Start Up Life • 3 months in
I can't really believe I am writing this. That after almost 2 years of muttering and whispering that I am actually able to write about my start up business.
Around this time of year in 2015 I went to a game changing course hosted by Fiona Humberstone. I met some incredibly like minded people, some who were further ahead than me, who knew their brand aesthetic and direction like the back of their hand but needed that final push, and some who were looking to gain a general sense of direction like me.
I remember telling people on the course that day about my backdrop idea. That I was frustrated at not being able to buy the ones I wanted. That the ones I had bought from America had funny lines in them and although I used them, they always bugged me and I spent more time editing out the imperfections than taking the photos themselves!
Many of my peers have done incredible things. Workshops, e-courses, books and more but I've wanted to have a product of my own and a product that could become part of a collection. A physical thing that I could package and post, that someone might buy as a present for a birthday or under the Christmas tree and something that people might want more than one of.
As a blog grows into a career it becomes tricky to manage home life and work life because often the line between them starts to blur. Your life is so often your blog content and I see more and more bloggers finding it hard to get that balance right. Feeling burnt out, bickering with their partners (Hi!) and struggling to fit in photoshoots on weekends with school age children.
And while I love getting the opportunity to speak at conferences and events, you have to be there in person. Whereas with the backdrop store idea I knew that in all seriousness the Post Office was on the way to school. Literally. My printer who has been with me every step of the way testing materials and trying out endless samples one the last 2 years is about an hour away in the South West and within spitting distance of one of my best friends and close to my hairdresser who I can't bear to leave since we moved! So I knew I could tie in stock pick ups with catch ups and hair cuts and if necessary I could get there and back between lunch and school pick up time. He has held my hand in so many ways through understanding and getting the balance of stock right for orders to flow smoothly and giving me general advice for continually improving the product.
It was always a goal of mine to have something photography related, that I could develop to not only empower the home photographer but also something that would be taken seriously and used by professionals. If I showed you the scribbly list of products I would like to bring out one day you'd probably laugh. But I'm an all or nothing kind of girl and if you don't aim high then what's the point right?!
Maybe I'm naive but I really feel there's a gap in the market in the UK. Yes you can buy photography equipment on Amazon, or one of the big photographic sites but for me it's not an experience. I want to eventually develop a platform that feels like you are buying into a story and a community not just buying something with a one click and next day delivery and no one to contact when you have a problem because you are dealing with a monstrous warehouse. Don't get me wrong I love those sites for all sorts of reasons but I guess it's a bit like supermarkets. I want to offer people an experience not just a functional transaction. A site that can be a resource, a store and a source of inspiration all wrapped into one. Styled for the new generation of creative photographers who have both trained in their trade and who have found their passion. People who have developed hobbies into businesses and bring those people together.
In a very simple way a hashtag does that and the #cblbackdrops gallery is filling up beautifully. I don't ask people to tag their photos and maybe I should but right now I am so happy with the word spreading across the internet from people who have chosen, unprompted, to highlight my store.
You can buy backdrops all over the internet. Different sizes, different quality and finishes. It's not a new concept but I hope I am doing it in a new way. My way.
My photographs, my surfaces, textures I've spotted on my travels but I'm not so tunnelled in my vision for the backdrop store that I'm not open to other ideas. I want to bring out a block colour range (and also a ssh collaboration collection but no more on that yet) as well as a collection inspired by my favourite bloggers, photographers and instagrammers, but one step at a time.
It's so easy to get carried away when things appear to be going well. To race ahead with hair brain ideas that feel like lightbulb moments at that second but after a few days mulling them over disappear as quickly as they came.
So here I am three months in, going to bed every night wondering if I will actually get another order overnight or in the morning. My heart skips a beat when I hear my laptop ping and we say the Andi Peters line from Toy Story 3 "There's another bag coming from the Terminal" which we've changed to "ooh there's another order coming from the Terminal!" And each time time Rich's phone bleeps with a Squarespace notification. I've told him he doesn't have to have them as alerts on his phone but he says he like it.
I get the boys to school and then start the routine I have slipped into, printing address labels and order invoices from the night before. I have a little system, my cardboard tubes to the side of the plan drawers and a wooden caddy with sections for end caps, air mail stickers and receipts.
Ok so it's not perfect, squidged into the corner of the sitting room but for now it works. I am a kitchen table business and honestly I am rather proud of that. I can't store the backdrops in my office space above the garage because they need to be kept at a steady temperature. If it fluctuates between freezing at night and warm in the day they could suffer from condensation, and as I keep them flat on top of each other, I could run the risk of them sticking together!
I guess I could roll them individually into tubes but then my mum would be sleeping in among postal tubes when she came to stay! I will at some point paint the drawers to match in with the grey tones in the room but for now it's keeping them safe, instead of all over the floor with the door permanently shut to keep boys sticky fingers and dogs dirty paws away from them. It's efficient and the table top is ideal for packing orders. So for now it's my production station!
It all sounds quite simple in a way and frankly it is. I pick them up from my printer, I lay them into their correct drawers and then I pack and go as orders come in. I'm not trying to bring to the market something revolutionary I am trying to revolutionise people's attitudes to their photography work. That there's an alternative to storing great huge pallets, boards that get dented, scratched and become trip hazards behind your sofa or desk. I know, I have them and curse them more than a couple of times a day!
I'd need a serious storage shed for all the tables, doors and pillars I have photographed to create these 2 initial collections and one of the reasons I started the idea was that Rich was fed up with the number of tables I crammed into the house.
I stop in the most random places, get out of the car knock on doors and ask old farmers if I can photograph their barn doors. I mentioned to my trusty Post Office clerk that I had spied a lovely painted blue set of doors outside the local print shop and he replied "Oh yes that's my friend's business I will ask him!" The next day when I blasted in on the way to school he said I'd been given the go ahead and that it was no problem if a random lady with a camera acted like the paparazzi over the weekend.
Other people see a delapadated old barn and bins. I see backdrops.
It's definitely been a launch and learn approach (thanks to Xanthe for the mantra). There are so many things I have learnt and still learn every day but I wanted to share a few if you are thinking of starting selling online.
• Invest in a label printer right from the start. I cringe at those first orders that went out on enormous labels I printed through our home printer. The compact labeller sounds silly and possibly extravagant but honestly it looks 100% more professional. Even the Post Office clerk said so.
• Make friends with your local Post Office and show them you love them. Mine are like my new best friends. I can ring them ten times a day and they still answer the phone bright and breezy. They are almost as emotionally invested in this backdrop store as I am. Every time I get a new international order they notice, they sometimes spot a repeat order and made me feel like I'd made it when they sent me home with my very own post bag! I think they took pity on me dragging a bin bag in and out but I felt so special. That and a handful of air mail stickers and customs labels and I honestly felt on top of the world. I've left a Google review telling them just how much they have encouraged and supported me and I hope they spot it at some point.
• Be thankful for people who do good deeds and never be afraid to ask. It's fair to say there is a learning curve around every corner when you launch a new business. And one of my first ones was when someone ordered a large number of backdrops. To be brutally honest I thought it must have been a mistake. And emailed a couple of times to subtly check! Then I went into a panic that the tubes I use to ship the orders couldn't actually fit that number of backdrops in them. I'm painfully one of those people who needs the instructions to put together a piece of Ikea furniture, rather than being able to visualise the end result in my mind and work backwards. And it's the same for backdrops. I look at the end of the rolled up backdrops and still I need to get my tape measure out to suss whether they can fit in each size tube!
So that day I realised that living in the middle of the countryside was not so handy for emergency tube purchases and to drive to the nearest Staples would have meant a 3 hour round trip. For one tube. So I rang another local company I knew would use them for their orders and literally bribed the guy on the end of the phone to swap me a large tube for a bag of donuts! I could have kissed him when I met him in the car park (as they had closed 5 minutes before I got there) and I said to him how kind he was and how he had literally saved 3 hours of my life!
And one good deed deserves another and I have had hilarious emails from panicking husbands who were sent links to the ones their other halves loved but left it too late, ordered the wrong ones and it's such a pleasure to know that little things like emailing back and forth late at night reassuring them their gifts will be there on time that make me feel like I am doing something right.
• Never underestimate the power of social media. I thought that three months in I'd be starting to look at sponsored Facebook posts, Instagram adverts and Google ad words. But right now the best advert is when someone shares or tags me in a comment on Twitter, on a blog or website or on Instagram. Like this comment.
“I am seriously so impressed. I’d seen them on a few people’s IG, but they have a different style of photography than I do, so I wasn’t sure how it would transfer. I am all about texture and shadows and directional light, even many “real” backgrounds can look a bit flat. This is just perfect for what I was missing in my arsenal and is safely stowed and not a trip hazard. You should be so proud.”
— Kat Goldin, Textile Designer and Photographer
I keep thinking of this business like a balloon... ok stick with me. That if I try and blow it up too quickly it will burst, but if I blow it up slowly it will expand so much bigger and hopefully stay afloat longer. I have people tagging me overnight who are in Australia and America who are recommending them because they've heard something good from someone else they follow. It's a ripple effect that sometimes feels like a tidal wave when my emails are pinging with orders. Organic growth is what I want. Slow and steady and consistent. When you are building a business you want it to flow throughout the year, not huge peaks and troughs that leave you worrying how you will pay your mortgage or an unexpected house repair bill that month. Blogging as a business can be seasonal by nature, a flurry of sponsored activity at Christmas and a quieter spring leading into summer campaigns and conference season. I wanted to go into this consciously aiming for repeat orders, loyal customers who champion the product without being asked to because they are genuinely impressed and build a reputation in the same way melted chocolate drips from the centre and down the side of a cake. But sticks.
• Know your postage. I live with the Royal Mail leaflet by my side at all times and it's covered in notes and annotations. But yet I still haven't quite got the master spreadsheet of international rates uploaded to allow for sales to go through the website. And I know that's a problem. Oh the abandoned checkout stats are painful to look at! But that's one of the things I had to let go when I launched and for now processing orders individually by email is working it's just not as slick as I would like it to be.
• When you are about to do something hard that pushes you outside your comfort zone you need someone to give you a final push. That might be a friend, a partner, a mentor or someone who just has your back and wants you to succeed. Mine was Kat. If it hadn't been for Blogtacular and Sara's photography session I may not be sitting here with my dream business online. Kat gave me an opportunity that came with a definite deadline and that forced me to get my samples printed (as unpolished at the time as they were) to use in the practical workshop and firmly stamp myself on a product I'd just talked about for too long. My advice - find yourself a Kat.
Now I'm moving into my 13th week and even though it's such early days I feel I have something to be proud of. I haven't skimped on the material. I pay extra for a high quality vinyl and I'd rather make less profit and have more positive feedback. Because as loud as people shout that they like something they often shout a little louder when they don't. And that ripple becomes a tidal wave of the bad kind! And I know not every single person will love them like I do but so far I have had nothing but positive feedback and I am so grateful.I have a good reliable packaging supplier, I have my set up in a corner of the house and my Post Office runs fit in with family life. There's nothing I want to change about the product itself, I've toyed with printing the logo on the front of them but know how irritating it is from a photographer's point of view to have to edit it out of a shot, so will stick to my stickers.
I have new samples to create two new collections with and something exciting up my sleeve. I know I am lucky to have built such a good relationship with my printer who I count as a friend first and it's honestly been nothing other than an exhilarating ride so far. I just hope that this little store continues to grow over the next 12 months so I can bring out new textures, larger sizes for bigger compositions and backdrops for vloggers wanting that professional screen type set up behind them. As well as a hundred other ideas that swirl around my mind just as my head hits the pillow. It's a challenge managing my minuscule budgets in comparison to the international photography sites but they feel big to me. I'm doing it all myself with no start up funding or Kickstarter project and even though I hold my breath when I ship each order wishing them to arrive safely and for the person to be impressed when they open it, I wouldn't have done it any other way.
The best thing about creating this business from my blog is that I have a chance to reach out to all the people who buy them, people who might read this post and say a huge thank you. To the big brands whose design and marketing managers have bought them to the lady who bought one for her daughter to help her with her photography course at school. I am grateful for every single one.
There are going to be times when something doesn't go right or quite to plan and I know that I still have a huge learning curve ahead but I couldn't be more thankful to everyone who has ordered, shared the store on social media or taken the time to right a comment or give me constructive criticism and feedback to constantly improve the store experience.
This quote is true.
When you buy from a small business an actual person does a little happy dance - Fall For DIY