You’re buzzing with ideas and can’t wait to get started…..I get it! I’ve been there too.
As creatives, we never seem to be short of ideas and things that we want to try. Unfortunately, though, this can often mean that we rush into things too quickly and get caught up in the excitement, only to wonder what in the world we were thinking a little later on. I’ve been there too. I started my first Etsy shop in 2010 and literally just created things I loved and put them online. My shop had everything, from jewelry to leather bags, artwork, scarves, fashion and printed fabric. I sat and waited for the sales to come in, but they didn’t. It was so disappointing to not have any sales and sit wondering what I’d done wrong. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so I thought I’d give you the benefit of my initial failure and hopefully get you started on the right foot….
1. Don’t launch all your ideas at once
It’s easier said than done, I know, but the saying is true; don’t be a Jack of all trades and a master of none. Take some time to really hone in on your ideas, write down what you love to make, what you’re good at making and what you think there could be a demand for. Hopefully, there will be some products that fall into all three categories. More often than not there will be several ideas that fall into all three, so refine them down further until you have a specific product or service that you would like to pursue.
Why focus? Why shouldn’t you fill your shop with everything you can make? Because it makes things harder and starting a business is hard enough already! Say you start your business with 10 completely different products. When you pitch your brand to customers and the press, how will you describe it? If there’s a lot going on, people can get confused and won’t really understand what you’re about. Another thing to consider is the cost of materials. You can often get a discount if you buy a larger quantity. If, like my first business, all of your products use different materials, you’ll either have to spend a lot in order to buy everything in bulk, or you’ll have to pay retail prices for everything, which also gets expensive.
2. Don’t try and sell to everyone
Eventually, after huge amounts of trial and error, I decided to focus my efforts on helping small and startup fashion labels realize their dreams and launch their first collection. In our very first mentor session, I always ask my clients, ‘Who is the range for, who is your customer?’. 90% of them will answer this with, ‘People who love fashion!’. In the nicest possible way, I have to tell them that isn’t going to work.
There are so many people out there who love fashion, or handmade goods, or art, for example, and trying to create a product that all of them will love is going to be impossible. Instead, I always advise being as specific as you can and doing as much research as possible, to really understand who you want to create for. Try to think about things like how much they are willing to spend, where they shop, where they aspire to shop, what magazines they read, and so on. This will really help you later down the line, in lots of different ways. For example, with my clients, the budget that their customers have to spend will determine the fabrics that we use, and the places they like to shop will help with choosing platforms or shops to sell the items in.
3. Don’t wait until everything is perfect
With this, I’m definitely not suggesting that you start selling a product that’s sub-quality or not fit for purpose. What I mean is that you should show your ideas to people before you start selling. This could be something as simple as showing your ideas to friends for feedback (ideally friends who are similar to your target customer), posting a picture of your color ideas online, or sharing some work in progress photos in an online business forum (Facebook has some great groups for entrepreneurs, where people share ideas and helpful articles on running a small business).
This will help you to establish ‘proof of concept’. Proof of concept means establishing if a product or service is viable and likely to sell, prior to launching and investing money in stock. For example, you might share your color palette on social media and find that lots of people have a preference for one color over another. This could be a good starting point for further research, to see if perhaps you should reduce the number of colors on offer, or make some changes. Recently, I was working on a range of print designs and shared some of the ideas with a few of my clients. From this, it was easy to see which ideas I should focus on, as there were a couple of designs in particular that everyone commented on, whereas others didn’t really make an impression. This helped me to refine my ideas and develop prints that already have some interest in them.
4. Don’t wait until later to get your online presence going
As soon as you’ve confirmed your company name (which should be one of the first things after you have defined your target customer), I’d suggest registering for the domain name, email address and securing the handle on social media, even if you don’t intend to use it just yet. At the very least, you’re preventing someone else from taking the name. I would, however, encourage everyone to start up some form of online presence straight away, even if it’s just a ‘coming soon’ web page with an email signup form and a social media account.
As creatives, we’re often drawn to Instagram as it allows us to focus on photos, but do try and go back to your customer research and think about where your customer ‘hangs out’ online. If research suggests your audience loves Twitter, start there and work your way onto other platforms later. Social media can be a massive drain on your time and you need to be consistent, so don’t overcommit and start out on lots of different platforms if you can’t maintain them. The benefit of getting your online presence going right away is that from day one you can share content and start building a following so that when you are ready to launch your products, you have someone to tell. There’s nothing worse than having a beautiful range ready, that you’ve poured your heart and soul into, only to realize that you’ve not got anyone to tell about it.
5. Run your business as a business, from day one
As a creative, it’s too easy to leave the business admin to one side, or until the last minute. I think a lot of us are guilty of getting caught up in creating and spend most of our time on that, rather than balancing our time between design and business. Personally, it took a long time for me to really pay attention to the numbers and understand what they meant for the long term future of my business. In fact, it wasn’t until I became a fashion buyer that I understood the true power of how numbers can be a game changer in a company. The role focused so much on profit margins, something that a lot of us don’t want to think about too much, as we worry it will crush our creativity.
I have to be honest in saying that it can sometimes have that effect. As much as I would love to be creating couture dresses, the reality is that the production cost is sky high and only a handful of people in the world can buy them, so I know that’s not a viable business for me and I’ve accepted that! There are still lots of other things that I like and I love the work that I do now. I certainly enjoy the business side more than I expected to, even more so now that I actually run my business as a business, rather than a hobby that I make a living from. This approach also gives you room to grow in the future.
Even if you’re only thinking about a product at this stage, try to put a reasonable amount of thought into the cost of producing it and what you think you can sell it for. You’ll save a lot of time in pursuing products that aren’t cost effective. And by pricing correctly from the start, you won’t have to disappoint your customers by raising your prices in the future. I found out the hard way it’s better to focus on something achievable from the start, rather than making a start on the wrong idea – I certainly wouldn’t recommend following in my footsteps and refocusing your efforts and products three times!
6. Don't try and do everything yourself
This may seem a bit contradictory to number 5, but I do think that if you need help with something, it can often be beneficial to invest in the help that you need. Help can come in lots of different forms, for example, a freelancer who could help with branding or your website, some software or equipment to speed up and automate your process, or a mentor to help guide you. Of course, you should first review the expense and figure out the cost vs benefit ratio. Try to establish how much this expense will really benefit you right now, but also consider how much it’ll cost you if you don’t get it. For example, if you waste a lot of time that could be freed up with some software, remember that time is money! You should be factoring in your time and adding this to the cost of your products. I’ve definitely been guilty of ‘saving money’ by doing things myself, only to realize that actually, if I’d invested in some software sooner, I’d have freed up 4 hours a week of my time, which I could spend on other things.
7. Give an amazing customer experience
Your customers are your business, and it pays to look after and appreciate them. Even if you’re just starting out and don’t have a product to sell yet, you should be making everyone who gets in touch with you want to experience more of your brand. Even if it’s something as simple as thanking someone for commenting on your post, or replying to an email query, put some thought into it and give a personalized reply. A lot of the reason that consumers are turning away from mass market shops and buying from designers and makers, is that human interaction, connection and personalized service offered by small brands.
If a potential customer asks you a question and you give a vague, generic reply, they’re not going to form a connection with you and they’re not going to be as willing to support, follow or buy from you. Likewise, if someone asks you about a product that you don’t sell, still treat them like a customer, even if you know they’re not going to buy from you. As well as this being good manners, you never know if they may need something from you in the future, or they might recommend you to a friend because of your helpful, caring response.
An important lesson that I learned years ago, when I had my first ever job as a clothing store assistant, is that people who receive great service are likely to tell three people, whereas people who receive bad service will tell eight. I know I’d much rather have people talking positively about my brand!