As a manufacturing solopreneur, I really resonated with their experiences and lessons learned! I wound up taking a bunch of notes on Evernote from my iPhone so I'm happy to share some key lessons I've learned. (I'm noting (read: I'm paraphrasing therefore these aren't direct quotes) who responded to each question by company initials: HL=Hello!Lucky, CL=Cut Loose, FJ= Frolick Jewelry.)
Yesterday night I attended a panel called "Women in Manufacturing" moderated Janet Lees of SFMade and hosted at TechShop SF. Holding it down for the ladies were Sabrina Moyle, co-founder and CEO of Hello!Lucky; Rosemarie Ovian, co-owner of Cut Loose; and Adrienne Wiley, owner of Frolick. Each company is based in San Francisco and locally manufactures their work. Hello!Lucky makes beautifully crafted letterpress and digitally printed stationery and invitations, Cut Loose has been sewing and dyeing their casual clothing collections in SF for decades, and Frolick offers vintage-modern jewelry with two brick and mortar locations in the city.
On standing out amongst a sea of competitors:
HL: Be out there first. You need to keep what's different and quirky about you and your brand. Don't be afraid to be get personal. Show behind the scenes/studio shots. Be vigilant and not afraid to tell them why you're different. Craft who you are so it stands out in the customer's mind.
FJ: Customer service goes a long way. Also, I was lucky in a way as I started my company before Etsy came about.
CL: It's important to know what key (wholesale) customers want and are looking for. It's also important to have good sales reps lift up our work.
On percentage income split between retail and wholesale:
CL: 90% of our income is from wholesale. We use our stores to sell returns from wholesale and excess merchandise.
FJ: For us wholesale is 60%, retail is 40%. E-commerce is its own animal and we haven't worked enough on this. Retail was unexpected! I set up a brick and mortar store (as a studio and physical retail presence) to help pay for the workspace but found it was profitable. Now we have two stores!
HL: We rely on licensing our work. 70% of our sales come from online retail orders from our digital print jobs. We're picky about custom jobs as these can be pretty time-intensive. We love working with artists we trust and whose work we love.
On hiring help (and what they look for when hiring):
FJ: I've found that instead of having an assistant check in with me every step of the way, if you give them the tools to do their job, let them in on the whole process, then they can resolve issues and figure things out themselves.
HL: We like to hire people who are passionate and have Hello!Lucky in their hearts. They should have an entrepreneurial spirit and be resourceful, scrappy, hustling, and definitely a self starter.
CL: It definitely helps to hire someone (in production) with experience on how the product should be developed and assembled.
On landing those major (wholesale) accounts
FJ: These companies need to know that you're able to reliably handle orders of their magnitude. We go to trade shows five times a year. When we started doing the New York shows, that's when we got those accounts. Also, being in a showroom helps. There are sales reps that have working relationships with the buyers for Anthropologie and J.Crew and it's a matter of your work being seen by them. When I got those accounts, that's when it made sense to hire a production coordinator.
HL: Major accounts always want discounts. Make sure you have enough capacity to handle the extra work associated with these large orders.
On the benefits of Made in SF:
CL: San Francisco has an allure for those that don't live here. Buyers from other cities and countries are always telling me about the fabulous time or meal they had in SF.
FJ: The bulk of our customers are from the south (Alabama, Georgia, etc), some from small cities, and they love knowing the pieces they bought were from San Francisco!
On raising capital:
FJ: Since we don't keep stock on hand, we don't incur as many expenses if we kept inventory. We were profitable pretty soon from the beginning. Never had to raise capital. Everything I make I put back into the company.
HL: Everything I make I put back into the company too. We originally borrowed from friends and family but we wished we'd raised more capital to enable us to react and position ourselves faster than our competitors.
On social media:
HL: Social media is crucial to e-commerce sales but can potentially suck up a lot of time. It's also important to see what competitors are doing and how they're framing and branding their work. Don't be afraid to show the personality behind the brand. People like that! It's also necessary for online personality management, to see who's talking about you and how. We just hired a Director of Marketing (Go Christina Loff! Find her at @tweetsweet).
On flash sales:
FJ: Customers who buy your work through flash sales are usually not repeat customers. Also, make sure you can afford to offer you work at that steep of a discount. Scoutmob however has worked out great for us! (Scoutmob offers (free) local coupon codes for use at brick and mortar stores.) Customers treat their vouchers as if they're gift certificates, so they'll just want to spend that amount and leave.
HL: Our experiences had been mixed. Make sure you carefully read their contracts and check for loopholes. Play it safe by going with the larger, more well-known sites, like Fab.com.
FJ: The E-Myth by Michael Gerber
HL: The Art of SEO by Eric Enge, Stephan Spencer, Rand Fishkin and Jessie Stricchiola