PLEASE NOTE: THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN IN 2011 AND SOME OF THE INFORMATION IS OUT OF DATE.
This guide is for DIY business owners: people who run a business for fun and don’t depend on it to make a living. I have been selling clothing on the internet part-time since 2005. This is a big list of things that I have learned over the years. A lot of people ask me for advice about selling things online so I hope this can help. This page has tips for people who already run a DIY business but it does not tell you how to start out.
I typed this up almost non-stop over the course of several hours in the beginning of 2011. It's not very organized, so I would recommend skimming through the section titles before you try to read the whole thing. I have a lot of random tips included on this page and it is a lot to read at once.
This guide mainly focuses on easy and cheap ways to promote your products. I think it goes without saying that in order for your promotion efforts to work, you need to be selling something that people are willing to buy and you need to put up new products for sale on a consistent basis. It helps to know what type of person buys the stuff you sell, and to give your little business some type of personality that sets you apart from others. I just use my own personality when I promote my business (for better or for worse).
Ok, here we go!
Flyers and business cards
Carry promotional materials everywhere you go. Drop them off at stores that like to support local culture and small businesses. Record stores and independent boutiques usually do this. If you have friends that are always putting up flyers around town, they might be willing to help you out. I actually haven't dropped off my own flyers anywhere for ages, because I'm lazy and I have friends that do it for me.
Include your flyers in your packages when you ship orders to online customers. You can design your own flyers and have them copied four to a page at a local print shop (the punk rock way!) or get some nice postcards or business cards made. If you are up to designing your own flyers but you don’t have Photoshop, most basic illustration programs will make it easy to put text over a simple background or photo. Look up "free photo editing" on Google to find the latest program.
In my experience, independently owned copy shops have better deals on printing than chains like the UPS store. (And there's also a better chance of getting into a conversation about punk shows with the employees while you wait for your copies!) I like to go to Arbor Press (21st and P Street, midtown Sacramento) because they are locally owned and only a block away from my house.
If you choose to design your own promotional materials, put some time and effort into them so they look professional! If you are short on time, look for templates online. Don’t spend money on glossy cards if all you put on them is your name and some crappy clip art. If you run a DIY business, chances are that you are a creative person who can figure out a nice looking promotional design. Tip: vistaprint.com has free business cards that you can order online. I have seen a lot of crappy business cards from DIY sellers that don't seem to know anything about design. Use a template if you aren't confident in your skills.
Include a simple web address on your flyers or cards. List the URL for your Etsy store, eBay store, blog, or any other web address that is QUICK and EASY to type. People are lazy; they don’t want to have to type in a complicated URL to find your stuff. Even if you don’t have your own website, it’s easy to open up a free blog that has a simple web address and information on how to buy your stuff.
There are a lot of free blog websites. I use Blogger. As I just said, you can use your blog as a free way to draw people to buy your products. Try to post at least once a month so that people who are interested in what you do will have a reason to keep coming back to your website. Make your content interesting and unique. Talk about yourself, your products, or other people’s products. The better your content, the more likely your blog and your online store will be found by a search engine or shared on Facebook. Include links to all your online stores. Create photo galleries of your best products. Blog hosting websites have lots of cool features for you to use, so make sure to explore them and decide what works best for you. If you want to go beyond the basic features, go to http://www.w3schools.com/ to learn some basic HTML so you can customize your blog’s appearance.
Facebook. Twitter. (R.I.P. MySpace) I’m not going to go into detail over these things, just because you should already know how they work. If you don’t, lots of detailed how-to information is easy to find. All I have is two tips:
1. If you want to use Facebook more than once a week to promote your products, it might be best to make a separate Facebook page for your business. (http://www.facebook.com/FacebookPages) It’s easy to overdo promotion and drive your friends to block or delete you. Personal profiles are for talking to your friends; Pages are for marketing. Your Page will hook up to your regular account. Facebook will send you weekly emails with valuable statistics about how many people visit your profile and how effective your posts are. Try to update your Page with entertaining posts to balance out the direct links to your products.
2. Once you make a Facebook Page, you can add a custom “Like” button to your blog or your store pages. This will make it easy for people to Like your business and spread the word to their friends. Look up directions on how to do this on Facebook or Google.
There’s also YouTube. I rarely use YouTube, so I can't give out any advice on using videos to market your business. You will have to find tips about video marketing on other websites.
If you can’t get enough social media, Mashable will keep you updated on new tips and trends.
Trunk Shows/Craft Shows/Etc.
These shows aren't free to participate in, but they are almost always worth your money. I’ve paid $10 at the least, $75 at the most, and there are big shows that charge substantially more. Find a relatively cheap show, haul all your products there, sit on your ass all day talking to people, and then decide if it was worth it for you. Analyze what sells and what doesn’t. Analyze the type of people are spending money on your stuff. Analyze everything. (Try to have fun too!)
If you sell most of your products online, you don't really have to worry about how much money you make at a trunk show. Even if you just break even, or don’t sell anything at all, you still have a great chance to meet people who might look your stuff up in the future. You can also use the slow parts of the day to walk the show and meet all the other vendors. Networking is valuable. My town has a lot of great artists and musicians, and I love meeting them at the events that I participate in. You can make new friends or just find acquaintances that will bring new opportunities to you in the future. Local reporters also like to hang out as these shows to find material for magazine and newspaper articles. Be nice and don’t view the other vendors as your competition.
Trunk show etiquette: even if nobody is buying your products, stick around until the show ends. Whoever put the time and money into setting up and promoting the show will appreciate it. If the show rules specify that things must be handmade, don’t try to sneak in vintage thrift store stuff. Arrive on time, clean up after yourself,and basically just don’t be a dick! Oh, and bring something to read if things turn out to be super slow.
More tips: trunk shows are a great way to unload merchandise that hasn’t been selling on the internet. Online discounts can make your brand look cheap, but at trunk shows a lot of people are looking for deals. Sell that old skirt for $10, that purse for $5, or those custom items that people exchanged for a different size. This takes less time and makes more money than listing unwanted items on eBay for 99 cents, believe me! I like to test out new clothing patterns by making something simple and inexpensive, and then selling the sample for cheap at a trunk show.
An alternative to doing trunk shows is to ask local bands if you can set up a merch table at one of their shows. This works better for small DIY shows instead of shows in big venues. If the band is interested in what you do, they probably won’t mind helping you out. Offering something in exchange is also a nice gesture. For example, I have sold clothes at a lot of local Secretions shows. I buy band shirts from them and re-make them into new designs. (Sometimes bands will offer you a wholesale discount on their shirts, or give you merch that they can’t sell, like that time the Secretions ended up with XXL shirts that were made 5 inches too short!) I also help local bands with clothing repairs and custom orders, and I frequently post local show flyers on my blog.
Selling at concerts can be a little trickier than selling at trunk shows. First of all, the temptation to forget about sales and just watch the bands and get drunk and hang out with your friends is pretty hard to resist (at least for me) so you might want to have somebody take turns with you watching the booth. You’ll need to make sure your booth has enough light, and that it’s not getting in the way of the people watching the band or walking in and out of the venue. If smoking is allowed inside, beware of cigarette smell getting in your products. Watch out for drunks as well! Also, don’t take up the space of the other bands that want to sell their merch. I’ve had to make random improvisations at punk shows that I’ve sold at, based on the size of the venue and the behavior of the crowd. Just like trunk shows, the sales can be hit or miss. (Even if you don’t sell anything, the bands tend to put you on the guest list, so no loss!) I would recommend selling at all-ages shows over bar shows for the simple reason that kids like to spend their money on merch, while adults spend their money on booze.
Model Mayhem is another social networking site. If you sell clothing, you can register as a fashion designer. This site is for the modeling industry, so when you apply make sure you have decent photos of models wearing your clothing. This is a great way to meet people who can model or photograph your designs. It’s easy to find new people who are willing to work for free to build their portfolios.
Take Better Pictures of Your Products
Duh. Photos of clothing tend to look best when the clothes are worn by models, even if it is you or a friend doing the modeling. If you sell accessories, check out the Etsy front page every day to see cool ways to get pictures that pop.
Etsy has some good tips on taking better photos:
Want more? This site has a list of pages with photography tips:
If you’re wondering about my photos, here are my basic rules:
- Make a list of your outfits and accessories before the photo shoot starts, so you don’t forget certain pieces and are able to photograph everything in a timely manner. Watch out: hair and make-up almost always takes longer than originally planned! Be flexible.
- Use my friend Laura as your model. (Just kidding! Find a friend who loves getting their picture taken and who is available for shoots at least once a month.)
- Taking photos outdoor is an easy way to get decent lighting. Watch out for uneven shadows and don’t take outdoor pictures when the sun is at its highest in the sky. Look for cool locations with backdrops that enhance the picture.
- Be careful with the flash. If you need it, put it at its lowest setting.
- Don’t be afraid to take photos at interesting angles. I frequently find myself lying on the ground getting my ass dirty, or climbing up on something dangerous to get a good shot. Have fun! Make sure your model is having fun too. Get them to show some real emotions, and not just fake smiles. I like working with people who laugh easily at all my stupid jokes.
The Canon Rebel DSLR kicks ass for amateur photographers like me. So does Photoshop. However, basic point-and-shoot cameras can take pretty good pictures now, if you can't afford to pay $500+ for a camera.
Taking community college classes on photography and photo re-touching also helps. If you know the basics of photography, it's easy to make the best of whatever cheap supplies you have. Basic photography equipment can also be made cheaply from supplies at the hardware store. Google the different types of photography equipment and then look up DIY versions.
Offer returns and exchanges, especially for clothing that has a tight fit. If a customer has a problem with an order, work with them until you know they are happy. If you give somebody an exceptional buying experience, they will probably recommend you to their friends. After somebody buys something, make sure they know how to easily find your blog/website/Facebook Page.
Good customer service is something that DIY sellers should not ignore. I have seen too many examples of sellers acting unprofessional and immature when a customer has a problem with an order. When I first started selling online, I made this mistake a couple times. Treat your customers with respect and don't assume that they are trying to rip you off. If they aren't happy with an order, cut your losses and accept the return. Or send them a new order if they don't receive the first one in the mail. They will remember your great service and probably buy something from you again.
Optimize your Website
Another thing to think about is web optimization. No matter how you sell your stuff, the buying process should be quick and easy. People will get frustrated and quickly leave your shop if you give vague ordering directions or make things difficult for them. The book Don’t Make Me Think (Amazon link) is a quick read that will give you tips on fixing your website. If you don’t want to buy it, just read some of the popular Amazon reviews that summarize the main points of the book. Even if you don’t actually write the code for your web store, chances are you have some control over the simplicity of the online order process. Also, the easier the process, the better chance you have at selling to foreign customers who don’t speak English as a first language.
Here’s a funny comic from The Oatmeal on how to make your shopping cart suck less.
That reminds me, don’t be afraid to sell outside your home country! Just learn post office rules and fees inside out (customs forms are easy, I swear. Just don’t mark orders as a “gift” because that’s illegal and it messes up the tariff system). Anywhere between 25 to 50% of my monthly orders come from outside the USA. Several times a year I will have a problem with the post office and I end up having to refund a customer or re-ship an order. But overall the losses are tiny compared to how many international orders I get.
USPS is pretty damn reliable for international orders, but sometimes they will take a little longer than expected. If a customer emails you asking where their order is, ask them nicely to be patient for another week or two. If they still don’t receive it, re-send the item or send them a refund. If you want to start small, start selling to Canada, and then gradually move on to Australia and Europe. If you are brave, South American and Asian countries are ordering more and more stuff from the internet. An article I read recently showed that future years will show huge gains in global online shopping. I can’t find it right now, so here’s a similar article.
Keep in mind that more and more people are shopping from their smartphones these days. Your website should be easy to navigate on a small screen.
Damn it, so many things to think about! Don’t worry if you are overwhelmed by all this, I am too!
And now that I’ve mentioned website optimization, I’ve gotta mention search engine optimization (SEO). As with several previous subjects, a fuckload of detailed tips have been written on this that go above and beyond anything I can tell you. Check out http://guides.seomoz.org/ for a beginners guide, or look up tips on Google.
I’ve heard that Etsy has some SEO tools, but since I haven’t used Etsy site in a while, you’ll have to look it up yourself. Having the popular search engines take people to your web store is some of the best free advertising you can get. One example of SEO is…
- Links: Connect every part of your web presence. Website to store to blog to Facebook. Get other websites to link to you. Link back to them. You’ll get better search engine results. Just don’t try to scam the system with links on useless websites. Search engine robots will find out and punish you by messing up your ranking for a while. Those algorithms don’t fuck around!
A great way to get attention is to make something batshit insane. It’s easy to get bad attention now (Regretsy, anyone?) but a good crazy product will get you mentioned in blogs, news articles, and magazines. This technique works great for fashion. Ever see pictures from a couture fashion show? Ever open the pages of Vogue magazine? A lot of famous fashion designers lose millions of dollars on lavish couture shows, but the money gets made up in sales of their other lines of wearable, affordable clothing. The glamorous fashion shows bring cache and attention to the brand name. Barely anybody buys the crazy clothing, but their normal clothing lines benefit from the hype. So, if you have great sewing skills, go out and test the limits of your creativity. Make something truly amazing, without worrying whether or not it will sell. Get beautiful photos of it, or put it in a DIY fashion show. Let people see what you are capable of. Even if the garment isn’t remotely wearable or affordable, you will be remembered, and you can use this to sell your simpler designs.
This can probably work for any type of art form. It might be a time-consuming way to get noticed, but with any luck you can have fun with your creative vision and end up making something that you will always be proud of. Or, just make something dumb like a koozie for a 40 oz bottle of malt liquor, like I did several years ago after a request from a friend.
Find a website or publication that has written about DIY businesses before, or one that you think would be interested in your business. Send them an email. Start small. Don’t chase interviews and articles until you have either a well-stocked web store or some kind of trunk show or fashion show coming up. Unless you live in a huge city, you probably have a good chance at getting into any type of local news publication, especially if you participate in local shows.
Wear Your Products
This is probably the most obvious rule. Wear or use your products. If they are interesting, people will ask you about them. Of course then you will proceed to give them a well-designed flyer/business card with a prominent link to your easy-to-type web address, which is full of nice photographs and simple ordering directions. Right? RIGHT?
Ironically, I am notorious for not wearing my own designs. Once you start spending every hour of every day thinking about clothes for other people to wear, the last thing you want to do is give a flying fuck about what’s on your own body. Black Target tees and thrift store jeans, how I love you!
Free Google Adwords/Facebook Advertising Coupons
I’ve come across a lot of $50-$100 coupons for Google AdWords and Facebook advertising. I haven’t used them yet because I haven’t made the time to look up how their systems work. If you want to try this type of advertising for free, you can find their coupons in a lot of different business and technology magazines. I have found coupons in Wired, Entrepreneur, and Inc. magazines. I’d recommend doing some research on their systems before you jump right in, so that you don’t waste the coupon. Beware: I hear that keyword advertising can be addictive, because there is always room for improvement and always new keyword combinations to investigate. Also, some people find Facebook ads to be a little creepy and invasive, because they show you ads based on the information you share on your profile.
Damn, I keep thinking I’m done with this guide then something else pops into my head. Anyways, getting your stuff in a local boutique on consignment is another way to get your name out there. But it’s probably not the ideal way to sell your products.
Before I tell you the positives of consignment, I’ll talk about the negatives.
I’ve had my clothing up for sale in three different boutiques over the years. Even though I kept 6-12 pieces in the shops at a time, and switched things out frequently to make new things, sales were slow. I think my total revenue from consignment is less than half of my current average monthly sales. Whatever the issue is (and it could be a million different things), my clothes didn't sell very fast. Here are the issues I have with consignment:
- High prices. When I had my clothes for sale on consignment, I didn't know how to price them correctly. (I still don't price my clothes correctly, but that's another story. I'll fix my prices eventually!) Most DIY sellers don't price their clothes like a normal business would. If you want to make any money, you need to take into account manufacturing costs AND selling costs. Pretend it costs you $10 to manufacture a product. You need to sell it to a retail store for $20 to make any money. The retail store then needs to sell the product for $40 to make their own money. Most DIY sellers only double the cost once, so their prices are too low. (This is a very simple example of how retail pricing works, by the way.) Once you start doing consignment, you'll realize that the final price of your product needs to be $40 instead of $20, and you might find out that nobody is willing to pay the $40 for it.
- Stores don’t want to be held liable for any damage to the items that don’t sell. Once a customized pair of jeans I made was ripped when somebody tried them on, and I didn’t get any money back. (I still have no idea how a human being can possibly rip jeans in that manner, but whatever. I ended up making them into this hoodie which I still think is pretty damn cool)
- Stores can be disorganized, and they don’t always call you if your stuff has been selling. Forget to pick up your check every month, and you might just not get your check at all. Two of the stores I’ve worked with were perfectly fine, but the third store accidentally fucked things up. I gave them 20 pieces and signed a consignment contract. Three months later, I came back and all my clothes were still in the back closet. The owner of the shop was very apologetic. I saw that their entire back storeroom was a complete mess, so it wasn’t just my clothes that were supposed to be on the sales floor. I was nice about it, but I haven’t gone back to them since. Once you drop off your clothes, visit the store a week later. I really should have known to check, but the shop was in a part of town that I hated driving to. It could have been worse, though. I have heard of a local DIY seller losing ALL of their products and money when a consignment shop went out of business and never returned any of their products.
Now for some good things about consignment: it is another way to make your products more visible in your local town. When I had clothes for sale at R5 Records, my flyers were used as part of the clothing tags so people knew where to find more of my stuff. Consignment is also a good way to save time because you don’t need to get pictures of your items and list them online. You can also put your sale items up for consignment and you might make more money than if you just discounted the price online. Some designers and crafters focus only on consignment and craft shows and do just fine. Your sales will be better if the market for the store is the same market for your products.
Confession: I don't really like doing local fashion shows. If you don't have unlimited amounts of money, it is really difficult to duplicate the professionalism and glamour of a real fashion runway show. I did have a lot of fun with the four local fashion shows I have done, but I'm not sure when I will ever do another one. A lot of designers seem to have the misguided idea that all they need to do is put some pretty clothes on a runway and then they will get discovered and become the Next Big Thing. In my opinion, local fashion shows are just entertainment. Do them for fun and to let more people know about your brand, but don't expect them to have any more of an impact than a trunk show.
If you choose to participate in a local fashion show, give it all you've got. Don't put half-assed crap on the runway. Don't have your models wear your handmade tops with their own blue jeans. Make everything yourself. Don't use the same outfits in several different shows. Don't act like a celebrity. Don't embarrass yourself!
Links to Websites with more advice
Last words: Want to really grow your business? Don’t focus your marketing on your friends. In the beginning, support from your friends and family is a valuable thing. It will boost your confidence and encourage you to work harder. But eventually you will have to move on. Make it easy for friends to follow what you are doing, but don’t annoy them. New customers can come from anywhere, and it’s not hard to find them!
Also (I just can't shut up) be patient when it comes to improving your DIY business. As I type this, I'm not even following all of the advice that is on this page. My to-do list is a mile long, so all I can really do is slowly chip away at it. Don't let yourself get too discouraged or overwhelmed. A hobby that supports itself should be fun and rewarding!