HOW I STARTED MY ONLINE STORE

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!

design darling how i started my online store

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 2012

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 2013

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 2014

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 2015

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 2016

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.

– – –

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

 

35 thoughts on “HOW I STARTED MY ONLINE STORE

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  1. Even though I know you in person this was SUCH a great read to really understand how you got to be where you are. Love seeing the success you’ve had and can’t wait to see where Design Darling continues to go! xx

  2. Mackenzie, this was such a fun read! Your hard work and dedication have really paid off and I love the honesty. Also — I still have the lucite tape dispenser I bought from you when you first opened shop. Funny :)

  3. Thank you for sharing this with us, Mackenzie! Your success is so well-deserved, and it’s nice getting a little behind the scenes (especially since everything in real life isn’t as pretty and easy as our Instagrams + decor make it seem!). I’m excited to see what’s next for you and Design Darling, and felt extra inspired after reading this post! Keep it up!! xox

  4. Hey Mackenzie, I really enjoyed reading this. It was super eye opening and proof that when you follow your heart and do the thing you love, and work really, really hard, good things will follow. I’m just bummed that I can’t order Design Darling products from Sydney! Congratulations on all you’ve achieved, I remember when you launched the boutique and can only see bright things in the future for you! x

  5. Thanks for sharing and congrats on 4 years! Though that fact does make me feel kind of ancient. I remember getting one of your thank you cards! Wasn’t that just yesterday? Wishing you all the best in the future!

  6. Thank you so much for sharing with us all! It is so great to see how hard work, dedication, and persistence pay off! You deserve what has come your way. Such an inspiration!

  7. This was so interesting and helpful, Mackenzie! Thank you so much for sharing.
    I’m just rounding the corner to my first year of relying on my art and online art shop full time, and it’s ALWAYS so encouraging to hear REAL stories from ladies who have done so well! :)
    thanks again!

  8. i LOOOOOVE this post! i remember the blog from when it was a readership of just a few, the in between when you were deciding what was next, shipping with your parents, launching the boutique, and now your amazing office space in dallas – and it is truly AMAZING to see how far you have come. i am SO PROUD of you!!!!
    xox

  9. I’m a fellow small business owner here in Dallas and I can totally relate! When I first started my business, I went directly to a SCORE counselor. BEST DECISION EVER. I feel like SO many people don’t know about this free program to use and they were so helpful!

    I think people think owning a small business is easy breezy and fun all the time, and while it is totally fun and inspiring it is so much hard work. There are so many behind the scenes things small business owners have to deal with that is not fun nor exciting, but it’s all a part of the journey.

    I’m hoping you do another shopping night here in Dallas, I’d love to come!

  10. i remember ordering something from your boutique a few years back…and being surprisingly touched by the personal note you added in with my order. Seeing your fully story, I’m impressed by how you’ve managed to bring your business to where it is now. Clearly you’ve more than just a nice design aesthetic going for you & I hope your dreams continue to come true.

  11. Your story is so inspiring and proof that following your dreams is possible! I met you last Summer in Westport, when you were still living in New York. So nice to see how happy you are in Texas and congratulations on your engagement! Love reading your posts and following your blog!! xx, Alexa

  12. I am so, so freakin’ proud of you. Even though I know this story and was there as it unfolded, it still makes my heart swell. I love you, you courageous, daring, beautiful, precious sweet pea!

  13. I’ve been a long time blog reader, follow your Insta feeds and use you as a source of inspiration and motivation. Thank you for opening up and sharing your story. I think it gives us all a little hope that with hard work and dedication dreams can come true.

  14. Loved this post! I am hoping to one day do something similar. I would love a storefront, but around DC they are so expensive, so I plan to start with e-commerce! I work in DC at the Small Business Administration, so I have a little bit of an advantage there! I am so impressed you met with a SCORE counselor. I know they can be so helpful!

    I really enjoyed reading this and have loved ordering from you over the years!

    Congrats on 4 years!

    emily
    http://www.deltachic.com

  15. Love this post! First time commenting but I’m a long time follower–thank you so much for posting so much honest, helpful and insightful material. I am really loving your blog recently and how open and candid you are about the blog world. Thank you!

  16. I love this post so much! Thank you for sharing your advice here and a few years ago on my blog! You’re such an inspiration to bloggers and small business owners!

  17. I think you have a great thing going here! I know it’s hard to not compare yourself to other bloggers out there, but know you are one of my favorites. Your humble and ambitious attitude is something to look up to. Congrats on 4 years!!

  18. Thank you so much for giving us more insight on how Design Darling came to be. And for your honesty about it all! I love what you have built here and I’m excited to see what’s to come.