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10 things I've learnt in 10 years as a small business owner!

10 things I've learnt in 10 years as a small business owner!

My pride and joy, The Curious Pancake turns 10 this month! I can't quite believe I've been a small business owner for a decade, and yet, at other times, it feels like I've been doing this job my whole damn life! One would think, given I've been doing this so long that I'd be a pro by now, wouldn't one?


Rather than casually mincing from one success to another, pocketing the spoils of my part-time toils, I have instead, worked an eye-watering number of hours, only to fall slowly and gracelessly down and then up again, and then down again, and then up again a really weird, gravity-defying hillock populated with occasional cow pats and occasional minor pockets of gold. Not quite sure where I'm going with this analogy, so quickly glossing over all that, and without further ado, in the style of a Buzzfeed article, here are 10 lessons I've learnt in the last 10 years, I hope you can find some worth in my words, or, at the very least have a bit of a giggle at my mistakes :)

1. Craft Fairs can be a blessing and a curse

Anyone who's ever exhibited at a craft fair knows that every time you're accepted to sell your wares at one, you're entering into a raffle with largely unfavourable odds, where the prizes are either: ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

  • 6 hours of boredom, piffling sales, questioning your entire life's decisions that have led you here⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
  • Just about breaking even (not taking into account the hours of prep you did the preceding two weeks or the exhaustion you feel at smiling all day whilst listening to customers saying "I could make that"), or⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
  • Amazing sales, fab customer interactions, and a warm glow at your life choices.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Fellow illustrators/designers/crafters will know that you go through far more collections of the first two 'winnings' than you do the latter to start out with, and boy, is it character building!! 😂⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Despite my sarcasm I do really still like doing craft fairs... nothing's more satisfying than seeing a customer laughing in appreciation of one of my cards. I wouldn't say I've honed my craft fair skills to a fine art, but I definitely don't have to do the same amount of prep as I used to do, and I can take the 'Bad Fair Day' events a little more on the chin than I did 8-9 years ago!⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
My 7 top craft fair tips are

  1. Bring enough clothing for all temperature changes!
  2. Bring at least £100+ of change
  3. Bring a backup charging battery for your phone/hand-held payment machine
  4. Have enough carrier bags
  5. Always have a kit of blu tack, duct tape, bulldog clips etc for any display that's intent on collapsing
  6. Flask of tea/coffee Always.
  7. Talk to stallholders about other good fairs to do (particularly important when you're at a not-so-good event!😊)

2. You'll never have the right packaging aka: packaging is a nightmare.

The number of book wraps and PIP* boxes I've bought in my life as a small business owner is truly vast! I didn't even know what PIP boxes were when I first became a small business owner, so I made lots of bad packaging choices. Most of the time, even now, I buy my packaging from eBay, and it still varies hugely in quality, but I'm getting better at sending stuff back when I find out the "quality" cardboard listed is the "wafer thin" variety. If you sell a variety of products of all different sizes, people will always find a way of buying things that render the packaging that you've got unusable! On such occasions I often take the hit on postage and send things in two parcels, rather than spend ages making some sort of Frankenstein parcel that fits everything in. The good thing about ordering different products from suppliers is that I've never had to buy bubble wrap since my first year of business... I've always been able to recycle the packaging that stock arrives in. Of course, it's always better when they send stock in totally biodegradable packaging, but for some breakables, there's still, sadly, nothing so good as bubble wrap! 

*PIP = payment in proportion

3. It's worth dabbling in social media advertising

You can spend a few pounds a day and get results. Don't pay someone to do it for you, because they will always charge you far, far too much. My tip is to see what you can figure out on your own first, or pay a really small amount of money to do a short social media marketing course on Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, or a similar e-learning site.

4. Stationery is always really exciting

Stickers, return address labels, normal address labels, personalised tape, and (my Achilles heel) rubber stamps are totally what owning a business is about for me. In fact, if someone had got me my own rubber stamp set and printed me a load of stickers in the early days, then deprived me of sleep and money for 7 years, it probably would have worked out as an equally joyful experience to running a business for so long.

5. A logo is worth paying money for

Oh man, I could write my whole article on this one. When I first started out, I literally went through a bazillion different fonts on FontSquirrel, seeing how the words "The Curious Pancake" looked in all the different fonts. This was my first, and pretty much only, step in creating my business logo. I knew I wanted something with a handwritten feel to it, but I didn't fully appreciate that this way of DIY logo design would never be unique. In fact, I was never happy with my logo and kept changing it with alarming frequency in the early days of my business (a real design no-no if ever there was one!). About 4 years ago I eventually settled on a font I felt was quirky enough to represent Pancake and tried to be happy with it. But I wasn't. It said nothing about the creativity behind my business. And so, when I had a little cash in the bank last year I decided to employ a logo designer to create my very own original logo. And it was 100% worth it. Christine Hughes from Aeolidia developed a cheerful, quirky brand identity for me, and when it came to the logo she hand-drew each letterform, creating a completely unique look. I still get such a rush of pride when I see my logo printed on the back of my cards and other products, and I really appreciate the thorough job that the designer and creative team at Aeolidia put together for me. It was also such a relief to outsource this really important part of my business to someone with the skills and experience to really make it work. Again, back when I first started my business I thought that, as a creative, I should be able to turn my hand to anything creative, like logo design or product photography but over the years I've come to realise that, in the end, it really pays to outsource these things to the professionals!

6. Product photography is really, really hard to get right

This one kind of mirrors what I was saying in lesson 5, in that I should have realised sooner the monetary value in employing someone who knows what they're doing! But, I'm going to cut myself a little slack here, I really did think I had the skills in the early days to do my own product shots. I had a good camera (mistake number one: assuming a good camera = good photos) I had a continuous lighting set up (basically three diffused light lamps), I had my background paper set on an infinity curve thingy and shot all my products against a grey-ish background. Then I spent about 100 hours faffing about with them in Photoshop afterwards to make them look professional. I continued in a similar sort of setup for longer than I care to remember. I wasted loads of money on naff backdrops and props that were never quite right. My big breakthrough came when I learnt enough Photoshop skills to be able to drop card images into a blank mocked-up greeting card. This is how I create all my isolated (white background) shots of greeting cards to this day. It's easy once you know how! For all my lifestyle shots, I use a product photographer (the fantastic Holly Booth), occasionally I'll still do my own (I'm getting better at sorting out my lighting!), and occasionally I'll just use the product photos from my supplier (especially if they have the white pack shots which I prefer for my website).

7. Never pay a company to do marketing or SEO for you unless you have masses of cash to burn through really, really fast, with no tangible results.

By going with an agency you're essentially paying the wages of 20 staff members. And they're not even experienced in marketing, they're just kids that have recently left school, that can't spell and haven't a clue what they're doing. Trust yourself, you know more about marketing than you think you do, and go do an SEO or marketing mini-course with someone like Menekse Stewart. Pocket your cash. Do not give it to the Marketing Company. Repeat, do NOT give it to them. 

8. If someone copies you, rise above it and be better than them.

Unless they copy your entire website, in which case kick their ass. Read about my battle with the knobheads here.

9. Part-time is not a crime!

I ran my business part-time for nearly seven years. In that time I learnt a lot. I learnt lots about customer service (despite having a fair amount of face-to-face customer experience from my days as a retail assistant in various greeting card shops, and a couple of lovely-smelling stints in The Body Shop!), and a lot about what products were selling and what weren't. In the early years, I needed a regular 'boring' job to keep paying the bills, but that cushion of money allowed me to take a few risks with the business, and keep going when it was perhaps a bit of a financial disaster! This way isn't for everyone, it was a real slog, and is definitely not a get rich quick scheme, but if you have the grit/determination/bloodymindedness it's definitely one way you can start a business without having lots to lose! I make it sound so glamorous, right?! ;-) 

10. You'll never have time to write enough blog posts

Case in point, I don't have a 10th lesson to give you right now. Maybe the 10th lesson is to hire a blog-post writer, but it's probably not (so don't email me).


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If you've found even a small part of this blog interesting or useful, please feel free to share it with others. Or if you have some business tips you'd like to share below, I would love to hear them!

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'Course you bloody do! Here are our bestselling cards:

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