Are you dogged by missteps? Do you perceive your mistakes as creative opportunities or simply as failures? Are the challenges of custom work creating stress in the rest of your life? And finally, where do you as a fabricator find purpose in your life? I can’t speak for everyone, but I discover mine in every problem I encounter in a project that doesn’t have a normal solution.
I believe that marine fabricators are artists! When approaching work creatively, skilled fabricators often try many solutions. Like a child at play, they need to be fearless at the prospect of failure. With the goal of reaching a balance of function, design and longevity, this process of trial and error can be inconvenient, but it is essential, and mistakes are actually progress in disguise. If you think too critically, you will constrict your potential.
The pace at which individual projects progress will always vary, and it’s easy to lose hope with projects that move slowly. Remind yourself that you can do whatever it takes to finish the job. That said, it is always important to avoid potential performance traps. I recommend protecting quality above all else by posing one question to clients before you accept the work: “What is your time frame?” This allows clients to decide if they want their project done right or done right now.
At times, we all bite off more than we can chew. When this happens, accept the timeline, accept the stress, and do your best. But I do not recommend too much stress; it can have negative effects on profits and creativity, and it can also spoil hopes of motivating the next generation to take part in the family trade. Too many challenges can create a vicious cycle. Nothing hurts more than failing at something you are passionate about and seeing your personal life become collateral damage.
Mistakes are important teachers
Mistakes are the main source of a fabricator’s knowledge. Hopefully things get easier when the years add up, but understand, no one knows it all. Take notes on your mistakes as if you were a scientist and seek out and learn from all the available industry resources. I urge marine fabricators to attend annual events like the Marine Fabricators Association conference, regional workshops and IFAI’s Expo.
These specialized, creative events are saturated with resources and experienced, creative geniuses who love to share what they know. But of course, attending these events presents additional challenges. How do we find the time and money to acquire experience and knowledge by attending such events while also making money? This gets us back to that stress issue again. Where is the enjoyment? How do we make a living at our craft and still have a life?
Establish your real value
One solution to this problem is to establish your professional value. I call this concept defensible pricing, and it is the key to developing a creative mind as well as profit management skills—something frequently underdeveloped among marine fabricators.
We charge for our time, but many of us fabricators do not charge enough for conceptualization. We can get trapped in an endless circle of research and development, only to lose the job and feel we wasted our time. Many fabricators limit their profit because they charge for their time based solely on tangible productivity. Understand that as an innovator in this industry, you are fundamentally a Master Builder. My recommendation is to limit free conceptualization time to what you are comfortable with—maybe one to two hours, or more if you’re excited about a project. Beyond that, let clients know your experience and personal time are equally valued, and they will respect you for that. If they don’t, you can still demonstrate value by maturely walking away.
Value what’s invisible
How do you place a value on your skills? How much is accumulated experience worth? To begin, put a price on your free time. How do you balance the ebb and flow of all the learning curves to come? You will need to become firm in the value of your skills, but flexible in the ways you interact with clients and accepting of the imperfections it will take to have an enjoyable career. There are many aspects to success that must occur simultaneously. These include managing your profit, managing your clients’ expectations, and valuing and protecting your creative mind.
True success comes in how we feel about our accomplishments, and that is inextricably linked to our ability to learn from our mistakes. In this way, lifelong fabricators have more than fabrication skills to offer. Speaking for myself, I want to know how other fabricators began and found balance, especially if and how they raised a family while tackling everything else along the way. If I ever become one of those renowned veteran fabricators of the world, I would be honored to help others, and I would be proud if younger fabricators took my place or surpassed me. My desire is ultimately to be in a position to help others progress in our industry.
My father, Dennis Carman, of Vermont Custom Canvas, is the epitome of one of the greats. He set a high standard of fabrication excellence, he educated himself, he became a Master Fabric Craftsman in 1990 through the IFAI, and accidentally raised me to become a second-generation marine fabricator. I enjoyed the process of my unofficial apprenticeship at his side for years. I now sit here sharing my observations about what goes into making a lifelong career in a trade of any kind. At age 35, I have accumulated 17 years of full-time experience. I’ve had my own business in California for eight years, while raising two young children. My hope is that I might be able to inspire my own children the same way my father inspired me. And I hope my story has inspired you a little bit too.
Whitney Carman was raised in Georgia, Vt., 20 steps from her father’s marine fabrication shop. She worked with her father for eight years before moving to Southern California in 2012 to start a family and her own marine business, Even Keel Canvas LLC.