How I Started A Successful Side Business Cleaning Animal Skulls

$2,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
1
Employees
product
Dermestidarium
from Dallas, Oregon
started January 2014
$2,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
1
Employees
1.82K
followers

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

I'm Carla Brauer, the founder and owner of Dermestidarium. My business uses flesh-eating beetles (yes, you heard that right!) to clean animal bones for display.

Those pristine looking skeletons you see in museums or bright white skulls hanging from walls didn't get to look that nice without a little help, and that's where I come in.

Most of my clients are hunters who use my service to preserve the skull of an animal they harvest as a memento of their hunt, but I also frequently work with pet owners who want to memorialize their beloved pet after they pass away by keeping their skull, other special bones or even the whole skeleton. I've also worked with museums and educational institutions, and when I find the time I clean up some skulls for retail sales.

My business started as hobby, and I didn't have high hopes of turning it into a business. One of the first people I told about my idea told me I was crazy, and that no one would ever pay me to clean skulls. But over time word spread about what I was doing and more and more people asked to hire me. What started as a hobby grew into a busy side-hustle, and more recently became my primary work.

It turns out my crazy business idea wasn't crazy after all, as each year my client base grows, and I've been featured on podcasts, Business Insider, and just gave my first TEDx talk at the beginning of this year!

how-i-started-a-successful-side-business-cleaning-animal-skulls

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

The first time it occurred to me to clean a skull was over 10 years ago, when I was interning at a goat meat ranch to learn about sustainable farming.

We were harvesting some of the older bucks for meat, and they had long, beautiful horns. It seemed like such a waste to discard what I knew could be a beautiful and fascinating skull, so I tried to clean it. I had NO idea what I was doing, and it turned out to be a mess. But the idea stuck with me, and as I continued working with livestock I ended up with the occasional skull to attempt to clean.

Give yourself the opportunity to try and the room to fail. Take calculated risks, have backup plans, avoid debt wherever possible, and measure success by the value your business is bringing to your life, not by your perception of how well other people are doing.

I finally got serious enough to bring in some assistants. Several thousand, actually. I mail-ordered a box of Dermestid beetles, the type of flesh-eating beetle that forensic scientists use to clean bones when investigating crime scenes. With the help of my new creepy crawly friends, I honed my craft to produce the best possible results. There's a lot more to the process than just the beetles' work, and because every specimen is unique, I'm always finding new challenges and ways to improve my process.

how-i-started-a-successful-side-business-cleaning-animal-skulls Dermestid Beetles

When people meet me now, they usually assume I've spent my whole life living in the country, working with farm animals and hunting, as I do today.

But the truth is that my background couldn't be more different - I grew up in a big city, and spent many of my younger years as a vegan animal rights activist. While animals and the ethics of what we eat have always been important to me, my relationship to those things has changed as I've learned and grown over my lifetime. My transition from being vegan to becoming the farming, hunting, bone cleaning person I am today was the subject of my TEDx talk, which you can find here.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Like I mentioned earlier, my first attempt at bone cleaning was a total disaster.

Thanks to the internet, you can find all kinds of theories on the best ways to clean skulls. Boiling, burying, chemicals, ant hills, vultures, pressure washers - the list is only limited by imagination. So when I decided to be more serious about bone cleaning, I fell back on the one thing we can rely on to sort the information from the mis-information: science.

I studied the composition of bones, and learned how different substances and temperatures affect them. I tried experiments on skulls that I could risk damaging. I learned how to create the ideal environment for my beetle minions to do their best work.

Even after I developed a process that I was happy with, it was far too slow. So I had to find ways to accelerate my process without causing any damage - not an easy task, and even with my best efforts my work still takes time and my clients very kindly accept a 6-month turnaround window for custom work.

But considering I have literally hundreds of skulls come through my door in the span of a few months during hunting season, that turnaround time feels like nothing short of a miracle compared to where I was at a few years ago!

how-i-started-a-successful-side-business-cleaning-animal-skulls Delicate bones like these nasal turbinates (inside of the nose) are easily destroyed with the wrong process.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Starting Dermestidarium was a slow but steady process. It's not as sexy as a VC-funded overnight success narrative, but I'm really happy with how the business grew and wouldn't do it any other way. I've always been financially conservative and the only loan I've ever taken out was for our home, so it wasn't even a thought in my mind to do anything other than self-finance my business.

Like so many other entrepreneurs, I've struggled a lot with self-doubt and imposter syndrome. This was not helped by how strange and different my business was. But the first step to starting a successful business is just starting.

The startup costs were very manageable - a few hundred to purchase beetles and set their environment up, an inexpensive used chest freezer to store specimens, some storage totes and minimal special equipment. I had some experience in graphic and web design, so I was able to create my own branding with only needing to pay for the basics of web hosting and printing costs.

As the business grew, so did my investment into it. Space is a big issue when you have elk and deer skulls coming in sometimes over a dozen a day during my busy season. So I purchased a few outbuildings that I had installed on our property, including a walk-in cooler. And with greater volume and improved processes, the general cost of doing business has gone up significantly. That volume, however, is what keeps it profitable.

The best asset I think any business owner can have is the ability to quickly learn new skills and the bravery to try new things. I've kept a lot of my expenses down by learning to do things myself - from maintaining my own website to doing plumbing and electrical work. I'm a big fan of "insourcing" - but I do understand the necessity of hiring help when it saves time that could be spent on more important things and, maybe more importantly, your sanity.

how-i-started-a-successful-side-business-cleaning-animal-skulls The first building I purchased for the business. It felt very large at the time - I have since expanded and may need to again!

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

The single most important growth factor in my business has been word-of-mouth. Aside from maintaining a web presence and active social media accounts, I don't spend a lot of time or energy advertising. The most valuable thing I can do to grow my business is to create a great product for my clients. I'm lucky to have a strong hunting community in my area, and a lot of really amazing customers who come back year after year and are kind enough to refer their friends to me.

I've found Instagram to be by far the best tool for showcasing and spreading awareness of my work on social media. I focus on engagement over growth and I tend to break the “rules” and only post when I have something genuinely interesting or beautiful to share, even if that means I only post a few times a month. My engagement rate is around 8%, and I’ve found that people really enjoy seeing the “weird” things that come in, like this black bear skull with a broken canine tooth:

how-i-started-a-successful-side-business-cleaning-animal-skulls

The visual nature of IG lends well to what I do, and it's a great way to connect with non-local people who are outside of my usual customer network. I work with people from all over the country who find me through social media and are willing to ship specimens to me.

I do less retail sales now than I ever have - mainly because I get so busy with custom work - but I do occasionally have skulls to sell, and each year I make and sell little bird skull Christmas ornaments that are real skulls coated in silver or bronze. They've proven quite popular and usually sell out quickly, and a portion of the sales are donated to a wildlife conservation oriented charity. The regularity of that sales event has turned it into a tradition that a lot of my customers look forward to.

My mindset around marketing has always been that if you create something wonderful, unique and valuable, and put it out into the world, clients will find you. Or they won't, and that may mean you need to spend more time reevaluating what you're offering than flooding people with ads. I can tell you exactly what I've spent on advertising in the past 5 years. $20. I thought I'd give running a Facebook ad a try last year. I got a few new likes and one long-distance client out of it, so it more than paid for itself. I suppose a person could grow their client list with ads like that, but it wasn't really for me.

My "technique" may seem like a recipe for despair for someone just starting out, and it certainly isn't going to lead to a flood of new clients tomorrow. I enjoyed the luxury of slowly and organically growing my business, and I realize that some people don't have that. I needed to have other revenue streams and savings to rely on, and there were times that it was extremely stressful balancing it all. But going back, I wouldn't have done it any other way.

Growing slowly meant that my skills had time to keep up with my volume, I got to pay for infrastructure as-needed and out of pocket, and my business is debt-free and profitable, with a strong client base of people who sought me out, usually because they've heard something nice about my work from someone they trust. I wouldn't trade that for overnight success any day.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Considering that when I first started this business I thought it might just be a good opportunity to get an extra couple hundred bucks here and there on top of my day job, things are going fantastically! I never, never imagined how much it would grow. The business is profitable - no, I'm not getting early retirement rich from this, but I am making more than I ever thought was going to be possible when I first started.

Last year was my busiest yet, and I expect this year will be the same and then some, so I am evaluating my infrastructure to see if I can reasonably accommodate more growth or if I need to invest in an expansion or an employee.

In the past year I soft-launched a few new services - a metal coating add-on service, where I would clean a skull and do a bronze or silver real metal coat on it, and a wholesale rugging service (think bear rugs) exclusively for my taxidermist clients. Those have kept me quite busy, and while I may expand retail offerings this year I don't expect to add anything much. The hard part of being successful is the realization that there are only so many hours in the day, and that can be limiting in work like this!

how-i-started-a-successful-side-business-cleaning-animal-skulls A bronzed bear skull

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Absolutely! Starting and growing this business has taught me so much, but possibly the most important lesson was to believe in my own abilities.

Like so many other entrepreneurs, I've struggled a lot with self-doubt and imposter syndrome. This was not helped by how strange and different my business was. But the first step to starting a successful business is just starting.

You have to have a willingness to take on risk to start a business, but it can be a calculated risk with minimal repercussions if you're careful.

Give yourself the opportunity to try, and the room to fail. I was never in a situation where my business's failure would be devastating to me financially, and that gave me room to experiment.

When I started Dermestidarium, I was still licking my wounds from ending a different business venture that had been a total failure. It was hard to accept, but I was able to use it as an opportunity to learn and evolve. Sometimes we need to fail to succeed.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I use WordPress for the content management system of my website, and WooCommerce for online sales. Last year I finally got on board with QuickBooks, and despite a rocky start I've ended up really happy with their accounting tools.

Honestly the tool I end up using the most is Google Keep. If I don't put something in writing it basically doesn't exist, and I used to have a bit of a post-it addiction. But I developed a habit of using Keep for almost everything I used to write down on paper.

While I do have some paperwork as I need client signatures, I try to be as paperless and cloud-based as possible.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I am a big fan of audiobooks and podcasts, and I get through a lot of them during my work day. These are a few of my regular favorite podcasts:

Up First: NPR's morning news summary. I start my day with it every weekday morning, just so I know what's going on in the world.

So Money with Farnoosh Torabi: This is a personal finance podcast with really insightful guest interviews, regular Q&A, and candid discussions about money.

Online Marketing Made Easy with Amy Porterfield: I am not part of this podcast's target market. It's meant for people who are starting digital businesses, especially those who want to create an online course. So I think it says something about the quality of the content that even I, with my minimally digital bone-cleaning business, get so much out of it that I listen to almost every episode.

As for books, I just finished the audio version of Seth Godin's new one, This is Marketing. I loved it, mainly because it meshed with my personal philosophy of marketing and advertising. He put a voice to what I had been feeling intuitively, and I think any business could benefit from hearing his take on marketing strategy.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

I'll reiterate one of the things I said earlier: Give yourself the opportunity to try and the room to fail. Take calculated risks, have backup plans, avoid debt wherever possible, and measure success by the value your business is bringing to your life, not by your perception of how well other people are doing.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Carla Brauer,   Founder of Dermestidarium

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