Advice on running a creative product-based business

Running my own business has been the best thing that ever happened to me. Or, I guess, it?s not right to say it happened to me. I made it happen for myself, with some fantastic support along the way. 

I don?t know how universal an experience this is for anyone else, but thinking back to the time before I started running my own show, I don?t think the idea of being an entrepreneur ever crossed my mind. Like, not even once. It had never been suggested to me, and though my parents did own their own business for a while growing up, I don?t think anyone ever talked to me about it like it was a career option.

Perhaps this is because it?s kind of difficult to do. A lot of businesses do not succeed, or don?t last more than a year or two. And perhaps even more, it?s because most people can?t afford to simply drop everything and start their own business. We actually need something to live on in the meantime. 

But regardless of my late awareness of the game, starting a business is such a phenomenal option for creatively inclined people. I come from a culture of creatives – growing up, every woman I knew did something artistic, be it making clothes or textiles, painting, or baking legendarily good sweets. For the most part, these were hobbies, or things they did socially. But occasionally, it became a little bit bigger.

Now, there?s a time and a place for everything, and I definitely don?t think every hobby needs to (or should) be monetized. But I think that if you?re itching with the entrepreneurial spirit and you know that you?ve got a product or service that people want, there?s no harm in giving it a go and seeing where it leads you to next.

I?ve been thinking about what kind of advice I would give to people in this situation. Someone with drive, and a goal, but not a lot of experience. And first of all – wow, what an exciting position to be in! I remember that feeling of uncertain exhilaration well. So here?s a few of my tips to try and keep that fire going. 

Pinterest graphic: Running a creative product-based business? Here's what you need to know.

Look at your material costs. 

When you?re doing something as a hobby, you can choose to occasionally splurge on the more expensive materials — a nicer stem of silk flowers, higher quality yarn, etc. But when you?re running this craft as a business, all expenses need to be carefully calculated.

Buying materials in bulk is important. And, just for your own sake, make sure you?re only making this investment after you?ve done up a solid business plan! Figure out your startup investment costs and how much you?re able to devote to buying raw materials. 

In terms of sourcing, this is something that I review twice a year or so in my business. I know how much every little thing costs me — ribbon per inch for the hang tags, how much each label sticker costs, everything. These costs are going to eat into your margins.

It takes a ton of time to source materials, so don?t stress too much about nailing it on the first try. Do your best to balance quality vs price vs availability, and then when you have the chance, review and see where you could be doing better. 

In my first year of business, I was getting my circular jar labels from a supplier in Ontario. They looked great, but were approximately 21 cents per label. Not bad, but could be better. Honestly, I just didn?t know the keywords I should’ve been using when searching for a new supplier. So when this new year started, I decided finding a new label provider was a top priority. Luckily I managed to find one that not only ships free and is still Canadian, but since I?m going to be doing a bulk order, I?ll be getting them for about 8 cents a sticker! Those 13 cents per unit are really going to add up in terms of my profit.

I would also add, don?t instantly think that the best deal on raw materials is going to be online. You?ve got to factor in shipping costs, but also consider the fact that your money is going to be leaving your local economy. Try talking to the owners of small businesses or supply shops near you, and explain to them the kind of materials that you need. Chances are they will (at the very least) be able to help you source them, if not provide you with the actual material themselves. This is great for your business, their business, the local economy, and it reduces your carbon footprint to boot!

Think about the waste you?re producing.

Honestly, the amount of garbage and recyclable material that my business produced at first was astonishing. I?m a pretty low-impact person, so I knew right away that I needed to make it a priority to cut down on the amount of waste that my business was producing.

One big culprit for this is shipping packaging. A handful of materials get shipped to me from other places, and these boxes often come with bubble wrap or other plastic padding for safety. I appreciate my stuff getting shipped safely, but not the piles of ocean-endangering plastic I end up with!

So here are my two main solutions. First, if possible, contact your supplier and ask them to exclude any plastic packaging. If they need to pack something securely, ask them to use crumpled up newspaper or shredded paper. Anything biodegradable is preferable. 

The other solution that I use is to reuse shipping materials. It may not be the most professional option visually (though honestly, I don?t think anyone can tell), but I always include a note in my online orders to customers. I explain to them that I have recycled the bubble wrap that is included in their order, and encourage them to do the same. This way, at least these plastics get reused as much as possible before reaching their inevitable demise. It?s not perfect, but that?s what I?ve been trying!

Invest (time + money) into your branding.

I don?t feel like I even need to say this anymore, but we live in a world where the branding sells the product. It?s often the first thing that a prospective customer sees, and it plays a role in their purchasing decisions.

A lot of what drives this behaviour is aspirational. Let?s say for example that you?re selling handmade candles. Well, I can go and buy a cheaper candle at the store down the road, and I?ll get it instantly, and it?ll probably smell great. So if the point isn?t simply to obtain this type of item, it?s got to be to buy into something bigger.

Take your social media, for example. What?s the aesthetic that you?re curating? Are you showing a lifestyle that someone would want to emulate? With home goods, this is particularly important. Alternatively, you might want to take the health/wellness angle. What is the candle made of? Is it more sustainable or better for your lungs than cheap commercial candles? Branding plays into all of this.

So what does this matter to you? My advice would be that first, invest time into thinking about what makes your product unique. Why does your customer want your item rather than a generic thing from a store? What is the lifestyle that you?re selling? Once you?re able to get really specific about this, then it?s time to actually work on your online branding and packaging.

People are often shocked at how much a graphic designer charges for their services. But, to be frank, this is a person who has skills that you don?t, and that you need to succeed. You don?t negotiate down with your dentist or your electrician. You want to pay them the proper amount so that they provide you with good work and don?t fuck up your teeth or cause an electrical fire. 

If you?re able to approach a graphic designer with a clear vision of what you want (a vision board is great, as are examples of other things you like, a colour palette, etc.) then you?re going to have a really good shot at getting a solid branding product that you?re able to use for your website, packaging and labels, and social media platforms. If you think about how much mileage your logo is going to get, it starts to seem like a really good thing to invest in. 

Of course, you can always try giving it a go yourself. There are lots of tutorials out there, and perhaps graphic design is something you?re quite good at. But if you?re not sure, try running your designs by an honest friend – or even better, share it in an entrepreneurial Facebook group. I see this happen all the time. People give really honest feedback, and that?s what you need above all. 

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Find a support network.

These aren?t people you?re looking to network with for professional gain. These are fellow entrepreneurs who understand the struggle and want to get together to talk about the ups and downs of being your own boss in a creative business.

Sure, your regular friend group is probably supportive. But speaking as someone who has been through this, if you?re not in the entrepreneurial game, you don?t really get it. And that?s not a bad thing at all — I treasure my friends who have normal jobs and lives because they are my reprieve from the occasionally chaotic world that I live in. Plus, they?re super encouraging! But sometimes I just need to talk to someone who understands what it?s like to spend a whole day trying to improve the SEO of product listings or to fight with Apple?s podcast hosting service.

I have three main ways of finding this kind of community. The first, and easiest, is through Facebook groups. I?m part of probably four or five women in business or female entrepreneur groups there. Why just the women-centric ones? Well, it?s just my preference, really. I?m also part of a non-gender-specific coaching group. But I find that the female entrepreneur groups are a lot more relatable for the problems that I face. Again, that?s just a preference. But these are spaces where I can drop in a question anytime, or chime in to answer someone else?s, or just commiserate when someone shares a struggle. 

I recently had a great success joining a group through MeetUp. You know, a real, in-person group of wonderful people who are doing very cool and diverse things! I?ve used MeetUp for other types of interests as well, so I would definitely recommend checking out the groups in your area here, or starting one up yourself. You?d be surprised at how many other people are looking for solidarity and biz friends.

The other way of finding community is through real-life connections. I work at farmer?s markets and craft shows, so I end up meeting a ton of new and very cool people there. And honestly? I just ask them if they want to hang out and talk about their business. I?m so curious about what other people are doing, and generally the feeling seems to be mutual. I do the same thing with makers on Instagram in my area, if we?ve been following each other for a while and they keep doing really interesting things. 

If you?re a little bit socially awkward, I know this whole thing can be a bit daunting. But take heart in the fact that you automatically have something cool to talk about: your business. 

Take intentional time away to re-love your craft.

I?m sure you?ve heard of burnout. You?ve probably experiencedburnout before. But when you?re burned out on a business where you make up the entire staff, things can get tricky. 

It?s important that you make the concious decision to take a break from working on and thinking about your business. If you?re making a product or using a skill that started out as a hobby, take some time to explore doing this hobby just for you again. You?ll be surprised at how fast the love of the craft can be overwhelmed by the monotony of production. 

I took this advice earlier this year with my writing. I love writing, and I do it basically every day either for my blog or other projects, social media, or for a book I?m writing. But somewhere along the way, I stopped enjoying the actual process of coming up with ideas and putting them down on the page.

So, what did I do? I went a whole month without my laptop. I only wrote on paper. This may be a little extreme, but the fact that I took away my ability to write fast meant that I had to be more intentional with what I was saying. I thought over each sentence. I took my time to erase (since I wrote in pencil) and rewrite. And what I wrote?was really good. 

At the end of my break, it took a little bit of time to get back into the swing of writing on my computer. It happened eventually, though, and here I am, writing this essay. But I feel refreshed, and writing isn?t a chore. That?s how it started to feel. The thing I love to do, and the thing I?m known for! I?m so grateful that I was able to take the step back and fall back in love with it. 

Don?t let the running of a business take away your love of creating. All the administrative jobs can sometimes drain you of the will to create, sure. But if you keep the reason why you?re doing this in the forefront of your mind, and take time away from the work to enjoy the art, then you?re going to have a much more sustainable business on your hands. 

Launching a creative business, no matter what you?re selling, can feel like an isolated process at times. None of us exist in a bubble, however. If we remember to check in on our impact, our community, and ourselves during the process, we?re in for a much greater chance at success — and a whole lot more fun along the way.


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Hey there!

I'm Rebecca, a Nova Scotian writer, designer, and entrepreneur. This website is my personal blog and creative hub. I hope you find something cool and inspiring here!

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