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Quit Your Day Job: elizandaxel

Jun 22, 2009

by Mary Andrews

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Eliza has been running her Etsy shop, elizandaxel, for just under a year and has already seen enough success to call it her full-time gig. She’s been designing, making, and embellishing clothing since she was a wee ice skater. Since then she earned her BFA in Fashion Design and worked in the New York City fashion industry for a host of designers.  It wasn’t until she was let go from her previous corporate setting that Eliza set the goal to make a go of it on her own.  She’s hit a few bumps along the road, but she has some incredible advice from her own learning experience for those of you thinking about taking the plunge.

How did you originally get into the business of making things?
My mother was always making clothing for my sisters and I, but I didn’t become interested in fashion or sewing until I began designing and beading my own figure skating dresses. I had skated throughout elementary school and began competing a few years later, but dresses were expensive so I learned to do all the beading myself. (I’m convinced this is where my love for hand work and embellishing originates.)

After skating I went on to study and graduate with a BFA in Fashion Design from Stephens College. I completed several internships in NYC, one with designer Elie Tahari and another with the New York City Ballet Costume Shop. It was a year later at my then current job that I began noticing the huge amounts of usable fabric ending up in landfills. At that job we tossed several thousand pounds of textiles out each year. I wanted to develop a way to turn that waste into lovely and usable objects to wear, and so Eliza + Axel was born. Currently I use reclaimed fabrics as the trims (textured flowers, appliquéd circles, etc…) on my tees and dresses, but eventually I would like my garments to be made completely of reclaimed fabrics.

When you first started selling on Etsy, did you have dreams or goals of eventually quitting your day job?
Absolutely. I started work as an Assistant Designer with a large, southern-based retailer after school, but I discovered very quickly that corporate life wasn’t something I wanted to pursue. I started researching other options and found Etsy. Eliza + Axel came into creation about a year later, and not even a week after I posted my first tees I was laid off, along with 600 others from my company. The transition from full-time corporate life to working for myself was both exciting and incredibly stressful, but in the end the lay-off was truly a blessing in disguise: I am so much happier now!

Did you do anything to prepare ahead of time?
I wasn’t at all prepared when the first orders started pouring in. Before I was laid off I had registered my company name and got a tax ID number, but that was it. A few things happened that I hadn’t anticipated, and as a result I’m now scrambling to figure out all of the tax and additional licenses/registrations I need. I do not recommend doing it this way; it’s a huge headache and results in a lot of additional fees and possible fines.

What are the most effective ways you have promoted and marketed your Etsy business? What’s your best marketing tip?
Not a single day goes by that I don’t do something to promote Eliza + Axel. I am constantly passing out cards and networking in person and via blogs, forums and social networking sites. Also, I always keep an eye on the Treasury and renew my postings a few minutes before it goes below 333; that way all of my listings are towards the top of searches and there’s a higher chance I’ll have items featured in Treasuries and on the front page.

What have you found to be an unsuccessful promotion?
Paid advertising rarely works for me.

Walk us through your typical workday.

  • Wake up around 8; walk and feed my puppy, Axel.
  • I check my shop and relist anything that sold the night before. If I haven’t had any orders I renew a few of my bestsellers.
  • Print up shipping labels and pack/ship all tees to go out that day.
  • Begin cutting petals; once I have enough I sew them together in separate strands per color.
  • Lunchtime! I take a 30 minute break to eat and walk Axel.
  • The afternoon is spent pinning and hand sewing petals to the tees.
  • Yoga at 5:30, followed by a quick dinner and more sewing.
  • I usually crawl into bed around 12 or 1 a.m. after more sewing and petal making.

What do you enjoy most about not having a day job? Is there anything you miss?
I love that I can do whatever I want, dress however I want and work as much or as little as I want. It’s a great life! The only thing I really miss is the social aspect of a normal “day job.” Even though socializing was frowned upon at my previous job, it was nice knowing I at least had the opportunity to do so on a day-to-day basis; I miss that a lot.

What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
Time management and the long hours. There are some days I only get 4-5 hours of sleep and it’s hard not having true weekends anymore. But it’s completely worth it; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself? What advice would you give someone else?

  • Plan everything in advance. Start small and always, always write down what you want/need to accomplish each day, week, month and year.
  • Start small. I’ve always intended on expanding Eliza + Axel to include dresses, sweaters, accessories, etc… but I started with tees because they were affordable and accessible to the everyday person. In addition, they were also less expensive to produce and required less labor, keeping the costs down and making them available to a larger audience. Starting small allowed me to gradually grow as I could afford it and it left me debt and stress free.
  • Find an appropriate niche. Do your homework! When doing my initial research I only found two Etsy shops specializing in embellished tees and each had great sales, so it seemed like a sure bet. If there had been more than ten shops I would have reconsidered my plan. Thriving in a category that already has a lot of sellers is completely possible, but you need to work at establishing a unique identity for your shop and giving your customer a reason to buy from you and not someone else.
  • Create what you love (but remember: what you love may not sell). A fantastic product WILL sell, regardless of whether you love it or not; my least favorite tee is one of my bestsellers. Regardless of how well you know your customers, you never know how they’ll react to a new style, so try everything. If it doesn’t sell you can always unlist it and try something else. Once you’ve found what works for you, run with it. Create additional styles and products based on that bestseller. For example, I took my Flora Tee and created a tank, babydoll and dress based on the same concept.
  • The customer is always right. Be good to your customers. Really, really good. Assuming that your product is fantastic, treating your customers extra well, with respect, appreciation, honesty, and generosity, will make them happy to come back to your shop over and over again.
  • People are going to knock you off. Since fashion is clothing and legally considered a “useful article,” it is not eligible for copyright protection. If you have a bestseller you can count on it being knocked off at some point, so don’t let it bother you.


What goals do you wish to accomplish in the coming year for your Etsy business?
Still sewing and loving it. I would love to expand Eliza + Axel to include clothing, accessories and home objects, but it will always be a small/local company. I am looking forward to my first holiday season, and I am already hard at work creating additional stock of my current styles and designing my new fall collection. I’ll be including a brand new line of reclaimed cashmere and fur tops and dresses for fall, as well as embellished shoes and hats.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Without Etsy I don’t know where or what I’d be doing right now, but I know it wouldn’t be nearly as wonderful/fulfilling as creating and selling my garments to fantastic customers around the world. Today I am lucky enough to be able to do what I love and make a good living at it; I never thought that was possible until I found Etsy. Thank you so much for everything you do, my fellow Etsians and I truly appreciate it.

Thanks to Eliza for sharing her story.  Have your own questions to ask? Come on by and chat with her Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 7 p.m. in Etsy’s Virtual Labs

You can see some of her fashion work in the related items. Check out previous Quit Your Day Job posts here.

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