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.
Thankfully I have very supportive parents.
They encouraged me to continue creating even when my work was awful, like this…
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…
After: Four reshoots later, my current product photos…
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!