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Scaling and Growth: A Maker's Story

Blog

Scaling and Growth: A Maker's Story

Academy Of Handmade

There's a lot of understandable tension around the issue of how to grow a handmade business, for one because I think many makers are made to feel badly for not wanting to "scale up" in a way that the mainstream business community says they should.  But when you are wanting to create a business that is sustainable, pays bills, lets you take a vacation and maybe pays for your kids' college one day, doing all those things AND keeping things the size you want can be tricky. Today we talk to a handmade business that is learning to intentionally grow into a business they want to run for a long time to come. Elizabeth and John of ForgottenCotton have started the way many makers do (as a side project), have grown and are now navigating what opportunities to pursue next. 

Q: Can you introduce yourself and your business?
A: I am Elizabeth and I run our business with my husband John. We are the husband and wife team behind ForgottenCotton. We run our business from top to bottom (and bottom to top) with just the two of us. We are a 100% handmade clothing and fashion accessories business located in North Western Wyoming. We design and create quality fashion accessories for ladies with materials sourced from small American businesses. Our business is built on the simple principle that all customers deserve high quality goods which are still made in America. 

Elizabeth and John of ForgottenCotton

Elizabeth and John of ForgottenCotton

Q: Why did you start it?
A: At the time we were living in New York City and things were tight. We were looking for extra ways to make money (to help pay our massive amount of student debt) so we considered ideas that would be possible to create in our tiny NYC location. We didn't have a lot of money and didn't want to take a huge risk so we sourced $40 worth of supplies and took a chance. Soon our shop took over our tiny kitchen and spare bedroom (and later every room and closet available.)

Q: What do you enjoy most and least about it?
A: We always enjoy new ideas and product lines. We love the start of a new season when we get to finally put to use our long list of ideas and start planning them out. We spend each prior season researching ideas and making prototypes of ideas we have. Nothing is ever as exciting as picking colors, fabrics, patterns, and textures with the goal of creating something new. We really started to branch out last year to diversify our product lines and it has helped to expand our customer base and give our repeat customers things which are new and exciting 

The least enjoyable part is when you feel really strongly or passionate about a project and it falls flat. You have a project you worked so hard on and it doesn't sell at all. 

These are the times that remind us you have to decide early on if you want to create art or make money. They seldom can coexist.  Many of the projects which we would consider "passion" driven performed rather poorly.  You truly have to find a balance between projects that inspire you and products which are desirable to customers and the current market. Sometimes when you think you have nailed it with an idea or item you can be very wrong. It is hard to accept but it happens. 

Q: Why did you start it?
A: At the time we were living in New York City and things were tight. We were looking for extra ways to make money (to help pay our massive amount of student debt) so we considered ideas that would be possible to create in our tiny NYC location. We didn't have a lot of money and didn't want to take a huge risk so we sourced $40 worth of supplies and took a chance. Soon our shop took over our tiny kitchen and spare bedroom (and later every room and closet available.)

Q: What do you enjoy most and least about it?
A: We always enjoy new ideas and product lines. We love the start of a new season when we get to finally put to use our long list of ideas and start planning them out. We spend each prior season researching ideas and making prototypes of ideas we have. Nothing is ever as exciting as picking colors, fabrics, patterns, and textures with the goal of creating something new. We really started to branch out last year to diversify our product lines and it has helped to expand our customer base and give our repeat customers things which are new and exciting 

The least enjoyable part is when you feel really strongly or passionate about a project and it falls flat. You have a project you worked so hard on and it doesn't sell at all. 

These are the times that remind us you have to decide early on if you want to create art or make money. They seldom can coexist.  Many of the projects which we would consider "passion" driven performed rather poorly.  You truly have to find a balance between projects that inspire you and products which are desirable to customers and the current market. Sometimes when you think you have nailed it with an idea or item you can be very wrong. It is hard to accept but it happens. 

Q: You have made the decision to grow and scale your business carefully and fitting with a mission for your business that you've determined. Can you talk about that a bit?
A: When we first started in 2011 I was working full time as an art teacher at a private school while John ran and grew the business full time. The business was what it needed to be and we followed it's natural growth. When we moved across the country we decided we were ready to both work full time. We have both been full time for about two years now and have spent that time focusing on improving everything from our product offerings to our photography. Those goals has taken a lot of time and planning to be able to make those strategic jumps in a meaningful way. Fast forward to our present situation we are still working on improving everything from our social media plan, photography, and product lines.

Any business owner knows that there is always something to work on and improve. It comes down to time management. We have to focus on what is important and finish one project at a time. Sometimes that means you don't complete every new project you had planned or maybe a certain milestone needs to be moved ahead a few months. We have to be realistic about our goals and what we can accomplish in a set period or time. A very important factor in our decisions is that we are just two people and we can not do everything all at once..

One of the challenges we do face is deciding on new projects. When we go through the process of making prototypes and testing we have to be very realistic about the time each item takes. If you have an item that will take five times as long as other items in your shop it will become impossible to reproduce in quantity. We look at new items and projects from the view point of our busy season. How we will fit this item or group of items in when we are completely swamped with orders. It is has been difficult to not introduce something we really loved because realistically it would be too time consuming for just the two of us to manage and keep our quality standards where we expect them. We understand that for some businesses their answer is to outsource or add a manufacturer. It is not something we are interested in ever doing. For us we feel it would be dishonest to our customers to have our items made in a factory. Handmade is a simple concept- you and your team are hand making your own items. I don't understand where the confusion of this term comes from but to us it is simple and it is the main principal that guides us.  What is nice about being the size we are is we can work with customers to create custom items and sizing since we are making everything by hand to order. I feel that makes a difference to our customer base knowing that if they need something slightly different or even custom we can easily handle those requests. 

ForgottenCotton

ForgottenCotton

Q: What are the challenges of keeping your business "small" or at least the size you want to maintain (everyone's idea of small is different)?

We really don't have a problem keeping our business small but we do have the current issue of deciding how to grow. We are small by nature. When you are hand making items and it is just two people it is not a question of how small can you stay but how do you grow in a meaningful way without loosing your core values. We live in the middle of nowhere and don't see bringing on another person as something that is feasible for us in terms of what we do and how we do it. Knowing that fact and understanding that we make everything ourselves keeps us small. When we are very busy we will work 20 hour days to keep on schedule. In a way we always feel our labor is the cheapest part so we can always work harder and put in more time when necessary. 

As a side note to this it feels that at the end of the day there are so many "plates in the air" when you are running your own business. The truth is- you don't know what you don't know until you have to do it. There is always a new learning curve. We've had to learn everything from the ground up from photography to sewing to the ins and outs of running a business on the internet. With each new thing we learn we become better at doing what we do. With each new challenge or opportunity we are able to learn more about who we are and what we want as a business and can use that knowledge to focus our path. We take this knowledge to decide on the next step. I don't know if we will ever be bigger than we are right now and that is something we have to accept as a fact with our business.  

Q: What opportunities have you been given and have you had to turn down as a result?
A: I can tell you about opportunities we took and should have turned down, but maybe that is a story for another day. I would say that we are very lucky up to this point that the opportunities that have come our way we were able to decide if they were right for us to accept or decline. What we appreciate about being where we are right now is that we don't feel we have to take on a project we don't feel comfortable with or if the terms are not right for our business. When we first started it felt like we would trip over ourselves to take up every opportunity but now we can be more selective. I would say that anything we did turn down was because it was not right for us and we have no regrets about that. 

ForgottenCotton

ForgottenCotton

Q: Where do you see the future of ForgottenCotton?
A: We have spent a lot of time discussing this because we (sadly!) don't have a crystal ball. I don't know if this is something other small businesses face but it feels like we work season to season. You plan and prepare for the fall/winter season and push through until it is time to place for spring/summer. Right now our main focus is to see where we are weakest and improve on those areas. We don't have a stand alone website yet and it is something we have been discussing for a long time, years in fact. We finally feel we are at a place where we have enough variety in our product lines that we can support having a website. So for us that would be the next large hurdle.

We can't say where we will be in five or ten years as we are constantly adjusting and reevaluating our position with  the ever changing online market. If you had asked me four years ago I would never have been able to guess that this is where we would be now. So for the moment we are focusing on the tasks ahead of us and seeing where they lead us. 

Q: Where can people find you?
A: You can find us in several different places. 
www.forgottencotton.com
www.aftcra.com/forgottencotton

Also we are on instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @forgottencotton

How has your business handled growth? Let us know in the comments!