Being A Solo Founder and Manufacturing Your Own Products

Published: August 9th, 2018
Jamie Clawson
Founder, Jamie Clawson
Jamie Clawson
from New York, USA
started March 2011
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Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hi I’m Jamie Clawson, and I run Jamie Clawson - a small business designing and producing leather products and accessories. I do everything from designing, testing, manufacturing, shipping etc. All operations are done in house.

My main product line is leather skins for Apple products - iPhone, MacBook, iPad, etc. My premium leather accessories mediate between technology and a way of life that champions quality, craft, and traditional aesthetics.

My products reintroduce an enduring look and feel to the devices you use most and love best. I source the finest grade leathers from respected New York City-based purveyors. The pressure-sensitive adhesive, custom ordered from 3M, simplifies the process of application and respects your device, leaving no residue upon removal. Each product can be applied and reapplied multiple times to the same or similar devices.

The production process is a hybrid of the old-fashioned and the high-tech. Every individual product is made by hand with the help of some cutting-edge technology. Each and every Jamie Clawson product is proudly designed and fabricated in New York City.

I started this business with an idea from a friend after I lost my job. A friend of a friend of a friend was working at a shop with a laser cutter and I was able to go in and learn to to use it to make samples. I working out of my girlfriend/now wife’s living room. Things slowly grew and I now own my own laser cutter and work in a really cool shop with other designers/makers.

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

I studied industrial design (product design) at the University of Cincinnati. It was a 5 year program, the first 2 years the professors told me to drop out because my drawing skills weren’t good enough but they couldn’t fail me because my final products were good. Minus that, college was an amazing learning experience.

I had tons of jobs growing up, 20+, they all drove me nuts

I learned to design toys, furniture, lighting, and t-shirt graphics. I also co-oped for some great companies including Nerf and Aeropostale. I love learning about new things which is why I took a fashion co-op at Aeropostale. Aeropostale is in New York City, as soon as I got here, I knew it was where I wanted to be after college.

Since I was little I wanted to start my own business, but that wasn’t what you were supposed to do. You’re supposed to go to school get good grades, go to college and then get a job. I had tons of jobs growing up, 20+, they all drove me nuts. I started a car detailing service with a friend one Summer, but had to go back to college. For my senior project I designed a brand and made products including necklaces, keychains, hats, graphic t-shirts, skateboard decks, and a mobile retail location. My professors and critics didn’t care for the idea because it was different.

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I moved to NYC in 2009 after finishing school to pursue a career in design and to try to sell my products. I slept on a couch for awhile and freelanced for a succession of companies, including Calvin Klein Jeans and Levi’s. While instructive and financially necessary, these opportunities didn’t bring me and closer to my true ambition to produce, market and distribute my own design goods.

One random night at happy hour in Fall 2010, a friend (who knew I liked designing and figuring out how to make things) suggested I make premium leather iPhone skins.

A few weeks earlier he had bought a faux leather skin that fell apart after a few days. Around Thanksgiving, I was laid off because of cutbacks and without any other options, I took up my friend’s offer and started making samples. I scoured the city for the best leather and materials and assembled a small collection of iPhone 4 leather skins. In March 2011, I was lucky enough to be featured on and things took off from there.

I didn’t have any experience with leather, but with my product design background, I prototyped and tested leather and adhesives until I was happy. As sales increased, I started slowly adding to products to my collection.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

I design and create based on things I like or want. I want to make the best product possible and make things that make people happy. Every product starts out in a notebook or I email myself if a notebook isn't handy.

Here’s what my design process looks like, from start to finish:

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I’m still not good at sketching so there’s some rough sketches and then I usually go right into Adobe Illustrator to start making a pattern. I check sizing, spacing, etc and then start testing with my laser cutter.

I’m my own manufacturer, originally I was renting time on a laser and am lucky enough to have my own now. I also use a clicker press with dies for simpler products.

You can walk into my workshop right now and if it’s not too complicated, I can make you a product. I started with leather skins because I didn’t see anyone else making them, there are other companies now but I have the best selection of the highest quality leathers.

Describe the process of launching the business.

I coded a simple html website and used PayPal Buy It Now buttons for my first website.

I learned how to make websites in high school using Dreamweaver. Web design/coding was always interesting to me when it was super simple/html. I remembered the basics and used Dreamweaver to create my first website.

In the beginning, I had a few sales in the first few months from friends and family, it was really slow. What started things moving was my first feature on a blog.

There weren’t any small ecommerce platforms when I started. It was a pain in the ass but it worked.

My friend who gave me the idea for the iPhone skins gave me $500 to buy materials. My products are pretty simple so there weren’t any big issues besides getting a business license and business bank account.

My biggest lesson learned that I’m still working on is to keep moving, you can plan and prepare forever but it’s never going to be perfect so just do it.

I am/was a one person operation and didn’t know much about marketing so I didn’t really have a "launch". I was happy enough with the website and put it up. I told everyone I knew and orders started trickling in after a few weeks.

The best thing about doing everything myself is I know exactly what’s going on all the time. I’m designing and creating everything. I know exactly what’s going out to customers which is good and bad especially when I hear from a customer that isn’t happy with their product. It’s also tough doing everything myself, I like making things but am not the best at sales/marketing/advertising.

My biggest lesson learned that I’m still working on is to keep moving, you can plan and prepare forever but it’s never going to be perfect so just do it. You can’t fuck something up if it never happens.

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

I’m still trying to figure out how to generate new sales, it’s the biggest challenge. I try to keep my customers happy and have a pretty good amount of repeat customers.

The most successful thing has been email/newsletters, I use MailChimp.

It was a few years after I started the business that I started sending emails so I built up a good list of customers, I have around 3000 people on my list, around a 30% open rate, and 5% click rate. You can get kicked off MailChimp for spamming people. I’m sure there’s a way to buy email lists but it seems shallow. When I send emails it’s about new products or I’m offering a discount. The discount code emails convert the best. I’m not really consistent with emails, Ideally I’d like to send one at least every month but it’s usually every 3 months. I try to keep the text short and have 5-10 photos.

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I’ve tried Facebook and Instagram ads and they seem to be a waste of money. I’ve also done paid posts on different Instagram accounts. You have to be very specific on reaching out to accounts. I’ve spent a lot of money on accounts that ended up paying for fake followers to make it look like they had a big following. The accounts that worked well only worked for 1-2 posts, after that their audience has seen your products and either ordered something or didn’t care for it.

I’ve contacted or have been contacted by PR companies and they seem like they just want money. It always seems to happen after I get some press.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

From the beginning, I’ve priced my products so I can make money on wholesale and retail orders.

All of my products are made to order, I don’t carry any inventory which really helps. I calculate cost of materials and a general time for how long it takes to make the product as well as packaging.

I recently moved into a new workspace shared with some other amazing designers/creators. Everyone here makes everything themselves, it’s really inspiring. I am a one stop shop, everything I need is in my shop.

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

Customer service is one of the most important parts of a business and a skill I’m working on daily.

When I first started, I just assumed people wanted to buy my products and once I made a sale and shipped it, that was it. I had complaints and ignored them or sent rude responses.

Better late than never, but I realized I’m grateful that I make things that people want to buy. People are giving me money for something I made, it’s amazing and exciting. I hand write a thank you note for every product I ship. I try to be as helpful as possible when customers have issues.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

My favorite tool is my laser cutter. I create a digital pattern with Illustrator and the laser cuts it quickly and accurately. It’s really helpful with thicker materials like stingray leather.

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I went from hand coded html/Dreamweaver, to Big Cartel, to Shopify.

Shopify was great when I started using it a few years ago and it just keeps getting better. The integrations and apps are super helpful. I love ShipStation, Yotpo, Fablet - Fabelt converts my desktop website into a user friendly version for mobile devices, and MailChimp.

My favorite social media tool is Instagram. Instagram makes it easy to create content and put it out instantaneously. If I’m working on a normal order or a new product I can take a photo or video and post it in real time.

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

The MFCEO Project Podcast - Andy gives great business advice/tips for free - he’s honest and doesn’t sugarcoat anything.

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

If you have an idea for a business, you can plan forever, but you need to just start doing.

Where can we go to learn more?

Instagram: @jamieclawson/

Twitter: @jamieclawson

Facebook: @jamieclawson