Joining in on instagram challenges fill me with equal parts excitement, enthusiasm and an overload of creative ideas. I also know that I will conk out approximately 10% of the way through. I lack commitment.
However, there is one challenge I adore for its sense of community: Joanne Hawker’s March Meet the Maker which is a challenge to follow 31 prompts for each day of the month. By following the tag #marchmeetthemaker, we can travel across the world into the small shops, studios, craft rooms, spare bedrooms and corner desks of the most passionate creatives. The 31-day challenge is a big ask for people like me; thankfully Joanne is a realist and encourages participation in any form. I lasted until Day 6, then had a resurgence on Day 13, but I decided that instead of regretting my lack of participation on Instagram, I would instead think about the prompts in long form through the Firain Journal. My aim is to publish this article before the end of the challenge, Day 31. UPDATE: I failed and it has instead been published on April 8 2019.
If after reading this article you have questions about any aspect of running a small shop, please do feel free to ask. It’s one of my favourite subjects to discuss!
Day 1 - favourite to make
Although I have made the website, I make the marketing materials, I make your orders look pretty, my favourite thing to make is a fuss, a hubbub, a rigmarole and a hoopla about the fantastic artists who create products for Firain! It is so important for me to know the people with whom I work - isn’t that one of the beautiful advantages of shopping small?
Firain tip: Find out more about the fabulous Makers I stock at Firain by clicking here.
Day 2 - how you started
The idea for Firain really started years ago as a child in Deal, Kent, where I loved to potter around the independent shops with my mum. I adored glimpsing into hidden galleries, thumbing the handmade cards in little boutiques and observing the interesting characters that sat behind the shop counters.
When I worked as a young estate agent, I was often looking for ideas for what would now be described as a ‘side-hustle’. My patient dad would humour me by looking at empty retail units where I dreamt of opening a bookshop/ community hub/ craft shop/ cake shop/ florist…he would analyse my drawings of the floor plans and listen as I passionately described the young artists I would represent (including my dear school friend Amy Judd!).
The dream was never realised. I moved to London at 20, then to West Africa, then America, the Caribbean and now Wales! My dad passed away the end of January so his encouragement to follow my passions rings ever louder in my ears. Firain is a tiny slice of this dream. I am treading very slowly, going very gently, finding fabulous makers and developing the kindest customer base.
Firain tip: I have written a few Journal posts about setting up Firain that you might find interesting: How to Start an Online Shop (an article for 91 Magazine); The Firain Six Month Review; How to Celebrate The Small Victories When Setting Up A New Creative Business; Firain is Open!
Day 3 - flatlay
An instagram favourite! Scroll to the top of this article and you will see an example of a flatlay. For a shop like mine where I try to showcase a variety of products, photography of this sort is a brilliant way to show a grouping of products. In the photo below, I decided that a fun way to incorporate some spring blooms into a photo was to create a mini flatlay with the print A Light to Lead the Way. The concrete coaster added a little extra gentleness to the composition but it would have looked a little bland on its own; thankfully, these flowers had just fallen off their stems so onto the coaster they went.
Firain tip: the less faffing you do, the better the flatlay. Seriously…step away. For more detailed tips than this, read Instagram Photography Tips: How To Compose Your Photos by marketing expert Kayte Ferris of Simple & Season, as well as How To Create Beautiful Flat Lay Images by social media guru Helen Perry of Not About The Kids.
Day 4 - tools & materials
The main tool when running an online shop is the website itself. Those of you who have followed me for a while will know that I had a crisis after about six months of running Firain because I had chosen an extremely ugly e-commerce template and I needed to change it. With very little knowledge, I decided to completely swap platforms and bought this SquareSpace template which I then had to fiddle about with to create what you see today. In my dream, you lovely customers inundate me with orders and I have enough money to employ a proper web designer. There are lots of things I would love to do to improve the user experience, but for now, I keep tinkering away and hope that you enjoy being here. My other tools include my instagram account and my mailing list, which are both brilliant ways to keep in touch with you lovely lot!
Materials for a shop include the packaging I use. I try to recycle the materials that come to me from makers and suppliers. (see Day 11 for more info on this!).
Firain tip: When designing and developing my new website, I had a checklist that spread over three A3 pages. I tried to accomplish the tasks in order and persist with something even if i was tricky. I should have saved myself a lot of time by investigating e-commerce checklists such as the Shopify Store Checklist. Although its a different e-commerce platform the same principles apply!
Day 5 - detail or close up
This prompt made me think about the ingredients and materials used in the products I choose to sell. I want the details to matter - are the products made in an ethical way, for example. The products in the Apothecary collection have all been chosen because the makers agree that ingredients matter. These are not hurriedly-made products, produced to jump on an Eco or wellness trend!
Firain tip: If you need more information about the ingredients used in a product, or the credentials of packaging or anything else that might not be covered in the product descriptions, please do ask! It’s only by pushing for transparency that we shift towards more ethically-made products being available.
Day 6 - full or part-time
When we returned from America, I needed to work as soon as possible but have moved to an area where many are self-employed and I knew that finding employment would be a challenge. I decided to open Firain and establish myself as a freelance writer, social media assistant and proofreader. This is the first time I have been self-employed and worked from home and I absolutely love it.
However, I am sure most freelancers/ self-employed folk would tell you that they rarely switch off. The goal is to have boundaries and dedicated work time but in reality, a varied to-do list means that throughout the day I wear many different hats. I am aiming to have a ‘baggy schedule’ where I can be flexible when I need to be. I have found that rigidity causes extra pressure and stress.
Firain tip: there is an abundance of guidance available to help solopreneurs and multi-hyphenates find balance in their life. One of the most accessible advisers is Josephine Brooks - in episode 8 of her podcast On The Make she interviewed me about running Firain but since that interview I have continued to access her planning and time-management resources (especially her 12-week plan!) and it’s improved my time-management no end.
Day 7 - less glam side
Oh where to begin. Shall we start with wearing saggy leggings when working from home? Or the ugly ways that my lack of confidence shows up? Or how loudly I cry when Royal Mail loses something (this has happened twice in 18 months so….let’s not dwell on that!). Or the quiet days and weeks when no orders come in and I wake up in a cold sweat wondering why I think I can do this!! Since opening Firain, my family has been bashed a little bit: my brother died, the family home burned down so we relocated my parents to North Wales, my mum was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, we moved home and my dad has died. So there have definitely been some less glam moments!
Firain tip: when I am having bad days, I work really hard to see the bigger picture. The purpose of running this shop is to help us keep our lives simple and uncluttered. Thankfully, I I have supportive friends and family as well as a few accountability buddies to help me along. Writing a list of what is going right and what I am grateful for always seems to help redress the balance.
Day 8 - product range
It has taken me quite a while to decide on the kind of products I would like to stock at Firain. I won’t linger in my answer here but I would encourage you to browse the shop. If you subscribe to my monthly letter, you’'ll know that I often mention that I take my time to choose new stock. I sometimes compare myself to other small shops and wish I had a bigger budget/ more spending power but I am more interested in organic growth and stocking interesting items than having masses and masses of products.
Firain tip: this isn’t a tip but a request - sometimes when you work on your own like I do, it’s hard to get feedback about the products I stock. If you have the time, I would love you to message me about Firain and the kinds of things you would love to see here in the shop. Thanks!
Day 9 - the story behind the name
Truth be told, Ben found the word ‘Firain’. Its ancient Welsh, meaning 'good, noble, fair and fine', and for us it evokes the feelings of provenance, integrity and authenticity. I thought it was a fitting name as I knew I was going to look for handmade pieces that are not only uplifting to use, but are made in an ethical way by passionate creatives - many of whom run very small businesses themselves. Read more about them in the meet the makers section. If you want to sound like an ancient Welsh person, you might pronounce Firain as ‘vee-rain’, but we will answer to anything really. We are looking for ways to work more closely with Welsh makers, so if you think we might be a good fit for you and you live locally, please do get in touch!
Firain tip: Some have said that the name Firain is memorable and others have said that Firain is forgettable and many say that Firain sounds nice and a few say that Firain sounds weird. What can you do?! So my tip is not to worry too much. Pepsi, Nike, Reebok and millions of other phenomenally successful businesses have unique names!
Day 10 - you!
Named after Jo in Little Women, I was thankfully labelled as eccentric from a young age. I am a queen faffer. Now…tell me about YOU instead!
Firain tip: If you have’t read Little Women, try to as soon as possible! My favourite quote from Jo is: “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
Day 11 - reducing waste
I wanted to show you a small part of my packaging stash. I try to use paper, string and bubblewrap that has already been sent to me. I do try to use my judgement; if an order is clearly a special gift, I will use brown paper and string to make it look pretty. If you are a regular customer and you know my low-waste policy, I will be more relaxed and send your order in the minimum amount of packaging. My very first order to my gorgeous friend Esther was sent in 500 meters worth of bubble wrap, tied up in 900 meters of tape and stuffed into a box. I have come a long way. I do want to look at using paper bags to send larger items and please please do let me know if you have some feedback for me on the Firain packaging.
Firain tip: one of my favourite companies selling waste-reducing products is The Kind Store - Tash is so kind and helpful and educates people in such a fun way about making more sensible choices.
Day 12 - hands at work
I have never been especially dexterous so at times I do find packaging Firain orders a little tricky. The real hands at work at Firain are of course all the makers. From the hand illustrations of Gemma Koomen and Amy Blackwell to the chocolate-making from Bare Bones and the ceramic forming of Lilly, hands are intrinsic to the makers’ lives. Another way to use the hands is with sign-language, and with a little bit of notice, I can arrange to have this website translated into British and American Sign Language.
Firain tip: use the Old Faithful Makers Balm for the softest hands imaginable! If anyone orders the balm after reading this, I will send an extra treat for reading down to Day 12! (Let me know in the special instructions that you followed the link from here!)
Day 13 - photography
I massively underestimated the importance of photography when running a product-based shop. I have been blogging and on Instagram for years (I first set up my blog Gathering Gorgeousness in 2007!) and I have always enjoyed snapping away. However, product photography can be a huge challenge and I have tired to learn as I go. Whilst I deeply admire the aesthetics of so many others, it’s important to try to find my own style and this is something I am working on! I create havoc in our small home as I rearrange the surfaces and try to create lifestyle shots. Ben is my hand model husband and will graciously hold things up in the areas of good light for me to get a shot. I have also been very fortunate to use the homes of my good friends as backdrops. I use my iPhone for most shots (I am a little afraid of my fancy camera!) and edit using the F2 setting in VSCO. Many of the product shots in the shop are from the makers themselves, for which I am very grateful!
It’s also important to note that a photograph that might be suitable for an e-commerce site might not be so ‘successful’ or engaging on Instagram. I have found the tips in Sara Tasker’s book Hashtag Authentic to be really insightful on this subject.
Firain tip: If you are a maker, I would recommend having professional photos taken of your products, or if you are taking them yourself try to create a consistent style. Its always preferable to see a line sheet that has clear, crisp photography showing the product from a few angles.
Day 14 - how I learnt
This really ought to be ‘how I am learning’. Every day, there is a new revelation. Business behemoths like small-biz champion Holly Tucker have some of the most practical and actionable resources available and I devour them like chocolates. Much to Ben’s bemusement, I am a podcast fiend. Lorraine, Chloe and Huma have been phenomenal sources of wise advice. The Campfire blogging course from Kayte Ferris was a good confidence boost and exposed me to women with similar businesses and outlooks; in fact I have looked at undertaking many more courses for these reasons but I just can’t at the moment stretch to invest. I also try to learn from my customers although sometimes I can feel a little demoralised if I can see that someone just doesn’t understand my aims with the shop. I frantically worry at night - what am I doing wrong? What can I change? Is it even worth it? So each day has its challenges and each day has its opportunities for learning.
Firain tip: It is so easy to feel overwhelmed with the plethora of advice out there. Everyone is a coach these days, and everyone is running a course! Take time to find people you connect with and listen to everything critically. Will that idea really work for my business? How much can I invest to learn a new skill? Is there someone out there who can do it for me? If you would like my juicy opinions about where I turn to for solid business advice, send me a message!
Day 15 - motivation/ goals
This one is easy for me to define: I opened to Firain to support a lifestyle that allows Ben and I flexibility. My goal is that I can grow the business to a point where I can wear fewer hats (see Day 6!) and maintain a simple, uncluttered life.
Firain tip: our goals and motivations can feel deeply personal, especially if we feel we are swimming against the tide of people who surround us! Maybe write them down in a diary or on your phone somewhere and gently share them with others, if you think it will help.
Day 16 - workspace
I keep the stock for the shop organised in my spare room. I wrap your orders on a very old chest of drawers that was given to me by a dear friend. I will write a separate blog post on this subject soon…!
Firain tip: don’t let a lack of space put you off opening an online shop but be realistic. Stocking beautiful cushions and blankets was a dream of mine but in reality I lacked storage space for them and I felt that Ben was literally being smothered! I now try to stock items that can be neatly arranged on shelves and posted in small boxes.
Day 17 - what I am working on
This blog post which has taken at least a day longer than I thought it would!
Firain tip: If you are struggling to concentrate on a blog post, don’t listen to podcasts, make a sough dough loaf, go for a beach walk or write to friends in America. Just sit still and get it done.
Day 18 - mistake or lesson
This links to Day 14 - how I learnt. I am self-taught with every aspect of running a shop and I know that I could have saved time and energy by being more focused in finding the right teachers. I was also very quick to choose a logo and an e-commerce platform and regretted my choices (decisiveness is not always a good quality!). Other mistakes are quite private - disappointments (thinking that certain people would be loyal customers, thinking that I am the first to find a maker then finding other shops stocking them first! So silly really). A big one for me is that I have an extremely strange view of making money. I definitely work from a scarcity mindset and I am working on this slowly…!
Firain tip: I know you know this, but learning from mistakes is so vital. Don’t wallow. Brush yourself off and get back into the game. Write a list of the things that are going right and keep going. Done is better than perfect, as they say!
Day 19 - dream collaboration
I have big dreams to create a small range of Firain-branded products. This will need significant investment of both money and energy, but I know I will enjoy the collaboration. I will keep my ideas under wraps for now…
Firain tip: Don’t be scared to approach makers for collaborations. For many, it’s an interesting way to expand their portfolios and push their creative work into new arenas.
Day 20 - design process
I knew I wanted the logo for Firain to be simple and sort of standalone. I didn’t want an icon or a graphic to accompany the text. The point of my shop is that it’s about the products; in fact, Kayte said to me that she feels my shop is extroverted, and I agree. My lovely graphic designer friend Hanniel helped me to create the logo from a font I bought online and I was able to tinker with my SquareSpace template to use other custom fonts. I have work to do on the branding for Firain; I love colour and creating a cohesive product collection and a cohesive social media image is challenging for me. I have had this image pictured saved in my files for a long time and I try to keep it in mind when choosing products - do the colours fit? Do the products evoke the same kind of energy? I am sorry that I have lost the source for it. I love the slightly muted tones. Huma once said that when she thinks of Firain, she thinks of Kraft paper colour and forest/ mossy green and inky drops of deep blue. Like moss peeping through bricks. Isn’t that a gorgeous image? I am no doubt influenced by the surrounding of the North Wales coast, and this is most definitely something I would like to weave into my brand much more in the future.
Firain tip: one of the most well-thumbed books in my collection is How to Style Your Brand: Everything You Need to Know to Create a Distinctive Brand Identity by Fiona Humberstone. If you are wondering where to take your branding. this is for you. If in-person events appeal, Helen Perry and Antonia Taylor have launched Elevate, where they help businesses develop their brands.
Day 21 - throwback
This is a throwback to the day Rebecca from Ivy, Pip & Rose and I decided at the very, very last minute to exhibit at the local summer fayre. We had been away in Ibiza the week before and I had massively underestimated how much effort would be needed to set up shop. Thankfully, Rebecca is a stylish chick and she took charge, helping to arrange my stock and figuring out the credit card machine. I found my swing and ended up looking back on it as a highlight of my first year in business.
Firain tip: don’t be embarrassed about what your business used to look like or how awful your photos were or all the mistakes you made. Be where your feet are and focus on what is going right, now.
Day 22 - proud of
I am going to be very honest here: I struggle to talk about what I am proud of. This is a lifelong issue and I found that when I lived in America it was simply dismissed as a ‘British thing’. I agree, to some extent. However, I will admit that I am proud of the relationships I have with the makers, and I am proud that despite all the emotional knocks we have had, i am still here!!
Firain tip: I have lots more work to do with networking and spreading the word about Firain but I do think that just being kind, chatty and responsive helps.
Day 23 - top tip or advice
From Anne of Avonlea: “After all” Anne had said to Marilla once, “I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens, but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string”. Try to live with this in mind and you will have an appreciative attitude about where you find yourself in life.
Firain tip: Be compassionate when giving advice to others and when applying advice to yourself.
Day 24. - customers/feedback
I adore my customers. I chat with some of them regularly and many have become loyal to the shop (even though I know some of the products I sell can be bought in many other shops!). Many of my customers have a modest budget for gift-buying, so their coming to Firain to spend their hard-earned cash is never taken for granted. I try to avoid big sales, but subscribers to my monthly letter will always receive a little treat of some sort as a thank you for being part of the Firain story.
Sadly, I don’t have a review section on my product descriptions, so I try to save customer feedback on the story highlights on my instagram account. I will leave you to have a little look at it. Please do get in touch if you have any feedback!
Firain tip: work hard and be nice to people - it’s an overused saying but it is true. Listen to your customers and remember that they are real people! Bring them along on your business journey and it will be a much more fun process.
Day 25 - how it’s made
I thought it might be fun to do a separate Journal post at some point soon that describes the process a shopkeeper like me might go through in choosing products. Would that be useful or interesting?
Firain tip: please answer rhetorical questions in the comment box below ;-)
Day 26 - self care
To say I neglect myself in almost every aspect is this week’s massive understatement. It’s not because I am the noblest, self-sacrificing person you know; frankly, it’s because I have lost myself a little. Please know that I am finding ways to rectify this. I have a wonderful support system, a strong spiritual faith, few responsibilities and I live moments from one of the prettiest beaches in North Wales. I will be okay…I just have work to do.
Firain tip: The reality is that for most people, self-care is an internal process. It takes time. It takes lots of digging and weeding and cultivating and processing and sharing (or not sharing). Maybe you feel the same?
Day 27 - anything goes
Let’s skip this!
Day 28 - packaged
and this….(I am telling you….a commitment-phobe!)
Day 29 - most difficult to make
I am going to be brutally honest and let you know something that you might even have guessed…the most difficult thing to make is money. That is why every single purchase from the shop is met with a little flutter of butterflies inside me. I do not have dreams of wealth; I live modestly and I enjoy many, many good thinks. I have learned that turning an online shop into a profit-making business takes grit and energy and focus and endless enthusiasm. I am grateful for free marketing platforms like instagram for the exposure and community I have found and I am going to continue to look for ways to bring Firain to a wider audience.
Firain tip: if money is the only focus of running your own business, do not open an online gift shop selling handcrafted items. But then you all knew that, didn’t you…..
Day 30 - support
I try to regularly thank the cheerleaders in my life. From Gwynfor the chap in the Post Office who tolerates my shocking Welsh, to my neighbour in Criccieth who let’s me leave her orders in the back garden, to my mum who despite everything she has endured lately took the time to write a card to me about how much potential Firain has…I am spoiled for support! My biggest support is Ben; he smells candles for me , he helps me work out wholesale profit margins, he respectfully leaves my photo shoots in tact and he encourages my creativity. Diolch cariad!
Day 31 - products in the wild
My mum joined Ben and I on the beach at Criccieth and read a few lines from the gorgeous Wild Swimming book!
Firain tip: go on, be silly. Do not take yourself too seriously as a human or as a business.
Thank you for making it to the end of the March Meet The Maker challenge! Please do share your views and opinions and suggestions and tips in the comment section below. Thank you so much for being part of my small businesses.
(This post contains a few affiliate links to Amazon, which may help run Firain at no extra cost or inconvenience to you.)