Jenny Sibthorp is a designer-maker who produces much of her range by hand in her studio on card, leather and linen. All of the sewn items are manufactured in Dorset.
We caught up with Jenny at her farm studio in the Isle of Purbeck to talk about how she started her small business and manages wholesale orders, social media and everything in between.
How did you start life as a designer-maker ?
Back in 2013 I knew I wanted a creative career where I would work with my hands, so I decided to quit my job in London and move to Dorset to be nearer my family. Having spent a number of months planning and saving I launched my website in December of that year.
I was keen to take a business approach rather than a creative plan first, so I attended lots of courses at the Dorset Growth Hub to help with that.
I then went to do the Liberty Open Call that January. That was terrifying and fantastic at the same time. They didn’t place an order then obviously (laughing) but they were really honest with me and offered great advice that I could take on board. The experience made me think about costing and wholesale properly from the start.
From there I did my first London market with Crafty Fox Market. I didn’t sell a great deal in the early days but it was so exciting to be out there and testing my products in a real market environment and a great way to meet other makers.
Bridport Market was another great place to test my designs with the public. It was quite hard going working all week and then selling every weekend. So then I progressed to doing a few trade shows. I did PULSE and TopDrawer a few times; they were brilliant and got me some huge stockists. The London markets were great too because the buyers would attend, take sneaky photos of your stall, then they contact you at a later stage once they have spoken with their buying teams about placing an order. You just don’t know who you are speaking to at markets which is really interesting!
Does that make you reflect more on how your stall looks and what product range you have on display?
Yes absolutely, you’ve got to make it look as accessible and professional as possible. There is a lot of thought that goes into the presentation so you can show your range clearly. When I first started it really wasn’t! Over the years I’ve definitely developed the look more to fit with my brand.
I was really lucky to work with a professional photographer that took great photos of my work. Good images are vital for your website and social media. I won a competition through Folksy that offered a free session with lifestyle and product photographer Yeshen Venema. Working with him was superb and helped bring my products to life!
It was the confidence boost that I needed to present myself professionally to the bigger stockists as well as online. It also reassures customers when you have photographs that show the true quality of your product.
Professional photography is an investment, but I don’t think I would have got to where I am now without really good product and lifestyle shots of my work. Having seen how Yeshen styled shots over the years I have learnt a lot so I’m able to create my own now which is fantastic.
How do stockists contact you directly?
Either on email or phone by finding my website and some would contact me through Instagram actually!
Instagram is really valuable for a small business. It has become more difficult over recent months due to the shift in algorithms. That said, it is true that the more you use it, the more you will get out of it.
Instagram Stories are becoming more useful than the feed itself these days. People will refer others to accounts by sharing in their stories so it is a great tool to get exposure. I recently gutted my studio and documented the process through stories online and I got so many orders from doing that, from people I hadn’t even met before.
How do you find the time to manage your social media as well as your business?
It’s one of those things that is worth devoting a bit of time to because you can see results. In an ideal world I would schedule posts twice a day and plan them all on the Monday for the coming week. Every so often I do manage that, but I have to say it does slip in busier moments!
When I first started I felt I had to always be working every weekend, checking my phone, updating my social media. It’s only in recent years that I’ve realised how beneficial it is to step away to have some time out and come back a little bit refreshed, instead of working yourself into the ground. With that in mind, I shifted my working pattern to work more in wholesale so it meant I didn’t have to sell at weekend markets as often.
Click here to read more on how to time manage your social media as a small business.
Let’s talk about wholesale. How do you manage wholesale orders as a sole trader?
It is really important to be honest about what you can achieve and when. Don’t try and kill yourself to complete the order unless it’s really viable for you.
I tend to build up a bit of stock when I can so I try and keep 10 of each design available so I’m ready to fulfill smaller orders. With larger stockists there will be a bit more of a time delay.
At one point selling wholesale took up about 40% of my business. I was working with bigger stockists like Anthropologie; it was fantastic for exposure and actually they were one of the stockists who found me directly. They are a good example of people who would visit markets and trade shows then contact you at a later stage if they like your product.
Selling wholesale is great but, when you are starting out I think sale-or-return is probably your best option. Its the most beneficial way of testing the product to see if they are popular and the risk is low as long as the communication with your stockist is open. You have to trust that the stockists will tell you when something has been sold and they are going to look after your stock because you are essentially loaning it to them.
So what’s next for your business ?
I feel so lucky to have worked with some amazing brands. However, the handmade aspect of my work is really important to my brand identity, which does mean I can’t always meet the demands of a major stockist.
I am keen to develop more of my commission based work now so my creative side can grow. l Seeing society becoming more aware of sustainability and understanding the value of production in recent years has really played into my business decisions. I want to focus on producing more one-off pieces that people will cherish for years to come.
I also love learning. It is really important for any independent business to take advantage of any courses or advice that is out there. Future Learn is a great online resource – the courses are created by universities around the world and are free to access. You can choose to upgrade if you want the accreditation. And of course there is a whole range of Culture+ Resources too!
Lastly, what would your one piece of advice for emerging designer-makers?
I hate to talk about money but you really have to think about cost and profit.
It has been a long learning curve for me realising that selling product is great but there are so many parts to that puzzle that can make it quite costly – it’s important to get your pricing right. January is a really good time for planning what you want to produce and how you will sell it.