The ladies of A Beautiful Mess, Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman, know a thing or two about making it happen. From their high school photography business to their expansive online and in-store Beautiful Mess empire, these sisters have forged a dream career for themselves. Today Emma shares a bit about how they followed through with their passions and launched their biz, including the release of an app, a brick and mortar store, a successful website and two books…to name a few! —Stephanie
Read the full interview after the jump…
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When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
We didn’t. I’d love to say we started out with a master plan, or even a 5-year plan, but we didn’t. In the beginning we were just trying out new ideas and testing different passions in our business.
For us, success isn’t defined by simply what makes the most money. We also pay very close attention to what our readers want, what they request, what we are loving as a day-to-day job.
But I would say the heart of our business is our readers. They are our tribe. And thinking about our business in this way allows us to evolve, explore, expand and start over all the time. For us the final test for if a project or business venture that we are interested in is a good idea is by answering the question, “Will readers love this?” If we think so, we’ll try it.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
Confession: I love business books. Like, I’m truly a little obsessed with them. I adore reading others’ experiences, no matter how different their industry is from my own. But to be honest, the thing that comes to mind is my parents’ support of us over the years. For example, when I was seventeen years old Elsie had started a photography business and I started working with her. Looking back I think it’s kind of crazy that I went to high school during the week and photographed weddings on the weekends. But you know who didn’t think it was crazy: our parents. They completely believed in us. I remember our dad came up with a bunch of different names for our photography business. His favorite was “Hot Shots.” We didn’t end up using that name, but I love that he sat around and dreamed up names for us.
To me, our parents’ belief in us was much more valuable than any business advice in the beginning. It’s SO easy to not believe in yourself. I think, for some reason, we’re all born not believing in ourselves (or at least it feels like I was). So, having someone who basically said, “We know you can do this” meant the world and pushed us to start business adventures even before we had any idea how to do it right.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
The short answer: money. Making enough money was really hard the first few years. Sometimes you get to start a business and know that you aren’t going to make much money the first few years, but you have a long term plan and it’s fine. But we just didn’t have this luxury. Our startup costs were basically our imaginations and whatever was between the couch cushions. You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not! We were terribly broke in the beginning. And being that broke and trying to build a creative business is a recipe for a whole lot of self doubt. What we did have going for us was we were ok to work all the time, like crazy hours. It felt like we were always working. And this helped us to grow the business, but we also didn’t notice being broke as much since we didn’t have time to spend any money outside our business anyway.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Just one? So, you don’t want to hear about all the failures and mistakes. Ha! Business has been a massive learning curve for us, and I think always will be. Our company doesn’t follow any traditional models and we work in mediums that are still really young and growing. Sometimes it feels like there are no rules. This is awesome as we get to form our own path. But the drawback is we can’t follow an established model or just look to peers in our industry to know what pitfalls to avoid.
Probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is if you can’t afford it, don’t do it. I like this lesson because it doesn’t mean you can’t take risks. Big risks can sometimes mean big rewards (or big losses). But if you can’t afford something then you can’t take a risk on it. You’ve got to find another way to do it or move on to something else for the time being
When we opened our local store we took on a large loan and it was very stressful. We barely had enough money to pay ourselves, so we had to work in the store solo every day. On top of that we were writing the blog and trying to run our online website. If we could do it over we would build up slowly and not go into debt. That was a huge lesson and it has helped us stay on track ever since.
But there’s also the flip side to this lesson. A couple years ago we had the crazy idea to make a photo editing app that featured Elsie’s handwriting and artwork. We didn’t know very much about apps. We had never sold an app before. We really didn’t have any data that told us this was a good idea, we just could see a need for it in the market. We got a quote from an agency for making our idea come to life. It was expensive but we had some money in the bank. We requested a longer timeline (for a longer payment plan) and we got to work. Paying for our first app (A Beautiful Mess) was expensive but we didn’t go into debt building it. If it didn’t make money, at least we weren’t going to be paying off a loan for years afterward. When we finally launched the app it went to #1 in the iTunes store the first day and we made back our investment within the first month. We were amazed! This allowed us to expand our business in ways we had only dreamed about before. And we didn’t have to pay back anything, everything just went back into the business because we had already paid for the app during building.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
Failure is a funny thing because, if you treat it right, it just morphs into a lesson learned. We have bad ideas all the time, probably more often than we have good ideas. And sometimes we try things that totally fall flat.
Since starting your company have you made any of your business dreams come true?
Yes! We’ll never forget the day we got the call from our agent that we had landed our first book deal with Random House. It was one of those moments where we both looked at each other and and didn’t even know what to say. We had our (very patient) agent on speaker phone and she probably thought we had gotten disconnected or something because we just went silent for a few moments. The feeling of getting something you’ve been working toward for a while, that you weren’t sure would ever happen, is incredible. It’s also very addicting. We still get tweets and tagged on Instagram every day with readers from all over the world enjoying our first book. And we are so excited (and nervous!) to see what readers think of our second book, A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home, that comes out later this month.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
The Martha Rules
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
Do More Great Work
Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us
Steal Like an Artist
American Turnaround: Reinventing AT&T and GM
(These are not all about creative businesses, just books I’ve found helpful over the years for a number of reasons.)
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. How valuable is your idea?
This is impossible to measure in any straightforward way. But, is there something else on the market that is similar? How well is it doing? How is your idea different/better? If there’s nothing similar out there, do you think this means there’s opportunity or that perhaps there’s no demand for your idea (both are possible in the absence of something similar)?
2. How will you get your idea to those who would want it?
This question basically speaks to your plans for marketing. How big is the demand for your idea? Are you going to advertise? If so, what’s your budget and what’s the smartest way you can use that money? Are you going to build a platform that you can market from (a big following on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)? How long will this take you, how will you accomplish it? The bottom line is if you have the best business idea in the world but no one ever hears about it then you’re not going to get very far. So plan for how you’re going to get the word out. This will likely be costly either in time or money (maybe both).
3. How passionate are you about your idea?
Passion is the starting point. If you don’t wake up every day excited about your idea in the beginning, then how will you excite others? Your passion will be your motivator and driving force to bring your idea to life, even when you meet obstacles. Passion + hard word = your best chance at success. Don’t be afraid to adapt or alter your idea as you learn more, but you’ve gotta stay passionate.