Hello, my lovely lilies, 

I thought that for today’s blog I’d do something I’ve been planning on doing from day one. I’m going to share with you what it’s been like to start, and run, and hopefully continue to grow a small business in the time of COVID-19 and a global pandemic that has shut the world down. 

Just a bit of background. Bespoke isn’t my first go-round on Etsy. In fact, to date, I’ve had six previous Etsy shops to date, with Bespoke being my 7th and so far, my most favorite. I started selling on Etsy at the suggestion of a friend back in 2007. At that time I was doing a lot of what I do now, which is making jewelry. My first products were actually a set of hand-engraved pendants created from a set of vintage silver spoons.

At that time, my husband was at the height of his career and I really wasn’t focused on making a living from Etsy. It was more of a way to justify my spending mega-bucks on craft supplies. “See honey? People love my work!” That type of thing. Plus, I had a career in professional photography that I loved and didn’t see myself leaving.

Fast forward to 2019 and what brought me to my current business. The fact is, and the truth is, my husband had had another bipolar incident and ended up losing his job. I had been trying to maintain a roof over our head and was working part-time in the office where we live. This was a grueling job. A lot of physical activity and work, a lot of stress, and extremely – seriously extreme – low pay ($75 for a month, just to keep a roof over my head). And in the midst of it all, I landed in the hospital where I had four heart attacks and a couple of strokes and was eventually diagnosed with Diastolic Systolic Congestive Heart Failure. As a result, I became unable to do the same type of work I’ve always done to really earn an income. No more waiting tables or working in convenience stores. 

After time to recover, and considering my husband’s situation (at the time he was unemployed and we were living off family assistance) I decided I needed to open another Etsy shop and really, really dive into making it work. And so, here I am. 

So, for the first part of this blog, I want to tell you about how I started building up my shop – how I decided what I wanted to create and sell, how I started my inventory, and what happened when Covid hit. Ugh. Covid. Yah. 

DECIDING WHAT TO MAKE AND SELL

I have always been creative so for me, deciding to make handmade products was a no-brainer. The hardest part was deciding what, exactly, those products would be. I considered, and even tried, the following items: 

  • Printables
  • Tee-shirts
  • Coffee Mugs
  • Buttons (the kind you use in sewing, not the kind you wear for political or protest purposes)

These were all great in so far as the overhead was very very low. All I had to have was what I already had – a computer, a printer, and Adobe Photoshop. The problem? I am a hands-on creative and after a couple of designs were done, I just burned out. I couldn’t come up with new ideas for shirts or stickers. I really praise those who can and do it consistently because it’s not easy!

So, I settled on Jewelry, specifically, polymer clay because (1) I’d already been making charms and other things for friends and family (2) I love the tactile feel of working with the clay, and (3) I could be as versatile as I wanted to be from doing cute little Kawaii style charms to doing higher-end pieces. 

By this time it was November of 2019 and my husband had finally gotten another job, so I approached him with a total business plan from start-up costs and how much it would take, to my 1st year marketing plan, etc. I hit him like I was going into a lender asking for a loan because, well, basically that’s what I was doing. He listened to my pitch, read over my proposal, and after a few days decided that it was all doable if we did it a little at a time.  The biggest issue was, what it is for most people I know – money. 

I started cutting corners around the house – I got rid of our Netflix and started watching free documentaries on YouTube instead. I started making budget-friendly meals and learning how to make our food dollars stretch till they bled. And after his first full month’s worth of income, in December of 2019, I started buying some supplies a little at a time.  I figured at the rate I was going then, I’d have enough to start creating inventory and really opening a shop in June of 2020. 

AND THEN 2020 HAPPENED…

The first really difficult part of 2020 for us was my mother-in-law’s passing. Fran died January 2nd of 2020 and even though we’d all known it wasn’t long off, it was still so difficult, for many reasons. For my husband, it was devastating in many ways, though he hasn’t ever expressed that. I think a part of his mental illness is the inability to truly express genuine emotions. 

The good thing to come from that and a huge blessing for us was my husband’s inheritance. It wasn’t a lot, but the amount that it was gave us the ability to get some things taken care of that had been neglected because of lack of funding. One of those things was my business.  Rather than metering out inventory and supply purchases over several months, I was able to pretty much get completely stocked up within a matter of a month, and begin creating my first inventory. 

It’s still a business arrangement, and I still have to be able to pay the money back, but that act of generosity on my husband’s part allowed me to actually start testing the waters and earning an income much sooner than I had planned. 

THE SUMMER OF COVID

Of course, during all of this time, the pandemic was becoming increasingly serious and though I was keeping up with the news, I still had my head in the business. I wasn’t thinking about people losing jobs or shipping delays and bans. I was focused on honing my skills, researching things like marketing strategies and SEO, and building an audience for my work. 

I didn’t really truly pay attention to the Pandemic until I had to be tested. It was those first tests – you know, the kind where they try to extract your brain through your nose. Ugh. Painful. But it caused me to get a little, OK, a lot afraid of starting a business in this climate – this “new normal” of social distancing and quarantines and people losing their jobs and families being evicted or going hungry from lack of income. I mean, my items are not necessary for anyone. They aren’t personal protective gear, they aren’t essential lifestyle items. I had to be realistic. How could I sell jewelry when people were more worried about feeding their families. 

By this time I’d already opened my shop but I had very few items listed. I think only about 10? So, I kept the shop open but everything else just sort of stopped. For a month I didn’t even touch my clay, and I started to get really depressed and feel like the universe was seriously opposed to me having any kind of success. 

By the end of summer, though I had had a couple of sales, and sold plenty in person to friends and family, I was almost to petrified by our current economy to even think about my business. The thing that kept pressing me forward was knowing that by now I had a tremendous debt to repay ($8,264 to be exact) and that given everything else that had gone wrong in my world over the past 10 years, I just couldn’t handle another failure. I had to at least try. If  I put my all into it, and it still didn’t work, then I could say that I did a valiant effort and be at peace. 

At that time it was nearing the end of October, and the Christmas shopping season was already starting to ramp-up online.

As a last-ditch effort to jump-start myself, I decided to add some new products for Black Friday.  One of those products – not even a jewelry item, would end up being my best selling item to date! Can you guess which?

Be sure to tune in for Part 2 of Small Business In The Time of Covid for the answer.