Elizabeth Caven is the founder of UpCraft Club, a company she’s hoping to build into the leading online distributor of digital sewing patterns (in the same way that Audible is the leading distributor of audio books). In order to achieve this goal, she’s spending four months in a startup accelerator in Silicon Valley called 500 Startups.
Elizabeth lives in Iowa. She’s the mom of four children ages 5, 6, 7 and 9. She and her employee, Jess, temporarily moved to San Francisco for this opportunity and have been immersed in an incredibly intense business training experience. They hope to emerge with $125,000 in venture capital and the expertise to make UpCraft Club a success.
Taking venture capital is something rarely spoken about in the craft community. Although Etsy was venture funded for a decade until they went public last year and Craftsy and Kollabora are also venture funded, I think most craft businesses don’t ever consider seeking venture capital. And the world of venture capital in the Silicon Valley? It’s equally unfamiliar with the sewing and crafting community. To a degree Elizabeth is right in the middle of a clash of cultures.
Periodically during her four month stay she’s sending back journal entries describing her experiences and I’m publishing them here so that we can get a glimpse into the world of startups and venture capital from a sewing business perspective. (Catch her first entry if you missed it.)
Today, we catch up with Elizabeth to see what she’s learning and how she and Jess are holding up. Here’s Elizabeth.
February 5, 2016
Every industry and company has its own vocabulary. In sewing we talk about WIPs (works in progress), SA (seam allowance), RST (right sides together), etc. 500 Startups, and investors in general, have their own vocabulary too and we’re trying to learn quickly. This week was MHW (Marketing He** Week) and I heard more acronyms than I’ve heard in my life.
During MHW, we had 4-6 speakers come in every day to talk with us about a different aspect of marketing. They were all incredibly inspiring and experts from some of the world’s leading companies like Google, facebook, PayPal and people who have led the growth and marketing efforts at companies like Hulu, Kissmetrics, LinkedIn, etc. We learned about what goes into viral YouTube videos, how to do facebook dark testing, SEO and Google Analytics tricks, email marketing, funnel optimization, etc. My brain is FULL!
And I filled an entire notebook with notes in just 5 days. (Yes, I looked like a weirdo with a notebook and pen while everyone else typed on their laptops. But the act of writing it out makes me remember it better.)
February 14, 2016
I can’t do it all
Like most of us in the sewing world who blog or design patterns, I’m used to doing it all. I’m used to coming up with the ideas, choosing fabric, writing blog posts, taking pictures, working with others on blog tours for new patterns or group Pinterest boards.
As a mom, I’m used to being the one who keeps everyone fed, and dressed, and keeps up with the calendar of everyone’s activities.
Right now, though, I’m not doing any of these things.
We tried to hire a designer to do some of our graphics work. It didn’t work out so now we’re looking for someone else. My tendency is to just say ‘we don’t need anyone’ because I have Photoshop and if we need to make an image for a newsletter I can do it. It’s cheaper that way. And it’s work I like to do.
But a company can’t run that way.
I’m becoming a bottle neck. The more I want to hold on to these tasks because I like them…the more I hurt the company. When you’ve controlled every detail of your brand, it’s hard to start giving up control and responsibility to others. Especially when it’s something (like graphic design) which I like to do.
But can you imagine if the CEO of Google was trying to design the main homepage image every day? Or the Pinterest founder was trying to do all of the coding? It doesn’t make sense. If I want UpCraft Club to grow, I have to change my role. And, quite frankly, other people will do a better job than I’ve been doing. I am not a graphic designer, I just like to play around with Photoshop and try out different fonts and colors. But someone else will do a much better job than I ever could and we’ll grow as a company because of it. So why is it hard to let that stuff go?? The company will do better without me trying to do it all.
But here’s a really painful realization…my family is getting along pretty well without me doing it all at home. Ouch! And yay! I have such mixed emotions about this. I’m used to doing everything for my kids and running the day-to-day of a household. My husband is incredibly capable and over time we’ve perfected the dance of who does what. But obviously, me not being there means he has had to pick up the slack…and he’s doing it well.
I should be happy about that, right? But instead it feels really bittersweet because there’s this part of me that wants to think that everything I usually do at home is irreplaceable. That they’ll run out of laundry soap because I’m not there thinking ahead about it…or that homework won’t be done…bills won’t be paid on time…something will fall through the cracks of the family schedule. But it’s just not the case. In fact, it’s the opposite. My daughter used to struggle with her spelling tests and now she’s thriving because Daddy came up with a fun game to help her learn. Everyone is well fed, they get to church on time, nothing is falling through the cracks.
But they miss me.
I’m irreplaceable to them. And I miss them terribly. We Skype once a week or so and chat quickly on the phone most days. I’m slowly learning that the tasks I do…both for UpCraft Club and at home for my family…can (and should in many cases, like with the graphic design) be done by others. But the heart that I bring to my family and the vision I cast for my company cannot be replaced.
February 28, 2016
QuiltCon & Expo
Back in November I received a grant from the State of Iowa to keep moving UpCraft Club forward. I had requested the grant for a few specific things, one of which was to do a trade show. It seemed like the perfect timing to do a trade show, while in the 500 Startups program. The problem is, trade show booths sell out many months in advance. We wanted to do a booth at QuiltCon, but there was no space available.
Two weeks before QuiltCon, a vendor had to cancel and we were given the booth. Our first reaction was excitement! And then panic! We have no sewing machines with us so we couldn’t make samples of anything…and we’ve never had a booth before so we had no walls, sign, décor, or ANYTHING that would be needed in a booth.
Thank goodness for crafty and creative friends!
Bloggers and friends sent samples they had sewn of several UpCraft Club patterns (thank you Melissa, Vanessa, Stacey, Deborah, and Linda)! Riane from the Modern Quilt Guild let us display her beautiful quilts (that we now sell patterns for). My husband raided my kids’ closets to send everything I had made for them in the last year. And an extremely talented woman in Des Moines (who does a lot of content creation for publications like Better Homes & Gardens) put together some fun elements for our booth so it wasn’t just bare walls. The pompom sign was a hit! (Thank you, Leslie, for hand making over 500 pompoms for this sign!)
We headed to Pasadena and had a blast meeting people at QuiltCon. While we were there, a last minute opportunity came up again to have a booth at the Sewing & Stitchery Expo in Puyallup. So at the end of QuiltCon we packed everything up, DROVE (what were we thinking?) almost the entire length of the United States, and got to Puyallup just in time to set up and do the whole trade show thing again.
“To save shipping and flight expenses, we drove from LA to Seattle. We wanted to drive along the coast, but after a couple of hours doing that we realized it would take f.o.r.e.v.e.r. It sure was beautiful, though.”
The trade shows themselves could be an entire blog post. THANK YOU to everyone who chatted with us. Many of you read Abby’s blog and knew our story already. It was incredibly fun getting to know you. We were pleasantly surprised to see how most people have embraced PDF patterns and those who hadn’t tried them were willing to give it a go.
It’s a somewhat difficult thing to sell an entirely digital product at a trade show where people are used to buying physical items and walking out with them that day. We worked really hard to run experiments while at the trade shows so we could learn about what worked and what people liked. We rearranged the entire booth every day. We changed the signs we used on things, added fun elements to the booth that would make people feel comfortable, worked with amazing fabric companies (like Birch Fabrics) to demonstrate how to use a digital pattern by taping pattern pages together and cutting out garments.
All of this was fun. And all of it was expensive. I haven’t seen many people talk about the costs of doing trade shows so I don’t know how we compared. But I’ll tell you that we spent many thousands of dollars on our simple booth, shipping costs and travel expenses. In the end we feel it was completely worth it, not just from a revenue perspective (although we did sell patterns, of course) but because of the relationships and connections made. People who sew are fun!
March 5, 2016
Since the last update, we’ve had a few other miscellaneous things happening. We found a new, cheaper apartment where we can stay for the rest of the time we’re in San Francisco. We’ve met with potential brand partners, spoken with investors, and flew one of our developers out to work with us for a few days. We’ve had exactly ZERO days off! On weekends we don’t go into the office, but we sit and work out of the apartment. Jess and I went to a movie one night to relax, then got right back to work. But we have chiseled out some time for later in March to see friends and family. My husband and kids will meet me in Washington DC in less than 2 weeks! I can’t wait! It will be 2 months since I have seen them!
I’ll be competing in Washington DC on March 17th in a pitch competition sponsored by the Small Business Administration. UpCraft Club was chosen as one of 10 companies throughout the country making a difference in the lives of women and I’m looking forward to meeting the other finalists. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes in my next update. Until then…happy sewing!
Thank you for the update, Elizabeth. We’ll look forward to the next one in a few weeks.