Focusing on Product Development

After the holidays is a great time to do some spring cleaning-- including cleaning up your product line. We've actually had a few recent discussions in our member forum and chats about members who streamlined their product line and not only is easier to deal with... it's also been selling better! Today, we have member Marly of Fenimore Rutland sharing how she realized what to focus on AND why certain products weren't selling the way they should be.

Q: Tell us about what you make and how you got started.
A: My name is Marly Surena-Llorens of Fenimore Rutland. I'm from Brooklyn, NY and currently live in Allentown, PA. (Fenimore and Rutland are the names of the side streets where I grew up in Brooklyn).

I'm married with two children, 14 (boy) and 2 (girl). I'm also completing my Master's. So, yes, my life is a tad crazy busy.

I started the business in May 2016. I had initially wanted to wait until I retired to start the business. But since having a 'surprise!' baby, I know I wasn't retiring this century. It was a now or never decision and I have no regrets.

I create blank note cards and notebooks using my floral photography. 

I got started because I wanted to combine my love of florals and stationery. But I couldn't find cards that spoke to me on an emotional level. In my search, I found gorgeous illustrative work, but I had a very specific design in mind using macro-photography. As I was creating/testing the cards, I decided to open Fenimore and Rutland to sell what I created. For sure, not the right way to go into business, but I wanted to share my excitement in creating the products! 

Q: What is the product development process like for you? 
A: All of the photos are my own and all the flowers are from my garden. So, about once a week (except for the winter months) I take 5-10 shots to use for social media or for product development. I have two lines of cards; one line with a removable 4x4 photos and the other are full bleed designs (images printed on paper). The removable photo is unique because the card recipient can easily frame the photo and hang as art!

Previously, I took the photos and applied it to everything. Wrapping paper, mugs, cards, etc. Now, I'm more conscious of what design works with a product application. Most of my edited photos I upload to social media so I get feedback from my peers, both in the stationery industry and photographers. Since I know I'm not my best critic, I like to crowd-source photos that have the highest potential for product development. 

Q: What made you realize it was time to rethink and refine your product development process? What did you do as a result? 
A: When I realized that not everyone appreciates an 'artsy' card. Some folks need the card to say exactly what it's for. (i.e. thank you, sympathy, etc) So after listening to many customers, I recently added Thank You cards and will be expanding in 2017 to other sayings. I'm calling 2017 the 'Year of Sentiment Expressions'! 

At craft shows, I heard many customers say the same thing over and over: "I had no idea how beautiful your cards are!". This surprised me because the cards can be seen on Etsy. So I knew I had a product photography problem. I reached out to a product photographer in another group and she took my shots and has turned them into gold! That experience taught me I can't do everything by myself. 

Q: How role do craft shows play in the development process? How do craft shows influence the product development phase?
A: From the start, I wanted a direct connection to customers for feedback, so I participated in local craft shows. I took an online course on developing a craft show experience that helped tremendously. When I started, I sold many products-- mugs, wrapping paper, notebooks, cards, etc. I was also trying to appear versatile and market to everyone and it wasn't successful. I could tell some people would gloss over the mugs, glance at the various designs and look confused. Then I decided to scale back and only focus on cards and notebooks. Also, selling them as sets has helped increase sales because they appreciate matching stationery. 

Q: What influence have other makers in your industry had on your process? 
A: I follow many stationery and paper goods designers and some macro-photography communities for inspiration and technical process. Some have been so supportive in providing guidance or resources. I found small business support thru AHAS (support for handmade businesses), Aeolidia (small business support for product designers), courses from Christina Colli's Visual Storytelling (learned how to keep my visual style consistent), The Nerd Bergers Craft Show Design Boot Camp (learned to tie my brand to craft show design) and Renae Christine's HandMade Business (learned how to create product lines). 

In watching successful brands online, it's easy to feel like you need to tap every product market. (hence the bad idea to offer #allthethings at my craft shows) But I had to remind myself that others in the industry had years of practice and understood their customers. So, I needed to go back to figuring out who my customer was. Which is/was a lot of work for me!

Q: How has your relationship with your customers changed as a result of these changes you've made?
A: My customer relationship got better when I started being myself on social media. I'm a gardener, so I post my gardening activities and garden quotes every Monday. I also post behind the scenes shots of making product, design ideas, etc. Now loyal customers ask where my next event is which is so nice!

Q: What advice would you share with a fellow maker who finds themselves in a similar situation? What's the first step to take?
A: I'm in first year of business and have made soooo many mistakes! My first suggestion would be join AHAS right away! I wish I done that from the beginning. 

Decide if you are business or a hobby. Legitimize your business upfront. This will help you determine your financial and time investment. 

Next, find one or two communities (Facebook, Instagram, etc) that deal with your specific product, join another group for small business support, then stop. If you listen to too many voices, you can get easily confused and overwhelmed.  

Finally, find a mentor or someone that will help you become accountable to your goals.

Q: Where can people find your work?
A: I'm on Etsy ( and local craft shows. I'm also on Instagram and Facebook.