On Starting An Inspiring Atheists Gifts Brand
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I am Betsy and I run Betsy DeVille at betsydeville.com, an e-commerce business capturing the positive viewpoints of the atheist, humanist, freethinker, lifestyle and expressing them in fashion, accessories, home decor, and gifts.
My most popular items are bracelets and holiday ornaments. I also sell wall art, bags, throw pillows, t-shirts, scarves, and neckties. In the past, I have also offered tea towels and valet trays. I am always adding new things to delight and inspire.
My customers would self-describe as secular, pagan, nonbeliever, rational, humanist, godless, freethinker, universal unitarian, skeptic, agnostic, atheist, and a few more. It is a wide array of folks. Many are living and working in a more monotheistic society and have mixed feelings about speaking freely about their beliefs in rationality, logic, and science, due to the high possibility of being ostracized, disowned, attacked, or worse, by friends, family, employers, and communities.
I try to find spaces where there is more commonality than not. For example, “The world is my country and to do good is my religion.” Thomas Paine.
My income has doubled each year and I estimate I had about $1000 in sales last year. I am also a full time professional in fintech, with a family. I aim to bring two new ornaments to market each year and to expand the brand into another space. This year, it was Instagram and neckties.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up Catholic. I went to Catholic school from elementary through university. While I was in college, I stopped attending mass because I had lost interest in organized religion and had started to question my beliefs. I did not marry in the church but didn’t think about or get active in atheism until I had my first child. I was extraordinarily fortunate to have a healthy child at the right time with the right partner. And when I held my little one in my arms in those first moments I was struck. There was no benevolent being who would protect them. It was me. Everything else felt like a fairytale.
How did this all lead to a business? Let’s fast forward a few years...
When I started Betsy DeVille, I had left my job as Director of Production for an online learning company. I had two young children at home and had recently relocated my mother from several states away because she lived alone and had been diagnosed with possibly alcoholic dementia. We would later learn this was Alzheimer’s. Y’all, it was time!
A friend had gotten tickets to a large atheist event in our city and asked if I would attend with her. I gleefully accepted. We enjoyed the speakers and the camaraderie. While religion = none makes up at least 20% of the U.S. population, we don't have a lot of common symbols to identify ourselves to each other in the way other groups do. And, let’s be honest, atheism is not widely celebrated, and often persecuted in the United States and elsewhere. Several states still have blasphemy laws on the books and in the south, laws are enforced that don’t allow alcohol sales on the Christian sabbath. In other countries, people are put to death.
For many reasons, not all atheists are out and proud. Being surrounded by them was a real treat!
After enjoying the speakers we wandered the conference floor, wallets at the ready, to support our brethren. We found lots of books (I got What You Don’t Know About Religion (But Should). But what we didn’t find was stuff we wanted to see in our homes and wear on our bodies. There were a lot of snarky t-shirts but not much else.
Later, it was my dear friend’s birthday and I wanted to get her something special. So I decided to make it! I have always been a maker and artist. And with this gift idea, I stuck my toe into digital art and BetsyDeVille.com was born.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I wanted to make something we would have bought at the convention. With a lot of help, I designed a repeating fabric print that I had printed and sewed into a scarf. The pattern features a variety of secular, humanist, and atheist quotes from folks throughout history. While some are funny, none are snarky. And all of them make me smile.
To accomplish this, I had to learn a lot! How to use Photoshop, how DPI differs from screen to print, CMYK vs RGB, where one might print custom fabric, which fabric to choose. I sew quite a bit so while the fabric itself was not a big learning curve for me, designing for mass production (on a small scale) was.
I research (and measured) scarf lengths. I considered infinity scarf styles vs. traditional. I thought about how to finish the piece neatly (ladder stitch to the rescue). I started with what sewing folks call a muslin. This is a trial of the pattern to see how it will look finished.
When you open your order from me, I don’t want you to be satisfied, I want you to be absolutely delighted!
In order to get the amount of fabric I needed for her gift, I had to get enough for several. So I had to think about how many yards and how to maximize the number of scarves I would get based on how they were arranged. At this point, I thought I would just try to sell the rest on Etsy and see what happened.
I did research on popular colors (Pantone puts something out every year) along with the color I had chosen that would complement her eyes.
I searched for companies that could print fabric. I read reviews and ordered samples. The first run was around $200 and that felt like a lot of money. I didn’t want to get it wrong.
The first print run arrived and I was so excited! But, it was printed at a funny angle and not entirely usable. I reached out to the manufacturer and they reprinted. For my next run, I tried another printing company and also had to get a reprint since they used the wrong fabric.
Finally, finally, I had a finished scarf!
Describe the process of launching the business.
Setting up an Etsy Shop is not terribly difficult. However, creating a cohesive brand and voice takes ongoing work. I looked to a catalog that I have always enjoyed, Signals. I like that there is a story with each piece and they feel meaningful and tribal. I wanted to replicate something like that. I also knew I would be keeping stock in my home so I avoided anything with sizes.
After the first scarf, I branched out into bracelets. I got blank metal bracelets and found a local laser engraver who could add a quote to it. I also had to learn how to add enamel to ensure the text could be easily read. In the beginning, I added this myself. The end state was beautiful but would not be profitable. But my real goal was testing whether there was an audience for this offering. Those early bracelet designs sold over weeks and months as I learned more about keywords, descriptions, product names, and the deep and ever-changing mysteries of search engine optimization!
Etsy brings a wide audience but that comes at a price. Etsy charges listing prices as well as a portion of profits. I feel like every year they add more fees and obfuscate your margins further. In my opinion, they also make ads harder than they need to be. They do not have a dashboard that gives a true picture of your cost of sale because they separate ads from sales. And, I have had more than one very expensive occasion where I had turned ads off but they somehow magically turned back on.
This year there was an added headache with a recommended (and less expensive) new shipping option they offer through Pitney Bowes that does not play well with all package tracking. This tracking tidbit was not disclosed and there was no recourse (and no support ) from Etsy when a package I had shipped went missing and could not be located. The tracking number that was provided to me and the recipient was not the actual tracking number so the post office could not see their package anywhere in the system after it’s the first checkpoint. But I digress. Etsycomes with a sticker price, be prepared to pay the piper.
Create small goals and celebrate those achievements. If you are a sole proprietor, there won’t be anyone there to tell you, “good job!” So make sure you tell yourself.
I have experimented with Amazon as well. You can set up a brand page on Amazon after jumping through a few hoops. This YouTube video was really helpful.
All items for sale on Amazon require a UPC code. You can buy these in small batches online for varying prices. UPC codes changed in recent years and the older style of less expensive ones worked for me on Amazon. You can only use a UPC code once.
Amazon listings require a processing time that you will be measured by. This can be tough if you are using a print-on-demand service during a busy season like winter holidays. Amazon tracks your shipment for each sale and a clock starts ticking as soon as the order comes in to ensure it is shipped on time. They send reminder emails about items that have not yet shipped. I have sweated this on more than one occasion.
In order to be offered/qualify for a spot in the coveted Fulfilled by Amazon spot, you need to have shown sales volume and good service. I have not yet unlocked this achievement as I have not had a lot of Amazon sales yet. This spot will put your items as the featured result and will offer 2-day shipping from the warehouse. You can also work toward qualifying for Seller provided 2-day shipping.
Amazon also has Amazon Merch - a print on demand for t-shirts and a few other things. They have great pricing for sellers and a pretty easy interface. You can place your Merch items into your brand site so you have your whole offering in one place. Merch items will come up in search and have free shipping for Amazon Prime members but do not have 2-day shipping. Once your design is listed, you will get notifications that Amazon is sending you money or that you had no sales and your item was removed.
Amazon has a Handmade substore. Submission requires you to include photos of your home workshop and descriptions of how you make your items. I submitted my scarf but I was not accepted so I can’t comment on how that works as an alternative to Etsy. It will be interesting to watch it grow.
Product photos were also an area where I had to learn a lot. At first, I used more colorful textured backgrounds because I wanted to try to differentiate between the photos (what was I thinking??) Now, I typically use a bathroom with additional lighting and white background. Bathrooms typically have a glossier paint finish that can help bounce light around. Mirrors help too. The background I use the most is an old white satin bathrobe I got from my college boyfriend laid over a box and taped up on the mirror. I tried using my big Canon but I find I get good enough photos using my Pixel 3. I just invested in a halo light and am looking forward to retaking product photos.
White backgrounds are useful for a lot of reasons. They make color balancing easier. They are also useful because if you sell on Amazon, white backgrounds are required. You will also find that many of the print-on-demand services offer a mock-up with a white background. This helps the catalog look cohesive even if the items are coming from different places.
After some time on Etsy, I decided to also start a website. I stayed very lean and did not want to have monthly costs. Shopify had not yet gained the traction it has since and, in fact, my miserly, DIY ways have probably cost me some growth. I had an existing hosting arrangement with GoDaddy because my spouse has a website. I was able to use that arrangement and only had to invest in registering the domain and getting an SSL certificate. I use Wordpress and WooCommerce for my site. Wordpress offers free eCommerce themes and I do all my own design otherwise. I was a web developer in the early days of the internet (before I went into management) so I know enough to figure out what questions I need to ask if something is not working, but I am by no means an expert.
I would also note that I am leaving GoDaddy in the months to come. I have found that every tech support call turns into an upsell and they make it very difficult to add, say, SSL certificates, from outside.
I did not take out any loans or use a credit card to finance, I just went very, very slowly. I put $1000 into a separate bank account, filed the DBA, and opened a business credit, it gets paid off every month. Everything runs off of that card, and that bank account so it is easy to see where I am overall if I don’t assign value to the unsold stock. I test ideas, decide how I can determine whether something has been a success, and test more ideas. I still use this model today.
One area I have not tackled let alone mastered is inventory. For items that are not printed on-demand, I keep inventory in my home. Tracking that accurately across systems is hard and I have not found a good solution.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
As you have gathered, Betsy DeVille is more than a brand and a shop, it is an extension of me and my world view. One of the things that are important to me is the connection non-believers feel with each other. Getting somewhat active on Instagram has been helpful as it has to produce content. (did I mention I have a family and I work full time?)
I have written two series about the secular connections in spring and winter holidays (Easter and Christmas) that have been well received. I also publish atheist/ secular/ humanist quotes from people that folks may not realize were non-believers. For me, it helps me feel less alone and I hope it does that for readers too. In the future, I hope to be more successful in interacting with a tribe and helping them connect with one another.
I find my articles on holidays are really helpful to folks with a young family that may have grown up in organized religion, are now non-believers, and are trying to determine how holidays will work in their family. I know that place and am happy to share my experience and provide some history for them to build on. When I had young toddlers, I did not have the luxury of time to spend researching the secular origins of holidays but I wanted my littles to enjoy the thrill of finding hidden eggs! I get it! I also understand families that don’t celebrate any spring holiday. Everyone gets to make their own choices. That’s the beauty of it all!
When you open your order from me, I don’t want you to be satisfied, I want you to be absolutely delighted! I include a personal, handwritten thank you note with each order I ship. This note includes a request for a review and gives my email address in case something is not as they had hoped. I aim to provide really great, really personal customer service. I want folks to feel happy with their purchase and recommend my shop to a like-minded friend. I want them to come back next year to buy the next ornament or find the perfect gift for someone special.
I also include other unexpected things, like an author card that gives a brief biography of the person the quote came from, as well as a portrait and a few other quotes. More recently, I have added stickers with quotes that I got when Sticker Mule offered a deal. (definitely worth subscribing to them if you need these types of things as they often offer great deals.)
I offer a variety of items and have had several customers return to buy more.
During the winter holidays, I sell ornaments. (many Atheists do Christmas too, or Solstice, or New Years) I have found good success with those and have lots of folks come back each year to buy the newest designs.
I have gotten better about outsourcing as my ideas have grown and my time has not. I have hired artists on Fiverr for parts of my pieces rather than trying to tackle them myself. This has been really delightful! When I was working on the concept for The world is my country and to do good is my religion. I started with a vector image of a globe. The artist used Africa as the center and I loved it! In the United States, we almost always see North America as the center point and I loved that this artist did not. I loved that my own mindset was challenged by the piece and customers did too.
One thing I don’t think has been as successful is buying ads. The mishmash of ad buying - Google Ad Words, Etsy, Facebook Ads, etc. seems to drive traffic - but not sales. And it gets expensive very quickly. I have the best luck with slow growth and social media.
Two years ago I started pushing into print on demand so I did not have to invest in or keep inventory but I could still test ideas. I try to offer things you can’t find everywhere. I want everything to feel like quality, not a tourist tchotchke.
I also branched in t-shirts. They are a common search and while not my main focus, round out the offering well and can bring in folks who start out looking for a t-shirt and end up buying a bracelet later. T-shirts are also the easiest entry into print on demand. There are many very generous YouTubers who review different print-on-demand companies and their t-shirts. Depending on your risk tolerance, this can save you the time and money of ordering samples. Many companies offer more than one shirt at more than one price point and various colors.
One thing I have struggled with is keeping the brand cohesive across multiple channels. Using Printify, for example, I can offer a Bella Canvas shirt in let’s say, 6 colors. But, Amazon Merch may have a slightly different palette of colors. And, from time to time, Printify (or whomever) will have to drop a certain color or a certain size in that color and you have to re-jigger it all. This is fine except when you want to make a graphic featuring the t-shirt and use a color that the channel does not offer. Or stops offering. Did I mention I wanted to avoid sizes??
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I am satisfied with the growth I have had. Sales have at least doubled every year and I have no shortage of inspiration. I read a lot of biographies about secular folks and keep a massive list of quotes and sources to inspire work. I keep an ideas folder full of sketches and ideas.
Where I often get stuck is with production. I think about how to produce volume instead of how to produce one, and see if it sticks. I also get so stuck on solutions an idea that I have to let it sit for a while and come back to it later. Inspiration comes at the strangest times!
I lose confidence and I lose steam on things - sometimes I will have an error on my website for weeks before I find the time and solution and get it fixed.
Last year, I was aiming to create a line sheet for wholesale but didn’t get there. I will try again this year. I think my ornaments could be really successful and I have a few paths for scaling production on those.
Most of my sales are still through Etsy. I include a link to my website and a mention of the articles in every order and get new subscribers that way. It is a violation of Etsy policy to offer better pricing or discounts directly to Etsy shoppers so I do not do that. If I offer a discount code, I am sure to have it work on both Etsy and my website. Folks who like my work are great at sharing with their friends and I have a few folks who are regular purchasers.
I also work to stay connected to like-minded folks in online communities. As an atheist, my own children have gotten really negative comments and been in uncomfortable situations because our family does not attend church. Like many families, it is one thing if I have to face consequences for my beliefs but I cannot in good conscience allow that to happen to a child. So in our immediate neighborhood, it is not widely known that I run an atheist gift shop.
Every year I do giveaways as part of a fundraiser for a nationwide community of atheist families. During the winter holidays, religious families may get support from their church but many atheists do not have that community. Some churches prefer to target their immediate community and no one wants to misrepresent themselves to have a better holiday. So, we try to come together to help our community members who may be in a tough spot that year (or every year) so they can celebrate (or not) the way they choose.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
It is always good to learn from other’s mistakes so that we can make new ones! I will keep making mistakes and learning from my failures. The thing I try to remember when I am struggling, which is often, is this: For every hurdle you jump, five other people gave up. So stick with it. Hard things are hard. If this was easy, everyone would do it. By some measures, 90% of startups fail.
A few fun stories of failure were around the valet tray I came up with. I had seen them in catalogs and thought it would be a great gift. Anyone could enjoy it, and, no sizes to keep in stock! I created a pattern, printed on white linen canvas fabric, did the sewing and hardware and added a coat of a fabric-safe wax called Otterwax that adds waterproofing to fabrics, I had read a lot of reviews and like that they are a small business.
Otterwax makes a great product that does what it says. However, what was not included in any of the reviews or labeling is that it yellows over time. I finished the valet trays and packed them neatly in a bin with tissue paper in between them. No one ordered one (more on that in a bit). When I finally got an order, I opened my neatly packed box and the beautiful, crisp white linen valet trays were yellowed from the wax. Ugh. I tried several laundry tricks, contacted Otterwax (super responsive, super friendly, the yellowing is a known issue with the wax that is just not labeled anywhere.) to no avail. I had to reach out to the customer and cancel the order.
The B side of that failure also worthy of reflection was that I only got one order. There was no interest. Now, I still think a valet tray is a cool gift but as I was excitedly researching for sewing patterns, I should have paid attention to the fact that they have lots of different names, jewelry tray, ring tray, valet tray… and, atheist valet tray is just too obscure. For now.
I have built the habit of getting up an hour early to tackle things I can do in smaller bites, like processing orders to ship, or this interview. I need larger blocks of time to accomplish something that requires deeper thinking and problem-solving.That often happens on Friday nights. Which also means, I don’t go out much. I keep a pretty tightly regimented sleep and exercise schedule and build everything around that. Friday is the rare night I stay up past 10 so my body clock says, “good morning,” well before 6 most mornings. I rarely drink alcohol so I can make the most of my hours. (I think I fall into that category of disciplined.) I am always balancing work, family, and work. There is no easy formula. Just do the work.
I am lucky in that I have a bottomless well of interest in my theme and love learning new historical facts about how far back atheism goes in humanity. I really enjoyed Sapiens and the author’s theories about religion evolving from large social groups needing to easily suss out who was like them and worthy of trust. I also love the research aspect of finding new thinkers and writers to learn about. One area I am really drawn to is women freethinkers. I am using the term freethinker because, in the days of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that was a common word to describe non-believers.
I also find interest in the murky areas of grey that surround everyone. In particular, I recently read a biography of Leonardo DaVinci. DaVinci was most likely a deist but did not believe in much of what the church at that time offered. He said, “Take no miracles on trust, always look for causes.” That is a great quote and really resonates with me. But, in the biography, the author also notes that DaVinci had at least one, and perhaps several boys and young men as companions over time. One was a child and as a victim of childhood abuse, it really turned my stomach. So there is the area of grey around him that I wrestle with. Most folks are familiar with some of his art and he is also well known as a Renaissance Man. But, it seems he was likely also a pedophile. So what do we do with that? Mona Lisa is the most well-known portrait in the world.
Another thing that can happen, and will happen, is stuff just breaking. Your connections between your website and your order fulfillment will be working fine one day and then, an update later, everything is broken. One day your Facebook Store is fine, the next, it’s broken. The ads you turned off are magically on again and you get a $100 credit card bill you were not expecting. As a sole proprietor, I am also tech support and the buck stops here.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As mentioned, I use Etsy and WordPress with WooCommerce for my web presence. I also use Amazon and Merch by Amazon.
I have a few connections to Google AdWords through Etsy and betsydeville.com.
When I am making Instagram images for my blog posts, I use Canva.
I use Unsplash and Pixabay for images.
I use Facebook to connect with my community and to host shopping. I have not had wild success with Facebook sales.
I use Hootsuite to manage scheduled posts to Instagram and Facebook.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Maker’s Row is a great website that allows smaller manufacturers and service providers in the United States to share their capabilities. Sometimes, finding a company to make a prototype can be hard. They are a great resource.
Late Night Internet Marketing is a podcast that I have really gotten a lot from. Not all of the episodes are relevant to my work but the host is friendly and knowledgeable. And who among us can’t identify with the title! I have learned so much from his generosity.
The Jam with Marmelead podcast: Marmelead is an Etsy specific tool that grades your listings and helps you make your stuff more findable. If you have read anything about Etsy, they often change how their search works and you can be a top result one week and gone the next. It can (and does) feel disheartening. This tool and information helpful!
Big Magic A recent book by Elizabeth Gilbert about setting aside fear and letting your creativity thrive. I have been reading this with my nine-year-old at bedtime and we are digging it.
Do It! Let’s Get Off Our Buts by Peter McWilliams was a book I read way back in high school and it is still on my shelf today!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
- Be gentle with yourself. If this was easy, everyone would do it.
- Give yourself time to find your rhythm, the stories you read about overnight success were usually preceded by years of hard work and failure.
- Create small goals and celebrate those achievements. If you are a sole proprietor, there won’t be anyone there to tell you, “good job!” So make sure you tell yourself.
- No one is a better advocate for your businesses’ best interests than you. Etsy, Amazon, Shopify, are in this to make money. Make sure you put yourself first.
- Align incentives when negotiating contracts. Make it a win-win for everyone.
- It is ok to say* no* to a vendor. It is ok to say this isn’t good enough for a vendor. It is ok to escalate until you get what you need. Your business is worth it. You are worthy.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I am not hiring. But, I am looking for fellow makers to help with prototyping!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Betsy DeVille has provided an update on their business!
Over 1 year ago, we followed up with Betsy DeVille to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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