From aspiring anesthesiologist to small-business superstar, Sarah Parker’s transition to successful self-employment came as a surprise — even to her. Sarah and her husband Ryan run Milk and Honey Luxuries, crafting stamped silverware, etched glass pieces and artisanal cutting boards from their home in Richmond, Virginia. While pursuing her undergraduate degree, she created an Etsy shop to share her side projects and quickly found she had a knack for business development. “I was finding more joy in even the most mundane shop tasks than I was in my most exciting dissection labs.”
Though switching gears was initially daunting, the shop’s growing success made the transition inevitable. “It was my first Christmas season, when I was up all night filling orders and rushing out the door the next morning to make it to a lecture on time when I knew I had to come clean.” With Ryan on board, Sarah soon began managing her shop full time.
Not long after, the two faced another tough choice — Ryan was considering leaving his full-time job to join the Milk and Honey team. “We spent months planning and discussing logistics like health insurance, saving for retirement and hiring an accountant,” says Sarah. “We were heading into unknown territory and wanted to be sure that we’d taken care of anything that we could actually control.”
'I'll never forget the first week of him being with me full time. We kept looking over at each other and breaking into the biggest grins like, 'Can you believe this is happening?'"
As they head into 2014 more successful than ever, it's clear their diligence has paid off. Read on for the dynamic duo's insights on work-life balance, building out product lines and dipping a toe into the wholesale waters.
Have your goals for your business evolved since you opened your shop?
Surprisingly, not much has changed in terms of my business goals. I always wanted to create a brand that represented simple, attainable luxuries. I wanted to create products that make life’s little moments feel indulgent and special. We’re doing that on a much larger scale now than back in 2011, but the only difference is the number of hours worked, and the number of hands working — now our four instead of my two.
For us, growing our business isn’t about hiring a workforce to triple output; it’s about broadening brand recognition through exciting partnerships and collaborations. Right now, that is with the Etsy + Nordstrom relationship. We’ll be expanding that partnership exponentially in the coming months, but it will still be Ryan smoothing each maple board and me polishing every silver spoon.
How do you balance a family with two kids and managing your business?
Balance, elusive balance! I’ve wrung myself in knots looking for balance this year. Finding it was my lofty New Year's resolution, and here we are in November and I still haven’t fully found it. I’ve made definite progress, though, and Ryan joining the company was a huge factor in that.
My biggest challenge was mommy guilt — this feeling of needing to be all things to all people. I finally had to let go of that. I had to realize that our children would survive even if I couldn’t drive the carpool every morning or chaperone every field trip. And also that my customers would understand if I didn’t answer emails during weekend family time.
Any advice you would give a seller trying to balance family life with building their Etsy shop?
Decide what boundaries work for you. There needs to be some clear-cut time that is just for work and time that is just for family — a distinction that’s hard to make when you work from home. Mommy guilt is a powerful beast.
If it’s 3:00 pm on a work day and the kids want you to take them to the park, remind yourself that if you were at a 9-to-5 day job you wouldn’t be able to drop everything and go to the park. If you’re at the park on a Saturday afternoon with your kids and can’t help but check your phone when you hear that lovely “cha-ching” sound, perhaps just put it on silent for the afternoon. Work will be there Monday morning.
There will be exceptions to this on both sides, and you may never find true balance; but as long as you’re actively seeking it there’s a good chance you are doing okay.
What's your process like for experimenting with new products?
One of the great things about being a small business on Etsy is that there is a freedom to run with an idea that larger businesses might not have. If something pops into my head and I follow that creative urge, I can have a new product available to shoppers within a day. If it doesn’t sell or fit with the brand, my only loss is a minimal listing fee. A product that doesn’t sell could end up being the jumping off point to another product that ends up becoming a best seller.
How did you know you were ready to start selling wholesale?
I didn’t know if I was ready or not, so I started really small. My first few clients were privately-owned boutiques that placed small orders. Once I got my feet wet, I turned to the Etsy forums to read everything I could find about wholesale, especially the terminology used by larger companies.
Can you tell us about your work with Nordstrom?
Collaborating with Nordstrom has been exhilarating and surreal at the same time. I think the most surprising thing about it has been the camaraderie that’s developed — when we talk and email, you would think you’re talking to another Etsy shop owner. They’re very accommodating to our needs as a two-person business with long lead times, and always check in to be sure they aren’t overwhelming us.
What's important to consider for sellers looking to expand their retail presence offline?
- Price it right. Do you have prices set so that you can give a wholesale discount without undervaluing your work?
- Don’t procrastinate. Look at your PO and break it up into chunks each day. For especially large orders, allow at least a full day for the packaging after you’ve completed the items. There's nothing worse than feeling rushed when you are creating something by hand.
- Allow extra time for the unexpected. There will always be surprises. When Ryan and I finished our huge order for the Nordstrom At Home collection this fall, the freight company came to pick up the cartons only to find out that they could not make it down our tree-lined street in their 18-wheeler. Who would have thought about that? Now we build in a cushion day for curveballs.
- Start with a craft show. We have made so many wholesale contacts at shows. Do as many craft shows as you have time for. We do about two a year and it is invaluable for meeting local boutiques looking for new products to sell.
Any advice you'd like to share with new sellers on Etsy?
- Think like a business from day one. Before I opened my Etsy store, I registered my name with the state LLC board, opened business checking and savings accounts and ordered business cards. I didn’t think at the time that this would ever be my full-time job, but I did know that if I was going to sell on Etsy, I was going to do it fully.
- Reinvest. In those early months, every last cent I made was directed right back into the business. There were many times where that extra money would have helped our household tremendously, but I was adamant that by investing in my business the return would be greater in the long run. By doing this I was able to buy better supplies and raw materials, which in turn made a better product.
- Become a voracious reader. Especially in the beginning, but even now I read every word I can find that pertains to this career — whether that's from marketing blogs, SEO teams on Etsy or autobiographies of business people I admire.
- Remember that what doesn’t bend, breaks. Changes are inevitable, whether within the economy, the Etsy platform or even your life circumstances. You don’t have to embrace the changes, but it’s easier to weather them if you examine how your business might be affected and take proactive measures.
When Ryan joined me full time, it was an exciting and massive change for our household. Even typical marital roles changed, as now it is Ryan carpooling the children and cooking our dinners so that I can get ahead on stamping orders. By being proactive instead of reactive, we both feel much more in control of the situation.