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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

My experience in an entrepreneur incubator

In 2015 my sewing business was languishing, put on a far back burner by our flourishing bed & breakfast business.   But in early summer, I read that a pop-up marketplace called SEED Ventures, part of The Oberlin Project, was going to open as an entrepreneur incubator and was currently looking for applicants.  They were especially interested in local entrepreneurs who were launching relatively new businesses specifically with an environmental sustainability development bent.

Well, my business wasn’t that new but I was kind of re-launching it, especially as I was in the process of changing my product line from the old laptop bags and so on to products more aligned with the B&B, like placemats, coasters, trivets, etc.  And clearly I was into the “triple bottom line” of profits, environment, and people practices.  What the heck, I thought, I’ll apply; what have I got to lose?  Although, to be honest, I didn’t think I’d be chosen (to be really honest, I thought I was too old, that they would want young, energetic entrepreneurs).

So, it was quite a bit to my surprise – particularly since a couple months had passed and I’d kind of forgotten about it – that I learned that I had, in fact, been chosen to participate in the incubator.  My fellow entrepreneurs consisted of:
            Sue Wilson of SudzyPup, a maker of dog soap and eventually people soap
            Corey Butler of Doki Doki Chocolate and his chocolate-covered pretzels
            Ann Mickel of Love Delivered, who handcrafts cards from found materials
            Bryon Skvor of Humble Grounds, a coffee roaster

We set up shop in a real store in downtown Oberlin using leftover furniture from the owner and things brought from home.  None of us knew much if anything about merchandising so our store layout and window display wasn’t the best, but we were learning as we went along and it looked pretty nice on opening day, October 1, and the evening reception was a big success.

Sales were a little slow but it was only October and Oberlin is not the busiest shopping spot in the world.  Toward the end of the month we had a couple of local store owners in who basically told us our layout and window sucked (they didn’t put it anywhere near that bluntly or crudely) and we didn’t have enough inventory.  So, big revamping of our displays, and by November things were starting to look really good.

Parents’ Weekend at the college was a big day for us and we all enjoyed a nice uptick in sales.  Thanksgiving was pretty good, too.  Needless to say, we were most excited about the upcoming Christmas season.  We planned an “advent calendar” of daily sales and promotions, and put on various events to bring more people into the store.  Some of these were quite successful, like the joint tasting event of Humble Grounds and The Runcible Spoon (jam).  Others, like mine, were total flops. 

The lack of success was entirely my fault, as I really didn’t want to do any events and so did not do a whole lot to advertise them.  The first was a DIY workshop where I was going to teach people to weave fabrics together to create candle mats.  I think setting the fee at $15 was a mistake – especially when the public library was offering workshops for free – and no one signed up for it.  (I was relieved.)  The second event was an offer to personalize items that people purchased; I brought my embroidering machine in and spent the day in the store, but not a single person came in.  I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised, though; I had put up exactly 2 flyers and not in the best of locations.

The holiday season was good for everyone, great for some (but not for me).  We were advised not to create too many products geared to Christmas and indeed, the few that I did make and put out didn’t do especially well.  What did do well were my white coasters embroidered with squirrels (albino squirrels are an Oberlin institution) and my trivets made from an elephant-printed fabric.  I literally could not keep these 2 items in stock which was an unusual and fun problem to have.

The pop-up closed on December 31, as planned; as far as I know, it will not open again, at least not in that location nor with the current group of entrepreneurs.  On January 21, each of us entrepreneurs gave a final presentation to SEED Ventures stakeholders (including the Oberlin Project and the Oberlin City Council) about our results, experiences, and next steps.

I had some very interesting insights and “aha” moments throughout the 3 months that have led me to completely rethink my approach to my business.  More about that in a future post.

By the way, B&F Handmade Housewares are still and ever available at!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Opening the mystery boxes

I’m so excited:  I’m finally going to peek inside the boxes that I picked up from Jim Thompson just before moving from Atlanta to Oberlin in 2012.  

First I had to haul them up from the basement where they've been stored for the past 4 years.  Hmm, some are a bit damp and slightly moldy.  Hope the fabric inside is ok.  There are fine little roots growing on the basement walls - I'll need to get Dominique to take a look at that.
Boxes in the basement

Next step, get them into the my studio.  I have no idea what’s in them.  Let’s see…

Boxes in studio with Sunny
Well, interestingly, many of the samples are additional colors of ones I already have, but there are several new ones, as well.  Plus a couple of boxes of silk scraps and 2 really big bags of more samples.  What a treasure trove.

The unveiling!
Counting them all took me about 10 hours; that doesn’t include the time to stock them.  What I do is keep one sample of each color of each fabric on my shelves upstairs; the rest go on my shelves in the basement. 

My mystery boxes added about 3,000 pieces to my stash – time to get busy!

New fabrics, sort and counted - all 3,000 pieces

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My back story

I’ve been making products from upcycled – or recycled, or reclaimed and repurposed, if you prefer – fabrics since 2009.  Quit my day job to do it, in fact.  Here’s how it happened.

I invited my mother to come down from Ohio to Atlanta for a visit.  We needed her to bring her laptop, for reasons I no longer remember.  She took it out of her suitcase; it was in a blue felt bag.  When I touched it, it made a crinkly noise.
            “Where’d you get this laptop case, Mom?” I asked her.
            “I made it,” she replied.
            “What’s inside?”
            “Gee, Mom, this is pretty great. I think you could sell these.”
            “Oh, pooh,” she said.  “Who would want to buy this?”
The original LapTopWrap by Mom

Well, I thought a lot of people would.  And at the same time, I was less than thrilled with my current job.  So my ever-supportive husband, Dominique, got to work on a design, and then I got to work on making a 2-dimensional drawing into a 3-dimensional prototype that could be sewn.  We gave one to each of our children to beta test.  Results came back positive.  We called it a LapTopWrap because it wrapped around the laptop and was padded with bubblewrap.  Pretty clever, huh?

I opened an etsy store and started contacting university and college bookstores in Georgia.  I finally got an order – and it just about killed me.  Each of my LapTopWraps was unique, and this order was for 5 of this style, and 3 of that…trying to fill that order took every waking second and drove me crazy trying to make multiple copies of Wraps with limited amounts of fabric.

Well, I delivered the order, and the bags just sat there.  I think they sold a few but I basically had to buy the order back from them.  Problem was, they told me, the students discovered they had bubblewrap inside and so stood around popping the bubbles!  I found out the hard way that bubblewrap was not the best padding to use.

Redesigned LapTopWrap
That was disappointing because there was so much discarded bubblewrap out there – I thought I’d found the perfect way to use it up.  But I found other recycled materials I could use, such as soft Styrofoam, which worked as well and couldn’t be destroyed by bored students.

There were other setbacks along the way.  Like the time the Orange County Christmas Market lost $1,000 worth of my products in the mail with no insurance.  Like the Women's Conference in California I flew out to and paid my daughter to work with me, only to sell almost nothing.  Like the too-many-to-count sales leads that led nowhere.  The life of an entrepreneur is not easy!  (Have I mentioned my supportive husband?!)

As time went on, I was able to sell my Wraps to a number of college bookstores in Georgia and Alabama.  My etsy store was doing all right.  I expanded my product line to include passport covers, business card cases, bags…all made from my upcycled fabrics.  I purchased an embroidery machine so that I could personalize my products.  I started making wine bottle bags and reusable sandwich bags and sold those to Whole Foods Market.  That was quite a process in and of itself but I felt I was finally in the big time.

I hit the jackpot with fabric sourcing.  Through a series of connections (see My Best Networking Story post dated 2/5/16), I took delivery of boxes and boxes of fabric samples, more fabric than I literally knew what to do with.  So I just kept sewing and selling and selling and sewing.

The Buckeye and the Frog B&B
Then my husband and I moved to Oberlin, Ohio, and opened a B&B called The Buckeye and the Frog.  The sewing business got put on the back burner as we renovated our 1880 Victorian brick home to be suitable for guests.  We opened for business in 2012 and were immediately swamped with reservations.  It feels like we didn’t take a breath for 3 years!

In 2015, I applied to be a vendor at SEED Ventures, a pop-up marketplace entrepreneur incubator in downtown Oberlin.  That experience directly led to my decision to bring a new direction and a new energy to my etsy store and my products.  More about that in a future post.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Trouble with Trivets

The trekkie in me couldn't resist, but really, trivets are no trouble at all.

Trivets make great host/hostess gifts:  everyone needs them, they're easy to make, and if homemade, they're unique and personal.  They're a wonderful way to use leftover scraps and remnants of fabric, too.

PLEASE NOTE:  The step-by-step process below assumes that you already know fundamental sewing techniques such as anchoring your stitching and pinning fabrics perpendicular to the stitching.  If you don't, you might want to read up a bit.  You can also leave me questions - happy to respond!

Here's how I do it:

Top fabric piece
1.      Choose your fabric and cut it to a good size.  You’re going to put these under hot serving dishes so a variety of sizes will work.  Too big is better than too small, of course.  What I'm using here is an upholstery fabric remnant made of Thai silk (not the easiest fabric in the world to work with because it unravels, but so beautiful).
2.      Choose the backing and cut it to the same size.  Felt is a good choice, since it’s soft and won’t scratch wood, but pretty much any material will do.  I'm using pink fleece.
Bottom or backing

 3.      Cut a piece of insulation the same size, if you deem that insulation is necessary.  (If the materials are thick enough you may not need it.)  You can also use batting, padding, or just layers of other material if you don’t have commercial insulation.  (These first 3 steps can be combined into one.)  Fun fact:  I just purchased 100 yards of insulation - enough to make approximately 800 trivets!
Insulation (if needed)

Same order but with RIGHT sides together
4.      Put the 3 pieces together such that the front and back are together, right sides facing each other, with the piece of insulation pinned to either the front or back piece, but not in between them.

All 3 pieces

5.      Sew all 4 sides but leave a gap on the first side of about 3” so that you can turn the whole thing inside out.  The pen is pointing to the gap that I intend to leave between the pins.
6.      Before you turn it inside out, cut the corners – taking care not to cut the stitching, very easy to do! – to eliminate the extra bulk.  You can iron it at this point, if you want; depending on the fabric you use that might make it lie down a little flatter when you turn it inside out.

Cut extra material from all 4 corners

7.      Now turn it inside out so that the insulation is on the inside and poke out the corners with something pointed but not too pointed, taking care not to poke through the stitching.
8.      Fold the sides in where the gap is and pin together.

Gap pinned

9.      Top-stitch around all 4 sides, i.e., sew approximately 1/8" from all 4 edges.  This will close the gap and make the trivet look finished.  You can use a matching or contrasting color thread.  You might want to top-stitch it elsewhere to make it lie down flatter.  Diagonal lines from corner to corner through the center always work or you can stitch along any lines in your fabric.  If you’re a good sewer, you can do decorative top-stitching as in quilting.
10.  Cut hanging threads, remove pins, and...Voila!  A new trivet!  Makes a great hostess or housewarming gift, and a thoughtful offering to anyone who would appreciate a useful and charming handmade gift from you. No trouble at all!
Completed trivet!

Of course, if you decide that you just don’t have time, you can always buy handmade trivets at my etsy shop!

Friday, February 5, 2016

My best networking story

I’m not good at networking but I do believe it can work miracles.  This is my best networking experience, one that led directly to getting more fabrics than I can shake a stick at (should I care to do so). 

So I was living in Atlanta at the time, making laptop bags from repurposed fabrics that I was getting primarily from thrift stores.  I joined a small networking group called Coffee Connection consisting of local businesswomen.  After introducing myself and my business, one of the women asked if I were familiar with a blogger in the area named Sustainable Patty (aka Pattie Baker).

I had never heard of her but when I went home I looked her up.  Sure enough, Sustainable Patty had a well-written and colorful blog that covered all sorts of environmental topics.  I emailed her about my business and asked if she would have any interest in writing about it.

Of course, bloggers are always looking for topics and since mine was right up her alley, she responded right away.  Turned out we lived only a few streets away from each other, so we set a date for her to come over and have a look.  We really hit it off, and she ended up writing a very nice story about me.  Sales did not improve.

But a couple of weeks later, I was contacted by Lisa, the CFO for the Jim Thompson Company, a manufacturer of high-end fabrics with factories in Thailand and Italy.  She also lived in the neighborhood, saw Sustainable Pattie’s blog, and wondered if I would be interested in receiving fabric samples from them.

Seems that they send small samples or “memos” to potential customers – typically hotels, condos, office buildings, and so on – who then choose fabrics for wall coverings, upholstery, draperies, etc.  They have to send the samples back, and the samples are stored in boxes, never to be used again.  The Jim Thompson folks store them for awhile, but eventually they have to be discarded if no one takes them off their hands.

When I visited their offices, I was shocked to find that they had boxes and boxes of samples, some quite large, most about 8”x10”.  They were absolutely gorgeous:  Thai and Italian silk; fine linen; cottons; wool; high-end synthetics.  Beautiful prints; glowing colors.  It was stunning, and all free. 

Thus began a beautiful symbiotic relationship, and all because of a networking breakfast that I attended in Dunwoody, Georgia.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Please help me find good homes for my fabrics!

My best networking story (I’ll tell you in a future post) led me to take ownership of more fabrics than you can shake a stick at (why would you want to do that…?).  In addition to the fabrics I got from other sources – thrift stores, the Sandy Springs recycling center, donations – I have, at last count, nearly 13,000 pieces of high-end fabric samples from the Jim Thompson Company in Atlanta.  Some are pretty big, but most are around 8”x10”:  silk, linen, wool, cotton, and high-end synthetics like Trevira.
"It's always 5:00 somewhere!"  Right?

This count doesn’t even include the 11 boxes I have still unopened.  I got these as I was leaving Atlanta to move to Oberlin.  On the way out of town, I stopped by for one more batch, but with so many fabrics already in stock, I didn’t really need more to count and store, so they’re in a corner in the basement.  Sorting and counting the samples inside will be a project for another day.

My working goal in life, as I realized in an “aha” moment during my SEED Ventures experience (more about that in a future post), is to turn these wonderful samples into useful and beautiful products that people will enjoy having.  I think of them as adorable puppies – tens of thousands of them! – who need a good home.

Southwestern-themed placemat with pockets

Can you help?  Of course you can!  Each trivet, placemat, coaster, and wine bag purchased saves another discarded fabric from the landfill, where no beautiful thing should ever go.  Each month I will be doing a countdown, and when I get to zero, I’ll shut my etsy store, take down my Facebook page, close my blog, and retire for real.
Insulated silk trivets/potholders

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

WFM order!

Someone from WFM actually called me to inquire about reusable sandwich bags.  Oddly, it was not one of the people that my Mail Chimp campaign went to!  Apparently the manager, I mean team leader, saw my bags at another store and, since his customers had been asking for them, called me to find out more.  Says he's going to order 3 cases!  Of course, it hasn't happened yet - I know how busy these people get so I'm resigned to having to follow up.  But it's exciting to know that I haven't entirely missed the back-to-school season.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Mail Chimp campaign for sandwich bags

Launched a Mail Chimp campaign today targeted at the southern region WFM vendors, hoping to get at least a couple of orders for back-to-school and not miss the season entirely.  Although how I'll actually fill the orders is another matter, with Natapoc coming up and very busy B&B schedule in August.  Maybe I'll finally get to hire that employee; wouldn't that be great. 

Next step is to contact my laptop sleeve customers and see about new orders.  And I need to get more samples to my sales rep.  First thing Monday, I promise!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Catching Up

Wow, haven't posted anything since March!  I've been waaaay too busy with The Buckeye and the Frog and indeed have barely worked on WrapCycle at all except to fill etsy orders.

Happily, many of the things I was concerned about back then have been resolved.  Not only did I get into the Whole Foods system at long last, I had order from six, count 'em six, stores in the South region, both sandwich bags and wine bottle bags.  Now I need to work on getting approved in some of the other regions, especially since I've moved to Ohio.

And the studio is starting to look decent.  Got most of the fabric boxes unpacked or moved to the basement, did a big sweeping the other day, and although anyone walking in might not think it looked organized, to me it is (by comparison) a thing of beauty and order.

Now I need to get my photography area set up as I have several new items that aren't even listed yet.  Plus I need to get some photos for my poor sales rep for her web site - sorry, Sherryla!  (Yikes, just remembered I owe her a commission check, too.)  And I want to get to work on some new designs as well as start contacting my college bookstores - back-to-school is right around the corner, ordering-wise.  Lots to do!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Getting moved in

This is my new studio in Oberlin, located in the addition over the garage.  It's a beautiful big room with a wonderful view of our backyard.  The furnace is surprisingly strong and efficient and keeps the room very comfortable.

This is the "before" picture; unfortunately, there's no "after" picture yet.  Hopefully there will be one soon, because it's making me crazy to work in this disorganized environment.  All I can say is, it's better than it was a couple of weeks ago.  But it still needs plenty more work.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

More Whole Foods Woes

Why oh why is Whole Foods so hard to work with???

Just when I thought I'd licked the systems issue, it now turns out that I'm not "set up electronically" so buyers still can't order through IRMA even though all my information is there.  Once again, I have contacted Julie to resolve the issue and I hope she can do it soon.

I'm frustrated and discouraged, but persistent.  I've invested way too much time and energy to give up now.  Plus I'm getting very positive responses from the stores!
My first WFM order - thank you, Chapel  Hill!
I think I should have sent my UPC labels and I forgot to do that (no wonder, since it's been over a year-and-a-half since I got the information about that).  I'll need to call Rebekka on Monday to see what to do about that.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Whole Foods

Followed up today with ALL the WFMs in the southeast region.  As usual, had a pretty hard time getting hold of people, especially in Atlanta.  Many of the ones I did get a hold of hadn't received (read:  seen/read) my email of last week.  But most were receptive to the idea so I resent a bunch of emails and catalogs.  Two of them said they wanted to place an order although I've received nothing so far.

Almost done embroidering the 30 custom patches; tomorrow I should be able to cut, trim, and ship them, right on schedule.

Didn't do anything on the work room organization today.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A day in the life...

Today started with a trip to Cleveland to buy 3 spools of embroidery thread and 2 light bulbs for my photography lights.  Got all the embroidery threaded and launched the 30 patches I need to do - they look great!  Threads are breaking from time to time but overall things are going pretty smoothly.

While babysitting the embroidery machine I am finally able to start focusing on the set-up of my work room.  Dom helped me put up one of my Elfa shelves and I think I know how I want to organize my fabrics:  I'm going to dedicate a shelf to each product, with cut pieces - bodies, flaps, straps - and finished products.  That will help me to see how much raw material I have for each product and when I need to start processing more.  Plus I'll be more prepared when I get a wholesale order.

Need to finish the process of matching bodies to flaps to straps for products other than sandwich bags.  Then I need to store the material I don't need for the time being so it's not taking up a lot of space in the workroom.  Plus I have to get my photography area set up; I have quite a few products to shoot and list.

And I haven't even started on the administrative/marketing/financial tasks I should be taking care of...But it's nearly midnight, so I'll save that for another day.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

New patch project

Got an interesting order today from someone who works at Etsy:  30 custom patches.  I'm curious to know what MITS is and why/how it moves mountains.  The patches are going to be put on lab jackets so it doesn't seem like something that would be associated with etsy, although the mailing address is etsy.  Hmmm.

QDigitizing came back so quickly with a file!  And although they didn't follow directions, I can fix the issue myself.  (Their stitch count wasn't so hot either; actual count is 25% higher, after the fix; 50% higher before.)  Unfortunately, he asked for 3 colors that I don't have so I'll have to locate an embroidery thread store tomorrow.

In other news, got the Whole Foods order off ahead of schedule!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Eco Pisces/Fish Tote Bag with Fish Print and Embroidered Pisces - $20.00

Hey Pisces, this bag's for you!

This tote/grocery/shopping bag was inspired by the mid-March birthday of my sister and features brightly-colored tropical fish swimming in a blue ocean. The effect was created by sewing fish-print cotton onto a soft blue denim. On the back, a machine-embroidered "Pisces" in gold thread proclaims the fish sign proudly.

The single strap is attached diagonally across the bag.

Bag dim...

Click Here to Visit My Etsy Shop!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Eco 14 inch Laptop Sleeve Padded Zebra Print and Black - $20.00

This padded laptop sleeve is made from a black-and-white zebra print cotton asymetrically sewn to a black jacquard fabric. The envelope-style flap closes with a bit of velcro. Very striking.

The sleeve is lined in white cotton and padded with reused packing material - sturdy, light, and water-resistant. The flag label states that it is designed and (lovingly) made in the USA. All 3 fabrics are 100%...

Click Here to Visit My Etsy Shop!

Persistence pays!

One and a half years after getting the green light from Whole Foods' southern region, I'm finally fully in their systems and made my first sale yesterday!  Thank you, Rebekka from  Chapel Hill!

Got the contact list from Vince so was able to contact everyone by email; I think that's their preferred means of communication, they're all so busy and even buyers and team leaders are on the floor with customers.  I didn't expect any sales at this point; I was going for meetings with the Atlanta stores and samples to the rest.  What a great surprise it was to receive a sales order the very same day!

Needless to say, these are going to be the best sandwich bags I've ever made.

Just goes to show, persistence really does pay off.  So many times I just wanted to let it go; I couldn't stand the thought of contacting the systems people one more time; attempting to contact the stores one more time only to be told, again, that I wasn't in the system...This is validation and motivation to keep pushing.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Eco Reusable Cloth Gift Bag with Embroidered Hearts - $4.50

How cute is this little bag? Would make a great gift bag for someone you love and also be useful for holding all kinds of small items. Plus it's made from repurposed fabric, so it's ecological, too.

I don't flatter myself that this is the important part of the present, but it's that little something extra - and keeping in mind that it can be personalized! - that makes a gift really special.

Click Here to Visit My Etsy Shop!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Custom Embroidered Wine/Champagne/Spirits Bottle Gift Bag from Upcycled Fabric - $13.50

Can't think of a better gift than a custom embroidered wine bottle gift bag - with a great bottle of wine inside, of course!

I imagine how I would feel, receiving a bottle of wine (or whatever) and kind of thinking, ok, this is nice, then noticing a wonderful romantic something - poem, sentiment, saying - on the bag, personalized for me. That would be a really special gift.

Click Here to Visit My Etsy Shop!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Embroidered Eco Pink Card Wallets Very Fine Is My Valentine Poem - $7.00

I just love these Valentine card cases, embroidered with my favorite Valentine poem, by Gertrude Stein: Very fine is my Valentine, very fine and very mine. This would make a gift card for Valentine's acceptably romantic! Embroidered with a name or initial, you've got a very special Valentine gift - original and unique.

Most of my products don't lend themselves particularly well to Valentine's Day, but I think these cards are absolutely the exception.

Click Here to Visit My Etsy Shop!