Striking a balance means something different for everyone. For some, it means cutting ties or quitting a job outright to pursue a passion. For Aubry Bennion, it meant launching a business while remaining supported by her corporate job — one she still holds even after reaching successful heights with her small business. Born out of a love for celebration, Aubry Bennion started Hello Maypole as a way to bring joy to life’s most ordinary occasions through her line of fun and colorful felt balls that can be mixed or matched, suspended by string as a garland or DIY’d into a wreath.
Balancing a fun-loving attitude with business savvy, Aubry is joining us today to chat more about her start on Etsy, the stress of juggling many (felt) balls, what it means to run a niche business, and how, in today’s age, even a business with the humblest of beginnings can have a fighting chance. –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
It’s wild, I know, but I do both! I studied public relations in college (because it didn’t require any math and every assignment was basically make believe!), but never imagined I’d actually pursue it as a career. A dream job fell into my lap just a few months out of college and I’ve been in the industry for over 10 years now. Everyone thinks I’m absolutely crazy for juggling both Corporate America and my own creative small business, but I am surrounded by the very best people who allow me to pursue both paths. Of course, they compete for my attention at times, but they also fuel each other’s fire. It works for me because I have so many cheerleaders who are equally as thrilled to see this thing that was once just a fun idea propel itself into a thriving business. I probably get asked 10 times a day when I’ll quit my day job, but I’m truly one of the lucky ones who actually loves (both of) her job(s). And, the 401(k) match!
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?
Do you remember the early days of Etsy, when it seemed like a new handmade shop opened every second? At the time, I felt as crafty as the next girl and was the queen of “I could totally make that,” but I waited until I found something that both filled a void in the market and that I was passionate about enough to make a real run at it. I first saw felt balls in a holiday DIY blog post and immediately thought of a hundred ways I wanted to use them in my home. But they weren’t very accessible, especially in any variety of color that appealed to me, and they were wildly expensive. That was my lucky strike. I took a leap with a wholesale order and sold them at a local holiday market. Customers cleared the shelves before the end of the first day. I immediately invested my earnings back into another order for Valentine’s Day. That’s how the business was born. I’ll never get over the novelty of how fun they are. They add such a punch to a party. And for sure, seeing them in bulk like I do, immediately makes me want to dive in and go for a swim. I work with 80-something colors, which whispers endless possibilities to me.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
There’s not a singular piece of advice that I tucked into my back pocket from my early days pursuing my business so much as an adopted mentality. Utah is home to so many successful creative businesses, but beyond being successful, the community here is so supportive and welcoming. Having a front row seat to so many entrepreneurs, I’ve been able to learn at their feet and soak up their wisdom – especially in this time when innovative spirits are bucking traditional business techniques right and left.
The most encouraging thing I saw was that even the businesses from the most humbling beginnings have a fighting chance. It can be so daunting to start – to feel like all your ducks should be in their row, with proper processes, and a well-outlined business plan in place. That’s what the old school mentality would have you believe. But, with $500 in my pocket and some living room floor space pushed clear, I was able to grow a business and believe that it had promise. And best of all, with so many platforms and social media outlets, it’s entirely possible to get a business off the ground without going into debt or being financially risky. Every ounce of my business has grown through genuine grassroots efforts, and that is so satisfying as an owner! In the early days, I set my sights on collaborations with other small businesses with similar-sized reach that were also gaining their sea legs. There’s definitely something to be said about shooting for the stars, but there’s also some real guts in being able to set attainable goals and steadily achieve them.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
That back-end stuff that never makes its way into the glossy squares of the Internet! Having a really great idea will only go so far without the hours of quiet hustle-hood that no one ever sees. My business was born equally by pretty photos of colorful parties and hours at home, plugging away at an excel spreadsheet while I should have been sleeping. The business side doesn’t come naturally to me. It took me longer than it should have to realize I don’t have to be the expert at every aspect of my business. Things really took stride when I felt confident enough in the future of my business to outsource the things I didn’t/couldn’t/shouldn’t do to the people who did/could/should – the numbers to the accountant, the website to the web guy, and the shipping to the assistant who has a much better eye for quality control than I do!
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
It sounds trite to say, but the customer is king. At the end of the day, I want my customers to be one hundred percent delighted with their buy. Since my product lives in celebration – holidays, birthdays, parties, all the way down to the everyday moments that deserve their own parade – it’s my goal to create that celebratory, happy feeling in the all-over experience for my customers. I try to infuse a sense of humanity into my business everywhere I can. Socially, I make a conscious effort to integrate my personal Instagram feed with my business feed, so my customers know there is a real, live person on the other end of their transaction, not a big box robot, joining in on their life’s celebratory moments.
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?
Almost concurrently with the launch of the felt balls, Hello Maypole was a hand lettered art business and I did quite a bit of custom work. I created a piece for a friend/client with the quote “let them be little.” I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s a line from a country song. The day of the Sandy Hook school shooting, friends filled my social networks with photos of their children and accompanying messages of grief. Since I don’t have children, I didn’t have much to offer up by way of photos, but I posted a work in progress photo of that custom artwork… and it went viral. Overnight, we organized an online charity sale and I willingly contributed the artwork as a digital download. We sold thousands and thousands of digital downloads. Considering the circumstances, the charity element will forever mark the piece more prized than its monetary value, but it wasn’t long before I realized the image was pinned, shared, repinned, blogged about, and repinned again thousands of times over, all linked back to a fleeting source – a web link that no longer existed, without a trace to its origins or attribution, and without a watermark of any kind. It was a simple mistake, overlooked in the fury of charity.
When the sale was over, I began to see replicas, exact in their style and shape of my handwritten letters, pop up on screen-printed mugs and t-shirts in both small shops and international clothing brands and chain stores. I couldn’t chase them all, nor was it my intention to. It wasn’t my quote to own, after all. But I chose to adopt a mentality of gratitude and humility that I had created something that resonated so deeply with so many. I was content knowing that I contributed goodness to the Internet, regardless of the missed opportunity it was for my business. Even though I’ve retired the handwritten arm of Hello Maypole, I offer the original digital download for free on my website.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
I would definitely steal one (or two!) for a little more sleep, but I’d also cash in on that ever-growing queue of foreign films on Netflix that I’m dying to watch! I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie without a dual purpose – sorting orders, assembly-line packaging, etc. I would love to watch a movie and actually look at the screen the whole time, without work competing for my attention. To be able to read subtitles would be a wonderful thing!
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
I’ve definitely sacrificed my comfort zone. There’s a lot of safety in being comfortable with your decisions and day-to-day actions, but since starting my own business, not a day goes by that I’m not stretched or tugged to make a weighty decision that I’m not entirely sure of. Businesses are made of miniature leaps of faith and even though every one of them has been a little bit scary, I’ve rarely regretted any of the times I’ve leapt!
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
Nothing is more delightful than meeting a customer “in the wild.” For me, it usually happens at Chik-Fil-A (seriously), home of midday mom meet-ups and kid playdates. It doesn’t happen every day, by any means, but when someone asks, “Are you Hello Maypole?” I want to bounce from my seat and meet them with a hug. Connecting with the people who make my business possible and believe in what I have to offer is what it’s all about for me. I usually keep a package of felt balls in my bag for moments like those… because it’s such a simple effort on my part but I’d fall over with happiness if I was on the receiving end of a greeting like that. I’m in the business of celebrating life’s moments. It’s maybe one tiny ounce of what it feels like to be Oprah.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I really appreciate the boom of online continuing education marketed toward creative and business owners. Platforms like Atly or SkillShare with courses in every subject imaginable. Marketing classes from Freshly Picked, tabletop photography, and even a class about email newsletters. Experts all over have made this a very convenient time to be small business owner! I love SkillShare for their subscription service and I love the interactive feedback from the teachers within Atly.
I’ve made some real friendships with fellow business owners on Instagram. There’s a sense of solidarity among us and I’ve been able to bounce ideas off of a few trusted ones, since we’ve had a real solid idea of the look and feel of each other’s businesses for so long.
And for those who live in an area with an active enough creative community (which by now seems like creativity is everywhere!), forming casual meet-ups with other business owners can been so buoying. So often, the creative ideas stay in the brewing process in my head without someone to run them by, but setting aside time to talk about business with people who are in the same boat has been so beneficial. You wouldn’t believe what a treat it is to have one simple conversation with a friend and learn about a supplier who has the exact type of packaging I’ve been looking for, or discover a new app that solves the latest nagging trouble. Not everything is a trade secret, and I appreciate the ones who are willing and able to help each other out. It’s also really helpful to be able to hold each other accountable for the things that would otherwise stay in the “I’ll get there someday” pile of ideas.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
For the first year and a half, my business was divided between hand lettered art and felt balls. The hand lettering grew organically by word of mouth and referrals before the felt balls came around, but those were so irresistible and gaining momentum faster between the two. I never felt comfortable marrying them as a cohesive brand, even though I felt close to both. I let the cream rise to the top, so to speak, and it quickly occurred to me that making a business out of a thing that once was a hobby (hand lettering) zapped the fun out of it. Felt balls as a business, though, still had so much to offer by way of business potential, so I made the decision to stop accepting custom orders for hand lettering. Having to decline projects (and income!) from customers was so hard, but I took the ripped Band-aid approach, knowing the faster I made the transition, the easier it would be to refocus my brand into something I was really confident in and proud of. And, as tough as it was to let go of the piece of it I was more personally attached to, I secretly knew in the back of my head that from a financial standpoint, it was the wiser decision. I was able to pour all of my resources and attention into the felt balls and the vision for Hello Maypole as a source for celebrating life’s ordinary and extraordinary moments grew.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. The first thing that is easily underestimated is the amount of time it takes to keep a business thriving. Every time I think I’ve reached “maintenance mode” or I have things outsourced to the right channels, there’s a killer opportunity around the corner waiting to occupy another little sliver of my time.
2. It’s also worth considering whether a new business contributes a new or unique concept to the creative community. I believe in ingenuity and that there’s room for everybody’s new ideas. But I’m also really protective of the hardworking people behind every original idea!
3. And most of all, it’s all about the passion – to be continually interested in developing new product or concepts or the really cool photo shoots, but also in trudging through the hard things. There’s a lot of excitement at the start of every idea, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in sticking it through to see the big moments pay off!
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
Instagram, always. Both the personal and business accounts. Then Pinterest. Then Feedly, for all my latest news and blog reads. Long live the blog.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
The hardest thing about being my own boss is maintaining a normal sense of balance and perspective. It’s easy to throw myself at a project completely and drill down to the finest details, assuming I’m the only one who cares enough about my business to do it The Right Way. On the flip side, since I’m in charge here, I can leverage my “bossability” to conveniently ignore or procrastinate the hard things (bookkeeping!). Not being accountable to anyone above me can sometimes make me the laziest [go-getter] there ever was!