Rowena, the bag designer behind Etsy shop redrubyrose, began her creative journey as an illustrator. She temped off and on in office jobs before finding an illustration agent who helped her secure clients in national publications and additional lucrative opportunities. After many long nights and odd hours the thrill of the industry began to fade for Rowena and she started to consider setting up shop on Etsy. As a former shopper-only on Etsy she had a unique intuition about the shopper’s experience, which helped to boost Rowena to almost instant success upon opening her clutch shop. She was eventually able to cut back her hours in illustration until she made the switch into running her Etsy shop full time. Rowena’s now working harder than she ever has but still finds time for tea, raising chickens, and gigging in a band.
How did you originally get into the business of making things?
For as long as I can remember I’ve always had little projects on the go. My dad’s a printer and mum’s an artist so there were plentiful materials around the house to plunder for arts and crafts experiments. This eventually led to an arts foundation, followed by a degree course at art school in Edinburgh, where I chose to specialize in surface decoration and textile design. The course was great, but commercially driven; I remember creating some wall hangings with my printed fabric which my tutors perceived as being too “crafty,” so my making instincts were put on the back burner at that time.
Tell us about your previous working situation.
After graduating from art school I made an immediate decision to be my own boss and to make a creative living under my own steam. I had no clue how to do this so I dragged my portfolio ’round endless design agencies asking for ideas and suggestions. Slowly freelance jobs came my way and I ended up building an illustration career (supplemented with temping in office jobs when work was scarce). I picked up an illustration agent and eventually found myself working for clients including national newspapers, magazines and book publishers, along with guest lecturing at colleges and on courses.
When you first started selling on Etsy, did you have dreams or goals of eventually quitting your day job?
I suppose I’ve never thought of my work as a day job, more a lifestyle. Weekdays, nights and weekends have always blurred into one. If I was working on a big illustration commission I’d work night and day and then take a week off, so it never felt like a tangible work thing that I wanted to quit. However, after ten years of illustrating, a few niggles were starting to creep in; I think I was getting a little tired and losing my edge. I had a few prestigious jobs that were not so great to work on, with ego-driven art directors and endless reworks. More importantly, cash flow was an issue and with a mortgage to pay I found the waiting on checks in the post (especially on long commissions) was stressful. Although I still got a huge thrill seeing my work published and in print, it didn’t feel quite as important as it did in my ambitious twenties.
Etsy was like a bolt out of the blue. I stumbled across it one night and was instantly drawn into it: the whole premise of using the global reach and access of the Internet to support and nurture artists and designers around the world was amazing and exciting. It all seemed so uncomplicated! At the time I was still waiting on a check for a large illustration job and I wondered if this was a way to help tide me over in the lean times. I never dreamed it would become such a large part of my life.
Did you do anything to prepare ahead of time? Feel free to give us the nitty gritty business details.
I was initially a buyer on Etsy and that was really helpful preparation, as I got to see the whole process from the other side. To me it was vital to see how I was treated by sellers, how items were packaged and how good the communication was. I decided to dip my toes in the water and open two shops, but I still had ongoing illustration projects that were taking up much of my time. My first shop featured my alternative process photos (polaroidsandpinholes) and the clutch bag shop followed on from that. The clutches were a fairly new thing for me. I’d made a few as Christmas presents for friends and family and really enjoyed the process of making again: it was a tangible, beautiful, and functional object to make and engaged me again with my love of textiles. I made a few more and listed them and they started selling. It was only a few months later when orders were keeping me very busy that I took a conscious decision to not promote my illustration work anymore and focus all my attention on Red Ruby Rose.
From a business point of view, I had a fair amount in place already being self-employed. I was used to working to short/stressful deadlines under my own steam and happy to do picture editing and photography. What I could never have been prepared for was the sheer amount of work involved when you are making, marketing, listing, packaging and posting a product from start to finish. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.
What are the most effective ways you have promoted and marketed your Etsy business? What’s your best marketing tip?
For my first year on Etsy (2008) I hardly promoted at all and didn’t spend any money on advertising, I just made and listed all day long. The marketplace was smaller then and, at that time, I think it was a very effective way of being visible on the site (listing frequently). I was lucky in that I was extensively blogged about and that attention brought customers. I do remember knowing at one point over the summer of 2008 that if I listed a certain style it would be sold by the morning. Those days have long gone! I still find that making and listing is the best way to spend my time, but I now actively approach blogs, offer giveaways, and for the past year I have spent money on targeted online advertising. The Etsy marketplace is now so big that I think you have to actively drive traffic to your shop rather than relying on being found within Etsy.
What have you found to be an unsuccessful promotion? Have you made any business mistakes you regret?
Promotion is such a subjective thing, what works for one person may not work for another. Personally I have found that sales/price reductions and offers like free shipping don’t work so well for me. I also try not to hang out or promote in the Etsy Forums too much. I get very tempted to sit there with a cup of tea and absorb myself in the hot topics but I know that I’ll end up getting ruffled and if I spend the time making new stuff it’ll be a more constructive way to spend the day. A business mistake I regret is not buying enough of a fabric that turns out to be really popular and I can’t source anymore. That still happens a lot but I can’t predict what will sell and what will stick. I just buy fabrics I love and try not to second guess their popularity.
Walk us through your typical workday.
- I wake up between 7 or 8 (earlier if our chickens are squawking and waking the neighbors), I’ll look out of the window to check if they’re okay and haven’t been gobbled by foxes, then go straight into the studio, log into Etsy and spend the first few minutes of the day catching up with Convos, orders and my usual blog/Facebook rituals.
- My boyfriend, Rob, works from home as well. He’ll bring me a cup of tea and we’ll chat about our upcoming day.
- I do most of my bag making in the morning so I have a productive few hours up to lunchtime making up stock and custom orders.
- If Rob’s not too busy on his projects we may go out for lunch, or he grabs us a sandwich.
- I listen to BBC Radio 4 in my studio most days and I’ve sadly started to structure my time around the programmes.
- By the time the Archers are on at 2 p.m. I know I have to start preparing the post for the day. My packaging takes ages to do and it’s always a rush for the last post at 5 p.m. The post office is just around the corner, which is a great help.
- After the post run I have a couple of hours break and then in the evenings if I’m not going out or gigging (I’m in a band) I’ll start work again, often up until the early hours.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job? Is there anything you miss?
The thing I like most about working on Etsy, as opposed to illustrating, is that I don’t have to please anyone apart from my customers! It’s a lot simpler. Also, despite the long hours, I’m completely my own boss, and that is very rewarding. The only thing I miss now is not having more time, I don’t know where all the hours go!
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
The hardest thing that I’ve specifically discovered about selling online is the thorny issue of copying, both from a moral and legal standpoint. Copyright infringers have affected both of my shops in different ways, but I think the moral aspect of it is more hurtful. When I started Red Ruby Rose there were some lovely bag and purse makers already established on Etsy. I wanted to share their marketplace but I certainly didn’t want to step on their toes by using the same fabrics or house styles. I was naive to think that when I got established the same would be true of newer shops. In hindsight I took the copying way too personally and it was a good life lesson in toughening up.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself? What advice would you give someone else?
I’m not really one for looking back, but in hindsight I’m curious how the shop would have developed if I’d completely used my own prints from the start rather than the mixture I currently have of carefully sourced commercial prints and my own textile designs. My advice to others would be work hard on your product and stock before you even think about sales and marketing. If you have the right product the rest will follow.
What goals do you wish to accomplish in the coming year for your Etsy business?
As well as not looking back, I don’t tend to look too far into the future either, which is maybe an odd way to run a business. I’m so happy here and just want to carry on! Over the last few months I’ve been faced with the question of whether to go into wholesale, as I’ve had a lot of requests. I’m reluctant, as I love the whole one-woman-show thing and it would mean expanding the business and taking on hired help. For the near future I want to keep things small and cozy, but I want to extend the range of my own designs and maybe venture into homewares, along with other items.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I think, above and beyond, the thing that will carry you through is passion. If you’re truly passionate about what you do and willing enough to work incredibly hard, things will work out for you. There are always going to be practical reasons why you shouldn’t make that leap, especially coming from people around you (believe me, I heard them all at the beginning of my illustration career), but it’s amazing how resourceful you become when you believe in your work and feel the terror of the next mortgage/rent payment looming. It’s a hoary old cliché but true to say: jump and the universe will catch you.
Thanks to Rowena for sharing her story. You can see some of Rowena‘s art in the Related Items.
Check out previous Quit Your Day Job posts here.