When I graduated, the Internet was just taking off. I learned how to code and took a job as a website designer. It wasn’t right for me, though, so when I was laid off in 2001, I was relieved that the decision was out of my hands.
After that, I started teaching mixed media collage workshops, which became my main source of income along with licensing artwork and launching product lines, which I sold on US shopping channels and on QVC UK.
In 2007, I launched my Etsy shop when the site was just getting started. I sold original artwork through my shop, but lost interest because sales weren’t great and I hated taking photos of products and writing listings.
I left my shop dormant until 2012, when I discovered the download feature. By this point, I’d grown tired of only getting small royalties from licensing my designs. I decided to give Etsy another shot. I had some leftover products from licensing deals that never happened, so I listed them.
People responded really well to those designs — and it’s now my largest source of income!
Who was your very first customer? How did you find them?
I have lots of firsts — the first workshop I taught, the first company I licensed work to, my first illustration job.
The first product I sold on Etsy was a Halloween kit, when I was testing out the download feature in back in September. When I got my first download sale I saw how easy it was — it was exciting to know that someone would actually buy it!
When did you know your business was going to work? What was the exact moment?
My biggest hit has been my retro oven cupcake box. In May of 2013, sales of the box suddenly took off. I was getting an order a minute, but no idea why this was happening — I even tried using Google Analytics to find out!
Then I got an email from a bakery blog, Sweetopia, telling me that they’d pinned the box on Pinterest.
It all clicked into place.
It was also funny, because I'd created the retro oven on a complete whim! I had used it before in illustrations because I love the 1950s style, but had no idea it would be my most popular product.
There have been moments throughout my career that made me feel like I’ve got it on lockdown, but that feeling rarely lasts long. I thought I’d hit it big when I was on the Martha Stewart show, but as soon as I started to feel confident, I reached another point in the rollercoaster and took a dip.
I think it's a myth that once a business gets to a certain point, it can just coast. In reality, running a successful business requires constant work.
What has been the biggest surprise after starting your own business?
When I was at my first job, I always imagined that if I was self-employed, I’d have lots of spare time for keeping my creative energy flowing, meeting friends for lunch and working in cafés.
The truth is, I have to shut myself off from the world and work long hours if I want to get anything done. Sometimes I miss that Monday through Friday routine.
How do you price your products?
I price my products based on how much I’d be willing to pay for them. For the cupcake boxes, I chose a price that allows for impulse buying.
I actually just raised the price from $3.99 to $5.99, which still seems like a good deal to me.
The biggest thing I’ve learned about pricing is that it’s easier to start low and increase gradually, rather than to start high and reduce prices later. That way, customers who’ve bought my products early on feel like they got a good deal.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My day starts at 7am to walk the dog, work out and eat breakfast. Then, I answer email queries from Etsy customers or licensors asking about my work. My best working hours are between noon and 7pm and I like to work for a long, continuous period, rather than trying to fit things in for an hour here and there.
I start with the creative stuff, like thinking up new designs or fulfilling custom orders. I tend to hit a creative wall at around 5pm, so then I switch to blogging and updating my website and social media.
In the evenings I try to relax, but my work often runs over into downtime. It’s a bad habit, but once I get started I find it hard to stop.
If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you’d do differently when starting your business?
Early on, I had huge demand from small bakeries for custom boxes designed to look like their bakery, and I agreed to it before I fully figured out the price of printing. The whole thing turned out to be more expensive than expected. Now I can’t add any margin in for myself without taking it out of the price range for small businesses.
I should’ve made a sample much sooner so that I’d know the true cost of making the boxes. I was so confident that I let other parts of my business go, which means now having to work part-time to make ends meet for the first time in 14 years.
Despite learning this lesson the hard way, I’m reluctant to let the entire idea go — I just need to find a way to make it work financially.
What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?
I have a very specific question: Is creating custom boxes for small business owners something that I should even dream about chasing?
Is it even viable to sell to small bakeries because they might not have budgets for these types of things?
Would it be worth giving up on this dream, but developing a similar product for wealthier businesses, even though my heart wouldn’t be in it?
Can you help Claudine out?
Let's see if we can crowdsource some ideas for Claudine!
Do you have insight into how small businesses like bakeries could afford to invest in her products? Or, do you have ideas for other products she can create that businesses with more cash on hand might be able to use?