In this installment of my series I want to think about how our businesses change overtime as we learn what we’re good at and what is profitable. Allowing a business to head in a new direction can be scary because the path ahead is not yet trodden, but it can also save you from feeling tired of what you do and frustrated with where you are.
To exploret his topic further I talked with Pauline McArthur, a woman with firsthand experience running a softie business that has grown and changed direction multiple times over the last several years.
Australian artist Pauline McArthur is an excellent toy designer. Her Funky Friends Factory softie patterns reach far beyond simple plush toys. I would venture to say that her designs really look commercial. If you want to sew a softie that looks professionally made, pick one of Pauline’s patterns.
Pauline studied to be an optometrist so like most (or maybe all?) of us, she was not trained in any sort of formal way to design stuffed animal sewing patterns, but clearly she has a strong aptitude and internal drive to make a success of her softie business.
Something I admire about Pauline is her willingness to try every different sort of path to make sewing softies into a real business. “I can’t think of much I haven’t tried when it comes to making money with softies! I have found there isn’t just one particular ‘magic method’, rather for me, it’s a combined result of all the many things I have tried.”
When she was 19, she made and sold 100’s of soft toy elephants to pay for a trip around Europe. “My mother still has one of these in her guest loo much to the merriment of her visitors who are amazed that it’s trunk is long enough for it to sit on!”
For many years, Pauline made and sold individual stuffed animals. Then, she shifted her business to focus on pattern design:
“Over the years my business has continued to change. For example, when I figured out that I got the most enjoyment out of designing I moved focus towards developing my Funky Friends Factory pattern range and selling the patterns to other home crafters.”
Pauline’s pattern: Dilby Duck
“Now that I have a lot of customers who make and sell the toys themselves I have made a conscious decision NOT to make the toys to sell myself anymore as I don’t want to compete with my customers! I still get frequent requests to make the toys from people who can’t sew but now I refer them to my toy-selling customers! This works out well for both of us, they get more business and I get more time to get all the pattern ideas buzzing around my head onto paper!”
Soft toy design has taken Pauline down another interesting avenue. She has used her skills to help impoverished women in southern India sew fair trade toys, giving them a secure job with steady income through an organization called Blue Mango. For four years Pauline has been designing soft toys for their sewing program, and a few months ago she was asked to visit Blue Mango in person to design a new set of toys for the women to produce.
“I have been working with the Blue Mango Fair Trade organization for four years, designing toy patterns for them to use in their income-generating program. They receive funding from a church group in the US that allows them to fly ‘guest artists’ over to work with the Blue Mango women.”
“It was incredible when I got an email to say they couldn’t think of anyone they’d rather have visit them than me! And so I got the opportunity to go and spend 3 weeks at Blue Mango early this year. It’s hard to put into words what a deeply moving experience this was, perhaps the photos I took show what a joyful experience it was!” Pauline’s toy designs are now available on Blue Mango’s website.
And in 2011 she quit her day job as an optometrist and opened a brick-and-mortar toy store.
Funky Friends Factory is a thriving business, but Pauline assures us that it is still very much an uphill climb. “I just got fed up waiting and gave up work because I was battling to manage both a day job and an online business. In hindsight I can see that this wasn’t necessarily the best way to go about things. Growing an online business just takes time, no matter how hard you work at it you can’t ‘force it’ and I think I ran myself ragged trying! It’s much easier and less stressful to do your normal job a few days a week and get some regular money each week and NOT have to rely solely on your softies business for your income!”
“I still don’t earning a living solely from my softies business but I now believe I will be able to make this dream a reality. I just refuse to give up, and one day I will be able to say, I earn a living playing with my toys!”
And looking toward the future, Pauline is looking into creating a line of commercial toys. “I am watching this series with great interest because I have actually been searching for something ‘more commercial myself. I am keen to lean all I can from anyone who has crossed over from home made toys into getting their own range of toys manufactured.”
Pauline’s pattern: Larry the Lion
“I am wondering about independent artist like you or me getting a range of toys manufactured and distributed in mainstream stores. I wonder if it is limited to larger companies with large budgets because when I looked into it, all the manufacturing companies that produce toys insist on a minimum order of 2,000 0r 3,000 pieces. The smallest minimum order I could get someone to agree to was 500 pieces, but at about $10 per piece, a range of toys way out of my league!”
“I haven’t totally given up on the idea as it’s been a dream of mine to have my own toy range. I’m so curious to find out if anyone has made the crossover themselves.”
This is something I’ll need to investigate. If you know of anyone who has made this leap, please let me know. In the meantime, I know that Funky Friends Factory patterns will continue to sell well because they make it easy for home sewists to create amazing softies. Being able to design patterns like at this level is truly a talent to be admired, Pauline!
I think one of the very best things about our online craft community is that it allows us a way to find and connect with like-minded people. Pauline lives on the other side of the world from me, but in many fundamental ways we are driven by the same internal force to make designing sewing patterns for stuffed animals into a real career.
So what about you? Has your business changed over time? Is a big change on the horizon? Is something holding you back from exploring a new avenue? Feel free to share any feedback for Pauline and any thoughts you may have about your own business in the comments. Thank you!