This is a follow up story for Timber Grove Studios. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published almost 2 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
I’m Sasha Weekes and I own a niche wooden decor business based primarily on Etsy. We have 4-5 flagship products available in a variety of sizes and colors, including mountain shelves and bath caddies. Our customers are often gift-givers and primarily women between the ages of 20-40. We’re located in rural Prince Edward Island, Canada, but ship Canada and US-wide, with the majority of customers being American.
I spoke with Starter Story just over a year ago and lots have changed, so I’m happy to be able to share my journey again and provide an example of what a “lifestyle business” looks like in reality. I’ve worked a lot on streamlining the business and focussing my energy on areas where it’s most useful, which has greatly improved efficiency and output for my time.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
I mentioned last time that I wanted to stay flexible because I was considering finishing my business degree, and that’s exactly what I signed up to do shortly after! In a strange turn of events, I also got the rare opportunity at 25 to play hockey for my school once again as a U Sports athlete (This is essentially our Canadian NCAA equivalent). Because I had to drop out of university at 20, this was something I never got to follow through with so I am very honored to be able to now. This is relevant to the conversation because it is a massive time commitment along with three courses per semester, and would never be possible without my business and the flexibility it provides me. When I made this decision in the summer of 2019, I had to formulate a strong plan to scale back my time spent on the business for the next three years, while keeping as much of my income as possible. My situation is unique, but this plan might be similar to that of a parent preparing for a new baby or any other big life change.
I am now well into year two of this plan and it has gone surprisingly well. I work anywhere between 10 and 20 hours a week on the business instead of the previous 30+, and have not lost income; it has actually increased. The first step was to remove the least profitable items in my product line, or anything that stressed me out to build. This created efficiency in the building process, as I don’t need to focus on too many things at once. Step two was to aggressively prepare during the summer and outsource as much of this prep as possible to my subcontractors in large batches. I have a few more subcontractors now as well, as it’s a great system that is flexible for everyone. This ensured that Christmas orders would be quick and easy to fill while I was busy with school because everything was ready. This is obviously the simple version of the plan, but with dedicated execution (and of course, some price raises as I now value my time more) it resulted in a much more profitable business that is less stressful and allows me to do what I love.
It’s interesting to write about the growth of a business when much of what I’ve been doing is cutting things out, but I think that can be difficult to do. Being forced to do so has helped me to see very clearly what is important and what works. Because all of my traffic comes from Etsy SEO with a small amount from Instagram, I’ve stopped focusing on other forms of social media or marketing. I don’t post much on Facebook, Pinterest, or run ad campaigns, and I’ve cut back a bit on creating content for Instagram as well. Content creation is really time-consuming, so because I already have all of the listing photos I’ve been able to free up a lot of time that way. I don’t attend vendor shows or market locally, because having everything on one platform makes everything much more efficient. I also cut out my time-intensive email marketing. What I do have is a fully set up e-commerce website which I direct people to when possible; simply as a backup plan in case anything ever goes wrong with Etsy. It’s important not to have all your eggs in one basket, but it seems silly to expend too much time and energy growing a website when Etsy does the work for me. I simply don’t have time for both, but I have a thorough plan in place that I could jump to work on and redirect traffic immediately if anything ever happens. I’m fortunate enough to have one of those shops that are well established on Etsy and in their search system, so this plan works for me.
The one new platform I’ve recently begun experimenting with is Tik Tok, mostly out of curiosity. I’ve seen some interesting home-related content on there but there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much as on Instagram, so I initially figured it would be a less saturated platform to try. I also knew that Instagram and Facebook have been pushing video and had been hearing some buzz about it from other sellers. I have only two TikTok videos so far (it’s a pretty fun creative outlet!) and they’ve had around 500 views each, so nothing special yet. What I did find was that uploading these same videos to Instagram gave me 4-5 times the engagement I normally get, so this is a great sign to keep working on the video. I’ll be doing that whenever I have free time on weekends because I find it pretty fun anyway.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the difference that good time management makes. As soon as I realized I wasn’t going to have a choice, I sat down and planned some big changes to how I worked. It’s now clear how much time I was probably wasting before because I can get just as much done in almost half the time. Working less definitely lends itself to productivity as you’re less likely to become bored or burnt out. I have a ton on the go and I’m always busy, but it’s never soul-sucking in the way that a 9-5 job doing the same task all day can be. Even in the summer when I work more, I try to make time daily for gardening, biking, the beach, or just generally getting outside to take advantage of the sunshine and break up my day.
I’ve also come to appreciate the value of relationships and social interaction this year, as I think most of us have while experiencing the pandemic and staying home more. I work from home by myself on most days, and the few months in the spring without sports or social outings were pretty draining. Even before Covid, I knew that working by myself wasn’t something I wanted to do permanently, so hiring at least one full-time employee will be a major goal as soon as I’m done with school. The greatest things about attending university here are the people I’ve met and the relationships I’ve built, especially through the hockey community here. I live on an island where everyone knows each other, but I didn’t grow up here, so this networking will be really important for my future here as a business.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
My goal for this year and the next is to keep working on efficiency and profitability while saving as much as I can. The milestone of $100,000 in revenue seems attainable for 2021 with the current rate of growth. When I’m finished with school I’d like to have a plan in place for expansion, so I’m currently searching for a vacant lot to build a shop that is better suited to my needs and has space for employees. It’s a long and complicated process to fund and build commercials so I’m glad I have this time to stay put, plan, and save up. I also wouldn’t want to make any major decisions until the pandemic clears up because let’s face it; the world is a bit unpredictable right now.
Don’t try to do everything at once. Figure out what your strengths are and how to grow your business around them.
It’s tough to plan five years when you’re renting a space that can’t handle any more volume, which is why I’m really excited about the prospect of a better building. The security of owning it and the ability to design it to fit my needs as a unique business will be vital for growth, so my current five-year plan is simply to figure out how to make it happen.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
I have! I’m currently reading Boomerang by Michael Lewis which I’m enjoying; I picked it up after watching The Big Short on Netflix, which is based on another one of his books. The pandemic has inspired me to learn more about financial crises and economics and he uses great storytelling to teach.
I also listen to podcasts all day, and I love that I get to learn while working. My favorite business-related podcast right now is The Passion Economy, which is actually a similar concept to StarterStory and a really well-done podcast, so I highly recommend it if you’re reading this! It interviews passionate entrepreneurs with unique businesses.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
It can be tough to advise because every business is unique and what has worked for me won’t work for every small maker, but I definitely have some general tips! Don’t try to do everything at once. Figure out what your strengths are and how to grow your business around them. If you feel like one marketing platform is getting much better results than another, it’s okay to pour most of your energy into that. I think a lot of new business owners, myself included, feel pressured to be on every platform and pumping out content constantly. It’s great to test the water, but as I’ve learned this year, your target audience probably hangs out largely in one place. In my case, it’s Instagram and Etsy search, because my customers are women between 20 and 40. If your demographic is younger, TikTok might be the place, or Facebook if they’re a bit older. I’ve definitely learned that focusing on one or two things means you can devote all of the necessary time and energy to it. We have to learn to let go of what isn’t working for our business.
I would also say that you don’t have to grow exponentially or double every year. Growing my business around the lifestyle that I want has meant slowing the growth a bit, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s easy to get caught up in the dream of a successful business, but success is different for everyone. Definitely take a step back sometimes and think about what you actually want out of life, especially if you’re working yourself half to death. I think all businesses take a ton of work to set up, and it will always be challenging to turn a side gig into a full-time business; but that “startup energy” isn’t sustainable for everyone in the long term. And that’s okay!
I won’t forget the classic advice any Etsy seller should live by; have professional quality photos. I have a photography background and have always taken my own, which was probably the biggest factor in getting my shop off the ground quickly. I do still send out things to other photographers quite often though. The Facebook group “Let’s Collab - Professional Photos for Small Shops” is an invaluable tool to connect photographers and makers or small shops. I highly recommend it for anyone on a tight budget, as you can trade products for professional photos. I recently sent bath caddies out to six different photographers and got an amazing variety of beautiful photos back!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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