Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

This conversation with Shannon Foster of Woollybottoms launches our series of interviews with owners of successful handcrafting businesses. Woollybottoms specializes in upcycled wool items for children, with a particular focus on clothing that can double as covers for cloth diapers. I’ve watched Shannon’s business grow by leaps and bounds over the past few years, and I’m thoroughly impressed by her work ethic, level-headed decision making, and savvy marketing.

How did you get started with Woollybottoms?

I unintentionally got started with Woollybottoms back in 2004. I had worked as an insurance agent for several years, and had decided while pregnant with baby #2 I would be leaving the workforce and staying at home to care for my baby boy and four-year-old daughter. With the loss of my income, I wanted to cut corners where ever I could, and that included using cloth diapers on my little boy.

After he was born, it so happened that he could not wear ANY disposable diapers as he would break out in rashes no matter what brand we tried. Cloth was going to be part of our life whether we liked it or not. It turned out we liked it…. a LOT actually. There are so many options out there… diapers lined with bamboo velour, diapers that snapped, and adorable prints just to name a few.

After researching diapers, I researched different covers and learned about wool. Wool just made sense. It is breathable (a must in hot and humid Arkansas weather), easy to care for, water resistant, and a natural fiber. In order to keep costs down for us, I set out to make my own from recycled wool I had on hand at the house. I enjoyed making them so much that I started to sell some extra pairs on eBay for fun.

What was the turning point where you decided to pursue Woollybottoms as a business instead of a hobby?

As I was selling on eBay, I began to get several requests for custom orders.  People were bidding what I thought was crazy amounts for my diaper covers. I started the bidding out at $7, thinking if I just got that much apiece I would be happy. I was shocked when many pieces were going well over $30 each.  I decided after a few months that it was time to start thinking seriously about going from hobby to developing this idea.

I had a lot of learning to do about setting up a website and managing orders. I started off working out of the home. I had converted our dining room into a woolly headquarters. Sweaters were everywhere. I had a tower of wool stacked up on an entire wall, closets were bursting with fabric, and it was just crazy.

The next step was to move everything out of the house so I could keep work and home life separate. I bought a small building and had it located in the back yard and then hired someone to come and work to help sew. Once again, we outgrew this space and re-located everything to a larger building about 10 miles away and hired a second person to help sew.

What’s your top business goal for 2011?

My goal is to continue this trend of steady growth. I don’t want to jump too fast, but I also don’t want to be too conservative. I want to pursue getting our products out there to as many people as possible so we have focused on a little more marketing to natural parenting stores. This has proven to be very effective and we are growing exponentially by word of mouth alone. It has been a struggle to “mass produce” our items since each piece is made from recycled wool and is therefore unique but we are settling into a method that allows us to meet the demand of our retailers.

What do you wish someone had told you when you first started your business?

There have been several bumps along the way and I have learned (and am still learning) what works and what doesn’t work. I have found that handling a product from start to finish is imperative. It allows me to see what is going on and ensure that EVERY product is the absolute top quality. No one will love your business as much as you do.

However, with that said, knowing when you need help and being able to delegate duties to others is a must in a growing business.  A single person can only do so much and will often become overwhelmed and burn out quickly. If I had it to do again, I would have hired local help sooner. I also wish I would have invested in industrial machines sooner. The time they save you in speed alone pays for themselves in no time.

What’s your biggest business challenge?

My biggest business challenge I touched on a bit earlier. I work with recycled wool and that poses many issues. Recycled wool can vary so vastly between one sweater to another so I have had to learn to treat pieces of wool differently. Some sweaters are good for skirties, others are good for longies, etc. So, I can’t just hand over a box of sweaters to someone and tell them to give me 50 soakers. I have tried many different ways to try to bump up production and I’m constantly re-working my methods to better organize my time and production.

While I could easily have hundreds of soakers mass produced and knitted from new wool, this is not the vision of my company and would undermine everything our business is built on. Keeping our business local and using recycled materials is what our business is built on and what our customers expect. It is a challenge especially as our business grows, but a challenge I enjoy.

What are your best marketing tips?

We do no online advertising. Our customers are wonderful and most of our business has grown strictly by word of mouth on diapering boards. Our Facebook page has been a wonderful tool to keep our business in front of people. We try to post there several times a week on Facebook about new items. We also have a newsletter for customers who wish to have an email to be notified when new items stock. We usually stock new items about twice a week, which is a wonderful way to keep the site fresh and shoppers have something new to look at every time.

Our focus for 2011 is to get Woollybottoms into even more parenting stores. I like to take a few stores a week and personally contact them either by email or direct mail with some information about our products. This method has proved to be very successful with many stores following through with an order.


Read Full Post »