How to set up a handmade business.
Earlier this week I was asked to answer some questions about my experience of "entrepreneurship" by a friend's son, as part of his Business Studies GCSE.
I spent a while thinking about it, answered his questions, and duly sent my answers off. However, I enjoyed the process a lot, as it made me reflect on the process of building a business - a process that otherwise rushes ahead month after month, without really being analysed at all. It made me ponder, reflect on what I've learned, what I have found is important, and what's not. Having spent all that time pondering, I'm sharing my my thought process here in case it's useful, interesting or thought-provoking to anyone else.
When did you set up your business? Did you set it up yourself? I started in a very small way at the end of 2014 by having a stall at a Christmas craft fair. For a while I’d been experimenting with polymer as a medium, and I gradually started selling pieces I’d made to friends. The fair was a great success and I took a lot of orders which I had to then fulfil, which meant buying more equipment and clay. I also realised I needed to create or buy packaging, display items, business cards and so on – so I needed a logo (which I agonised over for weeks and then bought).
So I didn’t start with a ‘bang’ – it was a very gradual process. I didn’t think of it as a business in the first instance – it was simply a way to make some extra cash, and to allow me to do more of what I enjoyed doing.
When you were setting up your business, what qualities did you think you needed as a person in order to be successful? It is hard to distinguish what I thought originally, because I set up DoodlePippin after fifteen years in journalism, and after setting up a fairly big (£1m+) business for Reed Elsevier. I also spent five years self-employed as a consultant. So I wasn’t new to business per se – just new to owning and running a handmade business.
These are the qualities I knew I was going to need when I started DoodlePippin.
Being dedicated to making a good ‘product’: When I first started the quality I felt was most important was having high creative standards – in other words, making good quality products. I continue to spend a lot of time learning new techniques in order to broaden the range of items I produce. Most recently I’ve started learning silver-smithing so I can combine polymer and sterling silver.
Customer service; I knew I had to be friendly and welcoming to people who came to look at what I was making (my customers!) and to be as responsive as possible to what they needed, liked, and bought.
Learning new skills: I very rapidly found that, unlike my previous roles where I had been supported by teams of other people (marketing, PR, order fulfilment, finance, HR etc) I had to do absolutely everything myself. Which meant learning a huge amount – using completely unfamiliar software, creating a website, how to work out profit and loss, desktop publishing, pricing items correctly, listing items for sale on Etsy, setting up a mailing list, where and how to advertise, how to get into the events I wanted to attend… etc etc. The list is endless. The whole process has been an enormously steep learning curve and I have mostly enjoyed and thrived on it.
Did you believe you had any of these qualities? Yes. I knew I was continuing to learn and develop as an artist / craftsperson and I am very proud of what I make. I am also a fairly friendly, outgoing person so I didn’t find it difficult to stand at a craft fair stall and explain to people how each piece was made. And I have always been a bit of a tech geek (or at least, not afraid of technology) so working out how to use Photoshop, Lightroom, create websites etc has been 70% brilliant fun (and 30% banging my head on the table).
Which of these qualities did you think was the most important and why? I still think being 100% committed to making something good is the most important. Other areas of the business can be farmed out to people who might be better at those roles than you are. But if your basic “product” is not good, or not what people want, then there’s no point!
To continue to be successful, would you choose a different quality as your most important and if yes, why would you change your mind? It’s hard to answer this question. At the most basic level, “do you make something good, and do people want it” is the most important factor in any business, and that never changes. But the qualities you need as a business owner change as the business changes and grows.
For instance, like many craftspeople, I am terrible at cold-calling / “sales” stuff. I hate approaching people and asking if they’d like to take my products in their shop! In the beginning, that didn’t matter, because I wasn’t in a position to supply shops, so it wasn’t a quality I needed.
But now that my business has grown so that I can potentially supply shops, my reticence is a problem, and it’s something I need to work on. As my business has grown and changed, lots of different qualities have been needed in different amounts and at different times.
The main ones (for a tiny one-person business like mine, anyway) are:
Persistence and self-belief – it’s a long slog building a business, with a lot of hours, some terrible disappointments, and some real highs. Nothing happens overnight, and especially if you’re the only person working in a business, it can sometimes feel like you’re slaving away in isolation, unsure if you’re making any headway! It’s easy to get discouraged. So resilience, persistence and self belief are important qualities.
Self control / being frugal – it is very easy to overspend, and also very tempting to re-invest every penny you bring in back into the business. I quite often want to buy things for the business that I can’t currently afford, on the assumption that they will pay for themselves in time. Having to say “NO” to yourself sometimes is tricky – but essential.
Learning new skills – being willing to get through the wall of impatience and frustration with a new skillset is essential. Learning these new skills is an investment in your business and yourself, and one that pays huge dividends later. BUT it’s also important to decide whether learning to do something yourself (eg photography, marketing, book-keeping) is the best use of your time and energy, or whether it would make more sense to pay someone else to do those things, to allow you to concentrate on what you’re already good at!
Being decisive – my experience is that, in any given month, there are many possible directions you could take, and it can be very hard to decide which path has potential, and which is a distraction or a blind alley. You need to be able to choose one path, and forge ahead in that direction without dithering or spreading yourself too thin.
Seeking collaborators - if you’re a one-person business, absolutely everything goes through you – all the decisions, problems, crises etc. It really helps if you’re the sort of person who is willing to ask for help, seek advice, or just collect supportive friends around you. They act as a check and balance on things like re-investment decisions, and the direction you should choose. Just having a different perspective is SO useful as someone else will see opportunities you would miss, and come up with solutions that would never have occurred to you alone. Plus they’ll often lift you up when you’re feeling discouraged.
Is having good qualities as an entrepreneur actually important at all when running a business? As above - the needs of a business change over time so the qualities that are important change, too. I imagine – though I haven’t reached that stage yet – that someone who excels at starting businesses may not be very good at the day-to-day running of a business that is already going. If what you thrive on is the edgy, financially risky, exciting beginning stages, then perhaps you won’t enjoy the boring, stable, profitable middle bits!
Personally I thrive on new challenges and I would be very bored if my business were simply to chug along doing the same thing week in and week out. Fortunately there are always new developments in the pipeline and new directions to take – so I am constantly learning new stuff and trying new things.
Lastly, have you encountered any situations during your work where you have needed to use your qualities to solve any problems? Too many times to list! My experience has been that running a business (like much of life) is being constantly presented with problems and challenges, and finding ways around them (and hopefully learning from them, too!).