Insights From Etsy Seller Cottage On The Cliff On Being A Maker, Channeling Creativity & Growing A Small Business
Liz Ulbin is like many makers out there. In fact, if you’re a working mom and into jewelry, she may be just like you.
By day, Liz helps small businesses succeed through her work as an email developer for Waltham, Massachusetts-based Constant Contact. By nights and weekends, she works on her own small business success as a jewelry designer for her company Cottage On The Cliff.
We had a chance to chat with Liz on how she started making, her creative process, growing her business and what it’s like to work with Ponoko. Here’s what she had to say:
How and when did you get into ‘making?’
Liz: I’ve been into coding, designing and photography since I was a teenager. And I’ve always had a bunch of ideas for things I’d like to make but never knew quite how to implement them. My husband and I had our first child in March 2014 and this made me put things into gear.
After my daughter was born, I wanted to be able to have a second source of income that would allow us to have some “extra” funds to do fun things as a family. I also didn’t want to do something I hated, and I wanted whatever I chose to be a hobby that I enjoyed.
So I started trying to make jewelry with my dad’s wood burning kit. This didn’t go so well. It was way too slow and not at all accurate.
That’s when I started researching how to make wood earrings and discovered laser cutting. By now, it was Summer 2015 and I placed my first order with Ponoko. There was some trial and error, but I loved seeing my designs coming to life…and I couldn’t stop!
How did you learn about Ponoko?
Liz: Ponoko was my first laser cutting experience. I googled laser cutting jewelry and stumbled across a bunch of options. I went with Ponoko because the interface was easy to use, the quote system was direct and I can upload an AI/eps file. Plus there are tons of resources available for every question I had.
What’s the inspiration behind your jewelry?
Liz: I was always looking for earrings to wear that would match my outfits. Wood sorta matches everything, so I started there.
For the first year of making, I tested my products on family and friends. I wanted to get solid feedback before taking the plunge into selling. After receiving compliments on my wood earrings from strangers, I figured I was on the right path.
A lot of my ideas come from coworkers and family. In addition to nautical and New England themes, I’ve recently added a number of new designs including a rainbow, wine glasses, strawberries and bicycle wheels. I market them as earrings, but I’ve had people purchase them as pendants too, which is nice that they can go both ways.
Once you were ready to sell, how did you choose the name Cottage On The Cliff?
Liz: My entire brand is based off of my happy place: Our family cottage on Cape Cod. Originally a hot dog stand, the cottage has been in our family for several generations and is a place everyone enjoys. The cottage itself is very small and quaint, but it sits on a 70-foot cliff overlooking the ocean.
Very charming! Knowing the backstory makes your brand very clear. What’s your creative process like to develop ideas that align with your brand image?
Liz: I’m constantly trying to come up with new jewelry designs, so I read a lot of blogs (including Ponoko’s!). I also ask family and friends for advice and inspiration, plus I work with tons of creative people who I can share ideas with.
I have a pretty busy schedule between commuting, working and taking care of our now two daughters. So anytime an idea pops into my head, I put it down as a note on my iPhone. If I find myself with some free time after the girls have gone to bed, I’ll get to creating in Illustrator and will use my notes as a guide.
For you, branding goes beyond the product. What role does packaging play in the customer experience?
Liz: I’ll never forget when I ordered something off of Etsy for my wedding and it arrived in a duct taped plastic grocery bag. That left quite the impression.
Packaging plays a huge role in the customer experience. I not only want customers’ orders to arrive safely, but I also want them say “Wow, I’m excited to open this!” With this kind of positive impression, hopefully they’ll shop from me again.
It doesn’t cost much to buy shipping products in bulk on Amazon or Etsy, and I think it’s totally worth it.
Like many makers, you began selling on Etsy. But you’re now expanding into local markets and craft fairs. What has this experience been like?
Liz: I’ve had booths at Fall Fest in Middleboro, Massachusetts as well as at the Peacock Block Party at Wheaton College, and I honestly had no idea what to expect. I was nervous about putting myself out there and leaving with no sales and becoming discouraged. It wasn’t really about a lack of confidence; it was more like I had no idea if the people who will show up that day would even be interested in what I was selling.
However, I was pleasantly surprised! At both craft fairs, I sold a good amount of jewelry as well as a few other odds and ends. It was also surprising to see what people ended up purchasing. The items I thought would be a hot commodity were not, while other ones were. I feel it really depends on the people who show up. I tried to put a little bit of every piece I had out there in hopes that any person that came by would be interested in at least one item.
How did you choose these two sales outlets?
Liz: I really wanted to see what else I could make of my business. I figured I had to give it a try and see if this is something I could do moving forward.
Saturday and Sundays are my only days off, and I love to spend time with my husband and our two little girls. So I looked for opportunities that were either short and wouldn’t take up too much of my day or, if they were longer, offered activities for children to do so my husband could come by with the girls. I also looked for opportunities that wouldn’t charge me too much to have a table.
What was it like getting ready and how did you determine a display style that ties into your overall brand message?
Liz: I started preparing a month before by making lists of ideas and things that I needed to either make or buy for my table. I knew whatever I made or bought now would be used for all my upcoming craft fairs, so I really wanted to get it right the first time.
As to not spend a ton of money, I tried to use things that were lying around the house or garage. I set up a table in my yard and did practice displays and made notes about where I thought things were lacking.
It was tough knowing how many displays I needed because I wasn’t sure of how many earrings to put out. I also wanted all of the colors and feel of the jewelry to go together.
I used blue/green/brown tones with wood/metal mixtures to keep things a bit nautical but also rustic. I spray painted mason jars and added flowers for décor. If people think my table is pretty, then hopefully they would come over and look at my products.
What was it like talking to customers face to face as opposed to marketing yourself online via Etsy and Instagram?
Liz: It was a little weird at first. I didn’t quite know what to say, where to stand, what to do with my hands, etc. I just tried to put myself in the customer’s shoes and think about what I’d want a seller to say to me. The first fair was a good learning opportunity for this and I was able to figure out how much I should say and how I should say it.
I also had to figure out where to stand when customers are looking at items. You don’t want them to feel like you’re staring at them, but you also want to be there if they have any questions. It’s really all about balance.
But the best part was hearing customers’ ideas of what they would like to see me make next. I really loved that!
In addition to your own selling at craft fairs, you’ve just landed a deal with a local boutique to sell your products in the shop. How did this opportunity present itself?
Liz: I love shopping local and supporting small businesses, so it is super exciting to be selling my items at Hippo, a gift store featuring a variety of unique handcrafted goods and independently designed products that’s located in the heart of historic downtown New Bedford, Massachusetts. Hippo opened about a year ago and I had heard about it from my sisters, who are also super crafty and have a lot of crafty friends.
Hippo’s owner is a friend of a friend, so I filled out an application and submitted my Instagram page and Etsy Shop. They contacted me about which wood earrings they thought would do well in the shop and chose about 15 styles including strawberries, rainbows, sharks, pineapples, moon and stars, trees, bicycle wheels, geometric triangles, heart and circle studs, and a few others.
This being my first time selling earrings in a store, I had lots of questions. They were great about explaining everything to me. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes and to continually provide them with new items.
What’s it been like making with Ponoko?
Liz: I’m able to go from an idea to product in less than a month, which is important when introducing new styles. Also, customer service is always willing to help if my finished product didn’t come out exactly as I hoped.
The quoting allows me to easily upload files to figure out what I should charge for my designs. It’s nice that I can upload files for digital prototyping without ordering them. For instance, I can see how much it would cost to fill a P1 sheet of all the same earrings and how many wood earrings I can get out of that sheet. This allows me to price my designs accordingly.
What advice, laser cutting or otherwise, do you have for other makers?
Liz: Ask a lot of questions. Ask for opinions, and expect constructive criticism. And don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
One of the biggest surprises for me is keeping track of inventory when using multiple channels to sell products. This is proving to be challenging.
In terms of laser cutting, start simple and really pay attention to the rules that are in the margin of the design files. These are super helpful.
Always check your Illustrator file multiple times before sending it over. I have some earrings that don’t have holes in them because I accidentally moved the hole somewhere else in my file. Check, check, and recheck!
Also when setting up the file, put all pieces to be laser cut and engraved near each other to keep things close together. This means the laser doesn’t have to move as far between pieces and saves you money.
Since starting this side hustle in 2015, has launching a small business been anything like what you expected?
Liz: I’m not sure what I expected in the beginning, but I knew I had to give it a shot. This has been in the works for a long time, and I learn a little bit more every year. I’ve had a lot of time to slowly figure things out as I go along and this helps a lot.
I don’t rely on my small business for income but use any money I make for fun family activities. This takes some of the pressure off, but it can also make it harder since I’m a working mom.
I think the most important thing is doing something that you enjoy. I love creating new designs and showing them to my friends and family.
The other nice thing with this kind of business is that I can set myself up to have craft fairs every weekend one month and none the next. It can totally be up to you how much time and effort you put into this.
Some months I just have too much going on and just let my Etsy shop bring in orders. Other months, I may try to do everything I can think of to get my brand out there. Overall, it is what you make it.