After finding a job in her chosen field wasn't an option post-grad school, Emily decided to turn her long-time love of paper quilling into a viable business selling handmade products to her fans at local craft fairs and farmers' markets.
We sat down with the creative entrepreneur to talk about her interest in crafting, her tips for balancing a hectic schedule and how she manages to get a return on investment out of selling such a specialized art form.
Name: Emily Mallory
Business: Emily’s Paper Crafts
Started: August 2011
How did you create your awesome job?
I’m a paper quilling artist. I make small animals, greeting cards, artwork, frames, magnets and modular origami bouquets based on my own designs. I also teach a number of workshops around the area where I live.
I started quilling for fun when I was a kid. After getting my PhD in Early Childhood Education, I couldn't find a relevant job. But, after moving to the greater Seattle area and getting married, my husband suggested that I try selling my paper crafts.
I found out it was a relatively easy process to get a business license, and everything started to grow after I began selling at the Maple Valley Farmers' Market back in the summer of 2011.
Who was your very first customer?
It probably would have been someone at the Maple Valley Farmers' Market. Over the years I've had some really great repeat customers that I connected with the first time when I was selling at the farmers' market, so those come to mind. The local craft fairs also work pretty well for me!
Within the last six months or so I've also really enjoyed putting on workshops and classes through the King County Library System. Those have been a great addition to the quilling work. The most recent class I put on was for toddlers, which was a blast.
When did you know your business was going to work?
I think I knew pretty early on that my business was going to work, although I didn't try to bring in a full-time paycheck at first. It was just something fun to help us make ends meet.
Last year I started to get more picky about what fairs and markets I would sell at, mostly to make sure I was making a decent profit. I quickly realized I was wasting my time if I was only earning $100 for a 2-day event. I knew right away that people were willing to buy the pieces I was creating, but it was only in the past 18 months that I realized I could turn my work into a sustainable business.
What has been the biggest surprise so far after starting your own business?
I guess on some levels the importance of time management has been the biggest surprise for me. I've always been good at this, but it can be tricky to figure out how much effort goes into each piece I make and balance that with how much I can sell it for.
It’s also important to figure out how much time I need to keep my inventory levels where they need to be and decide when to work, especially while I’m raising my two kids.
How do you price your products?
It varies. I’ve gotten a lot better about pricing, but I've learned that it's best to have pieces at various different prices when I sell at shows. For example, I have these little quilled birds that cost $2. They’re a total steal, I know, but they were some of the first pieces I made when I started selling my work. I quickly realized that quilling has a really special appeal to people of all ages, so when a little kid comes up to my booth and really wants to buy something, I have a reasonably priced item that’s perfect for them.
I've intentionally kept my "penny pets," as I like to call them, at a very reasonable price even though I often take a loss on the sale. But I balance that with a good number of higher-priced items that I make a better profit on.
With paper crafting, most of the cost comes from the time I invest in the product. Materials are pretty inexpensive, so making sure I have enough items I can sell for a decent profit is important.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I have a two-month-old and a two-year-old, so I squeeze in work around childcare. If the stars align and they nap at the same time, I can get in a good one to two hours of prioritizing orders or another task that needs my attention.
After dinner, my husband will play with the kids and I'll get in a little more work.
If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you would do differently when starting your business?
I went to grad school and got my PhD in a subject I thought would have plenty of job opportunities for me once I was ready to join the workforce, but thinking back on it now it would have been great to have known that starting my own business was an option.
I would have taken some classes in business management and marketing, just to round out my skills and prepare myself for the different options.
Being self-employed has become much more popular than it used to be, and while I knew other students who were interested in starting their own businesses, it never really crossed my mind that I would end up doing what I'm doing now.
So, if I had known that this was a viable option, I definitely would have taken more classes to prepare myself for it.
What would you like to learn today from a community of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?
I'd love to talk to other paper artists who have been able to make livelihoods from their craft and ask what they did to scale up their businesses.
For example, there's a quiller I admire who has all these large-scale corporate contracts, and I'd love to know how to make the leap from local craft fairs to creating products for Starbucks and Target.
Do you have experience with taking on larger-scale contracts with big customers? Are you, like Emily, selling handmade goods and have you experimented with selling wholesale or expanding your operations?
Share more with us in the comments below! :-)