$35K Per Month Selling Photo Prints and Expanding International

The Story of The Canvas Works

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hello! I’m Patrick Ryan and I’m the founder and MD of The Canvas Works. We’re a small, independent photo printing website based out of Kinsale in County Cork, Ireland.

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Right now, the things that are taking up most of my thinking time is the development and launch of our international websites and our native apps on iOS and Android.

For almost all of the past ten years, we’ve focused exclusively on our domestic market. In that time, we’ve built a very good reputation as a small, independent printer of photos on canvas, framed prints and photo prints. I guess we’re best known for canvas prints but we probably do as much framed prints as canvas these days.

We do everything in-house so we can keep a tight focus on quality control. We also focus very heavily on customer service - so we’re contactable by phone, give great advice on photo suitability and help the customer through the process of creating the very best print from their photos.

Our customer base is very wide - from mums and dads, through to corporates, artists, photographers and public bodies or charities. What they all have in common is that they value a high quality product, a very good online experience alongside professional and friendly advice.

Last year we decided to dip our toes in the water of international markets and so we embarked on a strategy to develop stand-alone sites for the US and UK markets as well as native apps on iOS and Android. The sites have just launched and the new apps roll out later this summer. It’s too early to tell if we’ll be able to pull off the international sites but our experience with the iOS app (we launched version 1 last year) was promising.

For what was always intended to be a lifestyle business, we’ve grown it to a reasonably comfortable monthly income of $35k with peak months hitting $50k but we’ve still got a long way to go and there is great potential for scalability and growth.

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

So my background was in Law. I left University with my law degree and was intending to get my professional qualification and practice but I didn’t enjoy the practical side of law as much as the academic side. I changed course and spent ten years in the advertising industry in the UK and Ireland before I founded The Canvas Works.

It was around the beginning of digital photography - pre-iphone! I suppose working in an industry like advertising gave me an insight into how huge digital photography and printing was going to be and I could see the potential for a personalised print product. What I didn’t see was the difficulties that would lie ahead in terms of building out a scalable business, investing in digital assets like apps and websites and the challenges of working in light manufacturing, competing against big international players with scale, buying power and big marketing budgets.

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I had a little seed capital from a house sale and just bootstrapped from the very start. It’s pretty much been organic growth all the way through. We had a good start but the financial downturn of 2008 that swept through Europe and the US nearly took us down. Spending and the wider economy collapsed in Ireland around that time. We survived and things began to pick up again around 2012/2013. It’s been steady year on year growth since then.

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

Our core products are relatively straight forward. The trick is sourcing good base materials, developing good relationships with suppliers and then tightly managing costs.

For our canvas prints, we’re known for our very wide range of sizes - so we need a supplier who can deal with this. The same supplier has worked with us to prototype and develop our plywood mount panels which are very popular.

Another area that has taken up my time quite a lot is finding a good packaging supplier for boxes. Due to our wide range, we need a number of different box sizes and they have to be capable of withstanding a long shipping journey overseas. We also want them to look nice - it’s taken up way more time that I could have imagined and it’s still not right!

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

Our first online store in 2007 was a pretty basic affair, built on asp.net and using a CMS that was built in-house by our web agency at the time. It was expensive to update, inflexible and began to lack features that I knew I needed in order to stay competitive.

By 2012, I was convinced a hosted ecommerce solution was a better choice for a small business like The Canvas Works and I began researching the options. I quickly settled on Shopify.

From there it was a case of finding the right partner and after speaking to a few agencies, we settled on one of the top UK Shopify partners and have been with them through two development cycles now.

The first Shopify build took about 4 months to develop. We took the decision to integrate with a number of third party APIs to handle key pieces of functionality. Filestack handles our file selection and we used Aviary (now Adobe Photo Editor) for our image editing. That turned out to be a double edged sword - the functionality was great but last year Adobe announced they were ending support for the editor so we had to change course in version two.

The second version of the site was developed through 2017 and into 2018. It formed the basis of our US and UK sites and will be rolled out to Ireland over the summer. This development phase was an opportunity to learn from where we’d maybe gone a bit wrong with the first build. Overall, I’m much happier with it but it’s been a long time in development - the best part of a year.

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Since launch, what has worked to attract new customers?

The two most effective sales and marketing strategies we use are e-mail marketing and SEO / Blogging. Google PPC also pays its way. I’m less convinced about social media but maybe I’m just not doing it right. We’ll see.

Over the years, we’ve tried all the usual marketing techniques deployed by all small businesses. I’ll list them here with a quick summary of what I think of each:

  • PR articles: Hard work to achieve, limited return, no long tail. I don’t seek it out anymore - they usually come to us.

  • Facebook: Unproven, expensive. I’m not willing to pay for likes.

  • Twitter: See above.

  • Pinterest. No interest.

  • Instagram: Probably the one we should be focusing on. But will likely end up like facebook - pay to play.

  • Mailchimp: Hands down the best value for money, generating a massive ROI. Works every time - we e-mail once to twice a month.

  • Blogging: Very effective at driving traffic over a prolonged period of time. We are going to focus on this.

  • SEO: Our .ie site gets good organic ratings. Building good SEO for the international sites is the next big challenge.

  • AdWords: Expensive but effective.

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

Overall, I’m pleased with our progress but as a small business owner, you always see the threats and challenges and rarely have the time or inclination to pat yourself on the back. There’s loads to do and I haven’t been quick enough or effective enough at getting the job done.

This year I’ve been able to hire an Operations Manager so I can hand over more of the day to day operational responsibility. My hope is that will allow me to focus on the web development and app development and concentrate on gaining some traction in our international markets.

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

Of course you learn a lot about yourself - your own strengths and weaknesses and what you like and don’t like.

You make TONS of mistakes - if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing enough!

You can be lucky with timing our unlucky - recessions can hit you at just the wrong time and take you out. There are just so many ways a small business can fail - it’s a wonder anyone ever sets one up!!

But overall, here are my three key takeaways from my experience so far:

1. You need to get good people into your business because you can’t do it alone

  • That’s much harder to do than I could have ever imagined. I’ve spent most of my time working in my business when I should be working on my business. I hope I can change that over the next year.

2. Scaling a light manufacturing business organically is incredibly difficult

  • Making things is time consuming and hard. You’ll have a degree of churn with people so you’re constantly training people.

  • Plus you’re inevitably competing with bigger organisations who are way ahead of you in growth and size so it’s hard to get a toe hold in the market.

3. Focus! Learn to say no and don’t expand too quickly into new products and markets

  • The temptation is big to chase growth by taking on new products and markets because you think there’s a pot of gold there. I may be guilty of this with the push to international markets. You also need to choose a model and stick with it. We turn away jobs now that might give a short term revenue boost but will ultimately distract us from our long term goals or disrupt our business model if we take the job on.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We’re big Shopfiy fans and have blogged about this in the past. They don’t get everything right - their initial Mobile Buy SDK wasn’t great. Shopify POS has been patchy to say the least. But they’re investing in the platform and making constant improvements so we’ll stick with them.

As regards apps, we use YOTPO for reviews and find that to be very good. We use Spently for e-mails and Privy for sign ups.

We’re big users of Dropbox for business and Google Drive for storage.

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

Not enough time to read business books or listen to podcasts. When I read, it’s mostly fiction so I can get a break from the business!

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

Set realistic goals and expectations. If like me, you want to set up a lifestyle business, don’t get carried away with all the BS of startups, who are looking to create a global brand in a few years. There’s nothing wrong with having a small business that ticks along, never gets into debt and pays the mortgage!

If on the other hand you want to create the next big thing, you’ll need a totally different approach to finance and set up right from the very start.

It’s a long, lonely and stressful journey. It’s hugely rewarding and satisfying but it’s not for everyone.

Think about it carefully and try to listen and take good advice. Then try to enjoy it - that’s easier said than done, too!

Where can we go to learn more?

Websites:

thecanvas.works (US website)

thecanvasworks.co.uk (UK)

thecanvasworks.ie (Ireland)

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