Jen of zhenunleathers worked for two and a half years answering phones for a major telecommunications company before leaving for greener pastures abroad and venturing into becoming her own boss as a result of her growing sales on Etsy. After stumbling across Etsy, Jen claims the site opened up a new world of possibility to her as she came home from work each night to sew and create. Over time, she saved enough money to make a go of selling on Etsy as her full-time gig. She now enjoys making weekly trips shopping through the leather market in Bangkok and explains how the hardest part about being her own boss is finding the time and balance of letting go and taking a break.
How did you originally get into the business of making things?
My first real attempt at making things occurred over 11 years ago when I lived in Beijing. I was a communications manager for a luxury hotel back then, and always visited the local markets for new corporate gift and giveaway ideas. One of my favorite places for inspiration was the Pearl Market.
I was amazed at all the glorious pearls and semi-precious gemstones that I found there, and just as amazed at the talented vendors stringing up all sorts of goodies for the locals and tourists. I thought that it looked fun and doable and decided to try making my own pieces as well. I had fun making things exactly the way I wanted them. This is when I realized that I had a talent for design and creation! Little did I know that it would lead to handbags and working for myself.
Tell us about your previous working situation.
Oh boy, I hope no one from my previous job ever reads this. I worked for a major telecommunications company for two and a half years. I took the job because I needed to pay off credit cards from my self-funded entrepreneurial dream, and also make money if I ever wanted to continue being self-employed. It was an inbound call center. Minimal breaks, short lunches and an endless stream of cranky customers all wanting something taken off their bills. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that by nighttime and weekends I was a design and creating machine. I guess you could say I had a very lackluster social life back then because I didn’t give much time to friends and going out. I had traded my grandmother’s old Singer sewing machine for leather and sewing lessons from a neighborhood leather shop. I put my poor fat cat Angel in my bedroom and practiced sewing little leather wristlets. In the beginning I used a Wal-Mart run-of-the-mill $99 household sewing machine.
Come Monday, I would drag myself out of bed to drive to my job, which was almost an hour away. A wonderful travel program called Globetrekker would run in the mornings before work, and I would watch that show prior to my daily grind. I knew from day one of my telecommunications job that I wanted to move
abroad, once again, to some place warm and sunny where I could dedicate my life to exploration and creation. I still have nightmares to this day of me being in my old call center frozen and not being able to answer one call.
When you first started selling on Etsy, did you have dreams or goals of eventually quitting your day job?
I did, but I didn’t realize it would be through Etsy. I found Etsy on Stylehive years ago, and didn’t really know what it was all about. One day I clicked on an item featured on their site and it lead me to this wonderful new world. It didn’t take me long to realize that this site was for independent artists like myself. I decided to give it a try and put all my jewelry and handbag creations that I had worked on for years and never sold. To be honest, I didn’t have any expectations. I guess I was kind of pessimistic because I had even tried selling my work in a major luxury department store and had mild sporadic success.
It didn’t take long before people from various places in the world started to purchase my creations! I was so excited. I started to read the Forums and take the advice that I learned from other Etsy sellers. I noticed a difference when I started to put more effort into my site. After a couple of months of selling, I was able to put more towards my debt and saw a glimmer of hope in being able to pay things off and actually start to save. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t making tons of money by any means, but I did notice the fruits of my labor and saw light at the end of the tunnel. Etsy gave me hope. I could finally see that there were people around the world who appreciated handmade items without big name labels being attached. I realized that I really wouldn’t have to work for “da man” forever.
Did you do anything to prepare ahead of time? Feel free to give us the nitty gritty business details.
I got my day job with the intention of quitting relatively soon. I knew that if I wanted out fast, I would have to change my lifestyle. I had to say no to a lot of my sushi dinner splurges, expensive makeup binges and just about whatever I found not absolutely necessary. I knew that when I would finally get to quit my job, I would want to move abroad to a place that would feed my creative energy and that in itself, would require me to save a pretty penny. In a nutshell, for the 2.5 years that I worked in the telecommunications industry, I became tunnel visioned in killing debt, saving money and honing my creative design abilities.
What are the most effective ways you have promoted and marketed your Etsy business? What’s your best marketing tip?
Short term, I have found renewing to be my best marketing tip. Renewing items that have good descriptions and photos, of course. Long term, I have found that approaching high traffic blog sites for write-ups is another good avenue for exposure and possible sales!
What have you found to be an unsuccessful promotion?
In every promotion I have, whether it be free shipping, or some sort of sale, I haven’t found one that completely flopped. Not every promotion I run comes with many sales, but I haven’t had one promotion where there were zero sales.
Walk us through your typical workday.
Oh dear, this is where I expose a bad habit of mine. I cannot say exactly where my day ends nor begins. You see, I have an iPhone and wireless Internet in my apartment. Often I find myself checking my email several times throughout the night, when it is daytime in the United States to check for Convos or sales. Most of my sales come from the United States, so I try to renew at least once while people on the other side of the planet are awake. I have found that answering Convos while not fully awake is a bad thing.
- Recently I try to renew before I sleep, and wake up relatively early, so that it is still a decent hour in the Western Hemisphere. Here is a typical day for me…
- Around 8 a.m. I’ll wake up, waltz over to my computer and cross my fingers for sales. I know this sounds funny, but I always tell my friends that waking up to a sale kind of resembles the feeling that I had waking up on Christmas morning when I was a child. So exciting!
- Answer any Convos that I may have and check craftcult.org to see if my store was featured anywhere on Etsy.
- I’ll package any sales and wait until noon to walk to my local post office. In that way, if I sell anything in the meanwhile, I can include it in that day’s shipment.
- Upon returning home from the post office, I’ll work on finding new blogs to approach for reviews or mentions and check out the latest news on the Etsy blog and Forums.
- By the afternoon, after I have had a couple of coffees, I’m wide awake and ready to sew or cut leather. I’ll turn on what I call “the beast,” which is my Siruba sewing machine.
- Once a week, I’ll travel to the leather market in Bangkok where there is a full block of tiny cramped leather stores and leather accessories. I absolutely love doing this. It is really hard for me to say no to any of the colors that I love. I often bring a list of colors that customers have mentioned to see if they are available.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job? Is there anything you miss?
I love the freedom to be able to pick up and go on a little travel excursion at whim. It helps to give me a break, come up with new ideas, and also meet other people besides my local post office workers, whom I adore, and the leather shop owners. I miss interacting with people face to face sometimes. Although I meet a lot of wonderful people from Etsy, including customers, I spend a lot of time in my apartment working on my bags and don’t get out as much as I’d like.
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
I am a one-man-band, as other Etsy sellers are as well. Sometimes it can be hard to be your own cheerleader. I find it really hard to draw a line between work and play and can’t simply “let go” when I know it’s the best thing to do. Relaxation is a pretty big stranger to me for the most part. I am still working on finding a balance.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself? What advice would you give someone else?
Previously in my years of designing and creating, I had never really come up with a solid plan, or at least a short term one. I went by the seat of my pants and whipped out the credit cards to self-finance my endeavors. I should have come up with a budget and a bit more conservative forms of marketing and PR. Although I got some of my designs into major publications in the past, the cost to get them there was much larger than what I could really handle. Unfortunately, back in the day, I didn’t know about Etsy or the power of internet exposure.
I would say to others, what I say to myself now, which is start small but think big! You might not sell that much in the beginning and need a day job, but if you stay focused and be innovative in product creation and marketing, your efforts add up. See what successful people do in your industry and build upon that. Most of all, utilize the Internet and all of the information that is at your fingertips! The information is free and the reach is wide.
What goals do you wish to accomplish in the coming year for your Etsy business?
- In addition to the local leathers that I use in my creations, I would like to use a little bit of the local fabrics. They are so colorful and intricate. I plan on incorporating just a tad bit for a twist in next year’s creations! I hope they are well received!
- I would also like to increase my sales. Just being honest. Steady and sturdy sales would be awesome! It would allow me to try out more of the pretty leather colors that I see, and travel to find more awesome materials to work with.
- I would love to get more mentions/articles/reviews in major publications whether online or on hard copy! I understand that media folks get bombarded by requests, but it sure would be nice to get spotted by the publications first! Pretty please!
- Sometimes it is hard to time things right, but I really do LOVE LOVE LOVE doing photography in natural lighting! I found that anytime from 4-6 is great, weather permitting. It really does help to capture the true color of your work.
- Read the Etsy Forums often because there is always some tasty advice in there!
- Inspiration doesn’t come when you want it to, unfortunately. Pay attention to your surroundings and take a notebook with you as often as you can. Jot down the shapes and colors that you see that turn you on, because you might forget about them when actually trying to create.
Thanks to Jen for sharing her story. You can see some of Jen‘s beautiful work in the Related Items. Check out previous Quit Your Day Job posts here.