This is an interview with one of our clients, Rebecca Pearcy, who runs Queen Bee, a shop selling handcrafted accessories for your home and life. Rebecca shares her insights on growing a handmade business.
Interview with Rebecca Pearcy of Queen Bee
How did you get your business idea, and what kind of market research did you do when starting out?
Queen Bee really came out of a life-long love of making things with my hands. I was making clothing, accessories, and jewelry throughout high school and college and would sell at fairs & bazaars. So it is hard to really know how I got the initial “idea” – it is as if I was always doing it. But our official start date is when I actually got a business license, which was May 1996. I honed in on making bags because while I love clothing, designing and making apparel is a lot harder and more complicated than accessories. And I like that with accessories, people are often willing to be a bit more colorful, playful, and adventurous, so I could really express my love of color through my designs. And I just love to create things that are functional and really useful on a daily basis.
I didn’t do any market research. I was 23 years old, didn’t know anything about business. I just had a lot of ideas, creative energy, and loved to sell what I was making to others. I was essentially making things that I loved and wanted, and other people started to respond to that.
How many people currently work with you?
I have a staff of 7 worker bees who do a whole range of things including sewing & non-sewing production work, helping customers online & in our shop, bookkeeping, screen printing our textiles line, ordering and managing inventory, and running our wholesale business.
How long did it take before your business started making a profit?
Oh, I don’t remember – I didn’t keep the best books back then! But I don’t think it took very long. I started really really small, had a very low cost of living, and didn’t have anyone else to take care of in my life.
How are your products created? What have you learned about this along the way?
First: idea. I have lots of ideas. The challenge is finding the time and resources to make them happen. Next, working out the design through prototyping and sample making. I do all of the design work and I do it all by hand – no computers. I love this part- cutting, sewing, experimenting, seeing what works, seeing my idea come to life. I get feedback from staff to help edit and adjust to arrive at the final design. Once I’ve finalized the design and all the color combinations that we’ll make it in, we write up instructions for production.
Sourcing materials & hardware is a BIG part of the design and bringing a design to market, so there’s always time spent finding the right materials to work with. I price out all the materials and labor costs and work out the wholesale and retail pricing. We sew up the final samples to be photographed for the website and sometimes also do a lifestyle photo shoot with a model. Once we have the photographs we can build the product pages on the backend of the website. In terms of actually making the products, we either make them at our studio in Portland, or our production partner down the road makes them for us. When they’re finished, we inspect for quality and get them up on the site and on the shelves of our shop!
Some things I’ve learned: a design that I love will not always be a best-seller. I’ve learned that people always love flowers (me too). Everything takes longer than you think it will. Production sewing is really challenging and there will always be something going wrong & lots of problem-solving along the way. There is always more to learn and ways to improve processes.
How do you handle shipping and customer service and organize the back-end of your business? What tips do you have for newbies?
We ship most packages through UPS but do ship smaller items via USPS because it is more cost-effective. We use UPS Worldship software and Dazzle for USPS. One staff member is mostly in charge of handling customer service questions and issues, and she is the main person that also helps me manage the back end of the website. Our lovely website built on Shopify by Aeolidia is pretty darn easy to use so the two of us can manage it pretty smoothly.
In terms of tips, well, like a lot of small businesses, we all have to do lots of different tasks. In an ideal situation, I would be able to hand off more of the backend website management, but the reality is that I am still pretty involved in it. I recommend trying to delegate as much as possible so that you can really focus on the heart of your job. For me, that is design & overseeing the business. Customer service is a hugely important aspect of running a business, and it applies to every business, not just those that sell product. Answer queries as quickly as possible. Be kind, generous, and appreciative. When things go wrong, try your best to make them right. Understand that in today’s social media-heavy atmosphere that word travels extensively, so make sure that your customers are walking away from their experience feeling happy and satisfied. Of course, that isn’t always possible, so remember that it’s impossible to please everyone, all the time. Go easy on yourself.
How does a standard day of running Queen Bee go?
Most days I ride my bike to & from work – this gives me about 7 miles of time to myself, to clear my head, think through ideas, get breaths of fresh air and what I call an “Oregon facial” (a.k.a. RAIN). I check in with staff and check messages and email. I try to take care of any meetings or admin stuff in the morning so that I can focus on design and creative ideas in the afternoon. This doesn’t always happen, though, especially in the 2-3 months before the holidays, which are just sheer madness.
On any given day I’ll have meetings with staff, a business advisor, a fellow business owner, or any number of people. I am always playing catch up with emails (Unroll.me really helps with this!), I may have to run errands to pick up fabric or materials, spend time pricing out a new product, or work on a new design idea (the best part!) or redesign an existing product to improve it. You can also find me taking out the trash or trying to figure out how to help a squirrel or bird that has made its way into the shop find their way out.
Basically, being a small business owner naturally involves wearing LOTS of different hats on any given day. That said, I am always striving to bring my focus back to my most important jobs: design & running the company from a big picture point of view.
What mistakes or setbacks have you had, and how did you learn from them?
Too many mistakes to list here, especially when I was first getting started. I tried to do too much: learn Quickbooks and manage our financials, run payroll and taxes, none of which are anything that I excel at. But I didn’t really know what else to do and who to turn to. I wish I had sought out a mentor or business advisor earlier on. Over the past several years I’ve been taking some business classes and worked with a business counselor who has guided me through many challenges.
I have also gained so much from tapping into my fellow business owner community. I love talking with other creative business types – we share so many similar experiences and I always learn so much from them, as well as feel more connected and supported.
The biggest setback we’ve experienced is the Great Recession. That hit us toward the end of 2008 and we are still working to adjust to the new landscape. That is, far and away, the biggest challenge I’ve faced since starting Queen Bee in 1996. I have learned that even when I (always) try so hard to make the best decisions I can with what I have to work with, it may not work out. I have learned to be nimble, flexible, and not get too attached to the way things have been. I have learned to reinvent myself and the structure of my organization.
How did you promote your business initially, and how has that changed?
Given that I started Queen Bee in pre-internet times (yes, I’m that old), my options were more limited for how to promote. I started out by making a crude but awesome little black & white xeroxed catalog that I cobbled together in the computer lab at my college, Evergreen. I would send that out to interested folks and they would send back (yes, via the postal service) their little order form and payment. I saved all of those. I would also set up outside my college buildings and sell stuff that I made that way. I went to Riot Grrrl gatherings. And a lot happened by word of mouth. Now, it is a whole different universe and frankly, it can be pretty overwhelming. Marketing, social media, advertising, and PR combined is a full time job – it is a whole heck of a lot to stay on top of, which sometimes makes me miss the days of yore which seem simpler. There is so much that is exciting and possible with all the technology and internet development, but there’s a downside to that, too.
How did you know it was time for a new website? Was it a task you were dreading?
Our previous website was totally custom-built and it worked fine for us for a while but over the years it became bandaid on top of bandaid fixes. We also lost our web support person when he took a full time job. Through researching, I found that it was hard to find available developers that knew Ruby on Rails.
Shopify was recommended to me and so I looked into it. I really wanted to switch to a platform that we could mostly manage in-house and not have to constantly have a developer be working on it. I also liked that so many people have been using Shopify and they have a good track record for making improvements. I got bids from three different agencies, and Aeolidia was the clear choice. To some degree I was dreading having the website redesigned because it is so much work to take on a project like that. And it is a risk and investment, so there is always some anxiety with that. But as soon as we started working with Aeolidia, any fears subsided. The process was so smooth, professional, friendly, and organized! Plus, I love the results and I can rely on continued support.
What were the three biggest differences the Aeolidia-designed website made to your business?
Updating the look of the site to reflect our evolving aesthetic, putting more managing and control of the website into our hands, and having a reliable and professional team of folks to turn to for any web or design needs.
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