I'm thrilled to have Nicole Balch of Pink Loves Brown as this week's Crafter Interview. Nicole is the smart and lovely lady behind not only PLB, but also Indie Finds, which I've mentioned before on this blog as a great co-op which purchases ads for indie businesses. In only a year and a half, Nicole has built her business to a point where she's received press in national magazines, employs a small staff, and is fully supporting herself through a combination of her crafty business and her graphic/web design business. She's got the branding aspect of her business mastered, from her products, to her website to even her own self-portait (which I love) and studio pics below. The Pink Loves Brown "vibe" is apparent in all of these images; and it doesn't seem forced, it seems natural and appealing. You can read about news and shop updates on Nicole's LiveJournal. Read on below for information about her crafty business, including the resourceful way that she got advertising in the early days of Pink Loves Brown when the advertising budget was non-existent.
Artist: Nicole Balch
Craft: Paper Goods
How long have you been in business?
Artist: Nicole Balch
Craft: Paper Goods
How long have you been in business?
I began Pink Loves Brown in February of 2005, so it's been a year and a half now.
How did you get your start?
I began Pink Loves Brown because I've always been very crafty and artistic, but I also absolutely adore math! By designing and making my cards, I'm able to be creative. By running the business, I'm able to solve problems and be very analytical. It's the perfect merging of my two very different passions.
Do you have formal training?
I studied architecture in college, and there was some training in architectural rendering. It's a very different approach though because it's all very measured and technical. I also took art classes throughout high school, but I don't know how much that contributed. I've been drawing since I was a child, and it's constant practice and experimentation that leads to an individual's artistic style.
I don't think I've "made it", but that's only because I don't think of my business in that way. There have definitely been some milestones though... When I first started, it took months before I had my first online sale. I remember being so excited, and my husband and I went out to dinner to celebrate! For a long time, I would tell him each time I had another sale. We didn't go out to dinner each time (that's really not the best business practice), but it was still exciting. After awhile, I had stopped telling him about each new sale because they weren't as infrequent. That was when I realized that the shop had started to become successful.
Now Pink Loves Brown has been in a couple of nationwide magazines, we're carried in other shops, and sales have increased to the point where I've been able to rent a studio and hire help. I still don't consider myself as having 'made it' though, because there are always new things to achieve. I wouldn't want to become complacent, because there are always opportunities to continue to grow and to take my business further.
Is selling your handmade items supporting you financially?
I don't have an outside job but I do also offer graphic and web design as Smart & Lovely, which is a division of Pink Loves Brown. It is the combination of my shop and my design services that supports me fully.
What's the best part of having your own business?
Creative and intellectual fulfillment. I wouldn't want to be doing anything else!
What surprised you about having your own business?
I have so little free time. I hardly ever watch television anymore (which is fine), but I don't have as much time for reading or doing crossword puzzles either.
Books, magazines, and the internet. I love design books, but of course I have my share of legal and business books too. Magazines and blogs are great for keeping up with what's going on in the design world. The Switchboards is a helpful forum for women in business, and of course Indie Finds is a great advertising co-op (for which I'm the designer). Indie Finds offers ad opportunities that many small business wouldn't be able to afford on their own, and I'm proud to be a part of it.
Advice for someone trying to make it in your field:
Develop a strong, consistent style. If you're not doing anything different and your work isn't clearly recognizable, what's going to make your business stand out?
Advice for someone trying to build their own business (in any field):
It's easy to start a business, and anyone can do it. The difficulty lies in sustaining a business. I think it's good to set goals because if you know what you're working toward, it's easier to make the correct decisions as you go along.
How and where do you advertise your product?
When I first started, I had lots of time but little money. I would make banners for shopping sites in exchange for free advertising with them, and it was a great way to gain some exposure. I also swapped links with other sites, which is another free way to bring visitors to your site. Now I advertise with Indie Finds, and I also do some advertising on my own. I stick to the tried and true places for the most part. It's better to advertise over and over in just a few places than to spread your advertising budget all over the place. People need to see your ad several times before they decide to act on it.
I've been working with a few other designers (iglubu and keyka lou) to carry exclusive pieces for the shop, and I'd love to do more of that. I love being able to introduce new items to the shop that other designers have made, but that still work within the Pink Loves Brown aesthetic. And of course I'll continue to add more of my own designs as well! I also want to gain more wholesale accounts, and I'll be actively pursuing press coverage.
Can you speak anymore on the following topics:
-approaching store owners
The first few times you approach a shop owner, it will probably be difficult. Once you've done it a few times it gets easier. For some reason though, it seems like so many people are afraid of selling their products wholesale. It's really not that much different from selling retail, and in some ways it's easier. Just as there are people who love your work and then there are others who don't care for it, there will be shop owners that would love to carry your products and there will be others who will pass. The biggest difference is just volume. And it's a lot easier to package up one order for 50 items than it is to package up 50 little orders.
I prefer to do just a couple of shows. I'll be at both the Renegade Craft Fair and the DIY Trunk Show again here in Chicago. It's a great opportunity to meet your customers and get some instant feedback on new products. Plus there are always press and wholesale contacts to be made at shows.
-starting and maintaining a website
My site has gone through so many changes, so I've really seen how a well-designed and easy to navigate site translates into increased sales. If you have the time and the technical ability, you can create a great site yourself. However, if you aren't design or web savvy, it's worth it to hire a professional to create your site. It's also a good idea to have a database driven shopping cart if you have a lot of products, or if you'll be adding new products often - it will make updating your site so much easier!
-your branding and packaging
It's important to present a professional image right from the start. A good logo, stylish business cards, and consistent branding are essential. A well designed website and quality photos are also necessary for an online business. People (customers, stores, and press) will make assumptions about your business (how long you've been around, the quality of your products, etc.) based on their first impression. Think about what image you would want your company to convey, and make sure that it comes across whether someone sees your packaging, your site, or just your business card.
It's fun to come up with packaging ideas. Everything I use is either pink or brown, which is a pretty obvious choice. Even my invoices are printed on pink paper! For each order, I wrap the cards and stationery in chocolate brown tissue paper, and then tie it up with brown and white baker's twine. You never know who will be receiving it, so each one should be packaged with care.
I'll be adding gift wrap as an option soon, and I'm really excited about a beautiful brown ribbon with white saddle stitching that I found. The wrapping is going to be lovely!