One of the most frequent questions I get asked about is how I made the leap from taking my hobby of hand embroidery and turning it into a business. And while my answer to that is often long winded with lots of twists and turns and random tangents, it really boils down to just a few bullet points.
1. Determine if your hobby/passion/creative outlet has a sellable product
It’s really important to start thinking about your hobby in terms of what it can offer others. My best suggestion is to ask friends and family for their honest opinions about your product. Ask them how much they would pay for that item. Ask them what they like best about it. The bottom line here is do people actually want it. Some of this might be hard to hear, but the reality is that if you are going to be successful, you need to produce something that people would be willing to pay for. Otherwise you are putting a lot of effort into something with very little ROI.
2. Ask yourself if you love the process
I feel like this is a big one. #DoItForTheProcess is more than a hashtag, it really is a way of thinking. If you do not love what you do, you will eventually hate this job that you have created for yourself. Here is an example. Let’s say that you really love making chocolate chip cookies. Now ask yourself if you love making them enough to make them 6 hours a day, 5 days a week? If this idea fills you with glee, then awesome! But if you are kind of dreading doing that hobby every single day, then maybe reconsider. There are lots of really fun hobbies out there. But when you really consider what it takes to make the product day in and day out, it may sway you one way or the other.
3. Check out your competition
Once you have an idea of what you can do or offer as your business, now’s the time to look at what’s out there and understand what other people are doing in that space, as well as what they’re charging for it. In a perfect world you would be doing something that no one else does, but in reality there are businesses thriving all over the world that do similar things. The trick here is to try to build your own brand that is unique to you. Your goal is to stand apart. And keep in mind that sometimes it is not about what you sell, it’s about your story or or who you market too. In this world of Pinterest copycats, it is my humble opinion that you should not move forward until you have your own unique brand figured out. And when I say brand, I am not talking about a logo. I’m talking about what makes you and your product different. Be bold in that! And then once you have done your initial research on the competition and figured out how you will differentiate yourself, stop looking at the competition entirely. Put your blinders on and focus on what you need to do to meet your goals.
4. Practice, practice, practice
So if you look at my earliest embroidery work, you can see a big difference in technique and style. And while I kind of shudder looking at those early pieces of work, I am also proud of them because they show how far I have come. There is a key point made in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Outliers, where he talks a lot about the 10,000 hour rule. He basically says that it takes 10,000 deliberate hours of practice in order to become an expert or the greatest in your field. And while, I am definitely not saying that you should get 10,000 hours under your belt before you start your business, I do like this concept of deliberate practice to really fine-tune the skills that will not only make your business more efficient (because you make less mistakes), but also allows you opportunity to really hone in on your unique style.
5. Know what you are jumping into
So when running a business, there is the work of developing your product (which I’m assuming you already know how to do at this point) and then there is the rest of it. What am I talking about? Well, the minute you become a business you are instantly a 1 person show that has to figure out shipping, taxes, marketing, invoicing, SEO, dealing with difficult customers… the list goes on and on. I am not telling you this to say that you can’t do it. Because you can. But before you quit your day job and jump all in to this entrepreneurial life, know what you are jumping into. Trial and error will only get you so far. Perseverance and grit will keep you going the rest of the way.
6. Get skilled up
So now that I have listed many of the EXTRAS that it takes to run a business, get to work learning what you don’t know. By become an entrepreneur, you have now subscribed to being a life-longer learner. If you that doesn’t sound fun to you, then I do not recommend starting a small business. But for those of you that are saying “Heck Yeh”, then my biggest recommendation is to start with taxes. I’ve learned the hard way that the Sales Tax Office does not really care if you did not know that you had to pay your sales tax quarterly. So talk to other local entrepreneurs and tax offices to see what tax laws apply to you at the local, state and federal levels. The good news is that for the rest of it, there is so much out there to choose from when you are ready invest in some new skills. Sign up for some online courses, do a workshop, become part of a Facebook group or tap into local maker groups. And seek out institutions and other places where you might get some free help or help at a nominal cost. Often times a city will have some sort of small business department that will have mentors to help answer any questions. I am definitely not recommending that you shell out thousands of dollars in order to learn how to monetize your Instagram or learn how to promote your products on Etsy. But a low cost workshop on how to take great product photos, that could be a great investment for your business.
7. Understand your target customer
I firmly believe that you need to know who your customer is and who your customer is not. You can not make everyone happy and by trying to, you risk diluting your marketing efforts and brand. So instead really focus on who your main audiences are and why they are coming to your shop. For my business, I see my business as having 3 major groups of people:
Keep in mind that on social media, I have a lot of followers that do not fall into any 3 of those groups. But these are people that while they may enjoy looking at photos of my embroidery, they will most likely never buy anything from my shop and that is perfectly okay! Art and creativity are meant to be enjoyed by everyone. But it also means that I will spend very little of my limited time marketing to them. Instead I will spend the majority of my efforts marketing to those 3 audience categories listed above.
8. Get yourself online
In this day and age, this probably seems like a no brainer. But an online presence is how you tell the world that you are here, what you are all about and how your products can fit into their world. If you are just starting out, don’t get overwhelmed. You don't have to do ALL the things on Day 1. My best suggestion is to start on 1 selling platform (like Etsy) and 1 social media platform (like Instagram). Get those up and running and slowly add on as you feel like it.
And because I am bossy and believe in this strongly - as soon as you have proven the theory of your creative business (meaning someone who is not a friend or family member has purchased something created by you), then you NEED to get your stand-alone website as soon as you can afford to. Etsy is a business with shareholders whose sole job is to make money for those shareholders. When you are on a marketplace platform, you are at the whims of that company, the ever-changing algorithm, competitors, etc. Getting a stand-alone website is key in differentiating those who have a business versus those that have a hobby.
9. Build your tribe
Now that you are about to embark on this entrepreneurial path of life, it’s time to surround yourself with like-minded people that are going through the same thing. Listening to small business podcasts, joining Facebooks groups, and finding a local makers meetup are all great ways to start building community. A little intimidating at first, but these are the people who are going to cheer you own, celebrate your successes and completely understand when you deal with the inevitable setbacks.
10. Accept that your business will continue to evolve
My business has changed so much from its beginning stages. I made very little money in the beginning, then became overwhelmed with orders that it was hard to keep everything running smoothly to now where I have a lot of my processes streamlined, have expanded my product lines, and have dedicated studio space where we ship out orders all over US and Canada. And I’m sure that next year, my business will continue to change and look different than it does today. As much as you can, try to go with flow and take it all in stride. You will have good days/bad days and wins/setbacks. Just stay focused and try to enjoy the ride.
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