Anything can be bought or sold, particularly with the current state of our incredible online marketplace.
And people are making money doing it, too– lots of money. On top of that, with sites like society6, pinterest, redbubble, and storenvy, anyone with a craft room or Adobe Photoshop can join in on the money-making machine.
So that’s what I did– erm, well, tried to do. As an art student, I wanted to join the ranks by selling my designs online, particularly in the form of t-shirts. I did my research of different sites, did the math on my possible profit margins, figured out how much I could afford to invest without breaking the bank, and then I dove right in. I invested $500 into a bundle of screen-printed t-shirts, hoping to make at least $750 back in profit. So far, I’ve made $75.
I’ve learned a lot, though, and certainly don’t consider it a failure (I have the rest of my life to make my money back, after all. I’ll only be a failure after I’m dead.)
Today, I want to dig my teeth into 5 of the most important lessons I learned, in the hopes of guiding someone else who might be in a similar position as mine.
1. Find Your Market, and Thoroughly Investigate It
Obviously, my designs were the only ones like them when I put them up into my online store. No one else was offered what I was offering– except, in a lot of ways, they were. Artists from all over the world have their work online now, that’s no surprise, and in terms of my designs, there was nothing particularly significant about them (other than they were cool and appealed to a certain niche of people).
My main problem in this instance was this: the market I was attempting to infiltrate was already saturated to its core, so much so that even if it were to be wrung out like a wet cloth, it would remained soaked. Everyone and their grandma was trying to sell shirts, mousepads, art prints, notebooks, all with the same idea in mind, and for one singular voice to be heard over the rest of the noise, certain tactics had to be employed– tactics I was not prepared or experienced enough to pursue.
The solution here is to make yourself stand out from the rest, to make your voice louder than the others. Whether it be through advertisement, word of mouth, or creating an original product that no one else has attempted to market before, you have to find a way to incorporate a megaphone into your shouting.
2. Don’t Start Until You’re Able To Dedicate 90% Of Your Time To It
(The other 10% allows room for snack and bathroom breaks.)
While I 100% agree that starting a business in college is a smart thing to do, and I know I couldn’t have chosen a better time for myself in terms of available resources, being a student was also the chip in my armor.
After investing my initial time and money into this endeavor, I found that suddenly, I didn’t have the means for upkeep– in reference to time for advertising, time for site building, time for anything, really. A part of me was been hoping I’d be one of the lucky few, and my works would take off into the stratosphere, and I’d wake up an instant millionaire– but, as I said, that’s reserved for the lucky few, and I was not one of them.
On top of this, I didn’t even know how to build a buyer-base. While I had a bit of a following on my art blogs, it was nothing to justify how much money I spent and how much I was expecting to get back (particularly when considering, most of my fanbase probably consists of unemployed teens still living at home with their parents.)
Because of this, my little t-shirt nook on the internet sat vacant, dust collecting on the banners and store links. This leads me to my next point:
3. Don’t Expect Overnight Success
Even now, months later, I occasionally head back to my page to see if I’ve gotten anymore new views. I see the plastic bin in the back of my closet smashed full of unpurchased t-shirts, t-shirts I once fantasized about people wearing on lunch dates in Tokyo or on the runway during New York Fashion Week.
I think my main setback here was, I was putting a lot of work into all of this– finding free storefronts that would respect my artistic copyright, finding the best local screenprinter in town, even putting a lot of thought into packaging and thank-you emails that would automatically spawn when someone made a purchase. I thought karma would have my back, and I’d be an instant success.
Of course, anyone familiar with the small business world (particularly those who have personal experience in the feeding-frenzy that is making a living as an artist online), knows that this is unrealistic. If you don’t already have a fanbase drooling over your works with money in their hands, you’ll have to work to find it. You’ll have to spend time– days, weeks, months, showing people why your product is worth their money, spreading the word about your store and your awesome product, whether it be online or in the real world. You might have to repost your advertisements multiple times a day to multiple social networks, you might have to jimmy your prices, you might have to incorporate different products than what was originally planned to garner the attention of an audience.
While those lucky few certainly do exist, and while there’s always a chance you might be one of them, there’s also something weirdly calming to know that even the most successful business people once started exactly at the lowest-ladder rung as you are. If Steve Jobs can bring Apple computers to life in his garage, you can probably start an online store from your computer chair.
4. There’s No Shame In Family Being Your First Customers
As it was when your grade school drawings ended up in the hall of fame known as the kitchen fridge, it will be when your family members are the first to make purchases at your small business. Whether it’s selling some form of art online, or opening a corner grocery store, the likely truth is that for a while, your best (and possibly only) customers are going to be your family and friends– particularly if they were investors in your budgeoning entrepreneurship. Of all the people in the world who want to see you succeed, for a long time that group might consist solely of your family, until, at least, you gain any kind of other viewership outside of them.
5. Don’t Give Up If (and When) Things Go South
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics stated, “About half (50%) of all new establishments survive five years or more and about one-third (33%) survive 10 years or more. As one would expect, the probability of survival increases with a firm’s age. Survival rates have changed a little over time.”
While that may seem like a scary number, keep in mind that in this case, what constitutes as “failed” isn’t specified. In these terms, of the 50% who “failed”, 33% were actually closed down due to financial straits or legal complications, while 17% were actually successful and closed down voluntarily. If you ask me, that’s a far cry from being a “failure.”
The Bureau also states, however, that the leading cause for failure in the first two years is simply lack of experience. And so, with every failed business venture, there’s room to grow, whether you start it up again at a later date with more knowledge under your belt, or you take a stab at other options. A failed small business doesn’t condemn you to the life of an office worker, under the thumb of someone else. You’re not permitted only a one-punch punchcard for small-business attempts.
Another Thing To Keep In Mind
Another aspect of small business failure includes a manager’s inability to keep up with bookkeeping, production, and other seemingly simple tasks, which become more difficult to juggle as a customer base increases. Be sure to research not only ways to start your business, but also best practices in helping it transition into a larger enterprise as gracefully as possible (particularly by utilizing online and other digitals tools at your disposal, such as management systems, bookkeeping apps, etc.)
Meanwhile, I’ll continue peddling my t-shirts to friends and coworkers. If that doesn’t work out, maybe I’ll make a quilt. The most expensive quilt in the world. (Just kidding.)