump rings (100 for $4.00), jump ring tool ($4.05), craft pliers…

I’ve seen some crochet, knitted and beaded projects where the description includes the number of stitches or beads involved. Those numbers can get pretty impressive fairly quickly.

Thanks for the comment and the link too!


Comment by Michele on

To be honest I have been to several craft shows, saw and item and went home and made it myself, for my home and my own enjoyment. I wouldn’t even attempt to copy someone’s idea for the purpose of selling it as my own.


Comment by Ms. Freeman on

It’s a shame that more people don’t feel as you do. I’ve seen covert sketches and photos being taken and even overheard conversations about how they could make said item cheaper and price it higher. I’ve seen newbie sellers with totally incorrect prices excitedly sell their wonderful work to someone who was clearly going to resell for profit. The intent was obvious and it certainly wasn’t right. Good business? Maybe. But certainly not kosher in my book.

I suspect every crafter has tried to recreate something clever they’ve seen. I’ve done it. I admit that I even considered selling my derived item – after all, it’s not exactly the same if I had to re-engineer it and develop my own way of making it. But, I have never been able to do that. It’s just so wrong and dishonorable.

On the other side of the coin, I’ve met folks who freely explain how to make their craft and welcome others to make and sell their own versions. I spoke with one crafter who was tired of making several of her items and was more than willing to pass the torch to someone else. She was actually inviting people to sell the items as she would no longer be doing so.

That’s part of the conundrum here. Do we totally refuse to talk about our work and risk losing out on a conversation that may lead to improving our own work or is the sharing of ideas and techniques worth more than the risk of someone taking advantage?

My thinking is we need to perhaps take the middle ground and be cautious when speaking with other crafters and if the questions start getting a little too detailed perhaps reconsider how much we share.

Thanks for your comment and visiting!


Comment by Michele on

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