Hot! Wendy Downs, Moop

Moop, launched in March 2007 in Pittsburgh, sells handmade canvas bags for men, women and kids.

‘Ah ha’ moment that led to launching the business: I wouldn’t say I’ve ever recognized an ‘Ah ha’ moment when it was happening – and I think its generally more of a process than a moment and also something that is only recognized in retrospect. There have been steps along the way that I would consider pivotal, such as first the decision to quit my job and work on Moop full time – or the decision for my husband to do the same and join me full time. Both decisions needed to be made before we could be sure they would work, but at the same time, were chances that needed to be taken. I think it is the trust and confidence in what you are doing at these times that are the ‘Ah ha’ moments.

Landing your first customer: I was just out of graduate school (MFA) and my sister-in-law was in town visiting – she suggested I check it out a site called Etsy (Etsy was just a year old at that point). The day she left I set up shop. Within a few days I had our very first bag listed and two days later it sold to someone in Australia. I was instantly hooked by the thrill of the sale. I made another bag, listed it and it sold, too. Within a few weeks I had managed to make and sell a bag every few days. Within a few months I had quit my full time day job, hired an assistant and was taking on the endeavor full time. A year later we launched the Moop website.

Measuring success: Day by day I measure my success. Did I enjoy my day? Yes. Success. Did I accomplish things today? Yes. Success. Do I get to work with amazing talented people? Yes. Success. Have I built a business from scratch that I’m completely proud of? Yes. Success. Am I supporting my family from the business that I built from scratch? Yes. Success. Will I be happy doing what I’m doing in 10 years? Five years? One year? I hope so. Success.

Biggest struggle: Production. When I began I made every bag upon order. I learned a lot about construction, pattern making and sourcing materials but it meant I always had a three week backlog of orders and could never ever get out from under it. That begins to wear on you mentally and physically. I operated this way for the first two years. I cried a lot. Then, we changed production methods and slowly began building up a stock of bags. It took us almost a year to do it, but we now have a full stock room of every style. So rather than sewing to fill orders, we are sewing to keep the stock room stocked. This has meant I went from working 12-15 hour days, seven days a week to working nine-hour days, five days a week. I am much happier.

Surprise!: My customers. They have sent me the most heartfelt emails, letters, photos, presents and praises about how much they love their bags. How their bag has made their life so much easier because it is organized, not bogged down with unnecessary “stuff”, durable and stylish. Many of my customers are busy working women and many more are working moms (every mom is a working mom). If something as seemingly insignificant as a canvas bag can make the life of a busy person that much better, then I feel like I’ve accomplished something. It’s deeply satisfying to know that our bags are being used by such hard working people.

Promoting Sales: We reach out to bloggers who are just like us: regular people doing interesting things and talking about it on the internet. A recommendation from a blogger is like having your best friend tell you about some new thing they tried or liked or want. It’s an important part of our business.

What you wish you would have known: I am the type of person who when told not to do something, will go and do it: sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I find that’s the only real way to find out what is really possible.

What keeps you up at night (business wise!)?: Taxes. As your business grows, so does the complexity of taxes. I feel we are constantly paying taxes – monthly, quarterly and yearly. If you miss payments, forget about some municipality tax, or pay the wrong amount at the wrong time or whatever, you end up with hefty fines and fees. It gets expensive and causes a lot of stress. For years we were trying to do all of this ourselves and it meant we spent many sleepless, anxiety-filled nights fretting about what, when and how much we owed. I recently hired an accountant and he’s been incredible at helping us get everything in order. We’ve turned a lot of things over to him because it is his area of expertise.

Ever tempted to throw in the towel and just get a job?: Sure, I think any small business owner has. It’s during those lean times or overwhelming times or difficult times that you most need perspective to learn from where you are. I have found the best way to make it through those moments is to take a step away from the day-to-day. Take a day off and spend it doing something for yourself. If you come back to the business and you still feel like you don’t want to move forward, then it’s time to move on. But, if you’re really passionate about what you do, then you likely have been neglecting yourself or the very things that led you to begin your business in the first place.

Pricing: It took me awhile to price our product properly and a lot of it came from a lack of confidence in how good our product really is. Once I gained that confidence, pricing became easier. I follow basic rules of pricing: add your materials, labor (very important to determine your hourly wage…you didn’t start a business to work for peanuts), overhead (things like studio rent, equipment, shipping supplies, etc), add in a little bit extra for the everything else that comes up (including production errors) and then decide what you need or want to make from each item.

Funding: Moop has been entirely self-funded. I’ve invested a lot of sweat equity into what I’m doing and for years invested every dollar back into the business. We’re now running profitably and hope to continue to as we grow. My philosophy is: if you don’t have the money to spend, you shouldn’t spend it. Perhaps it means our growth is slower than that of someone who takes on a large amount of loans or venture capital, but it means we’re growing at a rate we can successfully manage and we’re always profitable.

A few good tips: Get to know the community you’re a part of. We’re deeply invested in the handmade, independent design community on the internet. E-commerce relies on a network of people working similarly. We tell our story and day-to-day whatnots on our blog (moopshop.blogspot.com) and try to promote others whose work, lifestyles or studio practices we admire.

Must-read online source in your industry: Inc. magazine. I’m a growing business and I love to learn from those who have more experience than me. I admire the stories of many of the companies they profile and would love to one day myself be featured there.

The absolute best part of owning my business is: working in a creative environment daily.

If I had to start over again, I would: hired an accountant from day one.

I never imagined: taxes would be so difficult.

If standing on a rooftop facing crowds of aspiring or struggling small business owners, I would shout: “Do what you love!”

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