What's in a Brand? How I became an entrepreneur...

I use the email marketing service Mailchimp when I want to send newsletters to my followers. I have always appreciated their fun, funky branding and vibe, not to mention their awesome product.

Recently, the good folks at Mailchimp decided that, in order to really understand their customers (many of which are online entrepreneurs like me), they needed to begin their own web store. I signed up to receive the emails about the process from the staff member (Meg) assigned to this task, and had to chuckle at the struggles she has relayed so far--mostly because it sounds  lot like me when I started out. She knows she has to start a store, but is not sure what she's selling, who she's selling it to, or what the product will be.

When I began my first online business in 2005, I had experience in retail sales, and also in direct selling (I had been selling Pampered Chef full-time for about two years, and before that I had sold Artistry Cosmetics for a while), but not in starting my own business from scratch. However, with two kids two and under and a third on the way, I knew I needed a way to contribute to my family income without having to actually leave the house as much as I was to do Kitchen Shows.

I found an eBook on eBay with an unreasonably-long title (containing the words "Soggy Sandwich" and a specific weekly figure in the thousands) about (you guessed it) how the author had made tons of money selling on eBay. (Not in quickly-written, poorly-edited eBooks, though I'm sure that didn't hurt.) I loved how low-risk selling on eBay was and how little start-up capital I needed for this kind of business. Given our finances at the time, those were both huge selling features--plus it would allow me to stay home for real.

I didn't think that the author's results were realistic for most people (meaning me), but it did give me the basics for how to get started selling on eBay, and I thought, "I could do this. But what will I sell?"

Then I thought, "My mom owns a company that produces saddle pads. Maybe she would let me sell them on eBay."

And that was pretty much how I decided to go into business for myself.

I knew almost nothing about selling on eBay (only what was in the "Soggy Sandwich" book.) I had never laid eyes on the saddle pads I was going to sell, except in a photograph. I didn't know why the product was special, although my mom assured me it was, and I took her word on it. (Come to think of it, my mom's business, 5 Star Equine Products, was only a few years old at the time, and her example helped me to realize that if she could start a new business, so could I.)

Choosing a name turned out to be tricky. After all, what if I didn't want to sell saddle pads forever? So, after much hemming and hawing, I decided on "Winters Distributing." With a name as vague as that, I could sell anything. (Case in point: When friends listen to my voice mail, they often ask "What do you distribute?")

In fact, I did dabble in selling some liquidation luxury brand clothing for a while, but that wasn't profitable enough to continue (I actually lost money). I also tried to sell the art of a western artist, but that didn't really fly, either. The only thing that ever seemed to work for me was equine tack.

I had been quite a little horse-woman when I was 12 and under, but hadn't been on a horse in about 14 years, so relied heavily on the education given me by my mom, and the feedback given me by my customers. As my confidence both in my product and my ability to run my own web store grew, I decided to commit to 5 Star Equine Products as a my sole product line.

My initial branding, while vaguely Western, was more "vague" than "Western."

... featuring a stock photo.

... featuring a photo I took myself of my dad's gear on my cousin's barn.

...featuring horseshoes on a plank in my dad's barn that are probably still there to this day. However, most people looked at this photo and said "what are those?"

So, I had a ways to go to figure out this whole "branding" thing.

In 2012, I finally launched a store independent of eBay. By that time, I had already played around with branding for my Etsy shop (more on that in a minute), and figured it was time to give Winters Distributing a real logo. Seven years of reworking photos of saddle pads to list on eBay and an obsession with scrapbooking had given me a reasonable amount of comfort with Photoshop and graphic design, so I created my own logo using a commercially-licensed horse vector. (It's a Morgan, if anyone cares. :-D)

The new motto was meant to have a double meaning (you know how I love words) about both the product I was selling and the way I conduct my business. I have to say, I'm still pretty darn proud of this one.

In 2010, I thought that I would like to turn my love for handicrafts and clothing design into a business, creating flattering women's clothing designs and selling them. I decided on Etsy as my initial selling platform, since I was already aware of the power of an established online marketplace because of my experience as an eBay seller.

I love the look of structured clothing, and the ability it has to "hide" muffin-tops and "fluff" through judicious boning. (I have a secret obsession with Steampunk designs--I love so much about it, not least of which is the unbridled creativity you can see as so many different people interpret the look.) My brilliant scheme was to develop my own flattering, moderately structured office and everyday designs and sell them. (I may have failed to take a realistic look at my schedule when I began this venture, but meh.)

I gave a great deal of thought to my business name/clothing brand, settling on "My Secret Wish by Talena" because of the inspirational nature of my dream for myself and my desire to make my customers feel better about themselves. I tried to incorporate this into my branding and marketing.

 

One of my original marketing badges for My Secret Wish by Talena.

One of my original marketing badges for My Secret Wish by Talena.

Eventually--meaning "years later"--I refined that into a full-blown mission statement.

My Secret Wish is about helping you realize your own value by creating whimsical, beautiful, and functional clothing that makes you feel comfortable and attractive, and designs that empower you to be confident to knit it yourself.

My Secret Wish is that you would become the most fabulous version of yourself.

After I opened my shop and basically did nothing with it for several months, I changed tactics. Several recipients of my knitted gifts as well as fellow knitters on Ravelry encouraged me toward knitwear design. I thought I'd give it a try, especially as my first couple of patterns (which I had put on my blog for free) seemed to be fairly popular.

Before long, I had totally shifted my focus to creating knitting patterns exclusively. Knitting is something I was doing anyway, and I could fit it into the corners of my very busy life (unlike the clothing line I had only managed to make a few sketches for.) My kids all needed scores of mittens and hats and things to keep them warm through our long Canadian winters, anyway. I figured it was only an extra step to take the designs I was making for them and write them out to sell.

... Okay, maybe more than one step. Good pattern writing, photography, graphic design, marketing, a good item description, accounting... geez, owning your own business can be a lot of work. And you have to wear a whole lot of hats to run the thing, unless you can afford to hire some of them out (which I couldn't.)

I discovered that I love some of those hats more than others. Coming up with business names and logos and new designs and the actual knitting? Fun! Doing accounting and writing patterns and doing math? Not fun. Selling things I make for a living? Fun! Discovering that I made a major mistake on a pattern that I have been selling for years? Definitely not fun.

Ahem. Back to branding.

As I was reading Meg's Mailchimp newsletter and pondering my own online business history, I realized that since my focus has changed from women's clothing to knit accessories for men, women, and children, it might be time to re-brand. The flowing script and feminine lines of my current logo no longer fits my image as well as it could.

When I decided to become a self-published author last year, I created my own imprint using the same name of "My Secret Wish", because a) there a lot of publishing imprints out there, and everything else I wanted to use was taken, and b) "My Secret Wish" is still to inspire others to be better through my work, whether it's my clothing designs, my music, or my writing. It fit. The existing logo needed a remodel, though. So this one was born:

For the book spines...

For the book spines...

Perhaps I will have to create something for my knitwear design company that is more along the lines of the logo I made for the publishing imprint. What do you think?

Owning your own business can be a lot of work, but it also gives you more motivation to learn new skills than you might have doing anything else. I never set out to be a graphic designer, marketer, and web designer, but those are all skills I had to learn, and was able to learn over time, as they were needed. I've become a better photographer (and got to write off my camera as a business expense!), and more.

Starting new things can be scary and exciting. In the early days, I got a huge thrill every time someone bought a saddle pad. I got scared every time a customer had a concern, complaint, or even a question! (I didn't know anything, remember? Thank goodness I had someone else to ask!)

But some of those things you do could lead to new passions, and your business could become the adventure you didn't realize you wanted. Skills you learn will most likely be transferable to many other jobs. (Social media manager? Check. Copy writer? Check. Not that I want to go do those for someone else--but I could.)

I'm so glad that, when I first took the plunge, I didn't overthink it. I didn't let the fear of failure stop me. I just jumped.

My favourite recent quote is this:

"Sometimes you just have to take the leap" free desktop wallpaper, 1920x1080px, www.talenawinters.com.

I like it so much, I made a square one, too. :-)

I encourage you today, friend: when Opportunity knocks, don't just open the door, because it might have been only a quick bump on your door on its way by. When you look out, you might see that Opportunity is a sky diver, inviting you to take a huge leap of faith for a prize that is distant and hard to see. Opportunity is beckoning you to jump out and tandem jump. It's got a spare pack, but you'll have to jump and catch up to put it on.

If you close the door, you might stay safe. You might have a great life. Or you might spend the rest of your life regretting that moment when you didn't just take the leap.

In the end, it's not the landing that makes the dive worthwhile--it's the flying.