Category Archives: Small Business Q&A

Small Business Spotlight (& Giveaway!): Old Town Suds

Welcome back to Steffanie of Old Town Suds, my very first blog sponsor – and instead of doing “just” a sponsor post for the month, we decided to feature her with a small business spotlight Q&A, as well as a giveaway!

Old Town Suds Header

Steffanie is an Alexandria, VA-based “sudsologist” who I was fortunate enough to meet through my blogger meetup last winter.  She’s also a member of my unofficial handmade business group, and is running her business from her rented apartment.

Q:  When did you launch Old Town Suds, and what inspired you to start your own eco-friendly soap company?

It was a slow progression. I was already making my own laundry detergent at the time because everything that was commercially available turned me into a red flaky lobster. Then, I had to have brain surgery. Several months at home, nothing to do and contemplating how your choices effect your health led to Suds starting at our local farmers market in September 2011. 

All Purpose Cleaner Old Town Suds

All Purpose Cleaner

Q:  You live in an apartment.  How do you fit your production studio into your space, and what are your tips for running a handmade product business out of small and/or rented space? 

It is difficult. We’ve moved once since I started Suds. When we moved, we specifically looked for a rental that would help accommodate a growing business. We have a storage unit with our apartment that is priceless. You have to be flexible, but I think the flexibility is more on the part of my husband than me. I tried to kick him out of his closet in December – true story.

We came up with a compromise that I would move my soap closet from the small hall closet to the office walk-in closet to give me more room. Plus, I use unique features of our place for storage. Above the fireplace (that we don’t use) we have a nice cutout for a square TV from the 90′s which won’t fit our nice modern TV. So, it is a giant soap curing area.

I really wish we had a basement or a shed or a garage or something but I know that will come as the business grows. I think there has to be a strategic decision made as to when you are too large to efficiently run your company out of your home; for each person that is a different point.

Q:  Like me, I know you work a 9-5 “day job” in addition to running Old Town Suds.  How do you balance it all, especially in the summer when you’re doing weekly farmer’s markets?

It’s hard. Most days I come home and take a nap while my husband cooks dinner. After dinner, I start working on Suds. It is easier because I can mostly leave my day job at my day job and focus on Suds when I am at home, but every so often business trips will interrupt my schedule. I love being at markets and talking to people about my products. Nothing makes me happier that hearing that someone loves what I spent so much time working on! Markets rejuvenate me for my day job. I find that what I do market wise for both helps me succeed in both places. This year, I expect that I will be hiring my first employee to help with production and markets. That will help alleviate a little pressure, hopefully!

Gold Karma Bath Bombs!

Gold Karma Bath Bombs!

Q:  What are the most awesome parts (and the biggest challenges) of your business?

The most awesome parts are the people, the opportunities and the creativity. There is nothing like owning your own business. I only have my success or failure to blame on myself. (granted the husbands do get picked on a lot for helping out) 

A challenge is when I am at my day job and in an extremely creative mood but my job doesn’t call for it at that moment. I hate wasting it and want to be at home making soap or doing something productive.

Some days, I just try to battle through it and hope that the mood lasts until I make it home; other days I will leave early or call in. It is a fine line, a very fine line. I’m lucky in that my new full-time job allows me to use a lot of my creativity at work in different ways. It sparks different ideas and helps me think differently about what I would or could do with Suds. It’s always a giant puzzle.

Q:  Where do you envision Old Town Suds going as it grows? Do you want to continue it as a side career or do you hope to someday?

Every day this answer changes depending upon my mood and frustration levels with having a full time job and a side job. I want to keep doing whatever makes me the happiest and fits my lifestyle. If that is opening up a teaching/retail space, I have the plans set to do that. If it means remaining a market booth, I can do that as well. I hope to continue to strengthen Suds no matter what direction I choose to take it in. I want to be flexible and opportunistic if the right situation comes about.

Blue Ribbon Beer Soap Old Town Suds


Blue Ribbon Beer Soap 

Q:  What are some of the newest products you’ve been developing lately?

We have a LOT of new things in the works! This year we are expanding our beer soap line to include local breweries. We have a great micro brewery scene in Virginia and DC and I couldn’t resist using their fantastic beers in some soap. We also have a vibrant wine scene so we have a new wine soap line that will be debuting. Since I am a coffee fan, we have some new coffee soaps too!

Back this Spring will be a spa bath bombs featuring doTERRA essential oils. We also have a few new home cleaners in the works but they are still in the development stages. I am hoping they will make their appearances in 2013.  I think my favorite new item though, is our new Fruit & Veggie Wash Soap! I am always trying to make sure my veggies are super clean before I eat them in any way. I don’t want any dirt or pesticides on my veggies!

Fruit Veggie Wash Old Town Suds


Fruit and Veggie Wash

Q:  What’s next on the event calendar for Old Town Suds?

Our next event is the We Can Expo in Arlington, VA.  It’s April 13 and is open to the public. There will be a lot of different women-owned business represented at the event. I think the neatest part about We Can, outside of that every business is woman-owned, is there are lectures, workshops and different demonstrations happening throughout the day. It isn’t your typical expo, art show or event. I can’t wait!

Where can we find you?

Old Town Suds:    Website     ~     Etsy Shop     ~     Facebook     ~     Twitter

Old Town Suds Giveaway ImageShopping now?  Use the code “ThanksJane” for $5 off a purchase of $25 or more in the Old Town Suds Etsy Shop!

Grand Prize:

  • 1 80-load bag Laundry Detergent, 1 Bath Bomb, 1 Veggie Soap Bar

Second Prize:

  • 1 Bar Soap, 1 Laundry Detergent Sample

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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13 Nuggets: Small Business Wisdom from Jim Law of Linden Vineyards

When you’re developing a business, one of the best things you can do is learn from more seasoned business owners whom you admire.  Sure, you can do this by reading their books or attending lectures (if they give them), but my favorite way is to just talk with them.

Enter Jim Law, the owner of Linden Vineyards, who’s become one of my small business heroes in the 8 years I’ve been a customer there.  Over the years I realized that Jim’s passion for the vines and renegade approach to business set him apart from the hundreds of other vineyards in the state.

During my fall visit to the vineyard I asked Jim if he’d be willing to sit down with our small business group so we could pick his brain about what he’s learned in the 30 years he’s been doing this.

“Sure, but I should warn you my business approach isn’t considered typically American.”   He went on to explain that he is a bit of a renegade, driven by his passion for wine and his desire to simply make a comfortable living doing what he loves – not live an extravagant life.

13 Tips of Small Business Advice from Jim Law of Linden Vineyards

1. As an entrepreneur, you have to have fortitude.

2. Don’t accept just anyone as your mentor.
You should have a business mentor, but study under the best, not just anyone in your business area.  Even if you have to wait for years for them to be available – do it.

3.  The younger your business is, the more risks you have to take.
“When you start you take risks because you have to.  If you don’t, it’s not going to happen.”
But don’t make rash decisions; sort out the “crazy risks” from the “reasonable risks.   Jim noted that as his business has developed, what used to be a reasonable risk then might now be a crazy risk.

As you take all these risks, keep your mistakes small.

4.  Always evaluate your actions.
Don’t ever stop asking yourself “Why am I doing this?”

By this, Jim did not mean the question “why am I pursuing this business,”  though that is a good reflection. He meant more specific evaluations of your actions for the business, such as:

  • Why am I making this purchasing decision?
  • Why am I making the product this particular way?

The answer should not be “because that’s how it’s always been done.”  Really evaluate it and see if it’s the right way for you to be doing it. Or even if you should be doing it at all.

5.  If your products are handmade, you’re likely in a “luxury market.”
Jim pointed out this seemingly obvious fact to us when the conversation turned to product pricing.  Before then I hadn’t consciously thought of my products that way.

6. When marketing your luxury product, it’s all about the story.
I asked his thoughts on staying competitive with pricing, citing examples of Etsy sellers whose prices are unrealistically low in all of our niche markets.  We can’t compete with them and actually make a living.

He wisely pointed out that we shouldn’t try to and also  “You can’t view your product as a commodity.  There’s a story and personality behind it.  It’s all about the story, so tell people that story.”

7.  When marketing your products, ask “how do I make consumption decisions?”
You’ve most likely created your product line based on your tastes.  Therefore, your target customers probably have some similarities to you, so consider how you make purchasing decisions when thinking how to market to them.

8.  A “sale” is death to a brand.
When Jim dropped that little nugget on us I did a double-take, then immediately several examples came to mind.  Think of the stores that have sales and coupons available all the time.  I’d be shocked if you told me you were OK paying full price for their products.

This really hit home for me.  As a small handmade artisan, it’s hard to price my products for profit while keeping them as accessible to consumers as possible.  A sale of even 10% off cuts into my bottom line – and it may be telling my customers that my products aren’t worth the full price I’ve set for them.

Jim doesn’t do sales, and his customers keep returning.  This is definitely food for thought.

9. View wholesale as a marketing expense/opportunity.
I didn’t think Jim sold a lot to distributors (to have his wine in retail outlets) so I was intrigued when he said he was starting to do more wholesaling to them.

When you sell your products wholesale, you sell them for 30 – 60% less than your selling price.  Your profit takes a hit.  This can be profitable if your quantity sold increases dramatically.

But while a factory can increase production and do more sales when the wholesale requests come rolling in, wine production doesn’t increase. It can’t, because the grape yield remains constant.

Jim said he views the wholesale opportunities as a marketing cost.  By getting his wines into restaurants and retail outlets, he extends the reach of his brand, exposing it to potential new customers.

This was a great concept for me.  I’m a one-woman operation, so I can’t increase my production drastically for wholesale efforts – and I can’t make much profit at wholesaling either.

10. Create a great employee culture with three simple things:
Respect your employees.  Pay better than the competition.  Create a stress-free environment.
Jim went on to explain that “as an owner it’s your job to absorb the stress affecting the business and not pass it on to your employees.  After all, it’s your business.”

Simple but so wise. Think of all the times your employers or managers have been stressed and passed that on to you.  No fun, right?

11. Make efficient decisions.
You only have 24 hours in the day, and often you don’t have time to do everything you need to for the business.  Make efficient use of that time, which may mean quickly paying for something without much shopping around in order to save the time searching for savings.

An example Jim gave is this.  You need to obtain a part from a place that’s 2 hours away.  You can have it shipped overnight and pay an extra fee, or you can drive to get it.

If time is money, and your time is worth $50 an hour . . . then you just spent about $200 (plus $.50 a mile) to go get it, just to avoid that $50 shipping premium.  Was that the most efficient decision?

12.  Live in your own bubble.
How many times have you seen people saying negative things about you / your blog / your brand somewhere online? And when you see it, do you read it?

Live in your own bubble, pretend they don’t exist, and focus on your business.  Because you can’t win an argument on the internet.

For example, Jim runs his vineyard differently than many in the state.  He added some restrictions as the wine tourism trade increased, causing more of a bar or party atmosphere that stressed his employees and negatively impacted loyal customers.  Linden has gotten negative reviews for the rule that you have to buy a case a year in order to be allowed to lounge on their small deck after a tasting, or that limos aren’t welcome at the vineyard.

Jim saw some of the negative things being said, but quickly realized that it wasn’t doing any good to see it, so he stopped looking.

However, he also realized that those negative reviews were helping the right new customers find him – the people who wanted to visit a vineyard that was serious about its wine.

13. My Exit Strategy is Death.*
Jim said his least favorite business jargon is the phrase “exit strategy.”  Why spend time detailing an exit strategy for your business; why not spend that effort making the business successful instead?

(*If I’m lucky.)

Small Business Group Linden Cellar Tasting

And that’s it!  All in all, it was one of the most awesome business conversations I’ve ever had, and I think the rest of my group felt that way too.  We couldn’t thank Jim enough for his time.

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Small Business Spotlight: Funnelcloud Studio

I absolutely love talking to small business owners, hearing their stories and learning as much as I can.  That’s why I’m so happy to bring back my Small Business Spotlight series, and I’m excited to tell you I have about 12 business owners already lined up for this series!

Funnelcloud Studio Logo

Today’s interview is with Rachel Roellke / Funnelcloud Studio, a Washington,DC-based artist who I was fortunate enough to meet through my blogger meetup last winter.  I love her art, especially the way she uses color and pattern in her illustrations.

Q:  I know you used to work as an architect, but you now work full time (so cool!) as an artist and indie business owner.  How did this transition happen?

I wish I could tell you that this was a well-conceived plan and that I worked for years to prepare myself to quit my day job. However, it was a much more compulsive decision.

I had been unhappy in my architectural position for years – I hated working in a cubicle, and architecture was not providing the creative outlet that I’d hoped it would. Yes, I dreamed of starting my own business, but I wasn’t sure how to make it happen and I knew the demands of my day job meant I couldn’t make it happen while I was working for someone else.

I did initially reduce my hours to work part-time at my architectural position for a few months, but that still wasn’t enough time to really focus on growing a new business and I was still unhappy during the time I was in the office. I finally came to the realization that it was now or never, that I’d never be happy in the situation that I was in, and that I’d regret it my whole life if I didn’t at least take the chance to focus on my own business and find something that made me happy. So I quit my day job and opened an Etsy shop.

For a while, I really struggled with the idea that I was “quitting” architecture. Many of my college classmates didn’t even make it through the demanding architectural curriculum, and I managed to finish a thesis, graduate from a challenging program, and get a job with an architectural firm immediately after getting my degree. Between school and work, I was in the architecture field for 14 years. I wondered if my family and colleagues would think I was throwing it all away to become an artist. But then I realized that whether it’s architecture or art didn’t matter – I’m a designer, and starting Funnelcloud Studio was just the next step in my design career.

Funnelcloud Studio Things That Are Awesome Print

Q:  Your shop name and logo are awesome.  What was the inspiration behind them?

My studio is always a mess and I joke that it looks like a tornado ripped right through it, so that is how my shop got its name. (Creative types are always messy, right?)

The logo design came about when my shop was in its infancy and I had been invited to participate in a small art market. My shop was so new that I didn’t have any marketing materials or graphics yet, so I was forced to design business cards and a shop banner and have them printed in less than a week. Thankfully, I tossed my original idea of a tornado logo and came up with a hand-drawn pattern that is both representative of my artistic style and symbolic of the creative debris that I work in. Sometimes the tightest deadlines result in the best work! (Or at least being able to cross something off your To Do List!)

Funnelcloud Studio Mini Block Prints

Q:  What are the highlights (and challenges) of running your own home-based indie business full-time?

Highlights: My dogs are my co-workers. I never have to wear stockings or high heels. I get to be creative. I can make my own work hours. I am my own boss.

Challenges: It can be lonely and isolating. I often feel like I’m always working (nights and weekends, too). I am my own boss.

River Rocks and Cairn Illustration by Funnelcloud Studio

Q:  How do you promote your work, and get your shop and art noticed?

Over the past few years I’ve come across a lot of people who dream of opening an Etsy shop. I had this dream, too, and eventually followed my own advice of Just Do It by signing up to be a seller and listing a few block prints for sale – just to see what happened. Would anybody find my shop? Would they like my art? Would anybody spend money to buy things that I had created? It was nerve-wracking. And slow going. The first six months my shop was open resulted in a handful of sales (and I was elated!), but it certainly wasn’t the booming business I dreamed of.

But I kept at it. I made a few more pieces and listed them. I felt both hopeful and discouraged. Some of the best advice I read when I had just opened my Etsy shop was “How is anybody going to find your work if you don’t tell them?” Excellent advice, and it sounds obvious, but I think it is probably the last thing anyone with a new shop wants to do. When my shop was brand new, I certainly did not want to announce to my friends/family/the internet “Hey everybody, look at my new shop that I’m not quite satisfied with yet and the few pieces of art I have in it – I promise there will be more soon, but I’m still figuring things out…” I kind of wanted to keep the whole thing a secret until my shop and my artwork met my expectations. But that’s not the way to go about doing things. There are hundreds of thousands of sellers on Etsy and your shop and work will immediately get lost if you don’t do a bit of self-promotion.

This isn’t an easy task, especially because I think there are wrong ways of self-promoting (just say no to spam!) and because many people (myself included) don’t want to come across as bragging about their work. I took a slow and steady approach. I started blogging around the same time I opened my shop and used the blog as a platform to share my art work. My blog is primarily a personal blog, and I use it first and foremost to document my life – I think this keeps it from becoming an advertisement for my shop. I also eventually joined Twitter – and I tweet both personal things and shop news. While I have a very small following, I still think blogging and tweeting are a good way to share what I’m up to – and it allows my readers to get to know me as a person and not just an artist/business owner. Both platforms are also great for making connections, and I’ve met a handful of bloggers and business owners who have turned into real-life friends this way.

Being active on the internet (through Etsy, blogging, and Twitter) led to some lucky breaks along the way. After months of sales just slowly trickling in, one of my prints was featured by a blogger with a large following and my shop was transformed into a one-woman twenty-four hour sweatshop over night!

At the time, I certainly wasn’t prepared to take on that many orders at once, but as my worked gained popularity through other bloggers and Pinterest, I knew that I had to make the most of the increase in visibility to grow my business. I worked around the clock for a few weeks to keep up. Months later, the interior designer for a boutique hotel chain placed an order for a hundred prints. A few months later a pair of popular bloggers stopped by my booth at an art market and featured my work on their blog.

While I know that I got extremely lucky to have my work noticed and promoted by bloggers with large followings (and I am SO grateful to them for featuring my shop!), I also know that if I hadn’t put my work out there – on Etsy, at art markets, on my blog – I never would’ve gotten noticed in the first place. Two years into this gig and I’ve learned that as with most things, running your own business takes a lot of hard work and little bit of dumb luck.

Virginia State Illustration Funnelcloud Studio

Q:  I know you’ve done 7 art shows and craft fairs this year.  That must keep you busy!  What kinds of trends and tips have you picked up on along the way?

Art markets are challenging because it’s nearly impossible to predict how much product you need, how many people will attend, or how well your business will do. Business varies from market to market and from year to year. Some markets are wild successes that leave me fired up to do as many shows as possible. Others are duds that leave me with a fleeting feeling of quitting.

The best advice I can give is to participate in a number of art markets until you find the ones that work best for your business. Finding your niche is important. If you sell traditional pottery, you probably won’t do well at an indie art market. Conversely, if you sell posters of skulls and robots, your work probably isn’t a good fit for a traditional craft show. Do some research, take some chances, and find the venue that’s right for your shop.

Q:  Please share one piece of advice for handmade or indie business dreamers.

These are cliches, but Just Do It and Fake It Until You Make It really are words to live by when you’re starting and running a small business.

If I had waited until everything in my life was perfect before I started my business…well, I’d still be waiting and I’d still probably be working in a cubicle, more unsatisfied and unhappy than ever. I took some big risks to start Funnelcloud Studio, and two years later, I’m still taking risks to continue this business. And while it’s true that risks can result in failure, if you don’t take risks in the first place you will never achieve success.

I know you only asked for one piece of advice, but my second suggestion is to find other small business owners to meet with regularly, bounce ideas off of, and drink wine with!

Rachel Roellke Funnelcloud Studio

Q:  What’s next on the event calendar for Funnelcloud Studio?

I have several more art markets coming up as 2012 comes to an end, including a couple of holiday art markets which are always the most fun and busiest markets of the year. My shop will be at 2 Hands Indie Craft Market in Severna Park, Maryland on November 3rd, Charm City Craft Mafia’s Holiday Heap in Baltimore, Maryland on December 1st, and GRUMP at Artisphere in Arlington, Virginia on December 15th. I also keep a calendar of upcoming shows on my blog.

Where can we find you?
Shop: www.funnelcloudstudio.com

Blog: http://funnelcloud.blogspot.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/FunnelcloudRach

Instagram: @funnelcloud

Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/funnelcloud

I hope you all have enjoyed this interview with Rachel!  Please let me know if there are any topics or particular business niches that you’d like to see covered in future Small Business Spotlight posts – and you can go here to read the previous interviews.

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