As far back as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed working with my hands. I inherited this trait from my mom and dad, who I suspect inherited it from their respective parents, and I get the sense that I come from a long ancestry of makers. As someone who is culturally ambiguous in almost all aspects, creating things with my hands is just about the only tie to my heritage that I really have. And recently I’ve decided to fully embrace that.
So it’s no surprise that I’m currently selling masks on Etsy in a quickly growing shop I call: “Old Salt Craft Co.”
But Old Salt isn’t my first Etsy shop. I also have an entrepreneurial gene, having been essentially raised in the back room of my parents’ bicycle shop. So in 2012 when I was in a jewelry-making phase, I decided to open my first Etsy Shop.
I need to admit that it was a complete flop. Not only because I really had no clue what I was doing, but it was a bad time in my life to start something that required a real commitment. I bit off more than I could chew. It wasn’t that I had too many sales and couldn’t keep up (I think I had 3-4 total), but I didn’t account for where I was in my life.
The shop sold only one thing – purple wire bracelets (that were actually quite nice), the proceeds of which would be donated to the Alzheimer’s Association in honor of my dad who was at that time suffering from early-onset dementia. Like most new Etsy sellers (especially at that time), I put up a listing and waited. Crickets. No sales.
Then things got pretty bad with my dad’s health. His cognitive and physical abilities declined rapidly, and we had to admit him into a nursing home. I was about 27 years old, visiting my dad in the nursing home about ever day, and I became… very, very depressed. I sort of checked out. I certainly wasn’t checking emails.
Unbeknownst to me, I was actually getting a few sales. However, I was consumed by misery and had almost forgotten (ironically) that I had ever opened that Etsy shop. Eventually it became clear that I needed to stop spending all my time in the nursing home – he wasn’t going to get any better – so I ended up moving to NY to build a life of my own, still coming home a few times a month to visit at a more reasonable clip.
When I did eventually discover what happened… I was mortified, but it was too late to get any orders out. My shop was suspended, the customers got their refunds, and it appeared as though I was charged for everything. Thankfully, it wasn’t much, but I still shudder to think what those kind folks thought about what happened.
Lesson Learned #1: Entrepreneurship (even on a small scale) takes a commitment of mind, body, and spirit. If we’re going to embark on a “side hustle,” we have to be mentally and emotionally ready for the actual hustle! At that time, I was not. I don’t think I realized what a bad place I was in, but I shouldn’t have underestimated the responsibility I was undertaking.
Then about four years ago, I decided I wanted to try again. I couldn’t get the old shop completely shut down for some reason even though I had long ago removed the product from it, so (and maybe this isn’t allowed?) I started a new shop under a new email address.
My mistake here was that I wasn’t capitalizing on my strengths. As I mentioned, I’m a maker through and through. For some reason though, I got the idea that I wanted to sell vintage clothing. I did have some really cool dresses and tops, that I felt were very fashionable. Unfortunately… no one else seemed to think so. I don’t remember how many sales I got, but it was next to nothing after months of truly investing real time and energy into the shop, not to mention quite a bit of money.
I joined a few Etsy seller Facebook groups and learned about the unique ways Etsy SEO functions (a slightly nuanced version of traditional SEO). I learned about taking better photos, and writing better descriptions. I learned about the pricing strategies that work best for Etsy, as well as the shipping arrangements and processing times that produce the best results.
At this point in my career, I was a marketing director, so I knew quite a bit about marketing, and I really thought this would be a breeze. But every industry really is slightly different, and what I learned was that… I had a lot to learn. Fortunately, I did! I consumed the new information voraciously and gained a lot of insight about e-commerce that I hadn’t previously been exposed to.
But nothing could overpower the fact that… selling vintage clothes just wasn’t my forte.
Lesson Learned #2: Selling on Etsy requires actually being good at what you do! It sounds so obvious, but we can’t underestimate the time and dedication that goes into mastering something. There’s a ton of competition on Etsy. If you’re going to sell magic beans, then you better be a magic bean expert because there will always be someone better than you. I was never going to be an expert vintage clothing purveyor, largely because I just… wasn’t all that into it. I don’t even wear vintage clothes!!
I quickly lost motivation for the product I was selling, and this time, I was able to gracefully close the shop. But having invested a lot of time and energy (and some money on e-courses), I still wanted to find a way to make Etsy work for me.
Since knitting was something I knew I was fairly expert at, I thought that might be a good place to start. Thus, I opened “Old Salt Craft Co,” and listed several knitted hats. Almost right away I got a sale. And not from my mom or a friend, from an actual organic customer! I continued to get a few sales here and there, much more than I was getting selling vintage.
However, I soon realized, the processing time on knitted hats would make this endeavor pretty unsustainable. It takes about 5+ hours to make a knitted hat (at least a nice one). If I charged myself minimum wage, that’s about $55 a hat in NY. Then I need to add cost of goods sold (supplies), packaging, shipping and handling… oh, and a little padding to actually turn a profit. It became clear that very few people were going to buy hats at the price I should have been selling them. A separate post could be written about how too many craftspeople consider themselves hobbyists who aren’t really “in it for the money,” and end up driving down the prices for those folks who are really trying to make a living from their craft. Although I didn’t intend to make a career of knitting hats, I didn’t want to be that guy.
So, I got into making these really funky, artsy knitted necklaces using recycled t-shirt yarn. Listen. I thought they were awesome. I still do. And I did end up getting about 15 sales over the course of a couple months. But ultimately, I don’t think there was enough demand for them. This was around the time that business school was really picking up for me, as was my career, so I didn’t have the time to really figure out how I’d find a market for these unique necklaces, or if there even was one. I pulled all my listings from the shop, since the work involved in maintaining it just wasn’t producing results worth the time and energy.
However, this time, I really felt that there was something to Old Salt Craft Co., so I didn’t completely shutter the shop. I just put it on vacation mode, knowing I’d return some day with a winning idea. I’m beginning to believe I was right!
Lesson Learned #3: Know your target market. It’s hard to know what the real target market is for “funky, artsy necklaces,” but I pretty quickly realized there wasn’t a large enough market for what I was selling. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe it was a branding issue or even an SEO issue. I’m also not great at photography. But either way, you have to “know when to fold ’em,” and I did. But you also have to follow your gut when it’s saying, “Not yet, but maybe someday.”
Fast forward to today. When I reopened Old Salt on July 12, 2020, with the goal of selling handmade face masks, it became almost immediately clear that I had finally struck the magic balance of market demand, personal capabilities, and marketable branding. Yes, yes, I might not have discovered this new niche if it weren’t for a global pandemic crisis; however, it’s still worth reflecting on what made this new endeavor actually work.
Why this time is different:
- This time, I prototyped. I used some of what I know about lean startups, and I put a prototype out there for sale before investing a ton of time and money into making a ton of finished inventory that might not sell. I listed made-to-order masks, so that if they didn’t sell, I could quickly tweak different characteristics until I found out what people wanted. Interestingly, I was about right the first time regarding what people wanted, and very little tweaking has been necessary to the actual product.
- This time, there’s demand for both my product and my unique brand of product. The total addressable market is vast, but I’ve also discovered a niche target market for the particular style of mask I’m selling. There’s real demand for handmade face masks right now – which is great to see! And I found my niche by choosing fabrics almost no one else is selling, while also using a style that people are familiar with and probably have even worn before, so I think they already know they’ll like the fit and feel of the masks I offer. It’s not so out there (like the funky, artsy necklaces) that people are nervous to buy them, but they’re unique enough to reach a certain buyer that can’t find what I’m offering elsewhere.
- This time, I have time. I actually have the time to make all the masks being ordered. Because I’m working from home right now, I have about 2.5 extra hours a day that I’m not commuting to and from work (yes, my commute really is that long). This has allowed me to spend some time in the early morning sewing and then a little more time in the evenings. And since there’s just about nothing to do on the weekends during a global pandemic, I can crank about 10 masks each weekend.
- This time, the learning curve isn’t as steep. I’ve been able to take all that I learned about selling on Etsy when I was doing vintage, apply what I know from my professional marketing background as well as my MBA, and build a sustainable brand that offers profitably priced products at rates my market is actually willing to pay. I’m actually finding that I need to ease up on the marketing a bit so I can keep up with the demand – a good problem to have!
- This time, I can scale (down or up as needed). At one point, I was getting too many mask orders and started to worry I’d never sleep again because I’d just be sewing through the night to get everyone their orders on time. So I simply extended the processing time, which means fewer people will be willing to buy the product, but when they do, I’ll have more time to make it for them. Then when things felt more manageable again, I was able to shorten the processing time again. Right now, I have a good sweet spot, since I like to get my masks out a few days to a week before the shipping deadline, especially with all the issues USPS is having right now.
- This time, it’s rewarding. My motivation is high because I feel really good about the process of making this product and when I see it actually selling, that gives a little dopamine hit to keep going! Taking photos of vintage clothes and combing thrift store racks became a drag very quickly. I loved making those necklaces, but it’s not so rewarding when others don’t see what you see. However, with these masks, I can’t wait until I can sit down at my sewing machine and crank out another mask. Sewing is very soothing to me. I can turn on a podcast and sort of get in the zone – forgetting about some of the heavier truths of our world right now, even if just for an hour or so. And then to have people actually appreciate that work – it’s a win-win!
Okay I think that’s enough for now. Thank you for indulging what has been uncharacteristically a stream of consciousness. Hopefully there were some nuggets of insight here, or if nothing else, that I’ve explained why I’ve embarked on this little side project. I also hope to share more in the future about other lessons learned from this endeavor. Onward!
About this post’s featured image: Empowerment to help others. Making masks for those in need. Image created by Guilherme Santiago. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives – help stop the spread of COVID-19.