10 Essentials For Handmade Business Success

handmade business success

As small business owners, we cannot become so bogged down in the minutiae of business that we don’t see the forest for the trees.

For handmade entrepreneurs, this is especially challenging because we love what we do so much, it’s tempting to spend most of our time creating things, and not enough time marketing and selling them and planning for the future.  This often results in lots of nice products, but few sales.

If you find yourself in this situation, or want to avoid it altogether, don’t panic. I created a list of 10 specific essentials that will help you focus on revenue-generating activities, without sacrificing your passion for the making the products you love.

1. Develop Consistent Systems

Systems create structure and help things run smoothly and efficiently, but handmade entrepreneurs, who often start as hobbyists, often resist them. The shift from hobbyist to business owner is a critical one to make — I know because I made it. I want you to assure you that it’s worth it.

Set aside specific days of the week when you will make specific products. This will help you plan how to organize priorities. You won’t waste a moment wondering what to make next. You can even share your manufacturing schedule with customers (wholesale and retail) so they know what to expect.

Use a tool like Google Calendar to plan and schedule blog posts, Tweets and Facebook updates. You don’t have to be rigid, but a basic schedule will allow you to lead your business with more predictability, and you can tweak it you grow.

2. Embrace Technology

Each year, business success depends more heavily on effective use of technology. Handmade businesses are very high touch in terms of products and physical interaction with customers, but tend to be less so when it comes to using technology to increase sales. The good news is that I have seen people who were once fearful of technology fall in love with it when they begin tracing sales directly to the use of a once scary tech tool.

Begin by discovering what technologies are used by businesses that are similar to yours. Make a list of 3 or 4 things they seem to use effectively and watch their methods. Adopt similar approaches in your business and put your unique stamp on them.

If anyone with credibility offers classes to help you get started, it’s worth it to buy the instructions. Technology is like arithmetic in the sense that new technologies build on old ones. You will have more difficulty figuring out the new Facebook, for example, if you have never used the old one. The further behind you get on technology, the harder it is to catch up. Don’t delay. Get started today!

3. Don’t Identify Yourself as a “Crafter”

There’s nothing wrong with being a crafter. I’m a crazy girl and I love making all kinds of things. I still make many of my own soaps and cosmetics, but I no longer sell them. Why? Because I’m a crafter, not a cosmetics business owner. Once you start selling the products you make, you are a business owner. Linda Balon Stein of Zosimos Botanicals in Gaithersburg, Maryland, puts it this way:

“The personal care products we sell are handmade, and when people ask what I do, I say I own a cosmetics company. To me, that implies a professional career creating handmade products. Even though I know there are people who make high quality products and travel around the country exhibiting and selling their wares as “crafters,” there is a big distinction between what we do and making crafts to sell at markets and shows. We pay taxes, follow good manufacturing practices, get a merchant account and many of other things that “crafters” may not do.”

Identifying yourself as a “crafter” minimizes your professionalism as a business owner. It does not instill trust when you ask total strangers for their credit card number either. If you want to grow your business, be very wary of using this term to describe yourself.

4. Invest in Yourself Financially

The reason many people say they don’t have a coach or sign up for classes or attend a great conference is because it costs money. Here’s a different approach. Don’t think of it as spending money on a coach (or a conference or a class). Think of it as investing money in yourself. I host the annual #IndieCruise to so entrepreneurs can MasterMind together in an unplugged environment, and come out on the other end with guns blazing.

The transformations I witness every year are amazing. Coaching, classes, conferences and similar events are experiences that enrich your life and challenge you to push yourself, to maximize your talents, to stretch the limits of your capabilities. What’s life anyway, if you don’t do that? Create a 2013 professional enrichment budget for yourself and make it a point to go to at least one event that will force you out of your comfort zone. Your business, not the mention the world, will thank you.

5. Toot Your Horn

Many handmade entrepreneurs tell me they are uncomfortable with marketing because it feels like bragging. Well, it is, in a way. If you are proud of the products you make, and your are confident that they are worth every penny you ask for them, then you have every reason to proudly to tell the world what you have to offer.

Share, share, and share some more. It’s not about holding a megaphone and deafening everyone within ear shot. It’s about using your natural personality to share what you have to offer, and you’ve got to do it.

6. Solidify Your Niche

When I launched Indie Beauty Network, I could have tried to service every single type of small business there was. As an attorney and entrepreneur, I had the background to do it. But instinctively, I also knew that if I tried to be all things to all people, I would drown.

So I decided to focus exclusively on handmade beauty products and that’s that. Since then, we have expanded some to include items like handmade candles, jewelry and baked goods, but our core is still handmade beauty, and I like it that way.

Maggie Hanus of A Wild Soap Bar sells Texas-themed handmade soap in Austin, Texas. According to Maggie:

“Deciding to narrow our line down to “native plant soaps” was the best business decision we ever made! I mean, everybody has a plain old Lavender Soap, but you won’t find many lavender scented Bluebonnet Soaps, which celebrate the Texas state flower and which contain real Texas blubonnets.”

Since starting her business over a decade ago, Maggie has gone from her core handmade soap products to other items including body balm and facial oils.

When you have a niche, marketing and sales efforts are magnified because you’ll know exactly what you are selling, and who you are selling to. You won’t spin your wheels trying to sell everything to everyone. Instead, you’ll invest your energy in selling specific products to specific people who want those products. Score!

Ask most any successful entrepreneur and they will tell you that having a narrowly defined niche is how they built their businesses — and continue to do so.

7. Leverage Success in Your Niche to Create New Revenue Centers

If you have solidified a niche for yourself and your business is on solid footing, you can consider how you can leverage your brand to sell new products, or sell your existing ones in different ways. For example, Tisha L. Morris has leveraged her expertise in feng shui to develop several lines of products, including a smudge spray.

By offering a variety of products in “sub-niches,” Tisha appeals to more people without losing focus. Says Tisha:

“If it is not in someone’s budget to hire me one-on-one, they can access me through an online workshop, an ebook, a hard copy of my book, or my iPhone app.”

A quick word of caution: as you expand, be careful that you don’t introduce complementary products without first making sure your core is strong. If your core is solid, and running smoothly, it may be a good time to consider adding new sources of income that complement your existing niche and create new ways for you to boost revenues.

7. Brand Yourself

As your business grows, you will find more people wanting to identify with more than just your products. Your repeat customers will start talking about you *and* your products, and in some ways, the two will merge into a single brand.

Handmade entrepreneurs are in the unique position of making the products they sell. This means that when a customer sees your product, whether you like it or not, they also see you. Take advantage of this by letting people experience you personally as you market your products.

Sharing photos of you in your production studio making things people love to buy is a good way to leverage yourself as a person, as you also promote your products. In time, if you’d like, you can translate this visibility into new streams of income as a speaker, a blogger or coach.

A quick caveat: unless you think you’re the next Thomas Kinkade or Martha Stewart, you’ll want to try to keep some distance between you and your business, so you can preserve the non-you part of your business for the future. If you become inextricably intertwined with your business brand, it could become difficult to sell it or move onto something else in the future. It’s a delicate balance, and there’s a great deal of overlap.

It takes time and practice to find the unique balance of personal brand and business brand that works for you. Take this one step at a time. Evaluate how it’s going each quarter, and make adjustments as necessary.

8. Involve Your Family Members

If you are a business owner with a family, then whether or not you like it, you are not in business alone. My members and laugh all the time about the importance of integrating life and business. As a wife and mother of two, I say:

“If mama is in business, then everybody is in business!”

There are so many practical reasons to be intentional about this … first of all, you family can help you.  They can take products to the shipping office, restock office equipment, help with filing and calendar maintenance, or watch the kids so you can work. These days, many of them can even train you on how to use computer equipment!

Involving family is also important from a teaching perspective, especially if you have children.

9. Find Time for Fitness

Personally speaking, this is the single most challenging part of business ownership for me, and I’m terrible at it. In my prior life as an attorney, I became used to sitting all day long. I was either thinking, writing, strategizing, meeting, deposing or reading, and I did all of it in a chair.

Today, I have all the flexiblity I want and I still find it hard to get to the gym. But there is a distinct difference between how I feel when I’ve worked out and how I feel when I don’t, and I prefer the former. And so does my business.

Whether you’re fit today or not, try to make it a point to do something each day that allows our body to move, stretch, and flex. For me, running usually does the trick. It seems to clear my head and make way for new ideas. After a run, I feel like I can tackle anything — a good feeling when you have to slay small business dragons all day! For you, it may be yoga, tennis, or just walking around the block. Find what works and fit it in as best you can.

10. Collaborate with Your Fellow Entrepreneurs

Now for the most fun part! As your business grows, you will have much more to offer than just your products. For example, if you blog, you’ll have intellectual property. If you Tweet, you’ll have followers. If you publish an email newsletter, you’ll have subscribers. Look for other people with similar appeal and connect with them to create new business opportunities.

For example, my members Mary Humphrey and Alyssa Middleton teamed up earlier this year to write a soapmaking book entitled, “Essential Soapmaking.” Another example is how this month, four of my members teamed up for a Holiday Ladies Shopping Night where local women paid $20 a person to shop and enjoy a Peppermint and Chocolate martinis and crudité. (Notice: they paid a fee to enter the store to spend money … did you catch that?)

Dawn Fitch of Pooka Pure and Simple provided the venue (her retail store), and the goodie bags included handmade candles from Yum Yum Candles, handmade soap by La Shonda Tyree, the “Handmade Soap Coach”, and lip balm from Naturally Good Soaps. Dawn told me that the event was such a huge success that they are going to grow it and make it an annual event.

Collaborations like these help everyone’s business grow, but they cannot happen unless you have something to bring to the table. An audience is a big part of that. After all, it doesn’t do any good to co-host an event with you if you don’t have anyone on your list or Facebook page to announce it to.

A Final Reminder

I am not sharing all of this to overwhelm you. On the other hand, as a seasoned business owner, I feel it’s my duty to tell you the truth about what it takes to be successful.

Do not start tackling all of these things at once. That would be too much.

Select the ones where you are weakest and start there. Add a new goal each month, and by this time next year, you will have advanced both personally and professionally, your revenues should increase, and you’ll be having more fun in your life and your business.

More fun? Yes please!

Handmade Soap Photo via Shutterstock 49 Comments ▼

Donna Maria Coles Johnson Donna Maria is the founder and CEO of the Indie Business Network, a trade organization providing mentoring and coaching services, and affordable product liability insurance, to makers and creative entrepreneurs across North America. An award-winning small business advocate, Donna Maria has hosted the Indie Business Podcast since 2005. She blogs at Indie Business Blog.

49 Reactions
  1. I was writing an earlier comment and it vanished so I hope this doesn’t post twice. I’m honored to be mentioned in your article dM. And I’m so glad you brought up #3! “I’m a handmade soap manufacturer” lends more credibility than “Uhh…I make soap”. I gave myself the whimsical title of Soap Bartender many years ago and yes, I use it to toot my own horn too!

    • Donna Maria Coles Johnson

      It showed up, Maggie! Yes, and “manufacturer” has even better connotations these days in America, where manufacturers like you are setting the pace. Thanks for allowing me to quote you in this article, and for swinging by to comment as well. Long live Texas-themed handmade soap!

  2. Thank you for the inclusion in your blog post. I am honored to be able to work with some phenomenal women in my industry. Some would say why would you do business with your direct/indirect competition? My answer would be that there is plenty of business to go around for all of us. We complement each other and we trust each other. As we grow our businesses we can help each other grow as well!!

    • Donna Maria Coles Johnson

      It sure looks like the New York/New Jersey contingent is having all the fun. I love seeing the colorful graphics and photos from your parties up there. I’d feel really left out if you didn’t post and share!

  3. Thanks for including your New York/New Jersey beauty family in this article! We all learn so much from you, thanks for giving us a platform to share our “Cosmetic Lines”. I’m going to apply these 10 essentials into my 2013 regiment!! Happy New Year!

    • Donna Maria Coles Johnson

      Thanks Dawn! Yes, they are some pretty good tips. Let’s slay some dragons together next year!

  4. Thank you so much. These were some much needed tips. I plan to put them in place for 2013 so that my business can actually grow!

  5. Donna Maria Coles Johnson:

    Could you please explain a bit more what implicates in being a crafters? I thought the word had a positive meaning in a professional way. My friend describes his business as creating gold & silver handicrafts.

    • Donna Maria Coles Johnson

      Hi Martin, thanks for your question. I’m not sure I can explain it much better than it’s explained in the article. Linda, quoted in the article, crafts handmade products, and she is also the CEO of the company that sells the products she makes. The two can complement each other, and in Linda’s case, they do. She is careful to maintain the mindset of a CEO, however, and that is important to the success of anyone selling anything to make a living — whether it’s handcrafted or not. Does this help?

      • Donna: Thanks for your reply. How about crafting your own handicraft business with a mindset of a CEO! 🙂 Have you heard the expression, artisan business?

      • Donna Maria Coles Johnson

        Martin: I have heard the expression artisan business and artisan business owner. Love them both and consider them different from “crafter.”

  6. Thank you for the rich collaboration you initiate for this community, dM. It is always inspiring, fun and gives me concrete ideas to implement.

    Anyone in MD who would like to explore No. 10, Collaborating, in 2013, I am hoping to work on that one. Without a brick-and-mortar location, my demos have been solely informational or wholesale maintenance events. Previous discussions about events, for example at a restaurant to charge a fee for a ladies lunch and gift set, haven’t solidified. I seem to be great on generating ideas and enthusiasm but need to learn how to close a deal. Would love help!

  7. Wonderful post, Donna. Very well written. I especially liked what you said about about marketing and “Tooting your own horn”. I agree, marketing is essentially doing just that, but like you mentioned you have to master the art of doing it effectively.

    I’ve found that marketing through telling your own story is a great way to sell with out sounding arrogant or self absorbed. You use your story as a analogy to illustrate a point or lesson and lead the end point back to your product or service.

    This is a great way to market and drive a boat load of sales while building a raving fan base of customers. Thanks for sharing you insights on this subject. I appreciate it.


    • Donna Maria Coles Johnson

      Hi Ti, yes, marketing is essential, but like everything else, it requires maintenance. I love the notion of using your story to illustrate. It’s not about using your story to brag. It’s using it as a complement to the products and services people can buy. Nicely put, thanks!

  8. These are great tips. An organized game plan gives way to an organized mind, and makes it easier to achieve one’s goals. I will forward this onto my Facebook and Twitter followers at Sourcing Handmade.

    Happy New Year.

    • Donna Maria Coles Johnson

      Hi Tracy, thanks for swinging by. Thanks also for sharing my article with your community. I am honored, and look forward to answering any questions your tribe may have. Have a super day!

  9. Thank you, dM for the reminder about what it takes to be successful in my handcrafted soap business. I recently invested in myself and my business by joining the local entrepreneurial investment collaborative which will give me the opportunity to work one on one with mentors to hone my brand. I especially like #10 on your list and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with someone in Central Virginia. Again, thank you for your insight and dedication to helping small business owners like me!

  10. Very inpsiring piece, I like the idea of involving family, the same could be said of having a friend partner with you thus creating a sense of accountability. It’s a pity I can’t commit to one discipline and I congradulate those that can and do – much success.

    • Donna Maria Coles Johnson

      Thank you for your comment, Kathy, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. Curious – why can’t you commit to one discipline, and why do you have to? I know you know your situation best, but hope you are inspired to just be and do what makes you happy whatever that is!

  11. Great article! Noticed that you’ve actually given us a bonus as there sre two items numbered seven for a total of eleven. Lucky us! Thanks for the information.

  12. dM – I particularly love tip #3…I often introduce myself as a ‘soapmaker’ – I thought that would be a bit cozier term that the people I meet could hold on to…but in fact, I do more than that. I’m changing my title to meet my 2013 goals! Woohoo!! Thank you as always for illuminating the importance of the smallest detail!

    • So glad this insight was useful to you. A soapmaker can be a hobbyist, so when you identify yourself, if you are a business owner, it’s important to make sure you specify that you are indeed the owner of a business of your own!

  13. Great article will working on implementing these for 2013!!!

  14. Great in depth article. Transitioning from hobby to full time business owner can be a shock to the system. There’s much more than actually creating your products for sale. Also many don’t share there dreams they want to achieve via their handmade business because they feel others wont understand. Some times people don’t believe in what they are doing, which can put doubt in their mind.

    I totally agree with investing in yourself. It’s so important, if you believe in your business then getting the best advice, information from those who can help you further along is a no brainier.

    Blessing Janet

    • Thanks Janet! Yes, investing in yourself is like the big secret you learn as you go. The more you invest in yourself, the more you can invest in your business. The more you invest in your business, the more your business invests in you!

  15. Where’s the article? it’s frustrating to come on here and get the last 2 paragraphs!

  16. Great article. It’s great advice for the novice as well as the seasoned pro.

  17. I like your advice to involve the family and also to identify yourself as a business owner – making the switch in your mind opens you up to so many more possibilities than just concentrating on being a crafter on the fringe of business.

  18. Donna,

    Just when I was feeling overwhelmed by how much there is to do and learn for setting up my business, I stumbled upon your article. I was actually doubting whether “handmade” was even sellable (on an commercial scale), so typed “is handmade small business possible?” into Google and here I am! You have said so much, so succinctly, that I now feel reinvigorated and ready to tackle what’s to come. It IS possible!

    Thank you, thank you.

    I’ve taken notes, watch this space.

    Love Eleni

  19. Thanks for such practical advice! I am going to make use of that, and I already recommended this for my fellow entrepreneurs to read! I agree with #3 and #4, I’ve learnt that mindset from my father who’s a business owner and I personally consider him a coach. I need to work on #6 for a start, it is very important to identify your niche and have a clear and maybe a small target group as a beginning.

  20. I am honestly amazed on how the handmade business has prospered in the last years because of the Internet. I think that people now value art more than ever before.

    • I agree 100%, and I think it is a wonderful thing indeed, not only for the small business community at the local level, but also for the nation as a whole. The economy is strengthened when families have the means to support themselves and design a life they can truly love. Thanks for your feedback and for reading.

      • You’re welcome Donna. I am think that it is good for the small business industry as well as there are now more creative avenues that you can enter.

  21. “If mama is in business, then everybody is in business!”
    Hahahaha so true, so true
    Great article

  22. Also, I have to agree about the adoption of technology. It is essential not only for product promotion but also for the creation of the product. It will make your product look more refined and consistent.

  23. Thank you. Now I feel greatly inspired to move my home industry. I was never comfortable to give myself a professional sound! …but gonna do it from now on

    • It is important to work within a specific niche. This way, there are people waiting for your stuff before you put it out there. For example, stickers are very popular to creative planners. It is a micro niche worth looking into.

  24. i love this post. thank you very much.