Monique Low didn’t rush into starting her own business, but when she discovered Folksy she decided to take the plunge and Toasted Glass was born. We went behind the shopfront to discover why Monique only sells her work direct, why her blog is all about cocktails and not about her work, and how she altered her range to meet the growing demand for personalised products…
What kind of things did you consider before starting your business?
Having helped to run a creative business when I was much younger and having seen that ultimately fail, I was extremely sceptical about starting up again. I am an inherently cautious person and not prone to risky behaviour, but I had such a gut-longing to paint again, I started to look around for ways to sell my work that would involve minimal outlay. Discovering Folksy convinced me to give it a go. Here was a selling platform, championing British craft and design, that would give me access to a potential audience without demanding any kind of financial commitment.
Did you have a business plan, or was it more ‘suck it and see’?
There wasn’t (and still isn’t) a business plan – my original motivation was personal, rather than financial fulfilment. That said, I didn’t want lose money so I spent a lot of time online, researching the best ways to promote my work without spending any money. Also, having experienced failure in the past, I had a pretty good idea of what not to do.
What did you learn not to do?
I learned that, for my business, selling wholesale wasn’t a viable option, opening a shop was unrealistic and borrowing money was not the way to get started. I love to design and I love to paint and I don’t believe I can scale up the business to be something that I manage without being personally involved. The business relies entirely on my skill as a painter and, even if I could find someone else capable of doing the work, there wouldn’t be any profit at all, unless I doubled the prices. Plus, managing other people is not where my talent lies – I am a bit of a loner really and I think it’s important to be realistic about both your skills and your foibles.
How do you sell your work?
In the beginning, I tried various outlets for my work, but now I almost exclusively sell online, with the exception of the Essex Craft and Design Show held at Hyde Hall. That show works for me because of its setting in an RHS Garden and a great mix of talent. Otherwise, I became swiftly demoralised by standing around in village halls, ruminating on the many potential reasons the customers weren’t coming through the doors…
Do you think there are benefits of only selling direct?
I find that selling direct is the only option for my kind of work. It’s very labour intensive and that labour has to come from me. Selling to shops means either dropping your prices to them or increasing your prices to your existing customers, neither of which would work for me. Although I think my customers really appreciate my work, a sharp hike in prices would make it unaffordable for a lot of people and I try very hard to keep them at a reasonable level.
How do you calculate your prices?
My prices are worked out on a piece-by-piece basis that takes into account the cost of materials, overheads (electricity etc), a higher hourly rate for the painting and a lower one for packing. That is the theory… however, the reality is that I constantly underestimate how long something will take and find myself working ridiculously long hours to keep up with orders.
You specifically design pieces for occasions like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. Do you think that helps your business?
I always like to come up with something specific to an occasion, but think of it more as marketing than necessarily being a big seller. It’s worth investing the time in painting one or two new pieces and photographing them to promote across social media. It helps to have something relevant to tell people to keep a connection with your existing customers and catch the eye of potential new ones. This works for me because every piece is hand painted, whereas someone who designs something to produced in quantity is taking a bigger risk. I only have to sell that one piece for it to have been worthwhile.
Personalised products seems increasingly popular. Is that your experience?
It really does seem to be the case that people like to have personalised work and I find that the majority of pieces I design now are geared towards that. This isn’t something that I thought about when I started though and the discovery has been very much customer driven. I have always offered the option of personalising my work, but now I try to think about that as an integral part of the design.
Which social channels do you use to promote your work? Which do you think work best?
Other than having a personal Facebook profile (which I never update), I hadn’t used social media until I started Toasted Glass. In fact, I found the whole notion of it totally alien. The idea of whanging on about myself to a faceless audience struck me as bonkers. However, all the online selling advice, including the very helpful Folky community, seemed to advocate it and so I tentatively dipped in my toe and started a Facebook page as well as accounts on Twitter and Instagram. It was by no means instantaneous, but over the course of about six months I started to make connections, particularly on Twitter, and many of those have become genuine friends as well as helpful social media connections. Now, I find that the majority of my sales are directed to my online business via my Facebook page and increasingly Instagram as well. Twitter, for me, has always been more about connecting with people and now that I’m so busy, I don’t have the time to chat very often, which is a shame as I actually really enjoy it.
Have you ever paid for advertising? Has that been worth it?
I have only paid for advertising once and that was a really minimal amount, to a blog that often featured my work. They had championed me from the start and I wanted to show some support for them. However, the advert didn’t translate into sales and I had to withdraw it. Ironically, as soon as I did, they began to feature my work in blog posts again and that did lead to a lot of business.
Your own blog is dedicated to cocktails. Does that help direct buyers to your shop or is it more for fun?
The cocktail blog began because I read that one of the things an online business should do is have a blog. I figured that a blog about me, painting, was not only a bit egotistical but literally about as interesting as watching paint dry. So I tried to think of something that would be offering the reader something for nothing, while allowing me to show my work. Having had plenty of youthful experience working in bars, making cocktails, and plenty of enthusiasm for the subject, I decided that would be my focus. The blog has introduced me to some really fun people and has brought my work to the attention of a whole different section of clientele. However, it is very time consuming and it’s the first thing to be dropped when I’m too busy. I took a three-month break in the run-up to Christmas and have had to make my posts much shorter now.
How have your product shots developed over time?
All of the photography is down to me and that has been a real learning curve! I began by taking shots with my iPhone, although I did have a little white photography tent, which helped. Glass is really tricky to photograph and needs a lot of light to show it at its best, but its reflective nature means you have to know how to light it properly. I now have proper studio lighting, a decent Nikon camera and a tripod, but I am still very much a learner. My pictures are so much better than they were, but customers still tell me when they receive their orders that the pictures don’t do it justice. I guess that’s good in a way, but shows that there is definitely room for photographic improvement.
What would you say are the benefits of having good product shots?
Good product shots make all the difference. Ideally you need a really clear shot that shows the customer exactly what they are getting as well as something attractive and aspirational that will make them want what you have to sell. Without a decent picture, you are seriously minimising your chances of a sale, unless you are selling to a customer base that already knows your work. A new customer has nothing to go on but the picture in front of them.
Is there anything you’ve learned along the way that you wish you’d known when you started?
Actually, I think there is so much in the way of great information out there that you can really bypass a lot of the pitfalls if you just take some time to research. Perhaps, in retrospect, I wouldn’t have bothered trying to sell at craft fairs and would have focused on getting my photographs up to scratch, but generally, I took the online advice and it worked.
What would you say to something thinking about selling their work?
Research and persist. Oh and good luck!