When it came time to make her first bulk purchase of shipping envelopes, Allison Strine knew her creative outlet had become a successful business. Once a television editor, she now works full time on her Etsy business and has an assistant. Find out why Allison credits Etsy for her success in the art world, how she uses social media to boost her views, and learn her secret behind getting discounts on supplies.
How did you originally get into the business of making things?
I never was much of a maker as a kid. We lived on a farm and I was all about the horses. If you told me that I would be a happy and creative artist one day, I wouldn’t have believed it. But a few years ago when my friend Elizabeth gave me some canvas to play with, I had an absolute blast painting, glueing, and collaging at the kitchen table. I became entranced with painted ladies and birds. When the pieces were finished, one lady looked like she had something to say. So I bared my soul and added the line: “Sometimes she goes the whole day without putting on a bra.” Ha!
At the same time I was teaching myself to solder, also at the kitchen table. I soldered the bra-less lady into a pendant, and my friend suggested I try to sell it on a newfangled website called Etsy. That was in the summer of 2006, and of course the instant addiction to Etsy fueled my creative mango juices.
Tell us about your previous working situation.
I used to be an Arabian princess in a beautiful — no, scratch that. I used to be a television editor. I moved to Atlanta from my childhood home near Boston so that I could work at a post-production house. I was one of the very few girls behind the editing console, and I absolutely adored working with other creative people.
When you first started selling on Etsy, did you have dreams of eventually quitting your day job?
In my wildest of wildest, I would never have imagined that I could earn money selling my wares. I remember that feeling of insane joy when I sold the first LadyBird to someone who didn’t already know me — they like me, they really like me! I ran right out to Office Max to get a shipping envelope. One, mind you. The next week I went back for a pack of five. And then ten. I still remember the leap of faith it took to go online and buy that big fat box of a hundred shipping envelopes.
Did you do anything to prepare ahead of time?
The words “plan” and “prepare” sadly do not appear much in my vocabulary. The creation of a business plan would have undoubtedly saved me some shilly-shallying and dithering about what to do next. I’ve come to realize that I just have to accept my quirkitudes though, so I’m okay with it.
What are the most effective ways you have promoted and marketed your Etsy business? What’s your best marketing tip?
As Etsy has changed, my marketing tools have too. In 2006, Etsy was a tiny fraction of today’s glorious community. The website had only a smattering of today’s features, but when I listed something, it got instant views. So relisting and being active in the Etsy community were two extraordinary marketing ploys I learned. Today we have social networking, and I’ve found that sites like Twitter and Facebook get people looking and commenting, which brings me almost as much joy as the sale!
What have you found to be an unsuccessful promotion?
Blech. I did a few ads in artsy magazines, and that turned out to be the best way to shred a few months’ income. In retrospect, I think I was more excited by the thought of being seen in Mary Englebreit’s Home Companion magazine than I was being wise about marketing dollars.
I think the biggest mistake I’ve made is not realizing that to create success in business, you have to first create failure, so you know what not to do. I used to get down on myself for making a boneheaded business judgment — heck, I still do — but realizing that it’s impossible to succeed without failing first has helped me lighten up a bit.
Have you made any business mistakes you regret?
I wish I’d known that as a business owner, I have a little clout when making bulk purchases of my supplies. I’ve developed relationships with many of my vendors. I enjoy buying from small companies, so I know that my dollar means something. I’ve learned it’s acceptable business practice to ask for a sample of a product I’m thinking about buying. What a concept! Now I’m brave enough to ask for a discount when working with vendors. I don’t always get the discount, mind you.
My best business mistake was an accident which turned into a monster money saver. I sell magnets, which I’d been buying online. It was kind of a pain, because I had to wait for them to ship and had to order in small bulk quantities, but I happily spent thousands of dollars having magnets magically manufactured just for me. One day I logged on to buy more magnets, and found that the price at my vendor had doubled overnight. I’m not getting rich selling $5 magnets, so there went any inch of profit I was making. After freaking out for a bit, I researched the magnet making machine and discovered that it wasn’t a million-dollar room-filling computer doodad requiring a college degree to operate. It’s a slightly expensive, easy-to-use machine that sits on the table and makes me happy. So, the mistake was in assuming that there wasn’t a less expensive way to get magnets made. Now I’ve got my eyes peeled for better, cheaper, faster ways to create quality products.
Walk us through your typical workday.
- Wake up, bundle kids off to school, work out, dog park for Fern, and then head to the basement studio.
- My lovely assistant Lisa is already there, checking email and working on orders.
- I used to spend much of the workday doing social networking, tweaking, and listing on my Etsy site, but I’m finally learning to delegate. Now I can paint and create while Lisa does the tedious stuff!
- Lisa and her two dogs work on soldering, packaging and shipping, while I work with Photoshop to resize, tweak and print my scanned-in collages.
- Chit chat, solder, paint, Photoshop, cheesy TV, greet the UPS man, repeat… until it’s time to get the kids.
- At one point my Etsy obsession (Etsession?) was keeping me at the computer way too much, but now I shut the factory down in the afternoons.
- I’ll do an evening Etsy check, relist, answer convos, hope for sales, and then repeat the next day.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job? Is there anything you miss?
I do kind of miss the rapport that I developed with my coworkers and clients, but I’m pretty darn happy with the commute!
Here’s a rapid-fire comparison: I get to come to work on my own schedule, but I don’t have any assurance that the next paycheck is in the mail. I get to work with my dog in my lap, but I can spend so much time on the computer that I don’t take her for a walk. It’s all give and take, good and bad, but way more good than bad.
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
I love being my own boss. I also hate being my own boss. I had no idea how disorganized I was or that it took more than faith to do the finances. It is so not fun to keep track of the money. The buying of materials, the invoicing of customers (mostly now wholesale, not Etsy), the writing of checks — it all just sucks. If I had a minion to run that whole part of the business, I would be one happy artsy camper!
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself? What advice would you give someone else?
Hire a bookkeeper. That’s a no-brainer. And maybe learn to delegate more? It’s very easy to slide into a non-creative zone, where I’m contacting customers, networking, Photoshopping, purchasing, and busying myself at the computer. Then, all of a sudden, a month has gone by without painting.
What goals do you wish to accomplish in the coming year for your Etsy business?
I would really love to reach more women, and to continue to create work that makes people smile, giggle, and even cry. I am finding some niches for specialty items, and look forward to creating more work to support those touched by autism, cancer and more.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I lived a whole life before the Internet came along, and I dove right into the future when it appeared. But I never would have guessed the impact a single website could have on my entire life. Because of Etsy, I’m an artist. From the humblest of humble beginnings, I now consider myself a successful contributor to the art community. Thanks to the moon and back, Etsy!
Thanks to Allison for sharing her story. You can see some of Allison‘s work in the Seller’s Items below.
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