Six things I wish I'd known before starting my creative business
I recently responded to an advert looking for female entrepreneurs to tell their stories about how they started their business and the journey they had taken in the process. I received a reply almost immediately saying that my story could inspire others in a similar situation (I'll let you guys be the judge of that!) and was then asked if I'd shared my story on my website. Well, I hadn't and think maybe now's a good time as I've reached a turning point and made a lot of changes - hopefully this blog sheds a little light behind the scenes and satisfies your curiosity!
So how did it all begin? Well, I used to teach French and Spanish at a secondary school. I wouldn't have considered myself to be particularly "arty", and I still don't on many levels - creative, yes; an artist, not so much. I wouldn't say that I had any passion for business either or any drive to start one. I decided to leave my "secure" job of 8 years and good salary almost overnight, with nothing else to go to and no business plan whatsoever. It wasn't the allure of earning better money or being independent or anything like that; the final push for me was feeling so dissatisfied in a job that I loved in many ways - I loved working with students, inspiring and motivating them and helping them to see their potential, but I was sick of hearing the word "targets", seeing children as numbers on a page, realising that what was expected was often far beyond achievable...call it politics, or insert your own meaning here, the result was that I felt pretty low in the situation I was in and when it came to the crunch, three weeks before my own wedding, I realised that something had to give. I was coming home in tears every night, working all hours to make sure that I was jumping through as many hoops as I could during the day, with a smile on my face, pleasing as many people as I could that my relationship, and peace of mind, was suffering. For what? Money? Quality of life? Who knows. It took a very tearful conversation with my family and a brief chat to a counselling service over the phone to realise I needed a change.
Leaving your job is not something you take lightly. And I certainly wouldn't recommend to anyone that you just leave without a firm plan in place of what you're going to do. I took a huge risk - I handed my notice in with no job to go to - not the smartest move, I'll admit, but I was at breaking point. As soon as I'd made my mind up that I was leaving, sat down with my family and worked out how we could afford for me to leave, I felt such a huge sense of relief and I began to think clearly again. I didn't have a clue what I was going to do next but I knew deep down that I'd made the right decision.
My first step was to talk to a career's adviser at the local college. She helped me to think about what I'd really like to do, putting aside my degree, training and experience. I had two paths - one was very much a caring or helpful role within children's services or education; the other was to try and start a business based on the little things that I made. The business thing was not what I intended to go for, I'll be honest. The career's adviser suggested that I look into becoming a career's adviser (yes, I did giggle at that too!), which I did and it looked interesting. She helped me to re-write my CV so it looked more professional and I applied to companies to see if there was any possibility of training as an apprentice, so that I could continue to earn some money while I was studying. Fate played a part and there were no apprenticeships available. I'm glad because I don't think it would have been right for me.
We were on our honeymoon the week after our wedding when Pete asked me what I really wanted to do. I said "try the business thing". The thought of doing something I really loved and getting paid for it was exciting but whenever I'd mentioned it to others, I'd often had the comment "can you actually earn a living from that?". Pete told me I owed it to myself to at least try and if all else failed, I could pick up another job.
I didn't and this is something I've only recently realised. I'd made most of the decorations for our wedding and had absolutely loved making my brooch bouquet so we decided to base the business around wedding accessories. However, for some reason I thought that by offering a wider variety of things, I would appeal to more people. Long story short, you really don't! I was offering sock animals at craft markets, box frames as gifts, fingerprint trees, teddy bears made out of baby grows...oh and the wedding stuff. I named the business Elsa Rose Boutique as a tribute to my late nan, who was a real character and it's my way of remembering her. We created a free website and put all the pictures of the things I'd made for the wedding on there and examples of anything else I could offer. I attended my first wedding fayre a month after leaving my job and picked up my first ever client, Leanne, who had the beautiful brooch bouquet pictured below, along with buttonholes for the wedding party and wrist corsages for her bridesmaids.
After my first year I cottoned on to the fact that the sock animals weren't fitting in (ok, I'd worked it out much quicker than that!) and so stopped selling them at craft markets, along with the baby grow bears. Instead, I made key rings and fridge magnets as they fitted in with my cake toppers so in my head there was a link, although my ideal customer certainly wouldn't have seen it! It was last Christmas, after a really successful season at craft markets that I began to take stock of everything. I came across a post by Julia Bickerstaff at the Business Bakery advertising the 100 day goal, a free challenge. I took it on, wrote down my "microactions" and started seeing improvements to my productivity. I stopped the craft markets to focus on my "niche" - the wedding industry.
Again, I didn't. My original website had a dark background, my blog posts were mundane and I don't know who it was appealing to. One of my actions for the 100 day goal was to re-do my website. I purchased a white template with an art deco background, put my "logo" on there and that was it. I decided to join The Business Bakery's Healthy Income Programme as I got so much out of the 100 day goal and that's where the penny dropped and I finally understood where I'd been going wrong.
Seeing hard facts and figures in front of you and realising things aren't as great as you thought is tough. I had to take action so my first thought was that I needed a shop front on my website so people could purchase things easily. I sell on Etsy, but I wanted people coming to my site to find what they needed easily and purchase it straight away. There's no way that I would have been able to add the shop front to my original WordPress site myself whilst on a tight budget so I did some research and opted to use Squarespace instead as it was much more straightforward for me. I purchased my domain name, paid for my site so that I could have my shop front and then bought myself a fairly decent camera. I kept researching how I could make my business successful and came across some inspiring bloggers. The one that stands out to me is Allison Marshall overt at Wonderlass. I loved reading her posts, she explained everything so clearly and the one thing she kept coming back to was that, as the only person in your business, you had to be your brand. You have to think about what you stand for, who your dream clients are, what colours you use in your brand, fonts...it was a long way from my dark website with my varied range of products, that's for sure!
One of my tasks was to identify a muse for my business, someone in the same age range as my dream client, who held all the qualities of my dream client, that ordered the things my dream client would, that had the lifestyle of my dream client...the list goes on. All my clients have a muse role somewhere in this business but there were two that stood out in terms of the direction my business needed to head in. Claire and Katie ticked all the boxes and, after sending them an email telling them about my aims for the business, agreed to give me some feedback on my new website before it went live. My final muse, Charlotte, will be one of the first of my brides to be featured in a blog post very soon.
Identifying my muses made my marketing easier. I knew the sort of person that I needed to be tailoring my advertising to, the sort of places I needed to advertise and how my brand should look. I chose a colour palette of white, blue and silver and started taking my photographs. Something still wasn't sitting right for me and it was only after we moved home, from a flat to a house with a garden, that I finally focused on the aesthetic I wanted for my business. I whitewashed some wood that Pete had left over from the garden and used that as my new backdrop. The textures gave more depth to my photos and it brought a natural element to a product that was imitating nature (brooch bouquets). I asked my friend Oli, a graphic designer at Orange Juice Creative, to design my new logo and that transformed everything. The design features a large E that looks like a heart, which links in to the blue heart buttons I give to couples at wedding fayres. It looked much more professional and I finally started thinking like a business.
This is a tricky one...how much do you charge for your time when you enjoy making something? I started off with really low prices - enough to cover the cost of materials plus a little extra as I didn't think I would get any clients if I charged more. Again this wasn't true. I didn't attract many brides because my products were too cheap, even though they were of a high quality. There's a market for all kinds of prices and I've learned that I need to appeal to the one my muse falls in to. Looking through my reviews on Etsy, I soon realised what it was that I was good at; it was the sentiment that went into each item I made and the thought process behind some of those things takes time. It's the way the hair sits on cake toppers, making a feature of a sentimental brooch that doesn't fit with the colour scheme of a bouquet while not making it stand out, giving people what they didn't even know was possible. That work comes from getting to know my clients. It's easier with cake toppers as I have pictures to go on but a lot of personality comes through from the numerous conversations we have with each other and getting a sense of who someone is. You don't get that in a generic cake topper and you certainly can't get it for a rock bottom price. I realised that I needed to provide value, and that doesn't mean doing myself and the business short but by being helpful, offering free consultations, giving brides the chance to design their own accessories and look at the materials I use. It all makes a difference and I hope that each of my brides has had a positive experience through working with me. The tagline for my website, "making the little details sparkle" was the result of the lovely reviews from my wonderful customers. When I'm having a down day, I read through them and they always cheer me up! Here's a picture of me and Pete on our wedding day, along with our original cake toppers and the new, updated version I made for us recently to give you an insight into those little details that make the cake toppers so popular. I didn't add my glasses though or my tiara but I do have my brooch bouquet!
Yeah, I wasn't smart with advertising either! As I said at the beginning, I didn't have a business head at all and I think that's become pretty clear! However, I've learnt a lot from my mistakes. I paid for adverts in magazines but all they brought in were more advertisers, who took little time to see what my business actually did or who I was. Not a smart move if you want people to spend money on your services! I joined the Portishead Wedding Network and that introduced me to other local suppliers in the wedding industry who were willing to promote and support each other. My research continued into advertising and I focused my efforts into creating beautiful visuals using my favourite website, Canva. I was able to create posts to fit each social media platform and promote my brand through the use of colours and fonts. It's taken a long time, but it feels like the pieces of the puzzle have finally fallen together.
A business needs to keep evolving to stay in touch with its audience. I'm proud of what I've achieved in the last two and a half years and I hope that now my brand is clearer, Elsa Rose will go from strength to strength. Without the learning curves along the way, I wouldn't be where I am now. My blogs are going to be featuring some of my amazing brides and grooms and the stories behind the products I designed for them (get in touch if you'd like to be involved!) and I'm launching my first hair accessory collection later this month so stay tuned for more information on that!
And that's where I leave you today! I hope my story, even though it's a long one, gives you some insight into the person who'll be helping your big day "sparkle" or, if you've stumbled upon this because you'd like to start up your own business, I hope that it's given you some hope and a few helpful tips to get you started - "do as I say, not as I do" and all that!
I'd love to hear your thoughts! What the biggest mistake you've learned from? And what detail do you think would turn something from drab to fab?