When Outsourcing Is Too Pricey, Ask Your Amish Neighbors. Meet Leather Goods Maker Connor Dickson
Connor started his first business when he was 12, mowing lawns for his neighbors. But his passion for fashion drove him to eventually launch his own line of bow ties, bags and belts when he was only 16 years old.
His secret to success? Making great local connections. By sourcing with the finest Amish craftsmen from his hometown, Connor found a way to produce stunning leather goods he sells online — all in his spare time.
I’ve always been entrepreneurial. I started my first business with a friend when I was just 12. We took flyers around the neighborhood to tell people that we’d do their mowing and mulching. At first, they thought we were just a couple of kids playing around, but we got a few jobs and did such good work that we got more and more bookings.
I started my current business when I was 16 and still in high school. I had a real interest in the fashion industry and wanted to learn how to make and sell bow ties. I spent some time trying to find a supplier, but soon realized that outsourcing production in the traditional way would be too expensive.
I was determined to make it work, so I took to my hometown — Lancaster, Pennsylvania — and reached out to our large Amish population, where I was able to find a great seamstress to make my ties.
As the months went by, people started to take an interest inmy bow tiesand some suggested that I should diversify into leather goods —belts, wallets andbags. I was on a morning jog one day when I met an Amish leather worker who was selling stuff from a little shop. I stopped by, we formed a great relationship and the rest is history. He was used to making utilitarian products like horse bridles, so i had to teach him a little about how top designers manufacture their products, but he’s an excellent craftsman.
I’m not Amish, but I grew up with the community. They’re very peaceful people and we live side by side. Lots of Amish take up farming jobs, but others run small businesses in construction or product manufacturing, so I’m lucky to have the connections I do.
I design the products, source the materials and deal with the business side of things. I’m also a student in my fourth year of college, studying Finance and Art History at The University of Richmond, Virginia.
Who was your very first customer?
I ran track and cross country in high school and worked at a running shoe store on the weekends.
One day, a well-dressed customer came into the shop and we struck up a conversation. He really liked my products and ended up buying a couple bowties from me. He became a regular and every time he came in, he told me about the recent events he’d attended wearing my bowties.
When did you know your business was going to work?
It was a fairly slow start because at the beginning I hadn’t really figured out the mechanics of running a small business. Two years after started the company, I tried listing my items onEtsy. That’s when things really took off. I got one belt order, then another. It turned into a steady stream that lasted for months.
That's also when I realized that people liked what I was doing, so it was time to expand. I decided to work with a friend on a separate project on the side, designing weekender bags. That project failed, but I took the product, made a few adjustments, had it photographed and put it online. Since then, the belt sales have declined, butthe bags have really taken off.
What has been the biggest surprise in starting your own business?
I’ve been so surprised by how many people are willing to help me.
I’m very passionate about the industry and have a great product to back me up. When people talk to me, I think they feel inspired and want to play a part. This could mean telling their friends about me, or buying bags. I met one guy who buys a handful of bags every few months to give to his friends as gifts!
How do you price your products?
I had no idea how to mark up products when I started, but I’ve found that most businesses use a standard formula. The markup is usually 2.2 to 2.6x the base price of manufacturing the goods, but my margins are a little smaller.
When I sell wholesale, the shops then apply a 2.6x markup to my price, so a bag that cost me $150 to produce could end up costing the customer around $500 in-store.
My bags are always the highest quality, but they have to be especially good when I’m wholesaling because customers won’t buy a bag at that price if it isn’t special.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m still in college, so I can only devote 1-2 hours a day to the business, which usually means answering emails and talking to suppliers. I’m grateful to my mom who helps make sure the business runs smoothly so I can focus on my studies. She helps with shipping and makes sure we have all the boxes and liners ready to go.
I spend every spare moment I have thinking of ways to develop my products and add new lines, and I try to speak with my manufacturing team on a daily basis. I also do some contract work for other companies on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. If we’re particularly busy, I try to devote more time to the business. I work more hours from November until mid-January, when I’ll sometimes get 10-15 orders a week.
If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you’d do differently when starting your business?
If I could go back to high school, when I had more time on my hands and the freedom to move around, I would have developed a full product line and gone to trade shows to get my name out there.
I’d also have taken a year off before going to college so that I could get my business started on stronger footing.
What would you like to learn today from a network other of small business owners and self-employed professionals?
I’m a small brand witha small online presence, but I want to grow to an international level. I understand that I need to push the product, but is there anything else I can do to increase the chances of a getting lucky strike?
Is there something else I can do to help this business take off on the global stage?
Do *you* have tips for Connor that will help him take his small business from local success to global brand?
How did you grow your business from its beginnings? Share your own story with us below! :-)