This is the point in the winter where it’s hard to believe that the days will ever be longer and warmer. It’s dark, cold and dreary. No matter where you live, the morning commute in February is not a joy. (Understatement!) If every time you close the door behind you, you’re thinking of how to transition to a working-in-pajamas situation, this post is for you. In fact it was a moment just like that, which inspired LARK+RAVEN founder Ali Macdonald to transition out of the daily grind and into a job as a full-time designer.
After a few years at Jonathan Adler and then a stint at C Wonder, Ali was at a creative crossroads. She had made it as an in-house designer for big New York City-based firms, but she recognized that she was on a career path that would only lead to more managerial positions and she didn’t want to leave her passion for illustration behind. She also had dreams of spending the whole day drawing with her pooch, Dusky, by her side. (There’s nothing quite like sad doggy eyes to make you want to stay home.) So in 2014, Ali founded LARK+RAVEN as a way to give herself an opportunity to do more of what she loved.
When Ali was daydreaming about starting the business, she started doodling her ideas in Sharpie and sharing the designs via social media. Initially, she thought that she’d move to a more serious medium (like oils or water colors), but the happy casualness of the Sharpie stuck and today she uses the marker for everything from her wrapping paper designs to her stationery. Once she had the product design down, it was time to focus on the day-to-day challenges of running a business. From learning the ins-and-outs of sales tax to the best way of shipping products, managing a business was more complicated than Sharpie color choice (that Ali has nailed). Now she’s done everything from illustrating couples for save-the-dates and wedding invites to creating custom pet portraits, and she’s offered to share some her tips and tricks for making an online creative business work.
Let’s start with the product! Can you tell us a little about your design process?
Whenever it’s time to create a new collection of cards, I sit down with a marker and doodle. I keep a growing list of concepts as they develop. The idea is always the hardest part. Once I have one that is solid, illustrating is easy. Creating wrapping paper seems to come to me more naturally because I’m always thinking of composing stories through patterns. Sometimes an element I create for one of my cards may inspire a pattern and vice versa.
How has having a Squarespace website changed or impacted your business?
Having a site has really forced me to step up my presentation and to think about the importance of a cohesive narrative. When I first started, I didn’t give enough consideration to product imagery. My site was full of weak, inconsistent photography that didn’t sell my products well. Once I began utilizing this platform to tell an enticing story through color and styling, I noticed an increase in sales and in business opportunities. I also gained a clearer sense of my brand’s direction in the process.
What are your plans/goals for the upcoming year?
My main goal for this year is to get LARK+RAVEN in more stores. Finding time to do more outreach with all of the custom jobs and orders on my plate has been my biggest challenge. With each new Wholesale account gained, I feel more confident about contacting agencies in the coming months with the hope that one might have interest in representing my line. I also plan to find more opportunities for licensing and collaborations. I just recently updated my personal portfolio of illustrations, patterns and animations (alimacdoodle.com) in an effort to make this happen. Managing two separate online entities has its challenges but I’m finding it much easier to operate in this realm as an artist as opposed to a brand. It’s more work but has allowed me to experiment since I’m not worried about creating content that fits perfectly with my company’s aesthetic.
In terms of my online presence, I’d really like to be more planned in my approach to my shop’s homepage as a brick and mortar storefront. Instead of scrambling last minute to make thematic banners and tiles for holidays and events, my hope is to map out the year with ideas for site updates to keep things fresh.
What have you found to have the most impact when designing your site?
The sliding banners on the homepage have been really effective in directing traffic to specific areas of my site. They serve as a visual navigation and they give me the chance to tell an exciting story about a new product or collection that I want visitors to see.
What template do you use and did you experiment with others?
I started with Bedford but switched to Supply because I preferred the look of the left bar navigation. The rotating banner feature on the home page and the option to add product tiles below were probably the biggest factors in persuading me to make the change.
How does the e-commerce portion of the site interface with what you do in person/physically?
I’m always uploading artwork and retouching photos on my computer so when an order comes in, it’s really a seamless transition to printing out shipping labels and packing slips.
If you were starting the business today, what would you do differently/the same?
I would start smaller than I did in terms of product assortment and quantities. In the beginning, I was so focused on creating a large collection. I wanted to make my shop look full, and I was trying to produce enough content for my first trade show. I would have preferred to take the time to create a modest collection that made me proud. Though I’m happy with what I’m creating now, I didn’t have this same confidence at the start because I didn’t love everything I was making.
And speaking to an earlier point, I would have used my name for my company. It just makes certain aspects of custom work, such as collaborations and licensing, so much easier. Every time I’m hired to do a portrait through LARK+RAVEN, I’m faced with the dilemma of not knowing how to sign it. While I do like that I have a separate outlet for experimenting creatively, I’d prefer to work under one name that can be used as a signature on a product and also on an illustration.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start an online shop?
You’re going to be doing a lot of shipping! Using web-based software like ShipStation will make fulfilling orders much easier. Also, familiarize yourself with your responsibility to charge and collect sales tax. You will to want to set that up on your site when you are ready to open shop.
Did you have any failures that you’d like to share that you think people might be able to learn from?
Not insuring a box of over 300 handmade greeting cards with lined envelopes that got lost in the mail. I learned my lesson!
Any other advice for starting a business/ecommerce site that you’d like to pass on?
Don’t forget to copyright your work. I do it every season before I add new products to my site.
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