Today’s biz story is an inspirational one. I would like to introduce you to Flea Market Rx, owned by Hilary Nagler who designs rustic modern home décor and lighting in her Santa Barbara California studio. After working for 20 years in the design business Hilary decided to create what she wanted to see in the market place. Her pieces are inspired by nostalgic utilitarian shapes like vintage bicycle handles, barn fixtures and amazingly – plumming parts.
I whizzed over a few questions to Hilary to drill a little further into her business and her answers are fascinating. Again it’s a long blog post, the longest one ever infact but I didn’t want to shorten it because Hilary’s answers are fascinating and cover so many key points when starting, maintaining and managing a business. Enjoy
What led you to start this new venture of your business?
In late 2011, I was rummaging through drawers of unloved lamp parts at local salvage shop and stumbled upon a gorgeously patinated vintage brass lamp socket, set put to make a light from it and inadvertently found my calling. I had been in the design business for almost 20 years but had never made anything with my own hands. I had been a designer across all disciplines but never crafty, never tinkered. I have no idea where it came from! But the process spoke to me and before I knew it I was making lights out of anything I could drill a hole into.
The business happened by accident, but also necessity. Downsized from a corporate design job, I was selling off my collections in a local vintage shop to raise rent, and then suddenly someone wanted to pay for something I made … I was hooked. I continued to do one of a kind pieces but soon discovered that it wasn’t a sustainable business. Customers and designers came in and wanted 2 or 3 matching fixtures. At the same time I was very disgruntled with the “vintage-inspired” fixtures I saw in the market … inexpensive materials, cheap painted or sprayed faux patina finishes. Dull. Boring. Lifeless. The vintage fixtures I was producing had soul; the patinas were visceral and emotive. I knew there must be a way I could create the authentic vintage feel that was speaking to me and my customers in quantity. So I set out to develop styles, techniques and patinas that could be endlessly replicated and yet each one still feel like a one-of-a-kind vintage find.
I also saw gaps in the hardware and home decor marketplace. I have a very utilitarian approach to design, and a very pragmatic approach to business. Form, function and all that. While its lovely to have purely decorative things in your home, if beautiful things in your home are both beautiful and functional, isn’t that better?! As my own best customer, I set out to produce useful items I wanted in my own home that would solve the same design, storage and function problems everyone has.
What is a typical day like?
One of the things I love about what I’m doing is that there is no typical day, although there is a regular pattern. I wake up to the alarm at 7:30 (someday I hope to have your discipline Abigail and rise at 5AM!;) I make coffee and then crawl back into bed with my laptop to read emails, answer customer service inquiries, browse design blogs and get generally caught up. It feels like stolen private quiet time – my Sunday in the everyday which I have found helps maintain my sanity as I now work 7 days a week.
Then it’s up and shower and at the desk organizing our plan of attack for the day. Depending on the orders at hand, I fluctuate between 1 and 3 part-time employees who come in at 10AM. Our studio is in a mainly residential neighborhood, and although the work we do is not terribly loud, 10AM seems the right hour to maintain a friendly relationship with the night-working bartenders next door. My team comes in and we have systems in place to let them know what materials need to be prepared for all pending orders. As everything we do is majorly labor intensive, handcrafted patinas and such, there are always 1000 little parts that all take many steps before they can be assembled into a finished product – it’s quite a task. They have their marching orders and I work at the computer, pack and ship, fabricate fixtures, answer phone calls, answer emails – whatever is necessary to keep the machine flowing. Everyday is a constant pin ball game of jumping between tasks.
The team usually leaves between 3PM & 4PM and then I have my alone time in the studio fabricating. I love the quiet time in my studio making our products, although you will often hear me say if I never had to make another thing as long as I live, I’d be a happy lady – the work is incredibly labor intensive and it takes a toll on my psyche. But it is what it is for the foreseeable future, and it’s my two hands that are paying the bills, so I work in the studio until I can’t see straight … usually about 9 or 10PM and then I crawl back into bed with the laptop, but now to catch up on my favorite TV shows (although I usually fall asleep 10 minutes in!)
Any hurdles along the way?
To be honest, I’d say it’s mostly hurdles. Whether it be cash flow or the million other things that can go wrong, there is always something to overcome. As I am writing this we are coming up on the one-year anniversary of probably the most important hurdle my company has ever faced – our complete and utter failure of a Kickstarter fundraising campaign. In late summer 2013, my company was doing just fine but just fine wasn’t what I was after – I wanted to blow the doors off. I knew my path was wholesale and I knew I needed to do design trade shows, and the best one for us would be NY NOW, the New York home show in January 2014. Problem is to exhibit at these shows costs an astronomical amount of money – cash we certainly didn’t have.
So we decided to raise funds via Kickstarter and I spent the next couple months making a video (one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done – don’t be fooled by all the pretty videos on Vimeo, it’s not remotely easy), preparing mailing lists, contacting bloggers, and building massive spreadsheets and reaching out to all the people who I thought would run at the chance to give us money to exhibit. Well they didn’t. I’ve never worked at anything harder and yet a few days into the start of the campaign it became abundantly obvious that we were getting ZERO traction. I consulted an expert in the field and she said “right message, wrong medium … everyone is wondering why you don’t just take out a loan?”. WELL I WOULD IF I COULD! UHG.
Another of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was admit failure. But I canceled the campaign and regrouped and in less than 24 hours we had another strategy to get us to New York. And that gumption and malleability and resolve paid off – we went to New York and I landed major retailers and the biggest “gets” on our list – Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, The Pendleton Catalog, HD Buttercup, etc. I could tell the tale of 10 more major hurdles that we have crossed in the last year but I don’t want to bore. The bottom line is for every victory there are many hurdles. I firmly believe it is not the victories that define your future; it is the ability to face obstacles and turn them into opportunities that dictates whether you will be a success or a failure in the long haul.
How do you get your work seen by customers and retailers is it via tradeshows or advertising?
We sell both retail and wholesale so that requires different methods of marketing, but with limited financial resources (we are the very definition of a bootstrap company), it’s a long hard road to get “seen”. It takes time, personnel and cash to do it all, and being very limited in all of those, I pick and choose where to invest our time and marketing dollars very carefully.We started out on the retail side selling on Etsy and at major craft shows like Renegade. We grew into wholesale slowly selling through online flash sites, exhibiting at smaller regional trade shows and then only this last year took the full plunge into wholesale, exhibiting at NY NOW, a major international home trade show that takes place in New York twice a year.
While we still also sell through Etsy (you can’t beat it for traffic – it’s how many of our customers still find us), we’ve stopped doing craft shows (too time intensive for the return), and we’ve added our own proprietary retail and wholesale websites. I also try to be very active on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, all of which drive traffic to our site. Everything really goes back to cash flow. For us, selling retail online keeps the cash flowing. As a manufacturer when we sell directly to the customer, we make the entire nugget, so it’s very lucrative. However, the cost of acquiring each of those customers is very high. Because of the nature of our business, while customers may love our brand and our products, they most likely only have the need to purchase our products once. Therefore I think the marketing dollars we put towards trade shows are more productive – we can get exposure to hundreds of highly qualified large companies and smaller retailers from all over the world who order and then (most importantly) reorder and reorder and reorder, all from that one initial tradeshow investment.
I recently enlisted the help of a marketing and public relations gal to reach out to bloggers and magazines – I tried to handle this myself but there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Increased exposure in the press will mean an increase in direct to customer retail revenue, which means the more wholesale tradeshows I can afford to do, which will increase revenue for the business in a larger meaningful way and create long-term growth. It’s all connected (and a little bit exhausting to piece together)!
Any tips for people starting out?
To coin one of my favorite expressions … it’s not all butterflies and unicorns. Building business is hard, perhaps one of the hardest thing any of us will ever do. There is never enough money; there is never enough time. Victories are fleeting and the obstacles are many. But it’s also one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do! So go forth with gusto. I think entrepreneurs are by their very nature very demanding of themselves which is what gives them a competitive edge, but it’s also important to step back, take realistic stock, and realize you are human. I spend a few moments every day forgiving myself for all the things I want to do that I simply haven’t had time to accomplish. I’ll get there. Maybe not as fast as I would have liked, everything takes much longer than I think it should, but I’ll get there. Forgiving yourself is major.
Another major thing is that you have to be honest with friends, family and loved ones about who you are, what you want and what you are doing. It would be lovely if we could make everyone happy all of the time but we can’t. But if you are honest about what you have to give, then expectations are set and you don’t have to feel guilty which is just an emotional drain you don’t need. At this point in time, I am 100% committed to my future and that means growing my business. Thankfully, long-term boyfriend and I have been on the same page since day one – both of us are entrepreneurs and deeply committed to our creative endeavors. We respect each other and are totally honest about the limited time we have for each other. And its okay. It’s okay because we share in each other’s triumphs and failures and hold each other up when needed and support each other completely. And when we are together we make it count. Without that mutual honesty and understanding, a relationship just wouldn’t be possible. Everyone may not agree that my tunnel vision is healthy, but I am doing what I love and it’s all I want to be doing right now. As long as the important people in my life understand that and are okay with it, everyone wins.
Other than that my advice is to laugh a lot and don’t take yourself too seriously (I’m a very goofy person and it’s what keeps me sane). Surround yourself with inspiring positive people – I personally have no time for drama or negativity – the faster you take that off the menu, the more successful you’ll be. Drink lots of wine. Drink lots of fresh green juice (my new obsession). I am so busy I often forget to eat – but it’s important to stay healthy, your body and brain need the energy to make it through to the finish line (wherever that may be!;) Read everything you can about being an entrepreneur … not the self-help books but the real nitty gritty case study rich biographies by people who have done it and have been where you are now (Abigail posted a perfect reading list the other day). Never stop learning. And it may sound cliche, but above all be authentic and be nice to people – I swear it’s the secret to my success.
Keep at it! I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of where Flea Market Rx can go. In the short term, we have tons of work to do even getting in front of retailers. The tiniest fraction of the possible market knows we exist, so the immediate goal is to keep driving revenue to increase cash flow to be able to implement all the strategies I have for growth. And in the meantime, I have an entire sketchbook of product ideas that need to make it from the page to prototype to photography, and then out into the world.
We are also trying to become more of a content company to enrich the retail side of the business. With more and more press outlets requiring cash for coverage, or “pay for play” as the industry calls it, we are reigning in the content to be less reliant on outside media and trying to create compelling content to flush out our blog and social media to organically drive press coverage – to be honest rather overwhelming for those of us who never set out to write or blog or document our process. But it’s all very exciting and challenging and that’s the fun of it all. If I knew how to do everything, my life would be boring!
In all facets of the business, as Steve Martin once wisely put it, we are trying to be so good they can’t ignore us!
Thank you so much Hilary for taking the time to answer in such depth my questions. I wish your business the hugest success!
Discover Flea Market RX online: