How Wit & Whistle Began & Three Start-up Tips

I’ve been getting quite a few emails from folks wondering how I started Wit & Whistle, and if I have any tips for creatives hoping to open their own shops someday. So, I think a blog post is in order! I usually try to fill my posts with more pictures than words, but today I’m making an exception. Here’s the story of how I started Wit & Whistle and my best advice for any new or future shop owners out there.

I got started when I was just a teeny tiny girl. I’ve always had an irrepressible urge to create that I know is a gift from God.

online shop start up tips

Thankfully I have very supportive parents.

online shop start up tips

They encouraged me to continue creating even when my work was awful, like this…

online shop start up tips

Throughout school I took every art class I possibly could. Painting, drawing, collage, chalk pastels, pottery—you name it, I loved it. My senior year of high school college was imminent, and I had to make a decision. I was terrified of becoming a starving artist, so I decided to major in graphic design. I figured graphic design would have more practical applications and would provide a steadier paycheck than selling paintings on a street corner.

I attended North Carolina State University’s College of Design and earned my Bachelor of Graphic Design degree. It was a great school. Without the knowledge I gained there and without the professors pushing me so hard (occasionally to the point of tears), I don’t think Wit & Whistle would exist. I certainly wouldn’t have developed the same aesthetic, and I wouldn’t have the technical skills I now use daily.

After graduating I worked at a design firm for 3 years. I built websites and designed logos, brochures, annual reports, posters, t-shirts, billboards, invitations, album art, books, and more. It was a great firm and I loved my coworkers, but my creative itch wasn’t being scratched. Possibly the only thing they didn’t prepare us for in design school was that real world clients aren’t often cooperative. They’ll slap a big ugly logo onto your beautiful design and ask you to rearrange your masterpiece until it’s unrecognizable. Each time that happened it was a painful stab to my creative spirit. I had a handful of beloved clients that allowed me free rein, but they couldn’t make up for all the stabby clients.

I designed a few greeting cards in my spare time, and I opened an Etsy shop under the name “Spawn Studio.” I wasn’t happy with the name, but I had already spent weeks (months?) trying to come up with the right shop name. Daniel told me I needed to get started with or without the perfect name, or I would never start. He was right. (Enjoy being right for once, honey.) I listed a handful of cards, and to my amazement people bought them. I couldn’t believe it. I squealed and did a happy dance every time I sold a card. As my sales picked up, I realized that I could probably make my shop into something bigger than a hobby.

Daniel encouraged me to quit my day job and build a career that would fulfill my creative needs. I was hesitant. It would be silly to give up my great job to sit at home and make cards in the basement. No one would take me seriously! It took a few months of Daniel pushing me, but I finally gave in. With his stable job to pay the bills and provide health insurance, it was the perfect time for me to take the plunge into self-employment.

After a few months of developing new cards I realized that my best sellers (and my favorite cards to make) were witty and whistle-worthy. At last I found a name I was happy with, Wit & Whistle. I opened a shop on Etsy with my new name, purchased witandwhistle.com, and wrote my first blog post. Since then I’ve been taking it one day at a time and figuring things out as I go along.

I’m certainly no expert, but here are my best tips if you’re hoping to open your own shop someday.

1. Photography is everything.

If you’re selling online, your product photos are the only glimpse potential customers get of your products. They have to be amazing in order to stand out from the ginormous crowd. Over the first few years I reshot every single one of my product photos four times, figuring out small things to refine each time. As my photography improved, my business grew. Here are a couple before and after screen shots to show the transformation.

Before: My first batch of product photos back when Wit & Whistle was Spawn Studio…
etsy product photography makeover

After: Four reshoots later, my current product photos…etsy product photography makeover

Big difference, right? I didn’t take any short cuts—it took me hours and hours of practice and tweaking to get my photos to the point they are at today. This is what I wish I knew at the beginning, and maybe it will save you some trial and error.

  • Use only natural light (no flash, no lights on in the room). I posted about my current product photo set up right here.
  •  Keep your background and product positioning consistent in all your photos. This will give your shop a cohesive look and makes it easier for customers to browse.

If you can get your hands on a DSLR I would definitely recommend it. Pair it with a 50mm prime lens, and you’ll be amazed how much better your photos come out. I’ve upgraded to a Canon 5D Mark II since, but I took the product photos above with a Canon Digital Rebel XT paired with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens. If you need a photography tutorial, this one is the best I’ve seen.

2. Start small.

For the first few years I printed all Wit & Whistle products myself as customers ordered (I used Epson C88+ printers with Epson’s archival quality pigment inks.) Printing things myself kept my start-up costs low and gave me time to build a customer base. Once I got to the point that I was spending most of my days printing, folding, and trimming to keep up with incoming orders, I knew it was time to start working with a local printing press to build up some inventory.

3. It’s a process.

I’ve grown so much as a designer since Wit & Whistle opened its doors. So many designers/illustrators/crafters seem to have their style pinpointed the moment they set up shop, but I’ve been figuring mine out and honing my skills as I go. If I waited to open my shop until I was awesome at everything, I’d never have started my business at all. You don’t need to have everything figured out before you begin. As long as you have a general idea of where you’re headed, you’ll work things out and find your niche along the way. The important thing is to take that first step and get going.

 

Longest post ever! High five if you made it all the way to the end!

96 comments

  1. Eva Kolenko

    So fun seeing your childhood photos! My story is much of the same especially starting out … only difference is i chose photography instead of graphic design. I swear I have the same photo of me as a kid down to that exact hair cut! I especially like your bit about everything being a process, I very much agree… That is part of the joy in being an artist. There is always room for reinvention!

  2. Trix

    Those childhood photos are priceless! Thank you for the reminder that you don’t have to wait til everything’s perfectly aligned – your shop name, product photos, the stars – before you start a business. This was seriously encouraging :)

  3. Lauren Hooker

    Thank you so much for posting this! My story is almost exactly like yours: I left my full-time graphic design position last week to pursue my dream of having my own shop. I really appreciate your words of wisdom and story to success! Your blog is one of my favorites :)

  4. Lorna

    Thank you so much for this post, I was just thinking yesterday about asking you a question about start up and then this appeared!

    I’m right at the beginning of thinking about starting a little business having recently designed my own wedding invites and had lots of encouraging comments I decided to take the plunge – only it’s been more of a very gradual toe-dipping. I really identify with what you said about wanting to be awesome at everything and have the perfect brand/style etc. before starting, but I know I just need to make a start! God has given me gifts to use, I don’t want to waste them :)

    Thanks again

    1. Bekah

      Way to be so supportive dad!! Parents of creative kids don’t have it easy sometimes, mine can attest to that :)

  5. April

    Such a great story, with a lot of great people supporting you along the way. ( even the hard-to-work with-clients, though it sucked, they helped you get to this point!). Love your stuff, AND your blog, thanks for a better look at how this all came to be :3

  6. Jo

    Really interesting post, I love seeing how people started out, it almost feels like I’m being let in on a secret! Here I am sat at my office job dying to get home to continue making my cards and work towards the deadline of opening my online shop, who knows where it could end up! :)

  7. Andy

    A genuine thank you for this post and all the others. It’s great seeing people doing what they love. And you are most definitely doing that. All the very best for the future.

  8. Maya

    High five!

    As my hubby says, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.

    I just opened a new shop and I’m not happy with my pictures. I knew I wasn’t happy with them when I opened, but I just couldn’t wait one more minute to get started. Or for a nice, sunny day! Next week I’m redoing them all. Hopefully the sun will grace me with her presence.

    I love these posts of yours. They’re very inspiring!

  9. Bill Main

    Great advice! Thanks for making it a long one. It’s been one of those continual adjustment processes with my own shop/illustration so it’s encouraging to hear from you. I’ll be thanking my wife(SweetLavender) for sending me this link.

  10. Aubrey

    I have been hoping that you’d make a post like this and here it is. I had read so many books on opening a shop to sell your craft and after years of thinking about it I just recently opened my own shop (like two days ago). One of the tips I read in the books, you mentioned, which is to have consistent backgrounds and I too went with all natural light with no flash. I am definitely going to look into that camera you mentioned because I could really use an upgrade.

    And I agree, it is a process and had I kept waiting until I had it “all figured out” I never would have opened. Because we are always figuring things out and finding our way. Often if I find a shop on Etsy that I like I look at what they sold and go to their oldest sales. Normally their photography was terrible and their items different. So you can see how much they have grown since their beginning sales. In the end, I decided to just put something out there even though I know the direction of the shop will grow and change but such is life, right? Thank you so much for this post and what timing too.

    Thank you!

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      Congrats on your new shop Aubrey! It’s looking great. You’ve already had some sales too, that’s awesome! It took me a lot longer than that to get my first sale. :)

    2. Aubrey

      Oh thank you so much for checking it out! I was super stoked to get those sales. I also took your camera advice and just ordered a Canon T3i. I’m so excited to get it and to improve my pictures because that background just isn’t sitting well with me. Thanks again for checking it out!

  11. Emily Anne

    Thanks for writing this! The best part was hearing that you didn’t have it all figured out when you started, because that’s EXACTLY how I’ve been feeling – even with the picking the name of my shop! It’s a good reminder to try things and do what you love even if you don’t have it all figured out or perfect.

  12. Julie K.

    This is a seriously awesome post. Thank you for it. I’ve been toying around with opening my own paper goods shop for awhile, and this was just really insightful.

  13. Casey D. Sibley

    So glad you posted this. I’ve been following you since your Etsy “Quit Your Day Job” feature and love learning more about how you got here. I’m still figuring everything out with my own little business! This was great inspiration :)

  14. Faith @ Ordinary Mommy Design

    Hi five! So much great advice! I bought my first DSLR less than two weeks ago, and was just telling my husband minutes ago that I was going to wait to buy a prime lens. Well, now that both you and my husband think it’s a good idea I may have to get one after all. ;)

  15. saranya

    Hi Amanda, I am a big fan of your blog! This post is exactly what I need right now. Thanks so much for sharing your path! I love your art work and very much inspired by them. Keep the creativity pouring.

  16. Coley

    High five! I made it to the end :)
    Thank you for sharing this Amanda. I can relate to SOOOOO much here. I’ve gone back to so many things you said to me when we met for coffee that one day. Its helped me a TON and I”m so thankful you spent the time with me and let me pick your brain. This is so helpful to read again. I feel SO SLOW at the process, but you’re right its a process. My husband continued to tell me the same things yours did and now I’m doing it. My Etsy is finally up (under ColeyCreated) and I’m not in love with my name yet either, but it got me started. So I guess we’ll wait and see what the future holds. Thanks again!! Hope you’re doing well!

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      Awesome Coley, I’m so glad you have your shop up now! It’s looking great. I especially love your “Oh Hello” sign. It was fun meeting up. I’ve been thinking about trying to get together with some more local readers. It might be nice to make some new like-minded friends. You guys just need to move back here! ;)

  17. Jaclyn C.

    Thank you for writing this!!! High five!!!

    This has definitely helped me push to get my etsy shop up and going instead of waiting until I have my blog in tip-top shape. I just need to get my stuff together! ha!

  18. Vicky Brown

    I really appreciate this post. I’m still in the early stages of my baby clothes business on Etsy and I feel like I’m just sucking up improvement advice and seeking it everywhere.
    It’s reassuring to hear that it did take you a few years to get to where you are now. It’s so tempting to find a ‘quick fix’… but that’s not how creativity develops is it!
    Thank you :-)

  19. Lisa

    Thanks for sharing your story! It’s always interesting to me how shops get started and the path creatives take to success. Support of parents and husbands is key, and I’m lucky to say I’ve had both! Great advice!

  20. Holly

    Thank you for this post! I have a small shop on etsy and have been trying to “grow” it and to find my voice as a designer. It’s really motivating and inspiring to read about others success and I appreciate the tips.

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      Well, yeah. That’s basically how I learned to draw! ;) I’m amazed that you can still keep up with my blog while taking care of two baby girls—Super Mom!

  21. Shelley

    Thank you so much for this encouraging post! I loved reading about how you got started, and it’s inspired me in my own development of my blog and potential products.

  22. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

    I’m so glad you all found this post helpful! Thanks for all the wonderful comments!

  23. Katie

    So inspiring! Thank you so much for sharing. I’m a recent illustration post grad working at a design firm and I’m also finding my creativity a bit suppressed. You’ve definitely inspired me to start having some autonomy in my creative life. Thanks!

  24. ema

    hi amanda,

    it´s so nice to read your story and how everything started. you mentioned that you printed your first cards with your epson printer at home. for me as a beginner with a little shop where i sell cards and handmade books and other paper stuff, that´s the hardest part. because i can´t find the right printer for my needs. most of the home printers can´t print on heavy cardstock with 200 – 300g/m². most of the time, when i try to print it´s smearing :/

    do you have any advise for this problems?

    another problem for small business starters in the paper section is, that most of the big companys with really nice paper don´t want to sell to someone without a license. at least it´s a problem here in germany. that´s really sad because often you have to take another paper and can´t provide the product you would like to. as a big “paper-addict” that makes me so sad.

    it´s nothing that me stops from being creative but sometimes it´s somehow depressing.

    hopefully there will be one day where i don´t have to struggle with all that anymore! :)

    so i wish you the best for your shop and i will still have a look on your blog daily!

    love,

    -ema-

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      I’ve never had problems with ink smearing. Sorry I can’t be more helpful! That is sad that the big paper companies in Germany won’t sell to everyone. Is it difficult to get a license so you can purchase from them?

  25. Lauren

    Thank you so much for this post! (and seriously high-five!) It was awesome to read about how you started and your tips are great. I’m not sure I’ll get to full-time for my jewelry, but I can’t wait to start applying your tips for keeping a nice store and blog! Thanks!!

  26. Gir

    This is a fantastic post! I only do my silly blogging on the side, but your blog and site are seriously inspirational!! I love your tips and am so ready to use them next time I attempt to photography my food and other creations! You are a rockin’ example of how to blog!! Thanks :)

  27. ema

    well, you can get a normal license when you are self-employed. and with that license some of the big companies will sell you their stuff. but not every company. sometimes you have to have an education as a bookbinder or as a printer or something similar. but both ways can be tricky because of the annual tax declaration – there would be some confusing changes.

  28. Michelle

    Your last paragraph really inspired me to stop hesitating and start doing. Thank you so much for sharing your adventure so far. Your words are so encouraging :)Keep designing and keep inspiring! Love your work!

  29. Lynet Witty

    Hi Amanda! I know this post might be old but GOSH I just found WIt & Whistle on Etsy while I was trying to look for great set up pictures to photograph my art on my shop ShopWitty on etsy. I totally LOVE the uterus’ ones! They make me LOL. Anyway, I’m so glad I found your blog, so I can be inspired, motivated (faith wise and creatively too) and mentored! I love it! Look forward to it!

  30. Katie

    Wow – what a great post!! Your story is so much like mine, only I’m a little further behind at this point. I, too, became a graphic designer because the term “starving artist” really scared me, though an artist is what I wanted to be. Currently, I have a great job as a graphic designer, but to your point – often designs become unrecognizable by those who don’t “know” design, and trust their designer.

    I’ll be following your lovely blog, and hopefully one day, between job and kids I’ll be opening up my own shop as well! Thanks for the inspiration! You do lovely work! :)

  31. Sara D

    Hi Amanda! Love this post and have kept it bookmarked for reference in building my shop. I’m about to upgrade my camera lens – currently have a Canon EFS 18-55mm…is the EF 50mm f/1.8 you mentioned better for product photography than mine? Trying to read up on difference lenses is making my head hurt haha. Any suggestions? I primarily am photographing products like yours – cards, invitation sets, and crafty projects on my blog. Thanks!!

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      Yes, the 50mm is what I use for all my product photos (and most of my blog photos) and I love it. I have the 18-55 as well but I never use it. You will be amazed how much better the photos are with the 50mm!

  32. Carey Young

    Hi Amanda! Thank you for this post! I shared it on my Facebook page at Shamrock Hill Designs and now am a fan and a follower. Your words are inspiring; I love how you didn’t wait for the “perfect everything” before you took steps to give your business a go. I’m in that spot now, and appreciate your story. It’s great to know others have shared this journey, and that you’re continuing to get out there and try, learn and grow. Congratulations on your business. You make beautiful things and have a lovely spirit! All the best :)

  33. Lully

    What an inspirating story. Thanks you for telling us. I think thaht you’re living a great experience and I know you’re enjoying it.
    I hope one day I will be as creative as you ( or maybe my children will).
    You are very inspirating for many people, and I’m part of them now. I wish everyday new people discover you. You deserve it.

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      Thanks Lully, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Creativity just takes practice like anything else. You can be as creative as you want, you just have to work at it! :)

  34. anna

    Hi Amanda!
    I just found your etsy shop and then your blog, and I m thrilled! Amazing products, great sense of aesthetics and very very cute patterns! I m an illustrator and it’s always nice to get inspiration form other people’s amazing work. It’s also a bonus for you that you post all this advice, explaining every little detail, solving the mystery behind all artists and spreading the magic!
    greetings from Greece,
    Anna

  35. Lacy W

    Hi Amanda!

    I love your blog and shop! So happy to hear Mabel is well :)

    I am wanting to do start selling my greeting cards at brick and mortar shops etc. but the time it takes me to print at home, and then trim, fold etc. is way to time consuming to make wholesale ever efficient! I have been scouring for who and how to do production run cards with an outside printer but cant find any who will let me use my own paper that I special order. Would you mind helping me with what kind of printing shop (online or no?) I should be looking for and/or possibly let me know what company you use?

    Thank you so so much for your time and kindness, and for always being gracious enough to take time out of your day to get back to us little people :)

    Lacy

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      Hi Lacy! I would definitely recommend finding a local printer to work with. Mine doesn’t sell online at all. My printer is 10 minutes from my house and it’s great to be able to drive over and look at printed proofs before they print my jobs. I bring in samples before they print and they match the colors to what I want. Local printers are usually more willing to provide you with more paper options too. I’ve tried ordering from a couple online printers in the past, and I can’t recommend them for anything but business cards or something simple like that. When there are print quality issues or damage caused during shipping it’s a huge hassle. Not to mention you’re stuck using their standard paper stock. I’d look up every printer in your area and ask for samples and see what services they can provide. Go with your gut, and if a company seems flaky they probably are.

  36. Barbara

    Hello Amanda,
    sorry, my English is poor…I just found your page (through pinterest) and read some of your posts, peeked in your shop and must admit that you sell great things! Congratulations! And I like your honesty for not to say your humility about your work and skills, they are great!!!
    Im a Swiss mother and I (with my husband) started an Online Shop a few months ago where I sell slate, stones, posters, boards, cards etc. handwritten with a customate text and writing. So every piece is unique. Sometimes I dream about making cards or posters from it, but since I’m not educated in any graphic skills and technique, I have no idea how to do it. Do you scan your images/doodles/motivs? And then? Which program do you use or does this your local printer do for your? Do you use fonts or your handwritings? If you could answer me just one or two questions it would help me a lot. Thank you!
    Greetings from Switzerland,
    Barbara

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      Hi Barbara! Your English looks great to me! :) I scan my drawings into the computer and edit them in Adobe Illustrator and add color. In my earlier designs I used only fonts, but all my newer designs feature my handwriting and hand lettering instead.

  37. Sara C

    Thanks for telling your story! It’s easy to think everyone has all their bits and pieces figured our when they start, but it seems like most business owners eventually just put their stuff out there and adjust as they go along.

    I’m planning to open up a sewing pattern shop in a few days and there are little things I’d love to change, but I definitely just need to get started and move forward from there.

    Thanks for the encouragement! (even though I’m a couple months late to the post)

  38. Julia

    Dear Amanda!
    Past few days I was looking through your work and your blog and I am more than in love! For me this is not just a simple pleasure of watching a beautiful paperwork (which by the way hits exactly my ‘style button’), but watching an artist designing her life according to what she needs and loves.
    This is exactly what I am struggling about right now and you gave me courage to try harder to oneday make myself my own boss. Although I’m not a graphic designer (I’m a landscape designer with a growing passion for graphic design) I am more than inspired by your work and your posts!

    Hope oneday I will write here that I made it to create my own company too, but now let’s get to work!

    Thank you Amanda!

    Julia (from Poland)

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      Thank you so much for your kind words Julia! I’m so glad you find my work inspiring, and I hope you get to be your own boss sooner than you think! :)

  39. Lidia

    Hello Amanda!I like to read comments, but never leave it myself. Here I couldn’t help do not to express my wow!!!!I enjoyed reading your story very much. I like your website, blog. Great job!to me it is perfect and worked well through all details. It’s easy to read and has consept!my best wishes! You are well deserved to be inspiration for others! THANK YOU for your advices!

  40. Becca

    This post is so encouraging and resonates so much. I graduated my design program two and a half years ago and your story totally resonates. I keep trying to figure out how to start up my own business while juggling my steady-bill-paying-job. Thank you for authentically sharing, and showing me that it doesn’t all need to be perfect, you just need to get started!

    I absolutely adore your website and your work. Thank you for being such an inspiration!

    PS. Your puppies are beyond the cutest

  41. Mathias

    Hi there! Someone in my Facebook group shared this site with us so I came to look it over.
    I’m definitely enjoying the information. I’m
    bookmarking and will be tweeting this to my followers!
    Fantastic blog and amazing design and style.

    Here is my webpage; tire rack promo code (Mathias)

  42. Dee

    Hi Amanda! I come across your website today and I’m straight away falling in love with all your works. I immediately follow your instagram, and read everything in your blog. Im currently in the same situation as you were before. I haven’t quit my day job, and Etsy shop is still in my head only because I haven’t found the name haha!! And my husband’s name is Daniel too, haha… Anyway, thanks for being such an inspiration. I hope I can be like you one day :)

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      Thank you Dee! You can do it too—the hardest part is getting started! :)

  43. Faith

    Hi- did your Epson c88 printer do well with thick card stock? I’m trying to print up to 110# paper. And did you ever try to print on envelopes with it? How well did that go over? Printer research is the absolute worst. ha.
    Thanks for your two cents!

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      80# cover is the heaviest weight paper my Epson C88+ printers can reliably print on. I’ve never tried printing envelopes. Yes, it is the WORST!

  44. Debra

    I just stumbled upon your work, and it’s fantastic! I think it’s awesome that your parents supported you from the beginning. I just graduated from college, and I’m in that stage where I don’t have a real job, but I don’t have my “style” yet. Sighs, aha. That post-grad life! I wish nothing but success and happiness comes along your way :D

  45. Stacey

    I love that you mentioned your husband’s support for you store. I don’t think a business like this can succeed if the two of you don’t start out on the same page!

  46. Hunter

    Thanks for sharing this Amanda! Also, thanks for being so prompt in responding to my Etsy message. I really appreciate it and you’ve been super helpful!

  47. Brenda Nolen

    I don’t have a store. I love your artwork abstract painting that apparently was done in 2011. I read all your answers in the comments so I’m ready to tackle it! I will stay tuned to your website too.

  48. Amy Chin

    Wow, I’m so glad I stumbled on this post. I’ve admired your Etsy shop (favorited it, of course!) and think you have created your business with such grace. I have a greeting card business that is just a couple of years old (and I finally opened an Etsy shop in March), but I struggle with so many aspects of the business (like finding wholesale customers), and I’m still in the making my cards to order phase, which is labor intensive, as you know.

    Thanks for such a helpful, and HOPEFUL post.

    P.S. I’d be interested in a post on how you were able to place your cards in so many shops!

    1. Amanda (wit & whistle) Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it, Amy! Thank you! Regarding wholesale, I just try to keep up with all my social media accounts and regularly add new products. Wholesalers find me through Instagram, Pinterest, Etsy Wholesale, my website, google searches, etc… I haven’t had any luck approaching potential wholesale customers, so instead I just wait for them to come to me. It has taken 5 years to get to this point with wholesale. Slow organic growth!

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