First Published: April 16, 2020
In the fall of 2016, I was a sophomore in college — I had just transferred from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design to major in illustration. I was living in a new-to-me city and state, and staying in a dorm room across the street from my new school. Feeling the fear from all the change happening around me, I devoted all of my energy to my craft. This commitment to myself led me to the space and passion I needed in order to value my talent, create more art, and put it out into the world.
I knew if I didn’t put my art out into the world now, I would continue to put it off.
Although the idea of starting a small business was new and intimidating, and I was already busy being a full-time student, I persevered anyway. I knew if I didn’t put my art out into the world now, I would continue to put it off. I needed to push past the intrusive thoughts that my work wasn’t good enough, my audience was too small, or that I didn’t have the resources to start a business.
I took to researching the ways in which my favorite illustrators and artists were selling their work. What platform did they use? How were they packaging their pieces? Where were they printing or producing their products? What were their prices? Shipping costs? What language were they using for their product descriptions?
Two months later, in November of 2016, I opened an Etsy store in my tiny, shared dorm room. And let me just say — the way I run my shop now is different from the first day it went live. It is constantly evolving. In the beginning, it all felt risky. Sales were slow but each one that came in filled me with excitement and purpose. In this past year, my sales have increased more than any of the previous three years and I’ve met many amazing and inspiring creators thanks to the platform that Etsy provides. Both factors combined have inspired me to continuously seek out more environmentally-conscious ways of shipping and producing, as well as inspired new ideas for what meaningful designs and products I can offer in the future.
Although what I physically produce are prints of watercolor illustrations and paintings — and painting is a major joy for me — the most rewarding part of opening my shop has been the interactions with customers, and knowing that work I have created is hanging up all around the world at this point. This alone is enough motivation to continue creating and selling work.
So, if you’ve been curious about beginning a small handmade business, here are the top 10 actions that led me to a successful grand opening of my shop and continued success throughout the past couple of years:
Sit with yourself and write out the following questions:
- What do I love to create when I have free time or when no one is watching? What value does this add to my life? Would this be considered valuable to anybody else? Is there a way I can offer this in a tangible (or digital) form and on a regular basis?
2. Take Notes.
Find others who are already selling something similar to what you want to sell. Keep a list of the language, prices, and materials used. Write down what resonates with you and your ideal shop, and what doesn’t.
3. Find a Platform.
Although I use Etsy, there are other platforms for opening small shops, like Shopify. I chose Etsy because I had an audience of less than 2,000 people on social media at the time and wanted the benefit of Etsy’s search engine which would allow for any customer browsing Etsy to potentially find my shop or listings. Weigh the pros and cons of each platform — like any associated fees or if there are types of audiences that gravitate toward a specific platform — and then decide which one best suits what you’re looking for.
4. Make the Products.
Now that you have a more specific idea of what you want your shop to look like, it’s time to create! In my case, I had a backlog of paintings already created, but they each needed some editing in Photoshop before sending off to print.
Another important thing to think about is product photography. How will you display your products? Taking the time to experiment with lighting, color, and backgrounds is very worthwhile.
5. Experiment with Production.
Maybe you want your shop to be full of custom-made items. In this case, you’ll need a system down for how long it takes you to produce each item and what materials you need to have on hand. Or maybe you’d like to only sell what you already have made. This means you’ll need a working inventory of all your items and materials (preferably organized in a cabinet or separate space in your home) on hand.
Another note on production: since I decided to start selling prints, I needed to go out and find a print shop that could print the quality of print I wanted. I tried many different papers and color settings before sticking to a specific print process (that I still use today).
6. Research Shipping Methods.
I ordered prints from other small shops to see how other shops were packaging their items. I then made a list of the materials I would need for shipping and sought out the most durable and earth-friendly shipping materials I could find.
Also research different package carriers and shipping rates to find the best rate and method for your product(s).
7. Test Drive.
Put your shipping materials and chosen package carrier to the test by sending a few packaged items to different family members or friends first. You don’t want to risk bad reviews (that can hurt the success of your shop) just because you didn’t realize you needed an extra layer of paper padding to protect your product.
Once you’re ready to open for business, be sure to tell those you know. Before I started selling, I was posting my work on platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. This makes it easier to direct people you meet to your work, and to start cultivating an audience in which you can tell about your new shop.
Things I have done recently to help promote my shop include making business cards (which I send with each order), attending craft markets, and networking in local communities in order to offer my art for sale in local shops where I live.
9. Build Relationships.
One of the most rewarding parts of opening a small business is the ability to really get to know your customers and have individualized interactions. It’s a lot more satisfying than trying to chat with a customer service robot. If a customer has an issue with or a question about an order, this is your chance to stand behind what you do and create lasting relationships.
Things will constantly change with your shop, and it’s important to stick with it and enjoy the process of growth. Opening a small shop to sell my art has really taught me how to be grateful for where I am and to embrace the journey of where I am going.
I would like to add that success does not happen over night, but it is an ongoing process. Perhaps some days will feel more “successful” than others. But the days in which I am kind to myself and others and feel good about the work I am creating, those are the days I feel most successful.
Also: my small shop is still located in the smallest possible space within my living space. It’s organized and it works!