After celebrating the four year anniversary of my online boutique last week, my inbox was flooded with questions from readers asking how I got it off the ground and any advice I have to help them do the same. While I wish I had time to delve into everyone’s individual business goals, I thought I would at least compile answers to some of the most frequently asked questions and share them here. I’ve shared the story of how Design Darling came to be a couple times (here and here) but I’ll try to synthesize everything here for my newer readers!
How did you decide to start your own business?
The story of my online boutique really begins with the start of my blog in 2009. I started writing Design Darling as a junior at Bucknell, well before blogging was considered cool and without any notion of having it support me after graduation. It was truly a passion project and a labor of love, a creative undertaking outside the French literature classes I was taking during the day. I wrote about fashion, interior design, my own travels during my semester abroad, and a list of 101 things I wanted to accomplish in 1,001 days. At first I was too embarrassed (rightfully so when I look back at those archives, eeek) to share my blog with even my closest friends, but eventually I came to and my readership started to grow as friends of friends became regular readers and I started connecting with other bloggers all around the world.
By the time I graduated, I had maybe 20,000 readers visiting my blog every month and I was starting to make a tiny bit of money from selling ad space to small businesses. I was also writing stories for an online magazine (conducting interviews between classes at the coffee shop on campus, ha!). After graduating in 2011, I spent a few months in San Francisco interning for the magazine but was seriously homesick for my family and friends on the east coast. When I returned, I started working for a PR firm in New York, pitching many of my blogger friends on products I neither loved nor would have wanted to write about myself. This was a pretty dark time for me, commuting an hour and a half each way to a job that didn’t challenge me and left me wondering what else I could be doing with my life.
I continued posting on my blog every day during this time, regardless of how uninspired I was feeling in real life. Design Darling was my happy place, this brief moment in my day where I could connect with young women who loved the same things I did and be inspired by their stories and outfits and entrepreneurial undertakings. 2011 was a pretty exciting time in the blogging world, with the dawn of affiliate networks making it possible to organically monetize blog posts (no more selling $30 ads to weird Etsy shops as I’d done in college) and online magazines combining my favorite bloggers’ point of view with more professional photography and overall design (like the one where I worked in San Francisco).
Through daily conversations with my parents, blog friends, and real life friends, I was slowly realizing that there was real potential for my blog to expand into something more. My foray into blogging hadn’t been the least bit strategic — it was something I truly did (and do) because I loved it and that’s why I did it so consistently. Almost without knowing it, I’d spent two and a half years laying the foundation for a career I had never dreamt possible. Outside of retail experience in high school and college, I knew very little about e-commerce — I just knew I had an eager audience, a desire to learn, and absolutely nothing to lose. I was extremely fortunate to have started blogging when I did, to graduate from college without student loans, and to have the unequivocal support of my parents, who let me work from their dining room table and sleep in my childhood bedroom while I basically figured out how not to let them down. The moment my salary and the income from my blog met in the middle, I quit my job, met with a small business advisor, and started hatching plans for my online store.
Design Darling in 2012: all hands on deck around my parents’ dining room table.
When did you know it was time to quit your job?
If you have a career where you’re making real money to support yourself or your family, I’m really not the right person to ask. My decision came as much out of my own deep-seated discontent as it did seizing an opportunity to freelance on a number of projects (continuing to write for online publications and editing a coffee table book that never came to pass) while charting my next move. I was 22, living at home with virtually no expenses, and confident that I could land another comparable job if my online store didn’t work out. I understand that this is a privilege many small business owners do not have so the only advice I feel equipped to give on the subject is that I waited until I had a sizable market (~20,000 monthly readers and ~2,500 email addresses, keeping in mind that Instagram hadn’t really taken hold yet) and until my side hustle was making as much as my day job (which was more a factor of how low my salary was than how much I was earning on my blog at the time).
What steps did you take to get your business off the ground?
The number one piece of advice I give to anyone who’s looking to start a business is to make an appointment at your local SCORE office and get paired up with a retired business executive who can ask questions to guide your thinking. When I started my business, my greatest shortcoming by far was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know — and my SCORE advisor Tom was basically a gift from the heavens who knew exactly which questions to ask. He walked me through the process of registering my LLC and setting up a resale number. I also always wanted to have something positive to report to him, so our weekly meetings kept me on track with setting up my website, buying inventory at trade shows, negotiating drop ship agreements, and generating buzz before the launch.
Design Darling in 2013: packing orders from 375 square feet on the Upper East Side. The postman Lou calls me “baby” but secretly hates me.
How did you set up a website?
I did a lot of research on different e-commerce platforms and ultimately decided on Shopify, which I’m still using four years later. I purchased a very simple theme and made tweaks to the code while watching Youtube tutorials — it wasn’t perfect but it was affordable and it got the job done until I could afford to pay a graphic designer to do a better job than I could. I will note that I had an audience prior to launching my online store and knew that I would be capable of driving ample traffic to my own site, which is why a stand-alone site powered by Shopify made sense for me. If you’re launching an e-commerce business without knowing how people will find you, Etsy might be a better option for you as it’s an online marketplace where customers can search for a particular product across a wide variety of storefronts. I also have friends who swear by Big Cartel, Magento, and Squarespace… It’s really about doing your homework and finding what makes the most sense for you.
Design Darling in 2014: selling alongside Inslee, Loren Hope, Persifor, Society Social, and Three Jane at our holiday pop-up shop on Spring Street.
How did you find products?
I had connected with several small business owners through blogging who agreed to drop ship certain products from their assortment, meaning I would forward them orders as they were placed on my site, they would ship directly to my customer, and we would split the profit (though not always 50/50). Drop ship items used to make up a higher percentage of my order volume but over time I realized I liked having products sitting in front of me (for instance, being able to take measurements if a customer hds a question instead of emailing someone else because I didn’t have the product on hand) and managing my own inventory (there’s nothing worse than having to refund an order because a drop ship vendor forgot to tell you they’re sold out of an item that sells on your site). So now most of my products are items I found at trade shows (Atlanta and New York are my favorites) or online (via Etsy, Etsy Wholesale, or an independent designer who likes my aesthetic and contacts me directly). I’ve also started designing and manufacturing products exclusive to Design Darling, which is something I hope to improve at over time.
Design Darling in 2015: moving into new digs in Dallas… and unloading a 26-foot truck full of inventory.
How did you spread the word once you went live?
I told everyone I knew, from sorority sisters and friends of friends to the baristas at Starbucks. I shared sneak peeks on my blog and collected hundreds of email addresses on a landing page from people who wanted a first look. I asked four of my favorite bloggers to post sneak peeks the night before it went live. I emailed friends and family that first week and practically begged them to share with anyone they thought might like what I was doing. I posted on my personal Facebook, my blog Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram (which is now a much bigger discovery tool for me than it was back then). There were a few key press moments — a tour my first apartment on Glitter Guide and having our tortoiseshell glasses featured in Southern Living — that also helped a lot with exposure. I wrote a lot of thank you notes in those first few months (including to my first 3,000+ customers!). And I’ve had the support of so many wonderful blogger friends who have shared Design Darling with their readers as well!
Design Darling in 2016: settled in Dallas and still kicking.
Any mistakes you made or things you’d do differently?
I’ve made so many mistakes, from spending way too much to advertise on a blog (if it seems like it’s too good to be true, it probably is) to mishandling a customer service issue (note to self: the customer is always right, even when they’re not). I’ve taken things too personally at times, which has no doubt clouded my judgment as a business owner. I’ve hired people who didn’t work out and introduced products that never sold and blog series that took so much time to produce and received zero comments once I hit publish. Owning a small business can be frustrating and humbling! There are probably a million things I would do differently if I had the chance but of course hindsight is 20/20 and the mistakes are all part of the story.
A couple mistakes I could easily have avoided: setting more money aside for taxes than I thought I needed to in my first year (tax lessons are never fun to learn the hard way) and hiring employees (or even interns) on a three-month trial basis (I learned that one from Alex!). And perhaps the thing I struggle with the most is the comparison game. There’s always going to be someone who’s prettier, wealthier, more creative, with more Instagram followers — but there are also a lot of people who would kill to be in your shoes and you just have to keep on keepin’ on with the hand you were dealt.
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I know this post is getting long but I hope it answers a lot of the questions about how I started my business and how I’ve kept it running. I’d say it was a little luck (starting blogging at the right time), truthfully a good deal of privilege (my parents’ acceptance, no student loans, and few expenses while living at home), and a lot of hard work in the two and a half years leading up to the launch and the four years since. Thank you for reading this far, for following Design Darling, and for wanting to know more — I could never in my wildest dreams have imagined getting this far and there’s still so much I hope to achieve. If you have any additional questions, I’d be happy to answer in the comments! xx