Running a Costuming business part 4:Getting Real

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You are a creative person and would like to run a creative business full time.  You have read the success stories, you have chatted to friends, and everything looks peachy – so you are leaving your mundane day-job and are launching a full blown craft based business. Well, before you do, there are a few things that you might wish to consider.

We have all seen the success stories in the magazines and on the telly, we have followed other crafty businesses on FB and Twitter. You see the heroes working hard and achieving their dream job, earning a reasonable income (or more) by doing what they love best.  Yes, we know it was hard, but they made it – So why not you, too?

The hard truth is that this is only a part of the whole picture. What you are not being told, or shown, is the fact that for every success story, there are quite a few failures. This can set people up with some very unrealistic expectations – ‘everybody’ is doing it and succeeding, so you fully expect  to do so too. However, the failure stories are just as important as the success ones – perhaps even more so.
These failed attempts not only make you aware of mistakes other people have made on their journey, (which you can learn from without suffering the cost to your own hide of experiencing them personally), but they also create a more realistic mind-set.
Knowing that not everybody makes it immediately and that many small creative businesses fail can make you more cautious in your approach and, hopefully, ensure that you plan better.
It will also help when you yourself run up against obstacles and encounter difficulties with your plans. You will know that in failing, you are not alone.  And if you fail – well, that is not the end of the world, and it doesn’t have to be the end of your dreams either. You will make mistakes, and you can learn from them – mistakes are valuable lessons!
Also, ironically,  accepting this fact can make you braver in some respects.  You know you are taking a gamble – you will give it your best, but you also know that if and when your best is not enough, it is not a disaster. You simply need to try again, with a different approach, or change your concept and adapt.

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As a person running a craft-based full-time business, I have been approached many times by people hoping to start up, (you can read some basic advice on that here), and have followed their development, successes, and yes, many, many failures. The ones who fail at some point would often feel devastated – ‘Everybody is doing ok, only I seem to have any problems, what is wrong with me?’ I just cannot imagine how disheartening that feeling could be to a person – But if you know that you are not alone, and what you are experiencing is absolutely normal, it is much easier to get your wits together, rethink your business plan, practice and improve your skills, change priorities and succeed – even if the success turns out to be quite a different set up to what you had originally imagined.

So Dream Big – but plan realistically, or ‘Hope for the Best, and Plan for the Worst’, as they say…

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dreaming big….

The most important thing I have noticed over the last decade or so of running my own business and interacting with other craft-based companies is that this path is not for everybody.
Unless you have some good capital to start with, you will not simply be making lovely things all the time, and thus earning your living.  You may be a fantastic dressmaker, shoemaker, jeweller, or whatever, but if you are starting solo, you will also need to be a good businessperson in charge of marketing, finances, stock control, public relations, research, IT, advertising, sales, supplies, trading, bookkeeping… the list goes on.
Some people take to all that straight away, some people gradually learn and do whatever is required, some hire professionals to do it for them, (not always an option for a start up). It is not necessarily difficult, but  it is mundane, often boring and frequently time consuming. In particular, all these other jobs will eat away at the time you want to be spending doing what you actually love.

Indeed, the stress connected with keeping your business afloat has even made people come to hate what they were doing. For instance, if you like making elaborate hats and find out that to in order for your business to survive you need actually to make the boring, basic models again and again, this can seriously affect your own romance with your craft.
I had to slog through a few years of just making basic Viking tunics, medieval hose and shirts – boring, soul destroying work which I hated – but  it kept the business going and it helped me to grow my customer base.

Now, 8 years on from starting Prior Attire, I am booked at least half a year in advance, and I am at liberty to choose which commissions I want to make, but I believe I wouldn’t have gotten to this point if it hadn’t been for all those years of making basics.
If you are prepared for that – great; if not, you would likely be much happier having a separate, more reliable main source of income and keeping your craft as a part-time business or paying hobby.

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repetitive work – sometimes it is not as bad as it sounds! 🙂

Taking all that into consideration, you may actually discover that a part time business may be a better idea, at least to start with. I chose this route, gradually diminishing my college teaching workload over 4 years, going from full time to 0.8, then 0.5 and then finally, once I have gathered a sturdy client base and a sound reputation, I quit my college job for good.
Would I have succeeded if I had quit it straight away? To be honest, I doubt it.  I had to cover my bills, rent, food etc, and I know now that I would not have been able to do so.
If you have a capital to provide you with some financial security, or your family or partner can support you while you are growing your business, the decision is certainly easier with such a safety net. Incidentally, I find that what many of the success stories you read about do not tell you is that the person running the creative business has precisely such a backup available – As I do now as well, since I married and can count on my hubby supporting me in case my business backfires. But even then, don’t take everything for granted – in the last 3 years my husband has lost 2 jobs with periods of unemployment when I was the only breadwinner – not for long, but those months were rather scary and made me aware how important it is to have financial security and a business that will provide it.

 

Speaking of money – often even successful businesses are not rolling in it… rarely is a craft-based business a miracle money-spinner! If it happens to you, and you launch a unique product in huge demand, then fantastic.  But since most of us operate in a rather specialist economic niche, becoming a millionaire ‘the easy way’ simply doesn’t exist here.
Is possible to make a living? Often, yes. Riches – not necessarily.
I earn enough to provide me with a decent living, pay for holidays, hobbies, sports – and of course more silk! Could I make more if I hired staff and turned my business in to a bigger company? Most likely – but I am simply not interested in mass production and dealing with employees, at least not in the moment. To be honest, most craftspeople are not there to make a fortune anyway.  We make stuff because we love it

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Maybe not rolling in it, but rolling in my investment here…..

And so, having said all that, what advice I can offer to those of you who want to take the plunge and launch creative business?
In a simple, no-bullshit sort of way, I submit the following:

 

  • Phase it in. Don’t quit your day job until you are sure (i.e. have evidence) that your business can support you and your family.
  • Do your homework and do your market research – Is there a demand for your product? Can those who will want it also afford to buy it?
  • Practice – if you have never made a corset before and dream of starting a corsetry based business, wait a few years and concentrate on making samples and examples, on studying and learning. It will be time well spent! And no, making 2 does not count – make 20, 50 or more. You can always sell those early samples and prototypes more cheaply later on.

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  • Follow other artisans and their businesses and learn  from the way they operate. Volunteer for internship or work experience in the sector you are plan to be working in. This will also give you some basic understanding of what is in demand –  if you suddenly see your favourite millinery business trying to raise funds on kickstarter to save them from bankruptcy, it may mean that the market for that particular product is already saturated (or that they do not have a sustainable business model, despite a quality product). Don’t judge too harshly though – “shit happens” and sometimes crowdfunding can help in dire circumstances.
  • Speaking of which – it may be tempting to use crowdfunding to help you start the business. I have seen companies doing just this, and some succeeded, some didn’t, so there is no saying really. I personally think that it works better once you are already established and have a higher reach of backers.
    Also, having a project funded this way could lull you into a sense of false financial security, if you are not careful. I see these methods as a last resort, but that is my personal opinion, many businesses have used them to good advantage and have used the funds generated wisely.
  • Read up on legal requirements for new businesses. You will have to register yours and comply with a few basic rules – in the UK there is lots of information to be found on the HMRC website and similar, (links below).
  • Many councils run free courses for start-ups and offer grants as well – do your research those options. Attending a course on tax matters like Self Assessment, basic book keeping, basic website management or stock control may sound boring, but you will be glad that you did, they are essential for any business – and since they are usually free, you are only investing your time.
  • On which note – Invest your time and resources wisely. Make sure that you are using quality products and spend your time on acquiring solid skills that will serve you well in the future.
  • We live in a blessed time when you can learn a great deal from the many resources online, but not everything. So invest in tuition – go on a corsetry course or two if that’s your passion, or attend an embroidery workshop, a quilting group or just plain ‘how to get best from your machine’ lesson. Be careful here, however – always check the credentials of the tutors; if possible go by personal recommendation and ideally ask previous students.
    There are all kinds of courses, from dressmaking to business management, cake decoration to web design and some are run by people with limited experience and lack of formal qualifications. Since essentially anybody can run them, you often get a case of ‘those who can, do; those who cannot, teach’ – or the other way round – there are people who are fantastic craftsmen but cannot teach for toffee… so before you spend a grand or two on a course promising everything and delivering little, do check them out first.
    Word of mouth is a wonderful thing – do ask previous attendees before you part with your hard-earned cash!
  • Learn patience. Accept from the start that it will take a few years to grow. Take it easy, take it steady and enjoy the process. Accept that there will be ups and downs, and be prepared to deal with misfortunes and temporary setbacks. Learn from them!
  • If you are making stuff, learn to make your items fast – but do not sacrifice on quality.(a post on sewing fast here).
    You may have to compromise between your desire to create immaculately hand-stitched items and the time and purse strings of your customers. For me the compromise was to offer a choice of both bespoke services, (with a range of options available), and off-the-peg items. ( more on that here )

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  • Prepare to put in some decent, old fashioned hard work. Self-discipline is essential – lots of people after quitting their jobs find that they make poorer use of their time than when they had less of it. Where there is more time to procrastinate, people invariably do so!
  • Plan your workload and learn to deal with time management issues (post here)
  • Keep records – bookkeeping is relatively straightforward nowadays, there are lots of software providers that will make it a breeze – I use Xero and love it.
  • Use contracts – ALWAYS! It will save everyone a lot of grief (more on that here)
  • Get your pricing right. Too low, and you are setting yourself up to fail. Too high – and the same may happen as there are not enough people able to afford your product – especially true if you are in a very specific niche.
  • Marketing and advertising – set up a website, use social media. Set up FB pages, Instagram accounts etc, and post good quality content that will be spread by your followers. Learn the algorithms and use that knowledge to your advantage. It sounds silly, but nowadays a lot of my business comes through Facebook – social media are also great to get in touch with not only other professionals but also your potential client base. Don’t spent ages on the laptop though –  there are apps now that will let you share one post/photo etc across all your social media at once or spread them out over a specific time period.
  • Make your business sustainable – keep a close eye on sales, income, expenses. At best you need to break even over the first year (unless you invest a lot and/or  can afford to make a loss if you have other income sources), but if your business doesn’t start to pay for itself and does not bring profit, it is by definition not a sustainable situation. In such cases, identify what is not working and change your approach – flexibility is de rigeur!
  • Experiment with different options – I had a brief dalliance with steampunk and a bridal couture service, which although they worked well, made me realise that what I want to do most is historical stuff.  I still take a couple of bridal commissions a year, but focus my efforts and business on what I enjoy most.

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  • If the business is collapsing no matter what you do, then cut your losses early and get out before you are hugely I debt. ‘Fail Fast and Learn‘.
    Lots of people realise that full time is not for them and find similar work in other craft companies, or set up an alternative business, (like running a website, coaching, alteration services, running a craft shop, etc), that will enable you to both survive and still enjoy being creative as a hobby. Many people who have failed at running a dressmaking or jewellery or millinery business, (or any of many others) flourish  working  in theatre, museum or bridal shop environments – They can make stuff and enjoy it without having to put up with all the admin, taxes etc.
    Remember – there is no shame in being a hobbyist – and there is no shame in trying and failing either.

 

  • Network well. chat to fellow costumers, creatives, join fora and Facebook groups  etc. Make friends  and support each other – you may be able to trade services too – I often barter with other folks, usually with jewellers, shoemakers, photographers etc.   A well established creative network can not only provide support but also  help out in finding work. I often recommend other costumers or corset makers when I have no spaces for another orders – and they return  the favour.   Another craft person in your niche  is a competition – but make it a healthy one. Competition is good, it drives improvement and makes for a healthy market of quality goods and services, so work with other folks, it will pay off! Plus, you may end up finding a good friend!
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having fun working together at our regular stitch and bitch session… 🙂

 

 

Links – since I am based in the UK, they mostly UK links – but I bet your own country has a similar support for start ups as well!:

Running a business:

*Starting a business guide –  great introduction to all the necessary steps. Amazing, detailed and free – helped me a lot!

https://www.gov.uk/starting-up-a-business/start-with-an-idea

 

*another lovely site with lots of information and support  including mentoring, business tools, instructions on how to register, plan, and develop your business

http://www.greatbusiness.gov.uk/

 

* Great expenses guide , put simply and clearly – a must to understand what you can and cannot claim

http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/courses/SYOB3/syob_3_exps/html/syob_3_exps_menu.html

 

* list of approved accounting software providers ( UK) – here 

  • website developer with online shop I use and recommend – Create

 

  • a great book with excellent and comprehensive business advice

http://www.craftacreativebusiness.co.uk/

 

Courses

Your local college: I admit I tend to avoid college run courses – I worked in a college and experienced some low quality courses first hand – but again, you may be lucky and actually happen on a brilliant one, so check first!:

a good selection here – http://www.craftcourses.com/

  local craft centres –  do check our, there are often superb courses ran by haberdashery shops, craft centres etc, my local one is here: http://www.tudorrosepatchwork.co.uk/

 

*super corsetry courses: http://www.schoolofcorsetry.com/

*historical sewing: http://theschoolofhistoricaldress.org.uk/

*historical costuming: on-line courses and workshops http://historicalsewing.com/

*haberdashery and button making – Gina B 

 

 

The list is just a start – if you know of others and can recommend them, do let me know and I will add them on – hopefully it can be turned into a comprehensive resource.

 

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Happy crafting ( and marketing, and bookkeeping, and researching…… 😉 !

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Running a Costuming business part 4:Getting Real

  1. Excellent, thorough post! Well said, all of it. It’s so important to have these honest, “no bullshit” posts because I also see that there’s a lot of glamour and glory around “the successful entrepreneur,” but it doesn’t always wash. Those articles and TV shows might sometimes tell you the revenue of a company but they don’t tell you the net – IS it actually profitable? It’s mind-bending when you hear of a company making a million bucks but posting a loss. Happens all the time.

  2. Thanks for this post! I’ve been thinking about starting a craft business for a little while and it’s nice to read some frank advice about it all!

  3. Pingback: Running a Costuming Business | A Damsel in This Dress

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