Melanie, the jewelry designer and business maven behind Damselle, was able to start her jewelry business and become her own boss after working as a store manager for The Discovery Channel. Melanie admits her sales took a little longer to take off than she originally imagined and walks us through the steps she took once she realized promoting her shop was just as important as having a great product. She stands by the fact that happy customers are her best viral marketing strategy, as well as marketing her personal story as a brand. Stay tuned as Melanie candidly discusses the personal and social sacrifices she’s had to make in order to make Damselle a reality.
How did you originally get into the business of making things?
I have always made things with my hands. From a young age I went to art schools, most recently the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. I also came from a very creative family, the sort of family in which trips to the fabric store and the book store last hours and can be deadly to your bank account. We made alligators out of old carpet padding. We watercolored the cat. We took the clothing out of our dresser drawers and stored books in them instead. We lived a pretty out-of-the-box handmade life and were pretty fearless about it.
The story of how I started making jewelry and how it became a business is, like a lot of things that have happened in my life, a meandering and unexpected path. I was doing volunteer work helping to care for tigers that had been purchased on the black market and then abandoned by their owners. It was a very special time in my life and I really felt close to those animals, but raising funds to keep them fed while we waited for them to go to their new animal sanctuary homes was difficult. We decided to hold a charity auction, and I needed something to contribute, so I tried my hand at making jewelry.
Tell us about your previous working situation.
It has always been my goal to find a way to live a more creative life and do things on my own terms, but after school I got caught up in the daily grind with the pressure of paying my bills and lost focus. I was working for The Discovery Channel Store as a store manager. I had been there for four years and was recently promoted; it was a lot of work, and a lot of hours, but I felt like things were really coming together.
However, within a few months everything came tumbling down and I was streamlined out of a job. During that summer as I was closing down my Discovery Channel Store and asking myself a lot of questions about what I wanted for myself in the future, a few important things happened. I spent some quality time with my old college friends in Boston, the movers and the shakers, with whom I’d dreamed about my future. I started thinking hard about what really mattered to me. After years of working overtime for someone else, I realized that I needed to take more risks in my life to do what I love.
When you first started selling on Etsy, did you have dreams or goals of eventually quitting your day job?
I have always wanted to quit my “day job,” even before I had one. I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to do it, and for a long while I thought I was going to open a tea business, but the high overhead and the idea of being stuck in one place all the time weren’t ideal. I had hopes that my Etsy experiment would pan out in an exciting way, but to be honest, I was a bit of a slow learner when I first opened shop. It took me over a month to get my first sale, and almost a second month to get another. I opened Damselle in October, but didn’t realize I would need to put real effort into it to become successful until February. I began to understand that promoting Damselle and getting myself out there was just as important as having a great product. Slowly, my business began to grow. Now I think that running a tea business would have been crazy, and my little online jewelry shop is the perfect solution to being a business owner in this economy.
Did you do anything to prepare ahead of time?
Honestly, I am not necessarily the best role model when it comes to preparing to quit your day job. I did speak to an accountant about tax issues, and I did take a part-time job while I eased into running a successful business. However, I don’t have any children and if things get rocky I can just take up a part-time job for a while. Most of my preparation involved learning to sleep through the night without a steady paycheck and building confidence in my abilities.
What are the most effective ways you have promoted and marketed your Etsy business? What’s your best marketing tip?
I’ve had more business generated from free, word-of-mouth promotion by my customers than I could ever pay for. I’ve also been fortunate to have blog posts written about my work on several popular wedding sites by happy customers. This has brought me so much business, and I’ve had lots of referrals from friends and family of my customers. I don’t think there is any secret recipe for marketing success. We all have to figure out what works best for our own business style and target customer base. Take calculated risks and try new things. Always look for new places to expose people to your product. Be fresh and consistent.
One thing that I have found to be very successful in my own marketing is to think of myself, in a way, as a brand. I am often selling myself as much as I am selling my jewelry. Because of that, I try to let my personality shine through in my correspondence with customers. One great idea I had was to make little printable artist bios, which I use to personally thank my customers and to introduce myself. One goes in each package I ship out. These are also great because, if the item is a gift, the recipient gets to discover more about my story and hopefully connect with me and my jewelry, as I am selling a handmade product. I think it’s wonderful that Etsy customers care so much about the special uniqueness of the handmade items they buy, and the people behind the craftsmanship.
What have you found to be an unsuccessful promotion?
I have learned that, while I love the exposure of being blogged about, unless a blog has a track record of generating a lot of traffic to my target customer base, it isn’t a good investment for me to send items for blog reviews. I can usually get more traffic for my money by simply buying advertising, and I think being blogged about by my happy customers is a lot more effective.
Walk us through your typical workday.
- I get up every morning around 7:30 a.m. and make tea and breakfast for myself. Then I sit in front of my computer and check my emails while I have breakfast and try to wake up. I make a list of what I need to do for the day on a week-long sheet.
- Then I work out (more often than not) and pack my orders, if I haven’t done so already.
- Then I shower, but usually still wear jammy pants or sweatpants if I’m staying in all day.
- I spend the middle part of my day making and photographing jewelry, in between tea and cat snuggling breaks, while the light is good.
- If I need to run to the post office or do any other errands, I also like to do this while most people are still at work.
- I also periodically check my emails, relist, and update my social networking sites, to which I am addicted. (In my defense, I do get a good amount of traffic in my shop from those sites.)
- In the evening, depending on how busy I am, I usually do a mix of promoting, answering emails, researching supplies, and having free time. If I have a lot to get done, however, I can work into the night.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job? Is there anything you miss?
My favorite thing about not having a day job is not having my values dictated to me by someone else. I love having direct personal accountability for my successes (and failures). I am living my life on my terms, and I have never been so free. It’s great to be able to take the time I need with my family and friends. If that time happens to be at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, it’s not a problem for me to walk away from my work and come back to it later in the evening. I love being able to be creative, and I love hearing the stories from my customers about how my jewelry goes on to be part of their lives.
I do miss having a steady paycheck. Let’s face it, becoming self-employed is not for the faint of heart. You need to really love what you do, because there are many sacrifices. I have had to cut a lot of things from my budget to make it work, like buying new clothes and eating out. Right now, I have a roommate.
I also miss the human interaction. It’s harder to meet people when you work from home, and I have to be careful or I can become a hermit. Social skills: Use them or lose them! I recently joined my local Street Team, Handmade Dayton, and I’m so excited to get to know all of them.
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
I think the most difficult part of running my business is dealing with change: learning to sleep through the night when you don’t know what’s coming, being able to push yourself out of your comfort zone to see what you are capable of, learning to recognize and act on changes when they do happen. How am I going to adapt my business strategy to be relevant in the current situation? I have already seen my business go through a major evolution from the novice designs I made for the auction, to a brief stint traveling at crafts shows, making the decision to focus on Etsy as my primary venue, developing the bridal line, handling wedding season and the holidays in different ways. I know Damselle will continue to evolve and I hope that I can keep up.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself? What advice would you give someone else?
Wow, there is so much advice I would have given myself. I wish I had had the courage to quit my day job sooner. I wish I had understood that I would only get as much as I put into my Etsy shop. I wish I had ignored the woman at the craft show who told me my jewelry was too gaudy for brides. However, hindsight is 20/20, and I think I’ve done okay.
My advice for other people quitting their day job would be to make sure your passion for what you are doing can carry you through the rough spots. Keep diligent and detailed accounting, even if it isn’t your thing…you need to know where you stand financially. Don’t be afraid to keep learning and trying new things. Celebrate your victories, no matter how small. And use a kitchen timer to keep yourself on task (especially in the Forums).
What goals do you wish to accomplish in the coming year for your Etsy business?
My goals for my shop are to continue to grow my business into a stable and successful career for myself in which I am able to live my life deliberately and with integrity, and to spread the word to the world about the benefits of supporting artists and craftsmen by buying handmade. When you buy handmade, you are directly supporting real people who have put a lot of attention and skill into their product, as well as making a choice that is less harmful for our environment and helping to grow our local economies.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
As I’m writing this interview, I’ve been going through the blog posts I wrote as I went through the process of starting my business, and coincidentally, today is the two year anniversary of quitting my day job. I am not afraid to admit that the road is not what I expected it to be. It is both harder and more amazing than I anticipated. My life has never been richer and I have never felt more excitement and anticipation for the future.