Friday, March 07, 2008


Betty's raised a Crafty Business question that I'm sure is one on many a budding craft entrepreneur's mind: how to get started. Read on for sage advice from Laura-Jean. Email her with your own business related queries & quandaries.

crafty business

Q. I have fantasies of opening my own crafty business but I don't know where to start! Local craft fairs, etsy, my own shop- everywhere?!? And if I decide to get my own shop- what expenses can I anticipate beyond rent & supplies? Anxiously awaiting, Betty

A. Starting your own business is a huge undertaking- so huge that it can be paralysing! I was just interviewing a new designer today, who's going to join my Kensington collective shop, Fresh Baked Goods, (to sell her gorgeous bags made from re-purposed neckties!) and we kept coming back to the importance of just getting started! It's easy to be held back by so many things, but you never know until you try.

This designer was saying she often felt held back by wanting things to be perfect. She's working on design ideas and technical sewing problems, but at a certain point, you have to feel your product is good enough to get it out there and try to sell, and the feedback you get can help you perfect it.

Yes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, but second impressions are OK too. Fear is really the biggest thing that holds us all back. I know when I was first trying to sell my line, I felt so unsure of myself, I dreaded going into a store to see if they wanted to sell my line. What if they hated it? What if I approached them wrong and offended them somehow? Oh, it's so much easier to stay in my studio and knit. I'll go out next week, I'd promise myself!

But, even if your worst fears come true, and the retailer thinks your things aren't well made, or worth the price, you can take that feedback and improve your line to make it more sellable, after licking your wounds, of course! It may even work to come back to that same store six months later, and tell them how you learned from their feedback and improved your product.

There is no perfect way to sell your line. Every business and every entrepreneur finds their own balance. I started out wholesaling. I pictured a clean process of making samples, reproducing them, and getting paid. But, as it turned out, it didn't suit me. It was very uncreative, just remaking my samples. I had some bad experiences with stores not paying, or cancelling just as their order was due to go out. I hated making the collection calls when bills came due. Also, my fantasy of the wholesale orders being big, and overhead-free was not coming true. I had a couple expensive trade show trips to New York, after which I came back and decided to open my own shop.

But I know some people who love wholesaling their line, and not needing to interact with the public too much. Everybody finds their own way that suits their personality, their product and their production process.

Right now for my business, I have the perfect balance. I love running my collective shops, and working with 20+ other local designers to run the shops and sell our own and each other's lines. I work a day or so a week in the shops, and have most of the rest of the week free to make my line in my studio. I love being able to make my line creatively as I like, and put what I want on the racks. And I love being able to interact with my customer, see them love what I made, and buy it. I'm also able to take custom orders, or alter things as needed. Most importantly, I love seeing my product through the whole process, right to going into a bag and out the door because it keeps me knowing what my customer wants. I always am doing market research, every time I help a customer. I see how my sizes are fitting, what people are shopping for and what holds them back from buying something.

But having a shop is a big expense. Much, much bigger than just the rent. You'd have to think about extra staffing, repairs, phone bills, alarm bills, vandalism (I've replaced six $500 windows over the years!) renovations and more. But the commitment is the killer. Seven days a week, and the life of the lease at a minimum. As well, any reno and set up costs take many successful years to pay off. I know that many people go into having a shop very naively, thinking people just walk in and buy, and it breaks my heart to see small businesses fail!

Before I had my tiny shop in Kensington, I had been selling my line for almost four years and building up a name for my line, so I had a clientele I could direct there. Even though my rent was cheap and the shop was small and set up on a shoestring budget, I wouldn't have survived if I had opened it earlier in my business. I knew a lot about the realities of retail but was still white-knuckling it through some tough months!

Bottom line, the main thing to getting started is just getting started! A big obstacle for many is the myth that they need a lot of money to start, but I think too much start-up money can end up killing your business before it gets started. With too much money, it's too easy to try to throw money at the problem and do crazy things too big too fast. For example, open a store too soon, and you'll stock it with all the wrong stuff! Starting small keeps your mistakes small.

We had a designer in one of my collective shops once who was making clothing, but because she was hoping to do a lot of volume too soon, everything got set up wrong with her business, and her mistakes were made in multiples. Firstly, she was tiny, so that was her frame of reference, and she was working with a contractor who had minimums of 30 pieces of each style. You can see where this is going! She invested so heavily in her inventory, which was all undersized and unsellable, that she ran out of money and couldn't respond to what her customers' needs were.

Of course, you don't want to try to 'get it out there' so early that you've got a mish-mash of crappy looking homemade stuff, but most people err on the side of just stalling out. Set yourself a goal. Sign up for a small craft show for a few months from now, then make a list of all the things you need to get done for it. That'll get your butt in gear! But realize that your business and your product is a work in progress for the entire life of your business. It'll never be perfect. Keep your day job and look for small ways you can start selling today, this week, this month. Keep your gambles small enough that you can afford to lose, and build on your successes while learning from your mistakes.

Thanks for the question, Betty and good luck with your new business! Maybe you'll become a member in one of my shops one day soon!


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