24 January 2013

i make stuff, i'm a mum - should i start my own business??

Greetings all, 
"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


Sam said...

wow, what a thoughtful, authentic post.

Fiona @ Brave New Vintage said...

'Thwack'! That was an excellent slap to anyone whose head may be in the clouds about working from home. I've dreamed about it, but in that dream I had talent hahahaha. I really found what you wrote insightful and delightfully honest as always. Yes, never put off having sex with your husband for anything! (don't tell him I said that, I may never get sleep again hahaha) xx Fi

Brenda @ 13 Acres said...

great fantastic wonderful advice Jennie! As a crafter, stay and home mum and a little online shop on the go, this is all so what I needed to hear. Last year I really changed the what/where/how approach to selling online. Even my approach to markets is difficult. I would consider myself really just a stay at home mum with a hobby in craft. I very quickly realised that my kids come first and I was never going to compromise on that. What money i make i generally put straight back into supplies and materials. It means I'm not dipping into my husbands income and it's a hobby i love. thanks so much for sharing your wisdom! xx

Anonymous said...

OMG, perfect, Mumtrepreneurs shit me no end.

posie blogs Jennie McClelland said...

Thanks anonymous, i actually understand where you are coming from, as many of my serious market/ small business friends have actual degrees & industry qualifications in their field, then have to compete with mums who can create & often under price them (obviously a different level of skills, materials & design.)
They basically can't sell at handmade markets were mothers will be, it attracts the wrong demographic for them. I tell you, they will hail down fire & brimstone on the mother's who park their prams across their stall, while looking at the baby product stall next door. That is so insanely rude!! I've been in business long enough to see all sides. Love Posie

Anonymous said...

This is really honest and true. I admit, i have lied to friends with awful products, said they were great, as they put me on the spot for my opinion. Then the hard sell, it is really uncomfortable. Not everyone has talent, and that is ok, they are good at other things but i wish they would give up on the handmade things. They also ignore their children. You are right, egos are involved.

Jacinta said...

Great truthful post Jennie .... I know it would be a ton of work and when friends /family suggest I make things to sell I flatly refuse. Just not my focus right now... 3 small kids are demanding enough of my limited time! :)

Pippa said...

A very insightful post, Posie! Thanks for your truthfulness, I would be very grateful for more posts like these :)
I work full time, the bread winner in my home and the starter of a business thats working it's way out there, day by day.
I love making, I make every day!
Pippa x

The Accidental Housewife said...

Mate, this was incredible. You're next gig should be writing realistic advice books on home business, I think!

It's given me plenty to think about as I consider the move to self-employed....

Yana said...

That's a great insight into what goes on and is required to run a small business as a mum. Wow! I still dont know how you managed it, i definitely could not have. Thanks for sharing! I'm sure it will be helpful for those thinking about starting a business from home.

polkadotpeticoat said...

After almost 9 years of having a store....well said!
I love how a lot of people think the money will just roll in the doors with no effort! Heidi

The Creative Beast said...

Excellent post! Thank you for sharing your story and progression into self employment, especially as a mother who chose to stay at home and be part of your children's lives. It is not easy to do both and its clear that you have some AMAZING organizational skills! Congratulations on the success you've created in your life =-)

seabreezequilts said...

I couple of years ago I dreamed of giving up the day job, but I know now it's just not going to happen. My first BOM has made money and just about paid for fabric habit for the last year but I think that will be as good as it get and it doesn't really bother me any more I am going to make quilts and stuff that I want to make and if people want to buy the patterns well and good.

Kirrily said...

Thanks for sharing your wisdom and insight. Your comments here have really reinforced why turning a hobby into a business is never going to be a realistic option for me. In the next year or so I will return to teaching classrooms full of teenagers rather than take on the challenges of my own business...

Anonymous said...

Some great really thoughtful comments. I ran a craft business for five years which included markets, online shop,wholesale and consignment in shops and running markets, curating exhibitions and commissioned work.

My questions for people who like the idea of starting a craft business are:
-do you want to be at home working evenings and weekends whilst friends/partner are out having fun?
-how many hours is that market stall? How much you getting paid per hour to stand there?
-what's your marketing plan and budget?
-what needs analysis have you done of your product (sooo many people make the same things)
-can you be a shameless self promoter without losing friends?
-what happens when a fun craft becomes a one woman sweat shop (how much are you earning per hour again?)
-how will you cope with criticism and people copying your work?

posie blogs Jennie McClelland said...

Thanks Unknown, yes, without writing a full blown thesis on this topic, which clearly requires more related posts, i agree. I managed to run a healthy profit as i was efficient & minimalised my overheads. I was very good at working out what people were willing to pay & making that product work for that price range. I always charged what my custom pieces were truly worth.
Now - the market is saturated & now my children are in years 4-9 at school, i just don't have that same all-day-at-home lifestyle, i am doing the school runs, homework, volunteering & exercising. It's just a different life & much more competitive - many more people doing the same product in the same fabric.
I had my moment (a solid decade of success) was very happy & am embarking on a different path again. Thing about small business is that they are run by personalities/ real people . . . we change, therefore, so does our business!! Love Posie

Anonymous said...

I will direct all my friends who think they can do it (and i know they do not have the drive or organisation to actually follow through, dont want to mention skill set or original thought) to read this so i dont have to tell them to their face. Im not in small business or an expert in anyway, but i know they will fail, miserably. Few even think about the actual impact on the husband either. When staying home to raise children was agreed upon, running a small business was not part of the deal and it will impact on everything. Few think this way. Few think like you. Few speak the truth. Few have the experience.

the old boathouse said...

Hey lovely lady, this was interesting although a completely different industry to me I have given similar advice to others. The other advice I give is to make sure you give over at least one day a week, mines Sunday to doing nothing for your business and stick to it 90% ( occasionally the reality is you will have to compromise ) I think you and I are lucky though that we had our families young and just learnt to get on with life and our dreams and not use the 'mothering' as an excuse . Xxx Katherine

Unknown said...

FAntastic post and extremely generous of you to share your insight!! Wow :) Fran T

Rachaeldaisy said...

Brilliant post!! You've made so many valuable points and things to think about. Thank you!!