Starting a business - a few things I learned when I started mine
I have a friend who makes wonderful objects in ceramics and is now contemplating selling her products. I began thinking about the advice l would give her to help her to start up and to avoid the pitfalls that I experienced when I first created and marketed my own products. Then I thought why not turn it into a blog? I have had a lot of help from the many kind folks out there who have written extremely useful articles on the internet. It seems only right to try and give something back.
I dealt with so many different aspects when l started my business and l still haven’t finished. It’s a constant learning curve – involving many, sometimes costly, mistakes.
A couple of years ago I started designing patterns which are inspired by nature. l take photos of flowers, illustrate them and then create a pattern and add colour. I have applied these patterns to create various home ware products which I have been selling ever since.
In my case the starting point was my pattern designs. I then thought about how those designs could be applied to specific products and who my target market might be. So I had to think hard about who my patterns might appeal to and how I wanted to be perceived by my intended customers. Once I had identified who those customers might be I was able to fine tune my products and decide upon the image I wanted to project about my range, its quality and pricing.
Having sorted out my branding I progressed into having my designs manufactured onto various accessories. There are numerous practical considerations involved in the manufacture of your product. As well as achieving the look and quality that you want you have to constantly keep an eye on costs. I read somewhere that the rule of thumb for pricing products is a 100% mark-up, so this is generally what I try to achieve.
I don’t have sufficiently good sewing skills to make my own products so they had to be made by someone else. Therefore l had to source manufacturers who digitally print and make accessories. I chose accessories that I thought could be given as gifts but over the course of two years I have honed my selection. For example, in the beginning l sold cushions but realised that this is not something one would usually buy as a present so I won’t continue selling them in the future. I am also limited in what l can sell by what the manufacturers can produce. The accessories in my current range are aprons, tea towels, pot holders, oven gloves, peg bags, makeup/wash bags, lampshades and greeting cards.
There are other designers selling similar products out there but l like to think that my designs are quite unique. I certainly haven’t seen other designs like them on the market. My products are also of a high quality so I price them accordingly.
It was important to me to keep all aspects of my business in the UK. I imagine one could save costs by having items mass produced in China but that wasn’t a route l wanted to take because it potentially brings numerous things into question, for example the conditions in which they are made and the ecological implications of shipping them across the world. Don’t forget when adding up the complete cost of producing your products to include absolutely everything - which of course includes packaging and shipping (see below).
Your logo is an important marketing tool. It will appear on your product, its packaging and all of your promotional material and is therefore key to identifying and advertising your brand. So it is worth spending a bit of time and money to get it right. Bear in mind that you will potentially be using it for a long time. Designing my logo was fairly easy for me as l have a background in graphic design. Designing logos are our bread and butter. However if you need assistance with this I suggest that you pay a professional. One option is to use a site called ‘people per hour’ (peopleperhour.com) where you can post a ‘job’ stating what you require. Freelancers will then apply and you choose which one you would like.
One of the first things you should do is to create a website. It’s a must these days. If your business doesn't have a website it tends to look less professional and people searching for your product / service will choose another company that does have a website.
One of the purposes of your website is to create an online equivalent of your shop – so it will need to embody everything that you want to say about your products – and of course to display them as effectively as possible. It must epitomise your brand. From a practical point of view it must also be user-friendly.
If you are selling products on your website you will need to set up some sort of ‘e-commerce’, which is the activity of electronically buying or selling products or services over the Internet. 'Shopify' is one such platform. They use PayPal for payments. However, if you use Etsy (see below under ‘selling on the internet’), you can link your products to your Etsy shop and they deal with all the money side of things. This is the route l took.
Getting people to visit your new website can be difficult. I don’t pretend to know all about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) but as a rough guide, it deals with getting your website to appear higher up in search results in browsers. I believe that it can be expensive - to the tune of thousands of pounds per month - if you want to pay for a company to help increase your ranking. However, you can improve your chances by using effective keywords. In order to get more visitors to my website and Etsy shop I am running ads on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Etsy. You can set your budget, put a cap on your spend and it is a great way to drive people to your website.
It’s important that your website looks professional. An amateur looking website is worse than no website at all. An excellent template to use for websites is Wix (www.wix.com) – which is what I use. It’s very easy and user-friendly. You won’t need any experience of website design or need to know any coding or HTML.
For the website to function you will also need a domain name and most likely an email address associated with it. In late 2019 the domain name (margaretclavell.com) cost around £17 p/a, the website (www.margaretclavell.com) cost around £120 p/a and the mailbox (firstname.lastname@example.org) about £70 p/a.
You will need to dust off your photography skills or hire a professional to take photos of your products to display on your website. If applicable, think about showing your product ‘in situ’. So, for example, I show my cushions on a sofa in a lounge setting and my kitchen accessories in a kitchen. This gives you another opportunity to project the overall image of your brand.
If you do have the skills to photograph your products yourself, and the size of your product allows, you could use a photo box. The advantage of a photo box is that it has built-in lights, saving you from having to deal with flashlights. Of course you can do a certain amount of adjusting within a photography software afterwards. I use Adobe Lightroom.
This is a personal opinion but l think it looks better if all the products are displayed uniformly on each page. It’s difficult to get them all looking exactly the same size and at the same angle etc., but it’s worth trying. It makes it all look much cleaner. When photographing my cushions, for example, l placed little stickers so that l could make sure that the cushions were in the same place each time l photographed them. However, there will always be slight variations, so to combat this l used Adobe illustrator to draw an outline around one of the cushions and then used this as a template for all the others. Now when you go to my cushion page you will see all the cushions looking the same. Of course this takes quite a bit of time but I think it’s worth it.
The products should also be on a plain background, I think that white works well. It's unlikely that you'll be able to photograph the products so that the background is completely white and therefore you'll have a sort of grey box around the product. One way around this is to remove the background completely. It probably helps to have a knowledge of photoshop but l believe that there are companies who can take the photo of your product and remove the background for you. Of course if you do a successful enough job of photographing the products in the first place you may not need to remove any background at all.
Where to sell your products
Bricks and mortar premises are probably the most expensive way in which to sell your products. You would have to find an appropriate place at an affordable rent which may not be something you can afford to do when starting out. I approached several shops which sold similar products to mine and asked if they would be interested in selling my products. The main problem with this is the price. If I sell a product to the retailer for double what it costs me and the retailer doubles it again to achieve the same markup, the product will often be too expensive for the consumer. You can also approach shops and ask if they would be willing to sell for a commission and/or sale or return, i.e. if it doesn’t sell you take it back.
One option which perhaps lies between selling online and in a shop, be it a big store or a small independent shop, is an emporium. Emporiums rent out multiple spaces in a building to individuals and have staff who manage transactions for you (this is included in the rent). I rented a space measuring 3x2m in an emporium in which l placed several bookcases to display all my products for several months. This cost me £300 per month (in late 2019). There is another one about 20 miles away, close to a tourist hotspot, which would have cost me £500 per month plus 10% commission.
Another route you could choose is a craft fair. I have done several craft fairs local to me and have several others planned over the coming months. There are pros and cons to craft fairs. One of the biggest cons for me is that if you go to different fairs you will have to set up your stall differently each time. But one of the best things about craft fairs is meeting my customers. It’s lovely to be able to talk passionately about my designs and hear what people think about them.
There are an awful lot of things to consider when doing a craft fair. I shall try to list some of them here but it probably deserves a separate blog.
Craft fairs can vary in cost quite considerably, footfall being a major factor. So, the first thing is to weigh up whether it is the right market for you and worth the cost.
A card reader is useful. Many people won’t have cash (and you don’t want to lose sales).
As far as display is concerned, I haven’t yet found the perfect formula for showing my products to their best advantage and am constantly tinkering but I have discovered that it looks better to have your products at different heights. It is important, too, to have your prices clearly shown. If people can’t see the price easily they may well just move on.
In planning your stall bear in mind that you will need somewhere to house your stock. This is usually under the table so you will probably need a plain tablecloth to cover it, which is usually a requirement at most craft fairs anyway.
Another constraint of selling at craft fairs is that you will need to transport your stock to the fair. At the moment my car isn’t very big so I often can’t bring my lampshades or cushions as they take up too much room.
Selling on the internet
If you are just considering selling online and you have crafty/handmade type goods Etsy is a good place to start. It’s an American online marketplace but anyone whose products fit this description can sell on it.
There are other online marketplaces, such as eBay, Amazon and the UK version of Etsy, Folksy. As my brand is all about quality, I didn’t consider eBay or Amazon to be a good fit – as people who search on them tend to want a bargain. According to statistics available on the internet, Folksy simply doesn't get the ‘traffic’ that Etsy does.
I have been selling on ‘Etsy’ for about 2 years and it has many benefits. One of the problems, however, is the competition. Apparently, there are about 2 million sellers, so the problem is getting yourself found. However, with approximately 44 million visitors to the site, it has a large market. My advice for selling on Etsy would need a whole blog by itself as there are so many facets to it.
Once my website and Etsy were up and running l made sure to have a strong online presence, regularly posting on social media. l use Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. l imagine there are many other platforms but these are the ones that l use at the moment to help get my brand ‘out there’.
Packaging and shipping
With an online shop you will of course need to package your goods. The packaging must be capable of protecting your products – which is particularly important for more fragile items such as my friend’s ceramics and my own lampshades. Whatever you choose for packaging you will need to keep in stock, so storage is also something you have to think about. I currently have loads of flat cardboard boxes stacked up all around my garage. Pillow boxes are especially good for smallish items as they can be stored flat and then made into a box by folding in the ends to create a box shaped like a pillow. To be as eco-friendly as possible I use recycled and recyclable materials, which throws up additional challenges.
There is also packaging for the actual product itself. I think this is quite important as it does make the item more attractive to buyers. For example l having swing tags with my logo, held on by a ribbon, attached to the majority of my products. For my tea towels and aprons l also have a ‘belly band’. This is thick paper or thin card which wraps around the tea towel/apron to hold it in place. This really is worth considering, even though it eats into your profit margin.
One more thing that probably falls under the packaging umbrella, which will only be appropriate for goods made of fabric, such as my kitchen accessories, is a woven label. It can be quite difficult to get detail to show in something so small so may not work with too complicated a logo.
This brings me onto something else - free delivery. If you are going to sell on Etsy, they use various algorithms when customers search for something and one of the things that boosts your products to a higher ranking, is offering free delivery. So, I just add the cost of delivery to my overall price.
To make it easier to keep track of delivery costs – which can sometimes be a large proportion of the price - I keep a scale handy to weigh each new product in its packaging. I then work out the shipping costs and add them to a spreadsheet showing all of my products with these costs listed alongside. Although I have occasionally been caught out and ended up paying more for shipping than l have charged. One of my many mistakes!
Now you can get started…
There are many more things about which I could talk, but l have tried to cover the main issues that you will initially encounter.
I hope some of this information has been helpful to you. I am not in any way an expert in these matters. They are simply what I have learned from my own experience. Please message me if there is anything you would like to ask and l will do my best to answer.
Good luck to you and give it a go!