I’m so pleased to be bringing you the first round of questions in the Behind the Business Series! Before we dive right in, I want to share a little bit from my heart, so that you can fully understand my hope behind sharing. If you are currently a business owner, hope to be a business owner, or want to do something similarly to me, remember that I’m sharing my story, my journey, and what I have learned and done. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to starting a business. Every person is different, every business is different, every journey is different. I believe that my story is a bit unique in that I didn’t set out to start this business. I didn’t write a business plan, or spend months saving up money to make my first big purchase order, or even do any research at all before doing this thing. Like, at all. I had absolutely no intention of doing this for a living or even getting into owning my own business. It was not my goal to own a business. So, my story and my journey may look very different from yours or what you hope yours to be. And that’s okay! I’m not sharing because I think that I have a blueprint for creating a running a successful business, I’m sharing because I want to encourage you to get out there and try it, if that’s a dream of yours. You don’t have to know everything before you dive in (and, guess what, there’s no way you even could know everything). It’s scary, it’s risky, it may not pan out. But also, it just might work out how you hoped or even better!
I’ve spent years building my business, almost 10 to be exact. It didn’t happen overnight. There are certain factors that certainly played a large part in our success, especially early on (I’ll get into this in future posts!), but I haven’t done anything special that you couldn’t also find a way to do!
I’ve made good decisions and I’ve made not so good decisions. I’ve taken risks that have paid off big time and some that were basically equivalent to lighting a stack of money on fire. I’ve fallen into the trap of feeling like I’m always needing to do more and be better and work harder. I’ve spent weekends and “after hours” working, taking time away from other things in life. I’ve put so much of my heart into my business and it has been hard. But it’s also been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. To be able to share my love of accessories and knick knacks and gifting with anybody that comes across my site is a true pleasure. I love what I do, and that is a true blessing.
As I’m sharing parts of the story of Elisabeth Ashlie with you, know that it is coming from a place of truly loving what I do and feeling richly blessed by the opportunity that I have to do this. I don’t take it for granted. Sure, there are days that I don’t want to work or wish that I did something that had proper business hours, but the majority of my days are enjoyable and fun! Oh, and I have help. And that, right there, was arguably the best decision I ever made for my business: asking for help.
How did you start your jewelry business?
A slightly simplified version of the story: my sister saw a necklace she loved, but didn’t want to pay $50 for it. She decided to try to make it (it wasn’t a particularly complex design) and that decision is what started the ball rolling. We went to a local craft store, bought some chain, beads, tools, and started teaching ourselves (and probably looking up a couple youtube videos or tutorials) how to make beaded and simple jewelry. We were just making things for ourselves to start, then started posting them on our personal Facebook pages. Some friends and family members expressed an interest in some of the pieces we were sharing photos of, so we decided to open up an Etsy shop for them to shop more easily! Slowly and over time, more and more people were finding our Etsy shop and we were building a customer base outside of friends and family. It all took off from there!
Neither of us have formal business training or even really knew what we were doing when this whole thing started. We’ve always been creative and loved DIY projects, so it made sense that we would do something crafty and with our hands, but we never knew it would turn into what it is. We didn’t set out to turn it into a business – it was simply something we really loved doing and people that found our products happened to also love what we were making.
(She left the business in 2013 – I’ve been running it myself since then! More on that in future questions!)
Why is the business called Elisabeth Ashlie?
It’s my sister’s and my middle names! We had to alter the spelling a bit to be able to name out Etsy shop “Elisabeth Ashlie”, but that’s where the names come from. I love that it’s a little piece or her and a little piece of me.
What were your start up costs?
We were buying supplies from local craft stores at maybe $100-$200 a shopping trip, paying for our Etsy shop, purchasing some packaging materials (very inexpensively) and that’s about it. We did participate in a couple of local craft markets and shows, but I believe those were $100 or less per table, so we weren’t spending a whole lot of money. Since we didn’t set out to start a business or have any idea what it would turn into, we didn’t have any large investments or big purchases, keeping our start up costs very low!
How and where did you start marketing yourself?
As mentioned, we started sharing what we were making to Facebook, showing our friends and family. That was our first foray into “marketing”. From there, we participated in local craft shows, passing out business cards and making a few sales. Around or at the same time, both my sister and myself started our own blogs. We would share about EA and link to our Etsy shop on our individual blogs, which was an easy way to drive a little traffic to the shop.
Not terribly long after we started the business, my sister’s blog gained a ton of popularity, thanks to her hair tutorials and the Pinterest boom! She was seeing a huge increase in her traffic and audience, which opened up a ton of potential customers for us. She would link to the Etsy shop and drive her traffic there, which was awesome! So, in that respect, we got a little lucky. She was offering something on her blog that people wanted (easy and attainable hair tutorials) and a huge platform was taking off (Pinterest). We were able to leverage those two things for the benefit of our business and it was great!
Did you have another full-time job when you started EA? If so, how did you make the transition?
When we first started EA, it was the summer before my Junior year of college. I was living with my sister for about 2 months (her husband was traveling a lot and I didn’t have much else going on) in Raleigh, NC. We ran the Etsy shop (which we were getting maybe a few orders/week on) separately from NC and IL, where I was attending college. I ended up transferring to NC State for the Spring Semester of my Junior year, so then we were back in the same city! We continued to operate the Etsy shop together for about 2 years, my sister working as a hairstylist, me finishing up college and working part-time at a retail job. Then, in the summer of 2013, I was preparing to move to Chicago and my sister was anticipating the arrival of her first baby. She decided to step back from the business and let me run it on my own. It was still very much a hobby at this point, self-sustaining with the orders we were getting, but definitely not enough for me to support myself with.
I had spent that summer before my move saving up enough money to get through three months of living in Chicago without making a cent. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and had an unpaid internship lined up, so I wanted to give myself enough time to do that internship and find a FT job. I started the internship – I was doing social media for a restaurant and nightlife company – and was working on Elisabeth Ashlie on the days I wasn’t interning. It was at this time that I took the leap and created my own website, which is what you see today. Having my own website (outside of Etsy) allowed me to start selling curated goods – jewelry that I wasn’t hand-assembling and designing myself, as well as other small goods, like mugs, pouches, etc. It was a way for me to have a more consistent inventory level without feeling like I had to constantly be making jewelry to stay afloat. We had gained a pretty consistent customer-base by this point, so I was working nearly every day on making jewelry, shipping orders, and responding to emails. I was also working weekends. I had a tiny desk setup in my equally tiny Chicago apartment bedroom. It wasn’t an ideal working situation, but I made the best of it!
I was spending a lot of time working on the business – advertising on my own Instagram and blog, creating new pieces, running sales. I had quickly learned through my internship that I loved the idea of being able to work for myself. I spent about 4 weeks at the internship and decided to end early. The time I was spending working for free for someone else was time that I was taking away working for myself to earn an income. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the three months worth of living expenses I had saved up was not completely run through, in fact, I was adding to it! Because I was staying afloat financially and could see that I was getting a pretty consistent number of orders each week, I decided to go all-in and see if I couldn’t make this business my FT job. My perspective on it shifted in that moment, it was no longer just this thing I liked doing for a little extra “fun money”, it was going to be the thing that supported me.
I was determined to find a way to make it work – I worked tirelessly, all hours of the day and through the weekends. There was no “business hours”. I busted my butt to keep improving the website, offering new products, upping our game on social media, participating in events, and more.
It grew from there and, at this moment, it has been almost 6 years since this business has been my full-time job. I’m able to support myself and my husband through blogging and my business and that is amazing to me. I don’t take it for granted for one second. It’s such a luxury to be able to do something that I love and be able to make enough money from it to support us!
What was the biggest challenge with getting a small business started?
I’ll share what the biggest challenge was in going full-time, since that’s when it got real. The answer is two-fold: the comparison game and the pressure I felt to really make it work out. It’s so easy to get yourself trapped in a negative headspace, constantly comparing where you are to where someone else is. I love the saying, “don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle”…that is so true! Every single person is on a different journey, timeline, will make different decisions and see different outcomes, that’s just life. And that’s okay. In fact, I think that’s great! We all have our own experiences and perspectives because of it. I wish I had given myself more grace and not looked at big-time companies that were killin’ it, feeling like I needed to constantly do more, be better, etc. The second part of that was completely self-imposed. I put a ton of pressure on myself to make EA become my FT job because I wanted it to be so badly. Not only did I not want to work for someone else, but I truly loved what I was doing with the business. I woke up excited every day to work on it (still do!) and help it grow. That pressure, though, meant that I sacrificed a lot of time for myself, worked long days and worked through weekends, always thinking of ways to improve the business and new things that I could offer. While those aren’t bad things, they were taking a toll on me mentally, and that’s not healthy or good. I wish I had given myself more grace.
What would you do differently, now that you know more?
I would’ve started my own website sooner. I love having control over the design, layout, customer experience, everything. I don’t regret anything or wish that any part of the story of EA were different, though. I believe in the journey and all the little decisions that get you to where you are.
Do you suggest starting on Etsy?
We had a great experience with Etsy. It’s been a couple years since I shut down the Etsy shop and focused solely on our own website, so I can’t speak to what it is like today, but it was perfect for us! It was very user-friendly, easy to direct people to, and has the built-in search function, which allows potential customers to find you, even if they didn’t know your business existed. I’m not sure what the fees are like these days, but I would recommend that you look into it! If you’re starting a business creating or selling something that would fit in on Etsy, it could be a great option for you!