starting a creative upholstery business
A few people have messaged me lately asking if I had any advice on starting an upholstery business. My initial thought was ummm? What? don't ask me. I stumbled into it and starting down the path learning as I went. No plan just a big old passion for it and the desire to learn.
Then I thought well I suppose I do have a few things to say about it. I started this post a different way and then about six paragraphs in it clicked. I started over. I realized who I needed to talk to. Not the person who wants a upholstery business in the traditional sense with a brick and mortar and only client work. That's not who would want my advice. The person reading this would be the creative person who loves upholstering and designing. Loves fabrics and furniture and wants to build a creative business that reflects them. This post is for you.
There are a whole lot of women coming up in upholstery out there who started in a very similar way as I did. (& here I thought I was so special) Many started with their own projects then a friend or family member saw what they were doing and asked them to do something for them and then on it goes. I personally started by re-designing upholstered pieces for myself so I could blog about it. Then upholstery fever caught me and after I had several pieces under my belt I started selling them at a local boutiques. What that allowed me to do is experiment with different projects at my own pace. I started with the easier projects then took on harder pieces as I wanted to learn. If they didn't turn out the first time I could redo them until they did and no one would ever know. I experimented with different fabrics and details and eventually came up with my own style. This was so important to me because I didn't just want to do the upholstery work I wanted to also be designer. If you want to be known for your design talents as well as your technique you gotta design some pieces right? Eventually people who saw my work started to ask if I could do something for them.
So where do you start?
What would I say to someone wanting to get started in this business? I'd say just do it! Take the leap. Here’s a few ways. Try one, try them all. It will be a process to find what’s right for you.
There are many ways you can sell your work. You can sell in a boutique, at shows, online through sites like Etsy & Chairish or from your facebook and Instagram. Craiglist and Offer up are not good for this in my opinion. Those people will beat you down if you have a tender heart.
If you are wanting to build a local client base selling on consignment in boutiques or vintage shops could be the way to go. It will cost you some of your profit by way of consignment fees but this part of the deal. If you are looking to build your business it will be worth it. Consider it advertising. I have been very lucky to find shop owners who sell my consigned pieces but also are great at giving out my info to anyone who would ask. If you are just starting out you probably don't have a very large social media following. This will also help you build your social media presence. It will give you something to post about. You and the shop can cross promote each other. It's a win win. Find a shop that your pieces look good in. One that your ideal customer would shop at. Go walk through a few and see which one feels right. Keep in mind the perfect shop might not take you on until you have some history to show them. If you find that you have to start out in a location that's not your ideal you might consider renting a booth. It's a lot of work but you can control the whole space and create the look you want your customers to see. They will notice you especially if you're the cutest booth in the shop. Then once you have a few months under your belt and photos of your work you can take that to that perfect store and show them what you have to offer. They can't take everyone off the streets it's their business. Do the work to show them you are serious and consistent. Selling this way was a huge part of how I started taking on custom clients and I still get them this way. People see your work in the shop and think "hey maybe she can redo my chair". It's a great way to build a client base if custom client work is your goal.
Someone recently told me selling in shops is old school and had to laugh. Call me old school then. It works for me.
Another option is to sell your pieces at shows. Renting space at a show is a great way to advertise and build you social media following. Put up a sign that says follow me at… & have your instagram & facebook listed. I found that selling big pieces at the price I needed was hard at shows but the exposure could make it worth it for you. Perhaps do one or two show stopper pieces then fill in with pillows and small items that are less expensive. Have business cards and give them out. When you are ready put up a sign up that says I do custom work. Honestly I’m not a show person. I don't like hauling everything around or having to accumulate that much stock. Some people love them and there festive vibe. Shows are also a great place to network with other creatives. Again you may have to start out with smaller shows and work up to the more well know ones. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get in the first time.
If those aren’t your deal selling online through places like Etsy and Chairish is a good option. They will take a percentage for the service. This may be the option for you if local custom clients are not your focus and you want to have a larger pool to sell to. I've never done this because I have had good relationships with shops and I don't want to mess around with shipping. Lots of people have success doing it this way. A benefit would be you can keep your brand clear because you aren’t tied to a shop that might confuse it.
The last option would be to open a storefront. This I would not be a first step but something to build up to. As you may know I had a retail shop in my town for the last three years. I decided to close it and now work from my home studio again. No regrets I just didn't want to be tied down with a store front anymore. I don’t want to carry inventory and constantly have to keep it fresh. I loved it until I was over it. I will say I did get many local clients by having that shop in town. The way I did it was a little unique in that I shared space with a Vintage/Antique shop. My workshop was in the back. I also rented the front section so that I could control the way my space looked. People could come in and get a feel for my style and see my work. Someone else ran the storefront while I worked in the back. Sharing space is a good option to keep your overhead down. Another option with a storefront would be to be by appointment and only be open to the public a few days a month.
Once you build your clientele you can decide the route you want your business to take. If you no longer want to do any of the above and just stick with custom work, do that. You'll know by then the way that works for you. I never would have thought I'd enjoy custom work so much. I know lots of people who dislike it, they just want to create what they want. That's the cool thing about a creative business. Everyone has to find the route that works for them. There's no one way to do it.
Are you ready?
So now you ask, how do you know you are ready to sell your work? I'd say when it doesn't terrify you. Of course you will be totally nervous at first but the kind of nervous that's exciting. Do the work to learn as much as you can, practice, then one day you will know it's time to take the leap even if it scares you. I took on easy projects at first and built my confidence from there. When I decided to take on custom work I was honest with people and told them I wasn't the best person for the job when I didn't think I was up to it.
At this point my business is made up of 80% custom work and 20% pieces I design and sell. I still allow time to create pieces to sell even though I could stay busy with client work. I want to design pieces because it feeds my soul. It builds my brand. Most of my clients know and like my style and that's why they work with me.
One last thing. If you are overwhelmed by all the competition out there or feel like its already being done better than you can do it. I would suggest taking a break from following those in your niche (except me of course ;)). Try following other artists like photographers, painters and fashion designers. When I started doing upholstery I wasn't following any other upholsterers. I followed some DIY bloggers that did upholstery here and there but not people trying to make a business out of upholstery. It helped me find my groove without feeling overly influenced by people in my niche. It helped me find my style. Sometimes you need to put your head down and find your own way. Now that I know who I am & where I want to go (most days) I enjoy following tons of upholsterers. When I get that icky competition thing creeping in I take a break. It’s like that quote “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken” It’s so true. I say it to myself all the time and now I’ll say it to you,
just be you.