Nearly 12 months of the Green Sofa, Business Review
I can't quite believe that it is here, my 12 month anniversary is just around the corner and what started out as "I'm going to write a blog and see where I get to" has evolved into what I hoped it would be, a collection of creative businesses all sharing their stories, worts and all, about their choices, the risk they took, and what made them start, to what was missing for them, and what kind of journey it has been. If you are starting out on a creative business journey, I urge you to read some of them here. There is nothing like hearing other people's journeys to help you with your own.
And for me, the blog was a leap of faith into something different. Yes, I write about interiors and decor and how I created a room. Yes, I style products and feature brands, but I had no idea if people would even be interested in the business angle that I wanted to create. Would it just seem too high brow? too boring?
Well, it seems not and I'm thrilled that I have been able to create this, with those of you who have chosen to share your journeys.
When I make an investment decision, a lot of it is around people, often people who have done it before, "a seasoned pair of hands to steady the ship", someone who has made the mistakes before so that hopefully you can avoid them again, or simply the person who knows where to look for advice and to get it. So why would it be any different in the creative world?
I have featured 72 Business Spotlights and while each journey is unique, there are some strong trends running through the journeys. Now, unless you've read every one as they have come out, that's a lot of information to trawl through, so I thought it was about time to do a summary post. This isn't a post on how to start a business you can read that here, but it's a summary and discussion on some of the themes.
The first thing to know, when starting your own business, is that it is going to be hard work, often 24/7, because you never stop thinking about it. Regardless of the hard work (a lot of my spotlights rating it 8-10 out of 10, 10 being the hardest), there is a great deal of satisfaction in doing so. I don't have a single spotlight that regrets starting out; even if they have failed, they have equipped themselves with a whole lot of knowledge that they can take into their next business. The Mcginn sisters and Opsh is a great read if you wan to know what I mean.
I've had many business owners talk about how their own confidence has held them back, either in starting up their business (taking a long time to be brave enough to do it) or in knowing what to do to grow. And I get that, putting a creative product out there, that is often a reflection of you, is a big deal.
But being a business women I'm always going to look at this rationally. If you have done your research and know there is a need for your product like Piglet in Bed, or if you've showcased your product on Instagram and people are asking to buy it (often the best indicator), then why not go for it?
You can often start a creative business, unlike a High Tech one, with very little money, often while still working a job (if indeed you do). I have some business stories such as Divine Savages or The Curious Department, where the founders or one of them still work day jobs (admittedly quite hard to juggle both properly) and others, especially women, where the creativity came at a time of transition, voluntary redundancy like Bag and Bones or the arrival of children.
So if it can be done for little money and you know/believe someone wants your product, is there much of a risk in trying? Are you going to be worse off? and might you just be better off?
For some, starting a business has been the making of them. Perhaps they had lost their job or struggled with ill health or had children's needs to look after for a long time. Starting a business has given them their confidence back. Read Orange and Grey for a really interesting perspective.
So now we have dealt with the hurdle that often stops people from trying, let's look at what else is important.
Don't Hold Off Making the Perfect Product of Perfect Business
You can spend lots of time and often money getting the perfect product or business off the ground, but sometimes it is better to just get started and see what people want from you and your business. This is part of the concept of "lean start up" that Feathr discuss in their spotlight here. Now this doesn't translate to putting out a poor quality product, nothing will see customers run away in droves than a product that looks cheap or falls apart, but equally you shouldn't spend years perfecting something that, once you launch, no one wants.
I've had one business run a Kickstarter Campaign to fund a product release (the Curious Department) and another raise Venture Capital (opsh) but everyone else has used their own money to start their business via redundancy, savings, bootstrapping or working a day job. Clearly, there is a risk to using your own money to fund a business, but most people who have, had a great belief in what they wanted to do. Getting money from the bank, when starting out, has proved difficult for some businesses, for example Anna of Also Home, talks about her disappointment with the bank. This is not unusual, banks want a track record.
But if you start out slowly and make a few items that you can fund out of your own pocket, and see how they sell, you can invest the profits to grow further, if they are successful and if not, then you haven't lost too much. Most creative businesses that feature on the blog, start out this way, as there is rarely the need for high capital costs these days.
Quite simply, early doors almost every business has started out at home from the kitchen table, or the spare room, only moving to bigger premises as the business has grown. Annie Sloan is a great read on how to grow an international business from your home.
Some, such as Hilary and Flo, started out when the shop next door became available, but retail premises are becoming a difficult place to start out in, rents are creeping up and high streets are vanishing and I know Shelley recently made the tough call to shut her shop to focus online, where she can work from home.
In many ways it is much easier to get your product out there these days. You don't have to rely on putting a paid advert in a magazine as you had to in days gone by. Social Media is a great tool for raising awareness (and yes I know the algorithm is a pain in many cases) and it is currently free. The key with Social Media, as hard as this is going to seem, when also running a business, is to not rely solely on one platform.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that building a huge social media following will translate into orders you have to widen your customer base through other channels such as newsletters, blogs, trade fairs and on the ground pop up activities and events - you have to get out there and be creative!
Lorraine from Curious Egg, gives some great advice here.
You should also consider using Influencers, people who can showcase you product in their homes. There is a huge trend away from more traditional PR and Marketing as millennials and others often make decisions based on recommendation. You can read about the rise of social influencers here and if you want the basics of marketing and creating a brand there are posts here and here.
Where to Get Advice
This has been a mixed bag across the spotlight's with some brands indicating that they found a great deal of advice from local services and entrepreneur programmes, others using google, a lot! Most, I think will admit that regardless of the information that is available to you, having someone (not family) to bounce ideas off and simply to just ask "am I doing ok?" is invaluable and often missing in the community.
The Vast Number of Things You need to Do
Do not underestimate the vast number of things you need to be on top of when running a business. Yes, there is the fun part of creating product, but you also have to be on top of your finances, there are legal requirements of selling online and HR, should you hire staff. In the early days you need to be on top of these until you can hire people to do it for you. Even then, the buck will ultimately stop with you. Soak&Sleep founder is right that you need to be a Jack of all Trades.
I think this has been one of the biggest challenges across most of the spotlights, how and when do you use help to do the jobs you know nothing about?
It Always Takes Much Longer Than You Think
Everything takes longer than you think and plan for. Do no expect sales overnight. Do plan to have enough money to keep you going for a while. Also Home is a great case study in having enough money for your second sales cycle, as well as surviving when everything is thrown at you.
You Will be Very Lucky to Avoid a Curve Ball
You can't plan for what you don't know, but do take time to look at trends in the environment to see what might be coming at you. Brexit and the effect of importing and exporting, consumer spending habits, recession, all of these will have an impact on your business and while you can't know when they will arrive, risk planning is important to any business. Opsh founders were hit by a change in investor appetite that they couldn't have predicted which you can read about here.
So, thank you, to all of you who tune in to read on a regular basis and to all the brands that have shared their journeys. This blog is here because of you.
The Girl with The Green Sofa