Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Ruth and I run Seniman Calligraphy a custom stationery design studio where I do calligraphy, watercolor, illustration, and graphic design for bespoke wedding invitations and other paper goods. Basically, printing and manufacturing.
I teach in-person classes for beginner calligraphy and watercolor. In addition to my custom work, I also turn my artwork into semi-custom invitation suites, notebooks, greeting cards, art prints, and enamel pins.
This year, I’m averaging at $13,000 gross per month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I always loved creating with my hands and I tend to get carried away with presents and cards during the holidays. That being said, I was content that my passion for drawing and painting would be a minor supporting role while I majored in Interior Architecture and worked as an Interior Designer over the next 4 years after I graduated.
So one day when my then boss passive aggressively asked what day I would like to show up for work that week, I told her ‘how about none?’... and never looked back.
It wasn’t until 2015 where I decided to pick up modern calligraphy as a hobby. Upon admiring all the more established calligraphers’, I realize that working on bespoke custom wedding invitations would allow me to do everything I love and at the same time make a living off of it.
After 3 months of regular nightly practice, I decided I was good enough to do other people’s calligraphy work and determined to turn this into my side hustle! So I purchased some colored envelopes at my local stationery store Paper Source, ordered lots of vintage stamps from eBay along with some fresh flowers from my local grocery store. I then took some pretty photos of my envelope addressing. I used the first round of photos on my new Etsy listing, filled my Squarespace website, and started posting regularly on Instagram for my Seniman Calligraphy account.
Working at a small bootstrapped interior design firm at that time, I knew that it’s very unlikely I would be an overnight success. Although the idea of jumping head first and quitting my full-time job to start my own creative small business did not sound very appealing financially. So I set a few goals that I had to achieve in my first year of business to even consider this as a serious path. Those goals were to have 1,000 Instagram followers on my business account, to get featured in the popular wedding blog Style Me Pretty, and to get published in a printed wedding magazine.
With those goals in mind, I spent my first year of business building my portfolio by any means necessary. I started by offering free Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and graduation cards for my friends so I had something to post on my Instagram and website. I also started actively making connections with other calligraphers and wedding professionals on Instagram. I would reach out via DM and like and comment on their posts. These initial conversations eventually turned into relationships. Not long after that, I started to receive inquiries for styled photoshoots. Although the first few shoots didn’t lead to much publicity, it did help me hone in my style and allowed me to get noticed by established vendors.
10 months after I first posted on Instagram, I passed all my goals and then some! I had a little over 2,000 followers on my Instagram, was published in Style Me Pretty and other prestigious wedding blogs, and one of the collaborations even got picked up in a print publication! To make it even sweeter, I was contacted to host a workshop locally where I could keep all the profit. I was well on my way! So one day when my then boss passive-aggressively asked what day I would like to show up for work that week, I told her “how about none?”... and never looked back.
Take us through the process of getting started with your studio.
The first product I made was my foil pressed wedding vow books. I did a photo shoot where the photographer requested a pair of vow books which I made from white faux-leather moleskine. Using the professional photographs, I created an Etsy listing which ended up being my first bestseller. Although I was very excited to finally have a popular listing, each order had to be handmade. That means time-consuming and prone to mistakes. A few months in, I decided to invest in a pre-printed version. For the first year or so, my foil press vow books were made out of moleskine pocket notebooks. This allowed me to order in small batches of 100-200 pairs at a time.
Although the pricing works okay for retail, I wasn’t making a good enough margin for wholesaling. I finally took the leap to custom make them from scratch in late 2018. Considering the minimum order is 500 books per design, this was a significant financial investment for me. But with that, I created my most popular products with the highest margin. That being said, creating my own notebook from scratch had their own set of problems. Lead time is much longer than small batches, storage space can be very tricky, and there are more opportunities for mistakes to happen. For example, half of the notebooks from my first manufactured batch had to be redone because the rounded corners did not meet my standards.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I mentioned earlier how I took pretty photographs of my addressing and “free” projects to have content on my website and Instagram.
When I was first starting out I mainly looked for inspiration on Instagram. Nowadays I try to provide that inspiration I so needed as a fledgling artist. I’ve posted 5 days a week, every week for the last 4 years, which in turn provides followers that turn into loyal customers.
Early on, there was almost no one viewing my posts so I had to work hard to get people to notice. So in addition to posting great content constantly, I would spend hours at night browsing Instagram to find people who I thought would be interested in following my type of account and who I’d like to make a professional connection with. For the first year, all the profits I made went straight back to supplies for my collaboration shoots. Although I opened a business checking account right away, I didn’t need to have a business credit card until I started on Seniman Calligraphy full-time.
Early on, I would book small projects from Etsy, referrals from the local Paper Source, and recommendations from vendors I’ve collaborated with. Nowadays, I book most of my projects from professional referrals and my online presence; but with a much bigger price tag than my very first year.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Instagram has been our biggest driver by far.
I started my Instagram account in April 2015, and have been in tendentially interacting with the community and gaining followers. When I was first starting out I mainly looked for inspiration on Instagram. Nowadays I try to provide that inspiration I so needed as a fledgling artist. I’ve posted 5 days a week, every week for the last 4 years, which in turn provides followers that turn into loyal customers. They respect the consistency and want to buy from someone who displays that dependability.
Video posts have worked really well for me. This wax seal post did great with over 140,000 views within the first few days! It was so awesome to see my hard work pay off. My follower counts spiked and we had a huge increase in website visitors. I’ve been able to get a handful of these relatively viral posts that help me increase my follower count and reach more people. It doesn’t happen every day, but when it does it’s such a great feeling. The thing is that sometimes posts work, sometimes they don’t. It’s up to you to be consistent every day and let the Instagram gods make it shine. I try and remind myself of that when I have a not-so-great post.
Also Etsy. Etsy provides a steady stream of traffic once you start building up your SKU count and gaining 5-star reviews. Hands down, reviews have been one of the major contributors to our success on Etsy. I try and pack every product with a little special touch, whether that be a handwritten note or a free complimentary gift. It’s taking the extra time to provide a little extra that really drives word of mouth and reviews. We’ve never had directly ask for a review, I just try to delight our customers and hope they help us out by leaving a review if they feel inclined. It’s worked and I love reading all of the lovely reviews that people send us. It makes all the hard work that much more meaningful and important.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
July 2019 was our biggest grossing month so far at $20,000, and we’re looking for more ways to grow that number by EOY. We’ve done a pretty good job of diversifying our income streams with a basket of different products and services. From our “day-of” event services to our custom invitation projects and products, I try not to put all of our eggs in one basket. As a business owner, you constantly need to find different ways to make money. Combining services and products has helped us stay profitable and grow at a steady pace.
Sales through our Etsy, online Giftshop and Shopify account for about 15% of our gross earnings. That has been a nice supplement to the core services business.I’m constantly adding to our product line and increasing our SEO presence to help boost our product sales. Although it’s not always the main focus of the business its a consistent income stream with little overhead.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
From a technology perspective, Instagram, Etsy, Squarespace, Shopify and G-suite are platforms I use on a daily basis. I really couldn’t exist without them. They offer us distribution, online portfolio, e-commerce and administration tools all from the comfort of the browser. I spend around $1,500 a year on these tools and they continue to provide all that I need to run a successful small business.
Also, as a design studio, I am constantly using tools and supplies from various vendors that I find on Amazon, Alibaba, or other third-party vendors. I often need to stock up on packing material, envelopes, tape, scissors, you name it. If you can find it in your local Blick art store, there’s a good chance I have it too! All and all our total supply cost is our most expensive operating expense which can range anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 per year.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Anything from Robert Cialdini. You don’t realize until after reading his books that purchasing decisions often times come down to subtle cues and triggers that have a drastic impact on whether the customer has been persuaded enough to trust you and ultimately make a purchase.
After reading his books Influence and Pre-suasion I really started to understand the psychology that goes into commerce and trade. Another great book is Essentialism by Greg McKeown is a great book to read if you feel like your moving in too many directions and need to hunker down and focus.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
First would be figuring out very quickly if this is just a hobby or if you are actually passionate enough to treat it like a real job. Realize that marketing, e-commerce and services is tough! You need to really have a plan and track everything including your expenses, revenue and growth metrics in order to immediately figure out if you have a viable business or not.
Second I’d say build an audience first before sinking too much time and money into products. People don’t buy from strangers online, so the best thing you can do is to start a blog, Instagram, Facebook page, whatever! Follow people that inspire you and interact with them every day for the next two years. You’ll quickly gain traction, meet and collaborate with people that will set you on the right path.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I am not looking to hire anyone at the moment.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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