The growth of ever maker business looks different and today we look at how #ahasmember Carolyn Caffelle, founder of The Wishing Elephant, has dealt with the growth that has come her way. From an appearance on Martha Stewart, to the decision to look into Etsy Manufacturing, to her letting go of "hustle", her growth has been both personal and professional. She takes us behind the scenes of her business and shows us how her shop went from hobby to the amazing business she owns and runs today.
Q: Please, introduce yourself, tell us what you make and how long you’ve been doing it.
A: I'm Carolyn, the owner and maker behind The Wishing Elephant. I started with appliqué bodysuits in 2010 shortly after my son was born. I was working as a PreK teacher and found myself recycling the entirety of my paycheck into childcare. My bleak financial situation coupled with "new mom" separation anxiety created an impasse. With the support of my husband, I left my job.
The Wishing Elephant suddenly became my lifeline. Our first year was a monumental struggle. The crucial breakthrough happened with the addition of baby costumes in 2011. TWE became an LLC and we transitioned from hobby status to full blown business.
Q: What role family played in you creating the business you have today?
A: My husband works long hours as an Ad agency creative director and we've always made choices for the business to weave family life and work life together. My studio is in our home which allows me the flexibility to work odd hours, work when the kids are home sick and even have impromptu beach days. The goal of this lifestyle is to have the flexibility to put our kids first.
Before I was even willing to admit that The Wishing Elephant was a business, my husband created a polished logo and business cards. I count myself very lucky to have an in house advertising professional. He’s always encouraging me to expand my marketing and advertising and keep my branding cohesive. He's my go to for advise, a second opinion and emotional support.
My kids have been my models and inspiration from the start. I've added sizing and styles that mirror their age and size, but they are sadly about to outgrow that phase. I'm so thankful to have 6 years of photos of my kids growing up in TWE gear. Again, this business was essentially designed around them, so they are the heart of the company.
Q: What was the first product you ever made and listed for sale? How do you feel about it now?
A: The first item that I made was called "Groucho Baby Bodysuit". It was a riff on joke shop glasses that resemble Groucho Marx. I love this bodysuit but it was never a big seller. The photo was taken by my husband and helped me to realize the impact of great images. I now use a combination of professional photographers and my own handiwork for image creation.
Our sushi costume was a game changer. When I listed it on Etsy, I had already accepted it as a dud. Amazingly, a producer from Martha Stewart caught wind of it and asked if I could be a backup (for a backup) in a costume segment. I agreed based on the unlikely scenario where two other people would drop out. Believe me, I panicked when the producer called to confirm my appearance THREE DAYS BEFORE THE SHOW. The end result was sushi costumes selling like hot cakes and the spark of belief that my company could make it.
Q: What is the philosophy/ideal behind your creative design process?
A: I'm trying to make something appealing to parents that babies are comfortable in. How many times have you seen a crying baby in a puffy Halloween costume? I make simple, comfortable options for babies. I tend to focus on baby sizing but occasionally throw in a big girl tutu option that I know my 5 year old will love.
Q: At what point did you realize you needed to bring on outside help to scale your business? What was that process like?
A: I'll never forget the scene in fall of 2011. My mother, my husband and I were all sitting around the dining room table sewing, cutting and packaging. I was working nap times, nights and weekends and still drowning. The first step in hiring help was actually finding childcare and giving myself real "work hours".
Over the past 5 years, my kids have slowly transitioned from part time mornings to almost full day care. Once I was able to gauge what I could handle alone (and after a few more times drowning), I looked for seasonal contract seamstresses. I placed ads on Craigslist, posted on my personal FB and put the word out through our local crafty gathering place.
I'm still trying to fine tune the hiring process and find the right pay rate. Thanks to the AHAS mentor process (shout out to TeDI!), I've set a huge goal for Halloween this year. To reach this goal I'll have to lean hard on outside help.
I applied to Etsy Manufacturing in order to be vetted for partnering with an outside manufacturer. Although I'm currently only using a custom dye house, having manufacturing potential and access to the Etsy Manufacturing database could be instrumental in moving to the next step. My biggest challenge in growing is letting go. I have major hurdles to overcome before any real manufacturing is realized, but having the option is interesting.
Q: If you could go back in time to when The Wishing Elephant was just getting started, what words of wisdom/advice would you give yourself?
A: The idea of “the hustle” is my pet peeve. When I was starting out I heard “hustle, hustle, hustle” and thought it was the only way to succeed. Hustle is synonymous with rush and shove. In my world, working smart and having ample time to enjoy my life outside of TWE is the only way to be successful. I would go back and tell myself that “the hustle” is bologna. Work smart to create a life that you love.
Q: What is your vision for the future? Where would you like The Wishing Elephant to go next?
A: I would love to move my studio out of the house. Right now, it's what works for our family but having a clear physical boundary between home and work life would be amazing. This would also make hiring in house employees (as opposed to contract) less awkward. Ideally, I would love to exclusively sell costumes but the complexities of running a seasonal business are eluding me.
You can watch me on The Martha Stewart Show (and make your own sushi costume) here: The Martha Stewart Show