I love discovering how other makers have started and grown their businesses. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of good information available online. Most articles seem to be start-up and tech-focussed and assume that you have lots of money. Elements of that are applicable to maker businesses; however much of it is at odds with what we do. Maker businesses are ‘slower’ businesses. We are difficult to scale and grow – and venture capitalists aren’t about to lend us a bucket of money… So here are few things I’ve learned. If you can recommend any resources, link them up in the comments below.
Start debt free
Try not to start the business if you’re already in a lot of debt. This is kind of self explanatory. Set yourself a goal to get out of debt and build a little buffer of savings. Then start.
Don’t give up your day job
Don’t quit your job immediately – try to go part time or casual – because it will take well over a year before you’re generating enough profit to be able to pay yourself. The more profit you take out of the business, the slower you will grow. Have a plan to cover rent, bills and food for the first 12-18 months. And be prepared to work second and third jobs if funds are tight. Being busy is good. It stops procrastination and worrying.
If you’re eligible, do a free course, like the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS). Check online for others that are available. You’ll be surprised how much help is out there for you!
Test your product as early as possible and iterate. You’re a maker. Your product is your business. Put together samples from whatever you can scrounge up and start trying to sell them. Make them yourself. Don’t pester manufacturers at this stage, because they’ll ignore you. It should cost you nothing.
For the first 6 months, I used scraps and offcuts in random colours from shops in Melbourne and then sold them at whatever market I could get into. I had no packaging or branding. No signage. They were literally squares of linen (tea towels and napkins).
Contrary to what you may think, sell your product before you write a business plan, build a website or develop branding. By the way, selling to your family and friends doesn’t count! If you find it hard to get into city markets, go to a country market. You can just rock up at markets like the ones in Daylesford. There are NO valid excuses to not sell your product first. This is the scariest step, but it’s absolutely the most important. But don’t even think of doing a big market like Finders Keepers as your first market, not just because it’s expensive, but because you’re not ready.
Start small. You may have a plan to make many big beautiful products, but initially choose something simple, cheap and easy to produce and perfect it. Focus on a few products and be the best at them.
At all your markets, take some paper and a pen and get people’s email addresses. Set a goal of 100 email addresses from those first few markets. Then treasure these. They are like gold to your business, especially when you are starting out. When you're ready, use MailChimp to create beautiful campaigns.
Business nuts and bolts
Once you’ve done a few markets and made some sales (a few hundred dollars is fine), then really dig into your business plan and start worrying about names, branding and a simple website on Squarespace or Shopify. Get an Etsy shop happening.
Unless you’re a professional graphic designer, get a graphic designer to do your branding. Look for students and find someone who has a similar aesthetic to you. Budget $1000 to get your initial concept done (logo and style guide).
Picture your products
Learn how to take photos. You don’t need to have a fancy camera or do a course. Just google it and practice. Digital photos are free. Take thousands of them until it starts working. When you get a little bigger, build a relationship with a photographer and get good photos for your website.
Bottom line basics
Understand the basics of accounting and keep your business and personal finances separate. During the first few years, you may resent your business from time to time because you’re poor and tired.
But if you can look at your numbers and realise that the business is not taking all of your money and it is profitable, it’s harder to blame it for your bad mood. I use Xero to make it easier.
Get insurance – but don’t pay a fortune for it. If you become a member of Craft.org.au, you can get it free as part of your membership fee.
Talk to other makers and small businesses. Send them an email. Offer to watch your neighbour’s stall at a market or go on a coffee run. Running your own business can be very lonely. Get out and share a war story or two. We all have common experiences and go through tough times.
Enjoy the ride
Try to relax and enjoy the whole process. This is more difficult than it sounds. I’m a worrier and am inclined to take every failure or piece of negative feedback personally. It’s OK to screw up. If you’re honest with your customers, they will understand. This is especially so for your first few customers at markets. They know you’re new and have no idea. It’s OK.