2020 has been an unpredictable year for all of us. A lot of what has happened in the last 11 months has caught everyone by surprise and shaken our lives in ways we never even knew were possible. Our normal is no longer normal. I mean, who thought a face mask would be an essential wardrobe item for literally everyone on the planet? We’ve had to change how we live, how we work, and mostly how we socialize. And for many of us, we’ve had to rethink the way we make a living.
At the beginning of the year, Lindsey Ferris owned a corporate event production business that she had been running for 12 years along with her business partner and 8 company employees. Then the unexpected pandemic hit, and within months, she lost her business and had to make tough decisions.
My only thought was one thing; I had to figure out a way to make a living. There was no other way.
First forward to date and Lindsey is making a business for herself in print on demand and excelling at it. Her Etsy shop, FerrisBuilt, and her Shopify store FerrisBuilt.net have more than 4500 sales. We sat down with her, over the internet of course, to listen to her extraordinary tale of triumph. She agreed to share her story and hopes to empower new online business owners with what she has learned.
Panic, chaos, and watching it all go down
My name is Lindsey Ferris. I’m an entrepreneur, a mother of 12-year-old twins and we live in Seattle, Washington, where I’ve had a career in the event production business for the last 25 years. Growing up, I was always entrepreneurial, and have had ‘side hustles’ for most of my adult life. I’ve tried my hand at art, got into woodworking and started building furniture, and started an Airbnb that I made all the furniture and art for, with my kids as the interior designers. My side hustles were always a creative outlet for me, in addition to my day job. That is why I had an Etsy store where I would throw my art pieces. I made a few sales here and there but thought nothing of it.
But then, in February, when the coronavirus was taking hold, our industry knew fairly early that things were not looking good because the business involves large group gatherings. By the end of February, we had lost all of our contracts through the fall due to the pandemic. We were unwilling to make any drastic decisions until the end of March, six weeks after we lost our contracts, and we had a much better idea of the scale of impact of the pandemic. We had no idea when we’d be able to work again and unfortunately had to later shut down our business.
Defying gravity and taking the first step in print on demand
I have a single-income household and due to stay at home orders, I couldn’t rent my Airbnb. I had not only lost my business income, but also my investment income from the property, that covered the mortgage. My kids were also at home, going to school online. It was a stressful time. I was looking at different options and was getting overwhelmed. It took me a while to process and get through it.
By July I began to come out of the stress and think about what to do next. You know, there’s always a silver lining in these kinds of things. You get time to process and maybe do something you would never have done before. I decided I’m going to try my creative side and give it my best effort. I started getting ready by doing research and adding more of my art on Etsy, both digital art, and reclaimed wood wall art. In July, I learned about Printify and started adding print on demand products to my Etsy store. I loved how easy it was to make designs, place them on products and, push to Etsy with everything but the customer service fully automated.
Invest the same time and effort you would any other business
To succeed in a print on demand business, you have to put in the same work and skill you would in any other type of business. I knew if I pushed hard enough, I could find success. I was going to use the skills I had from running a business to make it happen.
One of the milestones of a profitable business is to give good customer service. It is the one thing that you, as a business owner, should take pride in. I made giving good customer service my main focus. I would treat my customers the way I want to be treated. Something I learned from having your own business for 12 years.
There’s a tendency for people to avoid difficult situations, but your print on demand business depends heavily on customer reviews. I try to treat everyone with the same level of respect and empathy they deserve. Maybe there’s a product stuck in shipping or a printing error that upsets a customer, I empathize when they are frustrated. I address the problem and communicate early, quickly, and clearly. 99.9% of the time this works, but you can’t always make things right for every customer and that’s ok, as long as you’ve attempted to solve all issues.
3 tips for designing and how to take advantage of current events
Between the pandemic and chaos, 2020 also happens to be an election year here in America. There are a lot of different views right now. Emotions are high, and I feel like people have a hard time hearing each other. Since I don’t like to get into discussions where people attack each other, I started designing t-shirts with statements of how I felt. T-shirts that were comfortable and stylish, that I could wear myself and that didn’t feel offensive. With Printify, I designed and put a bunch of items up on Etsy to see what would stick. I noticed my shirts were selling a lot more, so I kept adding new designs, and it just kept growing. That’s how I decided to make t-shirts the leading product for my business.
1. Design something you want to wear
I have always found the 70s and 80s fondly nostalgic. There’s something about the style I really like. For instance, I like old varsity style t-shirts, with just a last name on them. That’s how I decided on the design to put on my first t-shirt. I created a vintage varsity design because that’s what I wanted to wear.
2. Get inspired by what you believe in
I decided to place the names of people who influenced me on them. For instance, I designed a t-shirt in the varsity style with the name “Fauci” on it in honor of Dr. Anthony Fauci. If you like the man and know who he is, then you relate to it. But if you don’t, then it was just a name on a t-shirt. You could even mistake it for my last name.
3. Keep it neutral to engage a broader customer base
I like the varsity design because it is quite neutral. As an American, I felt the need to balance politics, current affairs, and business. It is very intriguing to design not just for the message, but if someone does not understand the message, they still are not off-put by the design, which is a unique balance. I call it the art of “subtle subtleties,” even though they’re not necessarily subtle messages.
Don’t be afraid to edit your catalog to benefit your customers
In my experience, what has been helping me is to be very intentional in targeting what my customers want. I’m always looking at what my customers buy and create more of what is selling and quite literally what my customers give me feedback on. The trick is to look at it from a business approach of what’s selling versus what I want to make. It can be draining at times because you spend so much time creating the products. I’ve had moments when I think something will sell well and it doesn’t. It is not easy, but I have to get rid of it and focus on what is working. This makes it easy for your customers to have a good experience on the sites and are not surfing through a randomized bunch of stuff.
It’s okay to remove stuff that is not working for you and focus on what is selling, or at least building traffic to your store.
At some point, I had about 200 products in my store. There were various digital art downloads, t-shirts, mugs, wood art, and all these different things that I tried to sell. Then I started seeing that t-shirts were selling better than anything else in my shop. That’s when I removed most of the other products. To be honest, it wasn’t easy. Now, my process is I put a design up – and the wonderful thing about Etsy is you can see how many people have added it to their cart or have favorited it – and if a product is up and I don’t see much engagement over a month, I remove it. If a design gets only one buyer in a month, I don’t keep it. I’d rather keep a shirt that’s selling because I want to keep the demand high, and when people come to my site, they can easily find the bestsellers. If there are too many products, it’s hard to filter through it all.
When Meghan Markle wore FerrisBuilt
When it all happened, I was on a camping weekend, where I didn’t have good cell reception. When I finally got reception, I checked my Etsy shop, something I routinely did because I would get excited to see sales. I was surprised to see that I had three times the usual number of sales, in barely a day. I couldn’t figure out why I was getting all this traffic. As it happened, Etsy traffic stats were delayed, so I had no way of checking where the traffic going to. Later I discovered the cause – the R.B.G. t-shirt I had in my store. I went to Instagram to find out what was going on. Luckily, someone had tagged me on a picture of Meghan Markle who was wearing my shirt! That’s when I learned from the press coverage, that in a move to support small business, she and her team had purchased from a few small business owners on Etsy, including FerrisBuilt.
I had launched the t-shirt she was wearing about a week before. I believe that it was a combination of using Etsy advertising and the t-shirt design. I have to give it up to Printify. I was blown away by how fast things could still ship and how quickly the team and the different print providers could print and ship. The sales spiked and then slowed down, and now they’re pretty much stabilized. I’m starting to get return customers as well as customers that buy that shirt and then an additional t-shirt or wood art. I used the traffic to edit my catalog further. I decided to remove everything except for my wood art and apparel because that’s what was selling.
I’m trying to balance leveraging the traffic Meghan Markle provided me in a very respectful way. Because I’m very grateful for her wearing that shirt and bringing business to my store and I’m quite humbled by it. It is truly amazing to wake up and find out someone like Meghan Markle wore not just the design but what that design meant to me and to a lot of women in America.
Find a platform that helps you maximize your business
Leverage your skillset
The most significant effect after Meghan Markle’s support was an immediate massive spike in sales. I was still green behind the ears with print on demand. So I’m very thankful because I could never have handled it without Printify. I was surprised at the initial stress I felt with the demand and that stress eased as I saw how quickly Printify was able to fulfil the orders.
My experience in events prepared me mentally because you are always dealing with problem-solving on site. It keeps you on your toes so that when something happens, you are ready to fix it. When all of those sales started coming in, I had some challenges. That’s when the Printify team jumped in and started working with me to fix any issues fast. It allowed me to leave the floodgates open and not have to turn away any sales and troubleshoot on the fly. I used my customer management skills to continually communicate with my customers while the Printify team helped me with any printing or shipping issues.
I cannot say it was not challenging because, on top of that, the pandemic had caused operational uncertainties, something entirely out of Printify or my control. But I focused on giving excellent customer service. My belief is if a customer has come to my shop once, they might want to come back, and that people will remember my business if I treated them well. When issues arose, I communicated what was going on and gave coupons and discounts for the inconvenience. I would say, “I’ve got a big rush of orders, and I’m handling it the best I can, but it might not ship out as quickly as I would like. Because of that, here’s a discount code, and thank you for supporting my small business”. It was a little scary, but I ended up not getting any cancellations during that huge wave of orders. Then Printify introduced the Order Routing feature, and now I might have but just a couple of orders that I need to update. It’s gotten a lot easier.
Lean on Printify for support
Before Printify had introduced the Order Routing feature, the biggest issue was making sure I had all my sizes and colors ready to import. This would generally cause significant delays, but the Printify team would step in and help me get it sorted. Because there are various print providers on Printify, I figured out a way to manually switch and import products to order while still providing the same product and not losing business.
The Printify support team, especially, has been incredible. They have the same customer service approach as I do. They are always ready to deal with any issues that come in, there is no avoidance of questions, and they are professional and responsive. They even give me useful tips to help with my business. For instance, when I create a design to send to different print providers, I now make sure the width is identical. When I started, my design placement was a bit too low, and the team suggested placing my designs a few inches higher on some t-shirts because that’s the placement most people liked. I was worried about that because I had about 2,000 orders in, but in the end, I only had about 10 print errors from that huge rush of orders. I was shocked, coz I expected more just from percentages, so I was pretty impressed.
Use advertising and other tools to market your business
A great way to create demand for your store is to use marketing tools on your platforms. I use Etsy advertising to help push a product and get as many eyes on it as possible, when it’s new. It’s my way to quickly test the market. Within a month, I know if a product is going to stay on the site or not. I often initially spend more than I make on advertising, but I learn from it. It’s a little intimidating at first, especially when you’re losing money, but I look at it as an investment in my business, so I set a budget and stick with it. So far, it has worked quite well for my business on Etsy.
Advertising should also be a tool to give you non-emotional feedback on what products are selling and where there’s interest.
Even though I was not getting sales at first, advertising helped build momentum, and people were adding my products to their favorites or their cart. And eventually, the shirt sales caught up with the advertising. If you have a Shopify store as I do, you can integrate with Facebook or Amazon, that’s what I’m doing right now with Facebook ads, and working through testing to find what works.
Above all, don’t be afraid to make the jump
If someone out there has lost their job or is thinking, “I want to work for myself,” I would absolutely recommend print on demand with Printify as a viable source of income. It’s my job now and I pinch myself every day. I get to wake up and design t-shirts and work in my woodshop for a living. My kids are watching me, and they’re inspired to have their own business, and more importantly, are learning resilience in times of hardship.
The biggest tip I can give is to start by creating a schedule and remain consistent. Because with consistency, you start to see results. It will take time, but you will see results, and with them, you can adjust. When I decided to make a living online, it was scary and risky, mainly because it was an industry in apparel and products, that I’d never worked in before. To help me keep on track, I set a goal to create three products every day. Even when I doing my research and learning Search Engine Optimization, I worked on three products every day. I was not always creating three new products, it included editing and optimizing existing products. I still do that to this day.
The trick with print on demand is to find what works for you. It’s all about getting started and trying. 90% of what you do might not work, but there will be the 10% that does… and with that, you can make a business.
The joy of print on demand is you can adapt quickly. Instead of stressing about where my business is going, I’m more interested in seeing where my customers take me. If I’ve learned anything from this business, it’s to follow your customers and fine-tune it. Don’t try to push it to where you think it should go. Right now, I’m going to see where my customers go and what types of products they want. And in five years, I could be doing something different, but I’m excited just to see where this opportunity takes me.
After the loss of my business and job, I had four months of feeling overwhelmed and uncertain. Nobody knew what this year would bring. Coming from a position of not knowing what was next for my career, I couldn’t be happier doing this. I love to do my art and create, and this environment has allowed me the space to pursue it. And you can do it too.
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