If you caught our last business advice post here, then you know we are finally getting around to answering some of your most frequently asked questions! While I'd love to get back to everyone in DM’s, sometimes it’s just not possible to send over lengthy and in depth answers (I mean, have you scrolled to the bottom of this post??). So, we want to build a little archive here on the blog for those of you interested in hearing the feedback, stories, answers and advice.
I always thought that somehow people would read my tiny about page and figure out the rest of my story (yes, I realize how ridiculous that is). I’m sure I've told you about my career path here and there in a blog post or instagram caption, but i wanted to finally tell the entire story from beginning to… wherever we are now (the middle?).
Where it all began
My story starts in 2009. I was working for a corporate apparel and eyewear company as a developer. I initially took the job thinking that it would lead to a design position down the road. Spoiler… it never did. I started my blog that year, 4 years into working at the company. I was incredibly bored and needed a way to be creative.
Back then, blogs were fairly new. Pinterest wasn’t around and Instagram wasn’t a thing yet. My blog was my way to catalog cute things I was finding around the internet, it was a place for me to get creative in the form of DIY projects or entertaining, but one thing it wasn’t, was a way for me to make money. That was never the intention behind having it.
I remember my very first post. Do you guys remember polyvore? It was actually a very cool concept. Sort of like a mix between photoshop, pinterest and shopping sites. You would find products in their library and make moodboards directly on their site. You could add text and graphics too. For my first post, I created 2 moodboards sharing inspiration for some partiesI wanted to host. Sounds familiar? I am really happy that my blog hasn’t strayed that far from how I started. It’s definitely evolved as I grew my business, but overall the theme is still the same!
Shortly after starting my blog, I opened an etsy shop. I knew at the time i loved entertaining and styling, so I started making party supplies. I made drink stirrers, framed signage (using fonts! I hadn’t found calligraphy yet), cake stands, etc. This little shop actually grew into something that made me a decent amount of money. Not mortgage paying or car payment type of money… but a little extra cash. I was featured in quite a few blogs and started to make a name for myself in the blog world. 2010 was when I started toying around with calligraphy and by 2011 I had already worked on some custom stationery for a friend of a friend. After just one actual wedding, I knew I had found what I had been looking for. At this point, I didn’t try to go full force into calligraphy or weddings. It was still sort of a hobby, but I was finding that more and more of my time was dedicated to practicing this skill. I let the journey happen naturally with no expectations. I still had my full time job and had to wisely choose how I spent my time.
Figuring out how to actually produce my work
As this was the beginning of having to ship actual printed work to my clients (vs. doing handmade items like place cards), I entered the world of sourcing printers, learning about paper, trying to figure out how to set up files… fun. Luckily one of my friends had a friend whose husband was a printer. In the beginning, he was fairly patient with me. Showing me the difference in papers, telling me why you could/couldn’t print on certain things, sending back my files when I set them up completely wrong, and printing things in a day when I called him panicking. I would not recommend going about it this way;)
If I could go back, I would have probably seeked out a few printers on google and had a file ready to test with all of them. Not everyone will be able to do test prints (due to minimums) but it would have taught me a lot in terms of what I can achieve. Many printers offer sample books so you can see different processes on different papers. But honestly this knowledge comes with a lot of time in the industry sending files back and forth and figuring out what was possible. One of the questions I find hardest to answer is when people reach out asking me where I get paper or where I print our stationery. There are SO many factors that go into each project it would be impossible to answer that. Please do some research if you are in this stage and find local printers that you can meet with and go over your needs. This is the best way to get what you need and be close in case there are issues that arise that need your attention.
when I decided it was time to quit!
In 2011, my husband and I got engaged, and by that time I was starting to dread walking into my day job. I would spend the walk between my car to the office scheduling my blog posts on twitter and facebook. I would take lunch breaks to work run errands for my business or brainstorm ideas for my shop. I loved being in my home office working on this new paper business I was discovering. Trust me, there were SO many nights of tears. It was a lot to try and handle in addition to being stuck in a cubicle for 8 to 9 hours every day. Finally, in October of that year, I was so drained that I decided to take the leap. I convinced my now husband that this was going to work. Back then, this whole world of entrepreneurship was obviously not what it is today. People didn’t quite understand it yet. It looked as if I was quitting my job to craft for a living (that’s literally what people asked me if I did for so long!). So getting support from people around me took a little bit of explaining, but I am glad that I believed that I could turn it into an actual business.
And if couldn’t make it work,? I could always get another job. I think that’s the biggest thing for someone to think about when they want to make a big change like that. What ACTUALLY is the worst thing that can happen? And if it does, do you have a solution or back up plan? If you do, then there really shouldn’t be anything in the way of you taking that next step. Either way it goes, you have a plan in place.
So, what was my plan? Starbucks. I figured if this whole blog/etsy thing didn’t work, I would go to work at starbucks so that I could continue pursuing it and figuring it out. Luckily I never had to get another job, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t REALLY hard for a long time. While I had the support of my husband, I also wanted to contribute and prove that my business was a real thing. And proving that (to yourself) is hard. When you start your own business it always feels like you’re just playing around… the first 2-3 years of being on my own were incredibly stressful and there were so many moments of doubt. I even wrote a guide with more tips in terms of money, marketing, etc. Things I wish I would've known when I started my business. Once you sign up for our newsletter you can access the guide!
After I left my job, I focused all of my free time on making new items, teaching myself how to photograph them, teaching myself how to edit those photos, building my website, and staying consistent on my blog. Consistency was key. Learning new skills was key. Making sure I was improving everyday was key.
the marketing tool that helped my business grow
In 2012, 6 months after I quit my corporate job, I finally joined instagram. Mostly I would share glimpses into what I was working on at the time. It took about a year or so when I started to see how instagram could really help my business. I had grown a small following with the help of my blog. I started to share more of my work rather than personal pics. I started building a website that I could direct people to. And I started to learn the importance of marketing yourself and partnering with people that could do the same. If anyone asks what the biggest tool in my growth was, it was 100% instagram. And it still is. It’s an amazing tool that allows people to connect and share your work all over the world. While it’s much more saturated that it was 7 years ago, I think it still functions in the same way in terms of being a tool for businesses.
Once I realized how much Instagram was impacting my growth, I made sure to focus daily on creating content. I would share behind the scenes, looks into projects, personal photos, etc. Basically exactly the same as I'm doing today! Just like with my other platforms, I did my thing and let this grow organically.
I’d say it was about 2013 when brands started to reach out to work together on sponsored blog posts. By that point my photography was decent, I was creating content on a consistent basis, and my blog had developed a direction and point of view. I was (trying) to negotiate these things myself but honestly had no idea what I was doing. It was so new at the time. I had a few friends with blogs which were the same size, so we would chat and make sure we were all on the same page. But other than that it was a crazy, new, confusing time!
The growth period
Over those next few years, I worked on my skills and made sure that each project I worked on was getting better and better. Looking back this was a really exciting time. I would look at my work month after month as see huge differences. I was gaining new clients on a consistent basis, and sponsored content was a part of my income. It was also when I stopped panicking over if i could afford groceries that week. This time for any entrepreneur is really important. You know what you are doing by now, and it’s the time to expand your creativity and skills. Growing at this pace is why i think that we’ve been successful. I didn’t expect (or want) to get huge overnight. Growing slowly and organically helped me learn at a steady pace and deal with new challenges and learn from them. My best advice is to feel things out and when you start to get comfortable at where your company is at, it’s probably time to take that next leap or challenge to grow a little bit more.
Fast forward to 2016 when I signed with my management team who now handles all of my partnerships. This has been a game changer in terms of booking brands and growing the content creation side of my business. There were huge learning curves when it came to contracts, negotiating, previews, licensing… but now I am able to partner with people that I only dreamt of working with in the past. They have given me opportunities to step my game up in the video/photography world, opportunities to push myself out of my comfort zone to create, and opportunities like travel and attend/host events I never would have agreed to on my own.
Hiring my first employee
Once the blog side of my business began to pick up, I started to feel the pressure to keep it all together on my own. Long story short, I couldn’t. I was pissing off clients, turning in brand work late, losing potential customers because I couldn’t get back to emails, etc. I knew that I had to hire help. I wrote an entire post on that here. My first hire was to help me with admin and emails. It allowed me to get back to the creative side of my job and pay attention to the work I was creating. This was a big, scary step but a very necessary one. It was either, do less work and stay where you’re at, or hire someone and be able to take on more to grow your business. It worked out, she is still with AFF today! Over the past 3 years, our team has changed a few times. But I feel like we are currently settling into our new normal with our team of 5 (including me). There is someone to manage each part of the business and make sure that nothing is slipping through the cracks. Again, this has been a huge financial leap for me, but I know it’s the only way to keep AFF growing. I can only hope that we are creating a place for these girls to grow and work in a fun environment.
Putting processes into place was the most important step in hiring a team. It was also the hardest. When you are working on your own, it’s easy to go with the flow and do what is important in that moment. You cannot work like that with a team. There are so many people depending on each other to get their own job done that there needs to be systems in place for timelines as well as systems for keeping your clients happy. So how did we come up with those? Experience. The amount of times we have tweaked things to get them functioning at where they are today is crazy. The idea is the same behind all processes; you need to get from A to B smoothly. Only time and experience will really show you what needs to be done though. So we would create a process, use it, decide what worked well or didn’t, and change it. We are still changing how things work as our business evolves. So I wouldn’t say there’s one right way to do this or an end point. You have to do what works for the personality types on your team and is dependent on the tasks you tackle every day.
Deciding it was time to expand the business
For a long time, my business was split into two sides; calligraphy and content creation. And when the two came together, it was the perfect work scenario! After creating content for a few years, and putting that content out into the instagram world, I noticed that SO many people were using my images to tell their stories on social. That’s how the idea for The Creative Library was born in 2018. I wanted to give people what they wanted, to use imagery as they pleased without having to credit me, and to give it to them on a consistent basis so that they could grow their own business. Each month, our library members receive content to help them with their social media, blogs, websites, newsletters, or any other content they need to push out. We send them fresh stock images, social media templates, worksheets and guides.
Next month will be one year since we launched The Creative Library and to be honest, I feel like we are FINALLY figuring it out. Starting a digital subscription service with memberships may be the most confusing way to run a business online (at least on the backend). Logistically figuring out who gets what and when has been... interesting. And the constant count down to have everything ready for the next month can be very stressful. But every month I am so proud that this is a project our team is pulling off together. It’s the first time that I have really handed over the “power” to anyone else in the company. While I oversee and approve almost everything, the girls on my team are making sure that everything runs smoothly and is growing every month. Some days I can feel a little disconnected, but I am seeing now that the only way to grow our brand is to hand over responsibility and trust the decisions that our team is making. The Creative Library has been our latest big project. We are still fine tuning how it runs every single day. Slowly but surely it has begun to run more and more smoothly and I think that within our next year of business it will be a fine tuned machine. And when that happens we all know what comes next, something new!
Where are we now?
We are currently a team of 5 (omg) running a wedding stationery biz, a stock image membership site, and creating content for our favorite brands. Dream job? Yep. Is it hard some (most) days? Yep.
All of the girls here at AFF have their main responsibilities but typically work on several other things to keep us moving. For example, our project manager is also our in house photographer. When I hire people to work here, while I want them to focus on AFF and growing in our space, I also want to help them work on their own goals. When i was working and trying to start my blog + biz, this would have been a DREAM. I feel like life can get a little boring if we’re just doing one thing every single day. So if we can all incorporate something else we love into our work, why not.
Each day is different, and while trying to wrangle all of our different projects in my brain can get extremely overwhelming, it is far better than being complacent and coming into the office for the same thing day after day. As we are settling into this new normal. We have started to shift the focus to expand the wedding stationery + shop side of our business. While it's about 60% of our biz, it’s also been on the back burner because it does run so smoothly… it hasn’t needed as much attention. But that is about to change and I couldn't be more excited to see where we can take it!
Looking back on all of this, I believe there are 2 big factors that have lead to our success.
No. 1 - Letting our business grow organically. While this won’t work for every business model, it has been essential for the growth of ours. It has been a slow and consistent road allowing me to adapt and create processes that make each area of our business profitable. It has given me space to deal with issues or roadblocks as they come without making me want to throw in the towel because things were moving too quickly to fix it. We have also been able to expand our business into new areas as we can take the time to analyze our customer’s needs. We aren’t trying to force something that is currently trendy. All of our offerings have been things that come from the needs of other people.
No. 2 - Knowing and accepting that it takes time to get things running smoothly. The impulsive part of me would say that if i’ve been investing in something for a year, and it isn’t where it needs to be yet, it’s time to call it quits. But if I did that in 2013 because I wasn’t booking 4 wedding stationery clients a month, where would I be today? Not here, that’s for sure. Remember that all good things take time. I’ve been at this for around 10 years. Sure, there are definitely business ideas that can grow much faster. But for us, and knowing that I want to keep this business for a long time, slow organic growth has been key.
So, I’ve read through this a few times and have added parts to my story every time. It’s hard to recap the past 10 years of your biz! If you have any questions, I’d love to answer them in the comments and update this post as those come in.
I hope that this gives a better background to A Fabulous Fete and inspires those of you growing your own business!
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