Print & Press founder Beki Gowing looks at the lessons she learnt starting up a creative business at university, and suggests how new startups and designers can avoid similar mistakes.
When I was at university (before Print & Press, London was a twinkle in my eye) I ran a failed clothing brand. While this failure initially dented my confidence, it taught me a huge amount about what matters, and what doesn’t, when setting up your own business. I’ve embraced my mistakes, and I know I wasn’t alone in not managing to get my business through its first year. If you’re thinking about starting a business, I hope some of this advice will be useful.
1. Know who your customer is and where they are shopping
My clothing brand sold clothes that I loved. So I decided that my customer was ‘people like me’ and ‘people like me with a bit more money’. It’s embarrassing to admit, but my research didn’t really go far beyond that, and the slightly arrogant assumption that anyone who was young and liked fashion would like my clothes.
When you are setting up your brand, go and talk to your target customers. Find out as much about them as possible, including what influences them, and where they like to shop. Online surveys and asking your friends is ok, but nothing makes up for hitting the streets and actually talking to the sort of people you want to buy your products. Talking to your customers face to face will make you find out where they shop. For my mid range clothing brand targeting fashion conscious women, I decided to sell at car boot fairs and vintage markets, as I could afford the stands there. Quite predictably, I didn’t sell many clothes.
While it’s fine to try a soft launch, a few days of selling your products in the wrong venues can really impact your confidence. A local market that only charges £30 for a stall is not worth it if you don’t sell anything, as it wastes your time and your optimism (and you need a huge amount of optimism when starting a business). Meanwhile a niche market or trade show in a different town may cost you several hundred pounds, but if you sell out, make contacts, and get positive feedback, it will be worth the investment.
The main thing to remember is to research. And to keep researching and analysing after you’ve launched. After 3 months – were you right about your target customers? Are the sales as you expected, or have you noticed you are getting more/less sales from one channel? Don’t be afraid to go back and completely rewrite your plans once you have some real sales results to help.
2. Don’t overprepare
This may seem to contradict the previous point, but there is a difference between useful research and wasting hours sitting on your computer. Of course you should have as much research as possible before you give up your job and invest your life savings. But it’s also a good idea to test before you commit.
Do you want to start a homeware business? Make some samples and open an Etsy store to see what sells. Want to work as a freelance textiles designer? Go to a local shop and show them your designs to get feedback on what they are looking to buy. The most useful research will be away from your computer.
You will learn from your initial sales (and what doesn’t sell), and feedback from customers and other people. And it’s ok to change and develop your proposition after you have launched. I thought my old business needed to be absolutely perfect before I even thought about my first sale. Unfortunately, this meant I spent a small fortune on stationery, and days completing wildly optimistic 5 year budgets. I thought I was being sensible and researching, but really I was wasting time overpreparing, when I should have focused on my products and my customers. Make your first sale as soon as possible, as then you’ll start learning about your customers and your business.
3. Use social media to engage, not to sell
There are countless websites on the internet devoted to teaching you how to use social media effectively for your business. I originally made the classic mistake of making my social media posts all about me. I wrote lengthy blogs about what I was up to, and posted every product and its price on my twitter feed. I hoped that customers and collaborators would find me and contact me offering their ideas and their money. If you think you still might be doing this, below are some great free resources to help you up your social media game.
The main thing I have learnt is to think about how you use social media in your spare time. I doubt you are searching Twitter with your wallet open wondering what to buy. What type of posts and accounts do you follow and enjoy reading? Most likely they are ones that look beautiful, have a sense of uniqueness and personality, and are sharing useful information. What this useful information is will depend on your business – motivational quotes, sewing patterns, local events, inspirational photos, etc. Make your account the sort that you would like to follow, and then spend a few minutes each day finding people and talking to them (not selling to them).
Useful social media tips:
Running a business is a steep learning curve, and for everything you get right, you will probably make at least one mistake. The unfortunate truth is that lots of businesses do fail, no matter how many sleepless nights, tears, and scrapings from your overdraft you put into them. If you’ve had a bad day or a bad year, try to think if there is anything you have learnt, and share it with other start ups and designers.
My last point would be to talk to people. Someone else will have gone through it before, and by opening up and talking to people, you will probably get some great advice and inspiration. And if not you can write an article like this and hopefully help someone else.