Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Liz Martin, a multi-hyphenate living in Charleston, SC. I run a lifestyle blog called The Charleston Weekender. In 2017 I co-founded a balloon & gift shop called Cannonborough Collective, which is now the only place where you can find my lifestyle brand.
My first product was the Turkish towel, which I like to refer to as “the perfect weekend companion”. I’ve since expanded my offerings at my brick and mortar store to mostly include home decor & gift items, as well as modern souvenirs for the Charleston tourist. Visitors make up about 80+% of my customer base, so even though some prints and postcards I sell are old to me, they are new to my customers and continue to sell season after season.
Today my revenue is comprised of a combination of sponsorships with other brands, the sales from my shop, and 1:1 instagram growth workshops that I offer to other business owners who want to grow their social media presence. My growth isn’t monumental, but from 2017 to 2018 I doubled my revenue from about 35k to 70k.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2015, I started making a gradual exit from my full time job as a speech-language pathologist. Like many other entrepreneurs I know, I was seeking to fill a creative void and just knew I couldn’t thrive long term in a setting where I worked for someone else.
I began pursuing my options, and landed on interior decorating since it had always been an interest of mine and didn’t require further schooling. I took on decorating work for friends and word of mouth clients. When I launched my website that fall, I decided to offer some home decor and hostess gift type products- my first one being Turkish towels, the perfect weekend companion. I wasn’t able to just quit my job and go for it, so I reduced my hours and days as a speech therapist as my side hustle kept growing. I worked my way down to 2 days a week and then eventually justified a full exit from that job (based mostly on my Interior decorating clients & product sales at the time).
I had a knack for taking pictures, so I began marketing my products and services largely through Instagram. I started to focus my efforts on creating content featuring my products through fun and colorful lifestyle photography. Instead of posting a picture of said Turkish towel, I would create a picnic setting and photograph that.
My Instagram and blog following began to grow, and before long I was being asked to promote other brand’s products on my social media channels. When I was first getting started, I did a little bit of everything; an ecommerce site, Turkish towel wholesale business, work with brands on my blog, interior decorating, Instagram consultations, and I even opened a shop in 2017.
Early in 2018, I realized there was no way I was going to be able to keep up the pace of essentially running 5 businesses. I had been dabbling in a lot of different outlets to try to see what “stuck”. I assessed my earnings and found that while my online sales and wholesale business were growing steadily, those were really the least profitable aspects of what I was doing. I really didn’t want the stress of hiring someone, taking on extra inventory, storing and shipping more products, etc. in order to grow those parts of my business. Therefore I cut those facets out completely, and now the only thing I do with my line of Charleston Weekender products is to sell them in my own retail shop. I had already cut out the interior decorating aspect of my business by that point, but interiors remain a big part of what I share on my lifestyle blog.
The rest of my business has become largely based on social media, mostly by creating content for other brands and promoting them on my channels. I do realize that it’s probably a terrible idea to have so many eggs in the unreliable basket of Instagram! However, this year I’ve shifted a lot of my focus off of Instagram and have been putting more effort into growing my blog readership, Pinterest traffic, and newsletter list.
I also have a monthly TV segment where brands sponsor me to share about their products and locations, so all in all I am pretty diversified as compared to most “bloggers”. There also seems to be no shortage of fellow entrepreneurs who continue to want to learn my strategies for growing their own Instagram followings, so I still offer 1:1 workshops over the phone or in person to those clients. I’m working on an online course as well. For the time being, I’m going to continue to ride the wave of the popularity of Instagram while I can!
In all this craziness I did mention I have a shop, so how does that fit in? Well, this was one of those things that was just a “try it and see what happens” ventures. I wound up falling into a great business partnership with someone who wanted to try out retail but like me, didn’t want to assume all of that responsibility on their own.
It was kind of the shop that found us, we just kept noticing the perfect corner store that was vacant for about 6 months and we eventually convinced our landlord to let us rent it. I had noticed my products sold so much better in person, so I wanted to stop schlepping my wares to sell them at markets and let customers instead come to me. We had the idea to rent out spaces to vendors based on the “collective” model another local store was doing, which allowed us to at least cover our expenses every month. We had a good game plan and a low risk retail situation, so we went for it! Two years later we continue to grow and recently expanded to twice our size, thanks to a couple of factors. We are in a neighborhood with almost year round traffic from airbnbs, and we are the only balloon shop on the peninsula of downtown Charleston. The tourists come for our all local goods and locals come in for balloons & party supplies. My business partner and I each carry our own products, then we take a percentage of our vendor’s sales and share our balloon revenue.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
As I mentioned, my first product I carried was Turkish towels, which I still sell consistently almost 4 years later.
The first time I sold them it was pretty laughable, I had a big box of towels my husband’s cousin in Istanbul had sent me. I had no multiples of different styles, and somehow I still tried to put all of them all on my website. For awhile, our Istanbul relative basically acted as my translator and product sourcer (she would send me photos via WhatsApp and I would tell her what to order). This worked for a little while, but eventually I found an English speaking factory in Turkey I could work directly with. I actually think they found me and reached out to me through hashtags I was using on Instagram. This new factory allowed me to be able to start getting my labels onto my products and even designing custom styles & colorways to sell. In terms of costs, I would just gradually keep ordering more inventory as my revenue allowed, or if I had a wholesale order I would do a special order for them. I get the towels for about $8 each, and sell them in store for $32.
In terms of packaging, I do think that branding and presentation are so important. I started out with just hand stamping everything with my logo, and I tried to order some sew-in labels I found online. At first I was trying to sew them on myself, but eventually I wised up and realized the most valuable thing an entrepreneur has is their time! My factory now sews on labels for me, and I have wraps printed that have my logo. I do have to assemble them with a little help from double sided tape and my logo stickers, but I’ve dramatically reduced the time I spend on packaging.
Currently I order a couple of times a year as needed, and now that I’m not doing wholesale I’m going to just focus on expanding my offerings in my own shop. I’m also looking at collaborating with local designers and artists to offer small collections to be released a few times a year. Since I order straight from a factory in Turkey, my margins are really great, so I occasionally sell to bridal parties or wedding planners if they want to order in bulk.
Describe the process of launching the business.
To get my business started was a pretty low-risk and low-cost venture. I took about $1000 out of my savings account to pay for initial expenses. This included a subscription to Squarespace, which is about $200 a year. I created my site myself, and it was pretty easy with their customer support team. I just picked one of their templates and I was up and running within about a week.
Other costs I had were pretty minor; ordering my first run of Turkish towels (which I probably spent about $250 on) and having someone on Etsy design my logo ($50, and I think that included a rubber stamp!).
Initially, it was mostly my friends and family who were buying my products to support me. As I started to gain followers on Instagram, I would see pretty good spurts in sales after I would initially post a new product. I remember when I started selling the Aviate “CHS” airport code baseball hats when they were relatively new to the scene. I posted a picture of my dog wearing one, and woke up to about 17 orders. That was pretty huge compared to the usual amount of orders that trickled in!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
If you aren’t working on growing your own Instagram account and/or working with influencers to promote your company, you’re definitely missing out! It’s not that traditional media doesn’t work; I think TV and print ads are great for increasing your brand recognition to reach a diverse audience. The benefit of Instagram is that once customers find me on that platform, they usually remain my followers that I have the ability to reach over and over. Magazine features tend to be kind of a one and done traffic generator. Customers often come in to purchase what they saw in a magazine, but we may not see them again after that. We have customers coming into our brick and mortar store saying they found us on Instagram on a daily basis, so that still seems to be the best channel to focus our efforts on for the shop. We try to make it as Instagrammable as possible; lots of photo opps around our shop (like a balloon wall and pink telephone).
I will say Instagram was a lot easier to make sales on when I was first getting into it, because in 2015 there were not nearly as many brands and bloggers on the platform.
Everything was a little more novel at the time, and Instagram wasn’t quite as saturated. In today’s social media heavy world, the best thing you can do is create beautiful imagery of your products, and make sure you have shoppable links set up on Instagram. That way your followers are just a click away from your website.
Instagram and Facebook ads are still working really well to drive sales if you’re doing them the right way. Now that I’m mostly promoting other people’s brands and products on my Instagram, I’ve noticed sales are totally dependent on my follower’s tastes. I’ve promoted companies and sold zero of their product, and sold about 30 items for other brands.
It seems largely dependent on the genre; for example skin care doesn’t do as well as a Charleston print. One thing that has always remained the same whether I’m selling my own products or those of another brand on my platforms is that everyone loves a sale. I find it usually takes about 20% discount to move the needle and prompt people to purchase from a post, so I try to encourage other brands to give me at least that much of a discount code to be able to gauge their ROI when I’m promoting them.
If you have a physical location to your business like we do with our store, the importance of Google, Yelp, and SEO are huge! I track where my customers are coming from as much as I can, and I would say Instagram and search engine traffic each bring about half of our customers in our doors. On Google/Yelp, people are searching for “Charleston Balloon Shop” or “Charleston souvenirs”, and we are usually the first to pop up. Our success with SEO is due to many factors; getting good Google & Yelp reviews, updating our site frequently, backlinks to us on other websites, etc.
Do not underestimate the power of the newsletter! My Instagram audience is a lot bigger than my subscriber base (I have about 1000- newsletter subscribers and about 22,000 Instagram followers), but I often see comparable sales when I promote something on both channels. These days, the main product I’m selling of my own is my 1:1 Instagram workshop. My newsletter subscribers are my tried and true, and I have about a 35% open rate, and I’ll often see the same amount of sales from a newsletter as an Instagram post. The newsletter folks actually seem to read what I send out, whereas Instagram can often be full of habitual scrollers that may not always stop to read.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
In 2019 I’ve been focusing on my quality of life & wellness. You have to take care of yourself if you want to be a good business owner! That means saying no to all of the extras I used to do; not attending as many networking events and not giving away my time for free! I have definitely noticed that along with this clarity of focus comes a more profitable business! Over the last few years, I was falling victim to worrying about the future and comparing myself to all of the 6-figure entrepreneurs out there. Now that I’m just hunkering down and staying content to achieve slow and steady growth, I’m much happier and my business is doing the best it ever has.
I don’t have a lot of stats on my customer acquisition costs and all the other factoids that you’d hear on a good Shark Tank pitch, but I do finally have a grasp on my financials over all. I keep an eye on my quarterly Profit & Loss statements, and adjust my game plan as need arises. I’m still just a one man show with a part-time assistant for the time being, so it’s hard to do all the things!
For instance, I haven’t been focusing as much energy on ads as I should be.I do concentrate my efforts on Pinterest, my newsletter, keeping my SEO strong for my shop and my blog, and continuing to grow my Instagram presence. I also have a monthly TV segment, so that’s a lot to keep up with! My assistant takes care of pitching new brands for me to promote on my blog and TV segment, as well as doing some graphic design work for me. For the time being, I’m content keeping my monthly gross income at $5-6,000 a month. The majority of that comes from promoting brands and my Instagram workshops, so my associated costs are pretty minimal. About ⅓ of that revenue comes from sales at my shop.
One thing most entrepreneur interviews don’t focus on enough is the over glamorization of entrepreneurship. It’s really hard to have your own thing. It’s ok if you’re not opening a million franchise locations. Are you making a comfortable living and enjoying what you’re doing every day? I can truly say I am living that life right now, and that is success in my book! Sure, I have goals for growth, but I also find it crucial to prioritize goals for personal happiness and mental and physical wellness. If you’re not happy & healthy where you are today, I’m pretty confident you’re not going to be happy when and if you hit that 6 figure paycheck!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
In terms of things I would do differently, I do wish I had spread my marketing efforts across multiple channels a lot earlier on. In retrospect, I should have given my newsletter even ¼ of the attention my Instagram account got.
I also wish I had hired an assistant much sooner! I had in my head I wasn’t profitable enough to hire someone, but having someone to help with my outreach to brands makes me so much more profitable than when I try to do it all myself! An assistant will often pay for themselves, just be strategic about what tasks you delegate to them so you can focus on the things only you are able to do. I don’t recommend utilizing a college student for this role; their schedule is going to change from semester to semester so it’s going to be an ideal employee.
In terms of things I’m glad I did that I would recommend, I did spend a lot of time putting myself out there and collaborating with other bloggers and brands a lot in the initial phases of my business. When I had an online shop and wholesale business, going to markets and pop ups around town really helped me get my brand out there. In terms of my blog, collaborating with other brands and bloggers for photo shoots really helped my online presence grow. I did a lot of things for free or spent a lot of time “putting myself out there”, and it did pay off. Now I’ve stepped back from all of that, because I’ve just come to value my time SO much. It’s good to say yes to everything in the beginning, but try to phase out of it as soon as you can so you don’t run yourself ragged.
Another shift in how I manage my time is that I start my day completing necessary tasks before I head to my email. Email was sucking me in and making me much more of a reactive participant in my business. Now I’m proactive and finish what I need to do before I entertain opportunities that come through my inbox. The distraction of getting sucked into my inbox and waiting for opportunities to come my way were taking up far too much of my time! Now I do the tasks I need to do to keep my business moving forward, and I check my email toward the end of the day. It helps keep me on track and makes me less likely to get derailed by shiny possibilities hitting my inbox.
I also can’t stress enough how important it is to incorporate healthy daily habits. If you can exercise, meditate, have some fun, etc. every day, you’ll be such a better leader for your company!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I’m pretty low-tech when it comes to other ways I keep myself and my assistant organized. We just share Google docs & excel sheets, and it seems to keep us on the same page pretty well!
For my newsletter for Charleston Weekender and for our shop, I use MailChimp. We also use Squarespace for both websites.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I was a serial podcast listener there for awhile. I loved Being Boss, Goal Digger, The Influencer Podcast, and a handful of others. However, I found that it was actually healthier for me to go on a podcast diet of sorts. The more you clog your brain with success stories, the more pressure it can put on you as you find your way. Now I think I’m in a more confident place with my business what I’m doing in my business, so I might get back to podcasts at some point.
The best resource, however, is just finding a small network of other people you trust who can give you constructive insights on your business. For me, this meant just setting up lunch and coffee dates with other local business owners during the first couple years of my business. We both can offer an outside perspective on each other’s business, and there is nothing more valuable than that! A podcast is someone else’s path, you need to just figure out your own way!
I also love going to conferences! It’s great to get fresh perspectives and be inspired by speakers, but the best part is that you’ll meet attendees who are often where you are in your business. Those folks can become friends or valuable members of your support system.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I was truly winging it for the first couple of years! In retrospect, creating a business plan would have been such a valuable tool. I now have a mentor through an organization called SCORE, so I wish I had that earlier on as well. I also can’t reiterate enough that you need to take care of you, the CEO of your business. Attend to your diet, your exercise routine, your self care regimen, and your relationships!
I’m pretty good at saying no, so it saddens me to see so many fellow business owners saying yes to everything. Sure, it’s great to “put yourself out there” when you’re first starting out, but you need to make sure your priorities and goals are being attended to first and foremost. Eventually you need to start performing a gut check for everything that comes your way. What is your goal for said opportunity or with said client. It better be really worth your time! If it doesn’t feel good deep down, it’s probably not a good use of your time. A lot of business owners around me continue to say yes to work that comes their way that actually causes them to veer off course from their bottom line goals. If you hate going to markets, stop saying yes to them or hire someone else to do it. If someone asks you to “collaborate”, make sure it really aligns with your brand and goals.
You’ve also got to find a fair price for what you’re offering. I see so many makers around me eager to be in retail stores, but often times selling their product for half just does not make sense for them. If you’re hand making something, wholesale really might not be the best plan for your business. Maybe 70/30 consignment could be a better option for you.
Also, make sure you track the time you spend on client work if that’s part of what you offer. If you’re an artist who has to do multiple revisions and email back and forth, those time sucks may be causing you to walk away with a minimum wage salary by the time all is said and done with a project. Make sure you’re getting paid for 100% of your time spent on your clients or packaging/making your products.
Set firm guidelines and expectations from the start to protect your most valuable asset, your time!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
At the moment, I’m accepting applications for unpaid interns only. I am in a good groove with my assistant and have some great coverage to help cover my days in my shop. Things can always change, but I don’t have any plans to expand my team at this time.
Where can we go to learn more?
Check out my site TheCharlestonWeekender.com or Instagram.com/CharlestonWeekender for city guides, Charleston recommendations, and home decor/leisure/lifestyle inspiration!
I have a section of my site dedicated to sharing some business tips and strategies with others, so have a look at that here.
Our shop can be found at https://cannonboroughcollective.com, and I’d love if you come by the next time you’re in Charleston!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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