When Sarah Hannington couldn’t find a company to custom print Valentine’s heart candies, she started her own business. Just a few years later, her 6-figure side gig, MyCustomCandy produces and ships personalized candy hearts to influencers, celebrities, businesses, and customers worldwide.
Customization is touching every product from lipstick to initial-stamped luggage. Even large, mass-produced brands like Nike and New Balance recognized and jumped on the trend towards unique experiences for their unique customers. Personalization strategies work: in a study of US marketers, 48% said that personalization on their websites or apps increased revenues by at least 10%.
On Shopify, apps like Product Options and Advanced Custom Products enhance product pages and forms with custom fields, reducing the merchant-customer touch points giving customers control over the personalization of products during the shopping and checkout process. And, print-and-fulfill services reduce the once-manual process of completing custom orders.
Even traditional industries are turning to ecommerce to deliver quick, personalized solutions.
Sarah didn’t plan to start a custom business. She was just one consumer who happened to stumble upon a missed opportunity, a gap in the personalized gifts market—an industry expected to reach $31 billion USD by 2021.
A marketing professional by day, and an all-the-time mom, Sarah squeezes my interview in between running her business and easing her son into his first week of school. She shares the ups and downs of a custom seasonal business that scales beyond expectation year over year, and her secret to keeping her cool through every crisis. This is Sarah’s story.
Four years ago, the marketing company where Sarah worked wanted to send a gift to their clients on Valentine’s Day: custom-printed classic candy hearts.
After a fruitless bout of Googling, she called around and found one company willing to print on the candy. They didn’t have an ecommerce presence and didn’t advertise online. When she realized that others might be looking for the same service, she threw up a quick Wordpress site.
Using her basic SEO knowledge to help her site rank, Sarah began to see orders trickle in. Initially, she used the same manufacturer to produce and dropship the custom candy, managing the rest of the business herself (on top of working full time and being a mom). At her breaking point, she hired a friend to help with customer service and placing orders.
But, as larger and larger companies approached her for larger and larger orders, the manufacturer couldn’t keep up.
“We were losing orders that were thousands of dollars because the manufacturer started saying they couldn't fulfill them. It was a bigger company and they just didn't care. There was no actual owner I could speak to—it was just a random customer service person. I was like, ‘Victoria's Secret wants to order a bunch of candy. I need it fast,’ and they were just like, ‘Yeah, no, we can't do it.’"
We were losing orders that were thousands of dollars because the manufacturer started saying they couldn't fulfill them.
Sarah knew she had a great business idea. But, she was stuck.
“I went on a crazy hunt online to figure out how to print my own candy. I didn't know anything about manufacturing—I have a marketing background. I called every company I could find. Somehow I got on the phone with the company who does the machines for custom M&Ms and talked to them about building me a one. It was really super expensive, and when it came down to it, they said there's no way they could do it because the candies were hearts and their machine couldn't straighten them the right way.”
Back at the drawing board and exhausting all options, Sarah found a company, finally, who could build and deliver a machine just in time for her busy season. She hired a production manager. And, after a lot of dead ends (“People were like ‘No, you’re crazy,” she says) Sarah found a small space within her budget in an existing manufacturing plant.
“We did that for a year and it was pretty stressful because it was small and also we were in someone else's space. They would get annoyed at us if we were working too late, for example.”
Managing the ecommerce store in the first year and a half was equally stressful. On the old platform, orders were tedious and manual, nothing was connected or automated.
“We had a Stamps.com account and we had to manually type in people's addresses. We had no way to predict what the shipping was going to cost. We would make typos, send them to the wrong person. I would have on my kitchen counter piles of shipping labels and orders forms and just like a hot mess.”
After the first busy season—the 6 weeks between Christmas and Valentine’s Day—in the shared plant, MyCustomCandy had scaled to the point of justifying a dedicated facility. So they moved. A production manager working overtime during the high season, and part-time throughout the year, was also now supplemented with temp staff to manage the rush.
Levelling up: the Move to Shopify
A year and a half ago, the business also stepped up its ecomm game, migrating the website over to Shopify and hiring a developer to build out unique features necessary for her custom business. The customizations and Shopify App integrations helped automate much of the business, simplifying order fulfillment and giving Sarah back some time to focus on her strengths.
“We click a button and it prints the shipping label, it knows what to charge people, it's automatically integrated with Amazon Pay. It's been amazing.”
Many of the apps, like Shopify’s mobile app, and Tidio Live Chat allowed her to keep tabs on her business and interface with customers right from her phone, all while juggling her family and day job commitments.
I get the little cash register ding on my phone as we get an order, which is funny because I'll be in meetings at my real job and it's like, ‘Cha-ching.’
When growing her business, Sarah’s marketing background helped her narrow in on channels that worked best for her industry, and make data-driven decisions. But it was analyzing customer behaviour that informed many of her next moves. Order and referral data tells her where to focus her marketing dollars and outreach efforts.
The custom nature of the product helps her see how customers are using the product (Is it an employee gift? A giveaway for a tradeshow?) and her business customers help her target similar businesses in those industries.
In the off-season, her top priority is finding other potential industries or use cases to target, to help fill in the slower months.
The machine and production process limits the types of candy she can customize (“We can't just print on jelly beans,” she says, “It just smears right off.”) but she expanded to round mints to tap into corporate and holiday orders.
MyCustomCandy also generates B2C business in the off-season. The lucrative wedding industry is ripe for businesses offering customizable products like Sarah’s, and she did not miss the opportunity to slice off a piece of the $72 billion dollar pie. Printed hearts work equally well for the wedding market and bring in business year round.
Delivering the (Almost) Impossible
Valentine’s-themed B2B orders are still, though, the business’ bread and butter. That’s why, when she received a very last-minute order from J.Crew, she wrangled planes, trains, and automobiles to make it happen. The retail chain wanted custom hearts and packaging shipped to 200 stores before Valentine’s Day. They requested all pink hearts, and Sarah was short on inventory.
“J.Crew needed it by a certain date, and if you miss the date, the order's canceled. They’d have no use for this candy after Valentine's day. I called our blank candy manufacturer and they were like, ‘Nope, absolutely not.’ But I convinced them to manufacture it over the weekend and bring in people to do it. They shipped it, and they sent me the information for the freight company.”
I called our blank candy manufacturer and they were like, ‘Nope, absolutely not.’ But I convinced them to manufacture it over the weekend and bring in people to do it.
This was January, she reminds me, and every day leading up to the Valentine’s Day season counts. Sarah’s team was already working 16 hours per day, 7 days a week fulfilling orders, and could not afford to lose even a day.
“I keep calling and tracking it, it gets stuck in weather, and it's not gonna make it until Monday. If we got it by Friday, we were still going to do 24 hours a day all weekend to get it done in time, so if we got it on Monday, we would basically lose the order. I find out exactly where it's stopped, I get them to figure out that it's going to be in our city late Friday night, but that they're closed all weekend. I'm like, ‘You tell me where it is. I'll rent a U-haul, I'll go get it.’ This is pallets and pallets of candy—it's not like I can just throw it in my trunk.”
This is pallets and pallets of candy—it's not like I can just throw it in my trunk.
Sarah’s persistence with FedEx customer service landed her case in the distress shipment department, designated for emergencies.
“They got the manager of the facility to come in on Saturday, receive the shipment, and let us come and get it. It was just like a whole nightmare and somehow we were able to deliver the order, but it's like that's pretty much what we deal with every year.”
Each year, Sarah’s business doubles, but it’s still difficult to forecast. An urgent and specific order like J.Crew’s could (and probably will) come in at the 11th hour.
“Two years ago, someone called us and said, ‘We need something you don't normally do and we need it in LA in a couple days.’ They sent us the info and it was all of these weird and perverted phrases. We thought, ‘Oh my gosh. Who is this person? What a creep!’ And then we were like, ‘Alright. Whatever. Let's just deliver it.’ You get weird orders when you're doing custom stuff. A couple weeks later, one of the guys in the printing plant is like, ‘Kim Kardashian just SnapChatted our candy.’”
A couple weeks later, one of the guys in the printing plant is like, ‘Kim Kardashian just SnapChatted our candy.
Being the only company in the game has landed her some high-profile clients like Kim and Lady Gaga, but being nimble and solutions-oriented has allowed her fulfill near-impossible orders and retain her celebrity clientele.
Surviving the Seasonal Side-Gig
Running a custom seasonal business as a side-gig while being a mom has its rewards and drawbacks, and over the past 4 years, Sarah has developed systems and coping mechanisms to survive the seasonal onslaught and maintain life balance.
What advice does she have for the future cohort of entrepreneurs? What are some tips for running a custom business? Here’s what she's learned from her own experience:
- Use downtime to test and plan.
- Custom businesses will always have a hand-touched element. Automate around the manual aspects as you scale. Sarah relies on her favorite apps to keep her informed and connected: Tidio chat, Shopify mobile, Grasshopper (“You can set your own messages and extensions and forward anywhere. You can also make outbound calls from your cell phone using your 800 number as the caller ID.”), Mailchimp, Product Reviews, Aftership, and PressKitHero.
- Max yourself out in the short term—the end is in sight.
I've negotiated working 12 to 5 at my day job during the in-season.
- Do as much as you can in-house.
- ...but know when to outsource.
- Understand shipping. With the tight timelines associated with Sarah’s business, shipping delays can cost her business. And shipping is an across-the-board pain point for merchants—if you don't figure it out, it could cost you time and money.
- Above all, ask yourself: Are you cut out for the chaos? Sarah's personality thrives on the hustle.
I could easily just stop doing a couple things, but then I wouldn't be satisfied with my life.
Are you balancing a million things and still crushing it? How do you make it all work? Share your advice in the comments below.