Tell us about your shop and the idea behind it.
I was a tomboy growing up. Aside from a brief (and somewhat disastrous) attempt to pull off dresses and high heels in college, T-shirts, jeans, and Chucks have been the dominating staples in my wardrobe. Blackbird Tees, now entering its fifth year, is an extension of that aesthetic. Karl joined as partner last year, and has helped to expand the line, but the goal remains the same: to hand print and sell comfortable, functional clothes that are easy to wear and ethically manufactured.
Tell us about your previous working situation and how you discovered Etsy.
My twenties and early thirties were basically a blur of service industry and non-profit work. It felt a little bit like the movie Groundhog Day — waking up to the same routine and not getting anywhere. In an effort to break the monotony, I attended a screen-printing workshop, and it lit a creative spark. With a few hours of training and some seed money in my pocket, I decided to follow that spark. I opened my business two weeks later.
In the year that followed, I sold my shirts locally at farmers’ markets and through a small storefront, but barely stayed afloat. Discouraged, and with mounting debt, I was prepared to call it quits, when my friend, Angie, recommended selling on Etsy. I soon opened an account and listed a few items, but prematurely abandoned them when there were no sales. It was only when she schooled me in the ways of proper tagging and listing renewal that the real shift occurred. By the close of 2009, Etsy was my strongest and most consistent source of income.
Around that same time, Karl was working in retail as an inventory specialist. In his spare time, he created a line of home goods made from salvaged building materials. He soon opened his own Etsy shop, which he maintained for two years. When I found myself in desperate need of help with inventory and bookkeeping last year, it seemed like a natural next step to join forces.
What steps did you take to prepare for transitioning into full-time Etsy selling?
Not nearly enough. In retrospect, I can say with confidence that I abandoned my day jobs far too early. The first two years of running Blackbird Tees were stressful and money was extremely tight. With so little cash flow, it was hard to think creatively and steer the business forward. Luckily, there were a few things I did right:
- I found a mentor. She owned a small design company, and agreed to take me under her wing. The information and advice she offered was invaluable, and saved me from any number of potential missteps.
- I freelanced as a copywriter, which helped me recoup much of the startup money I had hemorrhaged during the first few months. It required that I put the business on hold, but ultimately allowed me to upgrade some equipment and purchase new inventory.
- I wrote a business plan based on the advice of a small business manager at my local bank and used it to apply for a line of credit. The money from that line of credit, along with the copywriting income, was critical. It carried me through until the business started turning a profit.
We’ve been much more careful with Karl’s transition. He continues to maintain part-time employment, and we have a well-defined financial benchmark that we need to meet before he jumps ship.
What is your favorite part in the process of designing clothing?
The research geek in me loves the early stages of design work. I’ll spend countless hours reading online, looking at old image archives, flipping through design books, tearing out random pictures, and drafting illustrations. Much of the process involves non-work related activities, which can be a welcome break from the daily grind. It’s a time to take in information, indulge my curiosity, and follow my instincts. I never experienced that in prior work situations, and it feels very special.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job?
The freedom to change course. Karl and I never assume that everything we try will be a raging success. Essentially, we see the business as laboratory. So, we can launch a new design, print inventory, photograph it, and create listings. If it doesn’t sell, we might re-photograph it, try different color combinations, put it on sale, or scrap it all together. We don’t have to wait for permission, or continue doing something that feels counter-productive. We just agree to a plan and move forward.
What are your best marketing tips?
A good pitch can be your best friend, especially if you’re on a tight budget. A lot of the legwork can be pretty enjoyable, too. Take time to read through a variety of magazines and blogs, familiarize yourself with the people behind the scenes, and learn the appropriate etiquette. It’s well worth the effort to get it right.
Develop an authentic voice within social media. Don’t think of it as a tool for self-promotion. Use it to personalize your business and invite a wider audience into your creative process. It should be a platform for connecting with others around common interests, so talk about your favorite recipes, DIY projects, or travel plans. If all else fails, post kitten photos. You can’t go wrong.
What tool or technique has been the most effective in getting buyers to your shop?
Photography and branding. It’s important to tell a cohesive, consistent story through images, packaging, descriptions, etc. Even when we vend at shows or farmers markets, the look and feel of our booth mirrors the look and feel of our Etsy shop. Carving out a distinct atmosphere can set you apart, and the smallest details make a huge difference. Plus, it makes all other facets of marketing and promotion much easier if you have those things firmly in place.
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
Getting comfortable with failure. We launch between ten and twenty designs a year. Two or three of those will be consistently profitable. The others may need to be reworked, re-imagined, or tossed aside. There is a constant editing process, and that requires a thick skin. Karl always compares it to baseball: even the best hitters swing and miss seven out of ten times.
What’s the most exciting thing that’s come of selling your designs on Etsy?
Six of our shirts were requested for an indie movie filmed in Seattle earlier this year. The prospect of seeing one of our designs on the big screen is a real thrill for us. Also, we’ve read the Quit Your Day Job series over the years, so to be featured here today is pretty darn exciting.
What advice would you give to someone considering a similar path?
Don’t wait for business to show up. Be proactive by developing some good habits and getting organized. When Karl came on board, he implemented accounting and inventory management practices that ultimately helped Blackbird Tees become profitable. Find a support system to help you stay focused. Connect with other sellers via Etsy Teams or social media, and invest the time to build those relationships. I didn’t do that in my first year, and it’s probably my biggest regret.
Anything else you would like to share?
Stay positive. Negativity comes so naturally when the stress levels are high and the road is rough, but it will never help you improve or grow. Take your energy and channel it some other way — scream into a pillow, go for a jog, call a friend, etc. And when you’re done, get back to work.
Thanks for sharing your story, Jody and Karl. Check out their items below.