Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Sasha Weekes and I’m the 25 years old owner of Timber Grove Studios. Our home-based woodshop is nestled in the hills of PEI’s countryside, and we specialize in decorative shelving and home decor with a focus on minimalist design and simplicity. Each piece is made to order with 20+ color options, meaning it will be the perfect fit for each customer's space. We ship Canada and U.S. wide.
Etsy has been the main platform since starting up, although I finally have a standalone website up and running as well which I hope to grow in order to diversify sales channels. I have no current employees, although I have a wonderful subcontractor who works from home to cut and stain wood for me. She’s paid by the piece so it’s a great system for both of us. My partner Mario works full time but has recently joined me on the side and we’ve released a new line of steel table bases together which has been a ton of fun - he is an awesome welder.
After launching in 2017 and being skeptical about making sales of large items online, I was absolutely proved wrong! The business outgrew our small condo basement within 7 months and outgrew the garage/basement of our next rental home in 7 months as well. We’re now happily settled with a detached shop and garage, meaning there’s some room to grow (for now!) and space to begin stocking up on items for the Christmas rush before summer ends.
Moving twice in two years has definitely caused organizational, financial and opportunity hiccups, but the business has grown steadily regardless so we’re very excited about where 2020 will take us. We’ve learned what to focus on during which months, as revenue can range anywhere from $2000 during slow months to $10,000 during high months. Net profit has run anywhere between 20-50% throughout the life of the business and varies month to month. It’s closer to 20% right now as we’ve been spending all we can on new tools and materials for our new larger products and our Christmas stock.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was always the art kid growing up, so I naturally began my post secondary education by pursuing a degree in Fine Arts. I spent my summers refinishing furniture and doing photography and that’s how I got my feet wet with business, so by my second year, I was also pursuing a minor in Commerce.
I had never really done much woodworking at all but became a lot more interested in design and home decor during those years. After finishing my third year, I was itching to do something more practical than becoming a gallery artist, so I set my sights on furniture design and enrolled in a college cabinetmaking course instead. It really wasn’t where I had ever expected to end up, but it was sort of a natural progression and I’m so glad I did it!
I started making mountain shelves in the morning before class to sell on Facebook and Kijiji. It was intended to be a fun side project but they were so popular that I started my business shortly after graduating with the mountains as my first product.
The business format was such a logical choice because although I’d learned to use plenty of tools and equipment in school, outfitting a large woodshop costs thousands of dollars.
Instead, I started out with an old miter saw that my shop teacher sold me for $30, just enough material for a few shelves to photograph, and my biggest investment - a new nail gun and compressor - came to around $350. Fresh out of school with no savings whatsoever, I got only what I needed and got to work on designing products with it.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
My answer to this question is probably different than most on Starter Story because I’m a smaller scale maker and almost everything is still done internally, which I still take pride in.
The original mountain design did change when I first began making them at home - I wanted something more aesthetically pleasing than the mountain designs going around on Pinterest and Etsy at the time. I had also originally used spruce strapping and it was quite rough, so I sourced clear pine which I still use to this day from the local Timber Mart.
I honestly had a really tough time with shipping. I had no clue what I was doing with packaging and many of my first international shipments arrived broken. I went above and beyond with customer service during these first few orders and refunded everything, apologized profusely, and somehow came out with no bad reviews.
It not only looks better but it’s much easier to work with and predictable looking for the customer when they’re ordering from previous photos. Designing was a pretty simple process, but I immediately focused on making a clear color chart with lots of options for customers. There were originally 8 colors and we now have 20, and I think it’s an important advantage for a handmade product to have the ability to be customized. It’s part of what makes the higher price tag and waits time worth it to our customers. However, I’m fairly strict about not customizing outside of the options we offer. To keep things running efficiently and get lots of product out, I don’t make many custom designs or size changes to items especially during busy seasons - I think a lot of makers get caught up with this and every new design is time-consuming.
When I began listing items on Etsy, I honestly had a really tough time with shipping. I had no clue what I was doing with packaging and many of my first international shipments arrived broken. (There are unsurprisingly no online tutorials for shipping awkward and fragile mountain shaped shelves!) I went above and beyond with customer service during these first few orders and refunded everything, apologized profusely, and somehow came out with no bad reviews.
Some customers even left 5 stars despite getting broken items, which is what I LOVE about Etsy - people seem to understand when they’re ordering handmade and from a new business that mistakes might be made. If you treat them well, they will do the same. It didn’t take long to switch to better boxes, higher quality glue, and add styrofoam cutouts inside the shelves which prevented any future damage. Damage rates are almost zero these days. I’ve switched shipping carriers and platforms a few times trying to get better pricing on large items. If you’re looking to ship large items and you’re from Canada, I definitely recommend Netparcel with Paypal because it’s by far the cheapest option I’ve found.
I want to talk a bit about the rest of the base product line as well, which I’ve added throughout the last 2-3 years. I designed my biggest sellers like bath caddies, hexagon shelves, jewelry racks and sailboat shelves using the same size wood and the same tools & materials. I even design things to fit in the same boxes as other products if possible. This is a big part of why I think I was able to be successful in the handmade market because it makes everything so much more simple. It takes up less space, less time sourcing the right materials, and not much is wasted if a product doesn’t end up selling. Everything also has the same minimalist, clean aesthetic so it looks cohesive.
Today, the mountain shelves and all variations of it have sold about 400 times on Etsy. The basic one-color mountains cost about $8 in lumber and materials and sell for $85CA, shipping included. Shipping is between $15-$25 apiece, and there are between 1-2 hours of labor in each shelf.
Below is the original mountain design vs. the current one:
Describe the process of launching the business.
When I graduated from college, I spent the summer waitressing long hours but slowly began launching the business on the side.
I started out by selling through Facebook, Instagram, Kijiji, any free platform I could at the time. It was just a few sales a month so more of a hobby, although I was working on my branding at this time and starting to get the Etsy shop together.
Etsy is a really great way to start a business because it’s essentially free until you start selling. It cost nothing to launch besides my 20 cent listing fees.
When September rolled around, I ended up working as a kitchen designer and had a lot more downtime, so this was when I put a ton of work into the Etsy shop, learning about Etsy SEO, photographing everything, getting the color samples and the listings together and in pristine condition. I also had to sort out shipping costs and source packaging materials. Now that I’m working on a new website, I can only wish I had that sort of time and mental energy to put into it - I was pretty lucky. Much of the shop is still the same today because I did a really good job with it (at least I think!) Financially speaking, Etsy is a really great way to start a business because it’s essentially free until you start selling. It cost nothing to launch besides my 20 cent listing fees.
I launched the shop officially in October and within a month I was starting to get a few sales that weren’t from family and friends. October was obviously a great time to get started because that’s when the busiest time of year is picking up, so by the time January came around I was getting very busy with everything and worrying about noise complaints in our condo complex.
Mario had another job offer at this time he wanted to try out, so it was the right time for us to change things up. I quit my job and we moved to Moncton, New Brunswick from PEI, which is about two hours and one province away for those who are unfamiliar. I worked part time briefly after this first move, but by April the shop was really rolling and I became full time. I’ve worked part time on and off since this, mostly coaching hockey at night, both for the extra financial security and my sanity. It gets me out of the house and meeting people when I’m working alone all day.
The biggest hiccups right at the start were definitely the shipping issues, and just perfecting my builds. The sailboat shelves and mountains, in particular, were tough to make, and sometimes I’d blow too many nails out and have to start over, which is stressful when you’re on a deadline and the finishing process can take days to dry. I’ve gotten a lot more skilled at building everything, just by doing it hundreds of times. I’m very quick now too and a build that previously took 20 minutes now takes 6-7.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
My social media is always growing (it’s a long term game) but sales still come overwhelmingly from Etsy itself, both from the Search function and features like Editors Picks.
I honestly attribute the bulk of my success to photography. I was a photographer first so obviously very lucky to have no issues launching with great images and it’s something I consistently produce.
With Etsy especially, there are a ton of mediocre amateur photos so it was an easy way to set myself apart from the start, and I don’t think Etsy themselves would feature my products and market them so often otherwise. We’re also able to compete fairly well on price because 80% of customers are American, and our dollar is much weaker.
Etsy Stats for the last 12 months.
Instagram and Pinterest are increasingly starting to bring regular traffic, which I am really counting on for moving to my new website. I’ve been grinding away at these two platforms for years, posting and pinning almost every day and seeing slow but steady growth.
I rarely run ads because I just haven’t needed to and haven’t gotten great returns, but I do occasional giveaways and promotions. I’ve also collaborated with a few influencers and other photographers by giving away products in return for images or exposure.
An example of one of my favorite collaboration images. I certainly don’t have this bathroom setup to work with at home!
I’ve definitely learned my lesson with some of these relationships and what I need to get out of them to make it worth it. Just because someone has 30k followers doesn’t mean they have a following who you can sell to, and they may have lower engagement than someone with 5k followers. Images are valuable though, so it’s almost always worth it to use someone who is a good photographer and has interesting space, even just to mix up my own photos.
I strongly considered adding Amazon Handmade as a selling platform, but in the end, I don’t think Amazon sits right with me in an ethical sense. I take pride in being high quality, local, and ethical with the business and would like to continue that no matter how big things get. This is why I’ll be pushing my own website this year and continuing to use all local suppliers as I grow.
Because of the nature and cost of the product, a low percentage of customers return. I do encourage it by adding a return coupon with every order, but I’ve only had a handful of people buy twice, mostly buying gifts after buying one for themselves or vice versa. I’m sure this number will go up over the years as well as the business grows. I have an email list but it’s not a huge focus of mine, I think they’re a lot more effective in some other niches. I market my products as special, custom, versatile with other decor and made to last, so I don’t expect people to be buying every year and that’s okay.
I’ll touch on craft and vendor shows as well because I know a lot of handmade businesses frequent them. I did quite a few starting out to try and get my name out locally, but they were very hit and miss. I now only do the Etsy PEI show which is twice a year and absolutely amazing with tons of sales and new social media followers that will eventually buy. It’s the right fit because it’s full of my target customers which are young women, 25-35. Most craft shows weren’t working for me because too many seniors showed up, and they didn’t seem to understand the point of my products for the most part. It’s definitely a good idea to figure out which shows are the best fit and focus on those.
Our booth at the Etsy PEI Spring Market 2019.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are in a good spot now and growth continues to happen at a steady pace. Summer is generally slow, but revenue on Etsy is still up 33% from this period last year. The business has been profitable for almost every month since starting, thanks to low costs. Etsy has been encouraging free shipping with a lot of pushback from sellers, but I built everything into our prices about a month ago and introduced free shipping shopwide, which seems to have improved conversion rates and search visibility already. We haven’t had any vendor shows since April, so 90% of sales are through Etsy at this time. The ecommerce portion of the website will be live by the time this interview is published, however. I’m also happily offering product photography services on the side now as well.
We’ve had some room to breathe and work on bigger projects this summer since we’re settled in our home. I do get contacted locally for larger, custom projects which I take on more throughout slow months - right now I’m working on a huge wedding backdrop. The shop is full of all sorts of table tops which will have more of a local focus since they’re tough to ship, but the steel table bases we’ve designed ship Canada and the US-wide so we’re excited to see that portion of the business grow and see where it takes us. My subcontractor is already knee deep in staining shelves in preparation for Christmas and I expect to double revenue in our two best months (October and November) simply by being incredibly prepared. It’s crazy how much business I lost last year just by not being able to keep up with demand - orders closed by mid-November!
Our goals right now? There are a few directions things could go in the next month or two with the addition of new products, so we’ll have to wait and see. We may end up seeing a shift to more larger products now that we have space, and I really enjoy designing them. I’d like to see revenue go up 30-40% over the next year, but not too much more - I think slow growth is more manageable and it’s easier to run a business well and stay organized this way. As soon as my subcontractor gets near capacity, I’ll be looking for either another contractor or a part time employee. I am considering finishing my business degree over the next few years as well, so I’d like to keep my schedule flexible and not commit to fulltime employees just yet. A very long term vision for me is to bring furniture & decor makers in the maritimes together for an Eastern Canadian based online furniture shop - similar to Wayfair but smaller and higher quality. It’s pretty out there, but everyone needs a crazy idea in the back of their head, right?
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve learned a ton during the first few years and a lot was personal. When you’re 23 and navigating the “real world” for the first time it can be complicated enough without learning how to run a business too.
The biggest habit I was able to pick up was just “letting go”. Stuff goes wrong, all the time, in any business. Mistakes will happen too. With the first shipping hiccups and too-tight deadlines, there were sleepless nights, mental breakdowns, and lots of tears. I slowly learned to deal with things in healthy ways and slowly stopped working all weekend. I don’t take angry customers personally or panic when things don’t go as planned, and I can separate personal and work life. I’m essentially a much more level headed person now, and you can bet I’m a whole lot more organized too!
Growing a business means learning new things every week so it’s tough to pick specific points. I’ve learned how the Etsy platform works, how to properly package items, source materials in bulk, build new things, time management skills, and how to manage the financial side of things. I hardly had any credit history and wouldn’t likely have been able to get any financing, which is a big reason I was bent on starting so lean. I actually was unable to raise my business credit card limit past $500 until just this month, so I have used my personal card through much of the process. Juggling a business that sometimes has over $5000 in expenses a month on a $500 card was interesting, to say the least! It was a welcome surprise to see that limit go up.
I have, however, definitely learned the value of delegating and not pushing yourself too hard. Sourcing out much of the cutting and staining took a huge mental load off, and I actually now work between 30-40 hours a week on the business. Sleeping 8 hours a night, eating well and getting daily exercise has me feeling better than I ever did working an 8-5 job (I’m NOT a morning person). When I work, I work efficiently and get things done. I hear a lot of stories about entrepreneurs working crazy hours, but it’s not for me. The idea of six figure revenue is great, but I’m not in a rush and I value my health and relationships more. I’m financially comfortable and in charge of my schedule which is really what I wanted out of entrepreneurship.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I’m not an incredibly techy person and don’t use much - Etsy has great tools that I take advantage of for marketing and fulfilling orders. I do use Netparcel with Paypal for shipping - it’s not as convenient as ShipStation but I get much better rates. MailChimp is my email marketing platform.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I read The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau shortly after starting my business and really liked it. It’s full of examples of businesses starting without much capital and was very reassuring.
The most helpful book I’ve found is called When by Daniel Pink, which dives into the topic of chronobiology and how to make it work for you. I now go on about this stuff to whoever will listen, as I just find it so interesting and everything I’ve applied to my life has helped me to be more productive.
My favorite podcasts are The EcomCrew (Dave Bryant, Mike Jackness) and Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat (Bruce Daisley). The EcomCrew has been opening my eyes to the wider ecommerce world which I’m not as familiar with (manufacturing and large scale selling) and Bruce Daisley is a joy to listen to as he explores ways to find happiness while at work.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I see a lot of new entrepreneurs or students asking “What business should I start?” with no skills or interests to back up the question. Business isn’t all about passion, but you have to find something you’re good at and that you enjoy. Anyone can start a dropshipping business, but they’re a dime a dozen because of the low barrier to entry. If you develop knowledge in certain areas that others don’t have, that’s a big advantage.
I once read that the most successful people don’t master one skill - they are really good at 2-3 things which they can combine and then dominate the niche. This resonated with me because although some have questioned my education choices, I have a background in art, design, business, and woodworking, which almost no one else has. I’m also a woman so I have a full understanding of my target market in home decor. It’s the combination of all of this that makes my business unique, and I’m not worried about the guy next door copying me and competing.
In short, if you have no idea where to start, you probably aren’t ready yet, which is fine. My advice is to work on personal growth, skills, education, or try out different jobs until the ideas start to flow for you and you have the background to make them work.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Unfortunately no, but if you’re in the Charlottetown area with woodworking experience and space at home, I want to hear from you!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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