Thank you so much for tuning in to the Handmade CEO episode 2. Today will be a quick dive into my handmade journey with Willow and Bee.
Do you remember those bright and colorful beads that were in the shape of fidget spinners, but way smaller? Those little beads were one of the first things that I would craft with when I was a little girl. At eight years old, I would spend forever beading these little guys onto string to make necklaces for my mom, which come to think of it, I don’t think she ever wore. I would also string them onto pipe cleaners and make candy canes for the Christmas tree, and heaven knows I probably made other amazing things with them too.
When it all Started
After this phase was over, I put my beading skills away for a good 21 years. At this point, 21 years later, my mom suggested something to me entirely out of the blue. She said, “I think you should make jewelry and sell it at Von Maur.” I’m not sure what caused her to suggest this to me, but I listened. I went to the craft store, bought a few beads, and made a tiny bracelet. I didn’t have any idea what to do with it, so I tucked it away with my craft supplies. Once my daughter Nadia was in preschool, and my son Ethan was in 2nd grade, I realized that I had the time to be creative again. I dove headfirst into volunteering at their school. As luck would have it, I was needed most in the preschool classroom. Since the school’s gala was fast approaching, I took the task of helping the preschoolers make rosaries for the auction. I had so much fun doing this project, so I started to make rosaries for friends that needed them as gifts.
As Nadia watched and started seeing more beads come in the mail, she asked me to make her some jewelry. I started making bracelets and necklaces that were free of toxic paints and metals and safe for her to wear. The following year Kelli, a friend, and girl scout troop leader, asked if I would hold a workshop for the 2nd-grade Girl Scouts that were making their First Communion. I was elated. Not only was I making jewelry, but I was also going to teach the 2nd graders how to make their first communion bracelets. This event was so much fun and continues to be one of the best things that I get to do all year! But let me take a step back.
I mentioned earlier that I was making rosaries for the First Communicants, this is when I decided to open up my Etsy shop. I had heard about Etsy from watching the Martha Stewart show in 2008. Nadia and I would devour every episode whenever we could. On this one particular day, Martha, the original Handmade CEO queen, was featuring another Handmade CEO, Emily Martin. Emily made dolls and sold them on Etsy. I believe her shop name was The Black Apple, and she sold dolls and patterns there. I was super excited to know that there was a magical online platform where people could sell things that they made with their own two hands! Although I learned about Etsy during that show, it took me two years to open my shop. It wasn’t until my kids were in school that I realized that this could be my platform.
I made a rosary for my friend Naomi, and she graciously agreed to buy it from me on Etsy. With a little panic on the side, I quickly opened up a shop to list and sell this rosary. I laugh looking back because the picture that I took for the listing was horrible, I don’t think I had a logo, and my branding was non-existent! I’ve always been a just-do-it and figure-out-the-details-later kind of girl. Not that it hasn’t burned me at times, but sometimes it’s just better to jump in and figure it out later. Any how…this is how things got started.
The Magic of Year Three
After watching Emily on Martha’s show in 2008, I found and followed her shop on Etsy. Somehow the stars aligned, and I had the chance to read an article where she was featured. It was that article that helped me put so much of what I do today into perspective. She mentioned that it took around three years to get things going in her business. When I read that, I had just opened my Etsy shop, and I didn’t realize at the time that I had entered a very seasonal business. It was during the lull in my first year that I remembered her words. These wise words kept me from questioning my journey too much. I knew that in time, my business would start to grow. Year two was better during the busy season, which for me is mid-February to mid-June, but again, those quiet months from July through January made me wonder if I was on the right path. With a little hard work and commitment, each year got better and better, and it was in year three that I started to see a big difference in my orders. I began offering customization on my pieces. This small tweak gave my shop a surge of visitors, and it was in year three that I decided to fulfill my mom’s prophecy, and I contacted Von Maur. Now I’m not saying that writing that email was easy, but I couldn’t possibly wait until I was ready. I hadn’t defined what being ready was, so how would I ever know if and when I would ever be ready?
Celebrate the Wins!
In the late of the night, with sweaty hands and a faint heart, I typed up my email and hit send. I doubt that I slept a wink that night. And I think I checked a few times to make sure that I even sent the email. I’ll never forget the email that I received in return. It said that I had emailed the wrong department, but they would forward my email to the correct buyer. I was ecstatic; they didn’t file my email in the trash bin!! Huge win!
Eventually, I sent my pieces in for review, which created another bellyache, and it felt like an eternity before I received a reply. But in January of 2014, Nadia and I celebrated with a girl’s spa night at a hotel, and the next day we visited my pieces at Von Maur. It was surreal to see the jewelry that I had made in my little office studio sitting there on the counter of a national retailer. What made it extra special was that my busy little bee Nadia was there with me to enjoy the moment.
In the years that followed, I paid close attention to other opportunities. I was super excited when a family friend Ron mentioned that Amazon was opening a division dedicated to Handmade items. He suggested that I take a look at it. I filled out an application and, in a few weeks, started selling on Amazon Handmade. Despite the success on both platforms, my goal was to have my own site and not depend on other platforms, so this last year I got my shop up and running on Shopify. As I mentioned in the first episode, what began as a fun project, has now become a business that provides not only income but also life lessons to both Ethan and Nadia. I love that at times the whole family is involved. From tying ribbons to getting my items mailed, it takes a lot to get hundreds of packages sent out over those few months. Even though my business is seasonal, I’m now working on a retailer schedule too. This added schedule means that I receive my big order in September, and I need to have my pieces finished and out the door by the end of the year. So, in essence, my seasonal business has extended itself a few months longer. In the beginning, I was disappointed with the time that I had off, but now I see it as a blessing. Those quiet moments allow me time to create pieces in advance for the busy season, to travel, and to find new ways of growing. If you find yourself with extra time on your schedule, be sure to fill it with learning as much as possible about marketing, keywords, and the platform that you sell on. I’m still discovering new things on Etsy and Amazon all of the time!
To Hire or Not to Hire?
One of the biggest struggles for me was deciding if and when I should hire help. I grew up with a father that worked as a Sous-Chef for over 40 years. He always engrained in me the importance of keeping costs down and of not being wasteful. It was in these stories that I heard the lessons of not wasting or overspending. I think it took me a few years of feeling burnt-out to realize that I had completely misunderstood his message. By hiring help, I was able to be more productive, which, of course, is the opposite of being wasteful. Two years ago, I hired a friend, and this past year, I recruited my mom to help in everything from cutting ribbon to beading. I can’t forget to mention that Justen, my husband, has been a huge part of the team too. Once I started to need help, but not enough to hire someone, he was there to keep things running smoothly, from standing in long lines at the post office to making sure life stayed on schedule, he’s been there every step of the way. Starting and running Willow and Bee has been fun, exhausting, overwhelming, and gratifying all at once!
A Few Lessons
Now for the fun stuff. Here are a few lessons that I learned that I hope will make your journey a little easier.
TEST THE MARKET AND GIVE IT THREE YEARS
I started my business after I saw that there was a demand for the pieces that I was making. I gave it at least three years to see if this thing was going to work. Embrace the ups and downs, and remember that every failure is teaching you something.
SELL WHAT YOUR CUSTOMERS ARE ASKING FOR
I decided to grow my business from selling rosaries to include First Communion jewelry and more than doubled my results by adding customizations. Do you like customized items? Chances are your customers do too.
JUST DO IT
Sometimes done is better than perfect. A lot of times, we put off the thing that we know will move the needle the most just so we can dilly daddle with picking out the right font, making business cards, or getting the logo colors just right. I know those things are essential, but try to focus on taking action on the things that are going to give you results first, then work on the pretty stuff.
STICK TO ONE THING
Try to avoid the “I can do that too” syndrome. Even if you can make or sell several items, it’s essential to let the ones that your customers are looking for shine the most. If you have a passion for making something else, try testing the market first, and then create a new page or site for that item. For that reason, I have removed all pieces from my sites that are not faith-based or First Communion related. I still make custom items upon request or for gifts, but I don’t have them in my shop. Here’s a good quote to keep in mind -You can do anything, but you shouldn’t do everything.
TIME OFF IS A GIFT
Embrace the time that you have off. I wonder if teachers feel anxious about their summers like I used to during my quiet months? I use to wallow in the months that were not busy, but believe me; this was the wrong way to look at it. I now find that those are my most productive times. Use that time to learn a new skill, order products, make pieces in advance, perfect the color on your logo, make calls to gain new accounts, start a podcast! But whatever you do, don’t stop trying to get your business off the ground. I have seen people begin before me that have quit, and I have seen others that have started after me and have been hugely successful. The best thing you can do for yourself is to find someone that you admire or in a similar field and try to read everything you can about their story. As the great Tony Robbins said, “if you want to achieve success, all you need to do is find a way to model those who have already succeeded.” I’ve heard others say, “success leaves clues.” There is no need to reinvent the wheel. If you can learn from those that have already taken the leap, why not use their advice as a shortcut?
GET IN MOTION, TAKE ACTION
The last piece of advice is to be a doer, a maker, a producer, don’t just be a consumer. It’s great to consume as much knowledge as possible, but then take action! This goes for everything. If you read that it’s good to start drinking more water, then do it. If you know it’s important to limit your time on electronics, then set limits. If you feel stuck and unmotivated, start moving. If you have a good idea brewing in your mind, begin investigating the details and take action. Don’t let the little nuances take over and keep you from doing those things that will give you results.
There you have it, my friend, a quick glimpse of the journey that has been ten years in the making. I hope you found this story motivating and feel empowered to know that you can do it too!