Bar none, our most popular post on BACKSTAGE has been “Starting a Stationery Business.” It has brought in 100+ comments and questions and to this day, my husband is still reminding me that I need to pop back in and answer a few more. Seems like a lot of you are really interested in starting a small business, whether it be stationery or something else fun and creative. Which I loooove.
So I thought we could talk a little more about the lessons that I’ve learned in the two small business that I’ve run. The ideas really apply to any and all creative businesses, so hopefully, you’ll find something that resonates.
Every business has certain mantras that it should follow:
- Spend as little money as possible to get the job done.
- Make sure you spend enough to get the job done really well. An outstanding product speaks for itself.
- Never assume. Never assume that you’ll make a sale, never assume that you’ll generate X dollars, never assume that you’ll be a smashing success because your mom or your sister or your best friend really loves your work. Dream big, but be prepared for anything.
- RESEARCH. Don’t go into anything blind. Know your suppliers, know your buyers, know your audience. This is KEY.
- Owning a small business means being able to do anything, anywhere, anytime. Until you have the means to hire more help, it’s all you baby.
- It’s good to be a little bit desperate. Desperate to make that money, to earn that sale, to pay your bills. Desperation fuels the hunger that is always needed to run a business successfully.
- Every decision that you make needs to have the ultimate goal of bringing in revenue. If you are thinking about different marketing strategies, be absolutely certain that it will yield the financial results that you need it to. If you are considering hiring an employee, you need to make up that cost one way or another.
- Don’t dive into an oversaturated market unless you have a truly unique, distinctive voice. That means that although letterpress is fabulous, you have to really find a way to set yourself apart from all of the already-out-there-doing-business letterpress studios. That’s tough. If you aren’t 100% certain that you can do better than what’s already out there, consider taking on a different angle.
- Know your own strengths and weaknesses. Are you great at the creative, but terrible at the business side? Perhaps taking on a business partner is a good idea. Are you a night person as opposed to a morning person? Consider selling online where business hours are as important. You get the drift.
- Always remember that being an entrepreneur is hard. It requires hard, diligent work. It requires patience and sacrifice. It requires focus and dedication. If you aren’t willing to put all of this into your new business, it probably isn’t worth starting.
These are the bread and butter. The very basic necessities of any given business. Lay a good foundation (research), spend consciously, create a beautiful product and hit the ground running. Okay, now let’s really break it down.
1. Spend as little money as possible to get the job done…
When I started my stationery business, I took out a decent sized loan. That was a TOTAL mistake. I wish that I had saved up enough of my own money, borrowed from friends and family, anything to avoid taking out a loan. Why? Well, because the thought of paying that back was always dangling over my head. I knew that every dollar that I made had to be first used to pay back that loan. Not fun.
2. An outstanding product speaks for itself.
Creating a product of any kind is a lot like designing a wedding. Figure out what is really important and make it shine. A product that is made with care and skill is one that will get noticed. Find other ways to skimp if you need to…work from home rather than renting office space, negotiate deals on everything, bring your lunch to work, whatever. But never sacrifice the quality of the product.
3. Dream big, but be prepared for anything.
Have enough cash reserves for at least 3 months, 6 months is even better. You never know when the market is going to take a dip, when you are going to have unforeseen expenses, when life is simply going to get in the way. Don’t ever assume that the money will come in. There will be days, months, years where you have to really work to get every dollar. And that is just part of the recipe.
4. Don’t go into anything blind.
This is probably the most important tip. KNOW your industry before you jump in. The world of stationery for example is flooding with talent. With incredibly ambitious, creative people who are desperate to see their own company succeed. Know these companies. Watch to see what’s selling, what’s not. Understand color palettes and trends in style. Know printing methods and pricing. Know what lines stores are carrying, what lines stores are selling out of. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. To really get in there and get information. Be annoying. Be the one that craves knowledge. You’ll have SUCH a better chance for survival and success if you make it your JOB to know your industry.
5. Be prepared to do it all.
Even if you have to be your own bookkeeper, sales person, PR staff, HR staff, accountant, business developer and designer…do it. Because there is always someone else out there who is willing to do it all, who will work harder, who will spend less and sell more. The sucky part about entrepreneurship is that all of that motivation has to come from you and you alone. If you aren’t willing to throw on a million different hats, you probably aren’t going to see a very successful company.
6. It’s good to be a little bit desperate.
There are really two ways to go about starting a small business. One, you can start it as a side project. I did this with writing. I actually worked in PR and took a gig writing for AOL City Guides on the side. I wanted to see if I could make a living with writing. I realized quickly that I would have to get pretty creative to do that. Starting a business on the side means a couple of things. One, it’s obviously low risk so you’ll probably be able to sleep at night. Two, it gives you the ability to test the waters, to make sure that you are making the right decisions with your new business. The problem with starting a side project is that you’ll never be fully committed to seeing it succeed. Even if you think you are, you’re not. Your busy with your primary job, your kids, your life. Side projects are called side projects for a reason…the get pushed to the side first.
The other approach is to dive in headfirst. Which is what I did with Abby Jean and with Style Me Pretty. With both companies, I HAD to make it work. Or I would be homeless. So the success of my companies has been fueled by a bit of desperation in the best way possible. I worked harder, I stayed more focused and I did everything and anything that I could to watch my brands succeed.
7. Every decision that you make needs to have the ultimate goal of bringing in revenue.
When I was running Abby Jean, the biggest mistake that I made was not recognizing that every dollar spent was one more dollar that I had to make up in profit. I took out an ad in Martha Stewart Weddings…cost me $15,000. I attributed 1 sale to that ad. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe in advertising and I know a lot of people who have had great success with magazine advertisements, but personally, I didn’t make that ad really work for me. I should have sent out copies to every client, every customer, every potential store that I wanted to see my invitations in. I should have bargained down a better price. I should have made absolutely sure that such a big investment was going to yield the results that I needed it to. And I didn’t. And my bank account took a heavy hit.
8. If you aren’t 100% certain that you can do better than what’s already out there, consider taking on a different angle.
I was lucky with Abby Jean. I came in at a time when there weren’t that many modern, high end stationery companies. So I was able to really stand out. With SMP, timing was also on my side. There were only a small handful of wedding blogs and none of them were doing highly edited magazine-like content. If I were starting now, it would be an entirely different story. There are a million stationery companies. There are a million wedding blogs. Anyone that enters into those climates better be damn sure that they have an even better product than what is out there OR a completely new edge.
9. Know your own strengths and weaknesses.
When I started Abby Jean, I thought that I would be great at everything. How wrong I was. I was good at client services, I was good at design, I was TERRIBLE at managing my money. I wasn’t afraid to spend money to make money and yet I didn’t have a solid plan in place as to how I was going to make that money. When I started SMP, I KNEW that this was my weakness so I became overly conscious about every dollar that went out the door. I hired a sales person on commission only because it was so low risk. It’s this conscientiousness about my own weakness that has given me even more success with SMP than I ever dreamed possible.
10. Always remember that being an entrepreneur is hard.
There are days that it really sucks. There are moments (many of them) where you just want to throw in the towel. At one point, I was responsible for paying the bills of my cousin, my sister-in-law, my husband and my mother. My own mortgage, car payments, childcare, the works. THAT was pressure. But you know what? I KNOW that it’s hard running your own business. I KNOW that it’s a lot of pressure. But the reward that you get when you find success is unlike anything on the planet, so for me…it’s always worth it.
So there you have it. My little list of commandments for small businesses. There are a million more tips and we can definitely go into those, but now I want to hear from YOU. What are the rules that you live by when it comes to your small business?? Come on backstagers! I know you’re out there…