Content marketing is an approach to marketing where you can always improve your return on investment by optimizing your process to spend less time, effort, and money.
Jenny Hart is the founder of Sublime Stitching, a contemporary studio for hand embroidery.
On this episode of Shopify Masters, she will share how and why she's relied heavily on content marketing through their blog and the process she used to create nearly 900 articles in 16 years.
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
“I used to write much longer blog posts than I do now. Whereas now I try to keep them short and to the point, and then once a week I like to get something meaty that you can sit down and read."
Tune in to learn
- How to streamline content creation for a blog that’s produced nearly 900 articles.
- How to use Instagram to promote the content you create.
- What should an artist focus on if they want to turn their passion into a business.
Show NotesStore: Sublime Stitching
Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
Felix: Today I’m joined by Jenny Hart from sublimestitching.com. Sublime Stitching is a contemporary studio for hand embroidery and was started in 2001 and currently based at Los Angeles, California. Welcome Jenny.
Jenny: Hi, thanks.
Felix: Tell us a bit more about what does it mean to … What does hand embroidery mean, what is the product that or products that you sell?
Jenny: Well, I started designing patterns for hand embroidery and kits and tools and textiles at a time when people really weren’t working in hand embroidery anymore. It was something that I got addicted to as an artist, I started experimenting with it. This used to be such a mainstay of [inaudible 00:01:45] stores, was embroidery patterns. Through the ‘80s, it really kind of fell out of fashion and you really only had die hard cross-stitchers that were still working. What I do is surface embroidery which is kind of like [inaudible 00:01:58] or on jean jackets and that had just … There weren’t really companies actively designing for hand embroidery anymore. I saw a real need for it, I thought there was a generation that was not taking it up and wasn’t interested in it because they equated it with the older aesthetic.
I knew that you could something new with it, you could make embroidery anything, it can always be contemporized. In 2001, I launched Sublime Stitching and I began publishing iron on transfer patterns, they’re templates that you put on to fabric that you can stitch along the lines. Core to that is working with artists, I started working and collaborating with a lot of artists whose work I really like that you might not otherwise see as commercial craft design. I really wanted to do something new with it, get people excited about hand embroidery again because it was a new found passion for me and it’s kind of like when you discover something for the first time, you want to get everyone else into it and that was really the impetus for Sublime Stitching.
Felix: Very cool. 2001, this was in internet age, is a very long time ago. This was probably before any easy eCommerce platforms came along. How were you with selling the products, was it online or were you selling offline as well?
Jenny: I was not selling offline to start, Sublime Stitching grew out of a blog, I started blogging in 1999. Then when I began working in embroidery, I started a blog … I think it was a blog for a month called Sublime Stitching where it was just posting my work in embroidery. I hand coded my first website for eCommerce, I didn’t … There wasn’t really any out of the box platforms at that time. I didn’t know Dreamweaver, I wasn’t familiar with it. I learned straight HTML and I built my first website that way. I also ran it like that for the first six years like a crazy person. We also used … [Mels-E 00:04:11] was my cart, authorized.net. It was all of these things that you’re … I think this is still true today but with much more tools as I was just really trying to sew together a lot of desperate parts and make an eCommerce site.
Felix: Was the intention always to start a business because you mentioned it was a blog at first. Did you have the intention to build a business around that blog?
Jenny: I did. Hand embroidery for me was this back of my mind project I wanted to take up for a long time like when you say, “One day I’ll learn Italian.” For me for many years it had been, “One day, I’ll learn hand embroidery,” because I think it would be really interesting for my artwork and at the same time I thought, “You know, it would be really great if there was a company that made cool embroidery patterns, that had updated themes.” That always span in my head with I think people that are entrepreneurial minded, toss these ideas around in their head for a long time and say, “I always had this idea for business.”
Sublime Stitching before it had a name was an idea that I toyed with for a long time and I had been researching on the side, manufacturing solutions. It didn’t really come together until 2001 just from a confluence of different things where I was really ready to make it happen and make it an actual business.
Felix: You mentioned that people weren’t really working with hand embroidery anymore. Did you feel like you had to convince a lot of people to try it out again because I think one of the pros and cons of being in a market that either has gone away or is not popular yet is that you’re one of the first people to move into it, you don’t have any competition but then on the other hand it might mean that there’s not a lot of … There’s no customers there either. Was it a difficult issue for you at first, did you have problems finding customers early on because it wasn’t a trendy or popular I guess activity for people to do anymore?
Jenny: Well I viewed my customer as myself essentially where I was somebody who … I had no interest in needlework, I didn’t grow up sewing, I didn’t like crafting. To me crafting was something kindergartners did, I considered myself a fine artist with a studio practice. Knowing what changed my mind about hand embroidery and what got me excited about it I knew would be my communication tools to other people who’d never thought about it and how I could put it in front of their eyes in a different way. Another really big aspect of that was I was working in hand embroidery as an artist so I was creating work in hand embroidery and a lot of the work was getting published, illustrations, it was being exhibited. I was getting a lot of press and a lot of attention for my artwork at the time.
That was a big … A lot of people would look at my work and say, “I’d never seen embroidery like that, I didn’t know you could do that with it, I wish I could try that.” You [inaudible 00:07:17], “Well, I have this company, Sublime Stitching, may I interest you in some patterns and teaching you how to stich?” I had this nice stepping off point with my work that had been out for about a year at that time and I was getting that response so heavily from people that saw the work which was not always typical. I find this really interesting when looking at fine art, your first instinct isn’t always to say, “I want to make that painting.” That’s something very different about hand embroidery is it’s viewed as accessible and something that … It’s both viewed as accessible and inaccessible.
It’s viewed as accessible in that they look at my work in the gallery and they go, “I know what that is, that’s hand embroidery. Boy, I would love to do that, look what a cool thing you can do with it, I never thought of it that way.” Then the reality is, I don’t know how to embroider, I don’t know anyone who knows how to embroider and that’s the best way to learn is to have someone teach you. Sublime Stitching was very much about getting people over that hurdle or that perceived hurdle. Two perceptions, one that it’s really hard to get started, it’s not, it’s very easy to start and that you had to be stitching up teddy bears and bunnies, you didn’t. Look at my work, look at what I do with it, you can do something just as unique and just as creative.
Felix: Yeah, I think this is a issue or a problem that a lot of store owners run into where they do have to do some convincing because people have these preconceived notions about the products that they’re selling or the activities surrounding that product. What were you doing exactly to help people get over this hurdle?
Jenny: I agree with what you just said, I think if you’ve … I didn’t have just an end product for people to buy like a gift or a knickknack which I think inherently can be much more difficult to sell. I had a story along with it. What I did, my very first efforts came about and I think this applies for anyone is just telling people in my community what I was doing. I was very active in an online discussion forum at the time called Glitter and it was on a website called Get Crafty. This was really a very … This was kind of ground zero for the DIY movement at the time where a lot of people who were at the first Renegade Craft Fair were in these forums. A lot of people were doing work, we were sharing it, talking about it and it was a place where I could say, “Hey, I’ve been working on this company Sublime Stitching, I’d really love to show you guys my patterns, would you mind checking out my website, get feedback?”
I think it’s a great starting point for anyone with their business. Then the other very real thing which is going to sound super analog was that I had a … BUST Magazine hired me to do an illustration. I had actually reached out to them with my work and they said, “Yeah, we’d love to give you a job.” They ran a full page illustration, it was a hand embroidered portrait that I did for an article and I said, “In lieu of payment for my byline, will you please run my website, sublimestiching.com? You don’t even have to put my name, just put my website.” They did, they actually ran my name too but my byline was Jenny Hart, sublimestiching.com and that was my first actual eyes in front of people or eyes on my website and got a little bump traffic and I just built on it from there.
Felix: All these things that you’re saying, the forums that you were going to, the blog you created, the PR that you got by doing this work and asking them to essentially link back to you, back to your site. These are all things that still are very valid marketing strategies today that are maybe even very much more popular in more recent years. Is this still what you do today to drive traffic and new customers to your business?
Jenny: Well, we’re really looking at … That’s changed a lot for me. I do still … It’s a lot of … My business exists on a lot of word of mouth. I used to do a lot of print advertising, I used to do a lot of alternative print advertising in zines like Punk Planet and Juxtapoz and the Comics Journal and BUST. I think that having first contact with your community, people that are other entrepreneurs or people who know your business and understand what you’re trying to do with it well are a great first point. Then just talking about it, I was always talking about what I was working on and I always had a card on me, I was always telling … People thought, “That’s kind of a corky fun thing, I’d like to know more about it.” I always had promo cards on me.
We used to do promotional swaps with other web businesses through the forums. Actually used to organize them where we would swap promotional swag to put in our outgoing shipments. This was a fun thing because then our customers would get maybe a one inch button or a little bumper sticker that was from another business and it felt like a little goody bag. What was different is that social media didn’t exist in the way that it does now. Year by year I’m always trying to understand new ways of navigating it and having Sublime Stitching have a presence there. It’s not always obvious at the beginning. When Instagram was new, when Pinterest was new, I didn’t have an understanding yet of how people were going to play with this and where our presence made sense.
I think actually now is the strongest that we’re looking at that to kind of understand where customers come from through those channels, how they like to interact with me because I have a very … I like to maintain a fairly one on one relationship with my customers. I answer a lot of our emails and communicate directly with them. A lot of that core stuff that you mentioned at the beginning that I used to do, I still do. I think our newsletter is our number one way of communicating with people and gets more people on it if somebody shares it, drive sales. A lot of the real fundamentals just have stayed the same.
Felix: [Inaudible 00:13:30], that’s the comforting thing about marketing is that like you’re saying, the fundamentals stay the same, the channels, new ones pop all the time like Instagram for example are [inaudible 00:13:39] but a lot of the techniques are and the foundations have always stayed the same. You mentioned earlier that the business really got started with the blog. I’m taking a look at your current blog now, is it the same blog that you had hosted over as sublimestitching.com or is it on a separate website?
Jenny: No, it’s the same. When it first started it was a blog spot blog and then I probably had that as a plugin to my HTML site at the time. It’s been so long I don’t remember but when we switched from Drupal to Shopify, we had all of the blog posts migrated over. My blog posts go back to 2003. The photos are broken at the moment, if you go back far enough the photos aren’t there, we’re trying to address that. The only part that’s not there are the very first posts that I did in 2001. For better or for worse, all my blog entries are still on there.
Felix: Yeah, I’m looking, it’s amazing. You have nearly 900 articles which is a ton of articles, a ton of dedication and of course it’s great that you have that consistency over so many different years, over the years. What are you … How do you decide what kind of content you should be creating for the blog and talk to us about how has it evolved over time from the beginning to today, the type of content that you’re creating?
Jenny: It has and you said it’s great having that consistency and I look at my blog and I see how I’ve tried to streamline it, things like always having the same size image. I used to write much longer blog posts than I do now whereas now I try to keep them short and to the point and then once a week I like to get something meaty that you can sit down and read. It’s always been a mix of just personal interests, new product releases, tips and techniques that I think people would like and also trying to understand where these things want to live. For example, tutorials, I have a lot of embroidery tutorials. I always like to announce them on the blog but I used to wonder if I wanted that content to live on the blog or if I wanted it to have its own discrete page.
A lot of those things where we run a drill of how are we going to announce this, where we’re going to announce it on Instagram and it’s going to direct them where. Let’s send them to the blog, is the full lesson going to be there, all that. That changes, I wouldn’t say that we’ve come up with a perfect formula for things, I think we’re … I’m trying to also because it makes it easier for me, I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel every time I sit down to do a tutorial and figure out where it’s going to live. We’re actually retooling a lot of that right now and it does make it so much easier if you … I know it gets overwhelming, I know I get overwhelmed but if you have a business and you’re thinking about how you’re going to promote it or if you have content you’re going to push, if you can just bite one piece off at a time and get that worked out.
If you have a template that you can use, that you can create for yourself, that you know you can use again and again and not agonize over being married to it, know that you can make changes if it’s not working which it should. That helps cut down your work a lot. It makes it easier for you to return to it and do it again. We’ve got a lot of those processes in place right now that we’re trying to … We’re constantly refining it, you’re just really constantly seeing how it went, looking at the feedback and the information, seeing … If you feel like it was successful and then you either adjust or you say, “Okay, great, now we’re ready to let the little machine run as it were.”
Felix: I like the two very important things that you mentioned that I want to call out. One is to have these processes but then also not feel like you have to be married to it, not feel like you have to get the process right from the beginning. The last thing you want to do is not to have that kind of hesitation, that kind of analysis or paralysis by analysis because you can’t move forward unless it’s perfect. Then that leads to just avoidance, right? You start avoiding the work, avoiding going through that process because you don’t like it and because you’re too married to that idea of getting to be perfect. Other than with the blog, what other kind of processes have helped you the most with running the business, that’s lasted the test of time through the years?
Jenny: For me it would be … I’ve just changed it but it would be a newsletter template. I really sat down and worked out a newsletter template for myself a couple of years ago so that it wouldn’t take four hours for me to do the newsletter. That helped tremendously and it feels hard and frustrating at the time that you’re doing it because you’re trying to create a system that doesn’t exist or a process that doesn’t yet exist. You’ve got to craft it for yourself. The thing that I’ve learned is that that one frustrating day or that one afternoon where I just set everything aside and say, “I’m going to do this,” is always worth it. Even if I don’t arrive at that point where I feel like, “Okay, I’ve perfected it.” if I can just get it to the point where I’m like, “I’ve moved the ball ahead,” I can send this out.
A great parameter for businesses, especially when you agonize over like, “Well I want my brand to be represented perfectly this way.” A great parameter is, “Will this embarrass me?” If it’s not going to embarrass you, if you can live with it and it’s going to help you move on to the next thing then go ahead and put it out there. I think the biggest source of just tension for me when I’m working is trying to figure out where that line is, it’s like, “Is the drawing really finished, is the painting really finished? No, it needs one more brush stroke.” Maybe it doesn’t, just get it out there, you’ll see it with new eyes once it’s out there too. You’ve got something to work from and we also refer to it as the 20 mile march, refers to arctic explorers where no matter what the conditions were, no matter how bad the blizzard was, you had to do your 20 miles every day.
If you didn’t, if you took a day off, you weren’t going to make it to the end. You couldn’t afford to stop, you just had to do that one segment every day. That’s the attitude I try and keep with work like that.
Felix: What do you do on the days where you just don’t feel like doing it, do you just … How do you get yourself going so that … Like you were saying, you push through it even if you don’t like doing it. Are there tips, there were tricks that work for you to get yourself to do things that you don’t want to do or do things when you don’t feel motivated to do them?
Jenny: There’s two things I do. One is if I truly don’t feel like working, if I really, really just don’t feel like working, if I can, I’ll take the day off or I’ll take the afternoon off. The reason why is because if I don’t want to work and I’m just feeling frustrated, I’m not going to be productive and I’m not going to really get the work done. I also won’t have given myself the break that I obviously needed. I always try to avoid inhabiting the space of, “Well, I didn’t really have a work day and I didn’t really have a day off.” It’s either I am off or I’m working. A trick that I play on myself is if I am having to focus on a task that I don’t really want to do, I’ll hang a carrot out for myself by saying, “Okay, well if you can get this done then you can move on to doing this.”
Something that I really am excited to start, I project I want to start. Then I’ll just fly through that thing I didn’t really want to do and now I’m on to that fun project I wanted to get started.
Felix: Awesome. I want to go back to the blog real quick. You mentioned that there were lots of different kind of types of content that you’re creating, tutorials, you might write about personal interest or personal maybe products that you are into or you might write about new products that you’re launching on the store. Do you find that the different kinds of content that you’re putting together do different things for your business?
Jenny: I do, I find that we get a lot more engagement when they’re more personal blog posts. I posted a fairly personal anecdote blog post when Carrie Fisher passed away that your listeners might find interesting to read. That got a big response. Other things that are related to behind the scenes, I went to Paris last December and I visited two companies there, one of them is a silk thread manufacturing company that’s been in business since 1820. It’s run by the founder’s granddaughter. Having little glimpses of that, I love seeing that, I love knowing the story behind the products. We get a lot of response to that. I use the blog quite a bit just for anytime an event or an announcement happens and that doesn’t necessarily generate comments but it’s not really designed to.
Tutorials and educational content is a main draw for my website, is one of the things that we’re learning. It always has been, it goes hand in hand with my business, I couldn’t really offer and do what I do if I wasn’t at the same time teaching people how to do hand embroidery which I’m passionate about and I want to be doing anyway. It wouldn’t … I would have a product hanging out there in the air without a how to manual if I didn’t have that. I get a lot of people coming to the website, not necessarily because they’ve had of Sublime Stitching or they’re looking for it although there is that aspect. A lot of it comes to us just because people want to learn how to do a French knot or they want to learn how to do a satin stitch and it brings them to me.
Felix: One other thing I noticed about your blog is lots of photos, lots of different looking photos too. I can’t imagine that you’ve been able to streamline all of this too, right? It seems like it’s all … At least I don’t recognize [inaudible 00:23:55] any of these. How have you been able to make that a process of creating photos for your blog easier?
Jenny: One thing I do is I have a little frame that goes around all of my photos. When I originally was blogging, I would just put any photo up, it wouldn’t have … I didn’t like the way watermarks looked but I did feel that I needed to have a copyright notice with my images we can say were being used, people would just repost them and there would be no link back. One of the things that I did was I started using these little frames and what they look like is they look like an old crinkle cut polaroid printed edge. Then that gives me this nice white boarder and I just have my copyright notice and my company because I have noticed that people will use these images on their own blogs and I don’t mind it because it’s got my found via Sublime Stitching and the credit is there.
That’s always nice. For the actual photography, having an iPhone is great because 12 years ago I didn’t have that, I had a digital camera. Recently we just set up product photo studio which I’ve never had before which is a blessing. It’s so great to have … I have a table with seamless and lights set up whereas in the past, I’ve always been chasing sunlight around with a piece of white foam core trying to get the best image that I can. I think that that’s something that a lot of people can relate to but recently we set up a really good, little studio. It lives where it’s at, we can just step in, photograph things, it cuts down on the time of cleaning up the image and Photoshop.
Actually when you called, that’s what I was doing, was doing product photos for a new line we’re releasing.
Felix: In that case, this is fresh on your mind, I think that product photo studio is a great thing to have because you don’t have to constantly set it up like you’re saying chasing the natural light around to get a good photo. What are some key pieces of equipment if someone else out there wants to create something like this so that they can do the same as you, be able to churn out essentially photos for their blog or just content in general?
Jenny: Well I have … I don’t know what type of camera I have off the top of my head which is embarrassing. I can tell you when we get off of this, I can give you that information. I have a very … It’s very modest, you can get seamless paper off Amazon or most photo studio supply stores. I’m in L.A. too so we know photographers and actually what I did was I hired a friend who is a professional photographer and I said, “Will you help me set up my studio, I’m going to show you how I need to photograph everything, I want you to set up my camera.” We have two lights, a table, seamless paper, blackout. It can be a luxury of space too, we have an extra room where we’re able to set this up and not have to break it down at all.
It doesn’t have to take up a lot of room, at least not for me, my products are very small. That was key for me, was I started asking friends and say, “Do you know somebody who could do this?” I said, “Get me to where my camera set up so that I can take the photos and I won’t have to readjust my white balance every time and help me adjust the lights.” It worked great.
Felix: Awesome. Now, when you … I want to go back to the blog again real quick. When you are creating this content, it’s great to put all this effort into it and everything, [inaudible 00:27:22] your articles later. How do you promote this, how do you get the most value out of the work that you put into creating it?
Jenny: Well, I don’t know that I am getting the most value out of it right now but I post to Twitter, I’ll post it on Facebook. Pinterest is one that’s evaded me for a long time. When Pinterest first came out, I really didn’t quite … This was what I was saying earlier where it hadn’t yet been molded by how people were using it themselves. It seems to me that it was really strictly for posting other people’s works to say, “This is what inspires me, this is my personal bulletin board.” It wasn’t really okay to post your own work or … I was looking for a way to say, “All right, well I’d like to put my work in front of other people and let them see the embroidery.” It’s taken a long time of just seeing how people use Pinterest for me to understand where Sublime Stitching fits in with that.
Instagram, I really, really like using Instagram, I actually have four Instagram accounts. I will post things there, that drives a lot of blog interest and again, through my newsletter. Probably the biggest traffic to my blog comes from when I say, “Hey, there’s something on the blog that you might want to check out.” I do it through the newsletter.
Felix: When you do posts on Instagram, are you doing things like updating your bio so people can easily click over and see that blog article or do you just tell them to type in the blog URL themselves?
Jenny: I’m really trying to be vigilant about updating the URL in the bio so that when people go the bio, they can go directly to that. The mobile version of my website right now is a little outdated, we’re actually waiting on a new version of the website this week. I really don’t want to send people there hunting around especially the blog can be kind of hard to spot. Actually we recently retooled the bios a couple of times just for clarity and also because I added a new Instagram account and I wanted it to be reflected there. I use the three Instagram accounts I have also to kind of talk to one another and say, “Hey, this is going on over there and this is going on over there.” To explain one is my personal account, one is for the business Sublime Stitching and the other one is just @embroidery on Instagram and it’s all the work that people are doing past and present in hand embroidery that I think is really exciting and really inspiring.
It’s just embroidery eye candy and I used to post it on Sublime Stitching but I always felt conflicted of … I felt like I could have a whole account just devoted to that and I wanted to be able to separate the two. I’m always in a social media swirl, in the past it’s always been, “Okay, now I’m going to run over here and I’m going to post it there and now I’m going to run over to Facebook and I’m going to post it there. Now I’m going to type up …” Now, we’re really trying to be smart about it, not just throw a bunch of marbles out and see what happens but do it one at a time and see what the responses and gauge it, see if we can tweak it and improve it before we go on to the next thing because we hadn’t really done that in the past.
Felix: Yeah, that’s a good point because a lot of times people will take the promotion route of just … Spray and pray, right? Put it all out there, turn a fire hose and then hopefully someone catches it at some point. You want to take a much I guess smarter approach to do doing it. Can you talk a little bit more about this, how do you determine where … Especially when you have these three Instagram accounts, how are you going to determine what you should be posting, what you should be promoting and where?
Jenny: I think some social media outlets come naturally to people like you just fit in and you get how it works. You don’t have to figure out what you’re going to post and Instagram feels that way to me. [Inaudible 00:31:18] spray and pray is kind of funny. I think that that’s actually a decent approach when you’re first starting, that’s how I was at the beginning, it was just like, “Blah, blah, everybody it’s Sublime Stitching, everything all the time.” After a while, I think you … It’s hard when you’re running a business, you don’t have the time, you don’t necessarily have the gauges on the dashboard to read all that information. Sublime Stitching is me, my partner and one full time employee.
My partner who’s my fiancé, he has his own business and it’s really only been in the last year that he has actually started working in a focused way on my business with me. A lot of what he’s doing is taking in the information through Google Analytics. For me that’s the kind of thing where you’re an octopus when you have a small business, you’re doing so many different things. That was just the point where I said, I give, I can’t even jump into that ocean of information, I don’t know how to pass it out. He’s very, very good at that. It’s been really eye opening and interesting to me to look at that information and we’re just at the point where we’re starting to understand how we might use it.
Like I said earlier, the thing that we see is that we have different conversion rates, I think this is true for any business but you just may not have the information to point it out to yourself, that our conversion rate depends on how people came to the website. We have customers that come to our site organically and then we have customers that come to us who were looking for a tutorial. A lot of times for example, you’ll have someone who they discover us and their entry point is the how to section, they don’t buy anything but they leave with a free pattern. They may do this again and again and again and then three years later, they’ll place a $200 order. For my website that’s a big order because most of the products are $20 or less.
Whereas you have a different metric for somebody who came organically, landed on the first page. All of that we’re trying to look at and understand. It’s an inexact science and it’s been really interesting having an online business for so long of just how there weren’t these tools there before. You were feeling around in the dark and trying to understand what came from it and now you can actually see it. It’s really crucial that … You really need to look at it to understand because I know for some people it’s kind of scary, I don’t know why that is where it’s like, “I don’t actually want to look at the numbers, I don’t want to know.” Maybe with your book keeping or whatever but it’s so … I find it just the opposite, I find it so reassuring once I know what those numbers are.
Then you can start putting your energy into things that aren’t working. You’ll, “I don’t have to do 10 Instagram posts today because it’s actually not converting into any sales whereas I haven’t been on Pinterest in eight months and that’s where all of these sales are coming from.”
Felix: Now what if it’s working but not as well as other channels because in your example where the conversion rates vary depending on how they enter your site. Someone might come along and look at the tutorials first and then you have to wait three years, maybe that exaggerates. Anyway, you have to wait a while before they ever buy anything from you versus someone that maybe comes organically or does some kind of Google search and finds your site. Then within that first visit they buy something. Does that mean that you should stop trying to get those people that take three years to buy and focus more on the people that will buy immediately or how do you determine what to do with that information?
Jenny: I don’t think so, I don’t think you should … I think that … For us, then we have things that we’re trying, little tweaks. To be honest, I don’t really have an answer for that. I would tell you, you don’t want to give up on it, you want to talk about different strategies or figure out how … What people are responding to on that. We can look and see where we had a day where we had a peak and maybe that was a day that I released a tutorial on Pinterest and I hadn’t done anything on there for three months and it generated this. Well, let’s do that again, let’s see if that’s working. It’s like hitting the nail on the head, once you find the nail, hit the head again. It’s hard, small businesses have the advantage of being nimble and quick and you can change.
If you’re really excited about it and you’re paying attention or if you have somebody that likes to pay attention in that way, it’s valuable but I don’t know that I have any more specific advice that I could give other than I don’t think it should be ignored, I think … I do think you want to nurture and pay attention to the ones have a dynamic response to what you’re doing that you can see. You can see it pretty quickly, you don’t have to have a, like you said, a year or two years. We can see results in a couple of weeks through changes we make. If you have the stomach for it, it’s really worth it, it’s … Take back to the idea of the 20 mile march, if you can say, “In the morning I’m going to work on social media or in the morning I’m going to spend an hour looking at my Google analytics even if I don’t know where to start, even if I just am going to understand one thing about it.”
It’ll really help you move forward. I try to segment my days that way a little bit so I don’t feel like I’m just stepping into this blizzard of to dos each time.
Felix: It sounds like teaching and education is a big proponent of your content strategy and a great way for you to bring in new customers. Now after being in business for so long, having so much content, do you ever feel like you’ve run out of things to teach?
Jenny: No, not with hand embroidery. Hand embroidery is a very, very deep subject and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so interesting to me is that it’s something that you can dip your toes in and enjoy from a very superficial level and just … You can go really deep on it as a subject. There’s endless ways of playing with it and innovating it and designing product for it. No, I feel just the opposite, I feel like I can’t believe I’ve gotten so little content out. Also from having content from reaching back so far as I look back at things and I see maybe a blog post or a tutorial or a technique and I’ve learned so much from that point. There are ways I would have maybe approached it differently or there’s new information.
I like to revisit that too and say, “Remember years ago I taught you how to do this? Well here’s another thing I’ve learned alongside it or since then.” I think that has a lot of … It’s a big part of why I’ve been doing this so long is it’s a personal passion and interest of mine and it’s one that is just, it’s such a deep well of information and ideas that it just feels like it has room for ample experimentation.
Felix: One other interesting thing that you mentioned to me was that not only are you educating the actual customer or the people that are visiting your site, you also want to help your customers teach their friends hand embroidery. Can you speak a little bit more about this?
Jenny: Yeah, I’m really excited about this. February is national embroidery month and I’ve known this for a long time. Every year people go, “Hey, it’s February, it’s national embroidery month, yay!” This year we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we facilitated people teaching each other? Instead of just saying, “Hey, it’s national embroidery month,” let’s actually celebrate it in a meaningful, active way by encouraging people to celebrate it and acknowledge it by teaching each other. That’s the best way to learn hand embroidery, it’s a really nice thing to do and we … We set up, we did a blog post where we said, “Let’s make it national teach embroidery month, we want you to participate with us. If you will write us, we will send you a little care package, we’ll send you some patterns and some floss and some instruction sheets.
We’ll do it for free, all you have to do is give us your address. Your end of the deal is you have to tell us who you’re going to teach and you have to send us photos and you have to tell us about the jokes you told and you have to tell us about the snacks you ate.” We have sent out, since we announced almost 200 packets and people are already getting together with their friends and sending us photos and it’s wonderful, I love it. It’s so enjoyable for me and that’s a big [inaudible 00:40:29] aspect of my business is that I really love the feedback that I get from the people that are working with their hands, that are working with patterns, getting together with their friends, learning a new skill, it’s great, it’s really, really fun.
Felix: Then from the business angle, what a great way to encourage referrals and word of mouth because now you are getting these people to not only enjoy your products, enjoy the process, enjoy the art with their friends but now they’re spending many hours learning about this product that you essentially sell. I think that’s a great way to not only spread that passion, spread what you’re passionate about but then also attract essentially new customers to learn more about your products and your brand.
Jenny: Well I hope so and I want … My dream when I started Sublime Stitching was that I could create a company and a brand that would endure, that people would think of affectionately, that they would associate it with something that they have good feelings about, that they have shared with friends, that they’ve made gifts, that they’ve given for people or that they had a comforting activity when things were stressful or that they had something now in their home or their clothing that they embroidered and personalized. They felt like they did it and that we helped them make that happen. That’s really important to me and it’s effective, sincerity is effective, it’s because I’m really here, I’m really wanting this out there and I really love it when it comes back.
Felix: Right, definitely. Now I want to talk a little bit about licensing because you’re sitting in a very unique position that I don’t think I’ve had many other guests on the podcast be in which is that you have worked on both sides of the table, buying licenses and also distributing or selling licenses. Can you say a little bit more about this, what kind of licenses have you worked with?
Jenny: Well I’ve licensed my work as an artist and I also licensed work from artists for Sublime Stitching. What that means is that I am an artist who works with other artists and I try to work in terms that, one that makes sense for my business but I also like to treat them the way that I want to be treated when I’m on that side. I know what the concerns are, whenever you put your artwork in somebody else’s hands and they’re like, “Great, I’m going to make this product with it.” You’re like, “I hope it looks okay, I hope he won’t embarrass me.” I have a lot of those things in place when I work with artists of I want them to know that I’m working with them because I’m excited to, I’m working with them because I want to promote their work, I’m not going to be … I don’t release patterns and some nameless thing, it’s branded under their name, it’s the artist series, all the patterns are named by the artist who did them.
I show them what we’re going to do before it goes to production which most companies won’t do that which I actually understand why because you don’t want the artist at that point to go, “This isn’t what I want to … Go back into the kitchen.” It’s a learning experience, I work with artists that are very established, that have a lot of experience with licensing, I also work with discovery artists who maybe have never licensed something before. We walk through it together and see what makes sense. It’s a process that I always enjoy because I’m so excited to work with these artists because I’m a fan. I’m a fan of their work, I want to do this new thing where it’s like, “Hey, let’s make embroidery patterns out of your illustrations.”
I hope that it’s exciting for them to see their work get translated into hand embroidery and also for stitchers who are fans of their work or maybe new to their work, have this brand new platform to work with and embroider. That’s been kind of a renewed focus because from the beginning I drew all the patterns myself and it wasn’t until 2006 that we had our first artist which is Kurt Halsey and then we went on and we art by … We have Daniel Johnston, Carson Ellis who just won the [inaudible 00:44:56] Award for her children’s book. Tara McPherson, artist [inaudible 00:45:02], Emily Winfield Martin, [Kyla Martz 00:45:06]. We’re right now working with French artist Natalie Lété which I’m very excited about.
That’s really been kind of an even heavier focus now on doing other artists’ work for the patterns because I can produce much more that way. It never was my intention for Sublime Stitching to just be my work but it was out of necessity for a long time. I still design all the product, develop all of it, do all the packaging. We work with one person to do assembly offsite. It’s a lot of different things, I’m rambling, I’ve forgotten your original question.
Felix: I think … Another question I want to ask is about the benefits of going the licensing route, why choose to license versus … Is the alternative just to create the art yourself or what’s the alternative to licensing?
Jenny: I guess what would be the alternative to licensing. Me producing the patterns was from day one, that was how we started. The reason why I license though … I think the simple answer for most companies, they license because they need quick content, they need … The creative content is the hardest, they’re manufacturers, they have the factory, they have the sales and distribution but they don’t have the creative content. You either have … For a company like mine, you have in house designers or in house artists. I’m not that size and really I want it to be more visible who’s doing the work than that. For me licensing is a way to use existing work because I will use work that’s existing from artists or sometimes we will commission them to do something exclusive.
Then we just have something a little more unique. Licensing is a big world because also we’re not talking about the scenario where let’s say I’m licensing a syndicated cartoon like Peanuts for example. That’s a whole other scenario. I think … I don’t know, I don’t really know … I don’t have a very articulate answer for this so you’ll probably cut this section.
Felix: I won’t because I think the answer you gave makes sense which is that if you need to get to the market faster or you don’t have the means or time to create that creative content like you were saying, licensing I think is a very valid route for people to take. Now, when you do make that decision to go down that route of licensing, how do you find one that fits with your business, your purposes, your [inaudible 00:47:51]. What’s your process for identifying an artist to license from?
Jenny: Well for me, one, I have to like their work and be excited about it. I have to see a path for it to be translated into hand embroidery. Usually that means it works really well with a lot of comic artists who do really great line work, they have to want to do it. For people who are seeking licensing or seeking collaborations with other artists at whatever level, one of the things that I have learned that is absolutely crucial is they have to want to do it. I have wonderful artists that we worked with and I have people that I’ve approached, that I’ve asked and they’re just for whatever reason and that’s fine, they’re just not interested or they just won’t communicate.
I would really pursue them because I’d be so crazy about their work and I would just think it would be so wonderful. I’ve learned the hard way that if they’re not excited about doing it, you just have to move on to the next thing. For people who are looking to collaborate or to license creative work, one of the things that I did recently was I went to a convention, an illustrators’ convention and walked the floor. Then after I’d gotten the lay of the land and saw everyone and had my picks of people that I wanted to approach, I went to them one by one and I gave them my card and I said, “Hey, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Sublime Stitching but my name’s Jenny Hart and I make embroidery patterns, I love your work. I’d love to … If you’d be interested in making your work into embroidery patterns or collaborating with us, contact me.”
I gave them my card and keep it really short like, “Hi, how are you doing? If this is something you’d be into, contact me.” That was the key thing was me asking them to contact me. Some of them, whatever, no big deal, some people would be like, “I’m so excited, I’m dying to do this.” I only heard out of six people that I approached, it was the last day so I was going quick or I would have approached more. One contacted me and she’s the one we’re working with. This is also becoming advise for artists also is that there are companies that want to work with you and they want to license your work. You just have to make yourself, you have to put yourself out there or make yourself as easy to work with as possible. I make decisions all the time where I go, “It’s not a vote of no confidence, I love your work but if you’re not going to answer my emails, I have to move on to the next thing.”
That’s hard because you just learn where your time is best spent and move on to the next thing.
Felix: When you do set up these licensing deals, what goes into that, what are some key terms or key stipulations that you need to make sure you get right or pay a lot of attention to when setting up a licensing deal from both sides?
Jenny: I have a template that I send to my artists after they’ve said that they’re interested that in plain English says, “Okay, I have a contract but these are the main points.” One of the points that we request from our artists is that we ask for their work to be exclusive to us just for embroidery patterns. In other words, they can provide us with preexisting artwork, they still own the rights to it, they can go on to develop other projects with it but we only ask for exclusivity as embroidery patterns. We also ask very often for exclusivity for any embroidery patterns that we be their only embroidery pattern publisher.
That’s an example of something that we ask for but we have a standard … We outline our terms and conditions, I mean the term of the agreement, it’s … I’ve tinkered with my contract over the years to change certain things, we outline what the artwork will be that we’re going to use, what the deliverables are, when they need to deliver it to us. We started doing collections where we’re not just doing one sheet of patterns but we’re doing a tool case, a sheet of patterns, a hoop flair, a hoop flair is a little magnetic needle minder. We have a little collection of their work and then we have a metric that we use that is a calculation based on … That takes into consideration our manufacturing costs, what we’re going to net after retail, what we’re going to net after wholesale and what we’ll net after distributor.
This has helped me as a licensing artist, anytime somebody says, “I want to license your artwork.” You’re like, “Of course you do because I’m worth a million dollars.” You get these little tiny royalty checks but being on the other side of it, when I understand how much money goes into the manufacturing that we have to invest upfront and that we have margins that get skinnier and skinnier when we’re working with distributors who maybe want 60% off retail. Really, that’s where we have to look at that net number. The other thing that I like to do which is important to me is I like to pay my artists a flat rate upfront. We don’t pay royalties based on sales, we pay a royalty based on the total quantity that we manufacture. Then it’s up to me to sell it.
I like that because I like the artist to feel like they’ve been paid and that they’re not getting a check every quarter for $12 and we just don’t have the manpower to track that anyway which was me. A lot of artists have been really, really wonderful and we work this out. I don’t ever try to shoehorn anybody into doing anything. I want them to be excited about it, I want them to think it’s a special thing, know that we’re doing it together, that it’s because I truly love their work that I’m going to pay them as fairly and as reasonably as I can and that they have an agreement that they feel they understand and that nothing is hieroglyphics. I know that when I and our dealer sign a contract, I just want to understand what I’m agreeing to and I want to understand what they want, I want to deliver what they want.
I try and do that when I’m working with them, I feel like I know … I know what they’re thinking.
Felix: Yeah, I think that that’s definitely valuable that you have experience from both sides. Now for the artists out there, the listeners out there that are artists that don’t have a business yet and don’t even know what they want to do exactly but they do want to turn their passion into a business, what do you think should be their first step, what should they be focused on let’s say the next month to make that first step in that march like you were saying towards their goal?
Jenny: Well, you have to have a clear picture of what your business will be. It has to be so clear to you that you can define it and you can identify who else may be doing it or what the closest thing to that is. That is the way that you’re going to understand how you can mold yours to be unique, if there’s a need for it or if there’s not a need for it. If there’s competition that you can live with or not live with and if it’s realistic to do. I think … This is kind of maybe an old analogy but long, long time ago, I can’t believe I just said that, long, long time ago, when we were talking all the time at Renegade Craft Fairs about, “I want to open an Etsy shop and I want to quit my day job. I used to say when I would give talks, I’d say, “Well, you may love making earrings, do you love making 200 earrings?
“Is your business scalable?” That’s a big one, “How do you see it growing, do you have a plan for growing it, do you like making plans? You have to. Are you comfortable with risk?” I think that’s a big one that people don’t think about is how much … You’ve got to be okay with it not working out, you’ve got to be okay with a lot of stuff not working out again and again and again. If you can stomach that and if you can take it not as, “Well, that didn’t work, it’s time to give up,” or if you can power past it and either move on to somethings else or if you can learn from it. Sublime Stitching has been around this long because one, I love doing it but I’ve always been willing to get past the things that weren’t working. That can be hard for people to do especially if you’ve spent a long time developing something, worked on it.
Just because you’ve spent a year developing something, if you have reached a point where you’ve determined it is not going to work, it’s not going to be worth it or for whatever reason, it’s no longer a good idea, that doesn’t mean you have to push forward with it. I think a mistake some businesses make is that they’ll do that, they’ll say, “Hey, we’ve got to do this because we spent a year working on it.” That’s a risk and you may just need to take it as a loss and move on to the next thing that’s going to be better. People that work alongside you, that can be very frustrating, they cannot understand that. I’ve had people that have worked for me where at one point I had I think three people on staff which is the largest I ever had. I know that they would feel that frustration, it’s frustrating to me when I’m in that point when it’s somebody else’s decision and you’re like, “I’ve been working on this for six months.”
It’s like, “Yeah, we’re scrapping it.” I think that’s a very powerful thing to be comfortable with within your business.
Felix: Yeah, that’s amazing advice, thanks so much for your time Jenny so sublimestitching.com is the website. Where do you want to see the company be, where do you want to see your brand be this time next year?
Jenny: Oh boy, I’d really like to have … I’ve always been interested in partnering with … This is the entrepreneur’s dream is you want to partner with a company that has greater resources than you do, that recognizes what it is you’re trying to do and helps you amplify it. That is the pie in the sky ideal so that would be nice. We have companies that we’re interested in and that are interested in us and we talk about but that never looks like what you think it’s going to look like and I always end up going back going, “I’m self-employed for a reason, I want to be my own boss and I want to …” It’s hard because I think the dream from the start, you learn so much that you go, “The dream is not what you thought it was.”
Not that that’s bad, it’s just different. I actually still have as hard of a time answering that question now as I would have 15, 16 years ago. Truth is I just want to embroider all day long, that’s … Something a year from now that would give me more time to focus on my personal … My studio work and embroidery would be wonderful.
Felix: Awesome, I love it. Thanks so much for your time again Jenny.
Jenny: Appreciate it, hope it was helpful to your listeners.
Felix: Here’s a sneak peak of what’s in store for the next Shopify Masters episode.
Speaker 3: We also targeted how competition, we targeted some retail stores like Buy Buy Baby, we targeted some people …
Speaker 4: Car seats.
Speaker 3: Looking for car seats. There was a lot of shots in the dark, a lot of them didn’t bring the result we were expecting but fortunately enough, a few of them brought back some … Major leads and sales.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the eCommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit shopify.com/masters to claim you extended 30 day free trial.