How did you start your business?
This post is my first attempt and answering this question. I think there is a huge amount of synergy right now for folks wanting to make a living making things they make so this question gets asked a lot of myself. This post, more or less, addresses issues I came up against just starting out. I cannot speak to any experience other than my own so this is how it played out for me. (I’ll post issue related to pricing, wholesale/consignment and the like in another post at a later date. I am also compiling a list of the interviews I’ve done in the past which address this issue to varying degrees which I’ll post soon, too.)
The original logo when the site launched in 2005.
Q: When did you start your business?
I officially opened my online business in January 2005. (You can see the original version of my website in the Internet Archive here.) But many factors lead to this being able to happen at that time. First off, I had been working in a non-profit as an arts administrator which, among other tasks, had me keeping financial records, updating the program’s website, designing and printing promotional material, writing grants and reports, as well as, publishing email newsletters and building resources for the artists we worked with in the organization. Essentially, it was everything I’d need to know to start my own business and it taught me where to look for resources and information before I began. While I loved the job, I wanted to focus on my own work and the opportunity presented itself for me to live rent free for awhile as I started up the business.
Products in the initial collection when the website launched in 2005.
Q: How did you come up with your initial collection?
I did it slowly and without a business plan which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend but the growth of The Small Object happened very organically which just felt right to me. Since I wasn’t launching a particular product line but rather a series of limited editions I would make and then no longer sell, I let the products evolve over time. At this point, I have a much clearer product line than in the beginning but my emphasis remains on the creative side.
For instance, making limited edition items does not always make the best business sense. It is cheaper to produce more items of something than just a few since I can tap into wholesale pricing or printing price breaks at larger quantities. Additionally, it makes it more difficult to receive mainstream press since often my products will sell out before the publication goes to press. Conversely, I’m not creating collections seasons in advance so my products aren’t ready for a Holiday spread in the middle of the summer. This also means that if a product starts getting a lot of momentum behind it, the product is likely to sell out before word-of-mouth has a chance to travel too far beyond my core group of customers. However, it does mean that I am constantly pushing myself to come up with new products which, in my opinion, over time keeps my work stronger and the level of my ideas more sophisticated.
Q: What do you need to start your business?
I cannot tell you what you will need since each business is unique and there are so many factors to consider. For me, it made sense to set up my shop as a sole proprietorship rather than a partnership, corporation or limited liability corporation. I also needed to register my business at the state and local level. (Additional information about licenses and permits here.) Do take the time to call your local business offices since they are extremely helpful and can assist you in determining exactly what you need to file and complete. Additional helpful resources to give you a sense of the broad issues you need to consider and for information about the issues you will have to deal with are listed below:
- Accounting FAQ from New York Foundation for the Arts, this article is written from the arts perspective but much of the information applies.
- Legal FAQ from New York Foundation for the Arts
- How a Sole Proprietorship is Taxed, from Nolo.com
- Small Business and Self-Employed Business Resources from the Internal Revenue Service
- Legal Information from Etsy, more about copyright/trademark issues but great information
- The Switchboards, an excellent online community with articles and forum with tons of threads on issues you’ll likely want to know about or come up against.
Q: How did you get started?
After I knew what type of business structure was right for me and after registering, I decided on a business name and registered the domain name and found a host for my website. (My site is currently hosted by Aplus.net and I’ve never had any problems so far.) Even though I didn’t actually have a website and I knew jack about making a website. What I did know was that I didn’t know enough and it was probably more than I wanted to learn to try to build the website myself from scratch so I figured once I had the basics built I could modify them as my needs and products changes. I understood the basics and felt confident if someone gave me the structure I could update it myself.
In late 2004, I think it was around September, I posted what I needed on Craigslist and what I could afford to pay in both cash and in goods (since I could send them goods I made as a small benefit for what I couldn’t afford in cash). I pitched the project as a resume builder for a designer who appreciated what I was trying to do. I was clear from the beginning what my budget was and exactly what types of pages I needed (homepage, product overview page, product detail page, links page) and that it would be Paypal driven so they might have some confidence that I wouldn’t be too troublesome a client. These four basic page types gave me the templates I needed to continue to evolve the website myself. In the posting, I also included an image of my logo so they had a feel for the work I was doing and the look of the site I needed. My website is very lo-fi and is still built on tables the original website was built on though I’ve changed the design a couple times since then. I’m sure some people balk at the site still operating as a series of tables but it works for me and I understand it. I can say that I did not come near to being able to pay fair market value for my initial site but I was working with a designer who respected what I was doing and was willing to help.
The original site design was made by Spot Design who deserves major props, gratitude and admiration. I should say I’m sure in the career of every designer/artist/person there are a few projects you feel drawn to take on but they also aren’t projects you can take on everyday. I’m sure my project was just such a project and at this point in their careers today, they may not be able to take on my project or a similar project like this again for the rate I was able to offer. I would suggest contacting the web design department at an art school in your area to see if any eager student needs a website on their resume or try posting your project on Craigslist and be very specific of its scope and budget and see if anyone is willing to help you out. However, today you can easily set up a shop on Etsy if you don’t want to start with your own free-standing site.
Q: How did you gain exposure for your site?
Let me just say that you need not be delusional that you’ll make thousands overnight the minute your site goes live. I also decided since this was my first foray into selling online that starting small was better. Nowadays, I would probably have started on Etsy but back in the day I emailed every friend/family/person I knew about the shop and went from there. To date, I think I have paid for two ads in the lifetime of the shop (one in a magazine that has since folded and one on Craftster) and I remain committed to keeping the shop growing by word of mouth alone. I figure, and this isn’t the best business advice, that a good thing will be spread all on its own. My altruistic side shines through but it keeps me immensely proud of the shop today knowing it was all because customers liked my products enough to tell others or to give my work as gifts which spread the word by default. To this day, that is why I continue to make giftwrapping a free service. I figure it’s the best advertising I can buy.
I did post on The Switchboards and participate in their promotional swaps. I also contributed to The Sampler and swapped links with shops similar to mine. I also consigned my products in online shops and brick and mortar stores whenever I could. While I don’t consign anymore, it was a great way to gain exposure for my products initially. Slowly but surely my income grew. In my first year, I did receive a consistent number of sales each month but it wouldn’t have been enough to live off alone.
Q: Is this your full-time job?
Yes, now it is my full-time job and it is supporting our household. However, for the first two years this was not the case. As I started my shop, I was in the fortunate position of being able to supplement my income with being able to take care of my niece and nephew who were both around 3 years old at the time. In the beginning, it was like I had two full-time jobs which were both amazingly awesome but it was draining. However, I was committed to making the shop economically viable for myself and realized it would take 2-3 years to make that happen. Luckily, it only took two years.
That’s all I got! If you have more questions, ask them below and I’ll try to address them. And remember, you can find all the FAQ I’ve addressed before by looking at the posts in the “business” category.