Lauren Keplinger is a fellow military spouse (hoo-ah!), and mom of three kids ages 5, 4, and 1. She started her shop, Funky Monkey Children, during her husband’s deployment to Afghanistan in 2012. Since that time, she’s grown her custom business to over six figures in sales, including over 5,000 sales on Etsy. And, remember, she did this through deployments, moves, and the birth of 3 kids! If Lauren can grow a biz, I know you can, too!
1:16 – When Mom Wants More
When Lauren was pregnant with her 2nd child, her first was only about 6 months old. She got started sewing as a hobby with a really terrible sewing machine she bought at a yard sale. Lauren would make John Johns for her son and burp cloths for the new baby.
But she wanted more. (How many of us have felt that way!?)
As a military spouse, so much of life revolves around her husband’s job. She wanted a challenge for herself while she was home with an infant. Lauren started selling her creations on Etsy and the business just grew from there. She says it’s been a wild ride!
2:40 – Etsy vs. Self-Hosted Site??
Having her own site is a recent development in the last 18 months. The majority of her sales are still on Etsy.
And a question we frequently get is, “Should I use Etsy or a self-hosted site?” What’s Lauren’s answer?
She has mixed feelings! Etsy has a great built in traffic and its own platform. She can test new products and quickly see how they’ll perform with the built-in traffic of Etsy.
She’s found it harder to drive traffic to her own site. Lauren does keep an active Instagram account and has found that’s where most of her site traffic comes from. But beyond social media or word-of-mouth referrals, it’s been tough! For now, Lauren is Team Etsy because of the opportunities.
It’s tough to have a sustainable business site without a strong following. (I agree! The main way we drive traffic to our own shop is paid advertising.)
Bottom line: If you build it they don’t necessarily come.
4:05 – A Perk of Having Your Own Shop Site
I wanted to offer my experience that one mega benefit I’ve found of running a self-hosted shop is that I can easily collect email subscribers and get back in front of people with new products. (Especially when it comes to Facebook ads!)
Lauren does leverage her Etsy sells by including a card with a coupon code that works on her self-hosted site in every package, but she says the use of the codes are hit and miss.
But the strategy is smart! 90% of her purchases are gifts for other people, being sent directly to the recipients. Lauren already has the potential of the gift-giver to be a repeat customer, and by including the coupon code she can try to bring the recipient on as a new customer. Though Lauren says she has a few customers who have purchased from her multiple times always via Etsy, despite the coupon codes to her own site!
Another smart way Lauren tries to optimize email subscribers is by including her newsletter link on the message Etsy sends following checkout.
6:20 – Selling What Your Customers Want
Originally Lauren started selling baby items, because that was her season of life. At first she thought her products would be higher-end baby items, but turns out that’s not what Lauren’s customers wanted.
She always took custom orders on Etsy. And over time, she let those custom orders change her business direction as more people were interested in nursery items and baby shower gifts.
(As we’ve heard time and again on this show, listening to customers is a perfect way to grow your business!)
7:30 – Simplifying Gift Giving for More Sales
Is there anything a shop owner can do to make their products easy to give as gifts? Lauren has some great practices!
Offering product customizations is an instant hit with gift-givers.
I absolutely love how Lauren thinks of the list-minute shoppers (like me!) by offering her ‘Rush Order Upgrade’ service. She ships products even faster through priority shipping. In other words, you could order from Funky Monkey Children on Monday and receive your order in time for a baby shower that weekend.
Let’s be honest, people don’t always think that far ahead in advance when it comes to giving gifts, especially for baby showers! I absolutely love that Lauren truly thinks about her customers’ needs and finds ways to meet them.
9:20 – Hey, Etsy! Here’s an idea!
By the way, wouldn’t it be great if Etsy could filter your search based on turnaround time!? I would definitely choose shops with rush shipping for their fabulous products!
10:00 – Learning as You Go by Doing the Work
Lauren started Funky Monkey Children with no prior business background! She learned a lot by trial and error.
She started her shop buying bibs from Babies ‘R’ Us and monogramming names on them. Since that time, she’s worked hard to increase quality by (you guessed it!) listening to customer feedback.
In the early days she would get comments that one fabric seemed too thin or a certain bib wasn’t very high-quality. Hearing critical comments about your work can be hard to take, especially for someone, like Lauren, who doesn’t have any background knowledge in business (or sewing, for that matter!). Where the heck do you even find thicker fabric?
To answer those questions Lauren did the her homework and looked at how she could improve things.
It seems like a lot of work to undertake, and it is, but Lauren’s goal was always to have a sustainable business, not be a hobby seller.
Because of that commitment, she has committed to great customer service. Lauren knows that part of the job is to do the work of resolving and correcting issues, making it super easy to be a Funky Monkey Customer.
I’ve totally seen Etsy or other handmade sellers really struggle when they get negative feedback. It feels personal, but Lauren has a fresh, wonderful perspective: It’s just a business transaction. “If it’s not what you want, I’ll make it right,” wins every time.
12:00 – Two Strategies for Helping Unhappy Customers
One of Lauren’s most frustrating instances of an unhappy customer is when the customer ordered the wrong size and then was mad that the product came in the size she had ordered!
Lauren keys in on the emotions many of us have felt: “It’s hard when you’re working so hard on your business and you don’t want to spend the time to do it again or work for free! It’s hard to balance.”
One of her practices that’s been so helpful is to wait a day before responding to any criticism. Sleeping on it helps her to not have an emotional response, so she can approach it as the business transaction it is. Again, her philosophy really takes the pressure off: “They bought it, they’re not happy, and I can take care of it. It’s not the end of the world.”
I’ll admit – customer care really it’s hard for me! I don’t do my customer service anymore, and it’s a good thing! That’s a second strategy to handling customer care, outsourcing it. One on hand I can be super giving and when I think the cause is worthy I’ll give away whatever! But when customers want refunds for a reason that feels to me like they’re cheating the system, I get super emotional! As always in business, compensate for weaknesses and play to your strengths.
All of Lauren’s trial and error, testing and learning, have really paid off. Now she consistently gets great feedback that, in turn, perpetuates sales. She’s got 5-stars on Etsy and over 1,100 reviews; her shop stats clearly speak for themselves!
14:10 – Where to Source Products?
When you care deeply about quality, how can you get the right products for your custom work?
As usual, Lauren spent time trying and testing a bunch of options. She said she has hundreds of dollars worth of stuff she’s ordered sitting in her basement simply because they don’t meet her standards.
Another way she’s found products is by watching the conversations in Facebook groups specifically for embroidering and applique businesses. She would follow threads in those groups in which makers would mention their materials companies, then place a sample order herself.
I think it’s totally brilliant that, after Lauren made a sample order, she would try out the pieces on her own kids to see how the fabrics held up. Because we all know that how an item looks out of the bag is totally different after a few washes and drying cycles. What a great idea to use her kids as tiny product testers!
15:22 – How Many Materials Do You Order?
Placing an order is so tricky! How does a newer business owner decide how big of an order to place?
Lauren didn’t start with wholesale purchases. She started buying pieces from Amazon and Babies ‘R’ Us, and it was a slow process from there.
Eventually, she upgraded her burp cloths, and then bibs. About two years ago she took a huge leap in her business and started buying bigger quantities, which allowed her to expand since not only did those larger quantities increase her profit margins, they also increased the variety of products she had available.
16:25 – How Lauren Gets It Done
Where is Lauren now in business? What does her order fulfillment process looks like? Is she still embordering, packaging, and shipping every order herself? Or does she have help?
Lauren is still running her business all on her own. While putting in those kind of womanhours week after week is certainly impressive, she freely admits it’s not sustainable for the long term and expects changes in the coming months. Much of her growth has come on quickly and her business has doubled in the last year.
Steady childcare has made a big difference in her ability to grow her business. For a while she worked at naps and bedtime. In fact, for one entire year she worked weekends – all day Saturday and Sunday. Her family made this decision to save up money while her husband transitioned out of active military duty, but everyone understood the arrangement wouldn’t be perfect.
Last year she put all of her children in school, 5 days a week. Her two youngest go to preschool from 8:00am – 11:45am and her oldest child is in kindergarten. Lauren only works during those times and has found it to be so helpful mentally! When you’re trying to fit in work at every turn, it really is a recipe for stress and often feels as if there’s never enough time.
It’s helpful for Lauren to know there are set working hours, plus she can always pick up work later if needed.
20:00 – Business Mom and Military Spouse
About 6 months after starting Funky Monkey Children, Lauren’s husband deployed to Afghanistan. The Keplingers knew that this major adjustment was coming, and building the business during that time ended up being a great blessing to them. It’s been a source of income that’s followed her family through countless moves and many life transitions.
Being a military spouse, there have been many times Lauren’s business has taken a backseat to family life, and she’s had to be okay with that.
I appreciate how honest Lauren is in this interview! She says straight up that the pause moments often felt more like setbacks. And it IS frustrating because Lauren says it felt like every time she got momentum in the business, something would happen and she’d have to slow it down again.
But in the midst of so much instability, it was great to have something stable. She didn’t have to start a new job each time her husband received a new assignment; she could just keep building what she had already started.
22:45 – Business Game Changers
This past year, Lauren’s business has really taken off. What made it happen for her??
Adding child care has been a great help to Lauren as she grows her business. (And we talked a lot about this earlier, so no need to rehash here!)
This tip is a clever one! Lauren doesn’t have any data to back this up, only her anecdotal experience, but the findings are interesting! She’s been noticing on Etsy that her sales will be really consistent as long as she’s consistently shipping things out. If she’s shipping every single day, sales are consistent. But if she gets really busy and misses three to four days of working and shipping, her sales will decline for a few days until she ships out again.
In short, the more active she is in her shop, the more active her shop is. If she’s updating pictures, adding new listings, or doing any sort of general tinkering, it seems to drive sales higher.
Adding a variety of products has been also been a huge factor in the growth of Funky Monkey Children.
And finally, continuing to take custom orders has been a bit of a Golden Ticket for her growth! When people request custom orders and those sell well, it gives Lauren a whole new shop category!
For example, she’s been selling baby quilts. Those started out when she created a few for friends, and took photos to put in her shop. Then, guess what? The custom orders came in! “Can you make one with just initials and a birth date?” “Can you make a quilt for a baptism with a cross?”
Oftentimes we shop owners might think one particular product will be so successful, but it isn’t always! You aren’t always marketing to people just like you. It’s a good nuance to remember.
26:45 – Is Etsy oversaturated?
To finish our chat, we address that constant question, “Is Etsy oversaturated?”
Lauren’s bottom line is this: If you make your products stand out, you’ll build and expand. And hint: you don’t have to be the cheapest to stand out! (You’ll have to listen to hear Lauren talk about why standing out isn’t a race to the bottom for pricing!)
There’s room for growth on Etsy if you have a unique product, with a unique angle.
It may be cheesy, but I feel that it’s true that ‘the cream will always rise to the top’.
If you always work hard to serve your customers well, to be different, to find a space to shine, you know you’ll rise to the top.
People are buying things all the time. There’s plenty of room for more sellers.
30:05 – Adorable Mom Moment
Lauren’s 4-year-old daughter just decided she likes yoga. And yoga is the least competitive activity ever, right? But with 3 kids everything is a competition. The other day her daughter was finishing up her yoga video and said, “You know mom. I’m going to keep practicing yoga every single day. I’m going to go up to my room and practice with no one watching. And then I’ll become a yoga champion!!!” So cute!
Stay in Touch with Lauren
Etsy: Funky Monkey Children