6 American Designers on How They Grew Their Business (Hint: They Had Help)

When people ask us to talk about the rise of American design in the past decade, we always describe it the same way: Fifteen years ago, designers had to beg European producers like Cappellini to make and sell their work, but ten years ago, they became empowered enough to do it themselves. That shift gave them a newfound independence that allowed for creative risk-taking and greater financial control, but it also came with a major challenge — it required them to be not just great designers but also great entrepreneurs, with the ability to manage production, sales, and distribution, all while building a brand. For today’s post, we asked six successful independent designers to share some of the strategies and lessons that helped them grow their businesses, starting with the obvious: How to find customers.

These six designers had a little help in that department — they’re all participants in the two-year-old West Elm LOCAL program, through which makers are invited to sell work at their neighborhood West Elm store and, if they’re lucky, on the brand’s website as well. For Eric Trine, the program drives about 40% of his annual sales; for Julia Kostreva, it let her branch out into new mediums. Read their advice below on what to do — and what not to do — to increase sales, then beeline for West Elm’s LOCAL portal, where you can shop this story, get more specialized business advice, and email the company directly to register your interest in having it stock your work. Make sure to say Sight Unseen sent you!

Eric Trine

Worked by HYRod Perf Side Table by Eric Trine, $199-299Worked by HYOctohedron Plant Holder by Eric Trine, $55

Furniture designer Eric Trine was one of West Elm LOCAL‘s first recruits, after his Instagram account was discovered by an L.A. store manager in early 2014. “Things really kicked into high gear that fall when West Elm launched the online component of LOCAL — they were able to put in really large orders, which now accounts for about 60% of my unit volume, and 40% of my sales per year. Huge.”

Favorite West Elm Toolkit resource: “There are a lot of great tips in the article 8 Things You Need to Know Before Collaborating with a Brand. I would just add: Making decisions that support the life of your business. For creatives/makers/designers, the ‘life’ of your business is the stuff you make, and the success of your business will be dependent, first and foremost, on the stuff you make. If your stuff sucks, no one is going to want it, and you’re going to have a hard time sustaining a business. Make good stuff, make better stuff next year, and in 20 years you should be making your best stuff. Line up your business strategy so that you can make your best stuff in 20 years.”

Smartest move he made to increase sales: “Shows and social media. By shows I mean trade shows, design shows, pop-ups, events, open studios — any opportunity to show the actual physical stuff you make to actual real-life people. Then follow up with social media — IT’S FREE! Take better photos, post the kind of content you want to see, and serve it up consistently.”

Biggest mistake, and what others can learn from it: “Lead times. Your lead times may be reasonable for making 5 items, but how about 50? Or 500? You can’t sustain a business with lead times that cause you to pull all-nighters to fulfill orders. Running a business isn’t like a final exam in college. It’s about developing an ongoing relationship. West Elm is a brand, but you’re a brand too — don’t forget that. Build your brand.”

Dream house for his designs: “Anything modern in Palm Springs.”

Alexandra Gray Bennett and Jocelin Johnson of Louise Gray

NewQuilt No. 2 by Louise Gray, $395NewQuilt No. 1 by Louise Gray, $425

West Elm discovered quilt company Louise Gray at the NY NOW trade show in New York last year, shortly after the brand launched. “At Louise Gray, we believe consumers should have a choice when it comes to where their home goods are manufactured,” write the duo behind it. “Textiles continue to be manufactured overseas, and we’re excited to be part of the movement to change that. Each of our quilts is handcrafted in Minneapolis by local artisans. West Elm LOCAL has been paramount in helping to increase our exposure and expand our customer base.”

Favorite West Elm Toolkit resource:Why Small Businesses Are Supporting American Manufacturing. Don’t underestimate the impact you can have as a small business owner.  Many people are surprised to learn that small businesses are responsible for creating 2 out of every 3 new jobs in the U.S. each year.”

Smartest move they made to increase sales: “Understanding the power of social media. It allows consumers to feel connected to our brand and what we are interested in, beyond the world of quilting.”

Biggest mistake, and what others can learn from it: “Taxes. Don’t underestimate them.”

Dream house for their designs: “Anything by Vincent Van Dusen.”

Alyson Fox

WestElm_AlysonFox1Blue Quilt 1 print by Alyson Fox, $129NewWarm + Cool Photo Set by Alyson Fox, $239

Artist and illustrator Alyson Fox first worked with West Elm designing holiday prints for the brand, then kept in touch. “When they started LOCAL I knew I wanted to be involved because of how well they communicate with their designers and genuinely want to help them grow their own brand,” she says. “The experience has made me a more confident designer, a better communicator, and more driven overall.”

Favorite West Elm Toolkit resource: “For me, the social media post is calling to me most right now because I really struggle with it. I’m a private person, so it’s hard for me to make sense of it all. I over-think things.”

Smartest move she made to increase sales: “Adding an online store to my site. People like to visit the websites of designers they connect with. They also like to buy direct.”

Biggest mistake, and what others can learn from it: “Don’t do too much at first. Starting out with a few things is better to get your grounding and get a feel for your momentum and customer. Also, often times my favorite pattern, drawing, or design is the one that doesn’t sell that well. Learn from that, but keep making what you love most with every collection, because then you’ll stay inspired.”

Dream house for her designs: “A house that you walked into and knew it was well loved and lived in. It’s the vibe that makes a house for me.”

Haley Ann Robinson

Sent to WIPGeobil Wall Hangings by Haley Ann Robinson, $80 each Sent to WIPGeobil Wall Hangings by Haley Ann Robinson, $80 each

West Elm reached out to graphic designer, product designer, and ceramicist Haley Ann Robinson a few years back. Their ensuing relationship allowed her “to quit my design job and pursue my craft full-time,” she says. “I’ve been thrown into this new category of making and producing and keeping track of orders, it’s a totally different ball game, but I’ve learned so much about myself and how to talk about my work.”

Favorite West Elm Toolkit resource:10 Legal Mistakes Makers Don’t Want to Make. Being a one-woman team and not having any legal experience whatsoever is a scary position to be in. You need to make sure you’re protecting yourself and your brand from the many legal battles all makers have a chance of encountering. You learn very quickly that contracts are what make businesses survive, and it’s heartbreaking when you learn the hard way.”

Smartest move she made to increase sales: “Working with other talented individuals has pushed my work to new horizons. Collaboration and creative relationships are really important to me. It’s fun to step into a different role, and being able to say yes to new projects is constantly teaching me more about what it is I love doing.”

Biggest mistake, and what others can learn from it: “Proper documentation of sales. Just recently I accidentally wrote down an order number wrong, and it fell through the cracks. The poor buyer waited two months for their order. Since then I’ve been keeping a digital spreadsheet of when orders are placed, when they ship out, and when I invoice. It’s a mistake I’ll only make once.”

Dream house for her designs: “I’m so thankful for the opportunity to have my work in each and every total strangers’ house.”

Julia Kostreva

WestElm_Kostreva4Wall Art – Citrus Abstract by Julia Kostreva, $149
WestElm_Kostreva5Wall Art – Lake by Julia Kostreva, $139-189

Julia Kostreva was a graphic designer with an Etsy store — where she sold personal side projects like planners and notebooks — when West Elm contacted her out of the blue and invited her to sell at LOCAL event in San Francisco. “It’s been an amazing experience working with West Elm LOCAL to experiment with other types of design, like transforming my sumi ink paintings into wall art,” she says.

Favorite West Elm Toolkit resource: “I’d recommend Sarah Coffey’s 10 Tips for Building a Cause-Based Business. What she says is so true. I’m slowly sharpening how I can produce my new product ideas in an intentional way, with integrity. I work with sustainable paper mills, family-owned businesses, and artisan printers in the U.S. to produce my notebook and planner designs. Growing slowly over the years, refining your purpose, trimming the excess non-profitable pursuits, managing your numbers, and nurturing the good from the core means your story and your actions will be true to yourself and to your business. Growth will follow naturally.”

Smartest move she made to increase sales: “I focus on making products that I love, and over time, connect with people who have similar interests on social media to help bring traffic to my site. Every year I try something a little different with my designs, in order to grow. The more you try, and the more you share with people online or in person, the more conversations continue. Over time it snowballs.”

Biggest mistake, and what others can learn from it: “In my first year of business I was shipping everything myself, and it was exhausting! Now I try to only put out there what’s easily manageable by myself and my part-time shop manager, automating as much as possible with a remote warehouse connected to my Shopify. I also don’t do drop-shipping or consignment anymore, because it’s too many systems to keep track of.”

Dream house for her designs: “I imagine a brick townhouse with ivy or bougainvillea growing above a colored doorway, with beautiful windows and light, concrete floors, and Moroccan and sisal rugs.”

Melissa Tolar and Jonathan Ballak of A Question of Eagles

WestElm_Question2Carved Horizon planters by A Question of Eagles, $35WestElm_Question1Satin Black planter by A Question of Eagles, $35

The curiously named Los Angeles ceramics and quilting duo A Question of Eagles were also spontaneously recruited by West Elm. “They really respect our vision, and as their program has grown, we’ve grown with it,” they write. “Now that we’re also part of the online collection, it’s been awesome to see our pieces reach people all across the U.S.”

Favorite West Elm Toolkit resource: “Melyssa Griffin’s post about social media is spot-on. A strong and coherent social media presence has been really important to us.”

Smartest move they made to increase sales: “Promoting our work with beautiful photography across social media was (and is) crucial. Many of our current stockists discovered us through Instagram, and we still continue to get new accounts that way.”

Biggest mistake, and what others can learn from it: “The first year we did a bunch of markets and fairs, and not all ended up being a good fit for us. We would advise others to choose carefully which to participate in. When all the ingredients are right they can be elating, and can genuinely help your business grow, but when the chemistry is wrong it can be really frustrating and a waste of time and resources.”

Dream house for their designs: “The Eames House meets the Henry Miller Library.”

This post is sponsored by West Elm. Like everything at Sight Unseen, our partner content is carefully curated to make sure it’s of the utmost relevance to our readers.