Craft Biz Q+A: Made by Tess

Craft & Design

This week’s interviewee is Tess Lee, the creative force behing the super-sweet site Made by Tess. Tess is an avid crafter and sewer, and a fairly recent transplant to North Carolina, where she participates in her local quilt guild (even riding to meetings with her sewing machine strapped to her bike). She’s best known for her quirky, one-of-a-kind totebags and aprons sewn with vintage and vintage-inspired fabrics in various color and pattern combos. She also starred as MC Polar Pants in the hilarious and extra-crafty Jenny Owen Young Video, for which she helped sew costumes. (We posted about it here.) You can check her stuff out in person at various craft shows this winter, or keep up with her adventures via the Made by Tess blog. Read on to find out what doing it yourself really entails.
JENNY: Do you run your indie business full time, or do you have a “day job” to help keep you afloat? (If the former is the case, how did you make the transition to working for yourself?)
TESS: I transitioned from part time to full time at the same time that my husband and I made some major life changes. We moved across the country to a smaller area, and were able to afford a house versus paying expensive rent. Even though my business wasn’t (and isn’t) fully grown, it needed my full time attention. Our living expenses are less, and we save a lot of money on gas. It’s still a struggle, but it was to the point in my business that I needed to put more into than I was, and I am gradually seeing the results of that.
JENNY: How important has the internet been in relation to the growth of your business? Also, would you say the bulk of your business comes from your own website, or from wholesale accounts and/or craft show sales?
TESS: Very important. I have met so many wonderful people, and it’s opened up new opportunities through just word of mouth. When I first opened my business, I had no idea that there were all these great resources, knowledgeable people, and great shows. I hear about pretty much every show I want to do through networking online. It didn’t happen over night, but every day someone lets me know about something new to help my business, or I’ll read something interesting in a forum, or something like that. Most importantly for me is the sense of community, which is very important. Working at home, alone, can get very lonely, and it’s nice to have a support system!
As far as where most of my business comes from, it’s really split equally between shows and my website. I made a decision about 6 months ago only to do larger, well publicized craft fairs. This means I only do 3 or 4 shows a year, but they are worth my time and energy. I would like to wholesale more often, but for the time being I have a few shops that carry my items on consignment.
JENNY: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently when starting your business, knowing what you know now? BONUS: Any resources for upstart craft businesses that you’d care to recommend?
TESS: I wish I would not have gotten an expensive merchant account through my bank, and an expensive site builder style website. I was locked into a long term contract, which was very expensive to break, and it really wasn’t tailored for my business. Either of these would have been fine if my business wasn’t so homespun and handcrafted, but it was just wrong for my business. I might get something like this when my business is larger, but for now I am happy with PayPal.
I recently took a Dream Weaver and Photoshop class through my community college, and have used these skills to develop and maintain the website I have now. I would recommend both of these classes. Even if you don’t design your own website, you can do your own updates and all that fun stuff. I’m a big DIY-er, though, and I want to do everything with my own two hands if at all possible.
JENNY: How would you compare the challenges of working for yourself with working for “The Man”?
TESS: My most recent job before I did this full time was managing at a small yarn boutique, which was very fun and not oppressive at all. I learned a lot about running a small business through this, and I wouldn’t be in business if the owner had not asked me to make a dozen notions bags for the shop.
My corporate retail jobs were a totally different experience. They were miserable and depressing, and I never want to wear a white polo shirt again. Among the benefit of working for myself is the very relaxed dress code, no one minds if I’m dressed up one day, or dressed down the next. I also like that I can take advantage of my body clock, I definitely work better in the evening versus the morning. I’m a lot happier than I’ve ever been, and my work is 100% better because of it. The only downfall is that I don’t pay as well as “The Man”.
JENNY: Any tips on how to keep your business fresh and thriving/growing?
TESS: Always try something new, and if you aren’t excited about it, don’t do it! You should have enthusiasm in what you are selling, making, or designing, it rubs off on your customers and your products. And if something works, don’t get depressed, try something new! Always try to be happy, remember having your own business is what you’ve always wanted!
JENNY: Anything other random tips or info you’d like to add on the topic?
TESS: Be nice, I think that’s a good rule for everything. Don’t let yourself get walked all over, though. Stick up to the bank if they are being stupid, and be firm with customers who need it. And the most important rule of all is to “be excellent to each other” (quote from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure)–what goes around comes around, baby!
• Made by Tess site – Link.
• Made by Tess blog – Link.
• Made by Tess Flickr – Link.
From the pages of CRAFT:
CRAFT: 04 – “Business Basics for Crafty Types” by Jenny Ryan pgs. 42-43. Digital Subscribers can read the full article here. – Link.
Don’t miss an issue! Subscribe to CRAFT Magazine today and get 4 quarterly issues delivered to your door. – Link.

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Jenny Ryan

Jenny Ryan is an artist, crafter, and maker of things. She lives in Los Angeles with a pack of various animals (including her husband) and writes about her adventures in creating at Exit Through the Thrift Shop.

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