10 Harsh Truths About Starting a Handmade Business
If I could go back in time, there’s a lot of advice I would give myself about starting and running a business.
Some of the most important information isn’t about steps to take, but rather, setting expectations.
Business success relies heavily on being mentally prepared for what’s ahead.
These are 10 things I think every handmade business owner should keep in mind.
1 – You don’t get to create all day
Unless you have a significant budget that allows you to pay someone to market your products, update your website, sell at craft shows, answer emails, ship products, etc. all of your time can’t be spent creating.
If you want to sell the products you create, only a fraction of your business hours can be spent creating.
A good place to start is dedicating just as many hours marketing and selling your products as you do creating them.
So if you spend 4 hours a week creating new products, it’s not unrealistic to spend 4 hours a week:
- taking photos of your products
- editing photos
- creating Etsy listings
- writing blog articles to promote your Etsy shop
- creating and sending a newsletter
- purchasing supplies to package orders
- packaging the order
- dropping order(s) off at the post office
50/50 is just a starting point for how to split your time between creating and other business tasks. It’s likely you’ll need to adjust that ratio and spend more than 50% of your time working on marketing, selling, and admin work.
2 – Creating does get tedious
Even if you could spend all day creating, chances are you would want a break from it.
Making the same products, or same type of products, hundreds of times will get tedious.
It may seem like a fun way to spend your day when you’re making a few items for friends and family and you’re not worried about profits.
But eventually, it will start to feel like work.
Find ways to challenge yourself and keep the creative juices flowing, even when you’re making the same product over and over.
3 – Marketing is hard
Most small business owners underestimate how much work is required to simply get their products noticed, let alone sold.
You have to work to get people to care about your business.
You’ll need to test multiple marketing channels and techniques to find which ones are most effective, and then use them consistently to market your products/business/brand.
4 – You won’t get it right on the first try
The idea/product you launch your business with will more than likely require some tweaking (in some cases, a total overhaul).
I’ve started several businesses and not one started with the right idea.
As a business owner, you must be willing to adapt your ideas.
Don’t be stubborn (like I have been many times) and stick with an idea longer than you should, just to prove you’re not wrong.
Listen to your market; if you’re not making sales, your market is telling you something’s not right with your current business plan.
5 – Success takes time
Many makers give up on their businesses too early because they think they’re not getting anywhere.
People who share their success stories about making $X/month on Etsy didn’t get there overnight.
Expect success to take months, if not years (depending on how you define success).
You can fast-track success when you have a great product, are targeting a good market, and have other best business practices in place (e.g. marketing plan, branding, etc.).
But even in the best of conditions, business is unpredictable and requires patience and time (or a big budget) to grow.
6 – You don’t always get to make what you want
If you want a successful business, you have to listen to the market. They vote with their dollars.
Your business can’t be about you; it has to be about the customer.
Your passion may be to make one thing, but if consumers aren’t equally as passionate about that product, you must change what you make.
Consumers don’t care about making you rich; they care about what your business can do for them.
Build a customer-centric business and you’ll be much more successful than building a business focused around you.
7 – There’s no figuring it all out
Your business will constantly challenge you. Just when you think you’ve figured everything out, something will change and you’ll be required to adapt.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought: I’ll be set once I get this done. Or, Once I figure this out, things will be easy.
But algorithms change, technology changes, economies change, your customers change, etc.
Be ready to roll with the punches and try to welcome the challenges; they’re just a part of running a business.
Also, keep this in mind when it comes to starting your business or taking the next step. Don’t wait until you’re ready or until you feel like you’ve figured everything out.
8 – You won’t get rich
If you don’t plan to outsource parts of your business, there will be a limit to how much money you can make.
You only have so many hours in a day and, for many handmade products, there’s a limit to how much people will pay for them.
For example, most people won’t spend much more than $5 – $10 for a bar of soap, no matter the brand.
There are some products that allow for higher profit margins.
For example, a well-known artist can charge thousands of dollars for a piece of art, even though the material costs are the same as a piece of art made by an unknown artist.
And, you can develop a brand that allows you to charge higher prices and increase your profit margins (just like Banana Republic can charge more for a t-shirt than Old Navy).
But that must be a part of your plan.
If you hope to build a million-dollar business, be prepared to outsource and/or build a luxury brand.
9 – You can’t do it all
Trying to “do it all” is the biggest regret I have for almost every business I’ve started.
I start with a big vision of what I imagine my business can be and all the things I can make and all the people I can serve, and then I try to start there.
It’s an exciting place to start, but it gets really overwhelming, really fast.
If I could go back and give myself one piece of advice, it would be to start small.
Once money is coming in and you have profits, use those profits to implement the next phase (e.g. new product line, professionally designed website, selling at that big craft show, etc.).
Maybe in 2 – 5 years you can have all your ideas successfully implemented, but without a big budget, it’s best to start with one idea.
10 – There isn’t a foolproof plan
There are best practices you should follow, but just because someone has found success on Etsy and is sharing how they did it, doesn’t mean you’ll gain the same success by taking the exact steps they did.
My experience, after almost two decades of starting, growing, and sometimes shutting down businesses is: there’s no guarantee.
Just as there isn’t one diet that guarantees health, there isn’t one silver-bullet plan/strategy/product that guarantees success.
There are so many factors at play when running a business and you are at the center of it all. Only you can figure it out.
Use other people’s advice, books, courses, etc. for guidance, but don’t go on a constant hunt for a guru or course that will finally help you find success.
You hold the key to your success.
Feel free to share your greatest lessons in the comments 🙂
Hey, I’m Erin 🙂 I write about small business and craft show techniques I’ve learned from being a small business owner for almost 2 decades, selling at dozens of craft shows, and earning a diploma in Visual Communication Design. I hope you find my advice helpful!
Thank you for your timely advice! So many people are offering business coaching services for thousands of dollars, and making it sound easy. You are awesome!
Hi Erin, this is a great list of harsh truths! I would add – Do not underestimate the value you bring to your product/marketplace –
I have seen many crafters charge less than their product is worth or what they think a customer will pay. They then wind up not making a profit, become discouraged and quit.
Be cautious of doing licensing deals. I’ve licensed my product twice, only to find out that 1. The product they were getting from overseas was a very poor example of my copyrighted design, causing big name retailers to drop me. 2. the second one sold my product in Germany and didn’t pay any royalty fees, (about $1/2 million loss to me). Both of these companies were very well known, you would know them if you knew their names. Beware.