Chris of ShopRedLeaf knew in order to dig himself out of “cubicle land” and into running the business of his dreams, he would need to plan ahead, save, research, and dedicate his energy full time into launching his shop. After rigorous time and research, Chris created a line of products that he himself would want to buy, use daily, have sitting on his counter, or feel great about giving as a gift. He now enjoys the freedom to pace and prioritize differently, and be hands on — which allows him the control over the business’ outcome. Learn more about how Chris uses his shop photos and customer service skills as some of his best marketing tactics for new and repeat business in the interview below.
How did you originally get into the business of making things?
I’ve always liked making things but only in recent years did I start to think about selling them. The first thing I remember making was a beetle sculpture made out of nails. It was as weird as it sounds, but it was fun to make and it really set up an early template of sorts for rethinking a material’s intended use, and seeing a finished piece before I began making it. I still remember feeling creative when I made that, and a little rebellious somehow.
For an income, I originally started with totally different products than the current Red Leaf line, and it bombed! That was about a year before I launched ShopRedLeaf on Etsy, and I still had my day job. That was my first experience with the business of making things. But I learned a lot about online selling, and I built the site for those old products from scratch so I learned a lot about what that entailed as well. I started to build a site for Red Leaf and even hired some help for it but then I realized that if I’m going to see how far I can take Red Leaf, then site maintenance isn’t something I’m going to have time for daily. So I started looking at options, and I found Etsy. Three days of research later, I dumped my site and went with Etsy. The work Etsy saves me daily and the exposure it gives me is fantastic.
When you first started selling on Etsy, did you have dreams or goals of eventually quitting your day job?
When I started with Etsy I had already left my day job a few months before opening shop. So for me it was a little different. I knew in advance that my day job would disappear before it did. I wasn’t interested in advancing in that field any longer so I gave myself a goal of 2 years to get out of the grind and make the move to my own income. I knew that I couldn’t develop any business to its potential unless I made a full-time commitment to it. So, instead of quitting my day job my hope was (and still is) that I won’t need to return to it.
Once I made the decision to be independent I gave myself time to save money, do research and develop a business plan. I also cut my overhead expenses by 60% so I could save and learn to live on less, which I figured would come in handy when the sales weren’t steady. Before I opened my Etsy shop I went to every bath and body store I could find, and in downtown Seattle that includes most of the well-known brands and several independents. I bought a ton of stuff, studied it, and used it all. I needed to figure out what combination of colors, textures and scents made a product appeal to a buyer — what made it a #1 seller. I wasn’t interested in the ingredients because I wasn’t interested in duplication. Because my goal was to quit my day job, I took this part of the research to heart and soon I had some workable prototypes of products. I put them in the freezer, and heated it in the oven to simulate extreme shipping conditions and what packaging worked or didn’t. I’d use a product repeatedly to see if my skin or hair was affected adversely. I compared store-bought to mine in blind tests with friends to see the impact of branding on a person’s perception of quality. I found out a lot about these products with my goal being to make them with simpler ingredients, an added benefit (such as a better look, multiple uses, or the ability to travel with it) and at a better price point.
Eventually I ended up with a line of products that I would want to buy, use daily, have sitting on my counter, or feel great about giving as a gift. All that research was a fun way to learn about what makes a great bath and body product. I felt very strongly that all the research and testing would help a lot towards my ultimate goal of being truly independent, and my mid-term goal of not having to go back to an office job.
What are the most effective ways you have promoted and marketed your Etsy business?
- The most effective and consistently productive online promotional tool I have is the shop itself. I always envisioned that as my main promotional tool and I put a lot of work into its look. I knew I’d be putting tons of work into promotion and getting traffic to my shop so it seemed obvious that once a person lands there it should look fun, and instantly convey my brand’s message. I felt that my shop should be an engaging place that you’d want to spend some time in, and if possible it should definitely have a “WOW” factor. So, the strongest promotional tool can be distilled down to the shop pictures. Visuals are always strong tools in selling, and online that goes double. A buyer perceives messages instantly whether those messages are bad or good. You just don’t get a second chance once someone stops by your shop.
- There is definitely room for improvement in my shop, and I’m working on several new products and scents driven by customer requests. I have found YouTube to be an excellent promotional tool but only if actual customers are posting the review. It’s authentic and immediate.
- I also use Facebook and Twitter, but honestly I don’t do my own promotion that well. I’m not yet comfortable with that — I’m a visual person not a text person, so promoting with words eludes me. So I depend on word of mouth, customer reviews, in person visits, and the shop (and products) to promote.
- I also renew daily on Etsy. That exposure has led to print magazine features, online magazine features, a ton of blog mentions, YouTube reviews, and 60 active wholesale accounts. I see the results in renewing, and I believe in the power of a focused shop. I love a well designed retail store, and I had that in mind when I put together my shop and the product branding.
What’s your best marketing tip?
Well I think that depends on how you sell your business: online, locally, craft shows, etc. When I am pursuing local wholesale accounts, then my best marketing strategy is to focus on the fact that the products are made locally, by me personally one at a time and to order. Same for local craft shows. Those are huge incentives to take a serious look at my products. But for all situations, especially for online sales, it’s all about consistently excellent customer service. I was lucky in that I had a chance to work with some companies in the past that were extremely customer focused — and just as fortunate to work for a few that were the opposite. I saw firsthand the expense and aggravation that a company suffers when it is not customer oriented — not to mention the unnecessary frustration a customer experiences for what often ends up being an issue over an amount of 20 bucks or less.
Excellent customer service is the most effective, dependable way to market your business. It’s not the fastest way, but it’s an easy way to build a solid customer base. People respond well to a quickly returned message or an immediate and effective response to a problem. I had this in mind when I finally chose my vendors. If they don’t respond to my initial emails, I won’t use them. They’re telling me that they are going to be a problem down the road, and that I don’t need.
What have you found to be an unsuccessful promotion?
- Free samples to friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and people I do business with, or included with a shipment to a new buyer. I’m not exactly sure why handing over a free sample doesn’t result in an order, but in my experience, it doesn’t. It doesn’t work with a new buyer because you don’t know their ordering history yet, and you could end up sending something that is inappropriate and would be counter-productive.
- Secondly, handing out business cards/flyers out of context. Network gatherings, good. Street corner, bad. A friend suggested once that I put flyers on cars. I wish I could make all my decisions as quickly as I made the decision to not do that. Aggravating a potential buyer, then likely producing litter is not a good promotional strategy.
Walk us through your typical workday.
I’d like my days to sound very efficient and calculated, a whirlwind of tightly scheduled activities designed to maximize every minute of every day so I can be the next Mr. Big Stuff. Some days are nothing of the sort. I do usually have a main task that I want to focus on during a given day — like a new promotion, re-editing picks, experimenting with new products or packaging or something that I know will take hours. My business just isn’t at the point yet where I’m working 12 hour days every day, and I’m not the type of guy to be looking for things to do when everything is already done. I no longer have young kids or a 60-hour a week job, so I like down time because it’s still new and will eventually be pretty much gone. Still though, for some reason every morning starts around 6:30.
- The first thing I will do is make coffee and get online to check my Etsy shop for sales, Convos or new reviews. Then I’ll process sales and respond to Convos. I’ll also take this time to stare out my window at the gorgeous view of downtown and a large park that I’m fortunate to have.
- That brings us to about 8 a.m. and I’ll search Etsy for my products using the Most Recently Listed or Most Relevant functions, and check out other bath and body products shops.
- Around 9 I’ll do one of several things: check my Google rankings, Google Analytics or just Google and tweak my shop as necessary. I might have to prepare weekly inventory, research vendors, contact wholesale accounts by phone, or promote on Facebook, Twitter, or blogs. Or I’ll be comparing sales/expenses to this time last month/year, visiting various forums (I get a lot of sales from that) or continuing my education of Photoshop. I work best in the morning, so whatever I’m doing is usually Red Leaf oriented. Often some of these things will take me through the whole day.
- Around 2 p.m. I’ll either be wrapped up in an article about SEO, online selling, the latest grim news about consumer confidence, or some other long-winded article about the first quarter of 2010. Thanks, Google!
- This is also the time I’ll use if I have to shoot pictures for products, visit local bath and body products shops to see what’s new or get involved with changing my item descriptions, titles, or tags to keep up with whatever needs keeping up with.
- Now it’s about 3:30 so it’s time to start packing orders and make the daily trek to the post office, which also turns into personal errands and usually a walk around downtown Seattle.
- When I get home there’s usually an order waiting, emails from vendors or customers or something that requires an immediate response.
- I make dinner every night for myself because I love to cook and that takes me to about 8 p.m. then it’s always back to the shop/forums/emails etc. to see what’s going on. There are the usual phone calls with friends, meeting a friend for a drink or occasionally I’ll go to a yoga class.
- I love to read and watch movies, especially in bed, and I hit that around 10:30 or so.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job? Is there anything you miss?
I can pace myself differently, prioritize and be hands on with all aspects of my day — which means I control the outcome and ultimately my income. I had always wanted to create a line of products from scratch and then see them on a store’s shelf, and no job I ever had would have provided that chance. As far as missing anything about my past day jobs, there are a few people I have lost track of who were funny, and funny is important in cubicle land. As for anything else, no. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
For me, it can be hard to turn it off — and that is vital to the quality of my day. I’m a lot better at it now; I can just blow it off if I have everything done and stop obsessing about it. Besides, nobody wants to hear me talk more than 3 minutes about my business. Not even me.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself?
You know that money you inherited? Apple stock, baby, Apple.
What advice would you give someone else?
Do the research before you do anything else. Find out everything there is to know about that venture. And stock up on stories about people who have really struggled then eventually achieved their goals, they come in very handy.
What goals do you wish to accomplish in the coming year for your Etsy business?
Since I started on Etsy the market has changed radically and online business especially. I think that a more localized approach is the way to go for the fastest growth. In the next year, I’ll be working on a lot more local wholesale and craft shows — two things I haven’t focused on. I see a great deal of potential in those areas, and Seattleites are well known for supporting local businesses. I’ll also be expanding my line, offering several new scents, and exploring international wholesale. I will still maintain Etsy as my primary online venue.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
- I’d like to say thank you. Thank you so much to my loyal customers who not only come back to my shop but many of which are also friends and a total pleasure to interact with. Thanks especially to Dorana and to Judy. I’ve met some amazing people through all of this but you two have been extraordinarily helpful and kind. Thank you for making this new venture a lot less scary.
- Here’s a shout-out to the wonderful people who have contacted me regarding a feature on their blogs. You all are directly responsible for my growth and have taught me a ton about what online business is all about. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I really appreciate you all featuring me.
- I also want to thank George at Warp Graphics. He has been invaluable in helping me refine my brand and I highly recommend his services.
- And of course to the Etsy staff. You have had to keep up with unbelievable growth within a lightening fast market while considering the needs of a very diverse community of sellers. Hats off to you all. And of course, thanks for this feature!
Thanks to Chris for sharing his story. You can see some of Chris‘ bath and beauty line in the Related Items. Check out previous Quit Your Day Job posts here.