This was me at my first (of 3) Tough Mudder in 2013. I was naive, excited, and ready to see what I was capable of. Being prepared helped but it didn't eliminate the obstacles or make the course shorter. It just made it more manageable. This is a good way to view going into business.
Starting out with POD
Before I considered making a living from my design & illustration, I was experimenting with a lot of different styles and themes. Figuring out what I liked, what I didn't. Where I was strong. Where I was weak. I started dabbling with print-on-demand (POD) sites like Redbubble, Society6, and Curioos to "get out there" and see how my designs would sell.
POD sites will make me rich because all I do is collect commission and have no inventory.
If you have an amazing following, large portfolio, the ability to consistently create new work, and are active in advertising your efforts, it is possible to make a decent living. However, this may not be your sole income and it's good business to branch out and rely on many sources of income so that if one falls short, you have others to back you up.
POD sites make it easy for artists, designers, and illustrators like me to get some exposure for their work with no commitment and very little risk. All you need is time to create work and upload it to the site. The POD company would be in charge of the rest; Handling the production, shipping, and customer service issues like refunds or exchanges. They'll also drive a little bit of traffic to your profile page and designs, but it's ultimately up to you to advertise and market yourself to gain even more traffic.
I was challenged to gain some traction with POD because I was on multiple sites so I was constantly saying "go here to buy", "no go there to buy". It was too much. I felt scattered and confused. My income was also not matching my efforts so I had to consider a shift in focus and figure out what my next move was going to be. More importantly, I had to ask how serious I was about this being a hobby vs. something I could make a living from.
During that shift, I had decided I wanted more control of my offerings, quality of printing, packaging, and to gain some brand recognition for my work. Generally speaking, I wanted to build a business for myself and I wasn't able to do that on the POD sites alone so I opened up an Etsy shop.
We all need a little help sometimes. I don't believe we can do certain things without it. When I opened shop, I had little to no knowledge about the Etsy platform, knew very little about SEO, and my photography skills were good but not great. I was going in blind. I was frustrated and discouraged. Instead of plowing forward in the hopes that it would just work out, I needed to stop and take a step back.
What I really needed was to get a better sense of direction and understand the business of art so I researched hiring someone to guide me. Someone that would stand on the outside to let me know what was working vs. what wasn't, and to help me develop a plan to move forward with my goals in mind. That's when I reached out to Maria Brophy for a professional art consultation. Maria has run a successful art business with her husband for many years, so she was knowledgeable, personable, and helpful on so many levels. She spent a good chunk of time developing a report based on what I had told her about my vision and goals, and how that aligned with my online presence. After a couple of weeks, I had a better plan of attack and could now move on to mastering Etsy.
My first year
I opened my Etsy shop in January 2017. My first few months were slow as I didn't have a ton of product to sell yet and was still in the research and development stage. I also was just getting to the know the platform and learning how to get people to my shop. SEO became the sole focus of things to learn since it is one big driving factor of how to get found online.
In my research I came across a few third-party apps, blogs, videos, and consultants that would help here. Marmalead was one that had a lot of good reviews and results so I signed up for a full membership. This tool provides me with detailed information about search engagement and competition in that keyword category. That provides me with an advantage over those who may not use it.
On the chart shown here, you'll see a jump/double in orders and visits around April. This is when I started using it to improve my listings. I also improved my photography to add more angles or fix lighting issues. I also spent some time adjusting my listing descriptions and started posting on social media more often. A combination of everything was starting to show results (as you can see) until I took vacation in September; Hence the drop. Overall, what I was doing was working for me so when I got back, I continued and sales picked back up again.
Where I'm at now
It is hard work and getting started has required a consistent amount of it. I work a full-time job during the day and work on my Etsy business 3-5 hours per night and 6-15+ hours on the weekends. I have been doing this since I opened. Mind you, there have been long weekends or vacations that everyone must take in order to stay sane. But once I'm back in the routine of things, I'm back working on my Etsy shop.
And even if I'm not creating something new, I'm always trying to find ways to improve; Get better at marketing, build a stronger brand, find new ways to take photos of my product, or find efficiencies to help my bottom line and free up some time. It honestly never stops. And to me, that's OK. I'm willing to do that. I'm willing to struggle for that. Because I love the process. I love what I'm creating. And I love building this little business of mine.
Starting your business
Starting up a small business is tough. Every person, every business, and everyone's business goals will be different therefore no one but you, will be able to tell you how to succeed. To help, here are a few things to consider based on my own experiences.
Decide the level of effort
Out of the gate, figure out how much effort and commitment you're willing to put into your venture. This will help set expectations and allow you to develop realistic goals.
When I first started, I spent about 2-3 hours a week creating and working on my POD portfolio. That was fine until I wanted to start seeing more return on my investment for that time. But in order for that to happen, I needed to put in more time. Time to develop more content. Time to learn more about business. Time to learn more about SEO. Time to learn more about advertising and social media. If we're not willing to put in a lot of leg work at the beginning, we will have a tough time gaining momentum and seeing any payback for those efforts - which will ultimately discourage.
Think of it like a garden; You can't sprinkle seeds willy-nilly and hope they sprout. To get the best yield, you have to be strategic about (first) what kind of garden you want; Flower vs. herb vs. vegetable. What would be the optimal growing conditions needed for those seeds to sprout; Plant them in spring vs. fall or full sun vs. partial shade. Then, we have to figure out how often to water them, fertilize them, and trim them so they thrive. After we get all of that right, months later, we then get to pick them and enjoy.
Business is similar.
Set goals. Have a plan. Jump in!
Don't let things discourage you too easily though whether you're lacking knowledge about business, online selling platforms, or are intimidated by the process of getting started. It all happens in baby steps. It doesn't need to happen overnight and you don't need to know it all. You also don't need to hire a consultant either. There are tons of online resources that will suffice. Set some goals, get a plan together, and jump in. Learn as you go. Experiment. Learn. Fail. Learn some more.
Your plan & business goals will be what guides you through all of those bumps along the way. Some good questions to ask:
What is your vision?
Why are you opening up shop? What do you want to achieve with this business and why? How do you get there? Those will be the big goals that will be broken down into smaller goals, and into tasks that can be managed over a week or a month. If your goal is to turn your hobby into a full-time gig, figure out how much you'd have to bring in to make that happen. Once you have that goal, split that out into smaller goals that will help you achieve that. Then again, break those out into smaller, manageable tasks. See example here.
If we jump too quickly to achieve our bigger goals - and it doesn't end up happen right away or even in a month or two - it will only lead to discouragement and disappointment.
What is the purpose and value of the stuff you're selling?
Are you refurbishing old furniture that you've found at flea markets? Are you painting to bring awareness to an issue close to your heart? Are you a designer that's hoping to inspire and teach? On top of the obvious value of the piece, those stories are the personal values you bring to the table. Those are unique to you. Tell those stories. Show your processes. Share your values. Those will be the things people buy into, on top of the actual item. Plus it helps you differentiate you from the competition.
Who will buy your items?
Think of the people you will sell to. Get specific about who they are, what they value, where they hang out, and how they live. It will help you develop language that will speak to them. It will also provide you with some ideas of where to advertise.
How will you drive traffic?
How will you spread the word about what you're doing? Newsletter? Local art shows or museums? Flea markets? Social media? Maybe it's a combination of a few? Knowing your audience will help you decide this. But whoever or wherever that may be, this HAS to be in the plan and you have to be consistent with it because the platform alone will only give you so much.
How will you fund this business?
Every business needs some kind of upfront investment whether it's a computer, software, tools, or time. If you don't have the right tools, you can't do a great job. If you don't have enough time, you'll never get off the ground or see any payback.
Of course, if your plans are very minimal and you simply just want it to be a small part of your larger income, then it won't be as critical to think about these in as much detail. I would say that they still need to be considered to some degree in order to help you sell the pieces.
Learning the ins-and-outs
Whether it's Etsy or another seller platform, learn as much as you can about it. From the basics to the backend. Learn it as best you can so you can understand how to use it, get found organically through search, and how to optimize performance. SEO is HUGE with anything online so whatever platform you are on, research how to optimize your SEO.
One thing I did to help with that is research the forums, join Facebook groups, scope out those using the platform successfully and learn from them. Read their blog. Watch their videos. Ask them questions when you see them around forums or groups. Check out their shop. Take notes! I'm still learning, still experimenting, still failing (& succeeding) and I don't expect that to ever stop. Neither should you.
Tell people what you're doing
This may be obvious but sometimes we forget to tell people we exist and are open for business.Tell friends. Family. Coworkers. You need to be a cheerleader for yourself and your business at these early stages. When you've hit your 25th sale, make a big deal about it. Celebrate! When you've received your 1st 5-star review, publicly give yourself a high-five in front of everyone and tell them why. Happiness and success is contagious. Not only that, people love success especially if they follow you on social media or know you in some way. When they see you succeeding over and over and over again, it's tough not to engage, be involved, or buy! I have to admit buying things from an artist years later because I'm hooked on their success and want to be a part of that by supporting them. (And I've always admired their stuff...obviously).
This is always a tough one for me personally because I don't like bragging. At the same time, I am proud of what I've achieved or produced so why not share that? The key is to be proud and celebratory but thankful and humble. Too much ego, and you may drive your audience away. Not vocal enough and no one knows you're there. Don't forget to celebrate the success of your peers too so that you can be cheerleaders for eachother.
Research 3rd party tools / apps
3rd party tools are quick fixes for a slow shop
While these tools may bring in more views, they can't force those viewers to buy. These tools are simply a way to help your shop get seen by a few more people. Some will work better than others but never rely on them to boost sales - no matter how much they're advertised that way.
Figure out what third-party apps your peers might be using to help them get a leg up on the competition or to simply their workflow. Some might not work for you but it doesn't hurt to figure that out for yourself. This will come with some trial and error as you experiment with different things and waiting it out to see if it's making a difference.
Multiple factors goes into a visitor's decision to purchase
Is our product offering unique or is something that can't be easily replicated? Does it reflect our style and our brand? Is our photography is crisp, bright, and clear? Do we have detailed descriptions? Is our pricing and shipping costs competitive? Is our processing time quick? Is our correspondence professional and friendly - always?
Having said that, it is a mistake to solely rely on these tools - even Etsy - alone to sell your items or connect with clients. It is our job as business owners to do the heavy lifting and to use these tools to help us.
Some I use:
What converts a visitor to a buyer?
It's not easy to convert a visitor to a buyer because so much goes into that decision. Things like product offering, aesthetic (look and feel), presentation (photography), brand (what & who they're buying into), details (description), price point, shipping costs, and our overall professionalism when approached with questions or issues. If one isn't right for them, they may move on. Or, they may not buy until later.
Their final decision ultimately is theirs alone and is completely out of our control. We cannot force them to buy, even if everything we do is on point.
We can also employ all of the third-party apps and consultants in the world to bring in 1000's of visitors a day. But if our pricing is out of whack or our photography is dark, then we will be hard-pressed to get that sale.
The best we can do is to do our best to master the things we can control to ensure that our visitors will be hard-pressed to walk away.
Getting your first sales
Just like your first job, you might fumble around a bit for your first few sales since everything is new. There's no course or training program so you'll forget stuff. You'll not do something right. It's OK. Keep a notebook handy and write down your lessons learned or something you want to try or improve upon next time. Build on your successes.
I remember experimenting with each order that came in - which wasn't great for consistency. I tried different packaging styles, had different thank you notes, I even forgot to have my website / name printed on the stickers I was selling. As I sold more, I got into a groove - and you will too.
Look for inspiration but don't play the comparison game
Easier said than done, I know! I struggle with this quite a bit when I'm on the hunt for inspiration. It's easy to look to the outside to see what others are doing, how they're doing it, and how you might apply something similar to what you're doing. However, it's not productive if you find yourself wallowing because someone else is where you want to be or you perceive them as being "better" than you. That's when you walk away for a bit and come back to it later.
I have a lot of artist friends who I envy because of their success or talent. But I have to remember, they started somewhere too, many years ago. They're 10 years ahead of me, in terms of running a business, and have worked hard to build their community of supporters. Whereas I'm starting from scratch. Maybe you are too? Go easy on yourself. Always remember where you started and where you are. You'll always see some level of improvement or success, which is great motivation to keep going.
Bottom line, no one ever starts a business and sells out of everything when the doors open. Unless, of course, you already have a supportive following or were on Dragon's Den or Shark Tank.
Look for inspiration but don't copy
I would NEVER recommend copying anyone word for word, design for design, or idea for idea. This never works out and is ultimately wrong. Also, if your audience catches word that you've copied someone else, you've lost all credibility and trust.
I believe there is room for everyone out there as we are all creative beings, even if what we do or sell is similar, so there is no need to copy. The better approach is to make friends with your competition so you can learn from eachother. And if you happen to have a similar idea that someone else has, do something a little different with it. Give it a twist. Turn it on its head. This goes with everything. Make it your own.
Some of my peers are in the sticker biz like me or sell patches or stationery with their art or designs on them. Some of us even have similar styles because we love a certain era or design aesthetic. But, somehow, we always seem to find some way to make it our own regardless of all of that. And that's the difference between copying and being inspired by. Is it authentically you?
Take advantage of difficult and quiet times
When sales are low, traffic is down, or you just can't seem to gain traction, use those moments as an opportunity to step back and take a breath. This is far more productive than complaining about it to your peers on social media. Reevaluate processes or your photography, research new tools you can start using for efficiencies, or work on some new stuff. Heck, take a break! Bottom line: Don't give up because it's slow. Slow happens and it'll always bounce back.
I use my slow times to work on new designs or catch up on admin tasks or connecting with new stockists. I take my time. I watch some Netflix. I spend time with my dog. I relieve the pressure while it's quiet. Photography and designing new things are always something on my to do list that I tackle in slow times, which ultimately helps in bringing new traffic and entices a potential sale.
Whether you're struggling to gain momentum or you've been featured on a popular blog, keep going. It will be that persistence and your ability to improve that will keep you growing, evolving, and getting better at what you do - even with success in your back pocket. It may even lead you to something new which could open up more doors.
Here's a succession of workstation photos, taken over the last year. I started out just using my coffee table and slowly, but surely, outgrew each space. I'm getting to another point where I honestly need a room dedicated to this, but my living room will have to do as HQ for now.
Maintain professionalism - always
It's tough to stay grounded in times when we feel like our hard work is being attacked or our character is being called to question. Whether it's a disappointed customer or a misunderstanding with a business associate, it's important to always stay professional - even when they may not be. Take the emotion out the equation by walking away for a bit to gain some perspective. Ask a close friend for guidance. Put your problem-solving hat on and approach it with understanding, compassion, and objectivity.
Remember you're running a business and a happy customer can turn into repeat business and referrals, so you always have to ask what that's worth? Is your time and energy worth fighting for who's right or wrong? How much are you willing to lose based on that one moment of frustration or confusion? Best to always try to work with your customers to ensure a happy result - even if it means you break even or lose a few bucks. It'll be worth it in the long-run.
In the end, if you can't find an appropriate solution, best for both parties to cut their loses and walk away. Sometimes it doesn't work out and that's perfectly OK. Don't take it personally. Just brush the dust off and move on to the next.
If you have questions or found this helpful, please comment and share.