Brett and Crystal, the tireless duo behind Vital, teamed up with a plan to quit their day jobs and run a joint creative business after coming across Etsy and taking an intro to screen-printing class. Both artists at heart, their professional backgrounds include the restaurant industry and interior design, which shine through in their evolving line of screen-printed barware, home accessories, and clothing. Today, Brett and Crystal take the time to share with us how they made the transition into full-time Etsy selling, why photography is a key to their online success, and how they split up responsibilities to maintain all aspects of Vital.
How did you originally start Vital and discover Etsy?
It all started with an introduction to screen-printing class. Well, actually that’s not quite right. In the fall of 2005 we came across Etsy through a friend of a friend’s shop, everythingok. Seeing the handmade goods people were selling on Etsy planted the “I can do that” seed in our minds. So, when we took the screen-printing class a few months later we already had the entrepreneurial mindset. Before we launched our Etsy shop, we were already printing shirts whenever we could, including a T-shirt series featuring different store managers for a restaurant chain I was working for at the time.
Tell us about your previous working situations.
Both of us had prior professional lives, which were much less interesting. Mine was far tastier, though. I was a restaurant guy and always will be, even if I’m not practicing currently. Crystal was trained as an interior designer and practiced for a short period, but has always been a maker at heart.
Did you do anything to prepare for making the transition into full-time Etsy selling?
Our transition really took place in three phases:
- Phase one included waking up early and going to bed late as both of us worked full-time jobs while creating and brainstorming our takeover of the world the rest of the time.
- In phase two, my full-time job took up most of my time while Crystal managed the Etsy shop and production.
- Phase three: two full-time makers! This was the most flexible phase, despite having very little money. We knew to move along to the next level when we were too busy to handle the workload.
One important note: savings are vital (no pun intended). We couldn’t have done it without money in savings because cash flow can be sporadic. As with any business venture, you need money to cover your expenses as actual profits can take years to realize. This is something people looking to quit their jobs need to take into account. It’s not fun to admit and no one wants to hear it, but money in the bank is a necessity. Also, I’m always prepared to deliver pizzas for a couple months if needed.
What are the most effective ways you have marketed your Etsy business?
Our number one marketing recommendation is to post pictures people want to click on, followed by creating marketable products. Discovering which photos are most clickable takes a bit of trial and error, but buying a good camera and learning how to use it properly was one of our best investments. By having good photos or products that create a buzz, other people will do the marketing for you through blog posts, treasuries, and more.
Secondly, we do a lot of craft fairs. For us, this means attending markets two to three weekends a month during the summer and fall. It gives people a chance to see your product in person and get exposure for your brand. Keep in mind that craft fairs are partly a marketing expense and you may not walk away with a lot of cash in your pocket. However, it is a chance to connect with buyers who might not have seen your product otherwise. Since we have opened Tomte, our brick-and-mortar boutique, the focus has shifted to local markets versus larger national shows. Local craft fairs enable us to market Vital and Tomte at the same time. As much fun as going to Chicago or San Francisco for a market can be and sound, it is a lot of work and less profitable for us than a local show.
What’s been your most popular line to date?
Hands down, the Vital Bicycle has been our most popular design. It has taken many different forms, but our bike design is always present in the Vital line. We have printed, embroidered, and cut the bike out of vinyl. Depending on our current process interests, we have put it on hats, shirts, jackets, towels, and baby quilts. Surprisingly, it was the very first graphic I created for Vital and it stuck. Most of our early designs came from things that we were really interested in.
Anything that hasn’t worked out so well?
In our opinion, paid advertising has been a bust for us. We have tried paying for ads on blogs, Google, and in magazines. We feel the results aren’t there. Part of it might be our tracking, but in any case we have taken paid ads off our marketing budget.
Walk us through your typical workday.
- The first thing I do in the morning and the last thing before going to bed is check our Etsy shop and make sure there is nothing that needs an immediate response.
- The morning usually starts with a couple hours at home doing a mix of computer work and domestic chores.
- Sometime around 10 a.m. we move down to the studio and store, which opens at 11.
- My day is filled with production time, working on listings, work on new product, emails, market preparations, managing wholesale accounts, and shipping. The exact work varies every day.
- We found that dividing responsibilities works best for us, so I manage Vital and Crystal’s main focus is with Tomte and new designs. Even though Tomte closes at 6, we may stay around for a couple more hours in the studio.
What do you enjoy most about not having a day job; anything you miss?
Ownership over our work is one of the most enjoyable parts of being self employed. We value control over how our time is spent and what form the end product takes, and that is the biggest reason we would have difficulty going back to a day job. We used to say flexibility was one of the most enjoyable features, but running a boutique makes our life much less flexible. We do miss the security of a steady paycheck. Also, lack of employer provided health insurance is an issue. Sourcing and dealing with individual health insurance is a bit of a struggle.
What’s the hardest part about running your own businesses?
The hardest part of running a business is dealing with regulatory paperwork. Business formation and registration, filing taxes, licensing — all that takes time we would rather spend making things.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself or someone considering a similar path?
Brett: Running your own business is fantastic, but it’s not necessarily easier than working for someone else. Life does not get simpler once you are on your own, and I did not fully appreciate that before.
Crystal: I would have liked to have understood sooner how valuable the handmade community is to growth, personal and professionally. There are really great people out there, and spending time to get to know them is important. This community only works because it is a two way street. Once we got to a place where we had something to give back was when we started seeing the biggest benefits.
The biggest advice we can give to others is watch your pennies and keep expenses down. Studio rental and equipment expenses can facilitate growth. However, the more you expand the more you have to sell each month to break even.
What goals do you have in store for the future of Vital?
Historically with Vital, we have not worked to pick up wholesale accounts with boutiques. Most of the stores that carried our line contacted us through Etsy and we didn’t do much to maintain those accounts. Recently, we have started actively seeking out boutiques that align with our aesthetic and handmade ideals. Also, growing our brick-and-mortar boutique and helping to foster Denver’s handmade community through the Denver Handmade Alliance are important endeavors to us.
Have any favorite Etsy shops we should know about?
It is so difficult to name just a few. Currently, we really like the work of blackbirdtees, locallibrary, pearsonmaron, and leahduncan. Locally, mudpuppy and luckymebeads are just two of the many great shops, with more starting up all the time.
Any final words of wisdom?
We are filled with gratitude toward Etsy and the craft community as a whole. We have met such incredible people — online, in our travels, and locally — that we would not have met otherwise. Support of the handmade community is wonderful and when you buy handmade you are directly supporting a person. Thank you for allowing us to share and live our story.
Thanks to Brett and Crystal for sharing their story. You can see some of their work in the Seller’s Items below and in their other Etsy shop, heckfire.
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