It’s not uncommon to come back from a vacation with fond memories and treasured purchases from your destination.
What’s somewhat less common is turning a favorite vacation keepsake into a thriving business, but that’s exactly what Milicent Armstrong, founder of Artemis Design Co, did after a trip to Turkey in 2007.
“I saw Kilim shoes and bags the first time I travelled to Istanbul,” says Milicent, referring to accessories crafted from repurposed Kilim carpets, a centuries-old traditional design in Turkey. “I just fell in love with the idea of repurposing Kilim. I thought it was such a cool concept, so I ended up buying one of the bags.”
As a trained interior designer, Milicent was drawn to both the aesthetic of Kilim carpets and the creative canvas made possible through repurposing the fabric into equally unique accessories.
“I went again in 2012, with a mission to find an artisan workshop that was making kilim bags. I got really lucky and I found somebody, and they were willing to work with me to create a small batch of shoes and bags. I used money from my savings to cover the first production run, and brought them back to the U.S. with me.”
Equipped with the loafers and bags, Milicent set up shop to start selling right from her living room.
“I was living in the south end of Boston, and I had my living room just full of these products. I would have people come over if they wanted to look at something or try something on, and that’s how I made my first sale.”
Capturing initial interest and momentum
The thing about one-of-a-kind products is that everywhere they go, they stand out. Word of mouth began to pick up steam as Artemis Design Co’s first buyers wore their finds around town.
“I felt like I was really on to something,” says Milicent. “People loved the shoes and the bags, and it wasn’t just my friends and family. People would see them and ask when they could stop by to buy a pair, or how to purchase a bag. So I pretty quickly placed another order with my supplier.”
With momentum building, it wasn’t long until Milicent expanded sales beyond the four walls of her living room, although her first forays beyond the apartment were still rooted in in-person sales. “I did little trunk shows here and there,” she says. “My first online sales experience was on Etsy, and it didn't work well because my price point was too high for what most shoppers look for on Etsy.”
Price point was impacting their conversions on Etsy, but above and beyond that, Milicent noted that even generating traffic for their online presence was a challenge. In-person selling was much easier to capitalize on in the beginning. “The business just didn't have traction yet, so I wasn’t getting a lot of hits on our website until maybe the second year we were in business.”
However, while online growth may have been slower, more opportunities to sell in person quickly emerged as Artemis Design Co picked up traction.
Expanding the business’s in-person footprint
Selling even one product can instill needed confidence in any new entrepreneurial venture, but selling dozens at a time is where things get truly exciting. While Milicent was still selling out of her apartment, a friend helped connect her with buyers at Steven Alan, a chain of high-end retail stores, which led to her first wholesale order.
“Steven Alan was my first big wholesale order,” says Milicent. “I sold to a few of their stores, and then launched the product line more officially by doing a travelling trunk show at multiple Steven Alan stores the first summer I was in business.”
That break put Artemis Design Co on a path toward securing more wholesale deals. To capitalize, Milicent decided it was time to build a web presence that suited the brand, and the products, more than their previous Etsy store.
“I wasn't even thinking about selling the shoes and bags online at that point, because we were focused on our wholesale strategy,” says Milicent. “What we initially wanted was more of a platform to showcase the shoes and bags, share photos, and tell the story of our brand and products.”
Focusing on wholesale deals, and building a brand to support them, was the linchpin for Artemis Design Co’s continued growth. They consistently doubled year over year sales, and worked on collaborations with established brands like Anthropologie, Madewell and others—including some dream collaborations for an interior designer by training.
“One of the highlights for me was when we did a big collaboration with Nate Berkus and his partner Jeremiah Brent. That was huge because they are legends. Working with people like that has made for some incredible moments. When you gain the attention of someone who you really admire, that's always an amazing feeling.”
Thanks to the pairing of a deliberate wholesale strategy and notable collaborations, the number of people seeing—and showing off—Artemis Design Co’s unique kilim shoes and bags multiplied every year, raising the brand’s profile beyond what Milicent had originally planned. As more customers came seeking their own one-of-a-kind accessories, Artemis Design Co’s direct sales began to flourish, surpassing the early success they found in retail.
“Our direct to consumer online sales are 85% or our revenue today, and the rest is through pop-ups and our wholesale customers. We’re doing a huge amount of our sales online, and I think it’s because the brand became known through our collaborations.”
New traction comes with its own challenges
With direct sales on a breakaway trajectory, it became clear to Milicent that a few old tools and processes needed to be replaced to support the next phase of Artemis Design Co’s growth—the intent of their first website, originally built on Squarespace, had been brand storytelling, not selling and shipping multiple product lines and variations directly to customers.
The jump in direct sales also resulted in more demands and increased complexity for their shipping operations. To solve these challenges and further streamline their shipping experience, Millicent looked to hire a fulfillment center, but they quickly ran into a challenge: most centers didn’t integrate with Squarespace sites.
“We just moved to a fulfillment center to more efficiently handle our shipping, and most of the companies that we worked with did not work with Squarespace,” says Milicent. “They wanted us to use Shopify, and we needed to make a move for multiple reasons—so we did.”
Luckily, switching to a new ecommerce platform wasn’t something that came out of left field.
“We knew that if we were going to leave Squarespace, it would be to go to Shopify. We had just such heard great things about the platform, we had read blogs about it, and I have a lot of friends who use Shopify to power their ecommerce businesses.”
So Milicent reached out to her network of fellow Shopify merchants to find a developer who could get Artemis Design Co set up on the platform they needed to take their business to the next level—and officially flipped the switch on their new site ahead of the Black Friday Cyber Monday shopping season.
A business built for the long term
For Milicent and her team, the fulfillment center was the initial impetus for changing platforms, but the benefits of the move went far beyond streamlining shipping. With multiple products and product lines, Shopify helps Artemis Design Co display and manage everything easily.
“With the amount of inventory that we’re keeping on the website, Shopify gives us a much, much easier way to manage our inventory, upload products, and bulk edit items,” says Milicent. “For where we are now, it's the right platform for us, and it's the right platform for growing in the future. We know Shopify isn’t going to be left in the dust with any important, big changes that are going to happen in ecommerce—we knew it would be a good partnership for the long term.”
And while operations are important, sales are what drive a business. The question on everyone’s mind: How’s the new website performing?
“We re-launched our website two or three weeks ago now, and we've seen a big boost to our numbers, because the new website is converting better. So, that it's been amazing—it's so great to see.”
Start before you feel ready
Over the years, Milicent has seen Artemis Design Co expand from a living room operation to a thriving retail and online business, one that’s doubled sales every year. That’s a lot of progress and unfamiliar terrain to navigate for a first-time founder, so we asked: what would she recommend to others who might be earlier on in their journeys?
“Just go for it,” she’s quick to say. “Just take a chance, just go for it. You can't really prepare for all the things you're going to learn along the way. The best thing to do is just to give it a go and learn as you go along.”
This isn’t surprising to hear from someone who made a return trip overseas to pursue a distinct creative vision for her products. But it’s Milicent’s unwavering confidence in selling a wholly remarkable product—and her willingness to handle the future what-ifs of entrepreneurship as they come—that underpins all of Artemis Design Co’s success.