When we are the ones making our own businesses happen it's hard to know what's "right" and "wrong." We can read a lot of articles that give us guidance and look online to see how everyone else is "handling their business." But this can also make us feel like we aren't doing the right things. Today we're sharing the perspectives of two makers who have both felt the need to make decisions about their businesses that might cause them to outwardly not always fit what we consider to be "how it's done." They've both felt the pressures of looking at what everyone else is doing but have had very good reasons for why they don't.
Q: Tell us about your business.
Rebecca: I am the designer, maker and owner of a line of whimsical home decor pillows called OodleBaDoodle. My pillows are made primarily from reclaimed designer materials and are made one at a time and by hand in my San Francisco home studio.
Erin: I’ve had some sort of a craft business for the past 15 years, but officially started wrenbirdarts in the fall of 2011, selling bags and wallets, and then evolving into an embroidery business in early 2012. Now, I run wrenbirdarts as a hand embroidered handkerchief business. All of my work is original, and the bulk of my business comes from custom and wedding hankies. When I started wrenbirdarts, I had no idea that weddings would be my focus, but it became very apparent that there was a hole in the market when it came to modern hand embroidery, and more specifically hankies!
Q: Why did you start your business?
Rebecca: I have always been a maker of things. I was known to give handmade gifts for every occasion and I grew up in a family of other makers. Both my grandmothers were talented quilters, my uncle is a master wood worker and musician who makes his own instruments, my mom and dad both own their own small businesses selling their handmade goods.
Even with all of this maker’s blood in my DNA, I chose a very traditional route for my career. I went to college and then began life in the corporate world working at various fortune 500 businesses then moving into start-up land as a tech recruiter.
I started my business after receiving favorable feedback (and sales) in multiple venues in San Francisco and I knew I had a product that would make me happy and generate revenue for me.
Erin: I had just moved back to Denver from Chicago with the intent of going back into grant writing. I had worked in non-profit, but I had no idea how difficult it would be to jump back in after several years away. I was a little beaten down from so much rejection, and started embroidering as an inexpensive form of stress relief. I am terrible at following instructions, so I started creating my own designs, and embroidering anything I could get my hands on from pillow cases to cardboard.
I added a couple of embroidered napkins to my Etsy shop, just to see if there was an interest, and almost immediately, I received a request for a hand embroidered wedding hanky. I bought a few blank hankies, and embroidered a few more designs, and was amazed by the increased traffic and “favorites”.
Once I really focused my business on embroidery, the business really just exploded. I think it was one part dumb luck and one part hard work that turned wrenbirdarts into a legit business. I had no idea what I was doing, but I got involved with my local handmade group, met with the small business development center, and read hundred of articles on starting a small business.
Q: How has your business changed and evolved?
Rebecca: The first year of my business, I spent a lot of time getting better at making my products. I was designing, creating and sewing every single day to improve what I make and how I make it.
Like many creative people, I was timid to get out into the world at markets to sell my creations to the public because I worried that I wasn’t a good “salesperson.” Thankfully, I met other makers that pushed me to bring my pieces to the Treasure Island Flea Market.
Once I saw the public's reaction to my “huggables” I felt more inspired to make more and then to apply to different markets and show my work in other places.
In 2013 and 2014, I spent nearly every weekend out at craft shows, pop-up markets, and other selling events. During that time, I was spending 5-8 hours a day, everyday sewing and making in my studio. This was a makers infinite loop: MAKE : SHOW : SELL : REPEAT
I was blown away by the positive reaction to what I was making, nearly selling out of my pieces at each show. I also met and connected with several local boutiques that wanted to carry my pillows.
After a rather hectic and intense 2014 holiday season, I decided to focus on my relationships with the shops that carry my pieces and I want to build an online audience for OodleBaDoodle.
Erin: For the first couple of years, I grew wrenbirdarts at a comfortable pace, and then last year, my now ex-husband and I decided to get a divorce. This basically brought my life to a screeching halt, including any possibility of business growth last year. This year has felt like an entirely different business to me. I have worked really hard to professionalize my business. Before, I ran wrenbirdarts as a lucrative hobby with a business slant, and now I run it from an actual business perspective.
Though it’s grown, I am still happy to run wrenbirdarts out of my apartment. My kitchen table doubles as my shipping center, and I usually have a drying rack in the middle of my kitchen. I found a small apartment with a huge closet that works for storing shipping and embroidery supplies, so the kitchen is really the only telltale of my live-work space.
Q: How have you experienced either overhauling or putting aspects of your business on hold? Why did this happen?
Rebecca: I’m in the middle of having a portion of my business “on hold” right now. This is an intentional move on my part so that I can set up a structure for my business that will work in the long run.
After two years on the craft show ferris wheel, I knew that wasn’t going to be sustainable for me and my business. Also, I do not have the desire to grow my business beyond just me (and a helper). With all that in mind, in January of 2015, I have taken an intentional break from my online presence.
It has been very difficult to resist the urge to follow every opportunity that comes my way. I am a people pleaser and I find it really challenging to say “no” when presented with ideas and projects and to my surprise, I really do miss being out at markets selling my pillows to the community.
Currently, at OodleBaDoodle, I am filling wholesale orders first, consignment orders second, and filling in that work with inventory build-up and custom orders. I have a goal to build up an inventory of one-of-a-kind pieces, photograph them and post them in my online storefront and have a new online marketing plan that will launch in May of 2015.
This break occurred basically because I was totally burned out from the first couple of years developing and pushing OodleBaDoodle to market. For me doing craft shows is a lot of work and when I added up the expenses I found that I needed to figure out a more sustainable system for myself and reach more of my customers. Now that I know people want OodleBaDoodle huggables, I can be more targeted in my online marketing and reach the right buyers.
Erin: For me, as my sole income source, it wasn’t possible to suspend my business once our decision to divorce was in motion. I kept up with my orders, but I didn’t add products, and I pulled way back on my social media and blogging efforts almost completely. After a few months, once I was a semi-fuctioning person again, I wrote an extremely personal blogpost about my divorce. It wasn’t necessary, but I did want to explain why I had been so quiet for a few months. Looking back, I think that’s the point that I was ready to begin my healing process.
Q: Why did you make the decision you made to make the changes you did? How did customers respond?
Rebecca: I have the desire to create and develop a sustainable small business for myself and I knew that something had to change in order for my business to survive and for my own sanity!
So far, my online sales have been lower because I just don’t have anything for sale. Makes sense, right? People who do have access to my work through small gift shops and my custom pieces listed on Etsy have been continuing to make purchases and I do get a lot of questions about where I can be found online.
Because I have a pretty small business to begin with, the risk for being silent for a bit is minimal.
Erin: Sharing my very raw emotions was appropriate for my business. Much of my business is custom work. When I receive a request for a custom designed hanky, my customers usually include a story with the reason behind the hanky, and it is often very personal. While most of the requests are in celebration, I have also embroidered hankies as gifts for someone battling cancer, the loss of a child, relative, and even the beloved family cat or dog. I am always incredibly touched that strangers share such personal, emotional stories with me, so it felt appropriate to put myself out there and tell my own story.
Once the blogpost went live, I was amazed by the response. I received so much support and encouragement from people that I really didn’t even know.
It’s such a weird thing, divorce is so common, but I was in no way prepared to deal with the spectrum and strength of emotion that happens, for months and months. For me, there was no normal, so I just allowed myself to make rash decisions, and live fully outside of my comfort zone throughout my divorce. I have definitely reeled it back in, but I’m also a totally different person now. I am far less introverted and I don’t fear the unexpected anymore.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who might feel like they are making a "not normal" move in their business?
Rebecca: I would say, this business is you. It’s a reflection of who you are and it only exists because of you and your creative brain. You have to make decisions that make sense for you, your life and your business. Even though it might seem completely off to the world around you, if you have done your research and know that the decisions you are making will help you in the long run, stick to your plan!
Of course, it’s also important to pounce on any opportunities that will help you along the way. So if something feels right, even if it’s outside of your plan, it’s probably best to take a risk.
- Follow your gut feeling, especially if it’s that nagging feeling that just won’t go away.
- There is no “right way” to do things in a handmade business. Creative entrepreneurship is a unique animal that requires you to use your best judgement.
- Even if it doesn’t work out in the end, the learning experience is valuable.
Q: Anything else?
Rebecca: Always remember that this is your business. There is no formula that works, each small business is as unique as the person who has created it. Yes, you should follow some smart, proven business guidelines, but let your business go in the direction that it needs. Don’t be afraid to take risks and be brave. Also, network with as many people as you possibly can!
My website: http://wrenbirdarts.com
Instagram: @wrenbirdarts Twitter: http://twitter.com/wrenbirdarts