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November 03, 2013

Interview with Sarah Stickland of CHILDish

I love hearing about unique businesses and what their road to success was like. So I was really excited when Sarah Stickland, the creative genius behind CHILDish, agreed to answer a few questions of mine. CHILDish creates customized melamine dishware sets for your kids, allowing you to choose the name, background, pattern, as well as hair style, hair colour, eye colour, skin tone, and more to create an image of each child. Starting with plates, CHILDish has grown to include personalized lunchboxes, drinkware, placemats, labels and more. Sarah shares how she balances motherhood with a booming business, how she came up with the idea, tips on starting your own business and much more. Check out our Q&A session below!

Can you give us a little background on your life before you started CHILDish? I have a Bachelor of Design from the University of Alberta. I was working for Mattel as an Art Director when my daughter was born. It was a huge transition to go from the corporate world to becoming a full time Mom.

You came up with the idea for a fundraising project and it’s such a unique concept – what sparked it? I was the Fundraising co-ordinator for my daughter’s playshool, parents were tired of selling the same products every year. I decided to create something that no other playschool was selling.

You started with the fundraiser – as the demand for customized dishes grew, was it difficult working in the “customized” aspect for a growing market? Customization is huge right now. Parents are naming their children unique names, but still want personalized products. Creating one-of-a-kind products is my point of difference. Parents can easily go to Walmart and buy their children dishes for much less. But, they are paying extra for a personalized product created just for their child.

Would you say your business grew fairly quickly or gradually over time and when did you know it was time to turn it into a full blown business and not just a hobby? My business grew very quickly during the first year, and has been steady since. I am still dancing between a business and a hobby. Yes, CHILDish makes money (which means it’s a business) but it doesn’t bring me a full salary.

Taking that step can be intimidating; do you have any tips for vendors thinking of transitioning their business from a side project to their full time job? Sit down and crunch realistic numbers. There are many valuable resources online on how to figure out the financials of your handmade business. I find many handmade businesses fail because they do not realistically project the time and cost to make and market a product and get burned out in the process.

How do you balance being a full time mom with your booming business? It’s a work in progress. I typically answer emails early in the morning and late at night. I also have 2 days a week where my children are at school and/or playschool. I decided to stay home with my children, so I make sure I carve out quality time with them vs always working.

Media is often times necessary when growing a business but can be intimidating. You’re a natural at giving interviews – was it always that way or have you become more comfortable with them over time and do you have any tips? I am not at all comfortable with interviews! But, I know people don’t want to see me being uncomfortable and mumbling. I basically tell myself to suck it up and answer the questions in a clear concise manner.

From your years working at Mattel, what would you say prepared you the most for running your own successful business? That big business isn’t that different than small business. A large company is always looking for new ideas, changing what isn’t working and trying to do better each time. I have to remind myself of that when I hit road blocks.

Do you ever worry about competition and someone else starting a business with a similar idea? Sure. When I came up with the idea I did some research to see if there were other people selling personalized dishes and/or children’s products. There are, a lot. I almost didn’t go forward with my business, but then decided to focus on what I do best and not worry about what other people are doing. There will always be someone with a similar product or idea, keep your unique point of view and don’t worry what other people are doing. I have collaborated and shared ideas with other people that sell personalized products, it’s a mutual respect and we’re all better because of it.

You’ve expanded from dishes into lunchboxes, water bottles and now labels – how do you stay innovative and creative? Any favorite brainstorming techniques? My problem is that I never stop brainstorming. I have more ideas than time! I do get stuck though. I love crafting so I will get together with friends for a Friday night craft party. I’ve also gone on mini creative retreats, basically heading to the mountains for a weekend with a pile of business books and crafts.

You sell your products through your own website, was there ever contemplation over selling your line in stores or selling your idea to a bigger company? All of my products are made to order, so having them in a traditional bricks and mortar store is not a great fit. I also do not have a large enough margin built in to allow me to wholesale my products. I do however have a few websites in the US that sell personalized products and feature my line, they give me a percentage of each product that sells.

If you could give one piece of advice to a start up business owner, what would it be? Talk with other business owners. I find so many experienced business owners are more than happy to help out others starting out. There are many great groups in Edmonton or even online. There are so many resources for creative entrepreneurs, educate yourself and never stop learning.

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