Business 101 (according to me)

Undertaking this “Getting Down to Business” series might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done! Entire blogs are dedicated to running small business! I have an MBA but more often than not my business decisions come from my gut…..not from analysis.  So that’s how I’ve decided to approach this series….from what comes naturally and what has worked for me.

This is my first official business post and I thought I’d just start off right away with what I think are the 10 most important things for running a successful small handmade business.

 

To me this doesn’t mean make something high quality……it means make the best quality.

I take customer feedback very seriously…..and the goal is to never make the same mistake twice. This means tons of research on fabric quality, ink quality etc. We go to great lengths to hand silk screen every single item with “tagless” tags for comfort. I never mail out something I’m not proud of. If an item doesn’t meet my quality standards we’ll delay shipment….and contact the customer hoping they understand. I am constantly inspecting new things and other lines of clothing to see how we can improve on quality.

(more after the jump)

 

Customers want to know that they are valued and respected.

Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and look at the problem. How would you expect the situation to be resolved if you were from the outside looking in? Make sure your policies are written down and remind your customers about them often. You may have to make exceptions to your policies from time to time and change them as you go along.  It’s hard starting out when you have to take a loss on something because of a mistake you made…..but it’s worth it in the long run.

My personal opinion: Any seller that has a NO RETURN OR EXCHANGE policy is sending a message that they don’t stand behind their product (truly custom items are obviously an exception to this rule). I used to have that policy until I put myself in the customer’s shoes. I had it mostly because I didn’t want to have a bunch of returns at the end of a season because someone didn’t end up using the clothing. Since I have a small handmade business with a short shelf life I made up my own policy that fit my business….the customer has 10 days once they receive the product to decide if it’s for them or not.

 

Even if you are just starting out, pay your taxes and do your homework on permits and licenses…..or it will come back to haunt you.

I pay sales tax, employee/unemployment taxes, and income tax on everything Lil Blue Boo…..and I have ever since my first sale. I use Paycycle.com because it makes my life easier: it handles all taxes, forms, payroll etc. It’s about $40 a month but it’s a business expense that I can write off and it saves me about 10 hours of work (which is worth $4 an hour!). This may seem tedious and unnecessary at first if you are only selling one item here and there…….but as you grow and let the world know through blogging and Facebook that you have more help and employees……it’s basically public record.

 

You don’t need to spend a lot of money to start a business.

I started out with a dinky camera and a $99 sewing machine. I’m very conservative when it comes to investment because I like to spend my time being creative, not worrying about how I’m going to pay off another piece of equipment.

Borrow. Do you have a friend that has a nice camera that could help you take some photos of your product? Does your sister have an extra sewing machine or glue gun you could borrow?

Barter. Find someone that is willing to trade their services for product. Do you know a graphic designer who might design a logo in exchange for some amazing handmade goodies?

 

My rule of thumb? Never write anything in an email or online that I wouldn’t say to someone’s face.

If you post something not nice on your blog or twitter you can never take it back….someone will see it even if you delete it. A few people close to the situation might know what you are talking about but 99% of the world won’t care. Plus, word gets around.  There is also a rare tendency for small groups of sellers to gang up on another seller…..which I’m pretty sure is a form of cyberbullying. Stay off the bandwagon. And there are the touchy subjects:

Legal issues. First of all, make sure you copyright your work (you can use www.myfreecopyright.com) and make sure to register your trademarks to protect yourself (I use www.legalzoom.com).  If you think someone has infringed on a copyright or a trademark, approach them with a nice professional email or certified letter. They might comply immediately having no idea they were infringing in the first place. Take screen shots of everything and save every email.  If they don’t respond have an attorney send them a cease and desist if you think it’s worth the expense.

Copycats: This topic could take an entire blog post so I’ll write more on this later but here’s a summary: if you feel really strongly that someone has directly copied you take the same route as you would with a legal issue. I’ll be honest though, I don’t spend ONE ounce of energy on copycats. If I think someone has copied me…..great, good for them…….as long as they don’t have a website they are calling Lil Blue Boo and selling Boo Blue clothing or using a copyrighted graphic. And my number one rule? NEVER draw attention to the copycat…..otherwise you are giving them free marketing!

Haters: Ignore them and take the high road. Yes, sad as it is, if you experience any type of success there will be haters that love spending their energy trying to bring you down. But just think…..while they are busy trying to bring you down you can work extra hard on your next big thing! Never get involved in the petty drama. It only takes a second, but take screen shots of everything and save every email in case it gets out of control…..there are laws against cyberbullying and libel.  One of my favorite quotes: “Do not disappoint your haters this week. Keep rocking extremely hard!” —Rev Run

 

I’ll admit Pinterest is addicting. It’s fun to look at all those beautiful ideas and crafts in one place…..but a gazillion other people are looking at the same thing. I’ve noticed an amazingly quick cycle on Pinterest:

Day 1: a new idea pops up

Day 2: a new idea is pinned and repinned 4,000 times

Day 3: a new tutorial pops up for that new idea

Day 4: a 2nd tutorial pops up for that new idea

Day 10: 20 new tutorials pop up for that new idea

I look for inspiration in unexpected places: travel magazines, photography websites, home decor magazines, old family photos, vintage books etc. Keep it fresh and find a way to organize your ideas.

 

 

Keep track of all money coming in and all money going out.

Your accounting doesn’t have to be fancy…..to start out you just keep a notebook where you keep track of monthly expenses and monthly income. You’ll be surprised at what adds up and you can find ways to cut out expenses and overhead so you are on track to make a profit!

I do all my accounting in Excel because Quickbooks isn’t as compatible with Paypal as I would like it. I’m also obsessed with ratios and growth rates (so maybe I did learn something from getting my MBA).  If you aren’t numbers oriented find a friend to help you do some analysis on your financials! Put it on your calendar at each month end to finish your P&L (profit and loss statement). 

 

 

 

Eventually it becomes counterproductive to spend your time on certain things.

As your business grows you can’t do everything yourself.  Could you hire someone to help you iron fabric or package your items? What about a part time assistant to help with email? If you want to grow your business you can’t spend countless hours on the minutia.

 

Find ways to get noticed!

Collaborate and cross promote with different people and business lines. Whatever you do….don’t spam other sites and sellers. And if you write someone asking them to collaborate make sure you’ve read their blog and get their name right.

You could write a guest post for someone. You could send out some free product to someone that would love, appreciate it and write about it. You’ll have to brainstorm until the end of time for this one…..it’s all about coming up with a unique idea!

 

If you are running a business, treat it like a business. When you are first starting out you’ll bend over backwards to meet special customer requests….but as you grow this just isn’t feasible anymore.  For me, I know my team’s limits and I know overwhelming them would only move us backwards.

 

 

Hope this helps some of you!  Just remember these aren’t going to work well for everyone…..they are what has worked well for me.  When in doubt always seek out the advice of an accountant and an attorney and do as much research as possible!

Stay tuned for more! I’ll be elaborating on each each of the topics in the future!

Comments

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Comments

  1. 1

    Nice… Works the same way in Europe… :)

  2. 2
    Lise says:

    Thanks for the info and the good read!

  3. 3
    amy says:

    awesome advice Ashley!! I learned some stuff! :) xoxo

  4. 4
    Timsha says:

    Great post lots of good advise, now if I could just come up with a business! : )

  5. 5
    Heather k says:

    Thanks for sharing! You are awesome :D

  6. 6
    Janey Shaw says:

    Thank you so much for this advise.

  7. 7
    Mary Jo Vick says:

    Another awesome series. You amaze me. And really, it’s all common sense. That’s what makes your advice so approachable. Thank you!

  8. 8
    Suzanne says:

    Thank you so much Ashley. You sound like a great business person and creative at the same time, a rare combo!

  9. 9

    You’ve said some very wise things! I think point 3 has been very important for me. Before I actually started making things, I made sure everything was registered. This makes the first few months very difficult as you – in a way – have to get started, but I’m very happy I did this first. The first few months go very slowly because of this, because mostly you start with a small collection and register then. I did it the other way around and in the long run I think this was the best.

  10. 10
    Ashley says:

    Well said. You also have this in your genes as your dad was a super example of all things business!

  11. 11
    Rhonda says:

    Thank you! I am just starting out and I do find that I bend over backwards to help those customers. It’s nice to see someone who is successful posting about this!

  12. 12
    Lisa says:

    These are great tips! Very relevant to doing business. Thank you!

  13. 13
    Cecilia says:

    It is so ne of you to share all this tips. Thank you!
    Your blog is amazing and you are an inspiration!

  14. 14

    Thank you so much for sharing these awesome tips!

  15. 15
    Becky says:

    Great tips!

    A tip I have for accounting for us small, online businesses – http://www.outright.com – it connects right to Paypal and does everything for you. It’s saved me countless hours of work this year for The Soda Pop Shop. I love logging in every morning to see exactly where I am financially.

  16. 16
    Shelly says:

    Awesome! I’m excited about this series. I think it’s super interesting to read how others do things!

  17. 17
    Alexandra says:

    Thank you for this new series – I’m excited to see what is coming up next. I’m filing these tips away for when I start my own business. thanks again!

  18. 18
    shannon says:

    thank you thank you than you! this is sooooo helpful. i’m going to love this series…heck, this post alone is gold. thank you ashley! :)

  19. 19
    Holly says:

    Thank you so much for posting this, Ashley. I have been a LBB follower for quite some time and have admired not only the product you make, but your thoughtful and helpful posts as well. My friend and I have just started a small handmade business and we have used you as an example of where we hope to be in the future! Not everyone in this arena are so forth-coming and willing to help others, and I definitely appreciate the tips and resources. I will say the biggest struggles for me are definitely on the ‘business’ end of things (accounting, taxes, etc (as I’m sure is true for a lot of creative people) and I even worked in sales for a major corporation for 8 years prior to this new venture. I think I’m often overwhelmed by the whole thing- writing it all own, what to do with it, etc. The other big struggle is in narrowing down what to offer as products. Between the two of us, we are interested in a lot of things and tend to want to make lots of stuff! How did you decide to focus on a few products at a time, how do you choose which ones and which fabrics to offer? Any advice on sources for materials (fabric, etc) or a big one- how to optimize ETSY? Again, thanks so much for being so open to helping out the newbies!!

  20. 20
    Jan says:

    Yes! Really, really, thanks so much!!!!!

  21. 21
    Linda Pelk says:

    Thanks for your insight!! I always love reading your posts, and I’m thrilled that you are doing a series for small business owners!!

  22. 22
    Vanessa says:

    Great advise. Thank you for sharing, I appreciate it very much.

    Vanessa

  23. 23
    Crafty Mom says:

    Wow! Wow! WOW!!! Ashley I’ve always wanted to pick your brain about business stuff since I “met” you ;) . I’m gearing up to participate for the first time in a handmade holiday boutique. I’m totally creative and I know it’s the organizing/business side of things that will be the biggest challenge for me. Thank you SO much for writing this series. I’ll be reading closely ;) .

  24. 24

    Enjoyed this first post. Looking forward to keeping up with the series.

  25. 25
    Jenn E says:

    Awesome blog post :) . Thanks for sharing what works for you :) .

  26. 26
    Alida says:

    Thank you so much for the tips! I run a small business & it is so difficult sometimes to know what the next step is & more importantly when to take it. Reading tips from someone who is successful helps so much. Thanks again!

  27. 27
    Katie says:

    I really appreciated this. Thanks Ashley.

  28. 28
    Katie says:

    P.S. I totally admire your momentum. About your business. About everything. :)

  29. 29
    Lizelle says:

    Great advice – thanks!!

  30. 30
    RobyGiup says:

    Really helpful and wise! Thank you so much!!!

  31. 31
    paige says:

    wow…what a helpful post! I especially like the advice to look for inspiration in unconventional places!

  32. 32
    Bev says:

    What a fantastic article – we just relocated back to my home state of TX and are re-starting our lives – we sold our old businesses to be closer to family. The article is so encouraging to me as the groundwork is always the most important thing – I needed to read it today <3 Love all that you do, Bev

  33. 33
    Tiffany says:

    I love getting inside the brains of other people. Who knew Pinterest now links to tutorials, jeez. I knew it would be another time sucker….And i love the Rev Run quote, he’s so light hearted but awesome. The free publicity to haters, excellent analysis. This was post.

  34. 34
    Melinda says:

    I’ve been contemplating starting my own small business for a while now but I’m glad I’ve waiting to absorb some of your wisdom. Locally there are some other small craft/homemade businesses whose philosophies I don’t want to emmulate (don’t pay taxes on time, are erratic with their fees, poor customer service) so it’s fabulous that I can come here and begin to think through the logistics before ever offering something for sale. Thanks so much!

  35. 35
    Linda Lincks says:

    Ashley you truly have wisdom beyond your years! What great practical advice. Looking forward to the rest of the series and I don’t even have a business! Regarding haters and copycats……..they will eventually reap what they sow. You can never go wrong taking the high road. Great post!

  36. 36
    Mary Smith says:

    All I can say is THank you Thank you. I just recently started a small business and your article has helped me a lot. I so do not have the business mind at all, but I look forwarad to all your future articles because i know they will help just as much as this one has. Thanks for being willing to share all your info

  37. 37
    Katrina says:

    Thanks for all the great advice! I thought I remembered you mentioning that you’d planned on doing a ‘small business post’ so I’ve been on the look out for it. I look forward to future advice in this series.

  38. 38
    Peggy says:

    This was one of the better posts on growing a business that I have read – simple, clear, relevant. Thank you.

  39. 39
    Jennifer J says:

    Loved this! How informative, detailed and helpful. Thank You!

  40. 40
    Michelle says:

    Thank you for so openly sharing your business ideas! I first came across this series a few weeks ago, and I have been thinking about it ever since. The first line has really resonated with me: don’t just have a high-quality product, but have the BEST product. Your practical advice in every other area is SO appreciated, as well. Thank you!

  41. 41
    shelley says:

    Ash….you are awesome!!! I do not think you have any of my genes! I could have never done all of this. I love you dearly!!! God bless and keep you, B and S. Mom

  42. 42
    Karla Kelly-Wood says:

    Hello, I just recently found your blog through a post in Pinterest, and I am so glad I did! I’ve subscribed to your newsletter and I have just spent the last hour catching up on some recent blogs, particularly concerning your health and your father. Things happen for a reason and I think that’s why I found your inspiring blog.
    First off, You are in my prayers and I truly believe that faith and positivity are vital when faced with health issues. We lost my Mom a month ago, due to metastasized Breast Cancer. She was such a happy, loving caring Mom, Gran, Sister and Daughter. Her creativity during her years as a stay at home Mom to myself and my three sisters has been passed on to each of us in some way. Which in a round about (long story I know-sorry) way brings me to why I like everything you are doing so much, I am inspired. While typing this my 5 month old baby boy is sleeping soundly, I thought by now I would have my “plan” figured out. 5 months have flown by, obviously things were shooken up by Mom’s illness and death as well, but I really thought I’d have a better idea of what I would be making/creating/selling rather than returning to work full time in May. Your blog has really got me thinking – just do it. Just make the jump, because if I don’t I’m going to keep over analyzing every business venture idea I’ve ever had.
    I’m sorry this is such a long post – but I felt I had to share. I will say a prayer for you.
    Keep up your beautiful spirit.
    And Thank You

  43. 43

    Great advice, thank you :]

  44. 44
    cynthia says:

    Thanks for this simple and sound advice. :)

  45. 45
    shella says:

    I think you give some simple and sound advice…. and I did find you on Pinterest and do the same things you do for inspiration! Love it! I am going to embark on a new journey soon and this is just the sort of advice and inspiration to keep the flame going :)
    You are inspiring. This is my only subcription :)

  46. 46

    Oh my goodness, I learned so much from this post, Thank you!! <3 Copyrighting and Payroll are two things, important things, that I missed out on. I'm glad I took the time to read this!

  47. 47
    Belinda says:

    Ashley,

    Fantastic post! These are all wonderful tips that all startup businesses can and should keep in mind!

  48. 48
    Stacie Rife says:

    I have just 5 simple words for you, and I am going to follow up with an email to you as well…. YOU ROCK!!!!! And GOD BLESS YOU!!!!!!!! ;)