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Community Host
2 2 74

When Glen Paramenter lost his job in Idaho, things seemed pretty bleak. But after relocating to Texas, he started working for a company that printed graphics on apparel for colleges and corporations. It wasn’t long before Glen had a business epiphany: I could do this myself! One Etsy store and a few domain names later (ruggedtents and mrhoneypot, to name a few), Glen was on his way to running Majestic Expressions, his eclectic company featuring printed clothing, outdoor and sporting goods, plus a line of natural honey-based products.

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Established Member
1 6 148

Let's face, sometimes life has some real ugly sides to the business side of life. I wanted to start this thread to connect with other business leaders on what they do to find inspiration in their work? I thought it would be cool to start a collection of inspiration quotes and personal stories that can be shared for the benefit of all that use this QB Community. Go ahead and post an inspirational quote or your story of what gets you excited to wake up each day and work on your deams.

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Community Host
4 2 124

Charlene Rivera had been working her heart out in a restaurant when, out of the blue, she was slapped in the face. Not literally slapped (thank goodness), but after hearing the restaurant owner explain she’d only bought the business to give her daughter a “hobby,” Charlene was shocked – and nervous. Rather than leave her livelihood in someone else’s hands, she decided to become her own boss. It wasn’t long before Charlene found herself the co-owner (along with a long-time friend and fellow restaurant worker, Cherry) of a busy food-truck service in Swainsboro, GA. The Sassy Sisters on Wheels were ready to roll!

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Community Host
4 10 228

After more than a decade working in the corporate world, SJ Barakony realized he was downright uninspired. Rather than join a truly gloomy statistic – 87% of workers report feeling disengaged from their job – SJ spent some time soul-searching and researching new career options. The upshot? He decided to trade his traditional daily grind for an entrepreneurial adventure as an educational disrupter & innovator and founder of Service Before Self Leadership (SBSL), an educational-solutions provider focused on the intersection of service, leadership and education.

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Community Host
2 22 333

 

Community Host
6 7 226

Lloyd Mabuto was just a kid when he first realized the power of images to convey a message. His dad, an NGO worker helping developing countries, would often ask Lloyd to create a piece of art to explain a concept without using words. In college, Lloyd discovered graphic design satisfied his dueling passion for art and software engineering. A professional graphic/web designer by trade, Lloyd loved helping people convey a message – and achieve their mission – through carefully placed words and images. After testing the waters as a part-time consultant, Lloyd dove in to become a full-time, self-employed web designer and brand consultant based in Chatanooga, TN.

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Community Host
0 1 81

 

Brooke was struggling with getting sales in her Etsy shop until, on a whim, she tried selling something a little different — hand-painted dinosaur planters.

 

Three+ years later, Brooke has learned a ton about supply and demand after a big magazine feature kickstarted her sales and she experienced a rough period of burnout. We chatted with her to find out what her biggest pricing mistake was and how she manages her day-to-day during the busy holiday season.

Take it away, Brooke!

 

Name: Brooke Hoerner

 

Business: Alyce Paul Crafting Studio

 

Started: November 2012

 

Where did you get the idea for creating and selling dinosaur planters on Etsy?

 

My ex-boyfriend was a dinosaur fanatic. We had dinosaur toys on top of the fridge, in the kitchen — just about everywhere you can imagine. I decided to paint one gold as a gift for him and added an air plant because I had lots of them at the time.

 

After making that first one, I continued to paint dinosaurs and ended up putting them up for sale in my Etsy store. I named my shop Alyce Paul after my grandmother. Up until then, I had been selling jewelry in the shop without much luck, but these dinosaurs really took off. 

 

I was completely taken by surprise! So far, I’ve sold dinosaurs to kids, pensioners, parents, teachers, men, women — they’re one of the few things that everyone seems to love.

 

Before starting my Etsy shop, I worked in hospitality. My parents own a restaurant, so I was used to the lifestyle and, for a while, it worked for me. Late night and early morning shifts allowed me to be creative in my spare time. But 20 years down the line, I was no longer fulfilled by that work and I decided to take a few months off to focus on my crafting business full-time.

 

Who was your very first customer?

 

When I was getting started, my mom bought a few pieces to support me. It meant a lot to me that she did that, but it was so much more exciting when I got  my first real customer. 

 

Knowing that someone chose to buy my products because they liked them, rather than because they liked me, gave me a huge confidence boost.

 

When did you know your business was going to work?

 

In October of 2013, Real Simple magazine featured my dinosaur planters. They got in touch to tell me that I should prepare to sell at least 300 items, but I ended up selling 40 a day until Christmas!

 

The exposure was invaluable and the whole experience was amazing, but the numbers just blew me away. I was still working in the restaurant at this point, and struggled to keep up with the demand.

 

 

What has been the biggest surprise in starting your own business?

 

I was surprised at the amount of encouragement and support I received. 

Starting a company is scary, but people really admire you for taking a chance and they want to help you succeed. 

 

I’m lucky enough to live in Maine, where there are a lot of resources available for small business owners. I’ve taken classes run by retired entrepreneurs and learned a ton from other Etsy sellers. I also found a mentor in the form of my current boss — a fellow artist who allows me to run my business from her studio in my spare time.

 

How do you price your dinosaurs?

 

As far as pricing goes, my approach is pretty unorthodox. I buy similar products from other sellers, and have a good idea of how much I’d be willing to pay for these items. With this in mind, I pick a number and work backwards to see if I can make enough profit while keeping the items affordable.

 

The biggest pricing mistake I ever made was offering one price for all of my dinosaurs. I used to be able to source them easily, but they’re becoming harder to find. I wish I’d bought more T-Rex and long neck dinosaurs in the beginning, or priced them higher, because they’re the most popular.

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

 

I actually work full-time for another artist, which benefits my business in many ways. I run her social media and web development, and use the skills I learn there in my own work.

 

I get up early in the morning and check my emails for an hour or so before going to the studio. When my job is done for the day, I stay there to work on my own products, creating items and shipping out orders. Being able to use the space is a real advantage.

 

I usually get home at around 8pm which, coming from the restaurant industry, doesn’t feel too late. I also work on Saturdays because that’s the only full day I can devote to making new products.

 

Dinosaurs make great presents, so I get a lot more online orders over the holidays. There are a lot of craft fairs happening locally around then too, which means I end up with twice as much work as usual. It can be hard to find a good balance between work and rest during this period. 

 

This year I decided to put my Etsy shop in hibernation mode over Christmas — I’m taking a break to visit my family.

 

 

If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you’d do differently in starting your business?

 

I’d be better prepared for the impact of magazine exposure. I had no idea that I’d end up with requests for thousands of dinosaurs. Although I got through the busy period, it reached a point where I didn’t think I could ever look at another dinosaur again!

 

I had to take a break once the rush was over because I was burned out. The volume of orders meant I was producing the same things over and over, and it wasn’t fulfilling. 

 

When I returned to work, I decided to expand my product line. This allowed me to be more creative, and I now sell other items like ceramic air planters and jewelry. If I was to get that many orders again, I’d definitely recruit some help.

 

What would you like to learn today from a community of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

 

I know there’s so much I can learn from others, especially when it comes to pricing. 

I’d love to hear personal experiences about making the move into wholesaling because that's probably the next stage for my business. 

 

Is wholesaling a sensible thing to do even if it means having to double my prices?

 

 

Can you help Brooke out with her question about wholesaling?

 

If you have any experience with wholesaling your products, we'd love to hear your story. Or, pass her question along by sharing it out to your friends and fellow small business owners.

 

Look forward to seeing your tips and ideas below! :-)

Community Host
1 1 19

 

Claudine Hellmuth started her business after a varied career in the craft industry, including features on TV shows and launching a range of instructional DVDs

Here, she explains to us how she adapted her business to focus on just one product in her Etsy store and what she learned after 14 years in the business.

 

Name: Claudine Hellmuth

Business: Illustrator and Artist, Owner of Claudine Hellmuth Etsy Shop

Started: 2007

 

How did you create your awesome job?

I've wanted to be an illustrator my entire life. I majored in illustration at the Columbus College of Art and Design before transferring to the Corcoran College of Art and Design in DC to study fine art. 

When I graduated, the Internet was just taking off. I learned how to code and took a job as a website designer. It wasn’t right for me, though, so when I was laid off in 2001, I was relieved that the decision was out of my hands. 

After that, I started teaching mixed media collage workshops, which became my main source of income along with licensing artwork and launching product lines, which I sold on US shopping channels and on QVC UK.

In 2007, I launched my Etsy shop when the site was just getting started. I sold original artwork through my shop, but lost interest because sales weren’t great and I hated taking photos of products and writing listings. 

I left my shop dormant until 2012, when I discovered the download feature. By this point, I’d grown tired of only getting small royalties from licensing my designs. I decided to give Etsy another shot. I had some leftover products from licensing deals that never happened, so I listed them. 

People responded really well to those designs — and it’s now my largest source of income!

 

Who was your very first customer? How did you find them?

I have lots of firsts — the first workshop I taught, the first company I licensed work to, my first illustration job. 

The first product I sold on Etsy was a Halloween kit, when I was testing out the download feature in back in September. When I got my first download sale I saw how easy it was — it was exciting to know that someone would actually buy it!

 

 

When did you know your business was going to work? What was the exact moment?

My biggest hit has been my retro oven cupcake box. In May of 2013, sales of the box suddenly took off. I was getting an order a minute, but no idea why this was happening — I even tried using Google Analytics to find out! 

Then I got an email from a bakery blog, Sweetopia, telling me that they’d pinned the box on Pinterest

It all clicked into place. 

It was also funny, because I'd created the retro oven on a complete whim! I had used it before in illustrations because I love the 1950s style, but had no idea it would be my most popular product.

There have been moments throughout my career that made me feel like I’ve got it on lockdown, but that feeling rarely lasts long. I thought I’d hit it big when I was on the Martha Stewart show, but as soon as I started to feel confident, I reached another point in the rollercoaster and took a dip. 

I think it's a myth that once a business gets to a certain point, it can just coast. In reality, running a successful business requires constant work.

 

What has been the biggest surprise after starting your own business?

When I was at my first job, I always imagined that if I was self-employed, I’d have lots of spare time for keeping my creative energy flowing, meeting friends for lunch and working in cafés. 

The truth is, I have to shut myself off from the world and work long hours if I want to get anything done. Sometimes I miss that Monday through Friday routine.

 

 

How do you price your products?

I price my products based on how much I’d be willing to pay for them. For the cupcake boxes, I chose a price that allows for impulse buying. 

I actually just raised the price from $3.99 to $5.99, which still seems like a good deal to me. 

The biggest thing I’ve learned about pricing is that it’s easier to start low and increase gradually, rather than to start high and reduce prices later. That way, customers who’ve bought my products early on feel like they got a good deal.

 

What does a typical day look like for you? 

My day starts at 7am to walk the dog, work out and eat breakfast. Then, I answer email queries from Etsy customers or licensors asking about my work. My best working hours are between noon and 7pm and I like to work for a long, continuous period, rather than trying to fit things in for an hour here and there.

I start with the creative stuff, like thinking up new designs or fulfilling custom orders. I tend to hit a creative wall at around 5pm, so then I switch to blogging and updating my website and social media. 

In the evenings I try to relax, but my work often runs over into downtime. It’s a bad habit, but once I get started I find it hard to stop.

 

 

If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you’d do differently when starting your business?

Early on, I had huge demand from small bakeries for custom boxes designed to look like their bakery, and I agreed to it before I fully figured out the price of printing. The whole thing turned out to be more expensive than expected. Now I can’t add any margin in for myself without taking it out of the price range for small businesses.

I should’ve made a sample much sooner so that I’d know the true cost of making the boxes. I was so confident that I let other parts of my business go, which means now having to work part-time to make ends meet for the first time in 14 years.

Despite learning this lesson the hard way, I’m reluctant to let the entire idea go — I just need to find a way to make it work financially.

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

I have a very specific question: Is creating custom boxes for small business owners something that I should even dream about chasing? 

Is it even viable to sell to small bakeries because they might not have budgets for these types of things?

Would it be worth giving up on this dream, but developing a similar product for wealthier businesses, even though my heart wouldn’t be in it?

 

 

Can you help Claudine out?

Let's see if we can crowdsource some ideas for Claudine!

Do you have insight into how small businesses like bakeries could afford to invest in her products? Or, do you have ideas for other products she can create that businesses with more cash on hand might be able to use?

Share your ideas with us below! :-)

Community Host
1 2 50

 

When he lost his job as an architect during the recession, stay-at-home dad David found that making and selling wooden toys was an easy way to support his family. 

Now he now spends most of his time in his workshop or taking care of his kids. With up to 150 orders a day during the holiday season, we had to know more about his experience wholesaling his products throughout the year and what he's hoping to learn next from all of you!

 

Name: David Minnery

Business: Manzanita Kids

Started: November 2010

 

How did you create your awesome job?

I got laid off from my job as a structural architect during the economic crash, just two weeks after my son was born. 

It was difficult to come to terms with at first, but it ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me. I got to spend more time with my son, and it gave me the chance to start fresh. My wife and I both decided that we didn’t want to put our kids in daycare, so we started looking for ways to earn money without having to work a 9-to-5.

Before training to become an architect, I was a studio artist. My main focus was sculpture and I worked with bronze, iron, stone, clay and cement. I started working with wood after finding a piece of furniture I couldn’t afford and attempting to make it myself.

The decision to start making wooden baby toys was mostly a reaction to the wash of brightly colored plastic toys you find in preschool classrooms and toy stores. My wife teaches first grade, so she spends a lot of time surrounded by cheap toys made from suspect materials with dubious origins. 

We wanted to create a higher-quality product together, and we’ve proven to be a great team, with her designing the products and me making them.

 

When did you know your business was going to work?

We started out just before Christmas 2010 and launched with a dozen designs. We decided to list them on Etsy. 

Within a few days, we sold our first toys to a woman in Nevada. After that first sale, we went on to have a really busy Christmas, which was a total shock!

Right after that first Christmas, we got really serious about it. When we found ourselves working into the early hours, sanding and packing toys for shipping, we knew we could make enough money to meet the needs of our family.

 

What has been the biggest surprise after starting your own business?

I had some experience running a small business from my time as a studio manager, which helped me prepare for life as a small business owner. 

This said, I still haven’t completely figured out work/life balance! Even though this business has always been structured around family, it can still be a challenge to switch off from work.

I work all the time. Most of my friends have 9-to-5 jobs, which means they get to relax on the weekends. All weekends mean for me is two full days in the shop. 

It’s usually OK, and my wife is very good at telling me to take a break, but because 50% of my business is seasonal, November and December can be hugely challenging.

 

 

How do you price your products?

We looked at competitors’ prices to start with, but when we got more serious, I created a worksheet to calculate the cost of materials and labor hours for each toy. 

It also works in the costs of our overheads, including everything from saw blades to keeping the lights on in the shop. This worksheet is essential to my business, so I’m glad I spent time getting it right.

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

The goal has always been to get the business in good enough shape that it can support my entire family. Then, eventually my wife can join me in running it full time. We’re not quite there yet, so I run the business while she teaches.

My mornings are hectic — I wake the kids up, pack lunches and make breakfast for everyone. Then I take my son to the bus stop and rush home to squeeze in half an hour of emails before taking my daughter to preschool. She stays there for two-and-a-half hours, which gives me time to get out into the shop and make sawdust, only stopping to answer urgent customer emails that come through on my phone.

I pick my daughter up at lunchtime, then spend time with her while running errands like laundry and dishes before my wife gets home. When my wife arrives, I go back out into the shop for the evening. 

90% of the time, it’s just me in the shop. I still cut and wax all the pieces, but I’ve taken on someone to help with sanding over the holidays. I’ve also invested in machinery to improve accuracy and production times, which is was hard for a little business like ours to start with, but has proven to be a really sensible move.

 

 

If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you’d do differently in starting your business?

I wish I’d started wholesaling earlier. We first got into wholesaling 18 months ago and it’s been great for our business. While most of our retail sales happen around the holidays, wholesale orders are spread out over the year, which keeps cash trickling in. 

I dragged my feet in the beginning because I was worried about not making enough money from wholesaling, but it’s been a great marketing tool for us, allowing us access to a whole new group of customers who wouldn’t think to shop online.

Wholesaling even introduced us to  Molly Moon, run by a great local entrepreneur. Her ice cream shops are community gathering spaces, and when she asked us to create a custom rattle, it was tremendous for our business.

Sales aside, it’s also great to align with a business to share values and ideals, and this wouldn’t have happened without wholesale.

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

There are only so many hours in the day, and I have to decide how best to spend my time. When I have the choice of sitting at a computer or making things in my shop, I always choose the shop. 

However, this leaves a gap in our marketing. I currently spend roughly 30 minutes a day on social media, but I'm wondering...

Should I be spending more time on it?

 

 

Time to chime in!
How much time every day do you spend on social media? When you spend time on social media for your business, is it more about quality or quantity? Or both?

What have you learned about using online marketing and social media to get the word out about your business?

Share your story right here! :-)

Community Host
0 1 39

 

In 2011, Mike Brown was struggling to keep his upstate New York coffee shop open when he asked himself a question that would change the course of his business forever: "What is the world's strongest coffee, anyway?"

Not long after, Death Wish Coffee was born. Touted as "the world's strongest coffee," Mike told us that it some third party resources even say it's twice the amount of caffeine in your typical cup of joe.

Mike and his team of highly caffeinated coffee elves were honored recently to be the big winners in Small Business Big Game so we asked him to spill the beans on what his current challenges are as a small business owner and how he stays inspired day in and day out.

 

Name: Mike Brown

Business: Death Wish Coffee

Started: 2011

 

Why did you decide to start Death Wish Coffee?

I've owned a small coffee shop in Saratoga Springs since 2008. Toward the end of 2011, I started  Death Wish Coffee in the basement of that shop with the goal of creating the world's strongest coffee.

Back then, the coffee shop wasn't doing very well. It was losing a lot of money. Before I closed up shop (or at least before I thought I was going to), I wanted to have another project in the wings. 

Luckily, because of Death Wish Coffee, our sales picked up and we're still open! The two businesses feed off each other a lot and the coffee shop has been growing steadily since we launched Death Wish. It's one of Saratoga's favorite coffee blends.

 

What has surprised you the most so far about running your own business?

The amount of work it takes!

Running your own business is not a 9-to-5 job. I wake up, I start working. When I go to bed, I'm usually still working on answering emails. 

Sometimes, when I read about some business-related problems before I go to bed, I get answers in my sleep. I dream  Death Wish Coffee. I dream about my business.

 

What is your favorite thing about being a small business owner?

My favorite part is the customers. I love talking to our customers, hearing about what they want and delivering what we promise.

 

 

What keeps you up at night as a small business owner?

The hardest part is dealing with the personnel issues that come up when you're running a company. I'm not great at  managing people. I'm great at having an idea and turning it into a reality. 

Even though it's not my favorite part of the job, managing people is the skill I need to work on the most because being a small business owner is basically all about people management and trying to get folks on board with your vision. 

 

If you had a magic wand that you could use to make only one of your business challenges disappear, what would you use it for?

I'd use a magic wand to help us find the right people. It's really hard.

Right now we have a small team of nine and we just hired two new people in the last three weeks. It took us over a year to search for those two people.

Getting the right people on your team is so important. Luckily, I have nine of them! I don't yet have the solution for doing this easily in the future going forward, though. It's just a lot of work and a lot of interviews and a lot of background checks.

 

How do you keep the passion alive in your business? How do you stay inspired day in and day out?

This is my life. I do this every single day. I live and breathe it. It's always there, and sometimes I have to take breaks.

The biggest thing I've learned is how important it is to get away sometimes, to go on vacation two or three times a year. Otherwise, you will experience burnout. 

I've been burned out before. You just kind of lose it. I've learned to take breaks and make sure I give myself time in between living and breathing my business.

 

 

If you had one piece of advice for a small business owner who is just starting out, what would it be?

My advice to folks who are just starting out is to ask people who have done it already. Ask other successful small business owners how they did it. 

Find people who are successful in a field that you want to break into and take them out to lunch or out for a coffee and pick their brain. Ask them for resources. 

You don't have to reinvent the wheel when there are people out there who have done it already. Just ask!

 

 

Community Host
1 0 21

 

Seth David is a master of maximizing profits and productivity — both within his own business and as a consultant for other accountants, bookkeepers and small business owners.

Recently, we chatted with Seth to learn more about how he built his business over time by tapping into the power of YouTube and social networking channels like Twitter to reach a wider audience and automate his work via online courses and training sessions.

Take it away, Seth!

 

Name: Seth David

Business: Nerd Enterprises Consulting

Started: 2003

 

Tell us a little more about your background and how you got to where you are now.

I was a computer science major in college and, long story short, my interest in academics was waning. I'd been doing some acting at the time, and one of my directors said that he would write me a recommendation for a theater arts program in California. 

I left school and planned on getting in my Jeep, driving across the country and working in restaurants. But then I saw an ad for a $10k a month stock broker job.

Next thing I knew, I was on Wall Street. 

The guy who hired me sold me on the idea the being a Wall Street salesperson was basically the same as having an acting job. So, I set aside my plans to be an actor and got really into that line of work for awhile. 

Then, someone suggested that I go back to school and get my degree in accounting. Not long after, I finally made it to California. I only had $1,500 cash to my name and a car that my dad had given to me. I got a job through a temp agency, but realized pretty soon that I just hated working for other people.

By 2004, I started doing my own thing. I compiled data into spreadsheets that I designed, but it made sense to also start using QuickBooks as well. I was getting jobs on Craigslist by posting several different ads across different categories. I was careful to not pigeonhole myself as just a regular accountant. I made sure to market myself as "tech accountant" and I learned how to use HTML so that I could include nice photos with my ads. Back then, that's all I had to do every Sunday night — I'd post ads and I would immediately get calls from people all across LA who needed my services. 

Craigslist eventually started to slow down and I was getting spammed a lot. By 2009, a lot of my business was coming in from referrals and I was pretty content to be a solopreneur and doing my own thing. I was charging $40/hour and the clients were plenty. On Fridays, I'd end my day by 2pm, go watch a movie with my wife, have dinner and relax for the weekend. In some ways, life was better when I was charging $40/hour rather than $250/hour!

Once YouTube and Twitter emerged, I started focusing on how I could use those two platforms to grow my business and expand my audience. Social media allowed me to develop a larger, worldwide audience that consists of accountants, bookkeepers and small business owners, as well as general consultants and technology enthusiasts.

Now, I primarily focus on helping my customers increase their productivity through training and consulting. My goal is help the folks that I work with (and their clients, in turn) learn and get help with QuickBooks and other business productivity software, so they can focus on what they do best — running their business. 

I also specialize in cleaning up financial accounting records and maintaining them for my clients while also managing their financial projections month-to-month. This way, more of my customers are reaching their monthly and yearly goals.

By automating so much of my work through online videos, courses and training sessions, I'm free to spend more time on marketing and bringing in new business.

 

 

What are the big challenges that you think about often in your business?

My whole life is about automating business. 

I've created several courses and subscription-based sites that allow me to focus on my main objective — architecting the best systems that will help accountants and bookkeepers who need help with marketing, redesigning their websites and streamlining their processes. 

I'm always looking for new ways that my team can refine how fast we train these folks and where we can optimize our services.

 

What are you working on right now?

I'm rolling out a course called  Accounting and Bookkeeping Cloud Practice Management that is focused on helping accountants scale their practices. 

A lot of accountants don't understand how to move their firm into the future and they're hung up on value pricing, especially if they are also looking at having 3-4 employees. The key is to work out sharing a percentage of revenue with employees, so they understand that it's an opportunity. When you look at the number of hours that you're putting in, make sure it's not less than minimum wage in your state!

 

What is the #1 recommendation you have for accountants?

We have to specialize. An accountant of the future needs to learn  QuickBooks Online and they also need to know the industry-specific apps that will help them grow their business.

Community Host
0 0 17

 

Nicole Hodsdon struck out on her own two years ago after realizing that her bent-plywood creations had a bigger market than just her brother-in-law. As the owner and designer of Ciseal (pronounced ‘suh-seel’ and named after the Irish word for layer), she creates durable, nature-inspired furniture for creative curators. Every single product is made in-house in her tiny basement studio in Michigan. 

We chatted with her about the importance of understanding your market when you're pricing your goods – and how exactly you bend plywood by hand. 

 

 

Name: Nicole Hodsdon 

Business: Ciseal Furniture and Home Goods

Started: 2013 

 

How did you create your awesome job? 

After getting a degree in Mechanical Engineering, I majored in product design at The College for Creative Studies. My first job out of college was freelancing in product design, mostly focusing on things like packaging, interior displays and craft design. 

At first, I found clients on a word-of-mouth basis, but I started to get tired of working on other people’s ideas instead of my own. I decided I wanted to work on something more personal. In college I'd taken a course on bending plywood and I loved it, so I decided that was as good a starting place as any. 

It’s surprisingly simple. I take thin sheets of wood like oak, birch, walnut or sapele, cut them to size and then layer them, putting glue between each pair. Then I shape the wood around a mold and clamp the piece together. Once the glue is dried, which takes some time, the layers hold their shape. I make the molds by designing the form on my computer, on a program like Illustrator. I cut them out and use several pieces to build the exact shape I’m looking for. 

 

When was the moment you decided to create your own business? 

It was actually after a request from my brother-in-law. He was looking for a tablet stand and couldn’t find anything he liked, so I said I’d give it a go. He helped me with the form, so I decided to let him have that one for free. 

After that, I decided to have a go at selling on Etsy. I started with just ten tablet stands to test the waters. I was so pleased when people liked them enough to buy them!

 

When did you realize your business could actually work? 

I knew my business could work when I got my first repeat customer. It’s an amazing feeling when people want to buy your products, but it’s even better when they engage with you and buy your products as gifts for friends and family. 

What has been the biggest surprise thus far? 

When I first started, I kind of expected my company to build itself. I thought that by designing a good-looking website and selling beautiful hand-crafted products, I’d draw in customers without even trying. 

In hindsight, it shouldn’t have surprised me that this is not how it works. I quickly realized that getting my name out and  my brand was no simple task – I couldn’t rely on word-of-mouth anymore. 

 "What I’ve learned is that, to create sustainable growth, I need to be proactive. That means reaching out to people I don’t know. A lot." 

Whether it’s bloggers, store owners, magazines or tastemakers on Instagram, I need other platforms to make my product more widely visible. 

 

How do you determine your pricing? 

Working out my pricing strategy has had a lot to do with defining my market. 

At first, I felt like I need to get my prices as low as possible to compete with huge global retailers who sell bent-plywood basics at rock-bottom prices. But I couldn’t compete because of my process – each product takes days to complete, whereas the retailers’ automated process means they can make thousands at a time. 

It was only when I realized that it was exactly this slower process that defined my work that I identified my customer base. The people who buy my products come to me because they appreciate the attention to detail and the human hands that craft each piece. 

Once I’d taken this step in understanding who my ideal customer was, I structured my pricing to represent the honest story behind the product. 

 

What does your typical day look like from start to finish? 

I take it easy in the morning, spending an hour or two drinking coffee, responding to emails and customer queries and eating breakfast. 

Then the real work begins. I begin each day in my tiny basement studio working on molding products. It takes around six hours for the glue between the layers of wood to dry, so this has to come first in my day. 

After that, I get to work on trimming and sanding the pieces I molded the day before. The next step is to finish the products by hand, let them dry and then add the hardware, like wiring for lamps. 

I finish up by boxing up the next day’s orders. Oh, and I always walk my dog Fozzie in the afternoon! 

 

 

If you could go back in time, what's the one thing you'd do differently? 

I would absolutely start with a business partner. My skills lie in the creative side of the business – designing and making – and the admin side of things can be overwhelming. 

Even working at this small scale, I find a lot of my time is taken up with marketing, accounting and ordering supplies. I think my business would be growing faster if I had a partner to work on it with, to bounce ideas off and, most importantly, so that we could push each other. 

 

 

What would you like to learn from a community of other small business owners and self-employed professionals? 

My main interest at the moment is scaling my business. I’d like to know how others have grown from ‘solo-preneurs’ to teams of 5 or 20 employees.  Is it possible to scale production but also keep everything in-house and handmade? 

And on the money side of things, did you rely on revenue as the business grew naturally or did you have to take on loans, or investments? I’m still trying to figure out how this all works!

 

Let's help Nicole out! What have you learned about scaling a small, handmade business?

If you have an experience to share about what you've learned when it comes to adding new employees to your small business while keeping your product in-house and handmade, we'd love to know your story.

Share with us below! :-)

Community Host
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Michelle’s business was almost over before it began when her relationship with her boyfriend — and his distribution network — came to an end. But that wasn’t enough to stop her from achieving her dreams. 

Today, Michelle runs a successful jewelry business that she launched all on her own. We asked her to break down the exact formulas she uses to price her items and share her tips for experimenting with pricing when you have items that just aren't selling.

 

 

Name: Michelle Chang

Business: Michelle Chang Jewelry

Started: October 2007

 

How did you create your awesome job?

When I lived in New York City, my boyfriend at the time owned a successful company that designed custom watches, which were sold across the US. 

He had a good distribution network already in place, and he wanted to expand his business to include jewelry. He thought I had a good eye for design and asked if I’d start the jewelry section for his company. At the time I was doing illustration work and my schedule was pretty was flexible, so I said yes and started taking some jewelry design classes. But before we could set up the business, we broke up.

I later moved to California and decided to go ahead and set up a jewelry design business on my own. That’s when when I opened Michelle Chang Jewelry on Etsy. Within a year, the shop was doing so well that I could phase out my illustration work and focus solely on the business. 

In the process, I decided to establish my own website as well —  MichelleChang.com — and now I get a fairly equal number of customers from both.

 

When did you know your business was going to work?

After that first year, I had enough business on Etsy that I felt confident working strictly as a jewelry designer. 

I had a plan to give myself one to three years for it to work, but after only one I felt like I was able to survive on the jewelry business alone. Thankfully, the choice was easy for me — it got to the point where I was too busy with jewelry and didn't have time for two full-time jobs.

 

How do you price your products?

Before I opened my shop, I did some research online and referenced retail pricing models to figure out how I should price my items. 

I determined the material and labor costs for each of my designs, then added them together. To reach a wholesale cost, I multiply that figure by 2 or 2.5. For my retail pricing, I multiply it by 4 or 4.5. I also looked at what other jewelry sites offered, and I made sure not to price my work much higher than competitors in a similar range. 

Now, if something is not selling as well as it should, I experiment with pricing. If a piece is not selling, I drop the price a small percentage to see if I sell more. If it still doesn’t sell, I consider the design to be a failure.

I try to see pricing from the customer’s perspective and price according to where they are psychologically if they're looking for something more affordable. For example, if I’ve costed a piece at $56, but I think it’ll sell better if the price is below $50, then I might lower it to $48.

 

 

Other times, pricing curtails the design. 

Let’s say that I want to manufacture a certain design, but it would increase the retail cost. As the designer and manufacturer, I have to seriously rethink whether I want to pursue that design. I need to make sure the price isn’t going to be too high because this will limit the number of people who can afford to buy it.

 

 

"Like the majority of first-time manufacturers, the biggest lesson I learned was not to underprice my worth and my hourly rate." 

 

Over time, I’ve increased the hourly labor rate, which is how much I pay myself. I allow myself to be flexible, though. 

Let’s say I can sell a product for $50. With the hourly rate added, the price should be set at $75. If I can sell twice as many units at $50 and less than half at $75, then I’m going to sell it for $50, regardless of my hourly rate. 

That just makes sense to me.

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

I’m a late night person naturally and, unfortunately, I haven’t been able to shake that off!

I wake up on the late side — probably when most people are driving to work. Then I spend 1-2 hours doing work in bed, drinking coffee. 

My two assistants come to work at 10am to help me make the jewelry and they're usually in the studio until 6pm. I’m often too busy to do production now. 

I take care of everything else during those hours, like answering phone calls and emails, invoicing, pricing, inventory, ordering materials and creating new designs.

 

 

What has been the biggest surprise so far after starting your own business?

The biggest surprise was how quickly I gained customers, because initially I didn’t promote my shop on Etsy or anywhere else. I did zero marketing or advertising, and I didn't share anything on social media.

I consider myself a computer novice and I’m not really adept at social media, so I've had to learn how to put time into promoting my work on Facebook and Instagram. 

I'm still surprised by how little marketing I've had to do thus far, and I think it's because I produce the right kind of jewelry that appears to a certain customer. I like to think my designs speak for themselves!

 

If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you’d do differently when starting your business?

I would’ve spent more time learning different jewelry making skills and I would have opened my business a little later. 

Right now, with all my time going into running the business, it’s hard to backtrack and take six weeks of metalsmithing classes at a time.

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

I’m trying to build my brand and increase my brand recognition right now, and I want to shift my income so that it comes primarily from a wholesale base, rather than individual customers.

I need brand recognition that would appeal to buyers. Does anyone here have helpful PR and marketing advice for how to market my brand to the right people?

 

Do you have branding tips to share with Michelle?

Let's help Michelle out!

How do you reach out to a new customer base and capture their imagination with your brand? What tactics have been most effective for you?

Share your stories below! :-)

Community Host
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Ryan always loved collecting old knick-knacks, but it wasn’t until he started repurposing them into unique lamps that his business was born. Now, he spends every spare hour outside of his 9-to-5 job reconditioning vintage pieces and selling them on Etsy or at local flea markets. 

As Ryan gets ready to explore how to turn his successful pop-up shop into a real brick-and-mortar business, what are the key steps he needs to address first?

Read on to learn more about Ryan — and add your tips for him below!

 

Name: Ryan Seagrist

Business: Northern Electric Lighting Company

Started: September 2013

 

How did you create your awesome job?

I’ve always been interested in antiques and I run Northern Electric Lighting Company alongside my full-time job, partly as a hobby and partly as a business. 

Monday through Friday, I work for Whole Foods Market as a Receiving and Maintenance Manager. During my evenings and on weekends, I run my Etsy antiques business. I basically have two full-time jobs and work 70-hour weeks, but New York is expensive so I need the extra income! Plus, I love the work.

I specialize in collecting old electronics like microscopes, generators and musical equipment. Most have been made obsolete by advances in technology, so I decided to give these items a new purpose by turning them into lamps. 

One day, I got talking to a friend of mine who owns a motorcycle shop, and he asked to display my lamps in his shop window. That’s when they started to sell. 

He and I also talked about my collection of vintage lighters. We decided to team up and start reconditioning them together in his shop. There’s a huge variety of lighters out there from back in the day, but we specialize in 1940s and 19550s Ronson and Zippo lighters and those from occupied Japan. These are taking off and selling the fastest at the moment!

 

When did you know your business was going to work?

There wasn't an exact moment when it all came together — it's been more a gradual process of adapting to the opportunities that present themselves. 

Rent is so high in NYC that a lot of people have to work two jobs just to get by. I work hard in the hope that, one day, I’ll be able to quit my day job and focus on this business full-time. But, I need to go wherever the business takes me and keep myself in a strong enough position to take advantage of opportunities when they crop up.

Soon after I started out in my friend’s motorcycle shop, I was approached by a local market to set up a stall. Eventually, I put my items online. 

Etsy has been great for me because it’s given me a much broader customer base and it’s diversified where I can advertise. My online sales have really taken off recently, and I’m expecting to have a busy holiday season.

 


What has been the biggest surprise so far after starting your own business?

We’re an LLC (Limited Liability Company) now, but the process of getting there was much more difficult than I thought it would be. 

I couldn’t believe how much paperwork there was, and I didn’t understand some of the weird publishing requirements in NYC. For example, we had to place a $1,000 ad in a magazine that no one ever reads, just to comply.

 

How do you price your products?

I have to take into account what others are selling lamps for and the size of the item and its rarity when I price my products. 

Sometimes I can pick up a piece for $5 and make a good margin, but other times I might find something really special, like an old brass microscope, and love it so much that it’s worth adding to the line, even if the margin isn’t so big.

I’ve found that it’s valuable to have a good range of prices in my shop. I always have $100 lighters for sale because I get a lot of customers who just want to buy the craziest thing they can. On the flip side, I also keep a bunch available for $5 so that everyone can pick up something they like. I don’t ever want to limit myself to just one market.

 

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

I package my items at night so they’re ready to send in the morning before I go to work. I work my regular job from 9am until 5pm, then work on fixing up lighters when I get home. 

When I have time off, I plan for taking on bigger projects like making larger lamps. I have to drill out and gut each piece to fit the lights in — and I’m often working with pieces I’ve never seen before — so have to figure them out as I go, which can take a lot of time.

Right now I’m preparing for the Artists and Fleas market in NYC that runs through all of November and December. Selling at this market is great because it gets a lot of foot traffic and it’s prime holiday season. However, it also means working Saturdays and Sundays from 10am until 7pm. Getting there and back in New York traffic is a project in and of itself, but I've learned that it’s worth it for the exposure.

 

If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you’d do differently when starting your business?

I’ve taken my business slowly and tried to grow it in rational steps. I hear about people who rush in before they know what they’re doing and get ahead of themselves, and I’m glad I didn’t do that. I’m happy so far with the progress I've made.

Buying junk can be addictive, especially when it's all cool stuff. I probably bought too many pieces early on that I haven't been able to sell — yet. Still holding out that they will find a home!

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

The best thing about selling in person at markets is that I get access to a great community of people who are always happy to share stories and advice. 

One day I’d like to get a brick-and-mortar shop, but I need to find the confidence first — I don’t yet know any market traders who’ve done that. 

I’d be interested to know what prompted others here to make the decision to set up a physical shop, and what processes I need to follow if I wanted to do the same.

 

 

Have you made the transition to setting up a brick-and-mortar shop after selling at pop-ups and online?

Do you have tips for Ryan as he starts to think about the steps he needs to take before opening a permanent shop? 

What have you learned that you can share with our community?

Share your ideas below! :-)

Community Host
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With clippers in hand and a keen eye on the financials, former accountant Ellie Pamphilon's quirky barbershop has become an Instagram star – and to top it off they're also beating all of their cash flow forecasts. 

So, what's Ellie hoping to improve next in her business? Read on to find out!

 

Name: Ellie Pamphilon

Business: Owner of Barber Streisand

Started: May 2015

 

How did you create your awesome job?

I’d love to say my move into barbering came from a lifelong passion, but actually, as an accountant, it was the logical outcome of my research. I loved working in retail when I was at college and knew I wanted to set up my own shop, so I looked into low-risk, financially viable small business models. I figured, people will always need haircuts – and technology won’t put me out of business anytime soon.

I worked full-time at my accounting job while I learned barbering. I took a one-on-one course from the London School of Hairdressing so I could fit it around my hours.

That was two years ago. Since then, I’ve spent most of my time finding and setting up a venue for the shop. The first spaces I looked at I liked a lot, but the rates were too high and the landlords were very inflexible. 

This year, I found the perfect place in Exmouth Market. The area gets a ton of foot traffic and is perfect for capturing walk-in business.

 

When did you know your business was going to work?

Last month! 

We broke even two months ahead of schedule. August is a notoriously quiet month in this area, but we still did it and I'm so proud of our team. Business is growing all the time and I’m feeling confident going into next year.

 

Tell us about the name of your shop – Barber Streisand. There has to be a good story behind that!

I’m a huge fan of puns and there’s a long history of glorious and corny ones in hairdressing, like Curl Up and Dye or British Hairways. I had a list of about 30, including Quiff Richard, but I felt Barber Streisand fit our business the best.

What I do is barbering, not hairdressing. It’s more focused on short clipper-work, but to me the biggest difference is the experience here. 

The environment we created in our shop is very social with conversations flying back and forth between everyone, whereas hairdressing is about pampering – it's a one-on-one experience. The name makes it clear that we’re a barbershop, not a hairdresser’s, while embracing the female side of the business too.

What I didn't realize when we create the name is how much attention it would get us on social media! Every day we have 10-15 people taking photos of the shop and posting them to Instagram and Twitter for all their friends to see.

Recently I decided to turn the tables on the people who are posting photos of our shop. When I catch someone taking a picture, I take one of them if I'm quick enough and I post it with the hashtag #ustakingphotosofpeopletakingphotosofus. It’s a bit of fun and means we’re not just posting photos of haircuts all the time.

 

 

How did you find and make your first hire?

I took an eight-week refresher course on barbering just before it was finally time to open, both to sharpen my skills and to scout for potential hires. I found one excellent barber, hired him and I’ve never looked back. But I did have some trouble along the way.

Someone I met in the course, who I would never have hired based on his skills alone, told me a sob story and convinced me to hire him. On a personal level, we got along fine, but after one week it was clear that his barbering wasn’t good enough. 

I told him I was letting him go and why – it wasn’t difficult, it was a business decision. But after that, he started posting on social media about my business, saying things like “it’s a health and safety nightmare” and "there’s another shop much cheaper around the corner.” I contacted the police, but they said that, because it’s an opinion, it’s not libel. He was also sending me very personal text messages, though, and they said that amounted to harassment and he was arrested.

It was a horrible experience to go through, but the result was that I hired two talented barbers and created a team I love. Every one of us is different – in age, in our cultural and professional backgrounds and in our personal style. It wasn’t a conscious decision – I hired based on skill and personality – but it works well. 

Hiring a diverse group of people also prevents our business from being typecast as a barbershop for a particular type of person. That means we get a wide range of clientele coming in the door. It also makes for a more interesting working environment when there is so much you can learn from your colleagues!

 

How did you decide on pricing for your services?

First I looked at the pricing of other similar businesses in the area to get an idea of what people were charging. I was really keen not to make it premium pricing. For example, I could be charging $75 per cut and still have customers instead of the $40 I charge now. But I think that’s too much to spend on a haircut every six weeks.

It was also really important for me to have gender-neutral pricing. That’s why we don’t cut long hair – it takes much longer to do that, so it would cost more, and I prefer having that flat rate. It also means turnover is quicker so we can get more people through the door in a day.

 

 

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known in the first three months of opening your business?

I wish I’d known what would happen with the guy I hired so I wouldn’t make that mistake.

Apart from that, I wish I’d full understood the inescapability of social media! I’ve never been a fan of it myself and I couldn’t see how it would help my business much – location, foot traffic and great haircuts seemed like it would be enough. 

But now I’ve come around to the idea that a modern business can’t survive without social media. I don’t think it generates much new business for me, but it does reinforce word-of-mouth recommendations. Plus, these days, I think it would be really strange not to be on Facebook or Instagram.

 

What would you like to learn from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

I’d like to learn more about how to protect your brand online. 

Because I was a latecomer to social media, the name "Barber Streisand" was taken on Twitter and Facebook already. I’ve got "Barber Streisand Fanclub" on  Facebook and Instagram, but that was too long for Twitter so it’s @BarberStreis – I’d love to know how to consolidate everything.

 

Do you have tips for Ellie on how to manage and consolidate her shop's online presence?

Let's help Ellie out! 

Do you have a story to share about how you protect and manage your brand online? How have you gone about building a consistent presence online?

Can't wait to hear your stories. :-)

Community Host
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Precious Williams likes to dream BIG. Three years ago, she took a risk and entered a series of pitch competitions to see if she could fund her idea for a lingerie business aimed specifically at curvy women. It worked.

Today she's juggling multiple roles — CEO of Curvy Girlz, self-employed attorney and occasional actress — and scheming up her next big goal: to turn Curvy Girlz into a million dollar business. 

 

Name: Precious L. Williams, Esq.

Job: Owner of Curvy Girlz

Started: 2012

 

Tell us the story behind starting Curvy Girlz.

I grew up watching Perry Mason and dreamed of becoming an attorney, so I went to law school and eventually set up my own firm. 

With that goal achieved, I set my sights even higher and resolved to become the best entrepreneur of all time. There aren’t many celebrated African American entrepreneurs out there. People talk about Oprah and Bob Johnson, but they’re 20 years older than me and I want to show the world how it’s done.

The idea for Curvy Girlz came to me five years ago. I weighed 327 pounds and was dating a guy who loved big girls and sexy lingerie. I couldn’t find anything sexy enough in my size, so I decided to start a company that celebrated the beauty of curvy women every day.

He passed away a few years ago, but his love for me transformed me. I’m a quirky individual and I’m chubby — I'm a size 16 and I have stretch marks. But he made me see that the things people think are wrong about me are fine, and that all the things people think are ridiculous about me are what make me successful. Why? Because I stand out. It’s great to be able to look in the mirror everyday and say, “Yeah, you’ve got it going on.”

I wrote the business plan for Curvy Girlz over a period of two and a half months when I was unemployed, had overdrafts on four accounts and had been evicted from my apartment. 

When I finished my business plan, I entered 14 pitch competitions for investment and won 13, securing $150,000 to start my company with. 

No matter how I feel offstage, when it comes to the pitch — I always kill it.

 

 

Who was your very first customer?

I found my first customers at Circle of Sisters — a famous African American trade show in New York. And there were a lot of them!

That day, I sold $10,000 of lingerie in eight hours. Immediately, I knew I was on to something big.

 

When did you know your business was going to work?

I was honored to be named CNN’s entrepreneur of the month in June of 2015. After that, people started looking at me differently. CNN recognizing who I am has been amazing — knowing that people can see what I’m doing and that they understand my goals is an incredible feeling.

I also just came back from shooting a movie in LA where I play a business woman, which really made me feel like I’d made it! The reason I got that opportunity (the reason anyone knows me at all!) is my lingerie. My job is to make other curvy women feel sexy because we’re often told we’re not, and they like that.

 

What has been the biggest surprise in starting your own business?

Initially, I thought only younger women would buy from me. I've learned over time that my best customers are actually between 35 and 55 years old. 

My business model might have something to do with it — I sell a lot of lingerie at home parties, which are really popular with that age group.

 

How do you price your products?

My lingerie sets cost between $60 and $80, but I’m adding more expensive lines soon. 

I use a basic formula of charging two-and-a-half times my costs, and so far it’s working out well. I’ve kept my prices the same since the beginning, but I’m about to launch a new website with slightly different pricing, so we’ll see how that goes!

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

None of my days are the same because I run three very different companies, so that’s a very hard question to answer! I have a law practice, a public speaking company and Curvy Girlz, so I might be in court one morning and mailing packages the next.

Sometimes I might have three cases to look at in one day, and that has to take priority because it’s immediate. I make time to fit Curvy Girlz in around my legal work because it’s fun. I get to look at sexy underwear every day and meet with stylists and clients from all over.

I work all the time. Sometimes this means waking up to answer phone calls and respond to emails throughout the night. When I do have down time, I love to hang with my girlfriends, go to brunch or dinner and take in a Broadway show.

 

If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you’d do differently when starting your business?

I would have asked family and friends for investment first before looking elsewhere. I was struggling and needed help, but I just assumed that no one else had any money either. 

Since they’ve seen how well I’ve done, some have said “You could’ve asked me!” I now know that I should have allowed them into my life and showed them my business plans while I was at those early stages.

 

What's next for you and for Curvy Girlz?

My ultimate dream is to host a nationally syndicated talk show and become an entertainment mogul. I’ve written a lot of reality shows and screenplays, so when it comes to speaking and writing, I know what I’m doing. 

Curvy Girlz is more than just a promotional tool for me though — last year we sold $360k worth of lingerie. There are over 40 million women that are size 14 or over in the US who, just like me, want pretty underwear. 

No matter what happens in my future, I’ll always keep the business running because women need it.

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of small business owners and self-employed professionals?

Coaching is key to my business success. My coach helps me understand where my business sits and points out things that I can’t see. 

My long term goal is to turn Curvy Girlz into a billion dollar company and to become a global phenomenon. But first, I need to turn it into a million dollar company! 

Does anyone here have any advice on how to do that? What are the steps I’d need to take to avoid hitting a black hole when it comes to growth?

 

 

Can you help Precious out? 

What are the key steps she needs to take in order to turn her business into a million dollar enterprise?

Precious is ready to set her next long-term goals for Curvy Girlz — and she could use your help.

If you have a story to share when it comes to growing a business without bottoming out, share it below!

Community Host
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The perennial Kudzu plant isn’t widely loved, but for Tiffany — who named her company after the root — it’s come to stand for a self-sufficient lifestyle. 

Tiffany Everett has been making art for others ever since her classmates asked her for portraits of their pets at school, but it wasn’t until she discovered Etsy that she realized she could turn her hobby into a career. 

Now that she's getting ready to launch her new website, we asked Tiffany to dish on making the transition from full-time employee to up-and-coming business owner and the biggest branding mistake she made early on.

 

Name: Tiffany Everett

Business: Kudzu Monster on Etsy

Started: November 2014

 

Who or what inspired you to create Kudzu Monster?

I started using Etsy in 2009, selling hand-bound journals while I was still in college. I also designed and sold baby mobiles with a friend through Etsy, but Kudzu Monster is my first really successful shop.

I went to art school in Georgia, where I studied illustration. After graduation, I worked for two separate companies designing gift cards, wrapping paper and bags. I enjoyed the work, but it was a long commute from my house and I didn’t really enjoy the city life. 

At the end of last year, I hit breaking point. My husband and I decided to sell most of our stuff and move halfway across the county to Colorado. Making the move allowed me to dive head first into my Etsy shop, which I launched officially in November of 2014. I also work as a freelance children’s book illustrator along with running my store to boost my income, and I currently illustrate two or three books a year.

The first products I listed in my new shop were homemade limoncello labels that I’d designed for family as Christmas presents. I thought I might as well give it a shot, and I was amazed when they took off. I got three orders in the first day!

Soon I had requests for custom moonshine, jam and jelly labels too. Now I sell a wide variety of products, but I’m most excited about my party décor packages which include banners, invitations, thank you cards and cupcake wrappers. They’re proving to be really popular. 

I sell around six items per day on average, but I’ve sold up to 100 in a single day during the holidays.

 

When did you know your business was going to work? What was the exact moment?

Two months after leaving my full-time job to pursue running my own Etsy shop, I started to doubt my decision. Sales were slow and I wondered if I had made the right decision.

It was January of 2015 and I knew that Valentine’s Day was coming up. From my past experience in this industry, I knew that this meant a big opportunity for sales, so I spent the whole month making Valentine’s themed products. 

Well, between January 14 and February 14, I sold more than 700 items. I always try to capitalize on holidays now!

 

 

What has been the biggest surprise so far after starting your own business?

How time consuming little tasks can be. 

When I tell people what I do, they picture me at home, drawing and creating all day long. I wish that was reality, but it isn’t. 

I spend most of my time responding to questions and helping customers who don’t understand how to open a .zip file or how a PDF works. I love my job and wouldn’t trade it for anything, but I’d like to be able to spend more time developing new products rather than doing technical support. 

Thankfully, Etsy makes the process of buying my products so easy. I upload a PDF of the designs that I'm selling and as soon as the payment clears, Etsy emails the files to the customer. That leaves me to focus on other areas of my business.

 

How do you price your products?

Pricing is tricky, but it helps to do a lot of research first. I try to price competitively, but when I start to see an increase in orders, I up my prices ever so slightly. It’s a helpful experiment to see how the price affects demand.

Custom work is the hardest to price because some projects are very easy, whereas others require lots of revisions. For those, I build in a set number of amends in the price and state clearly that extras will be subject to an hourly fee, which I find helps customers to be concise with their feedback.

The biggest thing I’ve learned about pricing is that I can’t please everyone. I want customers who see the value in my products and design services, but I often get asked to lower my prices. I've learned that I have to stick to my guns and politely refuse. I don’t like haggling over my livelihood.

 

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

I’m still getting into the groove of working from home — there are so many distractions and no one holds me accountable.

A typical routine involves getting up early and starting with a big breakfast and a few cups of coffee. I’ll see to any small house tasks (like taking out the trash) first thing in the morning so I can minimize distractions throughout the day.

Then I head to my office space. It helps to have a separate room for work because I can focus more easily. 

I spend an hour or so responding to emails and customer questions, then make a plan for the day. Recently I’ve started taking advantage of Google Calendar when it comes to staying organized — being able to mark tasks as complete when I’m done is really satisfying.

After that, I jump on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest where I promote a different product every day. I always start off on social media with the best intentions, but usually end up wasting some time watching funny dog videos or getting distracted in some other way, which is a real struggle! 

As soon as the caffeine kicks, in I’ll start with the real work for the day — designing products, creating custom designs and printing items for photographing. 

I’ll spend my day like this until it’s time to cook dinner, which I like to spend a lot of time preparing. Living in the mountains means that my husband and I can easily hike and camp, which we do frequently during holidays and on the weekends.

 

 

If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you’d do differently when starting your business?

When I first added my designs to Etsy, an art licensing company contacted me to ask if they could license my work for kids’ nursery prints. It meant a little bit more money for me on the side, so I jumped at the idea. 

If I could go back now, I would have never entered into that whole mess. I keep finding my prints in major retail stores without my name on them. It hurts to watch others make a lot of money off my products, while I only get a very small percentage as royalties every now and then.

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

Right now I’m working on creating my own standalone web store for Kudzu Monster. I’ve bought the URL and I’m in the process of designing the pages, but I don’t know how I’ll drive traffic to it when it’s done. 

Promotion is so foreign to me because I’ve relied on Etsy and its build-in traffic for so long. I’m especially interested in having my site and products featured by bloggers, but don’t know where to begin contacting them. 

 

 

What are your tips for Tiffany when she launches her new website and online shop?Tiffany is getting ready to roll out her new website and online store — and she could use your help!

Do you have experience with getting the word out about a new website? Have you ever reached out to bloggers about featuring your products?

Share your story right here! :-)

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You might recognize Desiree as one of our top 10 finalists in Small Business Big Game or from her recent appearance on Shark Tank

Desiree co-founded Unshrinkit back in 2013 as part of a class project — two years later her solution for shrunken sweaters is flying off the shelves.

Along the way she's learned a ton about how to handle customer service and why solving an existing problem is key to finding a market for your product.

Let's hear from Desiree!

 

Name: Desiree Stolar

Business: Unshrinkit

Started: December 2013

 

Tell us a little more about how Unshrinkit was born. Who or what inspired you to create your product?

My co-founder Nate and I started Unshrinkit while we were still students at Harvard Business School. 

In the winter of 2013, we were given $5,000 to work on a micro-business as part of a class. Our team of six decided that collectively we wanted to build something with our hands — it was important to us that at the end of the project we could send something home to our parents and say "Look what we did!" The last thing I wanted was to tell my mom to download an app because I knew that would never happen.

Before we all dispersed for holiday break, we agreed that we would try and think of things that actually solve a pain point and make our lives significantly better or less stressful.

It literally just so happened that I received a cashmere sweater for Christmas that year. And I immediately shrunk it the first time I washed it.

My heart froze for a second when that happened. I knew that it was an expensive gift and I felt so embarrassed and dumb because there was no way to fix it.

I mentioned it to my husband and he said, "Oh, that's not a problem. That doesn't happen very often." When I pressed him further, he admitted that all he does when this happens to his clothes is throw them away!

I decided to ask more people. It turns out, this is a huge pain point for many, and they were desperate for a solution. I learned then that sometimes the first person you ask — even if you love them dearly — might not be your target market. 

 

Who was your first customer?

I was probably our first "user," in that I tried saving that sweater with warm water and conditioner. I was so determined to make it work that I wore it to class, but over the course of the day it became a crop top and it was entirely inappropriate for business school. I had to borrow a jacket from a friend, and that's what made me realize — even home remedies don't work.

After that, I spent a lot of time researching all the different home remedies online. What struck me was that there are millions of YouTube views and thousands of websites and blogs out there just devoted to discussing how to fix your shrunken clothes. The lightbulb went on: "It's not just me! There is actually a market here with millions of people who are having this issue on a regular basis."

Our first customers ended up being our classmates and friends because we started the company as a class project. It was a great way to learn quickly what people thought about our product in real-time because we could immediately ask questions like, "Are people asking for this? Are they using it and telling others about it?"

One of my favorite stories from our early customers came from a young woman whose grandmother had knit her a sweater that she'd accidentally shrunk. Her grandmother had since passed away, and it was an irreplaceable item. She thought she was going to have to hide it forever from her mom because she had messed up this precious gift, but when she got a bottle of our product and it worked, she was overwhelmed with joy.

 

When did you know that you business was going to work?

On October 17, 2014 everything changed for our business.

Up until then, we had been selling our product casually. We were convinced that people who loved and knew us would take a chance on our product and use it, but we didn't have any money to do marketing and we hadn't even tried to penetrate the market in terms of awareness.

We got on a website called The Grommet that showcases new gadgets and products. The warned that they expected to sell around 200 bottles in the first week. We were still full-time students and making the product in our bathtub, so we thought, "Great! This is totally feasible."

We came out of class together on October 17 and all of a sudden our phones went off at the same time. I looked down and there was a message from our buyer that said we sold out of 200 bottles in the first hour.

That was the first moment when I truly realized we had market proof and that we were solving a real problem for people.

I also took a cue from how The Grommet was marketing their product on our site because they included a video showing people how and why to use our product. When people understand that a problem can be solved and there is a solution on the market for it, they will react!

 

What are the big lessons that you learned early on when building your business?

We got bigger before we expected to get big because of our exposure on The Grommet. Our sales exploded before we'd had a chance to update our packaging, our instructions and even the ingredients inside the bottle.

Two big learnings came out of this period.

One, never underestimate how long it will take to complete R&D (research and development). When our sales picked up quickly, people were still buying the same products we had been making in our dorm room. We thought we didn't need to worry about customer management and our customer service responsiveness because we planned for the new version to be released in early 2015. 

Well, it ended up taking until April of 2015 to update our product. By that time, it was out there. It was in the marketplace, it was in people's homes and it was only version 1.0 of Unshrinkit. Sure, it didn't take us long to get to the base product, but when we wanted to upgrade to version 2.0, it took an exceptionally long time, even though we had some amazing chemists working with us. 

Two, don't wait to update your packaging and address customer service needs. There was a lot of confusion around which fabrics you could use Unshrinkit with on our version 1.0 packaging and we weren't clear about how much water was needed in terms of gallons, quarts or cups. 

For version 2.0, we included more explicit instructions that actually align with the language people use and we had really nice messaging in the box with warnings if you try to use it with the wrong fabric or fiber. We also included contact information for anyone who had questions and a money-back guarantee.

We knew from testing that over 90% of people had a generally positive experience with our product. However, those 10% who either really loved it or really hated it were the people who went online to talk about it. When we started offering a money-back guarantee, it reassured our customers that we stand behind our product. 

 

 

What do you wish you'd known when you were starting out?

There were a lot of lessons, but a big one that stands out is to read every customer email that comes in.

One of my co-founders, who has more of a transactional focus, was initially in charge of owning all of our customer emails. We realized after about a year that it didn't make sense for someone with that mindset to be receiving the majority of our customer emails. I have a background in marketing and customer service, and I care a great deal about each individual customer and the experience they're having. I know in the aggregate that if you do your job well, that will pay off in dividends. 

Sure, there is often an assumption that customer emails are just chores or "things that have to be done." But there were gems in our backlog of emails — stories from our customers about special clothing items they'd saved, opportunities from people who wanted to sell our product in their small shops, even offers from people who wanted to feature us in their blogs or magazines.

What also really struck me after we committed to responding to every single email is how surprised and impressed our customers were when they received a real note back from one of the co-founders. We don't sent automated responses and we take care to write back in language that is human and specific to the garment they shrank or the question they have.

 

What's next for Unshrinkit? 

As a team, we could have never anticipated some of the opportunities that have come to us after participating in Small Business Big Game and after being on Shark Tank.

We promised ourselves that between our appearance on Shark Tank in mid-November and the end of 2015, we're going to focus on continuing to sell our product and our upcoming launch in Bed, Bath & Beyond. Then, we're committing to taking six weeks to figure out what we want to pursue in 2016, given all the opportunities for distribution, acquisition and licensing that have come in recently.

Back in 2014, three months after creating Unshrinkit, we said our mission was to place a bottle of Unshrinkit in every laundry room in America. We didn't say whohad to place it there, and we didn't know how it would get there, but we knew we wanted it there.

Now we have a couple different ways to make that possible — all because of Shark Tank!

 


Nate and Desiree on Shark Tank in November of 2015 

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In 2014, Lindsey Laurain was inspired by a conversation with her husband to find a product that would make mealtime with her small kids a lot less messy — and a lot more fun. Soon after, she quit her corporate job and created EZPZ Happy Mats, a line of colorful, practical mats that double as both placemats and plates.

Lindsey was recently one of our top 10 finalists in Small Business Big Game, so we reached out to learn more about her journey as a small business owner and what she's learned along the way!

 

Name: Lindsey Laurain

Business: EZPZ Happy Mats

Started: August 2014

 

 

Tell us a little more about how you came up with the idea for EZPZ placemats. Who or what inspired you to create your product?

The idea for our EZPZ Happy Mats was born purely out of mealtime frustration. 

My husband and I have three little boys — three-year-old identical twins and a five-year-old — and one night at dinner my husband got so frustrated because every plate or bowl was on the floor. He said, "Someone needs to invent something they can't toss or throw!"

I started looking online for a product that could solve this problem the very next day. But I quickly realized that nothing really existed — everything out there on the market just didn't work.

I came home and said to him, "I'm going to start my own company and I'm going to make this product." 

I made up my mind and never looked back!

 

What was the initial development process like? How did you land on the Happy Mat?

At first, I started experimenting with just a piece of paper and a bowl taped to it. I knew I had to somehow combine a bowl and a placemat, but I wasn't quite sure how to go about it.

I also got my hands on a book that outlined all of the steps for how to start your own business, including how to look for materials and how to check the market to see if your idea already exists. The author recommended ordering these tiny plastic balls you can craft plastic items out of, so within a week I ordered some and started experimenting.

I melted down the plastic and put a bowl inside — it literally looked like this janky bowl inside of a placemat, but it was one piece!

After that, I met with a local manufacturer I found online and I asked him for his advice on using silicone to create my prototypes. Through him, I met another man in Colorado who was able to make me our very first silicone prototype. 

Our prototype mat immediately suctioned, and we started freaking out because it actually worked — my kid was eating cereal out of it and nothing was on the floor!

In August of 2014 we launched our Kickstarter campaign and raised over $72,000 from our community that helped us get off the ground and begin manufacturing inventory that we could then begin selling at scale. 

Although the Kickstarter campaign helped a lot, my husband and I have invested a lot of our own savings into the business as well. It's definitely been risky — and we have been surprised by how much money it actually takes to launch and run a business — but it's also been extremely rewarding and humbling, especially when you have a product that is truly making a difference in people's lives.

 

 

What are some of the big challenges you've come across while building your business?

If I had a magic wand and could change something, it would be to make the logistical stuff easier.

When you're shipping 40 or 50-foot containers, that's thousands of mats. And when you have folks internationally who are interested in your product, that's a lot to keep track of!

It's hard to make sure everything goes out on time, on schedule and without any flaws. You have to quality check everything to make sure there aren't any bad batches.

A magic wand would definitely make the logistics of dealing with international customers a lot easier!

 

What has been the biggest surprise so far in running your own business?

For me, the biggest surprise is how many people it really takes to successfully run a business.

I was previously an athlete, so the idea of working together as a team has always made sense to me. I've created a similar culture at EZPZ. I'm one of eight on our team and each person has a defined role, whether it's shipping and operations or creative.

Initially, I didn't realize how much goes into running a business from a creative standpoint or a photography standpoint or even when it comes to getting a warehouse and understanding the shipping logistics. I've had to learn a lot about how to stay on top of all that stuff.

Luckily, my strengths are my organizational skills and my drive. I have a great team behind me that makes it all happen, including my husband, my mom and my family. That's definitely been the biggest surprise — it takes a lot of us!

 

What is the most rewarding part about having your own business?

My favorite part of owning a business is that we're making a difference in people's lives. That's what drives me every day.

We created this business because we have three messy boys, but it turns out our product is helping many more people than we could have ever imagined. So many opportunities have surfaced recently from the special needs community and we've heard heartwarming stories from blind folks and both kids and adults with cerebral palsy who find our product helpful.

 

Where do you see EZPZ five years from now?

We've built out a five-year plan and our main goal is to continue revolutionizing the industry. We want everyone to say "Go get your mat!" instead of "Go get your plate!" when it's time to eat. Eventually, we want to sell the company once we're further down the road.

Right now we're just eight people and everyone on the team has been with me since the very beginning when I stuck a bowl on a piece of paper. We're all invested in the company and we work together until midnight if we have to.

We're laying the foundation of our company and creating systems so that — in five years — we can scale everything correctly and turn over the operation if and when we do sell.

Our focus is not only on creating a product that works, but creating a product that is thoughtfully designed, easy to use and makes feeding fun for both kids and adults.

 

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Kimberly was recently one of our top 10 finalists in Small Business Big Game, so we sat down with her to learn more about her own journey as a small business owner.

As the founder of WiggleKids in Swansea, Massachusetts — an inclusive fitness studio for all ages and abilities — Kimberly gets to have fun every day on the job while also providing a unique service in her community. 

Take it away, Kimberly!

 

Name: Kimberly Ferrara

Business: WiggleKids Fitness Studios

 

How did you come up with the idea for WiggleKids?

When my own kids started taking classes in our local community for different activities and sports, I realized there were always children who didn't fit into the typical "sports" model, but they still needed movement classes just as much as anyone else.

A friend asked me to come up with a program for the town recreational department that was specifically for toddlers. At the time, another friend whose son has autism asked if I could take that same program and tailor it for elementary kids.

The entire experience really struck a chord with me. And it was so popular! We had 15 kids in class every time we ran it, and all of the kids felt successful and supported. 

That prompted me to say, "You know what? There's a bigger need here."

Shortly after, we started WiggleKids!

 

What has been the biggest highlight of owning your own business?

I love that I can be flexible and there is still room for creativity. 

It's definitely a balance, but I like that I have the option to not only work around the parameters of what I see as the future of my business, but also what I see as the future of my family. 

As a small business owner, I now have the freedom to make time to enjoy my own children's sporting activities and school recitals — and those are experiences that inspire me creatively in my work.

 

What has been most surprising so far about running your own business?

I'm always surprised by how much my students teach me.

Every day I take on this role as a coach and a teacher. I'm supposed to be the instructor, but in every class someone does something that truly amazes me or shows me their true potential. This in turn prompts me to push the other students to demonstrate their potential. 

I'm learning just as much from them as they are from me.

 

What is the #1 challenge you're facing in your business?

If I had a magic wand, the biggest problem I would want to go away is the lack of funding.

WiggleKids is unique because it's a nonprofit. I'm always looking for new grants or funding or someone who can donate to sponsor my next great idea. 

It's continually frustrating because I know I have something that works, but because it's hard to fund, I can't bring it to those who need it. We need a money tree growing in our backyard!

 

If you had one piece of advice for someone who is just starting out with a new business, what would that be?

I've learned through my own experiences that it's so important to do what you love. It's not work when you love what you do and you wake up every day and tackle it with a whole heart.

I believe that if you're trying to push yourself to start a business with something that you're not truly passionate about and you can't speak about it right from the heart, it's not going to come together for you.

 

How has your local community played a role in helping you build your business?

At WiggleKids, we're servicing a very specific need in our community — to have a place for those who have exceptionalities. Sure, there are a lot of services out there like therapies or one-on-one programs, but we love that here we can really bring the community  together and show what true inclusion is in a natural setting.

To be a small business owner in this community has been such an emotional thing. With WiggleKids, we're demonstrating that we all speak loudest when we speak with one voice. We're all in this together, and we're all doing it on the same playing field.

It doesn't matter what adversity you're trying to overcome — everyone has their own way of doing things and it's so wonderful that in our space we can bring everyone together to celebrate that.

 

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When Spencer Pickslay first opened up his Etsy shop to sell the handmade wooden items he was making on the side as a hobby, he had no idea that someday his biggest seller would also be his smallest.

Four-and-a-half years later, Spencer is making a living selling his custom wooden guitar picks online and exploring what it might mean to begin wholesaling his star product.

Read on to learn more about how he got here and what he's hoping to tackle next in his business!

 

Name: Spencer Pickslay

Business: Woodworker and Owner of Pickslays Woodworking

Started: April 2011

 

 

How did you create your awesome job?

I wasn’t always into woodwork. I didn’t enjoy it in high school and I didn’t have handy parents, or anything like that. 

It wasn’t until I started working in a hardware store and got to playing around with some old materials and watching YouTube tutorials that it really clicked.

In 2010, when I was getting really into woodworking as a hobby, my grandmother taught me how to burn letters into wood. This meant that I could customize my pieces. 

By 2011, I’d built up a little collection of handmade furniture and I felt confident enough to start up a shop on Etsy that I could run alongside my full-time job. I started by listing a few coffee tables with woodburned designs, cutting boards, wooden coasters and plaques. Eventually, my business took off from there.

 

Who was your very first customer? How did you find them?

I launched my shop on Etsy in April of 2011, but didn’t make my first sale until December. I didn’t have much time to put into the business, so originally I didn’t do any marketing. It was just by chance that somebody stumbled upon my store and they bought a custom engraved cutting board.

 

When did you know your business was going to work?

I continued to work full-time in the hardware store and I took a few different jobs between when I launched my Etsy shop and when I decided to devote myself to my business full-time in 2013. 

I launched custom guitar picks in the Spring of 2012 and, although they were slow to take off, they sold really well that Christmas. That gave me enough confidence to dive into the business head first. The picks are just one of the products that I offer, but they account for 70-80% of my income.

The idea for the custom guitar picks came to me when I was looking for a gift to make for a friend, who is an excellent guitar player. Wooden guitar picks produce a great sound and hold up really well. I cut the pick out of board and engraved a tree on it — it was definitely the worst pick I’ve ever made, but I owe it a lot because after that I started making many more!

 

What has been the biggest surprise in starting your own business?

The most surprising thing has been how encouraging customers have been about my business. 

When I wasn’t sure about taking this on full-time, their comments and feedback gave me the encouragement I needed to take that risk. I’ve always been humble about my products and the service I offer, so I was surprised to receive so many messages of thanks and good reviews. Etsy has an incredibly supportive customer base.

 

How do you price your products?

It’s always a struggle to account for all the time I put into creating these products while still trying to be competitive.

When I first started, there weren’t many sellers out there offering wooden guitar picks, so I didn’t have anything to go off. I just calculated an average time and cost for materials to create a baseline price.

Some of the woods I use are harder to work with than others, and some cost more, but I sell all my picks for $8.50. Creating an average price means that it’s simpler for the customers and it all averages out for me. 

It takes roughly 20 minutes for me to cut the picks and another 15-30 minutes to engrave them, depending on the message. I try to make a ton of picks whenever I have downtime, which helps me get ahead. I’m making a good living, so I know my pricing works.

 

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

I wake up at 6am and dive right into work, which is easy to do because both my office and shop are in my home. 

I go to my computer first to start processing custom engraving requests, asking customers specific questions and answering anything they may have asked me. Once we’re both happy, I’ll engrave their message onto the picks and package them up so they're ready for shipping.

On slow days, I go out to the wood shop — a shed in my backyard — and create picks from 7am until 5pm. 

First I take a piece of board and cut it roughly with a bandsaw, then I take it to a more precise machine for cutting the shape. After that, I sand it to give it a smooth finish. I’m slowly sanding my fingers away, but it’s worth it. 

On busy days, I don’t have time to go out to the shop, so I just take picks from the collection that I’ve built up in my spare time and engrave them instead.

I love my job, but making guitar picks all day long can get a little boring. Whenever I have free time, I go out to the shop and make furniture or other things for myself. It’s still my hobby and passion, and I love the freedom of being able to mix it up.

 

If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you’d do differently in starting your business?

I would've definitely focused on the guitar picks a lot sooner. Even when I started selling them, I focused more of my efforts on other products that didn’t sell as well. 

Thankfully, I now have so many built up in my inventory that I’m able to make other things in my downtime without damaging my business.

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

I’d like to know how other handmade product sellers deal with wholesaling and bulk orders. I’ve been approached by a company that would like to stock my picks, but we’ve yet to come to a good agreement. 

I can probably reduce my price by 30% maximum, but it seems like this isn’t a very attractive discount. It’s also a risky time to get into wholesaling because I can’t get rid of that much inventory before Christmas. However, would it be worth my while in the long run?

 

 

Do you have experience with wholesaling your handmade products?

Spencer is looking for tips that will help him decide how — and when — he explores wholesaling his handmade guitar picks.

Do you have a similar experience to share? Tell us below!

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Three years ago, two sisters on a mission to make a difference teamed up to start Sword & Plough — a social enterprise that works with veterans to repurpose military surplus materials that would otherwise be thrown away.

Their unique tote bags, handbags and accessories, along with their passion for providing employment for veterans, recently catapulted them into the national spotlight as a top 10 finalist in Small Business Big Game, so we had to find out the story behind starting their business.

Take it away, ladies!

 

Names: Emily and Betsy Núñez

Business: Sword & Plough

Started: January 2012

 

Why did you both decide to build your business around the idea of giving back to the military?

Emily: We were born into the military and it has always been a huge part of our lives. Our dad served for over 30 years, so we grew up on military posts. I'm currently an active duty U.S. Army Officer, stationed with the HUD special forces group.

Betsy: As Emily mentioned, we grew up in a military family. We are so passionate about not only serving, but also giving back. Although I'm not in the military, Sword & Plough is my way of staying connected to the community.

 

How did you come up with the idea for Sword & Plough?

Emily: The "ah ha" moment for me happened in January of 2012. At the time, I was attending Middlebury College's first social entrepreneurship symposium. Jacqueline Novogratz (the founder and CEO of Acumen) was the keynote speaker and she shared the story of a company that incorporated recycling into its business model. I immediately started to reflect on my own life. 

I asked myself, "What in my life is wasted on a daily basis that could be harnessed and turned into something beautiful with a powerful app?"

Growing up in a military family, we would see huge piles of surplus all the time. Most often those items either burned or buried, and that memory really stuck with us.

In the following year, I attended the U.S. Army Airborne School and trained with active duty soldiers from all ranks who had just returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. Through our conversations and the time we spent together, I learned how many of them hoped to get out of the army and transition back into the civilian workforce, but they worried about their job prospects. I knew then that there was an opportunity to bridge the civil/military divide.

Shortly after, I met up with Betsy for lunch. She can probably tell this part of the story a lot better!

Betsy: We were grabbing lunch at a little cafe in Burlington, Vermont. Halfway through, Emily just looks over at me and pauses for a second. She was always the dreamer and inventor in our family when we were growing up, so I could see that the wheels were turning. I knew that whatever she was about to ask me was going to be big.

She looked at me and said, "What would you think if we turned an Army ROTC tent into a tote bag?"

I paused for a second. Then we immediately jumped into a brainstorm. We started sketching on napkins and asking questions like, "What would it look like? Who will sew it? Do we just make one? Is mom going to make it?!"

That turned into a six-hour lunch. And we decided to keep building on the idea.

Starting our own business has been an adventure. As we grew, we incorporated veterans into every stage of the business — as designers, managers, sewers, quality control experts and even models — and we're committed to our mission of empowering veteran employment.

 

 

What is your favorite part about running a business?

Emily: I love that we have this awesome opportunity to make a positive impact on the world with our idea. 

We know that all of the time and effort and thought we put into our work (even though it can be non-stop at times!) is going to turn into something tangible and positive for a lot of people.

 

What has been the biggest surprise so far about owning your own business?

Betsy: Recently, we were looking back on our metrics over the last two years. It was surprising — and almost overwhelming — to see the impact we've already had. 

We've been able to repurpose over 30,000 pounds of military surplus, support 38 veteran jobs and distribute over 7,000 products in the US and globally. That was one of the most surprising and amazing feelings I've ever experienced!

 

 

If you had a magic wand that could make one part of running your business easier, what would you use it for?

Emily: Without a big HR department, it's tough to find the right people for the veteran job openings we have. If I had a magic wand, I would use it to help with recruiting. There are so many experienced veterans in the civilian workforce, but first we need to develop the right kind of networks that will help us recruit more veterans for our job openings. I would love to have more help with that.

 

What advice do you have for someone who is just starting out with launching their own business?

Emily: My best advice is to just go for it! 

There are a lot of reasons why you might be thinking you shouldn't start a business. It's so easy to talk yourself out of it, maybe because you don't think you have all the qualifications or because you don't have the funding. I've learned that you just have to take the first step. You can learn as you go.

For us, we learned that finding mentors and advisors who are more experienced in a variety of different fields has been key to helping us grow from a startup into a successful small business. We couldn't do this without the support of our community here in Denver and our amazing team.

 

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Krista Young was destined for a creative profession, but it wasn’t until she quit her full-time job to spend more time with her newborn twins that she found her true calling. 

Using basic skills in welding that she learned from her Dad, Krista started to make jewelry whenever her girls were napping. Now that her Etsy shop has taken off and she's hired her first employee, she's looking for ideas on how to grow her business even further by outsourcing more of her production.

Let's hear her story!

 

Name: Krista Young

Business: Gem & Blue Jewelry on Etsy

Started: Spring 2012

 

How did you get started as a jewelry designer?

I was working as an interior designer before I had my twin girls. Becoming a mom changed everything. 

I quit my job to spend more time at home and started making jewelry in my very limited spare time. I had no real experience, but I'd learned a little bit of welding from my Dad. He showed me how to work with big, industrial pieces of metal, and I found a way to scale it down while adding my artistic touch.

I picked it up quickly and became obsessed! Every minute I had spare, I devoted to learning and practicing. I took classes in casting, gemology and metal work. It quickly became the only thing I wanted to do with my life and I was determined to make a go of it. 

I opened  a shop on Etsy three and a half years ago. When orders started to pick up, I spent more and more time at work on my shop. Eventually, I hired a nanny to look after the girls two days a week, which allowed me to focus on delivering orders and creating new lines.

 

When did you know your business was going to work?

I knew it was going to work when I decided it had to. I fell in love with jewelry making and I was determined to make it my sole source of income. When I set my mind to something, I'm highly driven and I think the only way I made it work was by devoting any spare moment I had to building my business.

A year and a half after launching my store on Etsy, I started getting wholesale requests from boutiques. At that moment, I realized I could no longer do it alone so I hired two people, one for metalworking and one for marketing, and that really helped me streamline the business and grow.

 

 

What has been the most unexpected result of starting your own business?

Seeing how well people responded to my product and vision has been the biggest surprise. 

Starting out with something new in a field I knew very little about was intimidating. I was convinced that because there are already so many similar things on the market, my product wouldn’t stand out. I still can’t believe that I’m able to make jewelry for a living!

Another surprise has been how many requests for custom pieces I’ve had from men. I often get asked to create alternative commitment jewelry that can be worn by couples, so I’m in the process of creating a unisex line right now. 

I'm always open to suggestions for new pieces, but whatever I create has to stay in line with our aesthetic. We get lots of requests for weird cheesy stuff, but if I can see how a request would fit in with our vibe, I’ll give it a go.

 

How do you price your jewelry?

When I started out, my pricing was simple. I priced individual items to be bought directly by the customer. 

When we started to expand to wholesale, I had to reduce my pricing and take into account the cost of packaging, branding and additional labor, so it became more complicated.

Some of my wholesale items can be cast, which brings the price down, but others are too delicate and need to be made by hand. I still make all of the custom orders and my metalsmith takes the big bulk orders. We send out batches of 200-300 wholesale items at a time to boutique stores across the US and have a $1,000 minimum order value. I still design and package everything in my small home studio.

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

I get up early and drop my girls off at preschool, then hit the computer. I respond to email enquiries about custom and wholesale orders and make sure everything has been sent out in time. This usually takes about two hours. 

Then, I’ll spend another hour going over the inventory and order in any materials we're low on. The next hour is generally spent on finances, making sure our invoices are in order and that we’re up-to-date on payments.

When the admin stuff is done, I’ll spend a few hours playing around with gems and metals and carving molds out of wax. Since I started employing another metalsmith, I have more time to be creative. For example, right now I’m currently working on our spring 2016 line. 

Finally, before I go to pick my kids up from school, I make sure all my items that have been sold are packaged and sent out.

I don’t spend much time on marketing. Thankfully, we’ve had such an organic following and natural growth that I’ve never had push for business. I may have to devote more time to this in future depending on how big we get, but a combination of using Etsy, keeping up with my Facebook and Instagram feeds regularly and reaching out to bloggers for features has worked out petty well so far.

I try to get all my work done in the daytime hours so I can spend my evenings with my family. Taking on an extra employee has made such a difference to my work/life balance and has helped my business grow without having to deal with too much stress.

 

 

If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you would do differently when you were starting out?

I’d be more confident with my pricing. I got stuck selling good pieces cheaply because I thought that’s what I had to do. When my business grew, I looked at my profits and took note of everything that goes into producing these pieces so that I could price my products and make a profit. I should have done that sooner.

I'd also be more confident with developing my own style and voice. I spent too long looking at the market and trying to make things I thought people would like. If I started again, I’d just trust my own style, which is what I do now.

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

I want to know how to grow my business ethically. We have growth potential, but I haven’t found a way to do it that I'm comfortable with. 

I also want to find somewhere in the US where I can get my pieces made wholesale at a low price point. It's important to me that the company I work with is happy to work with me closely. 

How should I go about finding a company like that, and testing out how well we might work together?

 

 

Let's Help Krista Out!

Do you have tips for Krista on how to find a company in the US where she can get her pieces made wholesale at a low price point? 

Share your ideas with us below!

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Angeline Crowder is at a crossroads in her business. After receiving tons of international acclaim for her beautiful, handmade gemstone rings, she's now getting requests to wholesale her products. But is it the right move for her business??

Read on for the full story, and tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

 

Name: Angeline Crowder

Business: By Angeline

Founded: 2013

 

How did you create your awesome job?

I’ve been selling rocks ever since I was five, when I collected agates from my family’s farm in Oregon and took them door to door. 

When I was 24 and a single mom in need of a little extra money, I started making belly-button charms and sold them to local beach stores. I was also worked as a raft instructor at the same time, near where I lived in Colorado.

While out on the river one day, I was crushed by a raft and I broke my back. During my recovery, I took a jewelry course in Portland, Oregon. The instructors noticed my entrepreneurial spirit and I was given a grant for purchasing enough casting equipment to start a larger-scale jewelry business on my own.

After that, my jewelry business was born!

 

Who was your very first customer? How did you find them?

My very first customer was a lady named Judy who bought a silver charm bracelet from me on eBay. 

That was 12 years ago, but she’s still my friend on Facebook. Back then I traded under the name Earth Enchanted and I sold jewels and gemstones on eBay, in addition to my handmade jewelry.

 

When was the exact moment that you knew your business was going to work?

Two-and-a-half years ago I decided to make the switch to only selling gold jewelry and I rebranded my company as By Angeline. To make my first five rings, I melted down all of the jewelry that anyone had ever given me – gifts from my mom, everything.

Within an hour of listing the rings on Etsy, I was contacted by Vogue UK asking if I wanted my products to be featured in the magazine. 

I couldn’t believe it!

I said yes and, naturally, the good news spread. I only had five items, but they appeared in 12 magazines off the back of that feature – Tatler, GQ and Glamour all displayed my products and Vogue Italy put me on the front page of their website as one of their "loves of the week."

 

What has been the biggest surprise in starting your own business?

I was shocked at how quickly my products got noticed. To be honest, I was thrilled to be featured in so many magazines, but I was also a little embarrassed. 

I couldn’t believe it had happened so quickly, and I didn’t feel established enough to warrant that much publicity. I believed that when I started working in gold, people would start paying more attention, but I never expected it to explode on that scale. 

Thanks to those magazine features, my business grew by over a thousand sales in the first year, and it continues to grow now.

 

How do you price your products? What has been your biggest lesson learned in pricing?

When I started out, I looked at how other people working in the same genre priced their products and I looked at the jewelry market in general. 

Now I have a better understanding of what my products are worth. If it’s a custom order, I carefully note how much time I put into it and pay myself for the hours spent. The price of the materials I use also has to be taken into account. "The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to not price myself too low. If I don’t value my time or my products, others won’t either."

 

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

I get up between 6am and 9am, depending on how late I stayed up the night before. I make a cup of coffee, respond to emails, see if I’ve had any new press and check my Etsy stats. 

After the admin stuff is done, I’ll spend a bit of time listening to music and mentally preparing for my day before I need to sit down with waxes and create new pieces.

I spend a lot of time working with the rocks that I use. I put them together to see which combinations are best, and I work out which metals would complement them. 

Then, I carve out wax for each setting and put ten at a time in my kiln to harden. Once this is done, I melt down the metal with a big torch and spin it into shape.

My son helps me with my shipping and website updates. Before he started working with me, I used to spend half my day working on social media and re-listing unsold items on Etsy. Now that he helps me with a lot of this, it gives me more time for creating new products.

I usually take a short break in the middle of the day because I work best in the evenings. I’m most inspired between 7pm and 11pm, so that’s when I like to really focus on creating my jewelry.

My daily output depends on how inspired I am. I can create up to ten new waxes in one day, but sometimes I only make ten in one month!

 

If you could go back in time, what is the one thing you’d do differently when starting your business?

I’d start my gold collection sooner. I’d also tell myself to spend more time creating what I want to create and less time trying to make items that I think people will want to buy. 

I’ve learned that if I put enough passion into my products, and make what I love, other people will love them too. 

I would still be doing this today even if nobody was paying me!

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

I’d like to know whether I should wholesale my products or not. I don’t wholesale now, but many businesses have asked whether I'd be interested in creating a line for them. 

Just recently, the Four Seasons in Hong Kong asked if they could carry my work, but I turned them down. I never accept these offers because I feel like what I’m doing is working for me right now. 

But am I making a mistake? 

 

 

Let's help Angeline out!

Do you think Angeline should explore wholesaling her jewelry? Is she making a mistake by turning down offers from larger businesses that want to carry her work?

Share your experiences below!

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Dan Cordero is an Emmy award-winning video producer and a new dad based in North Carolina. In his limited downtime, Dan repurposes vintage lights and sells them on Etsy

The journey from hobbyist to business owner has been gradual, but he’s finally on the brink of taking his business full-time. We spoke to Dan about inspiration, lightbulb moments and the challenges of running a successful business while also caring for a newborn.

 

Name: Dan Cordero

Business: Reclaiming Creativity

Started: May 2012

 

What inspired you to start creating repurposed vintage lights and selling them online?

My day job is as a filmmaker for product development firm Edison Nation, which provides engineers, designers and resources to turn ideas into tangible products. I work alongside highly creative people and many of them are good at working with their hands. Until recently, I only made things on computers. 

I started tinkering around in the workshop after I learned how many lightbulbs are thrown away in the trash. I played around with a couple, connecting them with coax cable and suspending them from the ceiling. Everyone seemed to really like what I made, so I spent more time in the workshop refining my ideas.

I’m inspired by Edison Nation – not just the team, but by Thomas Edison himself – so my work is centered around lightbulbs. I love the vintage industrial look and breathing life into beautifully nostalgic Edison bulbs.

 

Who was your very first customer?

The first thing I sold was an old bell jar lamp to a customer on eBay. Back then, I only had a few things for sale. I’d sell one piece and start making another. Selling on eBay let me quickly test whether people would be interested, since bidding windows only remained open for a week. It was exciting, too! Seeing my products spark bidding wars was satisfying to watch.

When I’m making new pieces now, I try to make replicable designs in case demand is high, but it’s getting trickier to source raw materials. I spend my weekends treasure hunting at flea markets and yard sales, but vintage pieces are much more popular these days and it’s getting harder to find what I need.

 

When did you know your business was going to work?

A year after switching from eBay to Etsy I realized I could actually make a decent income from this endeavor. Now I’m in a position where I can dedicate more time to my business. 

If I had to choose an exact moment when I knew this was going to work, it would be when I sold a lamp to an NFL player's mom who wanted a gift for her son. She said he had everything, but that my lamps were unique and she knew he'd love them. It validated my efforts, giving me the confidence boost I needed to continue.

 

 

What has been the biggest surprise in starting your own business?

I don't think I realized all the different responsibilities I would take on as a one-man band. Making cool lamps is the fun part, but there are so many other parts that I need to think about to keep this ship sailing. 

The hardest thing for me has been keeping on top of customer service because sitting at a computer to answer customers' questions is so time consuming. That's tough when I have a full-time job and a young family to think about too.

 

How do you price your creations? 

First, I jot down the total cost and man-hours it takes to produce the item. Then I add my percentage of profit. 

I consider other variables too, like whether I enjoyed making the product. This is a labor of love, so if I don’t enjoy making something I’ll charge more for it so it’s worth my while.

When I started out, I got excited by the prospect of wholesaling. But those buyers expect such a big discount that it crippled me financially. If I’d known I’d be wholesaling from the beginning, I’d have put bigger margins on those products. 

One problem with e-commerce is that buyers can find out how I priced an item initially so I feel like it’s too late for me to increase my prices now.

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

Squeezing in hours to complete orders around a full-time job is a balancing act, especially with a newborn. I spend two-and-a-half hours before work sending out orders. I have a Redbull to get me going and I prioritize pieces based on when they need to ship the time it will take for painting, gluing and dying. I finish by packaging orders with bubble wrap.

On weekends I allocate six or seven uninterrupted hours to the business, sourcing parts and sketching new ideas. Products take about two weeks from ideation to creation. 

On Sunday evening, I get orders ready for FedEx collection on Monday morning.

 

 

If you could go back in time, what is one thing you’d do differently when you were starting your business?

I’d come up with a better business name. Once you’ve started out with one, it’s hard to switch because your brand has already developed an online presence. 

I wanted to call my business something unique, but didn’t know what. My sister suggested "Into the Filament" and "Cordero Lighting," but I decided to use my name because I wasn’t satisfied with anything else. 

If I was choosing a name now, I’d select something that reflected the work I produce more accurately.

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

I want my business to grow so that I can start working part-time at my day job. I’m at the point where I have to jump off the ledge to see if it will work, which is something most small business owners will have experienced.

I’d like to know how to manage my work/life balance. Making this a success is going to require 110% of my effort, but I’m recently married and my wife and child are the most important things in my life. 

Does anyone here have tips for effective time management?

I might need to employ someone to help out with things like answering emails and shopping for inventory, but is there another way?

I'd love for your input!

 

 

Can you help Dan out?

Dan is juggling a 9-to-5, starting a new business and life with a newborn. If you've been there, share your tips for effective time management right here.

Can't wait to hear your stories! :-)

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Elena Toccafondi is an independent filmmaker who's honed her craft all over the world. She grew up in Italy, studied in London and recently moved to New York, where she writes, edits and designs sound for short films and documentaries. We caught up with her to learn about what it's been like to build a network and find work in a new city. 

Take it away, Elena!

 

 

Name: Elena Toccafondi

Job: Independent Filmmaker

Started: 2013

 

How did you create your awesome job?

I have always loved movies, but I never thought I’d end up working in the film industry! 

I studied Political Philosophy at the University of Florence and planned to be a journalist. After graduating, I saw an advertisement for an internship with Italian Public Broadcast Television in New York and sent off a hopeful application. I was so pleased when they offered me the job. For three months I worked as a production assistant, helping out behind the scenes. Then, I landed the same role for a television documentary and some independent short films. 

I discovered that being a self-employed filmmaker gave me more freedom than journalism, so I decided to enroll in a Master's in filmmaking at Goldsmiths University, London.

 

What was the first project you worked on?

After I got my degree, I really got to put my skills into practice. I worked with a group of classmates on a short film set in Tuscany, producing the film on a very low budget and working on the sound design and edits. It was exciting to have so much responsibility, and a great way to learn about the whole process.

 

What has been the biggest surprise for you so far as you build your business and your career?

At the beginning, I thought that if I shot lots of good footage, I’d have a great story. The biggest surprise in the filmmaking process is that there are so many pieces to the puzzle. Sound is absolutely crucial, for example. It ties the pictures together, and having bad sound is the quickest way to make a film seem amateurish.

When there are so many elements to consider, working collaboratively and taking feedback is so important. When I wrote my first short film, I had 15 different versions of the script because I listened to everyone. 

I had to learn to be very courageous and that I couldn’t accept every suggestion. I kept an open mind and listened to everyone’s ideas, but eventually had to say "I prefer what I wrote" and go with it. Knowing when to trust my instinct is the key to success.

 

How do you price your services? Has your pricing evolved with your career?

Pricing always depends on the company and the project I’m working on. At the beginning, I took whatever I could get and didn't focus as much on what I was charging and what my time was worth. 

I have enough experience now to be more selective about the work I take on. If I like a project or if I’m working for a company that I know will give me more work in the future, I’ll work for a lower rate.

Networking is so important in this business. Before I came to New York, I didn’t know anyone in the industry here, so I needed to make contacts fast. Working for free, or for a very low rate, helped me get my name out there.

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

It depends on what I’m doing! Right now I’m in the post-production stages of a documentary, so I spend my time going through footage and selecting the best bits. Because we shoot in digital, which is less expansive than film, we leave the camera rolling the whole time. This means we have thousands of hours to sort through. I start at 10am and work until at least 7:30pm, reporting into the editor whenever I have a good selection of clips to show him. It’s my job to cut hundreds of hours down to just a few, and then it's his job to cut those few hours down to a few minutes.

Last week, I was working nights because the editor needed to see all the footage when he arrived in the morning. I worked from 7pm until 3am. At first, it was quite romantic – this city never sleeps, as the saying goes! – but it messed up my body clock, so I’m happy to be back on days. The process of sorting through footage will continue for a few months before we’re ready to move on to the next stage.

When working on other projects in the past, my days haven’t followed such a strict pattern. For a film I worked on in the UK, I slept in a tent in the countryside with the crew for two weeks! We worked 14-hour days and only ate when we could find a few spare minutes. 

I enjoy working like this – the success of a film depends on the crew working together in a tight unit, a bit like in the military. Everyone plays their part.

 

 

If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you would do differently when you were starting out?

Getting my career started was challenging. I spent the first two years meeting people and building contacts, but I could have done this more quickly. 

Tapping into social media and using production websites is useful for finding new jobs and I wish I'd realized the importance of these earlier. There are lots of Facebook groups that advertise jobs in film and television. One way to find them is to check the profiles of people in the industry and find the groups they have subscribed to or joined.

I also wish I had kept my LinkedIn profile more up-to-date and built a strong website to showcase my work early on – I didn't do this until recently when I moved to New York and realized quickly that I had to meet people and make a good first impression. 

I refresh my showreel every few months now because it’s important for building my reputation. The filmmaking freelance circuit, even in a big city like New York, is quite small. If I work well, produce good films and promote myself, the word will spread and I’ll get more, better paid jobs.

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of small business owners and self-employed professionals?

I’m always looking out for new networking opportunities, so if anyone could give me advice on how to find more filmmakers in New York I'd appreciate it!

I’d also like some advice on the practical, business side of freelancing in the U.S. Do I need insurance? If so, what do I need to be insured against? And, does anyone know of a way to make filing a U.S. tax return any easier?

 

Can you help Elena out?!

Do you have tips for her on how to tackle getting insurance as a self-employed professional or where to start with filing taxes?

Share our own experience below!

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A bad experience at an agency inspired Laura to bite the bullet and set up her own studio – but first she had to learn a few tough business lessons along the way. 

We asked her to spill the beans on how she learned to avoid getting burned by customers who won't pay and why she's looking for help from you on how to keep her studio space and client list more organized.

 

Name: Laura Harvey

Job: Bespoke Tailor and Pattern Cutter, Owner of Yabby Studio

Started In: 2012

 

How did you create your awesome job?

Sewing and making clothes was a hobby, but I never considered it as a career until I was choosing colleges. It was the first time I’d ever thought about the kind of job I wanted, and I realized this was something I could do.

I prefer constructing clothes to designing them, so I decided to study bespoke tailoring at the London College of Fashion. As part of the course, we studied pattern cutting – it was a perfect match for me. I enjoyed it and I was good at it, so I studied for a Pattern Cutting Master's degree the next year.

After graduation, I freelanced for an agency that cut patterns for various fashion houses and began doing private tailoring in my free time. I had some problems with the way the agency worked, however. The boss wouldn’t allow me to have contact with the clients, so I was often missing vital information and we’d have to go back and ask more questions before I could start. In a moment of frustration, I realized I could do better on my own. In 2012, I decided to strike out on  my own and start my own business.

But first, I did some research and found that there aren’t many sampling studios in the UK, and hardly any that also offer a bespoke service. I saw the gap in the market and took it.

 

Who was your first customer?

My first customer was my aunt! I made a silk jacket for her. That was the first time I made out an invoice with my studio name on it – the first official product of Yabby Studio.

 

What is the biggest lesson you learned thus far about pricing?

The toughest thing was learning how to have a conversations about pricing. 

It took some time and practice for me to feel and sound confident, even though I knew I was selling at the market rate. At first, I felt almost apologetic – I wanted them to pick me to do the work, but I didn’t want to undersell myself.

I fixed my hourly rate by looking at what other freelancers in the industry charge and aligning myself with their rates, while taking my experience level into account. 

Because I don’t get sick pay or holiday, I have to factor that in, too. How much would I earn if I took off X amount of time each year?

 

What does an average day look like for you?

I’m up by 8am every day, but apart from that, every day is different. 

I have a studio at home, so the first thing I do is check what my day’s jobs are. Usually I’ll get through two patterns per day, but it’ll be less if I have to drop off some work I’ve done, go fabric shopping or meet a client.

When I meet a client, it’s usually after we’ve agreed on the basic design and price – they just want to get a feel for me and what I’m like. It’s also helpful to have the design in front of us so we can talk about what they want, so I always come prepared. Talking through a design or a pattern in person is much easier than trying to describe the cut or shape or size of something over email.

 

What is your most effective method for finding new customers?

I’ve been quite lucky because a lot of my customers have found me. The longer I’m in the industry, the more work is falling into my lap. 

About 50% of my workload comes from repeat customers, 25% from word-of-mouth and the rest is completely new people finding me online. Sometimes I’ll get referrals from industry friends when they can’t take something on, which is great.

In terms of my digital presence, I have a website that I update every few months with new photos of my projects and an Instagram account that I post to every few days with photos and videos from my studio. 

I really like the informality of Instagram – I can post things there that I wouldn’t put on my website, like quick snaps from my phone. A few people have event contacted me directly through Instagram, and recently I got my first paying Instagram customer! She’s a designer and I’m cutting the pattern of a wedding dress she drew up, creating the sample and producing the gown.

When brand new people reach me online, I always ask them what they searched for to come across my site, but they can never remember. I use Google Analytics to track traffic to my site, but I'm not yet taking full advantage of the tools they offer. It would be great to know exactly how people find me online.

 

 

What is the biggest mistake you made early on when you were starting out?

The biggest mistake I made was being too trusting of people and starting work without a contract – I had some issues with non-payment. 

Once, I sent the patterns to the client and they told me they were wrong and unusable, but when I asked for them back I got jumbled responses. It turned out that they’d used them but didn’t want to pay for them.

Now, my email correspondence counts as a contract, but because I didn’t have anything back then, they got away with it.

 

What do you wish you'd known in the first three months of running your business?

I wish I’d jumped in sooner in terms of getting work, rather than spending so much time worrying about the name and branding of my business.

I wanted to pick a name for my business that didn’t bring up a lot of other results when people search for it online. I thought about having something with my name in it to appeal to the luxury market, but in fashion it’s more about the designer’s name than the pattern cutter’s, so I opted for something that stands out instead. 

After awhile, I settled on Yabby because I needed to pick something and I was listening to a band I like, Yabby U. I think I probably could’ve come up with something better, but it was a decision I made in the moment!

 

What would you like to learn from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

I’d like to know how other people manage their workspaces – both physical and digital. I’m quite messy, so it’d be great to learn some organizational tips.

I’d also love to find out what software people use for invoicing and managing client files.

 

Can you help Laura out?

Laura is looking for help with keeping her workspace organized. Do you have a system you love for keeping your to-do list and your desk in tip top shape? Do you have a favorite tool for keeping your clients organized and your invoices paid on time?

Share your tips below! Can't wait to hear your stories. :-)

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Cherie has been making jewelry for as long as she can remember, but it wasn't until both she and her husband were laid off from their full-time jobs that they decided to take the plunge and turn her life-long hobby into a business.

Now they're living the dream in a remote home they built themselves – completely off the grid and supported 100% by their small business.

We asked Cherie to share more with us about the road to building their business and what she's hoping to learn next!

 

Name: Cherie Somerville

Business: Elksong Jewelry

Started: 2007

 

How did you create your awesome job?

I've been making jewelry my entire life. When I was 10, my mother started buying me beads and supplies – to stop me from stealing jewelry from the rest of the family! I started selling my creations soon after and can barely remember a time that I wasn’t making some money from my creations.

I run my jewelry business now with my husband, from a home that we built on the border of Arizona and Mexico. We’ve been living off the grid for over 15 years now, gradually making everything ourselves from the ground up.

We like to think of ourselves as homesteaders, in a modern way. It’s very empowering, but it’s also a lot of work. Adjusting to life without modern conveniences or an excess of possessions can take awhile. However, not needing these things means you can rely on earning money in your own way. That’s how we make Elksong Jewelry work for us.

 

Who was your very first customer? How did you find them?

I learned to do woven bead work when I was 13 or 14 and was connected with the Native American community back in Detroit. So technically, my first customer was someone who bought some of my (seriously underpriced!) work at a Native American festival when I was much younger.

When I started selling my jewelry online, my first customer was the wife of someone I gave one of my new business cards to. She bought several pairs of earrings from my fledgling Etsy shop, which I launched in 2007.

 

When did you know your business was going to work? What was the exact moment?

About four years ago, both my husband and I got laid off from our full-time jobs. I was making jewelry as a hobby on the side, and we'd been talking about turning it into a viable business for ages, so we just decided to go for it then and there. It felt like fate was pushing us off a cliff. 

Now, running this business is all we do. I encourage anyone to pursue making a living from their art, but we've learned that you have to be willing to adjust your lifestyle to get yourself into a lower spending bracket. We’ve been living off the grid for a little over 15 years now and our outgoings are minimal.

 

What has been the biggest surprise so far after launching Elksong Jewelry?

The biggest surprise and struggle has been the reality of needing to sell online. 

I’ve been doing this my whole life, so I’m good at selling face-to-face and out in the real world, but the first few years of selling online were a serious struggle. 

There are still a lot of things about marketing, SEO tactics and social media that I still feel frustrated by. I’m a pretty private person, so going online and talking about myself to build a story around my business was, and still is, a huge challenge for me.

 

How do you price your products?

I price at what I think is fair based on how much I value something. I used an initial pricing structure to come up with a wholesale and retail price. Now that I've used that formula for so long, I have a feel for the materials I use and the time I spend on each piece so that I don’t have to do the math for everything.

There’s an element of pricing that often escapes people for a long time when starting a business – it's what your products are worth. People tend to devalue their products, which often makes potential customers wonder what’s wrong with them. 

In my experience, sellers often think that if they don’t undercut all of the competition, they’ll never sell. That’s not necessarily the best tactic. As small business owners, we need more self-confidence!

 

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

In the morning. I check on all the different social media channels that I updated the day before and answer emails if people made enquiries about custom work or wholesale. 

Then, I tackle the chores. If you live off the land, there’s plenty of them! 

After that, I get into the studio at about midday and spend roughly five hours working on pieces and packaging up orders. 

In the evenings, I photograph new pieces and put up listings for new items. I also post promotional materials on our social media pages and on our website.

 

If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you’d do differently when you were starting your business?

I don’t know if I would change anything in terms of making the jewelry itself. It’s always been an intuitive, organic sort of flow. I like to be aware of what’s happening and what’s popular, but I don’t let trends control my designs.

If there’s anything I would have done differently, it would be creating more structure around my business. I’d make sure I was comfortable with online selling practices much sooner, too.

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?

I’d love to know how to find my customers. I have a good idea about the type of person that will buy my products, but would like to know more about how to target them. There's a lot of advice online that says you need to find your target customer, but no one never explains how to do that. 

I’d also like to get a better understanding of how to advertise online. I boost my posts on Facebook and am experimenting with promoted listings on Etsy, but apart from that I’m a bit lost!

 

 

Can you help Cherie with her questions around getting new customers and advertising online?

If you're like Cherie and trying to crack the code on how to find your target customer online, you're not alone.

Share with us your story right here, and let us know if you've learned something new along the way that might help her out. 

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Entrepreneur Ian Siegel was sick of staring at piles of resumes (and working at VC-backed startups). So he created ZipRecruiter, a service that helps businesses streamline their hiring processes.

In five short years, Ian and his three co-founders grew their business from an idea around the kitchen table to 300 employees and $100 million in revenue. Here, we chat with him about why he loves meeting and learning from other business owners (big and small!), and what he's hoping to master next.

 

Name: Ian Siegel

Business: ZipRecruiter

Founding Date: 2010

 

How did ZipRecruiter get started?

I was a serial employee of VC-backed Internet startups in Los Angeles, but never an owner. In 2010, I took that first leap of faith and bet on myself.

That first year and a half, it was just us four guys, working at each other’s kitchen tables part-time while still working our full-time day jobs. We decided to bootstrap ZipRecruiter for a variety of reasons, and for the first four years, we were only funded through the profitability of our product. Amazingly, we were able to grow our business to over 3,000 customers before hiring any other employees.

 

Who was your first customer?

We decided to invest $50 on Google AdWords to see if anyone would respond to this product we had built. We set it up so that every time a customer made a purchase, we would immediately get an email.

We were all so excited when that first email came in… and then another, and another. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein – it was such a rush!

 

What did you discover about yourself, moving from VC-backed companies to creating your own business?

When you’re starting your own business, one of the hardest parts is the shock when you learn which things you aren’t the best at.

For example, if I’m a chef, I want to launch my business and open a restaurant. But do I know how to hire people? Market myself? File my taxes at the end of the year? There are so many skills that are unrelated to your success, but are so necessary.

For me, running my own business felt a lot like jumping into very dark, cold water and trying to swim.

 

What road bumps did you hit along the way, and how did you learn from them?

We were very fortunate. The biggest challenge we faced was how rapidly our business grew.

For a long time, we had no posted customer support hours and I took 99% of all the customer service calls. I was answering the phone at 5am for people on the East Coast and talking to people as late as 11pm. Every customer was so precious, every call was worth taking.

We quickly learned the importance of hiring, which is particularly ironic for us at ZipRecruiter. Our first hire was a customer support rep, and it was the first time in a year and a half that I actually relaxed. I felt like I had won at life when I hired her! She was the first to say, “Hey, this is crazy, we should have hours!”

It was a lesson in identifying your greatest pain point and hiring to fill it.

 

Your company helps businesses with their hiring process. How did you navigate hiring for your own team?

We got really good about defining the characteristics of who we needed for each job.

For example, we currently have 35 customer support reps. Originally, we hired people that were articulate and great on the phone, but after a while, we realized they weren’t great writers. Well, it turns out the bulk of our support is handled by email. The most important thing we should have done in the hiring process was give a writing test.

It’s also important to know when you need to hire a manager. We had five or six customer support reps on the team before someone said, “Hey, who runs this group?” I was so happy that they were taking care of it, I wasn’t paying attention to how hard they were working. There was no manager to measure quantifiable metrics of how much time everyone spent on customer support.

 

If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?

When we were bootstrapping and running our “lifestyle” business out of our homes (a.k.a four guys trying to not work for a VC-backed startup again), we used to ask ourselves, “What do you want to get out of this business?” We would go around the table and share with each other our main goals, both personal and professional. I knew that I wanted my kids to go to good schools, I wanted to work out three times a week and I wanted to have dinner with my family every night. And, you know, maybe fly business class one day.

Four years later, we’ve blown away all of our expectations. Every day it still feels like I won the lottery.

That said, there’s still a lot of anxiety when running a small business – everything had the power to hurt your business or kill it. I wish that back then I had enjoyed the process or the journey a little more, and taken time to look backwards instead of always looking forward.

 

Tell us a bit about your session at QuickBooks Connect. What can attendees expect to walk away with and be able to immediately apply to their business?

My session is about keeping the customers you already have. I actually have a very specific perspective on retention, not just a “5 Best Practices” you can read on any website.

The most important thing a business can do is identify what your customers come to you for.

For example, if you’re a hamburger restaurant, the most important thing you can do is make a really fantastic hamburger. You don’t have to offer the best french fries or a chicken sandwich or a gluten free bun. No business can be good at everything.

Whatever the identity you have with customers, that’s the most important thing to deliver. What is the one thing they’re coming for? The answer to this will drive your marketing and all of your customer success endeavors.

During my session, I’ll visually walk through some business examples of this, including techniques around customer retention for small businesses. After all, we were working on customer retention in the scrappiest way possible when it was just the four of us.

 

What are you looking to learn from small business owners at QuickBooks Connect this year?

I love talking to real people about their businesses and the challenges they face.

Every time I encounter another owner of a business, regardless of size, we all have something to teach each other. The thing I find most interesting is not sharing what businesses do, but learning how businesses grow. There are so many novel ways of approaching growth.

It’s funny, there are effectively two secret clubs in this world. When you become a parent, you’re automatically entered into one secret club. The other one is for entrepreneurs.

Those who have the courage and the will to start their own business are an extraordinary group of people, and I love interacting with them.

 

How did your business grow to its current size, and how did you manage that growth?

If you have a story to share about what it took for you to build your business from the ground up, tell us more in the comments below!

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At first glance, Victoria Cameron's résumé reads like the story of a small business superhero. An experienced accountant and small business consultant, she worked for KPMG and several startups before opening her own consulting business in 2000, VRC Consulting

Victoria is bringing her business saavy and accounting expertise to QuickBooks Connect in San Jose this year with a special session on how to take control of your cash flow, so we asked her to share with us ahead of time a sneak peek at what attendees can look forward to.

 

 

Name: Victoria Cameron

Business: VRC Consulting

Founded: 2000

 

Tell us a bit more about your background and why you decided to start your own consulting business. 

You could say that a lot of the pursuits of my career have been driven by the fact I've been living in the Bay Area for a long time. I studied economics at Stanford University, where I took my first accounting course. 

After school, I worked in audits at KPMG and a lot of my clients were small businesses. That was when I first started to realize how much I really enjoyed working with small business owners and up-and-coming businesses to help them get their financial feet on the ground. 

Following my time at KPMG, I helped start a few different companies as the "finance person," but I quickly grew tired of the long hours. I decided to go out on my own, and focusing only on small business owners with my consulting practice was obviously a natural fit for me.

At the time, a lot of people were starting to think about moving their businesses online and I helped them computerize their accounting practices. I was using a lot of different bookkeeping software programs back then, but eventually settled on QuickBooks. 

For about 15 years now, I've been helping folks with everything from training to troubleshooting. I focus primarily on working with businesses that have less than $3 million in revenue. Usually, they don't have an entire accounting department or even one person dedicated to handling their accounting. In many cases, it's the small business owner themselves who is trying to do all of that in addition to running the day-to-day of their business. 

Working with such small companies means that the more I can help them, the more efficient they are going to be with how they handle all of their financials.

 

What is your favorite part about working with small business owners every day?

My absolute favorite thing is when I take all of the numbers that go into QuickBooks and help someone see exactly how they can make better decisions for their business with that information.

A lot of times people treat QuickBooks like a big checkbook, but they ignore the little ways that it can also help you grow your business.

 

Your session at QuickBooks Connect this year is all about how to take control of your cash flow by employing new ways to measure revenue and expenses. What do you hope attendees will be able to take away from your talk?

I really want folks to be able to walk away with the idea that you can actually make a difference in your cash flow simply by paying more attention to the ins and outs of your business.

Money in and money out constitutes cash flow, but a lot of small business owners don't know what a cash flow statement is, or they're not paying attention to it. It's one thing to manage your cash flow according to your bank balance, but that doesn't help you plan ahead so you know which bills are going to be due in the future. So many small business owners I know are surprised by those cash outflows and they aren't prepared when they happen. 

At QuickBooks Connect, we're going to provide detailed tips on how to improve your accounts receivable collection process. Why? Because this is the best way to make your cash flow that you do get in last a lot longer.

 

What are some of the big challenges that you see most small business owners struggle with when it comes to cash flow?

Some of the biggest questions I get from small business owners around cash flow are...

How can I owe taxes when I don't have any money in my bank account?

or

How can I owe taxes when I haven't made a ton of money?

With these folks, my goal is to help them understand the difference between being profitable and being cash flow positive. Then, you can start to figure out where that money went every month.

One of the best ways to improve your inflow of cash is by using the invoicing feature in QuickBooks to make sure you get paid faster. Depending on your business, you can even take pre-payments, deposits or retainers. 

To improve your outflows, I recommend using the bill feature in QuickBooks to see what the projected outflows are for your business so that you aren't surprised by those low numbers. 

 

What are your tips for building better habits when it comes to reading and understanding your financials regularly as a small business owner?

So many of the small business owners I work with are number-phobic. Their eyes glaze over and they start to get this panicky look on their faces when we start to talk about their financials.

I've learned that whenever I can use software to show someone a graph or a chart – rather than a scary list of numbers – that's a lot more powerful.

At QuickBooks Connect, we'll be covering some of the different tools and apps I really like that will show you cash flow vs. profitability in a way that is easy to digest. One of my favorites is LivePlan. It's a great way to track your financial progress because everything is updated automatically and you can see exactly where you're going with your projections.

 

 

If I need to pick up the pace and get more cash coming in the door for my business, how do you recommend I do that?

The first thing I would tell you is to go after your accounts receivable. If you need cash tomorrow and you're a services business, you probably have money sitting right there and you just need to get on top of your invoices. If you're a retail business, I recommend kickstarting your cash flow by having a sale.

The key to invoicing is to make sure you're sending them out directly – and following up frequently. Even when you aren't sure if you actually need to send out an invoice, chances are the answer is yes.

I have one client who won't make any shipments until their customer pays the bill. This is a great tactic for making sure you get paid up front and on time.

If you need help with organizing your invoices, there are a lot of apps out there that can help. I like InvoiceSherpa because it's perfect for collecting money before you ship and it will keep you top of invoices after you ship.

A lot of small business owners I work with are nervous about spending money on apps like this that will cost $20 up front when they're already strapped for cash. A better way to look at it is that these apps will save you X amount of time and help you increase your cash flow – which could translate to hundreds or thousands of dollars you didn't have before.


What are you most looking forward to at QuickBooks Connect this year?

For me, the best part about QuickBooks Connect is that it brings together accountants, small business owners and developers. I usually just go to conferences with other accountants. It's wonderful to be in a place where all of these worlds collide. 

I'm hoping to meet many more small business owners this year. It's exciting to meet the people face-to-face that you're working with and really dig into how we can make everyone's lives better – whether that's by developing a new app or by learning more about what's top-of-mind for small business owners right now.

 

Do you have questions for Victoria ahead of her talk at QuickBooks Connect?

Victoria will be covering better ways to measure your revenue and expenses at  QuickBooks Connect this year, but if you can't make the event – no sweat! Share your burning questions on all things cash flow right here. :-)