This is an interview with one of our clients, Amy Stringer Mowat, who runs Aheirloom. Aheirloom specializes in state-shaped cutting boards, and also creates beautiful hardwood boards, gift items and limited edition products. Learn about how Aheirloom continues to refine its unique brand vision as the company grows.
Interview with Amy of Aheirloom
How did you get your business idea, and what kind of market research did you do when starting out?
We had a wedding or rather an extremely personal event. In the business climate that we started in, this was the way to inspire a new venture. Most of the early “market research” went in finding wedding vendors and working on an aesthetic for the event that was extremely personal, fresh and modern.
Both Bill and I have our Masters in Architecture so we are very aware of design and thinking about form. We also believe in originality, whether it be in the use of new materials, new manufacturing techniques or new form. Our market research is based in how to get things made well and how we can have a hand in the process. In the end can also want to maximize the output of a product so that it came be sold on a larger scale. Early on it became very clear to us that our customer base was looking for something familiar, but updated and authentic. Authenticity means we do all of the designing of the product and that our personalization is fresh and unique as well. This has been the best recipe for success so far, creating a distinct product line and voice within our industry.
How many people currently work with you?
As we have grown and scaled our business, we have needed to limit the amount of manufacturing we can do on our own. We are wrapping up year four and currently have approximately 4 to 5 manufacturing partners all based in the Northeast. We tend to order parts and pieces from these family run businesses and do the assembly ourselves in our Brooklyn Navy Yard studio/workshop. I think both Bill and I want to see the final product that is being sent, we also need to have the work on hand to personalize our designs.
Our design studio is also a pretty special place that is constantly evolving. When we moved in mid 2013 we shared the space with 2 other people. Needless to say we spent a very cramped holiday season getting orders out. Today the space is a full HQ and we might actually finally have it in its most complete designed form.
The best part of the office is the fact that we have two full time designers/production assistants and all around awesome ladies (featured in our most recent blog post). I think that we have always wanted to work with younger designers and help them find their way in the beginning, and to have the opportunity to be truly hands on for their first job. Offering someone a full time position is something we take very seriously, as this is sometimes a scary step in a business, but having the space to have meetings (less often than we would like) to talk about the design work, and plan for each season is pretty cool. We are so pleased with our team this year; they are extremely hardworking and dedicated to the brand.
How long did it take before your business started making a profit?
AHeirloom INC has been profitable from the day it started thankfully. I always say we are in business to make money and to support our family, so to carry on day to day, we need to see profit from the hours, days, and weeks of work. In some sense this might be a more naive way of running a business, but we are in it for the long haul, as they say. Thankfully, we had great luck when we started and have been able to maintain a good balance of growth and increased revenue. As we have made plans to grow into new marketplaces or add members to our team, our take home pay has changed, but the business has been consistent in its growth. I definitely feel like we will be making bigger moves this year that will take us out of our comfort zone, but both Bill and I believe in measured growth and creating a higher quality item each year.
We are self funded these days and the need to come up with new work has really been a factor in the last few years. We have had to push ourselves a bit more to stay relevant and in focus.
How are your products created? What have you learned about this along the way?
All of our work is digitally made on the computer using the 3D programs that we were trained in during school. Bill runs another company full time and it is a digital fabrication company, so it has always been quite easy for us to prototype our work and get them out of the computer quickly. The work we create is digitally made, with fabrication techniques that are managed by computers and super skilled people who understand how they work. We also run two laser cutters in the Navy Yard, so we are constantly making pattern prototypes and cutting board patterns, working on using new materials.
We have learned about volume, this was the biggest lesson in the early years, how to ramp up production almost immediately.
The later lessons have been about how to promote new work and get it out into the world.
How do you handle shipping and customer service and organize the back-end of your business? What tips do you have for newbies?
Customer service is a huge part of what I do daily and I would really like to pass this job onto someone else soon please! …but it is tough. I like to know about every detail or interaction in the end. With the kind of business we have, it seems like our customers want to hear from us. I can tell when I respond they tend to feel really special. The issue that we have is that people assume we are larger than we actually are so they appreciate the attention from the owner.
I have been working with our team recently about getting on track with a formalized set of procedures. Situations arise all the time with custom work and all of the partnerships that we have, so it is really important to write these insider tips down. I have to get things out of my head and share with everyone in the office. We have a procedures manual in process and it is an ongoing project for sure. We set up guidelines that we would like to follow and write out the details so that anyone coming in on their first day will be able to read and understand some of the more manual tasks. The current team is helping write the book, from laser cutter maintenance to dealing with an incorrect custom order.
What setbacks have you weathered?
I am particularly challenged by the idea of organization… this is a major setback for me personally! And believe it or not, I am so slow to adapt and to move onto the next thing or product. We have had such success with the state shapes and their customization it was hard for me to realize we needed to expand. I had always thought of our company as an “heirloom” type product. We would create items that did not need to be upgraded or updated each season, that our word of mouth sales and the quality of work would keep us comfortable, but business is rough. The product line was copied by larger companies with more access to the marketplace than us, and it became crystal clear that “new” was the only way up.
While I think we are weathering this with new work, it was a major lesson about the culture of being a business owner and moving your work forward. I have gotten used to the idea that if your work is seen as successful and your design has been published or featured, it will be copied. The best route is to continue to innovate, and find a way of being the signal rather than the noise.
What problems were you running into that led you to contact Aeolidia?
Our website needed to be updated desperately and along the way working with Aeolidia we found out it was time to truly update our branding as well and I am forever grateful for the gentle push in that direction. In terms of our website, we needed to add a great deal of specific drop downs and new ways of highlighting the customization that is possible with our product lines. We really needed to have these details captured by our platform so that the manual translation of the hearts, houses, stars, initials, dates were optimized. We basically needed our own website to work the way our business is run. Rather than being run by a larger company we also set out to bring our customers to our online home.
Along with finding a way to make ordering easier for our company, we were rather late in realizing we needed to develop our online voice and our aesthetic. We wanted a place to share the ins and outs of our office. We wanted a place to share news about our new work that was once again authentic, so our blog was born.
How are the things different for you now that you have the custom website? What has changed?
I am 100% more proactive about our business and more excited about what’s to come. It is really great to feel empowered by the changes within the online community and realize that the upfront effort that you put into your virtual home is going to directly benefit your business. As other platforms change and new online selling opportunities arise, we feel comfortable that we are carving out our own unique brand vision and voice; this is huge. From a sales standpoint, from the start we have seen our sales on our site increase daily. While we have seen a drop on other online platforms, we have seen nothing but growth through aheirloom.com.
While our company has been known for getting great press, we have seen the editors and influencers get so much more from a trip to our site, rather than a simple line up of our products. They get to know our story and our process; they get excited. It also helps them continue to recognize our growth and support the new work. From a production standpoint, we are processing orders better and with a bit less time each week.
What are your plans for growth?
The plan for growth this year is to streamline the product offerings. We are taking a step back from “yes” for the last quarter of the year and assessing how to focus on making a more curated offering for our customers. I tend work with the rule of three: three styles, three scales, and three material choices, but for our spring collection we are going to focus on one material, one style, and one scale. I am excited to focus this effort, we have learned a great deal about what our customers are looking for and we feel like our growth will be based on more considered options. We will be retiring some of our favorite heirloom pieces to make room for less. Odd as it sounds, I feel like 2015 was the first year we forced ourselves to look outside of our success and foster new relationships with people who are more business minded. While both Bill and I are creatives by nature, business is something that can be learned on the fly, but it helps to consult with minds that are more focused on the bottom line. We hope to add some of these minds to the team this year.
There is also a rumored name change, nothing too drastic on that end, but finding a way to expand the concept of our company. The “A” in AHeirloom INC has been for my name Amy, but this business is becoming a bit bigger than me, so this new name must expand with us as our opportunities grow.
The AHeirloom identity and website
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