Wendy Downs is the owner and founder of Moop, an online shop that sells stylish, utilitarian handmade bags for men, women and children. Is it successful? Just ask her devoted fans, who rave about the quality of both the bags and the customer service.
Downs' success seems almost too easy. The four-year-old business turned a profit in its second year, and it has grown from one old sewing machine and an Etsy shop to a storefront workshop in Pittsburgh and its own e-commerce site.
Find out how Downs turned an idea into a success story, with no previous business experience -- plus a giveaway below!
How did you get the business started?
After I graduated in 2006 I was basically unemployable with a useless graduate degree in art. I was using this old sewing machine to sew together a bag for myself. It wasn't a very nice bag, just a rectangle with two handles, but people started asking where I got it, and if I could make them one.
Then my sister-in-law came to visit and she asked if I had ever heard of Etsy. A few months later, I set up shop, and within three days somebody had bought a bag.
Do you regret getting your art degree?
It wasn't totally useless. My degree was in photography, and I do take all my own product photographs. If I'd only had an "Accounting 101" class, though...
(If you're wondering if a graduate degree is worth it for you, read this.)
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Get started with a free financial assessment.
Were you scared about running your own business?
There was a short time where I was working another job, and the moment when I decided to quit was scary. But so far it’s been only good. My dad ran his business and both his parents ran their own business, so there was this entrepreneurial thing within me that I hadn’t tapped into.
I tend to operate on the philosophy of just doing things. Sometimes that works for me, and sometimes it doesn’t. But if I don’t try, I tend to wonder what the outcome will be.
What is the advantage of being on Etsy?
Etsy was a business incubator for us. You’re plugged into this constantly-viewed website where people are flooding in daily. And it’s super easy. Within 15 minutes you could have a shop up and running. Their interface is easy to use, and there are so many tools like order management and product management.
But of course your success depends on the quality of your products, your photos, and your descriptions, so those are things a seller should try to do well.
How did you know when it was time to have your own site?
It was a very conscious decision early on that I didn’t want to be known as an Etsy brand, or be attached to another business’s name. People who find something in your shop will say “I found it on Etsy," instead of talking about you . There are a lot of people who just love Etsy, and they want to buy on Etsy, and we love to have them. But about 75% of our business is on our website, which we started a few months after we launched on Etsy.
How much does it cost to run your own e-commerce site?
When we first set it up we were beta testing our friend’s e-commerce tool. So it didn’t cost us anything for the first few years. Unfortunately they decided not to go forward with it, so we are transitioning over to Shopify, which is another e-commerce tool. It has a monthly fee of anywhere from $30 a month to a couple hundred a month, based on the number of items you want to list.
What is the best part of owning your own business?
I feel really proud to have built up this business that can sustain me and my family. And I get to be my own boss. Before I was a single parent and had multiple jobs and was in graduate school. I was never in the position where I could provide the things that I need for myself. Now I can say, “I’m going to take off work today,” and I can focus on more personal aspects of living, and do what I need to when I need to for my daughter.
What is the worst part of owning your own business?
The stress. I’m responsible not only for my own financial being but also for those who work for me as well. In this business sales fluctuate on a day-to-day basis. It’s hard to step back and look at sales on a monthly basis. So I create my own stress when I look and say, “Oh, I didn’t make enough sales today.” Which actually isn’t accurate or useful.
Have there been any crises?
Oh yeah. In 2007 Etsy featured us on the front page on “Cyber Monday.” It was my first holiday season. Before that we were selling one or two items a day, but my sales shot up to 40 a day. And nothing was made! It was just craziness. I would get up at 6:00 in the morning and sew until 2:00 am, and ended up flying my mother-in-law in to help.
We don't do that anymore, doing made-to-order work. You cannot catch your breath, or ever get out from under it. So I changed our production method to make twenty bags at a time. And now, rather than telling myself it’s worth it to make the sale, I mark things as sold out. Our last holiday was the best season we had ever had, and I took four days off for Christmas, which I hadn’t done before.
Is customer service important to the business?
Yes, very. Anytime a customer has a problem or an issue we respond right away. That said, I don’t operate on “the customer is always right” mentality, because it leads to the customer taking advantage of the business and it makes the business really unhappy. But every instance is an opportunity to give good customer service, so I respond to everything.
My favorite part of the business is to hear about how much someone loves our bag, and if we respond to that and just say, “Thank you for the story,” it goes a long way.
What is your work day like?
It’s always in constant flux. I’ve backed off all the sewing to focus on desk-oriented stuff, like working with our accountant. And lately I’ve been re-photographing all the bags, and working on the website. I’m still involved in the sewing every day, in order to keep everything working. I personally probably work 60-70 hours a week. It's taken me a while, but I'm getting to the point where I can have weekends off.
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You were never even a manager before opening Moop, and now you have employees. What have you learned?
The way I run the studio is not, “I’m the boss and you’re the employee.” I give lots of flexibility to my employees to take breaks, take a lunch, and stretch. But I'm still learning to strike a balance. One employee was taking advantage of my flexibility. So I told her her that I respect that she has a life outside of the studio, but I need everyone to be accountable for their time here. Which is a way of saying “I’m not taking advantage of you, please don’t take advantage of me,” but in a less abrasive way.
Is there something else about the business that you wish you had known from the beginning?
If I had to start something new, I would have an accountant from the beginning. It's definitely worth the cost. We would spend hours and hours and hours working on the books, but there was a lot we didn’t know, so we ended up accruing all these penalties.
Any other problems you wish you could have foreseen?
A lot of the most expensive mistakes we’ve made were through advertising. We ran a very expensive ad--expensive for us, anyway--in a publication, but we didn’t see any change in sales. So we learned that the bigger publications aren’t the best place for us to advertise. Now we pretty much stick to smaller, more affordable blogs.
How do you choose what to sell?
I’ve been weeding out a lot of the styles that just don’t have a big enough profit for us. I have styles I like, and our customers like them, but if they aren’t making enough money, I have to eliminate them. Or else it’s just a labor of love, and you can’t run a business like that.
More Entrepreneurship 101
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Downs is giving away one Moop bag - any Moop bag - to a lucky LearnVest reader. To enter to win, check out the Moop collection, then comment on LearnVest's Facebook page with which bag you like the most, and what you would use it for.
UPDATE: Congratulations to our winner, Amber F.! She fell in love with Moop's Waxed Canvas Messenger bag for her hectic lifestyle. But don't fret, readers, we got Wendy to give out a coupon code to those who didn't win. Just hop over to our Facebook page to grab it.
Images Credit: Vinegar Hill Creative