biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies 09: biz advice from holly herring

by Grace Bonney

today holly herring is sharing some great advice on a whole range of business issues. for those of you looking for some advice on getting a business started, dealing with retail issues, pricing, gift fairs, and reps (and much more!) this will be a great way to get some ideas that will help get your business off the ground- and hit it running.

CLICK HERE for holly’s full post after the jump!

“I’ve always believed in the idea that each of us has a particular place in the universe where we belong, and that if we find it everything will fall into place and we will flourish.”

—Patrick O’Connell, chef

I don’t think it’s uncharacteristic of creative minds to have a tendency to veer off into the land of ADD. If you’ve ever thought about starting a business – big or small, why not now? Don’t wait another day, don’t over think it, and don’t spend any more countless hours doing “research” or getting lost in the land of cyberspace surfing the blogosphere, checking your competition or analyzing it.

The economy…

So it’s no secret that things have been better, but history shows, when the economy suffers, those entrepreneurial souls blossom and new businesses are born. Especially now, when large manufacturers and designers are limiting production, there is always room for small businesses to prosper.

Even if you’re not entirely sure what you’re doing or know how to do it, pretend to know. Most of what we all learn is trial and error. So be prepared to make mistakes, take notes and learn from them. I read somewhere Julia Child said that if something goes wrong in the kitchen, just pretend that was how it was meant to turn out in the first place. What’s worse is not doing anything at all.

While I’m not suggesting you go at this with any less than 110% enthusiasm, you have to start somewhere. Believe in your idea, product or plan and know that not everyone will embrace it but many will love you. Be ready for the good, the bad and the ugly. (there are other Simon Cowells out there – they will do their best to bring you down but prove ‘em wrong). Some people just like to see people fail. We are not on that team….

And don’t spend time worrying about the competition or the potential of people knocking you off. There’s nothing like a true “original” so stay true to your ideas or designs and stay focused. Most people who are knocking others off don’t have their own ideas so it will be short lived and “what comes around goes around”. Believe me, I know how hard it is to swallow when someone says “imitation is the most sincere form of flattery”. Yeah, that’s easier said than done when a former employee promises not to carry the same merchandise or open a retail establishment in the same zip code and does anyway….Oh well. The cream always rises to the top and people are pretty wise about imitations… Your fans, friends and loyal customers will actually fierce fully support you so stay on task- it’s wasted energy. And all of the energy it takes to combat the others is better spent on your own goods.

One caveat to this….I know a girl who now has a successful business currently but she did make a mistake early on by sending her design ideas to a very, very successful handbag designer. They said, “no thanks”. Ironically, these color combinations and designs all appeared in her upcoming season and sold tremendously well in places like Neiman Marcus and her eponymous NY Flagship store. My advice is don’t send your ideas unsolicited to anyone…That’s where you must do your research. Ideas are free. Attorneys are costly. You’re a little guy. These things are hard to prove and a waste of more time and money so just be wise.

If you are concerned about start up costs, business plans, and that scares you…Then start small.

The nice thing about diving into a creative venture is that you can have an idea and make it a reality in minutes if you so desire. So, if you’ve had the urge to do something but were afraid to take the leap, here is your opportunity to play it safe if that’s the encouragement you need to make it happen. The cost is minimal and it doesn’t require the expertise of a graphic designer, engineer or computer programmer. Just a few snaps of your digital camera, a few clicks of the mouse and VOILA- you have an online presence. It’s no longer just a thought or a dream- it’s a reality.

After over twenty years of having a retail store, we closed our bricks and mortar shop, robin’s egg blue in the summer of 2008. I was really struggling with what to do with myself. I have two children so although I had my work cut out for me, I also have a passion for hunting for vintage treasures, designing, collecting, and creating. I was used to working 7 days a week and many hours a day and all of a sudden I had no creative outlet. While some people can’t get through the day without coffee or a diet coke, and some feel the buzz from the burn or the endorphins from a long run, I’ve never understood that so much. I desired to make stuff. Oh, and a steady source of income is nice.

So, my little etsy shop was born. This is a great solution to put as little or as much effort/resources as your lifestyle will allow. If you’re among one of the lucky individuals who are still employed, by all means, don’t quit your day job yet. While Etsy is a lovely little alternative to the high cost of maintaining your own site or shop full time, to make this your primary source of income, can take a lot of work, time and effort. You must market your goods the same way you would if you had a stand alone boutique. Nice thing is I have really branched out and although I was once featured in INSTYLE Magazine 2 years in a row- that doesn’t sell your goods. Lucky for you, Grace has many tools and resources to market and promote your brand. It’s not difficult- it just takes TIME…. In fact, I had this silly idea one night at 2 a.m. to send postcard to some editors at InStyle Magazine….And POOF….3 months later, my postman delivered a magazine to the door and I was jumping up and down as if I had won the lottery. Before you start any of these hair brain ideas, just make sure you are prepared to deliver your product. Be certain that you have inventory, the colors or sizes you are offering and that you’re not guessing so much anymore.

When in doubt, keep it simple. After all, Crate & Barrel has stocked it’s shelves for years keeping like things together and the formula works. It’s easy to read- customers understand that the glassware is grouped together- just like the grocery store keeps canned goods together. Ever show up at a store where they’ve moved everything around- it makes you crazy, doesn’t it? Just remember that when you start merchandising your booth, online shop or layout. Even Anthroplogie, while they’re offerings might be more whimsical, there still remains a method to the madness so whether you’re presenting goods at The Brooklyn Flea or on-line- try to keep your story understandable ie; easy to read/buy.

Selling your goods retail….

Pricing your goods can be challenging and can be difficult..

1. You have to make a profit.

2. You can’t undermine your future customers/retailer

3. I often hear artists say “this took me X amount of time….Well, it’s very difficult to factor time because the first time you make something it will most likely take 10 times longer than the 20th time you make something so I don’t recommend using time as a gauge ever to determine how much something should cost.

4. Perceived value….How much would you pay for this item? How much is it at a dept store? This is when it doesn’t hurt to do a little research. Ask a friend or ask a retailer.

5. Materials and overhead….Figure what you have into it- hopefully, once you’re doing things most efficiently you’re buying materials wholesale or in bulk so this will cut down on your costs….Allowing you to provide the best price. It’s very competitive out there so now isn’t the time to be greedy, either.

Okay, well, now it’s recommended that you have your act together and winging it isn’t a good idea at this juncture. Although the perception might be that you’ll never get into the NY INTL. GIFT FAIR and the waiting list is years long, there is always room for new talent. The NYIGF has a panel of jurors looking for new and distinctive resources so why not you?

And if you have not yet attended the NYIGF then I recommend you hop to it! This is hands down, the best opportunity to find out what it’s all about. There are many other regional gift shows, but this is the best one in the U.S. It consistently draws quality buyers from around the world and offers a product mix unlike any other show. These shows typically take place twice a year in January and August.

The gift shows can cost thousands of dollars. So, if you were to put $8,000 into a booth, you must be in a position to ship at least double that, I would think, to make a profit or at least break even and feel good about your efforts. . The exposure you get will be greater than any other gift show. Many editors, international buyers and department store buyers shop this show so it will be a great opportunity to network. As well, the contacts you will make of fellow artists and designers will provide invaluable feedback.

If you are looking for more exposure but aren’t ready to take this on, there is always the alternative of working with a road representative or a national showroom. These options will also give you the exposure at national or regional gift shows. I always found it helpful to ask the buyers or store owners you respect for some feedback. Who do they like to work with? What showrooms have the product mix where you would find the best fit? Which reps follow up and follow through with sales as well as when there is a problem? There is a great amount of turnover with reps so it’s also a good idea to ask who has the most retention with their sales force.

If you elect to go forward with this option, you might be growing to the point where you are no longer able to design or keep up with production or perhaps you now have additional help and your inventory is greater than your sales? And maybe you just don’t like selling your own goods- that is a challenge in itself to put on the sales hat and take your feelings out of it. People say things that you would never imagine about price, appearance, and quality of goods so if you treat this like your first born, it can be hard to swallow so take a deep breath or allow someone else to help with this.

Signing on with a manufacturer’s rep is a big step- there are all kinds of legal things you must contend with to make this a partnership, primarily this includes paying out approximately 10-20% commission monthly. As well, you must train your reps or the showroom about all of the nuances of your product and story. Ideally, these reps will sell your goods as you would sell yourself so sharing the history of your product and all of the details that set you apart from your competitors should be part of this presentation. Another expense will be providing samples to the sales team – after all, they can’t sell the product without having the real deal (or I don’t recommend that). It’s very difficult for buyers to buy from a catalog or the internet so it’s a huge expense but one that will pay great dividends if you can provide enough samples so that your line is being represented the best it can without your presence. Bear in mind, these samples may not be returned in the same condition in which they were sent and there is always that chance you might not get samples returned so factor that into your overhead.

The greatest benefit of working with a rep or showroom is the exposure that one person can’t achieve alone. Hopefully, they have been trained to sell and have a passion for the goods you are creating. Most importantly, they have long term relationships with buyers and can help you attain a greater volume of sales now that you are ready to up your production!

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  • Thanks for the helpful advice, I particularly appreciate the first part about not over analyzing things too much as I have to stop myself from that too. Reminds me of a good saying “The more you work, the more inspiration will come”. Just start somewhere and learn from your mistakes as you go!

  • what a great article! So much valuable information. I too did the brick and mortar thing for several successful years, but wasn’t able to fulfill my own creative outlet. Now, I’m back to painting full time, and loving every minute of it. Thanks for the great post. Karin

  • This is a fantastic post with lots of food for thought for so many. As a professional artist I am the creator, advertiser, packer, shipper, author, editor, and promoter of my own work. Entrepreneurial skills can be learned but the spirit and will to succeed has to be there in the first place. The NYIGF is a tremendous place to check out trends and to see amazing marketing ideas brought to life. In the end it is each and every step we take to promote our work and what we do that is going to make the difference… never give up!

  • Thanks for a great article. It’s hard starting a business and every little bit of advice is appreciated. I agree with the statement about when the economy dips the entrepreneur finds an opportunity. My handmade business is going from strength to strength in the worse economy. I’ve found people are getting more discerning with what they buy. People are still buying, but they are buying quality, local and handmade goods over mass produced items.

  • Wow! How true I have been doing my textile work for a few years now and have been showing in little local events, not really making much money from it, mostly doing it for enjoyment. But I have always told myself yeah, one day I’ll do it for a living, but that day has never arrived. I do have a very suitable studio space and good contacts that I should really be making the most of and get my own businesss off the ground. This artical has made me realise that there will always be things that I can use as reason to put it off, I need to just get on with it!!!

  • thank you for a smart and genuinely helpful article. this is exactly the kind of information that is relevant to what artists and fine art craftspeople do. You performed a service by publishing this piece. also, in the comments above, diana made a very good point about people buying ‘quality, local and handmade goods’ – goods that bring an extra dimension of meaning to the acquisition.

  • A terrific article and perfect timing for me – I sell handmade wholesale goods to high end stores and I would like to sell on Etsy or my own website – how do you price the product so as not to compete with your stores but have a price that is more affordable?

  • Wonderful! I love this bit, it’s truly inspiring :) I’ve been on the verge of taking the leap into ‘doing my own thing’ for a while now, but I’ve lacked the proper confidence to go for it. This piece is right on. What a great forum to share with others in the same boat as me.

  • Dava….
    Well, this is the point about making the shift from retail to wholesale (and back again). It is difficult to figure out the dollars $$ and sense of it all and it isn’t a good idea to sell your goods for any less that your retailers so try to keep the prices consistant. You can justify a few dollars here and there but if your bread and butter is in the wholesale operation you run a greater chance of losing those buyers should you sell your own goods at a much lower price.

  • Nice job. I sure got the giggles when you said that people say the darnest things about price or…. As if you weren’t there. It helps toughen us up and makes us work a little harder. Never stop growing as artists and keep pushing forward.

  • Great detailed advise!!! The one thing designers need is a great 6 to 9 month plan that includes things you mention like booth prices, rep fees and sample costs… it all really adds up!!! It’s important to know all this when setting your price. I love how you sent out your postcards and got such positive repsonse. Best, Ann

  • Good advice. Etsy (or Artfire…) do seem like good places to start. They’re basically free & the “overhead” is virtually non existent. Advertising, getting people to the shop & getting people to buy are the bigger & more difficult issues. I’m glad I started my shop & hope to take it to that next level. These tips are helpful. Thanks for the article!

  • This was so incredibly helpful! Thank you. Another topic I would like to see is for wholesale orders- how to make it financially worth it, pros/cons, etc… It has come up lately and I am trying to figure out how to make it work…


  • HI Willow,
    It’s a toss up….I feel your pain because I struggle with the same thing…Do I sell more volume to ‘spread the love” and get my goods out there ?or do I just limit my “production” to my own little circle of etsy buyers and various events?? It is truly a conundrum.
    It really just depends on where you want to be….And can you produce the necessary volume of your product to really make it worth your while? Initially, you will be working a little harder for less money but the trade off is having your goods showcased in a new environment- perhaps that in itself is a great marketing tool- one that will pay off in the future.
    Hope that helps. holly

  • PS One way to test the waters…
    Partner with a boutique, gallery or retail store that you adore- shoot for the moon and really select your dream store – being certain that this boutique is your demographic. Propose a trunk show of your goods…

    This experiece will give you a chance to get invaluable feedback from customers. There’s nothing that compares to that human touch…And although you might sacrifice a few dollars, you will get a real feel for what your customer will pay, what is working, and ways you can improve upon your business. (and if you’re shy about selling your own goods, ask a buddy to work the event with you)

  • Great article – but what is Etsy?

    My daughter and I have been struggling with the questions we all ask “Is it good enough – will someone buy it”
    After this article and comments I can tell we are not the only ones that think that – so forward we go

  • very well-articulated; thanks for collecting your insight into this great write up. one of the biggest challenges I face, having jumped in with no idea what I was doing about 2 years ago, is finding a person to partner with who enjoys the biz part of a creative business – like crunching numbers and devloping sales strategies that dovetail with the creative planning of a paper goods line….

    ps – trunk shows rock !

  • Elissa, You mentioned something about finding a business partner which I meant to mention….
    Business relationships are like marriages in that a large number end up in “challenged” partnerships…..If you decide to join forces with another, I highly recommend you weigh the pros and cons before entering into such an arrangement. I do believe that the best and most successful relationships complement one another- whether in business or pleasure. So, having the balance of one with the creative genes and one with the accounting brain makes perfect sense…However, if what you need most is the analytical expertise, hire an accountant or bookkeeper as needed. It is also difficult to pay two equal salaries in a business partnership when starting out…Most start up (independent)businesses don’t collect much of a salary for a few years so the more people sharing the profits = less salary(also a factor). …Consult with others on marketing and sales strategies- try to get together with some like minds and start a little brainstorming session monthly- sharing of ideas is FREE :-)…The Stationery Show is coming up- although those vendors are there to showcase thier products, you can also make some valuable contacts and get great feedback! Not to mention the buzz of excitement and energy you get from being in a room full of entrepreneurial and creative people….It’s awe inspiring! aNd if you haven’t already attended, make it your mission!! Good luck!

  • What a wonderful way to start my day – checking out my favorite blog and seeing Holly pop up!! All of the great convos we’ve had via email, phone and while selling our wares locally…now out there for others to read and learn from. You know your stuff and manage to make the rest of us creative sorts feel pretty darn good about what we do, or choose not to do, or do part way while our kids are young…… KUDOS to you Holly!! Keep dishing out your insight and healthy perspective.

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