Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. Boom.
Hey, you ever feel like maybe we’re overthinking things with the tech startup space? I mean, we keep trying to think of, “How do you add more features to an app? How do you do more with software? How do you keep pushing the boundaries? How do you not fall behind everyone else who keeps pushing the boundaries further than everyone else day after day?” But it feels like it’s just a never-ending cycle of new, new, new, new.
Then we hear about today’s guest, who’s working in old technology, some of the oldest stuff you’re likely to find–leather, handmade leather and no software doing all this. Handmade leather–it’s an incredible business. Wait until you see how big she grew it and how small it started. And it’s all, as I said, handmade.
Today’s founder is Mary Lynn Schroeder. She is the founder of In Blue Handmade. They make beautiful leather journals, belts, bags, so much more that we’ll talk about. This whole interview here is sponsored by, well, by HostGator. If you need a hosting company, I’ll tell you why you should check out HostGator. And Toptal, if you need a developer or designer, other people for your team, later on I’ll tell you why you’ve got to check out Toptal.com.
But first, Mary Lynn, it’s good to have you here.
Mary Lynn: Hey, nice to be here.
Andrew: You know what? You’re someone who has entrepreneurial experience in your past going back to when you were a child. But before you got into this and started this big business that we’re here to talk about, you were working at a distribution company and you’d walk into your office and this sounds beautiful. What would you see when you walked into this office?
Mary Lynn: Well, I worked in music distribution. So, you walk in and you’re in a warehouse full of really cool LPs, records. We were actually in independent vinyl distribution. We worked with all kinds of independent record stores across the country to stock. So, yeah, there was a DJ and there was an online department and then a brick and mortar department, which is what I managed. That’s where we would just sell things to your neighborhood record store.
Andrew: Did you like making calls like that?
Mary Lynn: I mean I liked it. It just wasn’t quite it for me. I liked talking about music. I liked talking about art. That was cool. It’s really cool to be 23, 24 and employed in that capacity. Not everybody gets to do that. But something was missing.
Andrew: Yeah. What was missing? You made a drastic move.
Mary Lynn: I did. I came from Chicago. So, this was sort of the heart of Chicago. I had actually initially started in booking bands and then moved into distribution when I was ready to be off of the road. I was on tour for quite some time. Something just wasn’t clicking. I did not know at the time that I wasn’t making things. Up until that point I had no background in art. I had very little real background in music, other than playing in punk rock bands and being around the scene. I didn’t have a degree in music, a degree in philosophy.
But something was gone at the end of the day and I didn’t always want to go to work the next day. I thought, “That can’t be right.” There have to 1,000 people out there who want this super cool job. So, I quit. And I moved to a farm in Southern Illinois and I bought a sewing machine on the way down.
Andrew: Before we get to that, that’s a really tough transition because if you have a job where you’re looking around and it’s fun. It’s not that you’re shoved into a cubicle somewhere and you hate your life. It’s tough to make a transition. It’s tough to say, “I’m going to give this all up for god knows what.” How did you come to that decision?
Mary Lynn: You know, it’s a lot easier to make giant decisions like that when you’re so young, I think, and you have no concept of consequence. I think that honestly I really kind of lucked into the position I’m in now in that I did kind of throw it all in the wind and take off. I had the impression that the money I had saved up was enough money. It certainly wasn’t enough for any normal adult to actually live without a plan.
Andrew: How much did you save up?
Mary Lynn: I mean $8,000 or $9,000.
Mary Lynn: Which I was like, “Oh, I could live for like two years on this.” No idea what I was doing. I learned. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been thrown into the deep end and have learned since. I think some of it was this naiveté that kind of took me away. I think that it’s really good. I certainly wouldn’t make the decision now knowing everything that I know, but I’m really glad I did it then.
Andrew: On your way you were going to the country in Southern Illinois. On your way, you pulled over and you bought…
Mary Lynn: Yeah. A sewing machine. I stopped at Joanne Fabrics, got a sewing machine. I met a lady who was working the register there who happened to give sewing lessons. So, I took a few lessons from her. I had no concept whatsoever, though, that I was going to be sewing for a living.
Honestly, I had never sewn anything in my life. I had never done much in any sort of domestic sense around the house. I think up until that point my oven had been used for takeout menus. I really didn’t know how to cook. I really didn’t know how to take care of things. So, I bought the sewing machine thinking, “I’m going to make curtains and hem my pants,” and just learn to do some more stuff with my hands, because I felt such a disconnect. It turns out I love sewing and so I’ve been sewing every day since. It turned into a career for me.
Mary Lynn: Cooking did not.
Mary Lynn: Cooking did not.
Andrew: How did your cooking turn out?
Mary Lynn: Terribly. It’s still terrible. Sewing I’m good at.
Andrew: And the way that you started to turn it from just making things for yourself to making things that the world will interact with, it all started when you went to a concern in Memphis listening to Chuck Ragan, who I’ve been listening to just because of you, ChuckRaganMusic.com. I don’t think he’s on iTunes as far as I can tell. But he’s on YouTube and he’s got a bunch of YouTube videos on his site. You were sitting there listening to him and a thought occurred to you. What was that?
Mary Lynn: I had worked with Chuck previously. He was in a band called Hot Water Music. So, when I worked in booking, I worked for a tour called Warped Tour and for a few clubs in Chicago that we had booked Hot Water Music at. They were a pretty formidable punk band in the early 2000s and even late ’90s, I believe.
I thought how was he up there–he had sort of transformed his music into this folk music that’s energetic and really forceful. It gives you a real impression of a hardworking kind of American vibe to it. It’s definitely got a punk edge, but it’s him on an acoustic guitar on a stage.
At that time, when this occurred to me, he was alone on stage. I thought, “How is he writing this down? What is he writing in? How does this come out of this guy who seemed to have the background I did in my head?” It turns out Chuck grew up in the country, but I didn’t know that then.
So, I was like, “How did he turn the page to become more self-sufficient sort of?” I pictured him writing in a leather journal and I drove home from Memphis to Southern Illinois and made one that night. It took me a very long time and it was very crooked, but I came up with the leather journal.
Andrew: How do you make a leather journal at home?
Mary Lynn: How do you make a leather journal at home? I had remnant leather at the time. I found a journal that I liked that I was writing in. I just made a cover for it and stitched it up very slowly and it was very awkward. But it’s a really simple sort of construction. The main thing that I am always concerned with when it comes to our journals and when it comes to our items is our hand-printing process.
I think that’s sort of what sets it apart and I think that’s what makes it special, I guess, in that sense. When I think of Chuck writing, I think of a leather book, but I also think of it with a design on the front that sort of represents Chuck or any person who’s going to sit down and write a song or a thought or an emotion or a recipe they’re going to put down.
Andrew: Why does it matter so much what’s on the cover? Why isn’t it what’s in the book?
Mary Lynn: I think it can be hard to sit down and write sometimes. We’re so busy. There’s so much technology taking up so much of our lives. I spend so much time on my phone and I know I’m not the only person listening right now who would say the same thing. I am very guilty of checking my email at 3:00 a.m. on my phone from my bedside table.
But with a journal, you’d have to put your phone down. You’d have to set everything aside, pull out a pen and put that pen to paper. You have to feel something to do that, something tangible. What evokes emotion is so different for every person. That’s why I think it’s so important to have the right image on the cover, to have this thing that you look over at this book and say, “Oh yeah, I do want to write.”
Andrew: I see, just like listening to Chuck Ragan’s music evoked a thought that then turned into action that then turned into this thing that we’re now here talking about. You’re saying a cover and an experience that a journal gives you can put you in a frame of mind to produce something that you wouldn’t if you were just staring at the same phone or another blank piece of page.
Mary Lynn: Absolutely. I think it should be something really personal. I think in that same vein we put text on the journals as well. I think that’s really important. If you have a favorite song quote or something–like for example, on my first journal it said, “Walk the path overgrown.” I don’t think Chuck actually made up that line, but that’s in one of his songs and that’s what I put on the first journal, kind of an ode to Chuck.
Andrew: How did you put it on the journal?
Mary Lynn: At the time, I didn’t really know how to do this yet. But I used some leather rubber stamp set that we had. So, just like a stamp that your kids would play with at home. And then in ink, any ink at the time, I wasn’t sure how to make that permanent. Now I know that we have to have a specific solvent ink specific to leather. We have to have certain kinds of finishes on our leather to make that permanent. But the thought process was, “I want to try stamping this instead of screen printing or burning.”
Andrew: And the first one did have the stamp on it, did have the letters, did have the whole thing all handmade?
Mary Lynn: Yeah. Again, really crooked. But I have it still. I have it home.
Andrew: Is that the one that you were making up until 4:00 a.m. and you then went downstairs? What happened when you went downstairs?
Mary Lynn: I just showed my friends. My studio was above a bar that all my friends hang out with. I went down there and I’m like, “Hey, guys, I made a journal.” I was really manic and I still had on my pajama pants. I was really stoked. They’re kind of used to that from me. I’m a little quirky. I show up in the middle of the night with something at the bar just like really excited, sort of like out of the lab into the fire.
They were all watching football or something, I don’t know. I’m like, “Look!” They’re like, “Oh, cool.” It wasn’t met with a lot of excitement. I really knew. I had a good idea. I listed one up on Etsy. Within a few days of that, I made a bunch over the next few days until I got to where, “I can photograph this and put this online.”
Andrew: A bunch just for trial, just to see–
Mary Lynn: To get it right. Yeah. You have to make a few before you list them up.
Andrew: The first things you sold, you were telling me before we started, weren’t even leather journals. It was fabric bags.
Mary Lynn: Yeah. Fabric bags.
Andrew: How did you make the first one?
Mary Lynn: That started with like recycled corduroy patchwork kind situations down by Southern Illinois University, which has sort of got it a hippie vibe to it down there. Everybody wanted corduroy bags and fabric pouches and things of that nature. So, I do have a little bit of a sales background. So, I know to make what people want.
Andrew: How did you know what they wanted, that the wanted corduroy bags?
Mary Lynn: I looked at them. I looked at what bags they were carrying. I was like, “Oh, yeah.” They don’t want a Coach-looking bag. This was a cool college campus with a lot of jam bands going on. So, they definitely want patchwork, corduroy recycled material. They’re eco-conscious. It’s a really cool campus, not necessarily even my aesthetic. Sometimes you have to make what people want in order to pay rent and buy groceries and things like that. And that worked.
I kind of found a way then as I grew as an artist to sort of blend that aesthetic with mine and fine this rustic, eco-friendly country Americana look along with the urban images used from my Chicago roots.
Andrew: When I started Mixergy, I thought, “Is this going to be big enough?” When I started my previous online greeting card company, I thought, “Is this going to be big enough?” A large part of my thoughts when I start is, “Is this something so big that it’s worth spending the rest of my life on?” It doesn’t seem like you thought that at all?
Mary Lynn: No. I don’t think I thought through any of it. I think I fell into it. I don’t think I am an extremely ambitious entrepreneur in that sense. I think I make choices based on my team and what would be best for them and what’s best to keep growing the company.
But I didn’t start sewing fabric in the kitchen thinking, “I’m going to be a millionaire.” It hadn’t even occurred to me. I really thought, “I’m going to go back to grad school for social work and this is something I’m learning to do in the meantime.” But it felt right. If you love doing something–for me, I’m a creative person and I have to be challenged in that sense–it just felt right. I wanted to keep going.
I get excited still to this day. When I’m done with this interview, I’m going to turn on my Etsy and look and see how many things we sold and I hope I’m going to be really stoked about it. And I’m proud of my team and I like watching them evolve and grow as artists too. It still doesn’t feel to me–I have some goals as far as distribution. But mostly, I want all of us that are in the room–this wall behind you is separating you from ten people that work with me–I just want us all to keep making stuff.
Andrew: So, it started with making stuff. You sold it one on one to students. You then went into a store and sold it–was it on consignment at first?
Mary Lynn: Yeah. It was on consignment with a little shop called The Smelly Hippie. It was adorable. It had handmade soaps and things like that. They carried my bags. Then I ended up–I became good friends with the owner there. She taught me a lot. Her name is Robin. She’s great. She taught me a lot. I rented out the store next store to hers and created my own little artist boutique that kind of went along with hers. We worked together on a lot of stuff.
So, I had a studio in the back of this tiny space. It was like $300 a month to rent out this space. It was nothing. It didn’t have heat and it was still Illinois. So, winters were horrible. I would kind of sell. I had 30 artists’ work on consignment in the front of the room and in the back of the room I had my sewing machine.
Andrew: What do you mean you had them working on consignment?
Mary Lynn: They would bring stuff in and I’d put a price tag on it and I would keep 30% of the sale and they would keep 70%.
Andrew: I see. You’re not a hippie yourself. I guess you have hippiness to you, but you also have entrepreneurship to you. Even going back to when you were a kid you had all kinds of little businesses. What were some of the businesses you had growing up/
Mary Lynn: I would do things. I would sell drawings and paintings and I would always be trading for other stuff. I always wanted me to trade me this book for another two books and kind of negotiate. I was a little negotiator. By the time I was a teenager, I was booking bands pretty consistently around town. When I was 16 or 17, I remember I was dating a guy in a band in town. I didn’t think they were playing out enough. I was like, “Well, if you’re going to do this, I’m going to make you famous.”
Andrew: And you started making phone calls on his behalf?
Mary Lynn: Yeah.
Andrew: What did you different than other people that got your guy on stage?
Mary Lynn: I just think I kept calling. I think persistence, you just keep going. I think I accepted really low dollar amounts for everything. This has always been a learning process for me. Our price points in our company are very low compared to market. But it’s worth it to me. I want everything to be accessible. I want music to accessible and I want the items that we make to be accessible and that seems like a good choice.
I think the biggest learning experience now for me in the past few years has been how to negotiate with distributors that we use for supplies in order to make that profit margin work for us. I just keep refusing to change my price point online. So, I still want this leather book to be $25, but how do I make sure that I can still pay 10 people out of that? Well, we’ve got to be talking to people who make the books and people who sell us the leather and things like that.
Andrew: I want to understand how you did that. I’m seeing, by the way, that some of the journals sell for $15.
Mary Lynn: Yeah, the little ones. Those are little. They’re mini pocket journals.
Andrew: All right. We’ll keep building up into how you did this, but first let me take a quick break and tell people that if you’re out there and you need to hire a developer–frankly, if you’re listening to me you do need to hire a developer–well, there’s an easy way to do it.
You go to Toptal.com/Mixergy. When you do, what you’re going to get is a company with a network of some of the best developers on the planet. We’re talking about the top three percent. They know it’s top three percent because they have this really rigorous process to figure out who the best developers are. They test them. They screen them. They chat with them. They make sure that they are the best.
So, when you call up Toptal, they ask you what you need, they ask you about your project. They ask you how you like to work and then they introduce you to the perfect person, the match that’s going to help you get the job done. That person can be a full-time worker who works with you long-term or maybe part-time or maybe even just works with you on a project.
In fact, Mary Lynn, is there any software you would want to created that you just don’t have the time to do or don’t have a team do to?
Mary Lynn: Absolutely.
Andrew: What’s that?
Mary Lynn: I want a really customized checkout that was really easy for me to give people the option–like I said, we have 3,000 images to choose from to customize this cover any way they want–but how do I easily make that a checkout process?
Andrew: That works with your shopping cart platform, which is Shopify.
Mary Lynn: Yeah, either Etsy or Shopify or Squarespace. I would love the software to have that done.
Andrew: Perfect. That’s the kind of thing–do you have any developers working with you?
Mary Lynn: Yeah. We have a guy. He specializes more in analytics, but he helps us out kind of across the board.
Andrew: Got it. So, perfect. If he doesn’t have the time to do this or it’s not what he builds, you contact Toptal, you let them know your challenge, you let them know what you’re trying to do, you let them know about this guy who does your analytics and other stuff for you who’s the person who’s probably going to be interacting with your developer from Toptal.
Toptal will go to their network. They will find the perfect person for your team. They’ll introduce them to you. If you like the relationship and you want to start, you continue and you get to have this thing built for you as you need it. And they’re really fast and really dependable because they’re working through Toptal and Toptal makes sure that they get the job done for you.
And if you’re not happy, if you think that what I’ve said here has oversold it, you should know that when you go to Toptal.com/Mixergy, they’re going to give you a two-week trial period, which means if you’re not 100% satisfied, you will not be billed but of course Toptal will still pay the developer. And if you go to Toptal.com/Mixergy, they’re going to give you 80 free Toptal developer hours when you pay for 80.
So, Mary Lynn, it’s a good fit for you or for anyone out there who has an idea like this who has something that needs to get added to the business, but you don’t have the resources, you don’t have the people right now to do it. You can go to Toptal. They will put a person on your team to get this done who will interact with your team and they stand by it.
There’s a reason why Andreessen Horowitz, maybe the most respected venture capital firm now, has backed Toptal. There’s a reason why so many companies like Airbnb and Ideo that really prize their reputation and their software, why they work with Toptal. Go to Toptal.com/Mixergy and you’ll see why for yourself. It’s Toptal.com.
The big transition when you signed up for the service that you talked to me about several times, Etsy.
Mary Lynn: Yes, Etsy.
Andrew: What happened?
Mary Lynn: Etsy–I signed up in September of 2008. I just listed up–I had fabric bags at the time. So, I didn’t have these leather journals yet. But for about a year I was on Etsy before I released the leather items. And it kept me afloat. I was selling one to two bags a day. That supplemented the income of having this kind of tiny little artist shop as well. It also taught me about having my first wholesale accounts, which I found through Etsy. Etsy is such a good resource for things like that.
Andrew: They would just go on Etsy, do some research, find something they’d want to bring into their stores and then they would contact you?
Mary Lynn: Yes. Absolutely. That’s where most of our wholesale accounts have come from, actually. That’s been a really great resources. Etsy has really opened the doors quite a bit for craftsmen all over the world. It’s such a huge place for makers. It’s the global marketplace for handmade goods. I think it has made it possible for us to do this. When I released my first journal, it was in late November of 2009. Through Etsy, it was featured on “The Martha Stewart Show.” I didn’t even know it was going on.
Andrew: Etsy got you into Martha Stewart?
Mary Lynn: Yeah, nobody told me about it. I guess it was just a picture of my journal on a gift guide that Martha Stewart did. Either way I woke up and it was December 2nd, 2009, and I had 80 orders overnight and got another 100 that day. It was huge. This was all because of Etsy and it was all because there was that access to our stuff.
Now there are about a million marketplaces that you can use. It’s been pioneered now back to the maker, we want to know who made our product. That’s a huge trend in the United States and throughout the world globally right now. Etsy really started that and we were very lucky to be at the beginning of that.
Andrew: I have to admit that I must have been–I don’t know, snobby, arrogant or something. When I first saw Etsy, I thought, “This is terrific. It will be a small store for small sellers. There will be one a month.” I had no idea it was going to be this big. Frankly, if you would have suggested, “Andrew, make something and put it on Etsy,” I would have thought, “I don’t want to be a small player in someone else’s big online store.” But that’s not the way it turned out.
Mary Lynn: Right. No. You can do a lot with a marketplace like Etsy and you can approach it however you would like to approach it. There are plenty of people I know who are sellers on Etsy who don’t want this to be there full-time job, that would like to continue to sell one item a day, one item every other day and that’s feasible. You can choose your quantity. You can choose the amount of time and energy that you put into something like this.
It just so happens that we’re an 11% outfit that spends all day every day focusing on that, along with our wholesale accounts and our own retail site now. But you can make it your career if you have the right products, if you have the right photography, if you do the right research on how to place your items on Etsy, what categories. Or you can make a side project a hobby, a supplemental income.
The cool thing about something like that is it’s a really low investment to sort of ease yourself into creating that business. You don’t have to do what I did, which is throw caution to the wind, leave the big city, go to the country and like sign up for this and be like, “Oh, I’m sure it will work out.” That doesn’t have to be your life. You can do it responsibly and say, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to spend an hour every night answering Etsy emails, updating my photography and working on new listings.”
Andrew: Before we continue with the story, right now I’m giving the impression this was easy, but it wasn’t. Even to this point in the story, you had challenges. What was the biggest challenge that you had up until this point in the story?
Mary Lynn: Money. Making money.
Andrew: What was the money challenge? It seemed like you were only paying $300 a month.
Mary Lynn: Yeah. For my studio space I was only paying $300 a month, but you have like a life and a house and a car and phones and trying to make all that work and buy materials and create a line. That’s something that I overlook sometimes when I talk about the challenges. I was up until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning quite a bit developing products when I had a night off. But I worked at Steak ‘n Shake overnights for the first couple of years of even opening my business. So, I would have my shop from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day, and then I would sketch and eat dinner and then I would go to Steak ‘n Shake and put on my apron and little bowtie that they make you wear and work from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. or 7:00 a.m. at Steak ‘n Shake. There’d be some downtime in there so I would keep drawing and keep working. I was very much obsessed with creating new product. That was something that was really important. If I had nights off, I spent them in the studio. I didn’t have much of a social life. That was okay. I don’t think I would have been very good at that. I think I really, really needed to work on developing this product and kind of developing this company in the way that I wanted it to be developed. But you’ve got to have a lot of drive.
Andrew: What I was going to ask you didn’t you think you were better this? Better than working at Steak ‘n Shake, putting on an apron–you didn’t?
Mary Lynn: No. I felt like I was really lucky to have that job, honestly.
Andrew: Really? Even though you were going to go to grad school and you were going to have this life for yourself and you’re a hustler that can work hard.
Mary Lynn: Yeah, and that’s it.
Andrew: Because you had a vision for where this was going?
Mary Lynn: Yeah. I knew I couldn’t probably turn overnight and have a million sales. That wasn’t going to happen. So, I felt really lucky that I found something that would let me supplement income and put everything I had still into making things. You have to do what you have to do. Certainly, if I have to go back to waiting tables tomorrow, I will. I’m probably not going to have to do that.
Andrew: It doesn’t look like it.
Mary Lynn: But I didn’t feel too good for it. I certainly felt lucky to have it. I think it taught me what it takes. That was a hard job. It’s harder to work at Steak ‘n Shake overnights waitressing than it is to sit down and make a new leather bag.
Andrew: I can imagine.
Mary Lynn: There’s a skill set involved in that leather bag that’s different than waiting tables. But that kind of patience, endurance and stamina involved in working an overnight shift for not much money and really busting your butt all night long just so you can go and do something else, that’s harder than it is for me now to go and have eight hours of sleep sometimes and come into my really cool 4,000 square foot studio and hang out with my friends all day and fill our orders. This is technically the easy part right now comparatively.
Andrew: I had Cal Newport, the author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” to teach a course about how to find what you want to do with your life and one of the things that it took from that was don’t follow your passion because no one cares about your passion and you’re going to go bankrupt.
He told this great story about this woman who got into yoga because she loved yoga. She built a yoga company and the thing just bombed because there were too many of those. She should have, is his point, she should have thought of what other people want. How do I square that with what you’ve done which is to say, “I am following my passion. I love making these bags. I loved making these journals. I love thinking about what I wanted.”
Mary Lynn: Well, I think it’s a little bit of both. I love a leather journal. I don’t personally love every single one we send out. I love making it for other people and filling what they want. I hope we’re facilitating that creativity in someone else. It’s not like I like every quote that goes on every journal. I don’t like every picture that we print. I have my favorites. I know what I want on my journal. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what the next person wants.
But it’s not about me. When it comes to those journals, it’s not about what I want. It’s about making sure that other people are going to write things down. I think our process is cool. That part is about me. That is the part that invented that I’m so proud of.
Andrew: It’s the process of creating this for them with some of you in the design.
Mary Lynn: Absolutely. I’m really lucky in that sense. I designed something. I made this thing that other people want and they get to have a hand in it too. I think it builds a sense of community. I think it’s really important. So, I love it.
But you have to be willing to work with other people to do what you love, especially in a retail capacity. It can’t just be about what I would want on a journal. If we only put what I wanted on the journal, we’d just have a Kurt Vonnegut quote and a picture of like a skull and crossbones and nobody would buy it, maybe just people like my soulmates and that’s it. We have to be ready to work with other people.
Andrew: I’m looking at some of the early things that you sold, the Geneva’s Patchwork Tote.
Mary Lynn: Geneva is my sister, actually.
Andrew: I was wondering where came from. Who’s McCaw?
Mary Lynn: McCaw? That’s my friend Marissa McCaw.
Andrew: Interesting. I’m seeing how you named it.
Mary Lynn: Yeah, all my friends.
Andrew: I’m also seeing photographs here that are really sharp, really clear. You told me before we started that if anyone wants to learn from you, one thing they could take is the importance of the right photography. Going back in the early days, what did you do that was right? What did you do that you don’t like anymore?
Mary Lynn: Well, it’s so funny to even think about how much of a shift there is in the technology from 2008 to now. That’s always going to be a little different. At this point in time, if you wanted to start an Etsy shop or any kind of marketplace shop and you want your photography to pop, I actually think you can do that on your iPhone and get away with it. You can manipulate now. You can manipulate photographs online. You can basically have a version of Photoshop on your phone.
Literally I can probably run my business from iPhone or Galaxy. I don’t. We run it from several laptops and MacBooks. Back then, it took a lot more. I had to invest in an SLR camera. I had to invest in a light box. I had to have lots of different things going on to make sure that stuff really popped. You just take hundreds and hundreds of photographs to make that work. Now it’s a little different. We use photographers for a lot of our lifestyle shots.
When you look at our retail shots, that’s where our content really shines. We have a lot of really cool model photography and lifestyle photographs of our products in use. Those are shot on pro cameras. But when we’re in studio, we use a Canon SLR to shoot and we have a nice couple of lights setup. But the first thing we do is take that SD card, throw it into computer, and go right into Photoshop and start editing the lighting around it.
Andrew: That’s so much more work and it looks. I look at the photos and they just look kind of casual, casual and clear.
Mary Lynn: But casual is what’s selling the items too. That’s not really an accident. We want them to look accessible and we want them to be clear that they’re handmade and they are. That’s a challenge that we face as a company every day now that we’ve grown pretty big. That’s something where if you’re producing 100 to 200 items a day to the studio, it’s hard to convey that this is still handmade. This is not a sweatshop situation. Our dogs right now are in the lobby hanging out at work. We order pizza twice–
Andrew: How do you show that?
Mary Lynn: By taking casual photos and making fun YouTube videos of us hanging out and making things. Making sure that our blog really conveys what we do every day and the people that we work with. Every time we go on a Habitat for Humanity run, we make sure we take pictures of us all kind of goofing off and hanging out there.
We want people to understand this is what our day to day is like, that we aren’t outsourcing this labor, which is fine if you do, but we don’t. That’s a big selling point of our company. This is who we are. We make everything in house. We want people to know that. There’s a fine line of how much you should put into that too and how much should just be conveying who you actually are. We are actually t-shirt wearing sneaker wearing people in a room listening to loud punk rock music making journals.
Andrew: I love that Time Warner video of you guys.
Mary Lynn: It’s cool, right?
Andrew: The style of the video isn’t really your style. It’s a lot more corporate. But at least I got to see behind the scenes what it looked like and it gave me a sense of what was going on there.
Mary Lynn: We were so excited about that. It just came out this week actually.
Andrew: Oh did it? Okay.
Mary Lynn: We got to preview it a week ago. It just hit the mark. It’s been really cool. It’s been one of the most fun videos we’ve done. I agree, it’s kind of a different aesthetic for us. But I really loved the interview and the fact that everyone in the room was shown on camera working. I thought it was really cool.
Andrew: Yeah, to see the leather get cut, to see what kind of leather you’re going for. What was it called? It’s leather from–
Mary Lynn: It’s second sourced leather. It’s ecofriendly dye process and tanning process. But it’s also second sourced leather, which means it’s used for meat before it’s used for the actual leather end of things, which oddly enough a lot of leather is not. That’s something that is important to us, that it’s something that was first produced for consumption and then we’re kind of getting that after product and turning it into something.
Andrew: All right. So, you’re in Etsy. Etsy helps you out tremendously. They make introductions that lead to Martha Stewart or they get you more attention on your site by featuring you. You’re still doing something to get attention for your store within Etsy and to get people to come buy from you. What are you doing to generate sales there?
Mary Lynn: That’s an excellent question. Sometimes I wonder what are we doing right? I know I can list off all these small things. I think that’s what it is. I think it’s a combination of a million small things that we’re paying attention to and things that we tweak every single day. I spent all morning in a meeting with Katie, our media manager here at In Blue. We were talking more about photographs and even keywords that we’re using, both of us reading articles on keyword searches.
I think that keeping up to date on everything to do with the way that Etsy’s search system works or any marketplace. That’s really important. Those things shift all the time, especially as these marketplaces develop. We’re in a really interesting time period with online ecommerce, with ecommerce in general where new systems are in place every day. You have intuitive buying. You have intuitive advertising. So, for a company like us to keep up with that sort of thing, we have to constantly read blogs and articles and updates on policies.
Andrew: What’s one change that you made recently to the keywords that you use in your entries?
Mary Lynn: Well, recently Etsy switched how they do their search function to include phrases. We were like, “Wait what?” We’ve only doing individual words and we’re so confused. We had to go through and also incorporate phrases. But you only get on Etsy, you only get 13 phrases you can use or several words.
Andrew: Oh, when you’re creating your listing, you get to put photos, you get to put a headline, you get to put description and you get keywords and now key phrases.
Mary Lynn: Well, key phrases and keywords are now in the same category.
Andrew: I see. So, that’s important. So, what are some phrases or keywords that have worked for you in the past that don’t anymore?
Mary Lynn: Well now just putting journal down isn’t necessarily a good enough search. Leather journal, something as simple as that, just putting the words “leather journal” in keywords, that’s one of our most searched terms, “leather tote bag,” these three words have brought up $80,000 in sales this year. Just from that search term.
Andrew: They give you data on that?
Mary Lynn: Oh yeah. You have to dig a little within these marketplaces. Etsy is a great example of it but Amazon does the same thing. I’m sure eBay has these analytics. A lot of these marketplaces, if you click through and really pay attention–I think one of the biggest challenges, though, for a company like mine or a smaller manufacturing company is understanding what to do with that data, looking at that data and not just throwing your computer through a window because you’re so confused. I have definitely been stressed out about it.
Andrew: So, how do you find out what to do with that data?
Mary Lynn: Well, we spend a lot of time crying for help on Facebook to our friends that are in SEO and analytics. We say, “What does this mean?” We have books. We have articles. We look and look and look. We cross-reference, this month’s sales from last month’s sales to this month from last year’s sales. We do all of that and we sit down and we spend an enormous amount of time researching what the buyers are doing, where things are trending. And then we try to use that keep it simple, stupid attitude where it’s like, “Okay, which keywords are performing the best? Let’s put more money into those.”
I think at the end of the day, you have to pick out what the most popular thing that’s happening is, put your most advertising, put your most money into those things and just keep watching. I think a lot of people forget to look every other day at their analytics. I think that has to be a habit.
Andrew: By put more money, you mean put it into ad buys on Etsy?
Mary Lynn: I see. Yeah, ad buys–all marketplaces, ad buys.
Andrew: Are you on Amazon too?
Mary Lynn: We are. Well, we’re in between right now. I think we’re about to be on Handmade at Amazon. We pulled down our Amazon store last year so we could focus more solely on Etsy and our retail site. Honestly our attention was just too divided. So, we had a regular old Amazon shop. But I didn’t feel like we were shining as much and we hadn’t learned the interface quite as well as we obviously were kind of Etsy pro right now. But we are signing up for the Handmade on Amazon platform too, which you’ll be hearing a lot about if you haven’t already.
Andrew: I have. I’ve been going through it. I still prefer Etsy. But Amazon in the future, if they have better selection and they start offering Prime, it starts to make sense too.
Mary Lynn: Yeah. I have no idea what’s going to happen there. We’re just watching. But I would like to equate it to even when I worked in music distribution, it was right when the iTunes and the iPods were coming out and things were switching a lot. Everything changes. All these shifts happen. Things were changing for independent record stores and they moved more into vinyl because you couldn’t see CDs anymore because there was an MP3 for everything. So, vinyl became a collector’s item.
We try to adapt. I think that’s something I learned back there was how to adapt, watching those small business owners really adapt to that giant shift in technology, which was pretty crushing for independent music stores. When I look at all of these things and watch us with handcraft with Etsy versus Amazon versus whatever is coming next, I think the most important thing to can do is learn as much as you can and keep adapting.
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Mary Lynn: I don’t, but I hear great things actually.
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Before we started I said what, Mary Lynn, can we tell the audience–what can we take from you and apply to their business? You said customization is very important. Why is customization so important when it comes to selling?
Mary Lynn: I think it sets you apart. People want something that’s custom made for them. Why not? You want your name on stuff. You want to send a journal to your family with their names on it. You want to be able to for your friends, you want to be able to, for your friend’s wedding gift put the couple’s name on there with a wedding date. Those are things that are huge and I think they make a big difference, especially in a struggling economy.
When we started, it was a very struggling economy. I think that it’s important to have something that you can afford that is special, that is handmade, that you designed too. There’s no better gift. We get a lot of feedback on how cool it is that this had your favorite quote on it or your kid’s name on it. That’s cool. I think that’s what’s selling them. We didn’t invent the leather book. There are a million people out there making leather books. But we’ve got to have something that makes us special with that. I think that’s important.
Andrew: Also, I was thinking you’d say that it also allows you to have lots of different products in the marketplace. Every one of them is a good entry point in the rest of your product line. So, if I click, for example, on this leather journal that has three feathers on it because I randomly ended up on it, I can very easily see that you have tons of others and can keep clicking and then even though I’m in the marketplace, I basically end up sticking with your store until I find what I want.
Mary Lynn: Exactly. With having that many images it’s so great too because our keyword spread so far for searching that we pop up a lot. If you like feathers, if you like bicycles, you like baseball, anything you like, we have a keyword for that. So, when you’re searching “gift for baseball lover” or something like that. I don’t know if that’s a good example. We’re probably going to pop up within the first couple pages. That’s a really important thing too. We have a lot of diversity in the graphics. That’s really important, being able to cater to that many different people.
Andrew: Every one of the photos looks different, where I’ve seen others who customize have maybe ten photos of different items but they’re all laid out the exact same way, so you get the sense that you have the exact single item with different customizations. Here it looks like every book is different because the shots are all different. Some have a wall, others have just a white background.
Mary Lynn: Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it’s not. It’s a choice we made to not have completely uniform photography. We feel like it’s better to have different lighting in different backgrounds for different things, especially on Etsy, which gives you a little more freedom to do so. I think it draws in more people.
I think it puts the item in the context that the buyer would want. Maybe one person is drawn to a pure white background with really bright lighting and another person might be drawn to a more urban looking brick wall in the background. It’s all about where you visualize yourself with a buyer. I think it’s pretty cool to be able to display that in different aspects.
Andrew: Like the one that I mentioned with the feathers. It’s displayed on a wooden table with hammer and nails everywhere and a screwdriver.
Mary Lynn: Yeah. That was actually part of our father’s day advertorial campaign that we did a while ago.
Andrew: What’s an advertorial campaign?
Mary Lynn: We put it on, I think it was Facebook, we did an ad campaign for it. I’m sure it was on Instagram as well. It was photographed by Chelsea Francis, who is one of our photographers. She’s super talented and does great layouts like that. We like to use those when we can as well to get that lifestyle shot in there.
Andrew: Tell me about the theft. You had a few different experiences with theft. What’s the first one?
Mary Lynn: You know, we get robbed a lot. Our credit cards have been ripped off, our bank accounts. Recently we were at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and our van was broken into and $25,000 worth of product was stolen from our van.
Andrew: Someone actually stealing leather products?
Mary Lynn: Yeah. Isn’t that crazy? I feel like they were really let down maybe. Not that our products aren’t great, but everything was boxed up in these plastic totes. We have this white unmarked van that I’m sure looks like a contractor van. So, when they were unloading these boxes, they probably didn’t know what was in them. I feel like when they got 500 leather-covered flasks and a bunch of journals they were like, “Oh, what do I do?”
Andrew: I picture them at some art fair somewhere selling them.
Mary Lynn: It’s so funny because we went to the Chicago Police Department, one of the Chicago districts. They were like, “Yeah, we’ve got a place where a lot of black market art is sold, like craft.” They were so funny about it. They knew of a market they were going to look for our stuff at. They said there were a lot of like Fixie Bicycles there and like hipster arts and crafts and they thought that was our best bet. I thought that was really funny, like a “Portlandia” kind of situation. Our stuff actually wasn’t recovered, but we have insurance.
Andrew: What happened with the credit cards?
Mary Lynn: We’ve just been hacked. With online–
Andrew: You mean your customer credit cards were taken?
Mary Lynn: No.
Andrew: So, how does your–yeah, because you’re using Shopify. I can’t imagine how anyone is going to take it from you.
Mary Lynn: I’ve bought a million things from random websites online to try to get supplies cheaper.
Andrew: Oh and your credit card from one of those sites was taken?
Mary Lynn: Yeah. Never has it been through PayPal, Shopify, Etsy, Amazon, anything like that. They do a great job.
Andrew: It doesn’t look like you guys have your own custom software for anything. That’s one of the things that’s amazing about your business. Your website is Squarespace. Your store, the Shop.InBlueHandmade.com is on Shopify. The marketplaces are Etsy. There’s nothing that you guys are coding yourselves in order to sell. The shopping cart is part of Shopify.
Mary Lynn: I have a philosophy degree, specifically an epistemology degree. This does not lend towards learning how to develop any kind of software or knowing who to call for that. That’s why I’m really excited to listen to you talk every time I do these podcasts. I’m like, “Oh, I learned something. Let’s call these people.” We don’t know what we’re doing in that sense. That’s why it’s so great that there are these pre-built marketplaces. These are next steps for us, for sure. This is the next phase of things, learning how to do that. How do we customize our check out and things like that where we can take it into our own hands?
It’s kind of like I said from the beginning, we had no idea. Everything I feel like I have done up until maybe the last couple months of this job has been a reaction to an enormous amount of sales. So, we haven’t been able to be proactive. We’re just scrambling to fill orders. That’s been going on for the last seven years. That’s a really incredible problem to have. But now it’s time.
But I feel like we’re finally reining it in. We’re finally getting to a point where we can learn to develop. I’d be really excited to sit down to you and be like, “This is what we’ve done and I understand these things that I had no idea about before,” but that’s the next step. It’s the next goal. I think it’s a good testament though for most people out there that are looking to start a business that it is possible to do this, be successful, pay your mortgage, handle yourself and do this all based on these marketplaces.
Andrew: Software that already exists. You don’t have to make it up, focus on selling. For me that’s the most inspiring thing about your business, that you’re not creating software. You’re just creating the product that people buy and the world makes it easier to do that.
One area where you had to learn and get better is in management. You went from being a maker to now having a team of over ten people who are working with you and you said that was a challenge. What did you learn about making the transition that the rest of us could learn?
Mary Lynn: Everything. It’s been a really interesting process. It’s so weird to not have my hands on things all the time. You will find me sneaking in the studio in the middle of the night now more than even two years ago just so I can make stuff for fun. There are so many things and questions that have to answer throughout the day that are so business involved. That being said, I’m learning to enjoy that aspect of it too.
I think at first I felt so overwhelmed and now I’m starting to really love creative business. I think that’s a transition that’s been cool. I kind of had to–I had a few panic moments like, “Oh no, I don’t know what I’m doing,” but I am capable. It’s just sitting down, learning stuff and applying it. That’s been a cool process.
Andrew: You’ve systemized the business. You actually have a system you call PAR. What is PAR?
Mary Lynn: Prepped and ready. We keep 200 of every item that we sell in every leather color that we sell in stock, 200-ish, some that are less popular we do less of. Bags we keep less of because they’re more expensive to construct. But that means that anything that’s ordered is technically already made. It’s just not printed or it just doesn’t have the final custom touch on it.
So, our production team works to replace what we pull from PARs every day rather than to react to just to that actual marketplace order. So, instead, we make a prep sheet for them and they’re replacing things on the backend. It buys us some more time.
Andrew: What other systems do you have that allow you to manage inventory and manage your team?
Mary Lynn: Just our workflow in general and our communication process. We moved recently from a room that was sort of closed off and separate. You didn’t have a good view of each other in the room. We’ve moved into a 4,000 square foot space that’s just one big open room. I’m in one of the tiny offices in this place right now. But we don’t use the offices for anything but small meetings.
We keep everybody out on the floor together. That has been a huge help in workflow. I always like to be in the room with my team. We like to be able to communicate about what everybody is making, to be able to ask, even sometimes loudly across the room and sometimes it’s chaos but it’s good because we’re all involved. We’re all sitting together. We’re all eating together and we’re talking. I think that has made a huge difference in our ability to streamline the process, to work together to create new ideas.
We also do something we call self-directed making, which is that I know my team is pretty veteran at this point, at making the items. We’ve had a lot of our guys for a long time in the room. I feel like they have developed their own process to create things. There’s not always a right or wrong way to put in a rivet or to cut out a pattern piece. It’s about the safest way for you as an artist and the most effective way for you as an artist.
So, that’s something that’s been really good too. Once we took out these blanket rules of, “You have to lay this out like this. You have to do this exactly like this,” and let our team kind of take some creative control over that, we’ve a lot better process with a lot less waste.
Andrew: So, two different people can make the same journal, for example two different ways.
Mary Lynn: Yeah.
Andrew: And you’re okay with that?
Mary Lynn: I’m okay with that as long as it looks the same when it comes out and nobody is at risk for getting hurt. We’re cutting leather. So, there are sharp tool in here. So, we make sure everybody is most comfortable with the tools they’re using. If they don’t have the right tool for them we get them a new tool. Rather than getting a new employee, we get a new tool for them to use. We work around them because I think it’s the most important way to build the best product.
Andrew: I want to finish up by talking about different ways that you sell. One way that you sell is by using wholesalers. You mentioned earlier that pricing with them has been tough. Talk a little bit about how you did that.
Mary Lynn: We do things a little differently, I think. I’ve talked to more and more companies that have a similar price scale to us. So we tend to aim for 50% of wholesale cost being 50% of what it would cost to buy online including shipping. A lot of people do 50% of just the retail cost not including shipping. For us, that just doesn’t work because our price point is so low online. But that being said, we have 300 wholesale accounts. That’s quite a few. I feel really comfortable with the amount of wholesale business that we’re doing and I’d like to do more.
Andrew: But they’ve all come to you? You don’t go out. You don’t make calls to get wholesalers?
Mary Lynn: Every once in a while if we have some down time we’ll start emailing people. Honestly, that’s not our strong point. Our strong point is responding. Etsy puts us in front of so many people. We travel quite a bit. We do a lot of craft fairs and music festivals where we’re face to face with 100,000 people.
Andrew: That’s the other thing I was going to ask you about. Why do you do that? Why do you travel? Considering that the world is coming to your website, coming to your Etsy store, soon coming to your Amazon store, they’re clicking through your Facebook ads, why bother going to these different shows?
Mary Lynn: It’s weird to just sit here on the computer time. We were getting weird. Katie and I thought–Katie is the media relations manager–she does a lot of this festival booking. Our team is sort of locked in. It’s better for us to get out. It’s better for us to talk to people. It’s just like I said when I started.
How did I know what kind of bag to make? I was out talking to people and looking at people and interacting with people. I think that it’s really important for us as a company to interact with our customers, understand what they want and have them tell us face to face what they like or don’t like about the product.
Andrew: Do you have an example of what you learned when you went to one of these fairs?
Mary Lynn: Yeah. I think we learned that not everybody can afford to buy a leather hand bag. We definitely learned that everybody can afford to buy a small wallet.
Andrew: So, the wallets came from you talking to people and seeing that the leather handbag is too expensive and you said, “What do we do?”
Mary Lynn: Yeah. How should we market more towards this? I think the number one thing that we learned, the number one thing that we have learned is how important it is to people how something is made, that they know the maker. This gives us an opportunity to do that. But it also has kind of taught us that we need to really focus on that and our content on our websites, on Etsy to really focus on our story so that people feel good about where this is coming from.
They should feel good about it. We’re pretty cool. You can feel pretty comfortable with your journal coming from In Blue Handmade in Asheville, North Carolina and the way that the employees feel about working here. I’m sure they’re mad at me sometimes, but it’s a pretty good gig. I think that’s important.
I think it’s reaffirming to go out there and guerilla market, in that sense, to talk to people and understand what they like, what they don’t like, what’s the first thing they grab in your craft fair booth that they look at and go, “Whoa, oh, I can’t afford that,” or, “Whoa, I’m getting that.” Those are analytics that Google can’t necessarily give you. It can in some senses, but the emotion behind it, you’re not going to get that kind of feedback.
Andrew: That makes a lot of sense. All right. Finally, revenue–what was your revenue in 2014?
Mary Lynn: 2014, we were at $750,000-ish. I think right under.
Andrew: And 2015?
Mary Lynn: 2015, I know we’re going to break $1 million. I’m nervous to say what I think is going to happen yet.
Andrew: Partially we know that because we know the big selling period is about to hit. You and I are talking just before November 1st, which is when all hell breaks loose and people start buying.
Mary Lynn: We’re right on the cusp. In the next two weeks, I’ll break $1 million in sales this year. I’m pretty confident in that, it’s just how much more than that. I said that, now I should have. I jinxed it. But it will go okay.
Andrew: It will be good. By the time we published this, you’ll have hit it.
Mary Lynn: We’re at a really steady growth rate, which is really cool.
Andrew: Yeah. And you’re making products you can really be proud of and I see you are proud of it. It’s cool to watch it. I’d love to see more and more of how you guys make things. I’ve never even seen anyone make a belt, but you guys have videos of belt making online, which is somehow captivating.
Mary Lynn: Yeah. It’s cool. It’s cool to watch people construct something. I like watching people make things, just like I watch people play music or dance.
Andrew: Even like those cooking channels. It’s interesting to watch people cook food. I’d rather just have a making channel where they show you how stuff is made.
Mary Lynn: We could have a reality TV journal making competition show.
Andrew: Like “Iron Chef” for leather.
Mary Lynn: Yeah.
Andrew: Cool. The website is InBlueHandmade.com and of course you can find them on Etsy and soon so many other places. So cool to have you on here. Thanks for sharing your story.
Mary Lynn: Thank you so much for having me.
Andrew: You bet. Thank you all for being a part of Mixergy. If you’ve used anything from this interview, please come back and let me or Mary Lynn know. We always like hearing from you. If you like this interview, please subscribe your friends to my podcast. You probably are already subscribed, but tell your friends to go to Mixergy.com/Podcast if you think that they’d enjoy it. I’m grateful to you all for being a part of Mixergy. Thanks, Mary Lynn. Thank you, everyone.