Small Business Thoughts: What to do when it’s quiet

My work is very seasonal – from September when Christmas order start coming in, then Valentine’s Day, then Mother’s Day, and up to Father’s Day in June, I don’t get a second to think about anything other than those big occasions. It’s just endless making cards, going to the post office, and coming back to make more cards. Don’t get me wrong, I love it (it’s my favourite part of the year!) – but there’s so many aspects to a business and fulfilling orders is only a small part. Once each occasion has passed, I get a small breather before it’s onto the next, and there are some super organised customers out there who are already ordering for the next occasion before I have time to sit down after the last post has left from the event before.

When things are so hectic for part of the year, it’s hard to know what to do with yourself when it’s quiet. It’s so easy to panic: “what has happened to make people not buy my products?” “are they all on holiday?” “are they not finding my products on the shopping sites anymore?”. Of course, it’s never anything too drastic – people genuinely have busy summers with holidays, kids, trips, barbecues, sporting events like the olympics, going on in their lives. With lovely warm weather, time with family and long, lazy summer days, customers don’t necessarily think about the next big gifting occasion (it begins with C and ends in…hristmas!).

So, what do you do when the order book is quiet and you’re twiddling your thumbs waiting for the highstreet to turn on the carols and fill shelves with Quality Streets and 3 for 2 gift boxes? After nearly 7 years running my own business (and that’s 7 years on Etsy and notonthehighstreet) I’ve been through many peaks and troughs of the seasonal gifting calendar. I thought I’d share my top tips for what to do when it’s quiet. And I’m sure I’ll add my tips on how to cope when it’s busy too at some point…unless I’m, you know, too busy! 😉

1: Work on unfinished projects

I am the queen of having great ideas (in my opinion anyway!) that don’t get seen through to the end. Quieter business days are perfect for working on a half finished project, new range, or designs that have not made it to your virtual shelves. If you keep a list or notebook with you all year round for jotting down ideas, you’ll have a heap of new things to try out when you find the time. Right now, I have loads of notes on my phone, paper, diary etc., all waiting to be mocked up, photographed and listed. It’s a great opportunity to try experiment with new that you’ve always wanted to try out…a new technique, material or even a whole new product line.

2. Spruce up your product pages

Go through your product pages and read your descriptions. I find that I’m often in a rush to list new products and if you can ‘copy’ an existing listing, sometimes I have descriptions that are relevant only to the product I originally listed…like a Birthday card that quotes Father’s day information, or colour options that aren’t available on your latest product. Check your descriptions, attributes, headings, delivery settings etc., to make sure they’re all relevant and it’s easy for customers to browse. Read up on SEO to tweak your search terms so more customers can find your card. If you need help, get a fresh set of eyes to look at your page and tell you what they think – a great option is something like Becka Griffin’s Shopfront Review on Etsy. I purchased a review from Becka, and despite being on Etsy for almost a decade, she had a whole booklet of things I needed to change to make my listings more customer friendly.

3. Retake new product photos

Let’s face it, whatever you’re browsing online, nice photos sell it! Whether it’s a product, a blog, or even someone’s Instagram profile, if there are stunning photos, you linger longer, browse more, and even buy into what they’re showing you. I do most of my shopping online and there have been times where I’ve seen the same product for sale from different retailers with different pictures…some photos would have turned me off buying it, and other photos would convince me I need it in my life…showing the same product! Photos are everything! Every now and then, I refresh my photos. Not only do trends change when it comes to styling, photography skills improve too. I cringe when I see old product photos I took years ago, and each time I update my product photos, I am proud of the new fresh look I’ve given them. I love accessorising my shoots with stationery items, confetti, craft tape and twine. I also love the scandi look with whitewashed walls and minimal staging. Make sure your products are eye-catching, well lit, and customers can see exactly what they’re ordering. Flat lays are so much fun, and lifestyle shots are great to entice customers into thinking their life would be better with your product in it.

4. Read for inspiration, motivation, personal and business growth

Business books get me fired up to work harder all the time. Reading is inspiring, especially when it’s about a subject you love or written by someone you admire in business. I recently read a book by Tony Robbins, who said (and I’m paraphrasing) that to be successful in what you want to do, find someone who already is successful and do what they do. And it doesn’t have to be a book that inspires you, I am often inspired by blogs or business people on social media who share their story with the world. Nothing motivates me more than seeing people who are inspirational at what they do and that makes me want to achieve what they achieve. Reading to learn new skills, understand something a bit better, or just to refocus on the business is a great use of time!

5. Plan for the rest of the year

I’m one of those people who are always super jealous of super savvy, exceptionally organised businesses who are seasons ahead in their planning. Retail planning is always 6 months to a year ahead of where the calendar is right now – most products need researching, designing, prototyping, making, before being marketed and sold to the public. I’m lucky in the sense that my business is so tiny, I can think up an idea, mock it up and have it online for the world to purchase within an afternoon, so I know planning way in advance is not *as* vital to me compared to a big highstreet chain for example. However, even marketplace sites like Etsy and notonthehighstreet have curated categories, press and blogger events, social media campaigns etc., so they do need to know what we sellers are making ahead of the gifting occasions. Having products ready in advance for when they start thinking about their marketing means you’re more likely to get included in something special like a spot in a magazine or in a Facebook post to hundreds of thousands of potential customers. Make a plan of what occasions you need to create new products for (or improve existing products) and when you need to get it done by. This also ties into my first point, where you can use quieter times to plan new goodies!

6. Spend time doing non-business things

I find myself making excuses and being too busy for things for half the year. I wouldn’t dream of going away in the run up to any of the big events, and even an evening out for a meal is sometimes an hour or two I need to use for fulfilling orders (usually black friday or the week before Valentine’s day where every minute counts). In the summer months when I’m working more like part time hours than 20 hours a day, I can say yes to days out, trips away and evenings with friends. Sometimes it’s hard for other people to understand just how much pressure small businesses are under at the big gifting times of the year and it’s nice to be able to catch up when things are quieter, without feeling guilty for being away from your business for a bit.

7. Rest!

Similarly to point number 6, use the quiet times for a bit of relaxation, catch up on things you’ve been putting off while being busy. Sleep in, take long coffee breaks, visit friends and family, do things you’ve been wanting to do for months but never had the time. I’ve been spending the summer relaxing in the garden, doing yoga, riding my bike in the sunshine and trips with the family. It’s good to use quiet times to work on your business, but it’s also necessary to work on yourself – have a break, enjoy the time to yourself before things get crazy again, regain your energy and stamina as before you know it, it will be time for…dare I say it…Christmas 😉

8. And don’t panic! 

This is probably one of the most important things. Everyone wonders if things will ever pick up when going through a quiet time. I know so many people right now are concerned that it’s the quietest time of the year and they don’t know what they can do to improve the number of orders. But for all the busy times of the year, you have to have quieter times. August is notoriously slow in retail and everyone is noticing it right now. The important thing to remember is don’t panic and use your time wisely to improve your own offering.

 

 

 

 

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Marks and Spencer, Similarities and Small Business Anxiety

Today I was alerted to a very similar product to mine being sold in Marks and Spencer. Now, Marks and Spencer was a company that I really respected, one that I spend a lot of my money with, and that I believed was a more ethical big business with their Plan A campaign and ethical business practices. A few years ago, I was invited to discuss ethical business at their head office as part of the Prince’s Trust. So, it’s a shock to see a product that is so unbelievably similar to mine being sold on their personalised shop and with ‘personalisation stickers’ on their shelves in store.

My ‘Days I’ve Loved You‘ card first went online in 2011 and has been my most successful design every year since. It’s gone through numerous reincarnations but this first version is still the original and best selling throughout every occasion. I’ve noticed a few small designer/makers finding ‘inspiration’ in my designs and I’m no longer the only one selling ‘days cards’ but when I first put mine for sale, I didn’t know of anyone else who made them – I believe I was the original. It’s had so much attention over the years online, blogs, online marketing, print catalogues, etc, and it’s (very luckily and very much appreciated) always been in prominent places on notonthehighstreet – quite honestly, it’s held the top spot in the best selling cards for quite a number of gift-giving occasions and I’m very proud of that.

It’s frustrating when you create something that you believe is so unique to you and find someone else crop up with their own ‘version’. There’s part of me that is really laid back and brimming with positivity that says “this makes me stronger, it inspires me to make bigger and better products, it motivates me to be an innovator and be better than them” and reminds me of the saying about imitation being a form of flattery.

Then, the other part of me – this is one I battle with constantly and that has made some days unbearable – is the anxious, obsessive and frustrated part of me. If I’m being honest, the fear of finding a product similar to my own has lead me to avoiding parts of the internet. Where a business would be looking at their market, their competition, I am hiding from it in fear. My anxiety over what I might find is crippling, I feel sick to my stomach just thinking about these other versions. My stomach flips if I check the notonthehighstreet tag on Instagram and I hold my breath whenever I get a customer newsletter. I am a small designer maker living entirely on what money I bring in selling cards online – it’s scary how maybe one change in the marketplace could result in me not being able to afford to live each month. It’s a daunting prospect that I could very easily be put out of business by the actions of another seller or even one of the places I have an online shop.

So I actively avoid searching for greeting cards on Etsy, and I never look at the card section on notonthehighstreet. I know what I might find (I have found it before – I even found one this week!) and it fills me with anxiety so bad that I cannot function. I have to have faith in my products and my business. Which is hard to do when you’re lying awake at night with the sights of other products which are too similar to your own original products swirling around in your head. I thought my safe place was the highstreet, where they can’t personalise like I can. And judging by the tacky pack of stickers that come with the M&S Days card, they still can’t personalise like I can. But I did think I was safe from the big corporations and there was no way they could possibly crush this little small business. It seems I was wrong, and my anxiety over looking at the card sections will now spread to the shelves of the highstreet out of fear of ‘similar’ looking products.

My positive personality will have to be stronger than my anxious one – onwards and upwards to being the original innovator I am. Providing excellent quality products, the best customer service, going above and beyond on personalisation. The competitors may be able to create an almost identical product, but they’ll have to try to keep up with me on everything else!

The Marks and Spencer version is the navy and listed ‘new’ on their website. Mine is the pink and has been for sale since 2011.

Wishlisting: Business, Blogging and Branding!

I’ve been so inspired recently to make big changes to the way I run the business (Ruby Wren Designs) and I have lots of plans and dreams! I follow some amazingly wonderful small businesses who are my fellow NOTHS partners and Etsy sellers. So many of whom are so spot on with their branding, it makes me both incredibly inspired and jealous at the same time! These people make it look easy (although I know they all put so much work into it!) and their brand image is so consistent through all their products, photographs and marketing. I look at these people and think “wow” and their branding is so good I can spot their products photos at a glance in amongst others and know it’s theirs without clicking further. They’re the people on my social media feeds who have a loyal following, customers interacting on each post and trying to grab the newest products even before they’re available on their virtual shelves.

These sellers are my motivation and inspiration as I try to create a clear brand identity for Ruby Wren. They’re unique, each with their own style that works for them, but they all succeed in creating the most amazing, clear image of their business to their customers. As I try to work out how to harness some of that branding genius for myself, I’m creating a wish list of the best books on branding, blogging and marketing that I can find. Some of my fellow sellers have offered some great recommendations and my Amazon wishlist is positively bursting with…well, positivity!

The first book I ordered from my wishlist is How to Style Your Brand by Fiona Humberstone (recommended to me by the lovely Leeanne of Supercaliprint…who is an inspirational seller with the most amazing branding, stunning photos and fun products!)

I can’t wait until the Amazon man delivers this book and I can absorb everything that’s written on the pages! I’m so excited about learning everything there is to know about making a strong brand, and this book looks amazing and totally relevant to me…especially with so many ‘business’ books looking so ‘businessey’ and not at all suited to a small, creative business.

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I’ve also added to my wishlist the Daily Greatness Planners. I keep seeing these advertised on my Facebook feed and they just look so unbelievably stunning. I’m not sure if I want to invest in the Daily Greatness Journal or the Business Planner – I’m sure either will work perfectly at inspiring me daily and keeping me motivated. I have a birthday in November, so I’m thinking I might treat myself with any birthday funds from family!

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Other books on my wishlist include: