This is a follow up story for Engravers Guild. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published over 4 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
Hi, I’m Elliot, the founder of Engravers Guild of London. I’m a repeat offender on Starter Story and have pretty much charted my entire business journey each year since our launch in 2017. You can find the previous contribution here.
To distill those articles…we’re a personalized gifts business with ambitions to be a leading destination in the UK for beautiful gifts. We sell everything from personalized gin glasses to personalized wallets, with our expert engravers giving everything a personal touch.
I launched the business in my parents’ dining room with a Windows ‘95 engraving machine, and have been working to grow the business ever since.
Today, we’re a full-time team of eight, with various freelancers and agencies supporting our operation as well. We’ve managed to almost double in size each year and have been passing the $200k mark for the last few months.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to. Has the business been growing?
We’ve always wanted to be a creative-led, multi channel business. For a long time, that seemed like a very lofty ambition - especially considering we hadn’t even posted a picture on Instagram till last year.
However, we have spent much more effort over the last 12 months in diversifying our sales and improving our content. I’ve detailed each in turn below.
For us, this was a big task as we only had a handful of images (literally, 6 or 7) that weren’t just product shots on a white background. But, obviously, serious e-comm players are pumping out new content 24 hours a day, so we always felt we had to up our game.
We took a two-prong approach to the challenge:
- Improve our in-house capability: we were lucky that some office space next door to our workshop became available, and so we took that on as our photography studio. We’ve been employing a photographer full-time for much of the last year, and we’ve worked to create our own visual language.
- External photo shoots: we did a straight studio shoot with two models in London. And, we coincided with a long-awaited holiday in Barbados with a photo shoot there. In the UK, we found the biggest cost was potentially the models when going through an agency. The killer for us was that we would only have a license to use the images for about 12 months unless we paid enormous usage fees. So instead, we used StarNow to find our talent, and I thought the process was pretty good - I tried a few different platforms, and this one was definitely the best.
It would probably be easiest for me to break down what we’ve been up to on this front:
- Additional stores : We’ve launched a dedicated proposition for silver lockets and personalised necklaces. We offer a very similar selection to the ones on Engravers Guild, but we have spun them out into their own brands so we can focus more content on particular communities who may be interested in these categories.
- Email: The online consensus very much seems to be that Email Marketing is low-hanging fruit, even referred to as a “cash machine”. So this was a priority for us, as we had no email activity whatsoever. The reason for our delay with emails was that a) I had never been deliberate enough in getting my head around an email platform, and b) our pool of assets to use in emails was non-existent. Having now negotiated this second issue, we decided to overcome the first by simply hiring an agency. We’ve now generated tens of thousands of dollars through email, and I know for certain that I wouldn’t have sent a single email without the agency.
- Social: We’ve taken on a freelancer to manage our Pinterest, Instagram, and TikTok accounts. It’s early days, but it’s good to see activity happening there now.
- SEO: Having managed to get our Domain Authority to 23 by engaging with bloggers, we were struggling to get much further. So, we’re experimenting with a Digital PR agency to see if they can move the needle.
- Marketplace selling: With an online inventory, we thought we might as well put it on Etsy and NotOnTheHighStreet. It’s a time-consuming process to re-list all your products, but once they’re up then they’re there to make money for you (in theory).
What have been your biggest challenges in the last year?
I can go through each of the points in my previous answer:
1) Additional Stores
Our previous thinking was to keep spinning out new micro-stores with niche offers while making use of the infrastructure we had already developed for the wider Engravers Guild business.
However, building a new site takes a LOT of time. Unless you have unlimited resources, it’s easy to be distracted from your core offer and where the real opportunity lies.
Everyone talks about email like it’s free. But, it does cost money - in my view, quite a lot of money! Our Klaviyo subscription alone is $15,000 a year (since their price increased). And, either you have to pay an agency a lot of money to manage it for you; or, you have to be putting enormous resources into creating new imagery and content to do it.
When you add up all the costs, I think our business is of the size which puts us just on the boundary of the activity even being worthwhile. Your dashboard might show that you’re making 10s of $1,000s of sales, but the cold financials may tell another story.
I’m not the first one to ask it, but… is Instagram dead? We were way behind the curve in adopting the platform, and I wonder now if we’re just too late (in terms of organic content). I remember the time when businesses were built on posting organic content to Facebook, but now those days are well and truly gone and I think the same thing may be happening on Instagram.
My initial impression of our activity on Instagram is that it’s just impossible to build any following without putting lots of money behind it. So, to that end, I wonder if we just don’t bother with updating our feed all the time with average content - instead, put all the resources into just four brilliant adverts and simply run those.
Anything else is a waste of time. Users are so inundated with utterly fantastic content from their friends, it’s practically impossible to cut through from a standing start in 2022. That’s my working theory at the moment, but it’s still early days.
Again, the same question… is SEO dead? I used to enviously look at companies in the No.1 spot on Google, and just imagine the riches that they were amassing from that position. But now, we do rank No.1 for some keywords with monthly impressions of 5,000-10,000, and the click-throughs are derisory.
We’re talking like 30-50 clicks. It takes an unbelievable amount of effort to push yourself up the rankings, and it costs a lot of money. Is it worth it? Instead, you could just take that money and put it into paid ads.
I believe that’s certainly the expectation of Google. They load the tops of their pages with so many ads and snippets, that you sometimes have to scroll down two screens on mobile to even reach the organic stuff.
5) Marketplace selling
My feeling with many marketplaces (excluding Amazon and eBay) is that established players are able to compound their position.
Moreover, the platforms saw enormous increases in sellers during Covid and now it feels like it was a lot of work for the so few sales that come through. And, the frustration is that I’m not sure what we can do to get us further up the rankings.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
I follow quite a few companies and feel that I have a pretty good awareness of the players in my industry. What’s clear, though, is that no matter how capable an entrepreneur is, so much of their success or failure is down to Happenchance.
Over the last couple of years through Covid, many online businesses boomed, for reasons that the business owners couldn’t really be credited for. Equally, I’ve seen some brilliant upstart companies go to the wall in the last year for unlucky reasons beyond their control.
For example, the change in the privacy settings for Facebook advertising impacted some really brilliant online brands; unfortunately for some, due to where they were in their growth trajectory and business development, the overnight change was too much for them to ride.
To take the case of Engravers Guild, we were lucky that Covid came at a point in our trajectory where we could respond to the new business landscape. We were able to invest in the stock and take on people - should it have happened a year earlier, I’m not sure we’d have had the structure to make the most of the market conditions.
So, my lesson would be to not be too pleased with yourself when a business goes well; and not be too hard on yourself when a business doesn’t go well.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
We expect the next year to be tough. Not only are online retailers competing with the high street again as covid restrictions end, but we’re staring down the barrel of some disturbing economic forecasts.
Don’t get trapped into trying to be a certain type of business in a market where the ship has already sailed.
Speaking for the UK, it’s clear we’re hurtling into a cost of living crisis, and consumers are being more careful with their spending. Market leaders in our industry are predicting declines of about 20%; and, at Engravers Guild, we can see our average order value declining. Baked on top of that, we have the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. In these conditions, it’s very easy to decimate your margins.
Therefore, our focus through this period is to try and consolidate our gains over the last few years. By this, we’ll be trying to work with our existing customer base more, persevering with things like social media and email, but also overlaying it with things like direct mail.
What’s the best thing you read in the last year?
The Sunday Times Fast Track 100. This is a list of the 100 fastest-growing private companies in the UK. The specificity of this list is not what’s important, but it’s the idea of reading profiles of the best-performing businesses all in one place.
There is always likely to be a company in these lists which shares characteristics with your own business, and it shows you what is possible.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
When starting a business, it’s easy to follow your interests - that’s natural, and usually, that’s a good starting point.
But, what’s also very easy to do is to try and emulate those businesses you already admire in that space.
What I’m increasingly feeling is that businesses’ blueprints for success, though, are grounded very much in their first origins. And, it’s almost impossible to re-create a comparable proposition when the market has moved on.
To try and give some context to this… in my few years in business, I’ve seen opportunities open up for people to lay the foundations for brilliant businesses. But, I have also seen many of those same opportunities close (or, at least, become much MUCH harder).
For example, for a time, businesses could drive enormous sales just by posting organic content on Facebook. Later, highly effective and really cheap Facebook adverts created millionaires aplenty. Then, we all know what free Instagram posts were capable of achieving. But, those heady days are now not what they were.
So, to look to those companies who started two or three years ago and think “I’ll do that too”... might lead to problems. There’s no way you’ll be able to build that same customer base when your acquisition costs are 12x more than when your competitor started.
We’ve made that mistake at Engravers Guild, thinking we could emulate our market leaders. However, those companies were able to get to a position of dominance in an entirely different context, appealing to a certain customer. We can’t then compete with them on their playing field.
In conclusion, make sure you don’t get trapped into trying to be a certain type of business in a market where the ship has already sailed. Instead, try to find a new way of operating in an old market, and you could become a business to be proud of in your own right.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Engravers Guild has provided an update on their business!
About 1 year ago, we followed up with Engravers Guild to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Over 2 years ago, we followed up with Engravers Guild 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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