24 January 2013
i make stuff, i'm a mum - should i start my own business??
"I love what you do, i make stuff too, should i start my own small business??"
This is something i have heard countless times, especially when i was in the height of my design business 2-5 years ago. While i am positive & encouraging, you have to seriously think about why you want to - the driving forces, positive & negative. If you told me it was so you could be your own boss as your current one is awful, oh hells no, change jobs instead.
Being your own boss actually means EVERY SINGLE CUSTOMER IS YOUR BOSS. You are accountable for every detail.
You put in long hours, it's your heart & soul, it's incredibly personal running your own business, it's a challenge to switch off. You need to be extremely strong minded, dedicated & determined, enormously talented & highly organised. I was in the 'children's things industry' as i had young children, it was the world i lived & breathed, i knew my demographic. However, back in 1999 when i was a new mum, sewing as a hobby in Darwin, websites/ on line shops weren't happening. I was honing my skills while working full time in the oil industry, making/ selling bags, soft furnishings & baby clothes to friends/ family.
Keep your business small & make small mistakes. Be patient for growth, then you will handle it with grace & skill.
It wasn't until 2001 when i had twins & farewelled a salary, that i realised my potential. By then i had experience, feedback, a growing range of products & was ready to turn it into a business. I never took a loan, i never paid for childcare & i never got into debt. I would sell a bag & invest that money in business cards. I would sell a quilt & reinvest the cash in materials. We moved to Sydney & my husband went to his second war zone, i had all night to sew & create (being a wife takes up a lot of time!!) I started babysitting two little boys & their mothers kindly took my products to their work places to sell (in the magazine industry, hello, free follow on advertising!!)
I let my business grow slowly & was able to maintain being a dedicated mother, housewife & babysitter - preparing my sewing during the day - then sewing at night without distractions.
When my 4th baby arrived, i took my business on line, after the near impossible search for a web designer. I now had 6 children in my charge most days & as the orders increased - so did my efficiency. I'm a high energy person & the children were fantastic. I specialised in custom design with orders from samples, so i never had excess stock. A year later my eldest daughter started primary school, twins commenced preschool & both boys i babysat moved away . . . circumstances change with small children - they grow up!! Then we moved back to Darwin & i started attending markets. I waited until my son was weaned at age 2, then took the readymade stock i had & paid $20 to do a stall at the local Sunday markets. I think i made $100 in 6 hours, the feedback was encouraging & i was cross questioned as my products were new, different & exciting. It was exhausting, however, i had fresh ideas & American fabric shops were finally shipping to Australia = my fabric range increased & i started selling fabric too. I attended that local Sunday market each fortnight & built up to larger handmade markets - as my confidence, abilities & range increased, so did the income.
Then we moved to Canberra - with an affluent & larger population - i invested in an EFTPOS machine. People holding $20 worth of products would say "oh you have EFTPOS" & gather up $200 of products!! It's not cheap to maintain the machine, however, they are essential at large markets if you want large sales. This is where my business hit its peak, doing about 6-8 high end markets a year & stocking one select store . . . i closed the wholesale label down too. Among all this, my husband went to Afghanistan 3 times & my 4th child started primary school . . . my interest in being a 'just a mum again' beckoned & i needed surgery on both my wrists (carpal tunnel) so i put the brakes on my business & refocussed, 18 months ago.
My big tips for small business, especially handmade . . .
your friends will be nice & not tell the truth. You will know if they really love & believe in your products, as they will a) put their money where their mouth is & purchase them, & b) happily tell all their friends = flow on sales. That makes them paying clientele, making you a real business, i.e. making money. Listen to feedback, do your research, check out the competition - attend markets as a customer, ask a million questions (many people don't realise they are giving away all their secrets, some share happily) & be really honest with yourself - capabilities, stress levels, skill set & time you truly have to dedicate to this.
If possible, save up before you commence your business/ start as a serious hobby while you are gainfully employed, then reinvest money from your initial sales into your business - try to avoid a loan & if you do get a business credit card, control the spending. Avoid over ordering & getting swept up in the next new product trend - your competitors can undercut you/ advertise better/ be more popular with a great reputation, you're stuck with dead stock. It's very difficult to break into any market now - cupcakes, dresses, candles, toys - as i'm afraid to say . . . anyone can get an Australian Business Number, create a website, order wholesale, copy your handmade products & sell on line. There are also plenty of mums running businesses on line for the passion, joy & stimulation . . . they are very wealthy & not desperate for sales. They are still your competition. There are many different reasons why 'mumtrepreneurs' exist.
Check your ego, do you want to be able to say you are a designer or actually make money??
Business advisors will say "it's a small business when you pay yourself a weekly salary, otherwise it's just a hobby." While i understand this, i also feel we work-from-home mummies who are creating an income while still caring for our own children, all sales make a difference as we're still doing our own child care/ washing/ cooking/ cleaning/ IT/ web maintenance/ mail/ materials purchasing & production . . . my on line side of the business has always hummed along slowly, compared to the commission work & major cash injection from quarterly markets, i could never balance 'a steady salary' as i paid for fees, fuel, food, fashion & fun. My husband's income took care of the big expenses & investment property mortgages. If my husband was highly paid, i'd JUST be a mother sewing for fun, however, the money i made was essential to keeping us financially afloat. If i wanted to earn the big bucks, i would have been a pharmacologist, but imagine 4 children in care & the hours + commute & fortune i'd spend on outsourcing, it would never sit right with me.
My handmade goods developed as a wholesale label 7 years ago (when my son started preschool) . . . selling in 50 stores around the world. Along with my collaborations/ designs/ patterns/ ideas/ products being published in several craft books & 100s of glossy magazines, my commissions included clients like Opera Australia, BazMart, John Butler Seed group & various festivals/ events/ markets. It all sounds amazing on paper, however, it's hard work & calls would come through my mobile while grocery shopping with 4 children. I always had 'mother & creative director' on my business card as i refused to apologise for being a mother or having children in the background, my children always came first, i didn't factor in overhead charges to my prices, clients appreciated that 'discount'.
If you're yelling at your children to be invisible, work-from-home is not for you. Imagine how they feel??!!
Now i have come full circle & refer to myself as a 'semi-retired-designer' & i'm selling off my stock on line, no more markets, i'm focussing on my children (next year i'll have 3 in high school, i don't want to miss a minute) . . . that is what suits our family now. My husband has just spent 3 years living interstate & overseas, away from us, i want to spend my evenings with him, not my sewing machine. It would be near impossible for me to work in my actual field (Pharmacology) + i have zero plans to retrain or study again. Being a full time mum with some random orders on the side, suits me at this stage.
An essential part of working from home & small business is communication. Social media is free, use it!!
People love to learn more about the person behind the business, via social media & see the full range of your products/ abilities. I started my blog when i developed my wholesale label & started posting regularly 3 years ago to compliment the strong local following my business held. Later i started Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest & most recently Instagram. While my business is on hold, i have 6000 followers to interact with & maintain my passion for design & communicating my thoughts. You must be internet savvy, even if you only do markets, i assure you - half the customers will ask "do you a have a website??" You really must be able to say 'yes' & hand a business card/ information slip over, even if it's a blog address, Facebook site or etsy shop.
If you have committed to being a genuine stay-at-home mother yet have the urge to make money, you really have to make it fit into your own spare time. It's not fair on the family. A part time job would be much easier than starting your own business. Like my pathway - circumstances change, you have more children, then they start school, you move interstate, husband goes away to 5 war zones - my sewing & the income it derived - sparked my intellect & on top of all the savings i made (breastfeeding, cloth nappies, making all our meals from scratch, no holidays, no babysitters) . . . it's totally paid off in the long run + my children understand the value of a dollar, they are incredibly creative & REALLY appreciate their parents.
Finally, if you can't handle high pressure, your children have special demands & your husband isn't going to support you, it would be one miserable journey of work-from-home-mummy you are about to embark on.
Never put off having sex with your husband because you have an order to fill - that's the direct path to resentment.
You simply can't fool yourself. Will the running costs outweigh sales if you can't give it 100%?? Possibly. Websites, accountants, materials, shipping all add up. I cannot stress how fierce competition is, no matter how lovely your product or unique your skill. Tap into a niche market, you might get paid what your product (materials, labour, design, ego) is worth. While i have excess stock i purchased wholesale, i can always give them away as gifts i'd have to pay retail for, so nothing is a loss. All my fabrics will be used up personally, eventually. My handmade items . . . i'm happy to sell them at a discount, i had my time as the popular one, in the limelight, i made great profits & i was top of my game, i'm now moving on. Posie Shop sale continues.
I hope this advice was useful, from a 12 year small business veteran. I have so much more to write about . . . Intellectual Property . . . hunting down clients & stores who don't pay or play fair . . . my opinion on paid commissions . . . getting too personal on business social media platforms . . . falling out with colleagues . . . holding your own against the competition . . . perhaps in a different post. Love Posie