Thanks so much for giving me this opportunity to share my story on your MyBizStory column. You will find my answers below. Please contact me if you need more clarification on my answers. Many many thanks for this opportunity. My apologies for such a delay in responding!
What led you to start your own business?
To be honest, I never expected to own my own business. In fact, after leaving full-time agency work as a graphic designer to raise our three children, I enjoyed part time freelance work where I specialized in designing brands from the comfort of my home office without assuming the risks associated with owning a business, like paying employees, and getting and keeping new clients. Then one evening a question popped into my head: What would happen if I merge my experience in the visual arts with a desire to design modern home decor? As I explored an answer to that question, I considered what particular aspect of my career in the visual arts I love the most. The answer came quickly: idea generation and logo design. So an idea for the business was born. Since that evening, I've been sketching and developing ideas and designs that are influenced by some of my favorite things — history, the arts, and architecture — and I've been painting them on vintage furniture. I like to develop design ideas, not just by seeing what comes to mind right here and now, but by thinking about what was going on in architecture, culture, and society in general during the period in which the piece I'm working on was made. For example, the design I chose for a recent Art Deco dresser was influenced by skyscrapers of that era (e.g. the Empire State Building).
What has been most difficult?
I think the most difficult aspect of growing a small business is knowing when to invest funds (which always involves some degree of risk) in growing the business. For me, I reached a point where two things constrained my growth: time and space. As the business grew, I found myself turning away custom requests every day because I didn't have enough inventory. I quickly came to realize that if I had more time to source the vintage furnishings, and a space to store them, I would be more likely to be able to meet the demand for custom orders. The obvious solution was to rent a storage unit to store the goods, and I have plans to rent a large studio space in the future.
What has been most successful?
Every email request gets answered. It takes lots of time, but it's worth it. And customers appreciate it.
I took advantage of the great online resources that taught me how to use the materials and techniques of this trade:
From the outset, I knew what I wanted to do with this business. I wanted to explore ideas, history, typography, and design—and express these ideas on furniture. It was important to me that I gain an understanding of foundational techniques and tools (like how to properly prepare a vintage piece; how to repair a dresser drawer; how to apply a topcoat) of this trade before I begin, so that these ideas could become tangible and lasting. Online tutorials, many of which were written by wonderful bloggers, helped get me started.
How do you promote your business?
I promote my work on social media, Etsy, and my website, MarthaLeoneDesign.com. Off all of the social media tools, I have found Instagram to be the easiest to use with my mobile device. Trying to get a better understanding of how SEO optimization works has helped increase my presence on the internet. I have begun to use relevant hashtags when posting pictures and that has resulted in more exposure. Also much of my work is sold in a local vintage shop and is promoted by them.
Any tips/advice to people starting out?
My best advice comes from those who counseled me when I started my business: First, grow carefully and thoughtfully. If possible, work out of your home before investing in a hefty lease. Second, determine your core objectives and keep them close at hand as you grow—so that those goals will inform every business decision you make. For example, one of my top priorities is to be able to do the work that bring the most satisfaction. Although many have asked if I plan to open a shop in the future, as of now, my response is always no, because running a shop doesn't correspond with that goal. Thirdly, (and this may be more relevant to my situation), I weigh my business decisions against the amount of time they will require me to be away from my family. Being available to help my husband raise our three adolescent children is of utmost importance. Success and growth may or may not come. If it does, it won't be at the expense of my family. Lastly, grow in curiosity by taking a walk, reading something out of your comfort zone, starting a sketching journal. Curiosity leads to new ideas.
Did you read any business books before starting out?
Not yet. Hmm... maybe I should! Thanks for the wise suggestion.