Starting a Creative Business from Your Kitchen Table
Firstly, let me introduce myself. I’m Melissa, the founder of MW Studio. I’m 36, live in Cardiff with my husband Shane and we’re currently expecting our first child. I have a passion for creating personalised gifts. I started MW Studio in 2011 whilst also working full time as a civil servant. I always wanted to do something creative and I always wanted to be my own boss – but I never really knew if I could do it or not.
In order to write this blog post I’ve had a think back to the process I went through from starting MW Studio from my kitchen table and developing it into the successful personalised gifts business it is today - with employees and everything. I’ve had my ups and downs and made mistakes along the way and looking back I think these are the key things that helped me get to where I am today…
1. Develop your idea(s)
You might have an idea, or loads of ideas, or none at all yet – you just know you want to start your own business. All of these starting points are fine.
If you need an idea:
- Look for inspiration on places like Pinterest and Instagram (I’ll often be looking up things like ‘unique Christmas gifts for parents’ or ‘personalised gifts for Mum' to see what’s out there.
- Look at companies and brands that you like and really think about why.
- Start a Pinterest inspiration board. Even if it’s just of images you like – this can always help later when you’re looking to build your business and your brand. You’re already starting to form an identity.
If you already have an idea
- Look around to see if anyone is already doing it, or something similar.
- If they are, what’s your point of difference?
- Can you do it better?
- Offer a better service?
- How will you be different?
- Are you different enough?
- Can you compete?
Think about gifting occasions
This is key for my business. If you have a look at my products you’ll see they are all geared around gifting occasions e.g. hand engraved anniversary gifts or unique Mother’s Day gifts. I was recently told the average person buys 18 gifts a year so if you can be one of the brands people turn to when they are looking for gifts then you’re on to a winner. And I bet there are more occasions than you think there are…
- Christmas (so many sub-categories here – you could do a list just for Christmas)
- Birthdays (think of milestone Birthdays specifically)
- Anniversaries (think of milestone anniversaries specifically)
- Fathers Day (don’t forget Grandad’s and Father’s to be)
- Mother’s Day (don’t forget Grandma’s and Mother’s to be)
- New Home
- Gifts for Teachers
- Valentines Day
- New Baby
- Thank you gifts
Look at trends
You can find these quite easily by googling things such as ‘Christmas 2017 trends’, searching ‘Christmas 2017’ on Pinterest etc. This might help you to take your ideas to the next level, or trigger another idea in your head.
Think about personalisation
In terms of gifting, personalisation is huge. Giving someone something that has been personalised shows that bit more thought, that you’ve gone the extra mile. Can your item(s) be personalised. You’ll see that you can add that personalised touch with most of my products e.g. personalised Christmas keyrings or something personalised for Mum on her Birthday.
2. Work out how/ where are you going to make sales
So you’ve got your idea. Now where can you sell it? Make a list. How long is your list? Ideally you want a few outlets for your product(s) so that you don’t have to rely on one income stream.
- notonthehighstreet.com – Marketplace for unique gift ideas and personalised gifts. You need to apply to be a partner. Generally items are high-end and aspirational.
- Etsy - Unique, vintage and handmade items. Anyone can set up an Etsy shop. Learning how to get your items seen is important. There is lots of advice on this through Etsy and through individuals. Just google it!
- Amazon – You can pretty much buy anything on Amazon these days. Is what you want to sell suitable for their platform?
- eBay – A lot of people have very successful eBay shops. Items are generally of lower value. People are looking for more of a bargain. Does your item fit here?
Social Media Sites
More and more businesses are using their social media channels to make sales. It’s definitely worth looking into how it can be done and thinking about whether this might fit with what you’re doing. Facebook and Instagram seem to be the most popular for making sales. These sites are good examples:
- https://www.facebook.com/LollyWollyDoodle/ - they now have their own site but started out purely online. It’s worth looking up their story.
- https://www.instagram.com/harnessbras_dlt/ - all sales made through Instagram.
Local Independent Shops
Often local independents are keen to partner with other local businesses. Perhaps you can offer them exclusivity in the area? Or a trial run of your products where they can return them if sales aren’t as expected?
Is you product something wholesalers might be interested in? Can you make them in mass quantities at a profit? If yes, then have a look at getting your product in front of some wholesalers. This is a good place to start:
A word on photography
Really think about your photography if you’re approaching places online. It can make such a difference to how appealing something is and might actually be something you want to pay for to be done professionally. Getting my products shot professionally was one of the best pieces of advice I was given in the early days and saw my sales soar. Photography can also really bring to life those personalised pieces. You can give examples of what different versions might look like and therefore plant a seed in the customers head.
A bit more about notonthehighstreet.com
I sell through notonthehighsteet.com and to be perfectly honest I wouldn’t have a business without them. You have to apply to be a partner and they take some commission from each sale but the support and exposure they have given me has been invaluable. They’re also really key if you have decided to go down the personalisation route – they’re the go to place for personalised goods and the reason why I have developed some of my items such as my personalised engraved keyrings. They’re also really friendly, helpful and enabling – I’d highly recommend applying to become a partner if your business fits.
3. You can learn what you don’t know
At this stage, I wouldn’t worry too much if you don’t know how to make the thing that you’ve come up with, or how to market it, or how to promote it etc. This can all be learnt. And you have to be willing to learn this stuff if you want to run your own business without paying out a fortune to begin with. It might not always be the thing you’re passionate about, or ever thought you’d have to know about but you just need to do your research. It’s all learning. And learning is great. Plus, the power of the internet is immense. You can literally find any information you need as long as you’ve got the patience to search. I knew nothing about making personalised keyrings, or hand engraving when I started. It was all learnt as I went along.
4. Go with your gut
Once you’ve decided what exactly your product/ service is then have the conviction to say ‘this is it’. Yes, ask your friends and family what they think (and others if you can – you’ll generally find friends and family think everything you do is great). But at the end of the day, if you think it’s right, then go for it. Believe in it. Go on!
A word of warning
Don’t go spending a load of money on something you haven’t market tested. That would be very very bad advice. We’ve all seen the folks on Dragens Den that have spent their life savings on a flop. I don’t want that for anyone. You need to be able to afford to lose the money you’ll fork out at this stage in my opinion. If you have come up with something that is amazing and will change the world - and cost a bomb to develop and make - then perhaps this blog isn’t for you and you should be looking at getting some more robust business advice and going down the investor route. I recently undertook the Entrepreneurial Spark course and found it highly developmental – and this kind of thing could be for you.
5. Make a sample, or a few samples
This is where you might have to find out how to make something. Can you make it from scratch, do you need someone else to make if for you? What components do you need? Where can you get them? Do you need to buy some equipment? Google it all and google it again. And be prepared to buy the wrong components and have to start again (this happened to me over and over again when developing my personalised engraved keyrings). This is what they call creating! It might also be a good idea to get someone to make you a sample for you (at a higher cost) rather than forking out for an expensive piece of equipment at this stage. But trust me – you can make it or have it made. It just takes time to find out how, or where and by whom. There are lots and lots of online forums these days with very helpful people – I often find these very useful when researching a new product. Also pinging out a load of emails or making a tonne of calls can really help in getting to know what’s possible. I think this is the stage where lots of people give up. Don’t – you can do it! You can make it!
My first idea
I started with pillowcases (most of which I don’t even stock now). I’d been to a few craft fairs and noticed some lovely pillowcase designs by people but I was always thinking “I could do better than that”. That thought keep niggling. So I decided to act on it. I mocked up some designs that I thought were nice. Now what do I do with them? I didn’t have the faintest idea about how to print pillowcases, or where to buy the base products from. Was I allowed to print on any pillowcases I bought, or did they have to be from a wholesaler or something? All I knew was that I wanted high quality cotton. Thank goodness for the internet! I spent days looking at different suppliers and contacting companies with lots of questions – including minimum order amounts (very important!). Once I was happy with a supplier I then looked into how to get the pillowcases printed. I was very lucky to find a local screen printers – The Printhaus – they were fabulous at talking me through their process and I loved the idea of using another local creative business. I suddenly had the ability to create the product I had envisioned.
6. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect
The chances are, when you first make something, it won’t look quite as fantastic as it did in your head. Perhaps the materials aren’t quite right, or you haven’t honed your skills quite enough. Don’t worry. You can make another, and another, and another. You will get there if you keep trying. Plus, it might not have to be 100% perfect to get it out there. In fact things rarely are. Get it to a stage where you think people would be happy to pay money for it and go with that. Otherwise you’ll drive yourself crazy. This video is great for getting over that feeling that it’s never going to be perfect…
* Thanks to Sara Tasker from Me & Orla for introducing me to this video on her fabulous course the Insta Retreat.
7. Do your sums
I knew my pillowcases would be gorgeous (maybe I’m bias?). But how much did I have to sell them for to make a profit? How much of a profit should I be making? Should I take my time into consideration? Do I need to pay tax/VAT etc.? You need to work all of this out before going into production. It’s fine for your samples to cost more than what it would be if you went into production – this is completely normal. But you need to map out how much things would cost once you start to make your product in varying amounts. I’ve always been told that a 25% profit on a product for a small creative business is good and this has always seemed to work for me. It’s a good starting point anyway. And don’t be scared by all of this either. Again, there is plenty of help on the internet and I’m sure you probably know a maths-y person that might be willing to help. It can all be learnt – trust me! In fact I have a handy spreadsheet that can help you with this. Just add a comment asking for a copy if you’d like it and I’ll send it on.
8. Just Do It! (after all the prep!)
So you’ve got an idea that you think others might like and want to buy. You’ve thought about where to sell it and worked out that you’ll be making a profit. Well done! Most people don’t even get to that stage. Now you need the gumption to get it out there. You’ve come this far; you need to see if people respond to it – you owe it to yourself! Get it out there. Go to your local retailers. Set up your Etsy shop, get your Instagram looking fab. You can do it! Please don’t give up at this stage. Please.
9. Keep Creating - Don’t give up!
For me, this was the hard bit. I put my pillowcases out there and I got some sales. Yay! I designed some more pillowcases and some cushions too. I had some more sales. It was a nice feeling but it wasn’t yet a business – I was still working full time and fulfilling orders at evenings and weekends. I was busy – but I needed to find time to create other lovely things. And this is so important. It’s the thing I worry about most to this day. Most products have a lifespan and will eventually pan out so you need to keep coming up with more. For some reason, I went from pillowcases to keyrings. I’d never made a keyring before. I’d never metal stamped before. I didn’t know where to source old coins from but I did my research and I produced the ‘daddy & me’ keyring. The first version of this product looked quite different to what it does today - it had a different engraved metal disc and used a different font. But I got them out there – and they sold. They sold like crazy. I was overwhelmed. Keyrings were the key to my success and continue to be my best sellers to this day. So keep creating – and you might find your own keyring moment.
8. Pay for help
When you get to the stage where you feel a little more stable and want things to grow then I highly recommend paying for help. You can’t do it all on your own (this is something I’m still learning and slowly coming to terms with now I’ve got a baby due in October!). Pay for help with making, with finances, with web development, brand design, SEO, social media etc. etc. If you’re a whizz at it then fine but think about where your time is best spent. It’s a hard one I know – I’m slowly learning to accept it.
9. Keep Creating
I can’t emphasise enough the need to keep creating and getting stuff out there. Whether it’s a new take on something you already make or something new entirely, keep creating – and remember – this is why you started all of this in the first place!
I hope that was helpful. I’d be more than happy to answer any questions about my own journey. About when it felt right to leave my job and go full time, about going on holiday and worrying that sales would fall off a cliff – just add your comment below and I’ll get back to you.
Thanks for reading,