Tell us about your previous working situation and how you discovered Etsy.
Chris worked in a variety of dead-end industrial jobs for about 10 years before getting into woodworking. It started out merely as a hobby — he made wooden trucks for our son, who was very small at the time. He soon realized that he loved creating things with his hands and wondered if we could use this hobby to make a bit of extra income.
After finding little success with local craft shows, we discovered Etsy — in fact, we were doing a Google search for wooden jewelry one day and stumbled upon an Etsy shop. We loved the idea of a world-wide market for handmade goods and decided to open a shop ourselves, selling safe and natural wooden toys. Chris would make the toys, and I would do all the customer service, marketing, and photography. Sales were very slow for the first six months or so, but have steadily grown over time. We’ve been on Etsy for over two years now, and for about the past eight months we’ve been living exclusively off this business.
How did you prepare to transition into full-time Etsy selling, knowing you’d need to support a family of six?
We didn’t prepare for this — the decision was basically made for us when Chris was laid off from his last industrial job back in September of 2010. With three children (and a new baby on the way), we were really disappointed. However, the timing was perfect because the Christmas shopping season was just about to start. Our shop’s sales went through the roof in October and November — I remember one day when we had 22 orders! We realized then that it might be possible to support ourselves with Etsy alone. We were making more money in those busy months than Chris had been making at his previous job as a forklift driver, so we just went with the flow. After the Christmas rush was over, we started advertising to keep the sales coming.
We have never had a very high income, so our needs were already simple — we haven’t had to adjust our lifestyle. We only drive one car (which is 15 years old), we cook all of our meals at home from scratch, and we buy used clothing. So the modest income of our shop is able to cover all of our basic needs.
What’s been your most popular item or line to date?
Our items which are for babies (rattles, teething rings, and bowls and spoons) sell better than our toys for older children. I think this is because these items are safe and environmentally friendly baby shower gifts.
What is your favorite part of the woodworking process?
I love taking the finished toy and rubbing our homemade, organic beeswax polish into it. The color and grain of the wood suddenly appear more intense and beautiful. Natural wood is so lovely!
What are your best marketing tips?
We’ve been doing some advertising online, which has been helpful in finding new customers. But to be honest, for most of the time our business was growing, we didn’t advertise at all. We simply had a good product that people wanted at a fair price and we made sure we presented our toys and dishes nicely in the shop. All of our initial customers found us directly through Etsy. We don’t even have a Facebook page, use Twitter or anything like that. Many of our shoppers are repeat customers, which is one of the reasons our sales keep growing.
So my marketing tips would be:
- Make a product that people want.
- Make your shop look professional.
- Make your customers happy so they come back!
If you have those three things in place, I don’t think it’s really possible to fail.
What have you found to be an unsuccessful promotion?
A few times we’ve done giveaways on blogs that brought us zero sales. That isn’t to say that promoting on blogs isn’t a good idea — but if the blog doesn’t have a large readership who is also your target audience, it probably isn’t worth it. It’s very important, we’ve learned, to focus on your desired customer base when advertising. Casting your net wide isn’t really a good idea.
Made any business mistakes you regret?
We are pretty laid back people most of the time, but it isn’t always beneficial to be laid back where your business is concerned. We now wish that we had been more on top of bookkeeping when we started. We pretty much left all of it until it was time to do annual taxes, and then the amount of work was overwhelming and stressful. Our receipts weren’t even organized! I highly recommend getting a good bookkeeping program or setting up your own spreadsheet when you first open your shop. Record every sale and expense as it happens and file away every receipt properly so you won’t have to play catch up later.
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
The fact that you never get a break! When running an Etsy shop, there is no such thing as a weekend off. During the busy holiday season, we were working so hard, seven days a week, that we both got pretty burned out. On the other hand, at this time of year when things are quieter, we can take a day off any time we wish and take our children out for a picnic. It’s also pretty hard, of course, that there is no regular paycheck. Some people would probably feel really nervous about the unpredictability, but we have grown to like the sense of adventure this brings. Maybe this is one place where being laid back is an asset!
What is the biggest challenge you face during your daily schedule?
It’s really a challenge to juggle child care, housework, and my business responsibilities. I want to give my full attention to everything, but of course it isn’t possible. Ultimately, my children come first, so there are days when I leave a few packages unwrapped until the following day so I can take my kids to the park or read them a bedtime story. The work will always be there, but children grow up so fast, and I don’t want to miss any more special moments with them than I have to.
Chris also finds it challenging to stay focused on work while being at home. If he comes in from his workshop (which is our garage) to get something to eat or drink, he gets stuck here for an hour because the children or I need his help with something, and then the work schedule he’s made for the day is messed up. The reverse is also true — although our family’s needs take our attention away from the business, sometimes when sales are brisk it’s easy to let work take over our lives and neglect housework, exercise, and family time. It’s hard to achieve a balance. I think in the future I may schedule regular working hours and “off” times to make things easier.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job?
So much! It’s really nice that Chris no longer has to commute — it saves time and money. We love being able to make our own schedule, and it has been enjoyable beyond words for us to be together all the time. Since our children are homeschooled, all six of us are here at home together during the day. It feels right for us to be together, living, working, learning, and now the kids are getting old enough that they can sometimes help with the business too.
What are the advantages and challenges of working with your significant other?
There have been some tense moments over the years when we just couldn’t agree. Eventually, we found everything went much more smoothly if we each controlled certain areas of the business, instead of both of us having an equal say in everything. For example, I decide where we advertise and what our ad will look like, but Chris decides when we should invest in a new tool or how much wood we should buy. Overall, it’s been magical for us to get to do this together.
Do you have any specific words of advice for parents considering a similar path?
Try to involve your kids in your work whenever possible; make the business a family affair. They’ll love to feel so important and useful, and this also provides a way for you to spend more time with them when you are busy. If you have a baby, invest in a baby carrier so you can wear your baby around the house while you work. Wearing my 7-week-old in her wrap is the only way I accomplish work during the day!
What goals do you have in store for the future of your business?
We hope that sales will continue to grow so that we can keep doing the work that we have come to love and believe in. Our dream is to someday own a piece of land in the country where we can have a family homestead and a nice big workshop. If we are really lucky, maybe we’ll have our own wood lot, so we can cut our own wood, making our business even more local and sustainable. We can picture our children helping us with the business and the work we want to do with our hands: growing food, raising animals, sewing, crafts, food preserving. We see our Etsy business as a crucial part of the family-based, handmade life we want to live.
Anything else you would like to share?
Owning our own business is a heck of a lot of work, and the pay is not nearly as much as many other jobs, but it is so rewarding and satisfying to be able to support ourselves. We have a greater measure of control over our lives than we would if either of us were working a traditional 9-5 job. The job market is so uncertain these days, and we feel owning our own business has given us a feeling of security that we never had before. We’re so glad we found Etsy!
If anyone is interested in our family’s journey toward a simpler, more self-sufficient life, please follow along on our blog.
Thanks for sharing your story, Chris and Laura. Check out their work in the Seller’s Items below.
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