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The journey towards home in Tokyo, Japan

The Right Strategy for Your Business

Strategy can be a bit of a scary word, I am told. 

It sounds ‘businessy’, probably not creative, possibly not relevant, and certainly daunting. It is one of those words which creative marketing people (such as yours truly) and less comprehensible business die-hards and textbooks bandy around. It has the air of the unachievable about it for most mere mortals, and is much, much easier just not to think about.

Not so! I view strategy as simply taking stock, taking control and making do-able goals for your business – in short, knowing where you are going. And the good thing about strategies is that they get you from A to B, step by step, how you want to do it. Oh, and it’s actually quite easy…

So, in this post, I will take you through how to define a strategy (or approach) for your business, that will underpin everything you do and how your customers or clients see you. This year, I am sure you have promised yourself, is the year you will make the business work, move it forward, and see the financial rewards.

Let’s get started.

What is a strategy?

There are different types of strategies, but they all aim to be solutions to existing problems and overcome challenges in the business. They are an approach for you to follow. They can be specific to functions of your business – perhaps distribution, marketing, sales, social media and so on. This is so that you can really focus on each area, come up with a way to manage it, and then follow it.

Also, the good thing about strategy is that it helps you be competitive in your direction. What this means is that you do well, if not better, compared to your competitors, and see sustainable profit and business growth as a result. In real speak, this means you can keep making and creating and designing and earn a living from it, plus branch into areas you want to go into because your customers or clients or buyers get it and want to come with you. For this, you first need clarity about how you want to operate – your business direction.

Overall, there are three main ways that you can operate, compete and grow as a creative business, whether it is fashion, ceramics, interior design or sculpture. Porter[1], in 1985, presented these as Cost, Differentiation, and Focus (or Niche, as I call it) Strategies. I mention this here, because I believe this knowledge about the direction of your own business will help clarify the next steps of developing individual function strategies. Many businesses I work feel they need this clarity to do this.

Which business strategy (approach or direction) to adopt

Cost strategy businesses operate on a low-cost (not necessarily low price) basis. They drive and keep all costs down, and produce products or service that can compete on price and/or large volumes and availability. Hard to do in a crisis-stricken economy and, as we tragically saw in Bangladesh, hard to do ethically. This isn’t for exclusive, high-end or quality orientated businesses – the main goal with these businesses is keeping costs low and mass production, quality is less of an issue.

A differentiation business is literally different, they innovative their product or service in some way. They have an added value, a unique benefit or feature perceived by the customer who is willing to pay a premium for this – they can’t get it elsewhere. The business can be more original, exclusive, more quality or luxury focussed, their offers aren’t available everywhere, but perhaps in selective outlets or bespoke and one-offs. Quality brings with it higher costs for the business, but be mindful that small designers’ higher sale prices can be undercut by better known and larger scale competition.

Lastly, a focus strategy business, or a niche business. This is where a designer or maker spots a narrow gap in the market and targets it. Products and services are developed for this new area – it might be a specific product like ties and pocket-squares, or interior floor tiles only, or a specific type of customer – over 60’s only, or babies. All the marketing of the business will be targeted to this particular customer or client segment.

How to work with Porter’s strategies

Obviously, the three different strategies above need to produce and market their offers in different ways, in different volumes and to different customers. The creative businesses I work with tend to fall into the latter two camps. I think as a creative business you have to offer something different or specialised – the high street is full of mass-market ‘me-too’ products. You need to stand out to gain awareness and build custom.

So, if you are a differentiation strategy business, exploit it! Know your market and customer, and be clear that the work you are producing is always unique and original, high quality and higher-priced, and build a brand identity around this. This business will be more selective in distribution, or even exclusive to one or two outlets.

Or are you a focus strategy business (niche)? Where perhaps you have a limited and very specialised product range or demographic, and push and promote this. You need to know your customer well, and target all your energies onto reaching them and not dilute this specific approach by moving into other products which might also suit other people. The costs here will also be higher, as your production runs may be smaller. But try it, stick to your guns and develop it as you go. And make sure you market and promote the product or service’s features.

Strategies to address business problems

Once you have decided what type of business you are (i.e. differentiation or niche), you then start to build individual function strategies, as mentioned before, from this. At this point of discussion with a client, I usually mention the five steps of strategy: you start with an external analysis, then an internal audit (yes, you’ve already done this!), before beginning to map out your function strategies for marketing or sales etc, then implementing them, and then, lastly, reviewing and monitoring.

If you want to be super-rigorous and do an external analysis, then this is a market, competitor, and economic review. But I think this level of depth is best left to the professionals, rather than hard working small businesses and entrepreneurs.

What I recommend you do instead is browse online and in the shops, see what other makers/designers are producing, how much they are charging for it, and how widespread they are selling it. Note whether stores are having lots of sales (i.e. consumers not buying full price products). Have an awareness of trends and shifts within your specialism, opportunities that may be developing, and likewise, areas that interest is dying off in. This way you can take the market’s temperature easily.

From the business review we looked at over the last two blog posts Taking Stock of Sales and Costs and Reviewing Your Business, you have – and congratulations once again – thoroughly got to grips with your own business, its strengths and weaknesses and areas for development. Armed with this, and your new market knowledge, you now know the areas you need to tackle, refine and improve internally. You also know the trends, gaps and opportunities that are out there, and what to avoid. Next, all you need to do, one step at a time, is develop your strategies.

I think that for businesses at your stage and scale, generally this will fall into distribution and sales, marketing, and social media strategies, and I will cover these in my forthcoming posts.

For your creative business, these are your next steps.

In my next post Creative Planning – Next Steps 4: Easy Distribution Strategy, I will guide you through different approaches to how and where you sell your work.

If you have any questions after reading this, or would like me to work with you on your creative business, then feel free to email me on hallandco@outlook.com, or drop a comment on the blog.


[1] Michael Porter’s ‘Three Generic Strategies’ in Competitive Advantage: Creating and sustaining superior performance, 2004, Free Press

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Flower market stall in Bangkok, Thailand

Reviewing Your Business

I am sure your business and sales will fluctuate with the seasons (and the British weather). Most of the creative clients I work rush through autumn, in a manic flurry of making and promoting for the pre-Christmas gift market, to then find spring slow; buyers and clients are less willing to spend money. It can be hard to be positive when sales are thin on the ground. However, this down-time is ideal for planning!

But the outlook isn’t bleak! No! This year you are focusing and streamlining and moving the business forward. Like many of my clients you are probably using this period as reviewing or thinking time. And my Creative Planning – Next Steps blog series can help guide you.

So, last time, in Taking Stock of Sales and Costs we looked at your Revenue Streams and Cost Structures and now, tax return behind you, you are on top of the financial side of your business! Let’s continue to review the other areas of your business. This post will now help you audit all of your business and develop action points. But do refer back to my last post if you need to.

If you have armed yourself once again with the Business Model Canvas[1], Post-it notes, pens and a cup of tea, I will take you through what to review and some action points for you below, step by step.

How to fix your business problems

Customer Segments

You may have different groups of customers/buyers with different needs and relationships (more on the latter later). Some will be more or less profitable and price sensitive. Different segments may have differing distribution channels – where and how you sell. You may have distinct product or service offers for distinct groups e.g. private commissions vs. trade or retail.

Action point: Consider how you can cut back time, investment, and involvement on the less profitable and reach more profitable customers – you may need to put some customers or types of work on hold for now if they are not earning their keep. Plus, is there any way you can reduce your time and money on the profitable customers throughout all your activities without it being apparent?

Value Proposition

This is where you offer something different that the customer wants, your unique mix of elements catering to meeting their needs. This can be price based, or speed/ease of service, or design – perhaps the originality (or breadth) of your creative process or finished piece(s), or the customer experience of your offer.

Action point: Is there a part of your offer that deep down you know isn’t quite good or original enough, or needs a refresh or update? Is there a new feature or innovation that you want to build in? Do you know if your customers would want this? Try honing your offer, but ensure through some research that it is actually desired and also doesn’t dilute the brand or confuse the customer!

Channels (of Distribution, Marketing, and Sales)

As mentioned before, this is how and where you sell your offer to your customers, clients and buyers. You may sell directly to the end customer through your own website, stall or shop, or you may do this indirectly through other retailers, online or offline, or wholesalers. You may also have individual clients.

Action point: Do you have too many channels, stockists, marketing bumpff or not enough? Is it all manageable or taking up too much of your time for not enough profit? Do you need to simplify, or to improve your efficiency with each one? Perhaps wind down your involvement with less profitable and lower commission channels if your sales and income aren’t great.

Customer Relationships

This is where and how you acquire new customers and retain existing ones, encouraging them to buy again (and again) from you. Some customers you will invest more time in because they are, or you hope they will become, more profitable such as a new bespoke or trade client or a new department store buyer. Depending on how you sell to each group of customers, you may need to offer different service levels to each.

Action point: Consider each group of (or individual, if bespoke) customer. How can you better manage your time with them? Should you pull back from less profitable ones, and seek out new customers instead, and do you have time for this? Can you nurture the slower or lapsed customers to buy from you again – are they worth keeping.  How can your best customers be encouraged to buy more? Pareto deemed that 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your customers, so cull and spend time wisely!

Key Resources

These are the ‘assets’ that you need and use to create, distribute and reach your customers. These might be physical resources such as machinery, packaging, kit and stock, or intellectual such as your brand identity, copyright and licensing agreements, plus technological such as your website, e-commerce and social media platforms. There are also human resources – you, your co-director, your staff or ad-hoc freelancers. Lastly, there are your financial resources such as investment, grant funding, cash, capital, reserves and buffers, and credit. Without all of the above you would not be able to produce your work.

Action point: Is your money tied up unnecessarily in any of these? Can you sell or hire out your machinery or space? Can you re-work your existing stock and packaging rather than expend on new? Is your website hosting and transaction process cost effective for you? Can you afford to take on freelance staff to help you increase your productivity? Where can you secure additional funding from? Streamline those that are eating up your cash or capital and put on hold what you can to build up reserves.

Key Activities

The actions and functions that your business takes to operate successfully to create, distribute to, and reach customers. So, for example, design, production, distribution, marketing, PR, IT, plus outside teaching or consultancy, and networking etc.

Action point: Similar to key resources, what functions and activities can you trim or pull back on, what do you need to invest more in to improve your productivity or ability to reach customers? If you currently outsource some functions, or is it cheaper to have an ad-hoc freelancer or do it yourself? Do you actually have the skills to do in-house functions, or would it be more efficient and achieve better quality to start to outsource these?

Key Partnerships

These are alliances that are vital to running your business: your relationships with your suppliers and buyers, your reliance on your investor or partner. Perhaps also support networks and grant-giving bodies.

Action point: Are you engaged in networks and clusters with other similar businesses, and can you share knowledge and expertise? Do you attend networking events, to raise your profile and forge new relationships? Do you spend time nurturing your existing relationships to iron out glitches? Do you need to dedicate time to finding grant funding or gaining free/subsidised skills or business support? Likewise, what can you reduce or say goodbye to? Is it better to work at solving existing issues rather than moving on?

And here is where I congratulate you on having completed your review! Now, warm in the glow of accomplishment, you have your head firmly around your business, and have taken control of what isn’t working, and can plan to build on your strengths and successes and what areas to streamline. Now, you need strategies to focus this down and take it forward.

Over my following blog posts, I will show you where to start with creating strategy, then how to map this out through distribution strategy, marketing strategy, and social media strategy.

Next time: Creative Planning – Next Steps 3: The Right Strategy for Your Business

If you have any questions after reading this, or would like me to work with you on your creative business, then feel free to email me on hallandco@outlook.com, or drop a comment on the blog.


[1] Osterwalder and Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas, from their book Business Model Generation, 2010, Wiley and Sons.

Taking Stock of Sales and Costs

It is most definitely January. Decorations lie forlorn in boxes, sparse pine trees litter pavements, and your tax return still awaits you… What better time to take stock, re-focus and plan for the year ahead? Business detox, anyone?

This will be the aim of my new blog series, Creative Planning – Next Steps. My new posts will be ideal for those of you who have reached the ‘where am I actually going with this?’ and ‘do I really want to/can I afford to keep doing this?’ point in the run up to and during the holidays. Or, perhaps, you are at the year two or year three stage of your business and it is time to review your sales, strengths and successes and to plan ahead. It’s time for next steps.

So where do you start? How do you know how to begin and structure a review? What should you be looking for? Then what do you do with all the info???

Creative Planning – Next Steps will guide you through: reviewing (auditing) your business from a simple format, the Business Model Canvas[1]; getting your head around strategy and focusing the direction of your business; plus mapping out easy (yes, it is possible) distribution, marketing and social media strategies for you to take forward.

When you run a creative business and make, design or produce, this is probably where your heart is and the ‘business stuff’ takes away from your creative time. This is a hard reality to learn, and maybe leaves you slightly disillusioned. Perhaps so far you have been working in a ‘freelance’ mentality, rushing (lurching?) from project to project with not enough income or time to create? Or, perhaps, after all your very, very hard work, you’re still not seeing the financial benefits?

I suggest you need to review and streamline, then focus the business strategically to make it as profitable as you can. Ultimately, you can then hire occasional/part-time/regular staff so you can focus, once again, on creating.

Beginning your business review

In this and my next post, I will help you review and start to refine your business, step by step. I will look at key areas (building blocks) and then suggest action points to help you move forward.

Essentially, a review is where you look at your businesses’ strengths and weaknesses to see what you can make the most of and what you need to prune or cull to be profitable. Usually, this is in terms of sales i.e. which ranges or pieces are doing well, which can be quickly produced to high profit, and which are just not working well at all. Also, you can consider it in terms of customers and clients – if you offer, say, bespoke or commissions rather than products. Should you be advanced enough in your business, you might also look at it in terms of geographic markets e.g. China is slowing, but Japan and Indonesia are picking up.

Begin with the basics – your business sales and costs

First, this means digging out all your sales data. You may have already rooted through your sales receipts and invoices for your tax return. Totting up what sales come from where and how many sales for piece (or range) X, Y, and Z. Are you selling more online from your own website or more from host platforms such as notonthehighstreet.com? Are you running out of commissioned work? Which sales channels take up more of your time for less financial return, and so on…?

Are there surprises in all this paperwork – are some products and ranges not the ones that are your bestsellers after all? Perhaps there are pieces which garner media coverage but little sales; they instead drive web traffic, enquiries and social media followers? These showpieces are valuable samples to you for this purpose, but won’t sell as pieces or ranges – couture catwalk shows don’t reflect what their customers actually buy, they are there to flirt with the media and raise awareness!

At this stage it is probably helpful for you to record your sales information if you are not already doing so. The much maligned Excel spreadsheet can be set up easily, then quickly updated at the end of every month or quarter as you now – being newly organised – continue to monitor your cash-flow. Now you have it all in one place and can view it easily.

Next, as part of this process, and certainly for your tax return, you will have begun to see some idea of your costs. Possibly this is the moment of disillusion – you seem to have generated income well, but actually your costs are high: too many ranges, too many materials, too many different distribution and delivery channels, too much time spent on individual pieces that could be sold at a higher price, not enough high-paying commissioned work etc. This is not good news for profit. So undertaking a review becomes an even more important exercise – you are finding issues that need to be addressed to solve this.

When I work with my clients, and in my MA teaching, I often refer to Ostenwalder and Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas as a structure to follow and a starting point for a review. This is an excellent model for a holistic, inter-connected, all-in-one-place view of your business. And you can just pin it on the wall and scribble or stick Post-it notes on it – easy! This is from Business Model Generation, which I recommend as a bible for early-stage businesses.

This model proposes that there are nine core building blocks or areas of your business. These areas need to complement each other and all work in sync for your business to succeed and overcome its challenges. In this post, I will now take you through the Revenue Streams and Cost Structure areas, and then suggest easy action points for you to follow:

Revenue Streams

Where your income comes from, divided into different streams. So this can be from one-time customer payments, or recurring revenues from ongoing payments, or repeat custom. Here, also consider investment, if you are lucky enough to have some from either a partner, investor or even from crowd-funding or grants.

Action point: How can you secure ongoing or new funding? What relationships can you revisit? Can you dedicate time to crowd-funding or grant applications? How can you ‘up-sell’ more products to customers or ‘cross-sell’ additional products to customers? Perhaps you have existing materials that can be sold off or turned into stock, or perhaps have existing stock that can be ‘tweaked’ into new, higher priced products?

Cost Structure

These are the costs incurred in creating your product or service and getting it to your customer to maintain good relationships with them. Overheads, materials and labour, packaging, distribution and delivery, website upkeep and hosting, commissions to other hosts stockists, promotional materials, networking events, shows and exhibitions, staffing (even interns’ expenses), taxis to and fro as you heave samples and stock for buyers and clients. Plus any returns’ costs -for products – that you incur, and telephone calls for sales enquiries or for following up on leads.

Action point: Perhaps you have excess stock (inventory) that is costing you, how can you sell this to bring in income? How can you minimise future stock and inventory so that you don’t have to pay for storage, or wait such long times for financial return? How can you streamline all your operations and resources, where can you make cuts, what can you put on hold? This can be hard-going and radical; do be sure not to cut too heavily or without planning contingencies or replacements.

So well done on starting your review and getting to grips on the financial side of your business!

Next time, in Creative Planning – Next Steps 2: Reviewing Your Business we will look at the remaining areas of the Business Model Canvas, to give you the full 360 on your business. From here, it’s easy to begin a review: you break down your business information so it isn’t overwhelming, and then visualise the problem and its solution, one step at a time…

If you have any questions after reading this, or would like me to work with you on your creative business, then feel free to email me on hallandco@outlook.com, or drop a comment on the blog.


[1] Osterwalder and Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas, from their book Business Model Generation, 2010, Wiley and Sons.

Consumer paradise in Tokyo, Japan

The competition and staying ahead – do easy competitor research

I’ll be honest with you, in all my work with creative clients, I would say competitor research is deemed the least important, or urgent, area of setting up and running a small business. And that’s understandable – once you know your product, your customer, your market and you are beginning to think about where to stock it (or already have stockists)… well, that’s enough, isn’t it?

Yes and no. I think just getting your offer out there and getting the money in is vital to launching and keeping your business afloat. But I think it is hugely important to keep tabs on what your competitors are doing, and to learn from their successes and failures. Ultimately, a competitor is someone who YOUR customer (now or in the future) is spending their money with instead of you. And we all want our customers or clients to spend money with us, and to keep on spending it even in tough economic times.

But what if you are just developing your business and you are taking your first steps to finding stockists or tweaking your offer or service? Then the steps below are ideal for you. In marketing, we have long referenced the 4 or 5 Ps – product, price, place, promotion and, latterly, people – as any brand or individual’s ‘marketing mix’. This is how you should develop your product range or service, how you price and position it against competitors, where you promote it, and how and where you retail it. So you can see that competitor research is beneficial to, literally or metaphorically, setting out your stall.

But… I don’t think I have competitors…?

Yes, this is something I hear a lot. Everyone believes passionately in their product or their business, why it is genuinely brilliant, and will do, or is doing, well for them, and that others aren’t quite in their league. And this may be true, but, if we’re honest, there are also a lot of other really fantastic, innovative, astounding creative businesses out there. Take a look any major high-street in the UK (or world) – it’s saturated with established, often global, names in fashion or design or retail. All the stores are designed by incredible, visionary designers and architects, kitted out with exceptional, beautiful merchandise.

I can say with certainty that ALL these brands invest heavily (from mighty budgets) in promotions to attract, engage, and maintain customer loyalty, and research into what their customers want and where else they buy. They also keep a close eye on what the others in the high-street (and online) are doing – both long-standing and newcomers like you – using this to inform their own marketing mix, and how they interact with their customers. And these are very well-known brands, with years, decades, of success behind them and with very loyal customers. These brands don’t just want to compete; they have to stay several steps ahead. And, as a small creative business still building your brand and customer base, so do you…

Who are my competitors?

You may be promoting and selling your products or offer: online through your own website, through an online host platform, through a larger retailer (online or offline), in your own shop or studio, in pop-ups, sales events, fairs or markets. Or perhaps you work to commission, or a mixture of both or several.

In all cases there are four basic variables that remain the same:

  1. Offer

Brands or individuals who sell the same product (or service) as you. This may be broadly speaking e.g. interior products or menswear, or more specific e.g. porcelain bowls or bow ties. The price range may be similar, or may be cheaper or more expensive. However, the closer the price point, the closer the competitor. If you are a bespoke milliner, Topshop or Debenhams can still be a competitor. It’s not just brands similar in scale to you.

  1. Location

This is where you sell or promote your product or offer. If you sell online e.g. Notonthehighstreet.com or John Lewis, then customers will search and shop by category, brand or price. So you can also research other brands (your competitors) by similar category or price. If you have a physical retail presence, be it in a departments store or market stall, you can check out their offer easily by just having a nose around.

  1. Motivation

This is why customers buy your product. So, you might (through your carefully conducted customer research – see my earlier blog post, Creative Planning Basis 3) know that weddings are a prime motivation for the customer to buy, or gifts for other people, or interior products for first-time buyers or students. The motivations are endless, and possibly varied. But if you know one of the main reasons your customers buy, then you have an idea of who else might offer this, and therefore who your competitor might be.

  1. Customer

As you have already done your customer research (of course), you will know who your customer is. You will know approximate age, gender, spending power, motivations (above), shopping frequency, lifestyle/occupation, what blogs/magazines they read, what other shops they visit and even the brands they buy. So, if your customer is a middle-aged, affluent, media bod with a penchant for quirky cufflinks, then that will help you pinpoint where this type of person may be likely to also shop. Hence your competitors…

So what should I look out for?

Okay, it’s unpleasant, but wouldn’t we – just occasionally – love our competitors to slightly less well, because then there are more customers for us? Mean-spiritedness doesn’t get us terribly far (or keep us very positive), but we can look for indicators of their successes and challenges.  Some of you may be familiar with the term S.W.O.T.  – this is where we would review their strengths, their weaknesses, the opportunities they take, and the threats they face.

How do I do it?

So, if I was an interior designer who worked with hotel commissions, I could nose around other hotel chains and find out who the interior designer behind the refit/new decor was. From the designer’s website, I could discover more about their business, their client list, their previous projects, their forthcoming projects. I could then explore this further online by searching for publicity about them, and other mentions of them online. If I was a childrenswear designer, I could explore online by searching under ‘boutique childrenswear’, for example, identifying other brands or bespoke makers, and follow the same process.

Your research will show you:

  • what the competitor’s offer is and how much they charge for it (or you can make a guess from knowledge of cost prices and the type of place they sell/clients they have)
  • where they promote themselves
  • what appears to be working well for them and what they are good at
  • what opportunities or trends they are more skilful in exploiting
  • if there are physical products, what is marked down in price (and presumably not selling)
  • what areas of their business they are NOT taking advantage of that you could do in yours
  • what threats or negative trends are facing your industry/sector and so this competitor also faces, and is better – or less well – equipped to deal with

I probably should also mention here that you don’t just want to focus on one competitor. Sorry! Thorough competitor research – that you might need for a business plan, or just to take the temperature if you are an early stage or pre-start up, or established – will require at least three.  And, to run a viable and sustainable business, you should really know who your three main competitors are.

To make this process easier, with some clients, I structure this around WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY AND HOW – in terms of identifying the competitor and their promotional and selling activity. But be sure to also look for their opportunities and weaknesses…

So now you have done this research, you will have at least come away inspired, with more ideas of what you can do to develop your own offer, what pitfalls to look out for, and realise where you can’t compete – you have other strengths instead. Which is just fine, by the way.

Ultimately, you will be better placed to use your own creativity more efficiently and grasp chances when they come your way, and effectively build your brand to reach and maintain more customers who keep spending their money with you.

Good luck!

 If you have any questions after reading this, then feel free to email me on hallandco@outlook.com, or drop a comment on the blog.

Tourist shop in Kyoto, Japan

How to do customer research to get more sales right now

As a creative marketer, a lot of my time spent researching, teaching and working with clients is talking about product, brand, customer loyalty and sales. Well, my clients talk about sales, we talk about that less in academia… Not much time is spent talking about WHO the customer is.

Our poor customers are further neglected – mostly my clients talk to me about their ‘target customer’ and it might go something like this:

Me: “Okay, so tell me who your customer is…”

Client: (Mulls this one over awkwardly /jumps in immediately with PR blurb) “someone on a good to high income, someone who is design led and edgy, likes good quality pieces and something a bit different, someone who is aspirational, maybe a bit quirky. Ideally, it would be ———- ———- from that show on the telly. We love her”.

I continue the conversation by asking who ACTUALLY is buying their product, where their sales are actually coming from. Unfortunately, this is almost always an unknown answer.

Yesterday, I met with one of my menswear clients and we chatted about the apparent gap between the academic focus on research and strategy in teaching design students, and the desire among fashion and creative start-ups (and larger organisations) to learn about how to achieve sales. And sales right now.

I absolutely believe that if your business is struggling to achieve sales, this is because there is a problem somewhere – often an easily rectifiable problem. This could be an issue with the design, the price, how and where it is promoted or sold, OR that you are trying to sell it to the wrong customer.

Knowing your customer, and knowing what they think of your offer, is understanding the problem, which is a major part of achieving sales right now. It is also a fundamental part of building a brand through long term customer loyalty. And in the digital age, the power of the happy consumer is high – they take to cyberspace in review forums, Facebook and Twitter et al to laud (or lambast) products and experiences. And where good reviews flow, customers and sales will follow.

One of the speakers at Marketing Week Live! at Olympia this June told of his research into his customer’s preference for word-of-mouth referrals: online reviews are now replacing family and friends as trusted sources when deciding whether to buy. And for start-ups, growing a social media community full of post-purchase satisfied customers that talk about how great your product is (and how it has met their needs) is gold dust. N.B. See suggestions below on how to do this through your research…

So, research and knowing who your customer is = more sales. Simple!

Step 1: gather some info – background research

Hang on, before I start – don’t I have to do hundreds of questionnaires for research to be valid? How will I analyse all that???

Here I would say you are undertaking a sample to take the temperature of your customers. I suggest that you read through all your responses and work with really significant comments or any trends and themes that come up. Just do as much research as you can time-wise and leave the mega-research to the large scale corporates!

So, how do I know who my customer is?

Your customer is who is buying your product, currently or recently. And by customer, I mean end customer or person. Unless your customer base is trade and you sell business to business.

If you sell online from your own website, you will have some data on your sign-up form. What – no sign up form??? Okay, more on that later…

If you have physical (as opposed to digital) stockists, visit the store and find out who is buying or not buying your product. Also, note if people are not looking at your product. But don’t just observe, speak to customers in your stockists – this is the best opportunity, and better than speaking to staff although this is also useful. But you have to ask the right questions. Again, more on that later…

If you have digital stockists, you will need to speak to them about how they can help you with your data. They –hopefully – can arrange some reports, if you are not able to access these directly yourself.

Back to the sign-up form. Many start-ups think they have clients’ details on Facebook or perhaps Twitter through likes or shares. You want to capture their email addresses and find out more about who and where they are, and to keep in touch with them – social media doesn’t tell you this, and they may move or close accounts, or just be infrequent users. On your website you can easily include a sign-up form and ask questions about email address, gender, location, postal address, age if you wish and an opt-in (legally required) to receive emails. On social media, you could run a genuine competition to drum up interest (e.g. new product launch or Christmas etc) and part of the entry process is filling in a form with the above details and again the opt-in. You would then publicise the lucky winner back on Facebook etc. This will give you social media content, and the forms give you necessary info, but also… a mailing list!!!

How do I know if they are buying my products?

On your own website you can follow your click-through and analytics data (for example free Google Analytics) – you can see where they have come from (e.g. your Facebook page, or from online publicity), what part of your website they explored, and also if they have visited you but not bought several times or stalled on a specific page– this suggests there is an issue, we will explore the buying process later. With stockists, visit the store and speak to the staff and buyers – it is good practise to be checking in very regularly to see what is selling and what isn’t. You want your stockist to keep you on if sales are low, and a good relationship where you can offer an alternative product is important.

How do I know what they are buying?

Again, online, you will have a record of sales and products sold. You will see what’s selling and not selling. Not selling is an issue. In stockists, from your observation or staff and buyer feedback from specific questions.

How do I know what they are not buying?

Here, the question really is “how do I know WHY they are not buying?” Presumably you are aware of what customers like and don’t like – this is evident in what is selling and what isn’t. But make sure you do keep track, and not just assume…

When I was studying my Masters degree, I worked part-time for a small womenswear designer in Glasgow. From my desk in the office/workshop overlooking the store, I was developing a marketing plan. For this, I explored with the designers who their customer was, how often they shopped, how much they spent, whether they were repeat customers, what the best selling products were etc, etc. Then, just to be sure, I conducted – very basic –research through a simple questionnaire and chatting to the customers about these same points. The difference in answers was incredible – these really lovely, talented and hard working designers who were in the same place as their customer were completely wrong about who their customer was, what they liked or wanted or what they were willing to spend. The designers were still thinking about their target customers and how they would like them to be. They weren’t asking the right questions…

Step 2: customer research – ask the right questions

What you really want to know is:

  1. why are they not buying my product
  2. why are they not buying more of my product more often
  3. how can I get them to buy more of my product more often

Of course, you can just come out and ask these questions on your website, via social media, face-to-face at the stockist or your own store. But a more softly, softly approach is recommended. With lots of thanks at the end! You can even turn it into content for your social media – Instagram photos of happy shoppers showing products they like (or have bought if online) with a ‘why they like it caption’.

I am a real fan of a short questionnaire. If you are face-to-face with your customer, you can ask these questions in an informal, chatty way. Online you can do a short poll, or ask for open feedback in a post. If you want more information you can create a form with a hyperlink. Look at Survey Monkey or Google Forms amongst others.  Any of these ways, encourage people to answer your few questions by offering them a thank you – a small discount off their next/first purchase, or a free gift. You would need to provide them with a promotional code that they then give at the time of purchase (and that you remember to apply!).

I would suggest you ask questions similar to the samples below, in your own words. You will need to create a couple of multiple-choice options, options to select yes or no, and also leave space for the customer to explain:

  1. Please tell me your gender: Male/Female
  2. Please tell me your age from the following brackets: 18-24, 25-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, 60-69, 70-79, 80+ You might want to adjust these brackets and make smaller or larger. Be careful not to overlap numbers!
  3. Are you likely to buy from (your brand)? Yes/No. If no, please tell me why not.
  4. If yes, which product(s) are you most likely to buy?
  5. If yes, what has encouraged you to buy?
  6. If yes, is there specific occasion or purpose for buying our products?
  7. If there was anything we could change about the design of our products, what would it be and why?
  8. What do you think of the price of our products? Too expensive, about right, could charge more (multiple choice option). Please explain why.
  9. Have you found it easy to find and explore our products? Yes/No. Please tell me why or why not.
  10. Is there anything we can do to make this process easier for you? If yes, please explain.
  11. How did you hear about (your brand)? Please tell me where.
  12. What newspapers/magazines/social media/blogs/review sites/other media do you normally visit? (Here you can do multiple choice for each and include an option for ‘other’, or ask it as an open question).
  13. Where do you normally buy (similar products) from? Please tell me why.

These questions will tell you what customers like about your product and don’t like, what is encouraging them to buy or will encourage them to buy, what’s working well online or instore for them, and where the barriers are. This will help you make changes to build more sales.

I would recommend you ask all these questions, but you can edit this list if you wish. However, questions 1, 2, will tell you who your customer is, and questions 11, 12 will tell you where you can promote your products more successfully. Question 6 will tell you the type of products that are selling e.g. workwear, weddings etc, and also so you can promote these somewhere suitable. Question 13 is worth asking because these are your competitors, and once you know who your customers are buying from as well as (or instead of) you, then you can make changes to build more sales.

All this research stuff might sound like a bit of an effort. Perhaps you don’t want to hear negative views? Or perhaps you feel slightly awkward asking questions?

But let’s imagine what happens if you don’t do your background research on your customer, or you don’t ask them for feedback: you won’t know anything about them, where they are, how to reach them, what they want to buy, how much they want to pay for it, and, crucially, why you are not making enough sales. Most likely, you will continue to not make enough sales right now…

So here’s to sales! I wish you the best of luck with it.

If you have any questions after reading this, then feel free to email me on hallandco@outlook.com, or drop a comment on the blog.

Next Creative Planning Basics post: Competitor research: Competitors – yes, you do have them, and why you need to know all about them.

Street market in Bangkok, Thailand

Do your research: the market

“What is your market?” Do you know the answer to this? If not, does it matter?

If you have been working creatively and so far have been receiving commissions and referrals, you probably haven’t needed to think about ‘what next?’ and promoting yourself out to new clients in the market. Or maybe you are just starting out and not sure where to start selling. Well, what comes next is market research…

This doesn’t sound terribly exciting, maybe doesn’t sound like it is relevant to you, and possibly is conjuring memories of dodging clipboard wielding researchers in the street. But I believe market research is vital to helping you grow your sales, and your business. And it is easier to do than you might think (with no clipboards).

Essentially, a market is where you sell your product or service. Your market might be based on the product, so fashion, ceramics, childrenswear, jewellery, millinery etc, or service – photographer, jewellery resetting, interior design or architecture. It might also be based on geography, so, locally in your own neighbourhood, your city or region. This might be online. Or this might be overseas, either if you have been successful e.g. in the UK and are planning to expand, or if you have had some sales from e.g. Japan and China and think there could more sales from these areas.

Your market might also be a specific market level or area. By this I mean luxury, mass market or bespoke commissions. Perhaps you have worked in the mass market and have been retailing to small pieces to high street chains, but now feel you want to produce a more upscale range for independent boutiques. Or perhaps you want to move into the ethical design or crafts market with sustainable and eco products or services.

And your market could also be trade. You might be selling your products via retail to the end customer – the actual customer who will be using it – or you might be selling your product to interior designers who work with clients, for example. Maybe jewellery setting services to jewellers, or embroidery services to fashion designers or crafts people.

Once you know what your market is – and you may have more than one, which is fine – then you already have a head start on how to grow sales by understanding:

  • the type of stockist or clients or end customers that you can work with
  • trends and opportunities for growth that you can capitalise on
  • the aspects that are in decline and best avoided
  • the new challenges that are arising and affecting the market
  • the type of successful businesses that are working – and competing with you – in this market
  • what it is that your clients, stockists, or customers want and how much they will pay for this

But why does all this matter to you? You have a product or service that either has been selling well enough, or is surely going to sell well enough, if not brilliantly! Isn’t it easier, quicker and a better use of time to just start trying to sell where you can rather than undertake any market research?

I think jumping in and trying to sell anywhere to get your business off the ground (or keep it afloat) makes sense and may bring you in short-term sales, which is important. But in the longer-term i.e. the following weeks, months or years since your recent sale, having more of a strategy and a focussed means of selling your product or service will be more time efficient and more lucrative. And hopefully will also give you the much needed sense of knowing where your business is going!

If you are just starting out, and you have samples or prototypes, or just single pieces of your product so far, then you would need to do initial market research. If you have already been selling and are expanding into a new market, such as one of those discussed above, you would undertake something more substantial, as there is a greater financial risk to it. In both cases, you need to do this in stages.

This will involve accessing the internet or library with notepad or iPad. Plus, if you are exploring your geographic market quite literally on foot, take a camera and a map so you can see how the shopping areas are laid out.

First, set some time aside for this and schedule it – think about whether you will visit a library, or you might want to try the internet first. But give yourself a goal of a couple of hours or one afternoon a week for a few weeks to work through this. Put it in the diary; this is also your work too, not just making or designing!

Then identify your market – look at the list above, which of these applies to you? There may be more than one.

Visit a business library – in London there are City Business Library, the British Library’s Business and Intellectual Property Centre, and Westminster Reference Library to name a few. All of these places will have librarians who will be happy to get you started and show you (either ad-hoc or if you make an appointment) their resources, databases, periodicals and reports relevant to what you are trying to find out, and they cater for small businesses – for free! Other cities will also have a good business section in their libraries. Often, once you have visited a library, they can set you up as a member so you can then explore their resources online from home.

Then read reports on industries, trends and market growth – these reports include Mintel (Market Intelligence), Keynote, Datamonitor and Verdict. And also Cobra (Complete Business Reference Advisor), and EBSCO business resources to help small businesses. At the British Library Business and Intellectual Property Centre, there are industry specific information guides such as fashion, or jewellery etc. In these reports, look at data for sales, turnover, numbers of companies, and indicators of growth and decline etc.

Now analyse what you have read and noted down – what are the trends and growth areas? How is the market structured and divided up into smaller markets? What areas or sectors have declining sales? Who are the main players and market leaders? How saturated is this market? – e.g. mass market womenswear will be more saturated with lots of similar brands than luxury accessories? What looks stable to you? What looks like a new and emerging area that you could capitalise on?

Consider the impact on your current product or service offer. It’s not a nice thought, but are the sales of similar offers in decline or heavily saturated with competitors? If so, how can you modify or innovate in what you are doing (or where you are selling it) to take less risk here? Or maybe the data shows that no-one else is doing something similar to you? That could highlight an opportunity, but also an indicator that there is no demand for it…

So now you have the data, it is time to visit the market yourself – if you can afford it. Are you selling handmade accessories to your local neighbourhood? Head out with your camera and photograph what you see by way of other stores, craft fairs, boutiques and department stores. If you are a small scale jeweller or designer, head round the museum shops and jewellery districts, plus the boutiques and departments stores (but don’t take photos inside!!!).

Are you expanding overseas – e.g. Paris or Shanghai? Take a budget trip to familiarise yourself with the districts, the stores, how the department stores are laid out inside, what looks busy, what is near underground and bus stops and other main attractions. This way you get an idea of what the location is like, where you want to be in that location, what else is selling, what types of other stores or brands are there already – who looks busy and who doesn’t?

Or are you moving into online sales? Are you setting up your own website and promoting it on your own social media platforms, or are you going to sell through a host platform e.g. Notonthehighstreet.com, Etsy.com, Asosmarketplace.com, or Culturelabel.com etc. Browse all the similar host platforms, then within each platform look at all the individual brands similar to your business. Monitor them and see who is selling best where. Keep an ear out (and eye) for feedback on other businesses’ (negative) experiences with such host platforms.

So, what your time spent on this research will have shown you is:

  • what the trends and opportunities to capitalise on in your market are
  • what is selling well and are growth areas = potentially more sales and profit
  • what is in decline, or will be more challenging and risky financially
  • who the main stockists or competitors are
  • how the market is structured – lots of large chain retailers and only a few boutiques, or mainly online sales
  • how saturated by similar offers the market is – the more saturated, the harder for you to gain a foothold
  • geographically, where you want to be in this market – the wrong end of the right street can be just as unfortunate as the wrong end of town; you want to be where the customers are
  • again, geographically – locally or overseas – this shows you a little more about customers’ buying habits and what exactly is selling well

For your business now, this will give you more direction and focus. It will help lessen you wasting your time (and money) trying to sell in the wrong place, or trying to sell the wrong offer in the right place. Ultimately, this will help you begin to capitalise on opportunities to make more sales. Which is what everyone wants…

Good luck with it!

If you have any questions after reading this, then feel free to email me on hallandco@outlook.com, or drop a comment on the blog.

Next Creative Planning Basics post: Customer research – who are they and what do they want? And is your dream customer your actual customer – if not, does this matter? Hint: yes, it does…

Liliana K stall in Whistable, England

Reality: Your business now, your more profitable customers, and your cashflow

“Have you got a Business Plan?” is not a question that brings joy to the heart of early-stage creative micro-businesses. Visions of Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, and alien, small-printed jargon arise; hours, days wasted, lost in unfiled paperwork only to create more unfiled (and unread) paperwork. Sound familiar?

Many of the fashion and creative start-ups I work with don’t have a business plan (it’s all in their heads), don’t do planning (ditto), and run their business like a freelancer. And why not? That way you can focus on the day-to-day must-dos, the making/constructing/designing, and the creative energy.

But planning your direction – whether it is building a strategy, a business plan, or identifying your goals for the next year or three – can be a creative process in itself. And like everything creative, planning is developmental and organic, it isn’t set in stone and can be adapted and improved, scrapped or redone. It starts with the first steps – and that’s what this and my series of Creative Planning Basics blog posts will explore.

These posts will help you focus everything that you already know or have dreamed about your work down into some kind of visual map. This will help stop the chaotic ‘washing-machine’ thinking and instead bring some colour-coded clarity.

Save your Business Plans and Strategy Documents for the bank and investors – you will get to this when you need to – and instead just begin now with how you want your creative business, and life, to be. So, with your old-school paper, Post-It notes, pens, pencils and camera at the ready, read on…

So, decide what time period – one year, two years etc – you want to focus on. Grab different coloured Post-It notes and find some wall space, or A1 paper, and pens and pencils.

This exercise will help you identify:

  1. Where your business is now.
  2. How to divide up your creative business into different customer bases for each strand.
  3. What work to spend more time on to generate more profitable leads and relationships.
  4. And start to recognise when the income is likely to come in and when your outgoings for the work are likely to go out = cashflow.

First, think about how many different aspects to your business you may have. For example, you might be an architect that does residential, commercial and the occasional profile-raising pop-up or collaborative work. You might be a jeweller that provides setting services for trade but are now branching into your own designer collections and bespoke commissions. Or a ceramicist beginning to get interior design wall commissions. Whichever way, you will have different strands of your business, different customer bases, and, importantly, different levels of income from each.

Using your Post-It notes, pens and pencils, colour-code each strand and divide it by income. So, if you are deep down someone who dreams of having their own pottery and shop, and meanwhile is beginning to do one-off wall commissions for interior designers at 15K a pop, but also hope to sell ceramics to high-street chains, plus take part in craft fairs with jewellery, picture frames, and general knick-knacks with your surplus materials, you would give a colour for each of these. Stick each coloured set on the wall, or paper, with a different sticky for each range or piece within it – and write down everything you produce within these strands that you do, or could, sell.

By now, you know how much each of these costs to produce, and you know, I hope, how much you might be likely to sell each piece of work at from your provisional market, customer, and competitor research (more on this in another post). So by totting this all up, it will visually indicate your more profitable income stream. How many of a, b and c are you likely to sell within the next six or twelve months? What if you only sell one 15K commission but get several of high-street orders for ceramic pieces? However, what if you already have one such commission lined up but are still just at the design/thinking stage on your retailer ceramics? Assess what is realistic to you for the chosen time period, factoring in how much work or progression you can realistically make in that time.

Earlier this year, I attended an event at the British Library Business and Intellectual Property centre – The Design Trust’s ‘More Than Making: Grow Your Creative Business’ – where entrepreneur Paul Sturrock[i] outlined a very simple business approach based on Osterwalder and Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas.[ii] Part of this discussion was identifying how much you need, or would like, to live on with a salary and all costs covered – 25K, 50K, 100K? Then you break that sum down into how many of each business strand you would need to sell to reach your goal.

So, let’s say you want to live off an income of 50K for salary and costs. If your wall commission is now looking (from Post-It note heaven) like your main income stream, you could find three commissions – one for each quarter – totalling 45K, plus another 5K of ceramic orders and craft fair takings to reach 50K. This additional 5K might be ten retail orders of £500.00. That would be almost one order a month, which is perhaps not realistic for this stage of your business. So re-adjust that to five orders of £500.00, then you can push the craft fair takings seasonally around Christmas gifts (yes, you will be busy!) to pull in the remaining £2.5K.

However, is this do-able for your workload at this stage? Could you bridge the income gap initially with a part-time job, or some freelance work using your other skills? Could you also sell some of your smaller pieces on online platforms such as Etsy.com, Notonthehighstreet.com etc? Do you have local shops, boutiques and galleries that might take some pieces on sale-or-return? Do you need to live off 50K? Could you manage on less for now? This is your creative business and life, so design it how you want it to be.

And finally… take a photo(s) of your hard work – don’t worry if you need to do this exercise in stages- and file or print for future reference (and to refer to for my next blog post).

So, what this exercise has helped you with is:

Where your business is now.

Maybe you have no contacts as yet with retail buyers, but do have several conversations regarding wall commissions, one of which is definite. You may really enjoy the buzz, banter and trading with your customers at craft fairs, but this can be a lot of work and time (even if it is in front of the telly of an evening) for a potentially lower return.

How to divide up your creative business into different customer bases for each strand.

You may have clients who are hotel groups commissioning you for wall pieces, or it may be an interior design small business with high-end clients, or a bigger design group. You might be aiming to target the highly competitive nationwide high-street chains for higher volume retail ceramic sales. This means you can identify additional interior designers for further commissions, or perhaps target smaller boutique interior stores with a good clientele who are willing to pay more for distinctive ceramics. A later post will look at how you find and promote to your different customers.

What you can spend more time on (yes, you can be efficient in time management!) to generate more profitable leads and relationships.

By now, you will know that it isn’t just the product or service itself that you spend time on, but also the research, the networking and the promotion (leg work) of it. So it makes sense to spend less time and earn more!

When the income is likely to come in and when your outgoings for the work are likely to go out = cashflow.

So if you break your year down into quarters, you are then already starting to build a loose cashflow projection. Try breaking income and outgoing down further into months throughout the year. This will hopefully help you manage your finances and lessen the sting of overdraft charges.

But perhaps you really do still dream of that pottery and shop, and your business is to help you work your way towards that – maybe you don’t want to be the new darling of the retail ceramics or interior design world. Then these planning steps will help you maximise your income from less time giving more time to you to continue to do the making, creating and designing you love.

Any questions, feel free to email me on hallandco@outlook.com, or drop a comment on the blog.

Next post: Creative Planning Basics 2: Starting to research your market, your customer and your competitors. Really, it’s just chatting, and having a nosey around with a camera.


[i] Paul Sturrock – about.me/paulsturrock

[ii] Osterwalder, A, and Pigneur, Y, (2010), Business Model Canvas, John Wiley & Sons. Also, www.businessmodelgeneration.com