Textile Artist Heather Shaw on the Biggest Pricing Lesson She's Learned
Heather originally didn’t set out to create a business when she started selling her unique crafts to her fellow students in art school, butp i ‘ l ohas now been going strong for more than 20 years.
She creates luxury pillows and home decor items that are sold all over the world and in huge online stores that include the likes of Anthropologie, but Heather still struggles to call herself a business owner.
We couldn’t wait to find out more about her journey, the special formula she uses to price her products and what she's hoping to learn next from you!
How and when did you decide to start your business?
I always knew this is what I wanted to do, and I was only 20 when I started this business — while I was still in school!
I went to art school In Vancouver, but honestly, they didn’t know what to do with me. I remember being in a sculpture class and wanting to make a hat, but they wouldn’t allow it. I knew art school wasn’t for me after that, so I moved to the opposite side of the country to study in Halifax, where I specialized in textiles. It was there that I started my business.
I’ve always loved production and making things for lots of people, whether that meant making textiles or baking. The environment at the second school was great because I was able to use the studio space and hire fellow students to help with production. I made things on the side and people started to buy them at small craft shows.
At the shows, I treated my booths like an installation, creating a world that I’d made entirely myself and inviting people in. Eventually there was so much making and selling happening in my life that it became difficult to study, too! I had to convince my professors to let me do a large show in Toronto as independent study. They agreed on the condition that I wrote a report and presented it to the rest of the class.
I finished my degree in the end, but by the time I graduated, my business was well underway.
Who was your very first customer?
Early on, before selling things became a full-time venture, I signed up for craft fairs every weekend one summer all over Ontario. These fairs taught me quickly that not all audiences would get what I was doing and that I had to work hard to find the *right* market for what I was selling.
I learned that I was more likely to find my customer base in cities. So, I decided that if if I liked a store, there was a higher chance that they’d like what I was making.
I did a lot of cold calling, created a few handmade brochures and managed to set up a few wholesale accounts.
When did you know your business was going to work? What was the exact moment?
I remember going to the ATM to take out some money one day while I was still in art school and seeing that my balance had risen to over $10,000. I was shocked and elated, but also felt like a bit of a fraud because art students are supposed to be poor and struggling! I think I went out to buy a toaster to celebrate.
The feeling of independence that I created from having enough money in my account was really special — there’s nothing quite like it.
It put a fire in me and made me want to continue to grow my sales. This isn’t to say I’ve ever made a lot of money from this — I'm simply driven by doing what I like to do. Being able to support myself along the way is the best feeling.
What has been the biggest surprise after starting your own business?
I didn’t own a computer when I started out, and I held out for a long time. I took great pride in writing out beautiful receipts by hand and swore that I would show it was possible to conduct business in the old-fashioned way.
This, of course, didn’t last.
I’m truly surprised by how much owning a computer has changed my life. It makes keeping on top of my accounts so much easier, but it also feels like I have way more work because of it when I consider all the time spent on emails andsocial media. I feel as though I made more money with less work back in the beginning, when I didn't rely on technology as much!
How do you price your products?
I have a price worksheet that keeps track of all the supplies and labor that goes into a piece with measurements and sources for reference. I come up with the absolute base cost and multiply it by a consistent number to get a retail amount.
Another big part ofpricingis looking at the psychology of my customers. People believe that a product is worth more if it costs more, but it also has to make sense on the market at that price.
Sometimes what the market is willing to pay for a product doesn’t give me enough of a margin, particularly when competing with goods made overseas. In these cases, I decide if it's worth producing at all. I eliminate it from my wholesale price list or take a small cut on it if it’s something I believe will add value to the line.
Thebiggest pricing lesson I’ve learnedis that it’s very important to keep track of the cost of every little thing. I even have to account for every last bit of string, because what might not seem like a lot when I’m making 50 orders really adds up when I have to make 500.
What does a typical day look like for you?
What I love most about my job is that no two days are ever the same. I’ve heard that checking emails first thing isn’t a good use of early morning energy, but I love to curl up in the quiet of the house and get on top of things. I also use this time to catch up on my favorite blogs and I look at the calendar for the day before the kid routine takes over.
I usually spend my morning in the backyard studio packing up orders and pulling stock for wholesale. A lot of what I do now is packaging — I’ve always sent out the sewing to be done, using to women who sew from their homes, which is great because they work at their own pace and the quality tends to be higher. My son comes home for lunch every day, so I pause and eat a proper midday meal and chat with him.
The afternoon is spent in the studio on production, ordering supplies, photographing products and sending out more emails. My day in the studio technically ends when the boys come home from school, but never really ends properly as I’ll often work on little jobs in the evening and my laptop is always nearby. It’s one of the best things about working for myself and one of the worst. But I would never have it any other way!
If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you would do differently when starting your business?
I should haveoutsourcedthe parts of the business that I’m not very good at much sooner.
I’ve learned that I’m not a particularly good sewer or bookkeeper, but when I started out I thoughtI had to wear every hat. I like variety, but sharing the work has really improved my business.
What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?
I have a lot to learn from younger people who are more adept at usingsocial mediathan I am.
In particular, I’d like to know which social media streamlining service I should use, or whether it’s best to get someone else to manage it for me. I have an ever-growing list of notifications that I find it increasingly harder to keep on top of.
Do you have tips for how Heather can save time on social media and streamline her work?
How do you manage different social channels for your business? Do you have a system in place that helps you save time and maximize the effort you put into each platform?
Textile Artist Heather Shaw on the Biggest Pricing Lesson She's Learned
I hear many business owners say they should have had others help them with their work (especially the parts of business in which they feel less knowledgable) sooner in the development of their business. It makes me wonder why people seem reluctant to assign work out? What are your ideas about why many face this challenge?