Lessons from starting a creative product business


Let’s talk creative product business problems. The latter months of the year are prime time for making really good product sales but, with that comes the pressure to produce!

Creativity is not my problem. I’ve learned that they’re a host of other factors that come into play, when you have a product business. Things that I wish I knew about earlier on. I’m going to share some of them with you in this post.

How I started my creative product business

I left employment without a real plan. It was just time. Since then, I’ve been learning about business on the job! 

Around 5 years into self-employment which, mainly consisted of working on branding projects, I found myself creatively frustrated. Sure, I was working on interesting projects but, always for other people. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made something just for me.

As much as I really wanted to do this, I always made excuses. The main one being: I don’t have time. Translation: I hadn’t made it a priority.

In the summer of 2014, while visiting my mother, I decided I was going to make time! I created a few illustrations and designs and signed up to sell greeting cards and art prints at a market. 

The feedback I received was great! Both on Instagram and at that market. I felt I was onto something.

Let’s talk business

From a business perspective, I’d been thinking of creating products for quite a while. I felt it was a more sustainable business model than trading my time for money.

Working on creative commissions is trading my time for money. If I don’t put in the time, I don’t get the money. On the other hand, with products, designs are created once and can then be produced and reproduced forevermore. 

In theory, I could take a one year sabbatical and the products I created 5 years ago could keep bringing me an income.

In theory!

Which brings me to what I really wanted to share today:

5 lessons from my creative product business journey so far

1 Take time to cost things properly

We know that for a business to live and grow, you need to make a profit. When determining the price of your products, you need to really think about all – ALL! – of the costs you incur in production. 

We often think about material and supplier costs but, it’s super important to also think about the cost of your time. If you’re finding it difficult to come up with a figure for the work you put in, imagine hiring somebody to do the things you do. How much would you need to pay them?

Other costs we often overlook include our overheads – our day-to-day running costs. Electricity, water, internet… These are all costs that need to be factored into your product pricing.

Jenny Nuccio of Imani Collective had a really important cost to add, when we had this pricing discussion in the Afri-love Connection Club: maintenance! 

If you use machines of any kind (that includes your computer), at some point they will need repair or replacement. Break up this cost and spread it across your products. This might mean adding just 10 shillings to each item but, it adds up and counts when you need it!

Once you know your costs, you can price your goods at a number that gives you a good profit margin. Ideally this should allow retailers to make a good margin too (if you wholesale), and should allow you a margin for growth.

2 Prototype

Before you blow your budget on creating 2,000 pieces of a design YOU are in love with, test the waters. 

Do others like it too?

I’ve been surprised so many times when people respond to my least favourite from a set of my designs.

It can be difficult to predict what people are going to be drawn to most so, why not throw out the uncertainty?

If you can test some ideas and designs before doing a massive production run: 

  • You’ll learn a lot 
  • You’ll get people excited, anticipating what else is to come
  • You’ll get their buy-in which can lead to them spreading the word

Yes, creating a few prototypes can be more costly, per unit, than a larger production run. However, the feedback you receive could possibly save you the cost of creating those thousands of items that nobody wants to buy!

For further reading on this, look up “design thinking.” There are some good articles on Interaction-design.org, Wikipedia and the IDEO site.

3 Make marketing a priority

It’s no use creating amazing, useful, beautiful things that nobody knows about. It’s easy to get lost in the creative process, and in the minutiae of production. So much so that you lose perspective of the fact that, you don’t have a business until people are consuming what you’ve made.

Marketing so often gets neglected and given only the dregs of time we have left. One school of thought would suggest that marketing should actually be our number one priority!

I’ve read suggestions that, if you compare 2 similar brands, the one that with the biggest marketing spend will always outperform the other. 

Coca Cola is a great example of the power of marketing (and branding). They have one main product that hasn’t changed much in 100+ years. Yet, they continue to be the world’s leading soft drink maker, operating in more than 200 countries.

Take a look around any city, town, or even village, around the world and it’s easy to see that Coca Cola does not skimp when it comes to marketing their brand (not necessarily their product – we’ll delve into this topic another time!).

I’m not advocating throwing your dollars at billboard companies! Think about what marketing and content creation fits with your business and target audience, and invest the necessary time and money.

4 Get more capital

This has been one of my biggest challenges. Creative commissions fund our product business. When client payments are delayed (which, is often), this can have a serious knock-on effect on production. It’s meant that we can’t always predict when – or even if – new collections will launch.

In fact, this year, we paused on production for that very reason. 

Rather than release new pieces, bit-by-bit throughout the year, we chose to focus on building a more substantial collection. One that we can produce at scale (so as to be more cost-efficient and allow for better margins); and that we can properly plan for, in terms of marketing (photoshoots, campaigns, launches, content creation etc). 

To do my brand proper justice, securing adequate capital has become one of my business priorities.

5 Keep things fresh

Let’s talk about chicken-and-egg! Not having enough capital can prevent you from keeping things fresh. 

In our case, we have several repeat customers who love our products. Common feedback we receive is, how they have all the pieces they want from our existing range. They want to buy and they’re ready to buy – it’s up to us to offer up newness for them to select from.

And that’s why it’s important to keep things fresh. To continue to serve your audience well.

I have to admit I also have a personal barrier here – a conflict I’m always trying to reconcile. I don’t want to create more stuff, just for the sake of creating stuff. I want to create things that are meaningful and exquisite – that will be cherished and not just thrown away. 

I’ve been doing a lot of work revisiting my why and how everything ties together. This has helped me figure some of this stuff out. But all of these 5 tips are still works in progress for me.

What’s your creative product business experience?

Do you have a product business?
What have your biggest learnings been? What do you absolutely love about what you do?

Are you thinking of starting a product business?
Are there things you’re uncertain or scared about? What aspects are you excited about?

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