Rena Tom Rena Tom

Profile: Doug Johnston

Here is a lovely story of serendipity for you. I check in at Flickr every couple days, and someone posted a really intriguing and beautiful photo of what looked like soft sculpture. I added it to my Pinterest boards and thought that would be the end of it. Shortly after, I saw another photo, this time of a bag, and remembered how much I loved the first piece. I did more research and contacted the maker.
It turns out that he is an online friend of a real-life friend of mine (through architecture, not the craft world) and we had been Flickr friends for years through this connection. The world is tiny-small and I love it. Anyway – here’s Doug and his amazing vessels and bags. He is really and truly in the startup phase of his business so the interview was altered a bit. I wish him the best of luck and want my retailer friends to take a good look at what he does :)
The Start

The hanks of cotton rope in a local hardware store had been calling out to me, so I bought some. I found a method of sewing them into bowls and it turned out to be an excellent way to de-stress and explore some ideas from my previous work. I made a few baskets for friends and family as well as a bag for my wife. The response to the pieces was always very positive and everyone suggested that I sell them. For about a year I continued working with the technique and materials. There was a lot to learn about the method and I had to test out different kinds of rope, thread, needles, etc before I felt comfortable selling them.

Photo by Michael Popp.

With so many ideas for pieces I wanted to make, the original thought was that I would start an online shop and sell a few things here and there simply to pay for more materials and equipment. I got so excited about having my own business, and all of the possibilities that I realized I shouldn’t limit my options or lose the opportunity. For me there was very low risk and very low investment since I was already renting space, had the equipment, and was making the work anyway. After months of planning and discussion with my wife, I decided to go for it and I actually left my job in august to focus on my artwork and getting the business going.

Now I am working freelance on the side to help pay the bills while the business gets traction, but mostly so I can control my schedule. The free time allowed me to sort through the business start up process, get a few permits, tweak my website, finish up the first round of products, have photographs taken and set up the online shop. Most importantly though, I had time to think, focus and plan. I opened the webshop on October 1st of this year and it was very satisfying to finally get it going. I never thought I would be doing anything like this but it feels very natural and its been a lot of fun so far.


Unforseen Challenges

My first problem was finding the right information for the kind of business I wanted to start. A great resource will always be my network of friends and family. They have been wonderfully supportive and helpful. I am also discovering this wonderful wealth of information online and its sites like this that lead me in the right direction. Because the products I am making span a few different categories I have trouble defining my business, explaining it to others and getting the pricing right. I am trying to get everything set up correctly, but I also know that its going to take a lot of time and I have to allow mistakes to happen in order to learn what is going to work best. Patience and a functional but flexible business plan seems to be the key.

Photos by Michael Popp.

The biggest issues are always lack of money and time. There is a long list of things I could do or want to do with my shop, products, promotion, and many details in all areas of the operation… if I only had the money and time. I have committed to letting the business grow slowly, step by step, even though I can get impatient with all these ideas and goals. As things grow I will eventually have the money and make the time to do what I want to do. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying the process. Focusing on what is actually happening right now and celebrating all the little accomplishments along the way is the fun part.

Next Steps

In two years I would love to do this as my only job, splitting my time somewhat equally between sending out orders and making new artwork. Now I am taking steps to get my work in front of the right audiences. In addition to doing a few craft fairs and markets I’m fostering some potential wholesale opportunities and preparing promotional materials. Making new pieces to expand and re-stock the online shop will be a continuous effort and an essential part of my work. I will continue to refine the presentation of my work through the images, packaging, and details to a more cohesive and unique identity. Eventually the made-to-order pieces such as the bags or certain repeatable items could potentially break off as their own line with stream-lined production and a stronger brand identity. Likewise, the more sculptural explorations will continue to grow and be pushed conceptually and physically.

Thanks, Doug! Creative business owners, would you like to be profiled? Contact me here.

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  1. I like how Doug’s startup came about when he made a accidental “prototype” for his wife and family and got amazing feedback. He then chose to focus on that product and took a year to get the materials right. The direction he ended up going and the path that he took was from the feedback he got form those bags he made. Great example of somebody doing a craft start-up with a lean methodology. Boot-strapping it and taking the time to get it right (kaizen). How very Toyota of him. ;P
    Love it! I also like how he isn’t trying to make a quick buck. He is steadily building his business one step at a time with a product he knows people want and a quality of craftsmanship that he feels comfortable with. There are a lot of sellers who are so concerned with getting sales that they don’t put much effort or research into the products they are developing and the quality suffers. Brilliant, Doug!
    xoxo, Ashley

  2. Dear Doug,
    What a great creative idea. Your work looks great. Wishing you every success.

    Lisa Meriweather
    Etsy shop: magicwingscreations.

  3. Ashley and Lisa: Thanks so much for the encouragement! I’m having a great time so far, and learning a lot.

  4. wendy says:

    Beautiful work Doug – really nice stuff and really unique also.

    My husband is in the early early stages of marketing high end ceramics and we are both doing a lot of reading because we know nothing about developing a product line or how to go about it. But I think if you know you have something good, then the rest is just details of figuring out how to bring it to market.

    Very inspiring.

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