Turning your hobby into your sole business can be a frightening prospect, but embracing the uncertainty, risk-taking – and yes, failure – are valuable experiences to your business’ growth.
Over the past decade, I have spent a lot of time learning about what it means to run my own business. I started a very small pet accessory company – DogDog Goose – in the fall of 2011 and have watched it change and grow more than I ever thought possible to where it is now — my passion and entire full-time focus. I never set out to start a business and stumbled into it by accident, but I have learned a few important lessons along the way that have helped me continue keeping myself on track and take things to the next level.
Starting out, I essentially knew nothing about launching or running a small business. My brand started as a small hobby that gave me a creative outlet and helped me get through university. I had been looking for a dog collar for our Dalmatian, Luci that looked great, was easy to use, and was durable and long-lasting. I was having trouble finding something like that in stores, so I decided to try my hand at making my own.
I had no experience with Etsy or other online marketplaces, and I had never built an ecommerce website. I didn’t have connections or friends in the handmade community, so attending markets and events made me feel like a fish out of water. All the vendors seemed to know each other, and I tend to avoid ‘putting myself out there’ in new and uncomfortable situations. What I learned, however, is that most small business owners remember very well what it was like starting out and are happy to share some of their expertise with others around them. I also realized that there are plenty of online forums and social media groups for small businesses and makers filled with other like-minded entrepreneurs in every single stage of their businesses.
There were so many aspects of running a business besides just making the product that I had never thought of before:
- How should I attach prices and product information to my items and display them in my booth?
- What are my options when it comes to payment processors, and what are the reasons to help inform my choice of one over the others?
- When I begin to sell online, should I use an online marketplace or build my own website?
- What shipping services should I use, and can I offer my products internationally?
Lots of the answers to these questions I found out for myself through countless hours of online reading and a lot of trial and error. However, a lot of valuable information also came from fellow makers and artisans I met along the way, both in-person and online. No one can give you all the answers when it comes to your own business (nor should they), but having some trusted friends who you can bounce ideas off of or who may have a lead on a resource or contact goes a long way. Once I became a more seasoned market participant and had spent some time in the crafting community in my area, I made a point of being approachable to all makers in an effort to be the resource that I never felt I had when I started out.
Another thing I learned very quickly is that you can’t be afraid to fail — because you will fail, again and again, but that is an important part of the process. What matters more is what you learn from those failures and where you go next. Stepping outside of my comfort zone was the only way that my business has been able to grow and scale from a very small hobby to my life’s work. The entire reason my product was created was because I was trying to design a solution to a daily problem I was experiencing in my own life, and I try to apply those same principles to the day-to-day operations of my business.
One of the biggest steps I took was when I made the decision to leave my engineering career to pursue DogDog Goose full time. It felt scary and uncertain, but the business needed more of my time in order to grow and that was the only way it was going to get it. Being able to dedicate my full attention to the business meant I could grow from having a very small product offering of leather collars to several product lines encompassing everything from collars, leashes, flannel scarves, and accessories to wellness tinctures and treats for pets and a complementary human clothing line. I understood that leaving my previous career path behind me was a potentially high-risk decision, but I trusted in my brand and my product enough to take the leap. Having the support of my family and friends (and that trusted maker community) also reinforced my decision.
Lastly, I decided very early on what mindsets and values were important to me and my business, and I have stuck strongly to those ideals throughout the entire journey so far. One of the qualities of my brand that is very important to me is that our collars and leashes are made by hand with great care in our home-based workshop, the same way they have been since the very beginning. The pandemic brought an unexpected surge in order volume at the beginning of 2020, and I found myself wondering how I was possibly going to keep up with the number of items I had to make. Rather than outsourcing the manufacturing of all our main products, we invested in bigger and more capable equipment so that I could produce more items in less time with even better consistency and higher quality than before. I was also able to bring my mom, Heidi onto the team as our full-time seamstress to handle all our textile goods, such as bandanas, flannel scarves, and waste bag carriers. The fact that we make each and every collar for our customers has always been important to me, and while we have brought on additional secondary product lines and add-ons made out-of-house to complement the brand over the years, that core value of hand making my collars will always remain the same.
No matter what stage of your business you’re in, the next steps will always come with nerves and uncertainty. Whether I was just starting out and trying to decide whether to invest in $100 worth of supplies or deciding to move into my first official dedicated workshop space to develop new product lines and order exponentially larger shipments of raw materials, I remind myself that those feelings of anxiety are a normal part of the process. They reinforce that I’m dedicated and mentally invested in the success of my business. Over the past decade of operation, I have learned more lessons than I can possibly count on two hands, but these main takeaways have really helped me take my business to the next level. Having some form of community — whatever that means to you — is so important. Being able to brainstorm and collaborate with others, especially when you’re stuck on a problem or in a rut, is a very valuable experience. Secondly, you can’t be afraid to take risks because failure is an important experience in business. And finally, once you know your core values, you can use them to guide you in all your decisions moving forward, knowing that at the end of the day, you are staying true to yourself and to your business, no matter what stage of the journey you’re in.
About the Author
Lauren van Keulen was born and raised in Calgary, AB before moving to Edmonton to complete her education in engineering. Lauren worked in her field for four years before taking DogDog Goose full time in 2016. Currently, she and her husband, Brady live in Lumby, BC with their two dogs in their home-based workspace for DogDog Goose. Their products are sold online and through a growing list of retailers and are shipped internationally. Lauren looks forward to continuing the expansion of DogDog Goose by developing new product lines and innovative designs.
Learn more about Lauren Van Keulen at dogdoggoose.ca or on Instagram at @dogdoggoose