When to Start Your Quilting Business?

by Charlotte Colmon

Parliament Hill in OttawaRecently, I received a question from one of the Quilting Business community members from Ottawa, Canada. Over the past week, we've exchanged a few emails, and we've discussed Assia's desire to have a quilting business. I'm going to paraphrase her questions, but I think I've saved the essence. And, I apologize for such a long post, but I thought the questions and answers were a good discussion that is applicable to a lot of people looking to start their own quilting business.

Here's the basics of the first question that Assia asked:

Hello Chuck,

Last year, I bought your book on starting a quilting business, and my intention is to do all the preparations and learn all I can before making the plunge when I retire. At the same time, I wish to start investing in supplies and books and planning some designs.

The rationale is that in a few years, costs will have increased while my retirement income will be less than my current working income. In addition, some books will be out of print, thus costing up to ten times more; and, as you are well aware, interesting fabrics get sold within a season.

Do you think that if one is determined to start a small business, it's a sound decision to buy things while one can afford them? Or do you rather think that it's best saving the money? I value your opinion, Chuck, and would appreciate your point of view on the matter when you have time.

Here's my answer to the question:

Hello Assia,

There's a lot to be said for planning ahead of time, but much of what you can do an be done for little or no money. And, you must also make sure that you watch our market to stay in touch with trends… tastes can change over the years.

I do think that if you can educate yourself and start working on a business plan while you have the money, you can save up what you will need to get started in your business and have enough capital to sustain your business while you are working out your marketing and gaining customers. That way, you won't be consumed with worry about making enough money to support the business from day one.

Cashflow (or lack thereof) is one of the biggest reasons that new businesses fail. Even if you're making money, if you're spending more than you are bringing in, you will have a tough time surviving.

Hope this helps,
Chuck

This prompted a reply from Assia:

Hello Chuck,

Your reply was very helpful, and I wish to expand on my idea of preparing myself for the opening of my quilting business since you are thinking of fleshing out the answer.

I feel as if everything that happened to me, all the things I’ve done in my life, all the subjects studied at school or as a self-learner, all the jobs I held – from the most menial to the most highly skilled – have shaped the kind of businessperson I am going to be and are now are crystallizing to move me forward.

Even a painful experience like illness turned into a blessing, giving me time to reflect, to do introspection and discover my intimate self to better deal with customers. Today, I know that big crowds are not for me, that I am more at ease with small groups or in a one-on-one setting. That will help me determine the size of a class, target specific clients and design the appropriate marketing strategy for my products. Selling quilts in person is definitely not an option, I’m just too shy for that, but I could do it on line.

For buying while I can afford it, I had in mind “timeless” things like reference books, basic fabrics, classical prints and batiks, fabrics for backing quilts or lining quilted objects, thread in neutral colours, fusible web, rulers, beads, trims, lace, etc. and a software to produce professional-looking marketing material.

To keep current with trends, I have a membership with the American Quilter Association and the Appliqué Society. I also subscribe to Quilter’s Magazine (recognized worldwide as the ultimate authority for quilting news and trends), Fabric Trends and Quilting Challenge.

You’re absolutely right to say that tastes change over time, but don’t you think that we need to make a difference between fads and lasting changes?

For planning, I think of making some quilted projects to serve a dual purpose: 1) as samples to display and 2) as cost evaluation tools. I have never done quilting for profit, so I need to make time sheets now to be able to give an estimate to potential customers.

There are also the many inspiration files I have gleaned, the magazine clippings (articles, patterns, workshops, tips, etc.) that need to be entered in a database for easy retrieval.

Starting costs and cash flow. Since I already have enough stuff to sustain me for up to one year, the only costs will be for marketing. Retirement pension, if spent wisely (please see my questions below) will provide ample ready cash.

Re-reading myself, I realize that it sounds like procrastination. Which brings me to my biggest obstacles in starting a business.

My biggest obstacles: I have been very fortunate to get a multi-disciplinary education, so certain aspects are not a problem for me; furthermore, my sister is an accountant and could help. But, and this is a big but I want to tell you honestly about. 1) although I am very disciplined and well organized at work, I am not disciplined in my personal life – lots of procrastination – and 2) I genuinely love people, I love helping and sharing, but I am basically a loner. 3) I am more of a spender than a saver. I fear that because I’ll be getting a steady income and fringe benefits when I am retired, I won’t take my business seriously. But shall I make it? Terrifying question…

Chuck, you who has met so many people in your business life and have certainly become a good judge of character, what do you think of these obstacles? Do you believe they can be overcome with good incentives? Can you help me with these questions?

Now, about Ottawa.

Ottawa’s nickname is “the fat cats city” because of its well-paid public servants who make up roughly 85% of the population. Ottawa is also home to our Parliament and diplomatic foreign missions.

High income sources are the federal public service and the Hi Tech private sector. Small businesses are plenty and in general operated by members of diverse cultural groups.

Canada prides herself in being a multicultural mosaic. While, as an immigrant, I prefer the American melting pot, I cannot ignore the opportunities cultural diversity can offer. One simple example would be themed-quilts for special occasions and religious holidays.

Quilting in Ottawa: I didn’t research this market yet, but as a buyer I find there aren’t enough quilting shops, and there is only one quilting guild located in the suburb. The Canadian Quilter Association’s Web site doesn’t list quilters from the Ottawa area. There is one annual quilt show that I’ve never visited (I should!).

Even before researching the market, I think there are several “empty spaces” for interested businesspeople. People looking for a unique gift for parents who have everything is but one example.

This is a long e-mail with lots of verbiage; I hope I didn’t bore you too much. Please take what you find useful to you, and thanks for reading me so far.

Regards,

Assia

Whew! There's a lot there, but when I tried to cut the questions down a bit, it seemed to suffer from the translation. So instead, I'll try to address all of the points mentioned in her follow-up.

Hello Assia,

It appears that you are spending a great deal of time preparing yourself, and your introspection is a great way to take a look at what you really want to get out of your business. A lot of times, people start small businesses that become more of a job instead of a fulfilling career. When you take a step back and take a look at yourself, what motivates you, and how you interact with people, you can craft yourself a business that means so much more to you than a job. Especially if you are looking to start in retirement – that's the time when you want to do the things that interest you instead of just “earning a living.”

Since it sounds like you are uncomfortable dealing with large groups of people, there are a number of options open to you beyond going to quilt shows and trying to sell in those crowded, competitive situations. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • Give small quilting classes – There are a lot of people who would enjoy an intimate quilting class where they will get one-on-one time with their instructor, and they would be willing to pay a premium. If positioned correctly, you can go after a number of different markets – beginners, intermediate, advanced, different techniques, etc. Working with local quilt shops or going to guilds is a great way to get started, and you can use the local papers to get some free publicity.
  • Custom quilting service – You mentioned themed quilts for special occasions and holidays. This is a great way to get work in that you commissioned to make the quilt, and would get paid a certain portion (20% – 50%) up front for materials. And, since the quilt will be made specifically for that customer, they will expect to pay a premium.
  • Online quilting sales – Today, it's very easy and quick to get set up for online sales. Etsy.com, eBay, and other sites offer ready-made solutions for web hosting and e-commerce, and most give the added benefit of extra traffic from their large user populations. But, selling traditional quilts is not a very good proposition as the market is over saturated with quilters and cheap knock-offs, and most of these quilts sell for far less than you would need to support a legitimate business. But, there is a sweet spot for quilted items under $100, or probably closer to the $20 – $50 range. These small quilted items – wall hangings, clothing, purses, etc. – if made in interesting themes can do very well.

These are not the only ideas, and there are situations where traditional quilts can do very well, and art quilts from established quilt artists can sell for many thousands of dollars. So, for every rule, there is an exception that will make me look like a fool!

Now, as far as your obstacles…

  • Overcoming Procrastination: One of the most common obstacles to success, procrastination can be a business killer if not tamed. Most people have a tendency to procrastinate on one thing or another, so this is a problem as old as mankind. But the good news is that you are disciplined in your current job. When you are going after a full-time quilting business, that will be your “job” so hopefully the skills you currently use will translate to your new quilting business. In addition, people tend to procrastinate on tasks that they don't enjoy. So, if you can offload some of the tasks you don't enjoy – perhaps accounting and record keeping – you will be more likely to do the things you need without delay. And finally, procrastination can be conquered with the right mindset and tools. You have the time now to go out and find a few books about overcoming procrastination and mastering the techniques before you retire.
  • Loner Mentality: With a genuine love of people, I don't think you'll need to worry about this much. Many people who get into quilting are of an artistic mindset, and during their creative stage, they tend to be a bit of a loner. It helps with the creative process to have time to concentrate on the art. But, that doesn't mean that you need to be locked away at an artist's retreat. I find that when I am genuinely excited about something, I have no trouble whatsoever discussing it with anyone who will listen. And that excitement comes through in my conversations. Excitement about your products or service are much more effective than sales techniques. People will get caught up in your excitement and will want to share it with family and friends.
  • Big Spender: There are a lot of business people who have more money than commitment, and this can cause a business to fail almost as easily as no cash. The reason is that if you have a lot of money to throw at a business, there tends to be less thought in spending. Advertising decisions aren't based on good research and marketing materials are thrown together because you can afford it. I find that if you create a business plan from the start, with good projections for revenue and expenditures, that you'll be much more likely to stick to a budget. Knowing what your cashflow is like, and making sure that you don't just dump more money in when times are tough, means you will have a much better grasp of the health of your business now, and what you can expect in the coming months and years.

Based on your description of Ottawa, it sounds like a great place to start a small quilting business catering to those who have eclectic tastes and don't mind spending for quality handcrafted items. You should spend some time going to some of the trendy shops and talking to the shop owners to see what is selling and what kinds of items sell (and at what prices). This is a great way to do some preliminary research and get ideas for what kind of quilting business you will start.

Overall, it looks like you've thought a lot about starting a quilting business when you retire, and you're doing a lot of the basic groundwork right now. This is a great idea, and with quite a bit of time to start planning and really figure out how you want to move forward, you are on the right road to starting a successful quilting business after you retire. You could probably sum up the steps to success as:

  1. Do some market research on your local arts and crafts scene
  2. Start narrowing down your choices for the type of quilting business you want to start
  3. Talk it over with a few trusted friends and advisors
  4. Spend some time working on a business plan, complete with some revenue and expenditure projections
  5. Develop a market profile – ideal customer, demographics for your area, how to reach these customers, etc.
  6. Start your new quilting business!

One last thing… Determination and perseverance are two of the most important qualities in a small business owner. You have to really want to succeed, and keep going when things get tough. And, you need to block out negativity from other people, especially well-meaning friends and family. If you listen to too many people, you can easily convince yourself that your new business has no chance. But, if you put the time in up front – which you are doing now – and you can convince yourself you have a chance to succeed based on a solid business plan, then you are setting yourself up for success.

Good luck with your new quilting venture,
Chuck

I hope you'll find this exchange helpful if you're wondering whether or not a quilting business is right for you.

Chuck

P.S. Have a quilting business question? I love to get questions, but I'd like to take this opportunity to qualify what types of questions I'm most likely to answer. First, they need to be quilting business questions. QuiltingBusiness.com is a site dedicated to people who want to have a quilting business. So, if you have some general quilting questions, there are plenty of resources online to answer those types of questions. Second, the questions should be very clear, and a single question (or perhaps two) is the best way to get a response in a timely manner.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Trish Wallis Stone May 19, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Thanks for the information! It was definitely inspiring and positive.

Darla Hall October 15, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Having a fulltime job, and looking towards retirement with a new quilting business is something that I have been toying with as well. I own a longarm and have been teaching a few classes. There is money to be made, however I find that the thing I love the best is the people that are associated with quilting. My advise to you would be…start now…before you retire on a very small scale, join a guild, host your own quilt show, start building now, get your name out there and you will know what part of quilting that you enjoy and then move forward. Maybe owning a shop, where you get to spend money in fabric, hiring the right people (sales, bookkeeper, teachers) to help would be ideal. Then you can have fun behind the scenes!

Becky H. October 15, 2009 at 12:46 pm

After reading your anwers to Assia, you have also answered some of mine. I do have one pressing question though. How does one go about getting more training? I have participated in several quilting classes over the years but how can I learn more? I have the basics of quilting, but where can I learn more about calcuating yardage, finding wholesale sources, etc. Thanks in advance.
Becky

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