When Vana started Le Papier Studio in 2008, she thought it was just a side job that would allow her to spend more time at home with her kids while still indulging in creative work.
But after her shop was featured on a popular blog and mentioned on The Today Show, Vana decided to dive in and start thinking like a small business owner.
We couldn't wait to learn more about how she strikes a balance between work and home (hint: it might have something to do with outsourcing) and why she recently chose to lower her prices so that she could keep her customers happy.
Let's hear from Vana!
Name: Vana Chupp
Business: Le Papier Studio
Started: March 2008
How did you create your awesome job?
I graduated with a master's in architecture and worked for two-and-a-half years before giving birth to my son. I knew I didn’t want to go back to work full-time, so I became a freelancer. Although it was good to spend more time with him, I quickly became bored working at home and realized I needed to find some distractions.
As a way of documenting his growth, I started sketching a silhouette of my son every month for a year and a half. I didn’t even think about making these for other people until my husband and friends convinced me I was onto something.
I thought it was just a hobby and I didn’t know the first thing about running a business. But, it sounded fun so I went to a conference for female entrepreneurs and listed my shop on Etsy soon after. I started with only five products — all fine art prints and silhouette stationery — and sold out within my first week.
As I added more products over the next few months, my sales gradually increased until I attracted the attention of a popular blog, coolmompicks.com. From that moment on, it grew exponentially.
I've been running the shop for eight years now and I haven’t looked back!
I started with only paper products, but I sell more jewelry these days, cutting my custom silhouettes into gold and silver. About 90% of my business is from custom orders and I run a few other shops on the side including Wedded Silhouette, which caters specifically to the wedding gift market.
When did you know your business was going to work?
Just four months in, I got an email from coolmompicks.com to say that my products were going to be featured in one of their holiday gift guides.
It said, "Just to give you a heads up, you should prepare for a high influx of customers."
Well, they weren’t wrong.
After that feature, I got 150 orders a day for the month leading up to Christmas and took in $30,000, which is not insubstantial for a small startup. It was amazing, but a little bit intense for me, as I did all the customization myself.
That experience showed me that I was on to something big, but also that I needed to hire help quickly, especially around the holiday season!
What has been the biggest surprise after starting your own business?
I always thought that small business owners had to wear many hats. However, I learned quickly that it’s best *not* to.
I asked a lawyer friend of mine to incorporate my business when I started out and she told me that I’d also need to find an accountant. I always assumed that I’d have to manage the books myself, but I was relieved to pass that responsibility over because I just don’t like working with numbers.
I hear about so many people who’ve struggled because they try to take on too much. I stick to what I do best and outsource everything else.
How do you price your products?
I read a lot of books on pricing before setting up my shop. I knew I had to work out an hourly rate and take every last piece of material into account, but I still priced myself too low to begin with. I only charged $5 for the first silhouettes I sold and $18 for my prints, which barely covered my time.
Now I charge $24 for an 8x10 print and an additional $10 for creating custom silhouettes. By raising the price, I was able to use better materials and pay myself more appropriately.
I always try to give value to my customers — I recently lowered my prices because I found a better deal with a fulfillment company on gold prints. I saw no sense in taking more money myself when I could make my customers happier and keep my margins the same.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Being a mom is my priority, so I only work three full days a week. I make a to-do list the night before, which lists my priorities for the day ahead.
I wake up at 7am and answer emails for an hour while making breakfast for my children. My kids are ten and three, so the ten-year-old walks himself to school while I take the three-year-old to preschool. I go to the gym between dropping him off and getting to work and I’m back in the house at 10am to start on custom designs.
Between then and noon (when I pick the little one up), I’ll work on proofs to send to my customers. Once they’re happy, I pass the designs on to my fulfillment companies. When it comes to jewelry, I send the formatted files to a jeweler who’ll then use a laser to cut the silhouettes into gold and silver. Once the jewelry is complete, he sends it back to me to pack and send to the buyer.
Then, a babysitter comes over while I work in the afternoons. This generally involves sending out more proofs, packaging more orders and spending some time on social media outreach — specifically Instagram and Twitter.
I finish up at 4.30pm and spend some time with my kids, then work for a few more hours once they’ve gone to bed.
It’s pretty stop and go, but I’m used to it now. Family has to come first for me and I try to spend as much time with my kids as possible. Sometimes it’s hard because, being a business owner, my natural instinct is to answer the phone whenever it rings. I’m getting better at switching off completely during my downtime.
If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you would do differently when starting your business?
I used to think that the clients knew best and I gave them anything they asked for in the hope that it would grow my business. I thought that if someone out there wanted a specific item, others would too.
As it turns out, customers don’t always know best! Some of the most successful lines we’ve launched have come as a result of requests, but many others haven’t sold well and I’ve wasted too much time bringing unsuccessful lines into production.
If I started again now, I’d have more confidence in my own line and be more hesitant to change it. This said, I’m thankful for all the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?
Even though I don’t ever see this business employing 100 people, I’d like to prepare myself for every eventuality.
Can anyone here recommend any good books or resources on growing my staff and managing more people? What are the risks and how can I be prepared for surprises that may come along?
Have *you* been where Vana is now? How did you prepare yourself for your business to grow and include more employees?
Share your best resources and ideas with us below! :-)
I like the idea of making a list of things to do the night before. I am trying to grow my business and one way I am doing this by staying organized. I'm trying to make a vision for what my first hire will look like and when the timing of that will be.
Ooooh @SteveChase, considering an employee is such an exciting (and terrifying!) time in our business journey, right? I think about Tony Hsieh, who once said that hiring mistakes cost Zappos over $100M. Geesh! Anyway, I think he has some great tips and found this article - https://quickbooks.intuit.com/r/hiring-and-recruiting/hire-first-employees. I have loads of experience making mistakes with employees and hiring - reach out if you want a sounding board!
Thanks for sharing the article. It is a good resource. I want to actually bring on my first hire as a High School student to help mentor them into the field of business. I imagine that would be a special time for them and me.