Tell us about your previous working situation and how you discovered Etsy.
I’ve always found ways to be creative — whether it was drawing, making bizarre contraptions, or composing music. I graduated from college with a degree in illustration and picked up some (very strange) jobs. I started out filling vending machines, and before long I became the vending manager. I enjoyed aspects of the job (Butterfingers), but I never intended to make vending my business. As I stuffed frozen burritos into coils or unjammed pennies from coin slots, I dreamed of being a full-time artist. One day I told my wife I thought it was time to quit my job and go for it. She agreed! I had plenty of art to do, but I found that it was difficult to pay the bills with small checks coming in such inconsistent intervals. After several months my sister suggested I check out Etsy as a possible way to sell some art. I liked what I saw and listed a number of screenprints and posters in my first shop, PhippsArt.
How did you prepare to sell full-time on Etsy?
I posted some items and waited to see what would happen. I decided to kick things up a notch by adding “artsy” t-shirts to the mix. My friend and I invented our own 4-color screenprinting press and I got to work. The idea was that I’d be able to do my illustration work on one hand, but have a consistent base income generated through Etsy. It’s hard to believe I’ve now been here for 3 1/2 years! I’m still learning and finding ways to improve.
How did working in the food industry influence your current work ethic?
Well, I’m happy to now deal with things that go on the body instead of in it. There’s much less at stake. Food service is very people-oriented, and a lot of effort goes into making sure the customer is completely satisfied. That definitely carries over into the way I run my Etsy shop — I don’t want anyone going away from the experience unsatisfied.
Tell us something the average person might not know about vending machines.
A few random vending facts:
- When someone calls to report a vending machine as “empty,” it’s rarely very empty at all. Usually they mean “my favorite candy bar has run out.”
- The most common joke told to a vending operator is, “Well, if the elevator breaks down, at least we’ll have something to eat.” I always wanted to say, “No, at least I’ll have something to eat,” but I thought that might make for an awkward moment.
- Every time you kick a vending machine, a baby panda sheds a tear.
What are your best marketing tips?
Identifying your target market is key. I’ve been featured on some pretty big sites that didn’t seem to bring me very many sales, but it’s been a different story when a site that really matches my artistic outlook has shown some of my work. Recently a “geek” site posted my Circuit Board Tie, and within days it was featured on similar blogs around the world. I sold a few hundred of them in a month’s time! Not only that, but a very popular geekery site has asked to carry them, starting with an order of 300. In this case, the marketing happened on its own, but a lot of bloggers are happy to be approached by people who have products that fit their aesthetic.
What’s been your most popular item or line to date?
The Circuit Board tie and shirt have been dominating lately (for reasons stated above), but over time I’ve sold more Tattoo Octopus shirts than anything else — in part because I’ve had them for sale since the beginning of time, but also due to a very widespread love of cephalopods.
How do you successfully juggle 3 Etsy shops (PhippsArt, ScatterbrainTies and SadLittleCrown)?
It helps to have multiple browsers (thank you, Multifox!). It’s difficult at times, but I think having the shirts and ties separate has kept the shops cleaner and easier to navigate for potential customers.
What have you found to be an unsuccessful promotion?
I get a lot of requests from bloggers who want a free item to review or use for a giveaway. At first I would send them shirts, but I might as well have thrown my products into a dumpster. Unless the blog has thousands of readers or the ideal target audience, it’s probably not worth the expense. A helpful hint is to look at the comments under each blog post — are they relevant to your business? If not, don’t expect much to come out of any promotions there.
Have you made any business mistakes you regret?
Yes. (Is there a word limit to my responses here?) One of the biggest mistakes I made was to go a whole year without releasing any new designs. That’s right, an entire year! Granted, I opened up my tie shop and had several illustration projects happening during that time, but you could almost smell the stagnation. Once I added a few new images this year, the stench quickly dissipated. I’ve got several designs near completion and hope to release them soon! (Teasers: Einstein, Space Invaders meets argyle, Four Horsemen of the atonal apocalypse, lemmings and more.)
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
What is the biggest challenge you face during your daily schedule?
I find my days are most successful when I go to bed on time, get up early, exercise and get started before 8:00 a.m. When I don’t do this (which is all too often), the day seems to fly by while my projects slowly ooze along. But on those well-executed days, I start off running and feel like I get twice as much done. I firmly believe in planning the week out beforehand and keeping to a schedule.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job?
I feel incredibly blessed to be able to do what I love for a living! It’s wonderful to be able to choose the projects that interest me the most. It’s also nice to know I can’t get laid off.
What advice would you give someone considering a similar path?
It sounds cliché, but be true to what you believe and who you are (or want to become). There are times I’ve considered jumping on certain trends, but in forging my own path, I feel happier knowing that I’ve been genuine.
Also, try to get your business going before you make the plunge, so when you quit your job you’ll merely be expanding upon what you’ve already accomplished. I’d feel dishonest if I didn’t mention that all of what I do is connected to my faith in God, and that I knew I needed divine help when I quit my day job. Even at times when the money has been scarce, I’ve been able to feed and take care of my family with God’s help.
What goals do you have in store for the future of your businesses?
My biggest goal is to have a wider variety of designs and to make each image better than the last! I’d also like to be better at branding my products. I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot of repeat and word-of-mouth business by not doing a better job of it.
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