Thursday, June 4

11 Questions with Elise of Sweet Penelope

Elise of sweet penelope makes some of my favorite wedding invitations. I'm thrilled that she agreed to be a part of this interview series!

1. What was the turning point in your life that made you decide to work for yourself? What were you doing before this?
Hmmm, good question....I don't think I ever had a full-blown epiphany but instead I think just assumed that "one day" I would be some kind of commercial artist. I worked in the photo industry as a studio manager for about 6-7 years, and I also dabbled a little in freelance bookkeeping (uh, not so fun). I did weddings and portraits too. I found myself working with a wedding planner who asked me if I knew an invitation designer, and I said that I could do invitations. She asked for a portfolio, and I put one together, and while doing so, I was struck by the wedding-invitation-design-bug. I LOVED it and secretly hoped I could do it as a career.

2. What was your first concrete step after making that decision?
It was probably to design a web site. Another HUGE factor that helped me on my way, and coaxed me into the right mindset, was taking a business planning course at the Renaissance Center in San Francisco. It's an amazing non-profit that specializes in teaching entrepreneurship and the basics of running a small business. Af riend of mine told me about it, and it really changed my life, giving me the confidence and basic skills I needed to get things going.

3. What did you find to be the most difficult thing when you decided to make your business your full time job? What one thing do you wish you had known before starting your venture?
The most difficult thing was probably trying to find customers (!) No one knew about Sweet Penelope and no one seemed interested in printing wedding invitation templates at home.
I wish I had known more about retail businesses.

4. Who did you go to for advice? What resources were most helpful for you?
My husband, friends, and family were invaluable for advice. Luckily, I am very lucky and know some generous, talented folks who have started their own businesses and were glad to answer questions. I also reached out to a few strangers and acquaintances. The Renaissance Center for Entrepreneurship was also super helpful. There are also a few online communities/forums I joined where the folks are super friendly and give great advice.
I will always be grateful to Eszter Rabin at She's an amazing wedding invitation designer and a wonderful, wonderful person. I found her, believe it or not, in the yellow pages online since she happened to be living near me at the time. I was doing a business class exercise - I think the task was to interview someone in your industry about the challenges of starting a business. I didn't know any wedding invitation designers, so I just emailed her to see if she'd meet up with me, and she said yes. She is so inspirational, talented, and generous!

5. Being compensated fairly for a service seems to be a difficult thing for a lot of people starting out. How did you decide on pricing? Do you think you were fair to yourself in the beginning?
Big factors that determine my pricing include: costs of production, business overhead for the year, salary for myself, industry averages like graphic design rates/general invitation prices etc.
I think I was unfair to myself in the beginning when I started doing custom design because I wanted to please customers and fall within their budgets even though doing so meant I would not be compensated very well for my time...However, everyone "starts somewhere" and it was worth the experience and allowed me to learn about better pricing practices forthe future.

6. How did you get your name out there in the beginning? What was the most helpful marketing tool? What didn’t work at all?
I spent a lot of time researching wedding planners, editors, writers, bloggers and sent LOTS of "cold" emails and samples out into the world, hoping that "someone" might like my work and pass it on.
The most helpful marketing tool? Possibly customer reviews.
Paying for online ads in wedding directories did not seem to work too well for me. Or maybe I just didn't find the right directory where my customers hang out?

7. Describe your first “sale” or “event”? Did it go well? What did you learn from your first few endeavors?
Things went really well with the first few sales of invitation templates. The customers were nice and happy with my work.
I learned that I have to estimate more time for myself to complete projects, especially custom designs.

8. There are so many wedding-related businesses out there now. How do you separate yourself from the rest of the pack?

When I add pieces to my online collection, I try to stay true to my design and artistic sensibilities and not necessarily "hop on the bandwagon" of certain trends if they don't fit the style that my customers associate with me. Instead, I'll try to come up with something new.
Customer service is also extremely important to me, and I want to make sure my clients are happy with the design process and the final results. I try to be very accommodating and flexible and give the personal service that bigger places might not be able to.

9. How do you keep things fresh? Where do you go for inspiration?
I enjoy experimenting with new techniques and drawings, so that helps keep things fresh.
Funny thing, I like going to supermarkets. It's often packaging - food products, soap, drinks - i'm always lingering in the aisles that stock wine and hard booze. Gotta love those labels!
Anything around me that I fancy is really a source of artistic inspiration to me: other people's homes/living roms, gardens, jewellery, trees, knick knacks. I like to tear pictures out of magazines, too. The pictures can be of anything - a still life of food (food again!) eg.ingredients from a cooking article, a pretty dress, a landscape... If Ilike it, I'll tear it out and keep it for inspiration when I'm stuck. Sometimes I'll look through my sheets and go - "what the hell did I like about this?" If it doesn't speak to me anymore, then I don't hang onto it.
I'm also inspired, on another level, by artists who make their living solely from their fine art. I really, really admire painters, musicians,photogaphers, performers - who stay true to their personal vision and don't give up, even when it's super tough.

10. What is the most challenging thing about being your own boss?
Giving yourself a break and knowing "when to stop."
What is the most rewarding (besides, of course, being your own boss)?
Being able to have creative autonomy when I design for my collection.

11. What advice do you have for people who are thinking about starting their own small business who may not necessarily have a lot of prior business experience?
All experience is transferable, so don't be too discouraged if you're venturing out into foreign territory b/c so much of your history and skills - eg. ability to communicate and form relationships, ability to stay organized and focused - will still help you.
If you are passionate about what you are doing, then you will have the motivation to weather the yuckier tasks that everyone has to deal with at the start (paperwork, bookkeeping, etc.) Pick up a book and learn whatever task you need to tackle, or hire someone to teach you. The internet also has lots of forums with helpful people and information.
Keep your customers' interests at heart. It's wonderful to enjoy the creative aspects of your work, but always remember that "you are here to serve."
Stay positive and just accept that you will make MANY mistakes in the beginning from which you'll learn.

Thank you, Elise! You are so eloquent and your answers have been really helpful!

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