Some of my favorite businesses are those started out of a personal vested interest. Not only does this ensure that the passion is there to create the absolute best of that specific thing, but it can also guarantee that the product or service is likely something missing from the market that many others are also craving — whether they know it or not. For Amanda Perumal, her business, Contra Botanic, was initiated from her own personal void.
As a succulent-lover living in a home lacking south-facing windows, keeping plants alive was frustrating, and Amanda simply wasn’t satisfied with the typical artificial plant offerings. Her goal was to make plants that not only stood the test of time and were care-free, but plants that “you can cuddle, too.” All of her adorable felt plants are made with care, by hand, using 100% wool, — all modeled after various types of succulents — and are sold on Etsy and at local markets in Toronto, Canada. Though she’s still finishing her studies at OCAD University, Contra Botanic has already made it into the gift-guides of some of Toronto’s hippest blogs, and she’s been invited to sell at myriad trade shows and shops around the city. Today, Amanda is joining us to share more about life as a young, budding (pun intended) business owner and the importance of simply doing one thing well. –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
As someone who’s studying in the creative field, I’ve always known that working for myself was an option. Contra Botanic was born out of participating in a program called Summer Company, which funds students’ ideas for a start-up and provides mentorship on learning the ropes of running a business. Unemployed and off school at the time, I applied on a whim thinking I had nothing better to do for the summer, anyhow. It ended up being an incredible learning experience and really showed me the potential of my work in a professional setting. I didn’t expect things to take off like they did, and although the program had no requirement to continue running the company once it was over, I decided to keep at it!
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
Towards the end of my first year in university, I was feeling a bit bogged down by the program I had chosen. I was studying to be an illustrator but it didn’t feel quite right. I missed making and working with my hands. I began to look into other options within my school and the textiles program caught my eye. I went to have a tour of the studios to see what I’d be getting myself into and immediately fell in love. Within the day I was filling out the forms to switch programs. Four years into my program now, and I couldn’t be more happy that I switched!
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
To keep it simple! The phrase “do one thing well” comes to mind and this doesn’t mean to say that you can only be good at one thing, but to improve and hone in on a skill takes focus and repetition. It’s been super helpful for me to concentrate on one technique and a small collection of products while starting out. As someone who likes to dabble, it’s taken some restraint to not put every product idea I have into making. Keeping things small and simple has allowed me to learn in [a] way that’s not too overwhelming.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
I think taking that initial first step is the most difficult part in starting a business or any new venture for the matter. I can recall countless times where I’ve had an idea for a project, but have never actually put those plans into action. It’s a combination of a fear of commitment and a fear of failing that holds me back from trying a lot of new things. I always thought that if I were to launch a business I’d need to be “ready” first – everything would have to be just right before I unveiled it to the public.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
I’ve learned that as much as I’d like to do everything myself, it’s good to ask for help sometimes. When running your own business, you’re dealing with everything from making to finances to shipping. I find it difficult to delegate or relinquish control, but I’m glad to have a network of friends and family who offer to help with tasks from time to time.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
Before I opened my online shop, my main outlet was doing local markets and pop-up shops, most of which had great turnouts, but a couple others not so much. There’s definitely been shows where I’ve sold nothing at all and it was hard not to feel discouraged. Things like the weather, location, or other events going on the same day are all factors that can influence the turnout of a show, but it’s fairly unpredictable. What I’ve learned is to do my share of research before selecting a show, figuring out what works best for me and my brand, and not sweating it so much when things don’t go according to plan. It’s all about trial and error.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Would it be bad if I said sleep? I’ll admit I’m not the kindest to my body when there’s a lot going in my life. More often than not, I can blame a bad day on lack of sleep.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
I was particularly pleased with myself last year with tackling the One of a Kind Show. It takes place bi-annually in a convention space in downtown Toronto and is apparently the largest consumer craft show in North America. A few months prior, I was at a much smaller Etsy pop-up at which One of a Kind was hosting a contest for customers to vote for their favorite vendor to win a free spot at their show. I was shocked when I got the call telling me I won. I was even a bit hesitant to take it on, because I knew I’d be juggling school at the same time [as] the event. I figured it would be at least a few years before I’d work my way up to a show of that scale, and the fact that people had voted for me made it so much more special. It was an absolutely hectic time leading up to the show, but I’m really glad I said yes in the end.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Balancing university while trying to manage a budding business has been conflicting. I’m lucky to have had very understanding professors and advisors, especially while I was involved with the One of a Kind Show. Sometimes I can let my business slip while tending to school and vice versa, but it’s all taught me that good planning is key!
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
This program is very specific to students in Ontario, Canada but I highly recommend looking for start-up grants.
A lovely hub for creatives, small business owners, and the like looking to hear some business tips. They also sell a dream job planner that I’ve been meaning to get my hands on!
Etsy recently hosted a 30-day challenge in which they posted lessons accompanied with videos to help those who are looking to set up an Etsy shop. It covers topics like product photography, pricing, and shipping.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. First and foremost, be prepared financially. There are so many parts that go into creating a business that you may not realize in the beginning. It’s smart to make a business plan and list all your start-up costs so there aren’t any surprises.
2. Secondly, consider your work ethic. Being your own boss means you have to keep yourself accountable.
3. Lastly, I would say that your business has to be something you’re passionate and excited about. If it’s something you’re not truly interested in, then chances are you’ll feel unmotivated to work at it every day.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
I would love to say it’s something like Headspace and that I start my day with 30 [minutes of] meditation every morning, but if I’m being honest, it’s without a doubt Instagram. It’s the first thing I gravitate towards.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
You’d think that being your own boss would be pretty relaxed, being able to give yourself breaks whenever you like, but I’m quite self-critical. It’s hard for anyone to be objective towards themselves, but I’m trying to find a good balance between kicking myself in the butt when it matters and letting the smaller things go.