Tell us about your shop and the idea behind it.
I am a polymer clay artist specialising in miniature animal sculptures, which I call “the wee creatures.” Each one is alive to me, and I love seeing who wants to come out to play next. I’m on a mission to bring more fun and happiness to the world – it’s hard to be angry or sad when you’ve got a wee mouse gazing up at you offering you a slice of cake! I giggle a lot while I’m working, and I’m pretty sure that some of the giggles stay with the creatures as they go off into the world.
The name Quernus is a play on the Latin word for oak tree, “quercus.”
Tell us about your previous working situations and how you discovered Etsy.
I worked as a lawyer for 15 years, but although I enjoyed the intellectual rigour of the work, it never felt like a good fit. There came a point in 2008 when I knew I couldn’t carry on with it any longer. I was pushing 40, and the thought of being a lawyer until I retired just filled me with horror. I didn’t know what I would do instead, but I saved up and gave myself the gift of a six month mini-retirement. Although I told my parents that I could always go back to law if things didn’t work out, I knew this was a one-way ticket for me, whatever came next.
It was only once I completely left my job that I had the time, space and energy to explore what I would do next. I started working with polymer clay again, something I hadn’t done for over 10 years. It was just so much fun to discover what I could do with this wonderfully versatile material, and all these wee creatures just started pouring out – I think they’d been waiting for me to catch up with them! I started a blog to chart my progress, and people began asking where they could buy them. That’s when I started researching the best ways to sell online. I found out about Etsy and realised that this would be an ideal way to sell to a world-wide audience. I opened my shop in October 2009, and although sales were fairly slow to begin with, they have absolutely rocketed in the past 12 months.
I have absolutely no regrets about leaving behind a career in law – I have never worked harder, and I’ve never been happier!
What steps did you take to prepare for transitioning into full time Etsy selling?
Initially, I was thinking that Quernus Crafts would be one of several income streams for me – I had trained to be a life coach, and I was also writing for UK Handmade. However, during that first year, the orders starting coming through thick and fast, I was selling well at craft fairs, and I was also getting a lot of commission orders. I realised then that I was actually able to make a full-time living from Quernus. In the year that it took to get to that stage, I had my savings to fall back on, and I also took a payment holiday on my mortgage, so I was able to scrape by until I got properly established. Throughout this time, I worked very hard and practised making all the time, honing my technique and coming up with new designs. It was hard work, but I’m a great believer that if you’re doing what you love, things have a way of working out!
What is your favorite part of the process in working with polymer clay?
Oh, there are so many good things about working with polymer clay! I love it when I start shaping the clay and I can begin to see how the wee creature will turn out – it’s like releasing the creature trapped in the clay. It’s a magical process, and one that always delights me! I feel that the clay tells me what it wants to be – I just follow the instructions. When working on a design, I don’t make sketches or plans — if I can picture the design in my mind, then I know it exists already – it’s just a question of bringing it into this world.
When I’m working with people on commissions, they usually come to me with an idea and then the magic comes from the two of us building on that idea to create just the perfect design. I consider it a real honour when I’m asked to create something very special, like a wedding cake topper, or a sculpture of a much-loved pet, and I’ve kept in touch with a lot of my customers. I do love working on completely new designs, and I particularly love the engineering challenges that crop up when making the wee creatures interact with their environment, like the Teapot Mice I made recently for a wedding.
What are your best marketing tips?
- Be as professional as you can be from day one. Start as you mean to continue – have a website, business cards, banners (for craft fairs), and create a cohesive look for your brand.
- Do what you love. People can tell when you love what you do, and they buy into that first and foremost. If something gets stale or tired, have a break from it and try something else. Keep things fresh and interesting for you and your customers.
- Treat each customer as you want to be treated. Aim to give them a lovely experience from start to finish, from the initial enquiry or order, to keeping them updated, to the packaging you use. I think this is one of the ways in which micro-businesses have a big advantage over the larger companies: we can give our customers very personalized service (which often results in lots of repeat custom work).
- Be active online, but don’t spread yourself too thin. Pick a few social marketing tools that suit you and focus on them. If you try and keep up with everything, you’ll have no time to run your business! And don’t become too dependent on any one online tool; if Facebook went belly up tomorrow, could your business still carry on? Make sure that it can and would.
- Give something back. Promote other businesses, donate to charity, be generous with your ideas and information. You will be surprised at how much comes back to you as a result, and it makes you feel good, too.
What’s been your most popular item or line to date?
The Teacup Mice have been a big hit, particularly after the Yellow Teacup Mouse appeared on the Etsy homepage back in December 2011. I had about 20 orders that day, and I’ve been steadily selling them ever since. The Little Sewing Mice are also very popular, as are the Love Mouse Couples. Many of these have found their way to the top of wedding cakes, and they have been featured in the national press.
What have you found to be an unsuccessful promotion? Have you made any business mistakes you regret?
Not so far, I’m glad to say! I post a lot to Facebook, and have built up quite a large following organically, rather than doing specific promotions. Mistakes are really opportunities in disguise. I went on a course earlier in the year which ended up not being as helpful as I had hoped. But instead of being a write-off, I was able to apply some of the things I’d learned in other unexpected ways, and my business has grown as a result. So even mistakes happen for a reason – there’s learning in everything!
What is the biggest challenge you face during your daily schedule?
It’s a challenge to keep to some sort of structure through the day; I prefer to do things as the mood takes me. This can mean that I end up working late into the night catching up on things I’d planned to do that day. Remembering to stop work is also quite hard at times, particularly as I work from home. It’s just too easy to say “I’ll just do this and then I’ll go to bed,” and before you know it, a couple of hours have passed and you’re having a chat with the dawn chorus.
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
Sometimes, it can feel like a bit of a treadmill; unless you actually plan for it, there really isn’t such a thing as down time, and the need to keep paying the bills can feel like a lot of pressure. But whenever the pressure gets to me, I take a step back and remember that I get to make mice for a living, and that I also get to choose how I feel about that. That usually has me giggling again.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job?
I love not having to answer to anyone except myself and my customers. My time is my own, and I get the benefit of all the work I put in each day. I can’t imagine going back to working for someone else; we only get one chance at life, so why spend all your precious time and energy not following your own dream?
What is the most exciting thing that has come out of selling your designs through Etsy?
As well as some national press coverage, I think the most exciting thing is when people get in touch to say how much the wee creatures mean to them. That always brings a lump to my throat and reminds me why I’m doing this, and that this is what I’m meant to be doing.
What advice would you give someone considering a similar path?
Go for it! It’s not an easy way to make a living, but if you are doing what you love, there is no better way to earn a crust. It’s far better to live a life with no regrets, even if it’s a roller coaster ride, than to look back at the end of your life and wish you’d done things differently.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help — the creative world can be a solitary one at times, but if you’re prepared to reach out, you’ll find lots of people out there willing to help. Etsy has created a wonderfully supportive community of like-minded people, as well as a fantastic library of selling and marketing tools. Make use of them both – they will stand you in very good stead. And above all, have fun!
Thanks for sharing your story, Kirsten. Check out her items below.