What happens when you combine an engineering degree with a talent for sewing? A beautiful business full of well-made products and streamlined processes is created!
Kim VanSlambrook is the solopreneur behind Lucy Jane Totes. What started out as a creative solution to a problem she faced quickly morphed into a beautiful business. Kim has moved her business across states and made some risky choices in the face of parenting two twin boys.
Sarah and I especially love the way Kim's engineering brain has developed a streamlined system for taking gorgeous, cohesive photos. Stay tuned to the end so you won't miss all of her photography tips!
On the Podcast
01:13 – Engineer meets Maker
06:05 – Ruthlessly Eliminate!
08:49 – Deciding on a “Look”
14:38 – Why Kim is the CEO and COO
10:20 – Kim's Risky Move
16:27 – Etsy versus Shopify
18:17 – How to Get Found
20:43 – Working on the Business
25:03 – Instagram vs Pinterest vs Facebook – It's War!
28:10 – Blogging for Business
31:10 – My name is Who, my name is What?
32:48 – The Creative Process
34:07 – Kim Takes all her Own Photos…of herself?
41:14 – Kim's Adorable Mom Moment
Press Play on the Podcast Player Below to Hear from Kim!
Engineer meets Maker
Kim has a civil engineering degree from Purdue University with an emphasis in structural design. But once she became a mom to twin boys, she put that engineering background to use in other ways. She had a problem that desperately needed a solution: her boys were too thin for their pants, and the only belt she could find was $18 at Janie and Jack.
That didn't fly with Kim. She knew she could create something better for less. She got to work, and soon her friends were asking her to make belts for them too.
Kim then used her structural design background to reverse engineer a bag in larger proportions for moms on the go. Kim found that the current tote bags on the market just didn't have enough space or durability to work for her. As she solved her own problem, once again, she had customers waiting to buy totes from her too.
Lucy Jane Totes was born, and Kim absolutely loves her business because she can work from anywhere. Her husband is also a civil engineer who works on bridge design. His job moves often because he has to go where the big bridge projects are, so in just five years' time, their boys had already lived in 5 cities and 3 states.
Lucy Jane Totes also gives Kim a sense of identity. No matter where she lives or how new and out of place she may feel, she has her business as a constant to fall back on.
Kim's business started with local sales. This was a great confidence booster for her, and made her realize she could make a go of selling products online. She started her Etsy shop several years ago, and initially, it was a hodge podge of items – pillowcase dresses, nursing covers, and tote bags, among other things.
After learning more about business and how to create a solid brand identity, Kim realized that she needed to focus more and ruthlessly eliminate (my words – not hers!) the items that didn't fit with her brand.
Kim chose to focus on her tote bags and make that her business. In the process, she eliminated all the other random items in her shop.
This was an especially risky and difficult decision, because at the time, Kim's nursing covers were being featured in Pregnancy and Newborn Magazine!
However, Kim had to streamline for a few reasons:
- A strong brand identity makes it clear to customers what you're about.
- Focusing on just a few things allows you to master your craft and produce the highest-quality items.
- At the time, Kim's boys were in preschool just a few days a week, and she didn't have any other child care available to her. She had to focus because she simply didn't have time to pursue every product idea.
Kim says when she ruthlessly eliminated other products, her sales took off!
Deciding on a “Look”
Kim's advice on choosing your brand identity is to determine what you want your overall “look” to be for your products and business.
As creatives and makers, it's easy to find new fabrics or product ideas that we just LOVE, but if it doesn't work together with the other items in your shop, you just shouldn't include it. Every new product you add needs to fit with your brand.
Kim's husband always reminds her that the most successful restaurants tend to have focused, small menus. It should be the same way with a handmade business.
Kim's Risky Move
Kim made another risky move in her business not long after deciding on her brand identity. She closed her shop for an entire year! The business was rolling along. She was getting a lot of sales and good publicity, but because she didn't have good child care for her boys, her work time was falling from 8-midnight each night.
Kim admitted that she started turning into “mean mommy. ” She wasn't getting enough sleep and she felt pulled in every direction.
Kim asked herself, “what will I regret the most?” She knew that she would regret pushing hard on her business at the expense of her kids and family. Her relationship with her kids and husband matters most – so she took a break from the biz and just focused on them.
A year later, the boys were starting school and Kim's schedule was better. She got back to work on Lucy Jane Totes and says it was a great decision! She returned to her business with a new energy and focus on where she wanted things to go.
Perspective… it's just so important!
Why Kim is the CEO and COO
Kim hasn't outsourced very much in her business, and part of this is because she didn't have the best experience when she tried.
Last year, Kim set up her own website using the Shopify platform. Initially, she hired someone to create an e-commerce site for her, but it turned into a bit of a disaster because Kim had a very clear vision for how she wanted her site to look. (After all, she had refined her branding and knew what her business was all about!) The project was so far along that Kim ended up paying for a site that she never used.
That was her lesson. She loves learning , and she's not intimated by googling until she can figure out how to add a new piece of code. So Kim uses a template from Shopify and changes aspects of the template to suit her brand. By being her own COO, she can ensure that her vision comes to life.
Etsy versus Shopify
Etsy has changed a lot since it first began. It's now much easier to sell items that are far from handmade on the site, and for this reason, it's a bit discouraging for a true handmade seller like Kim.
There are plenty of tote bags on the site that were purchased wholesale from China and a monogram was added. Kim creates her bags from start to finish. Potential customers even write to Kim to tell her that they can get a bag like hers for less money!
On the other hand, Etsy is great for getting traffic into your shop, and great for getting found via search engines and via Etsy search. It's hard to get the same level of traffic on a brand new site of your own.
With Shopify, Kim can design a shop that matches her brand perfectly, and with her customization and monogram options, it's much easier to make this choices clear and streamlined on her own site.
But, it will take time for Kim to build up the same level of traffic and customers that she gets from Etsy. It's a balancing act, and at this point, she wants to keep both shops open.
How to Get Found
Kim gets more consistent sales from Etsy because of the sheer volume of shoppers searching there and being able to optimize her listings for SEO.
But if an influencer is talking about her items on social media, they'll link right to her own site and she'll see a spike in sales. Kim also uses her business social media accounts to point people to her own site versus Etsy.
Kim also gets found quite often via Google image searches. Both her Etsy listings and her blog photos get found this way. Kim actually got an order from the Estee Lauder companies to use her tote bags for a sales meeting, and they found her Etsy shop via Google image search!
Working on the Business
One of Kim's biggest goals is to increase traffic and sales on her Shopify site, but it's difficult to do when she's still the person sewing all of her bags.
She knows that in order to grow, she'll need to hire someone to help with the sewing so she can work on the business more and in the business less.
It's a difficult task to find someone who will do the job well, because Kim is very particular. She creates quality products that will last for years so she has to find an employee with the same high standards and skill level.
She knows that outsourcing will be worth it in the end, but the first step is the hardest!
(Isn't that the truth… any big decision in business seems so scary and it can be difficult to take action on it.)
Instagram vs Pinterest vs Facebook – It's War!
Ok, so the headline was just for fun. It's really not war between these social networks. Kim finds them all useful for different things, and we have to agree!
Instagram: Kim is most active here. She's a visual person and she loves turning her Instagram feed into a board of inspiration. Instagram also lets Kim have more interaction with her customers and followers versus Pinterest, where people don't chat very often.
Pinterest: Kim loves Pinterest for its ability to take photos of her work and make them spread. She once had a photo from her blog on a kitchen storage project that got featured on Apartment Therapy! That pin has been re-pinned thousands of times and still brings her steady Pinterest traffic.
Facebook: Facebook is a great place to have a conversation that lasts. Genuine relationships with your audience can be made here. (We agree, and we just love our private facebook group!)
Blogging for Business
Keeping up with a blog while running a handmade business is hard, but Kim has a clear goal with her blog: Keep content fresh enough that when someone new stops by her site, they know she's a real and active business. From there, Kim makes it really easy for a blog visitor to head to her shop or follow her on social media where she has time to post more often.
Kim posts about shop updates, a bit about family life, and crafty tutorials or photography tips.
Kim won't give up her blog even if her posts are infrequent, because those meta-tags on your photos are so great for Google image searches.
If she had unlimited time, Kim says her focus would be on more DIY tutorials, sewing projects, and home projects.
Blog Ideas for Handmade Business Owners:
- Post DIY and Crafty Tutorials Your ideal customer is probably pretty crafty but will splurge for just the right handmade item when it's too tricky for her to make herself!
- Share behind the scenes. Talk about your day-to-day life. Share beautiful photos. Talk about your family and personal life too. All of these posts let your audience get to know you better, and in turn, like and trust you.
- Share tips on how to run a handmade business. While this approach is a little less direct (the blog audience you attract may not be your ideal customer exactly) it's not a bad idea. Other handmade business owners are much more likely to support small, handmade businesses themselves! You could be next on their gift list.
My name is Who, my name is What?
Sorry for the Slim Shady reference, I couldn't resist! Just like Sarah and I couldn't resist asking how Lucy Jane Totes got its name. It's such a cute name… but its owner's name is…. Kim?
The story behind Lucy Jane is really sweet. Kim and her husband originally planned to have a whole slew of kids, but with twin boys and a tough pregnancy, they decided they were quite content with two healthy kids.
They knew if they ever had a girl they would name her Lucy Jane. Jane is Kim's mom's name, and she's been a big source of inspiration in Kim's life.
When they realized they likely wouldn't ever have a girl, they named the business Lucy Jane instead.
The Creative Process
After talking about Kim's business name, this launched us into a conversation on the doubts that creep into all of our minds when we pursue something creative. When an idea first strikes you think, “Oh my gosh this is the best thing ever!” Then the next day you'll think, “Oh my gosh this is the worst thing!” Then a few days later you'll think, “Oh this is really good!”
Isn't that the truth? When Kim designs bags or new products, she likes to make one, step back for a bit, then re-examine who work to figure out if she really likes it or not.
We agree! A little space from your creative work can do wonders for your perspective. And likely, it isn't the best or the worst, but somewhere in the middle. Just put it out into the world and likely some people will love it… and some won't. And that's ok!
Kim Takes all her Own Photos…of herself?
Sarah and I were dying to know how Kim gets such great photos of her bags! And… most of those photos have her in them holding the bags and showing them off. (Seriously, if you haven't clicked over to Kim's site yet, now's the time to do it… her photos are amazing.)
So how does Kim manage to take all her own photos… while she's in them?!
- Kim sets her camera up on a tripod. FYI – she uses a Nikon D700 (just a step below a professional camera)
- She configures her camera to a remote. Kim says if you look closely at some of her photos you can see the remote in her hand, although she tries her best to hide it!
- Kim tethers her camera to her I-mac so her photos are automatically imported into Lightroom. This allows Kim to immediately see how her photos look on a computer screen and accurately assess what needs tweaking.
- Kim snaps several different positions of her holding each bag.
- She grabs a photo, quickly edits it, and uploads it into a Shopify in a draft setting so she can compare it to her current product photos. This helps her to make sure the white balance is correct for her new batch of photos.
- Once the white balance is right, Kim sets up Lightroom so that it will automatically apply all of those edits to the next picture.
Gorgeous photos and cohesive look… DONE!
Kim says she used to take all the photos at once then sit down at her computer to edit only to find out that something was off. Now she saves herself loads of time by seeing the photos on the computer immediately and making adjustments before she takes too many photos that aren't right.
So… what's a tether?
With Lightroom starting a “tether” is one of the features offered. (Kim has a subscription to Lightroom and Photoshop through Adobe Creative Clouse for $10/month.)
To start a tether, just use the mini USB port to connect your camera directly to your computer .
Then start your tether in lightroom, and your photos will show up on your computer screen right away instead of on your camera screen.
Kim's other Killer Tool: Dropbox. Kim exports her photos as a square to dropbox, so that way she's ready to upload them to her website or use them on Instagram.
To Photoshop or not to Photoshop: Kim says she struggles with Photoshop because she has a tendency to over-edit, and in the end, she doesn't even remember what the photo was supposed to look like!
Instead, she uses Lightroom to work on her exposure and white balance, so edits there and stores her pictures. Light room can also store all her original photos, so even if she makes edits to a photo, the original will always be there.
Wow! I'm so impressed with the way Kim streamlines her photography process. It's obvious that she's got things down pat because her site and her Instagram feed are just filled with beautiful, creative photos of her products.
Kim's Adorable Mom Moment
You'll have to tune in to hear how Kim's son Teddy is creating his own “department” within her business – so cute!