I started my own creative business last year, and this has been a hugely steep learning curve for me. Are you in a similar situation, and thinking of starting your own business? Often it is taking a seed of an idea to the wider public, out in the open, or selling your creative ideas or products, that were until now just for friends and family. You might be working from home, a studio or a larger premises, as a sole trader or a partner. One thing is clear that it takes courage and resilience to take this step, and I really admire people who decide to do this.
I jumped in with both feet, not really knowing what to expect. Being the researcher that I am, I did a whole lot of internet research, about trademarks and brand names, and brand identity, and online shopping and websites, and these helped me. But these also confused me because there wasn't one single website that could sum it up all for me. as nothing like this existed for a small creative business. Wish someone would have given me a roadmap to follow, and the resources to look for in one single place.
I would say that it has been the most exciting thing that I have done so far. Probably not the wisest or the most financially astute one, but the most exciting, stimulating, satisfying challenge that I have taken upon myself. I don't think that it is easy to sum up that experience in a short list but I shall try (more so for the sake of brevity as who would want to read through a list of 100 or more things now!). So here are the top 5 questions that you should have thought of by now if you are thinking of or are already launching your business.
1. Why am I doing this?
Right. So you want to put out that fantastic idea out in the market, and you believe in it. Do you? Yes, you need to believe in your idea, your design, your product or the range of products. You need to love it and believe that people want to buy it, and that it would make their lives better. Perhaps you want to share it because you think that it would make them happy. Or, that it would make their lives easier. So, what is your USP? What problem are you solving? You should have an idea of the niche market, or the kind of customers that you want to sell to. Who is really going to buy your product? I did not actually think of these things, I have to admit. I made linocut art prints, and thought that people who love art and printmaking like me would love my work. My business has grown and expanded since then, and I've had to re-evaluate this. And, so would you,as your business changes. But this is also something that you should start off with.
Ask yourself: what is your core product/idea, how much is it for, who are you mainly selling it to, and who can afford this? Try and get as specific as you can, and create a lovely customer profile. It is actually quite fun to brainstorm, or do product surveys with people if you have time. There are, again, lots of resources out there, but do not trust everything as it might not apply to a creative handmade business. You can look at pinterest, of course, but then again, you might drown into the maze of pinterest and there is your afternoon gone! I would recommend, from personal experience, to think about the age, financial status, gender, interests, and most importantly, what would motivate them to buy your particular product, and that would be a great start. Here's something to inspire you! This is a good example of how a customer profiling would not be too much help!
Have a look at Enterprise Nation as they have some great resources- some are free, and more if you sign up for a membership. They have networking events, and workshops too. You can also sign up to my newsletter as I send out tips and resources regularly, and you can join a lovely community of small businesses.
2. Have I got a brand name?
This is really a very tricky one for some people. Now, again you might already have a name that you really really want to have, and it is ok to feel strongly for something. But it might be worth considering these questions before you go and get your business card printed:
- Does it represent what you design or sell?
- Does it reflect the ethos of your brand?
- Is it likely to offend any community?
- Is it unique, or is it very similar to another brand name?
- Is it flexible enough that you can expand and grow your business and product range?
- Would it appeal to the kind of customers that you are targeting?
- Are you able to get a domain name with this?
So the trick is really to find a name that is specific enough to reflect your business, but open enough to allow for growth and expansion. For instance, if you make bird baths at the moment, and you decide to call your company 'Robin's Bird Baths', it is very clear what you make, but if in future you consider expanding into other gardening products, this name might be a little limiting.
It is also important to carefully consider that it is not offensive or discriminatory in any way and is relatively easy to communicate to people. Most importantly, do a thorough research to make sure that no one has a business registered under a similar name. You can do this through internet research, local listings and through the IPO website. You would want to get your name registered and trademarked, as that protects your trading rights and business name. The IPO website is relatively easy to use, where you can search for existing trademarks and also apply for one online, in the categories that your products are under, such as stationery or homeware, which are 16 and 45, if I remember correctly! It isn't certainly cheap and a big financial outlay at the start of a business, but it is something definitely worth doing. It protects your legal rights as a business, makes it exclusive, and also protects you from any legal issues down the road if your name is the same as any other business already under existence.
You might not want your own website just yet, but again this is something that you might consider in the future, so make sure that this domain name is available by looking up places such as GoDaddy and buy one now if you can. A .com address is preferable as it is more international in appeal. but a .net or .co.uk would work as well. However, if there's a similar website with a .com address then you definitely do not want this and perhaps best to reconsider your name, or the web address.
3. What is my brand identity?
One you have your name, and a customer profile, the brand identity comes hand in hand. You must be getting your logo designed now, and thinking about fonts and colours. This is really the fun part where you get to play with colours and types, and be really creative without a thought for money and all that business-y stuff. You will see this thrown around a lot and so what exactly is brand identity, and how does it differ from your brand name and logo? Brand identity is the story you tell through your products, your logo, your name, the colours, the typography, and the tagline. This is all about how you wish to be perceived by your customers. How do you want your brand to come across? The Brand Stylist is a great website, and 'How to style your brand' book to explore the ways that different colours and type shape your brand image.
Here is another interesting article that explores the difference between brand and brand identity and how different artefacts create the identity. Your identity should make your brand memorable. Nike is a great example of this, where the swoosh is immediately memorable and recognisable. It is a great visual aid in helping people identify the brand and services, and that's what an effective branding should be able to do.
This is a huge topic in itself, and I will be writing a separate post on the top 5 brands that have got this right, and the key elements in a branding exercise. Subscribe to stay updated.
4. Where should I sell?
The first question you have to ask yourself is whether you are looking to sell online, or in physical brick and mortar shops, or both. One has to start somewhere, and often people start online as it is now so easy to set up and online storefront in many online shopping portals. The things to consider are:
- Is your product perishable?
- Is your product easy to ship and post?
- Would you be sending just in your own country or internationally?
- Is it a general interest product, such as greeting cards and art prints, or a niche product such as bridal accessories or tattoo art?
- Do you want to pay commission on your sales, and how much?
Although there are several online platforms, and it is so easy to open up a shop with ETSY or FOLKSY, it is worth thinking about your specific product and your customer (the profiling you did should help here!) and where are they most likely to buy from. If your products is specifically designed for an age group that does not use the internet for shopping, then an online shop is unlikely to be very successful. It is also useful to think of your competition and other sellers with similar products, and where they are selling. There are specific sites for artists, wedding collections, and vintage articles so it is worth investigating these.
You also need to think about the packaging for your products. Is it fragile, what kind of packaging is your customer expecting (and this is all wrapped up in your brand identity!), and how easy it is for you to ship your product. This will also determine whether you can really cost-effectively post it internationally. Sending internationally enhances your reach but it can be expensive for larger and more fragile items. So, unless your cost model can incorporate this, it is best to focus on the local market to start off with.
Most of the online marketplaces charge commission for selling through them, and this is a hidden cost that you have to build into your prices as well. Some are as much as 40% while others like ETSY is very small, although they charge you appx 20 p for every listing. On the other hand, they do not charge for setting up a storefront or membership fees which many other marketplaces do. It is worth considering your audience again and the size of the marketplace, and whether it would be possible for your products to be seen. The larger ones have a bigger consumer base and hence potentially a larger chance of selling, but then again if they are not very selective, the competition to be seen and be discovered is much higher. So, it is also worth weighing up this before committing to a marketplace.
Something else to think about is whether you wish to concentrate on one, or rather not put all your eggs in one basket, and set up shop in a few different marketplaces. This might also work if you have different kinds of products which suit different kinds of consumer base.
For instance, I sell all my art and linocut art prints via Artfinder and a lot of my illustrations, cards and other gifts via my storefront on Not on the High Street . Recently, I have consolidated my collections here on my own website, but initially it was good to have the support and the opportunity to sell and be seen via these marketplaces without the commitment required to develop my own website. I also have a Folksy and ETSY store, but, again, it is impossible to find the time to update each storefront and keep it fresh, so think about how many are too many? Or, are they?
5. Have I priced my products right?
This is a very contentious topic and not something that can be discussed in its entirety here. Let's just say that the pricing is something that has to be continuously evaluated and tweaked. But, to start off with, this is one area that I most struggled with. I had no idea how to price my designs and products, and whether I had got it right. The most important questions to consider here are:
- What is my cost (this included operating, material and time)?
- How much profit do I want to make?
- How much do my competitors charge?
- What is the market trend?
- How much will my ideal customer be willing to pay?
Again, the customer profiling and market research will be extremely useful here. While calculating your costs, take your time into account as well, including time taken to design it, procuring materials, designing packaging, photographing and listing it online. These costs should also include the cost of your packaging and shipping unless you are charging for postage separately. As a new business, you wouldn't be VAT registered but take into account any taxes that you are likely to pay, locally and internationally. All these would give you a rough idea of your cost price. Now, if you have a revenue target, you can calculate what your retail price should be adding the profit to the cost price. This all seems simplistic enough, but I personally find it very tricky to calculate the time that I have spent on a product accurately, which means that I inevitably underprice most of my products at the moment.
I have learnt with experience that if this is done at the design stage as a tentative exercise then it is so useful to assess the commercial viability of any of my products. If the retail price comes to much higher than what the market trend is or what your competitors are charging, then either you are spending far too long making this product or your materials are too expensive. If it is impossible to lower this in any way, then this wouldn't be a commercially viable decision. It is ok to have a product that is priced much higher than other similar products in the market, but unless it can be actively demonstrated that this is much superior product or adds value to the customer experience in some other unique way, and this will have to be built into the marketing model, then it is unlikely to work. A buyer always assesses the value against price before they make a decision to buy. However, if you've reached the right people, and if you firmly believe in your design and the quality and originality of your product, then you should be confident enough to charge what you think it is worth, and if the person buying it values handmade products as opposed to mass commercialisation, and realises the innovation, integrity and quality that they are buying into, and if they are committed to the ethos of your brand, then they will be willing to pay for it.
Overpricing is as bad as underpricing, but ultimately, it is your level of expertise that is part of the equation too, something creative makers often overlook!
There are some excellent resources here: