Meet the Maker – Annika Benitz Chaloff of Married & Bright

Annika Bentiz Chaloff of Married & Bright

Annika Bentiz Chaloff of Married & Bright

 

This week in our ongoing Meet the Maker series, we’re going behind the scenes with the lovely Annika Benitz Chaloff of handcrafted lingerie brand Married & Bright. Annika, whom I had the distinct pleasure of getting to know in person at the Craftcation conference this past April, is a honey of a woman – and I’m tickled pink to introduce her to you as well. Welcome, Annika!

 

LBC: What inspired you to take your leap as an entrepreneur?

Annika: About five years ago, I decided to start my own business because I couldn’t find a career path that I was happy with. Rather than endlessly pursue jobs that dead-ended or made me feel trapped, I started a line of children’s and maternity clothing called Expect. That ill-fated business closed at the end of 2014. I was so heartbroken by what I perceived as a failure, I vowed never to go into business again.

In early 2015, I fell into being a handmade business owner when I made a bralette for myself out of leftover materials from Expect. That bra went “viral” on Instagram. I got so many requests for duplicates that I had to open an Etsy shop to process the orders. Suddenly, I was in business again, and invigorated with fresh passion.

As the success of my new business, Married & Bright, increases, I realize more and more that there is no other career I’d rather have. I am, simply put, unemployable. I really enjoy setting my own hours, being free to travel, and creating my own lifestyle. I’m hoping to become a mother in the next few years and I really like the freedom that entrepreneurship affords me when it comes to time spent working and time spent with family.

 

LBC: When you first got started, how did you envision your business would be defined?

Annika: I wanted to create unique lingerie that is designed by women, for women. I wanted to design and market non-intimidating undies for everyday ladies. From day one, it has been my goal to make women feel more beautiful, confident, and positive about their bodies through what they put on it. I believe that the way you look on the outside has the power to influence how you feel on the inside… and truly lovely, fun lingerie makes every woman feel just a little more pretty.

 

Annika Bentiz Chaloff of Married & Bright

 

LBC: How would you describe what you create?

Annika: I make quirky yet delicately handcrafted lingerie that is designed to make the wearer feel wonderful.

 

LBC: Where can we find your products?

Annika: On my website, marriedandbright.com, and on Etsy at marriedandbright.etsy.com.

 

LBC: Walk us through your typical work day.

Annika: Every day seems to be different and I’m often flying by the seat of my pants, but usually I split my day into three sections: filling orders, marketing, and product development. I strive to get my orders out within 48 hours of receiving them, and since every bralette and pair of undies is made-to-order, I spend a lot of time at my machine.

I enjoy working late into the evenings, and as a result, I wake up late — around 10am. Usually the first thing in my work day is sewing and packing orders to get them to the post office before it closes at five in the afternoon. Most days I’m at the post office at noon, and I swing by Starbucks on my way back home.

Then I dive into marketing efforts, whether that is developing my Pinterest and Instagram platforms, or working with a blogger on an upcoming feature. It’s hard for me to keep from adding new products to my line because I’m always finding new materials I want to work with, so a few times a month, I sew, photograph, and create new listings.

 

Annika Bentiz Chaloff of Married & Bright

 

LBC: What are 3 things makers should think through when they initially decide to start a business?

Annika: 1. Think through why you are going into business. If you are doing it just for fun, then it’s not a business. Sometimes, business isn’t fun, but it can be very rewarding even when the money isn’t flowing. I went into business to be in control of my work schedule, income, and lifestyle.

2. Think strongly about the viability of your product. Do a little research about what kinds of products people want to buy, and see if you can supply that. I think a lot of handmade business owners go into business to try to sell something that they enjoy making without considering if people actually want to purchase and own it. This was the downfall of my pervious business; I was making products I enjoyed sewing, but ones that no one really needed or wanted.

3. Consider how much money you want to put into your business and make a plan. It’s easy to get excited about starting a business, but much harder to be harshly honest with yourself when it’s not going well. It’s important to think of it as a business and not take it personally when it’s not going well. I’m not saying to throw in the towel during a slow season, but to just be careful about sinking a lot of money into something without a plan.

 

LBC: When you’re overwhelmed, what brings you back to focus?

Annika: When I used to get overwhelmed as a kid, my mom used to say, “Just do it bird by bird.” I return to that phrase often when I’m feeling like there are just too many tasks in front of me. I make a list and I break the steps down to super small actions. I think of what needs to be done today and what I can leave for tomorrow. Sometimes it’s as simple as cleaning up my studio so that I have room to cut long reams of fabric, and then laying the fabric out to get cut. Bird by bird.

 

Annika Bentiz Chaloff of Married & Bright

 

LBC: Tell us about a few of the best business decisions you’ve made to date.

Annika: Education. Period. When I was running Expect, I refused to spend money on anything besides materials. I’d say that’s the number one reason that business failed. I had no idea what I was doing. When I fell back into business, I decided to educate myself as much as possible about anything related to my field. That included brushing up on sewing skills, and taking online classes about marketing, finance, social media, and graphic design. Paying other people to share their genius with me has been worth it tenfold because of the heartache and frustration it has saved me.

 

LBC: Please share one mistake or obstacle from your business experience. How did you bounce back/overcome it?

Annika: Something hard I face almost every day is people writing to me complaining that they don’t think the products I make are for them. It can be really hard knowing that there is an underserved community that I could be selling to, and feeling like I can’t help them. Specifically, women with larger chests feel disappointed that my bralettes aren’t made to support them. I had to realize that, first of all, I can’t serve everyone. No business can. I had to be okay — at least for the time being — with turning away potential customers because my designs aren’t meant for them. Secondly, I had to strongly consider if I wanted to onboard these potential buyers and how I would do it. Since making underwire bra is a complicated, math-heavy (and I’m good at math!) project, I’ve decided to make a long term plan to literally support these women… just not today.

 

Annika Bentiz Chaloff of Married & Bright

 

LBC: Is there a cause or organization that you contribute to that you’re particularly passionate about?

Annika: I’m not sure if there is even a word for this cause, but my current passion is making women feel good about themselves no matter what men think about them. My best friend, Jessica, founded I Dress for Me, which is a movement that sums up my feelings about fashion. Wear what you wanna wear and don’t worry about what your husband, boyfriend, or strangers on the street think about you. Wear a wild outfit, or a short skirt, and forget about what others think. Your sartorial choices are not an invite for judgement, conversation, harassment, or assault. You can check out the movement on Instagram at @idressforme.

 

LBC: What are 3 essential resources in your business toolbox that you can’t do without?

Annika: 1. It might be harsh to call this a tool, but my “biz besties” are a great resource and enormous comfort to me. Having a group of fellow small business owners to bounce ideas off of, or just whine to, has been wonderfully helpful.

2. This may be surprising, but Etsy has been an amazing tool for growing my business, and I don’t plan on doing away with it! Etsy is like one of my employees. She brings in traffic, advertises for me, and streamlines my customer onboarding process. I can’t fire someone who only takes a 3.5% commission!

3. Since I run my business out of my home, having a whole room designated just to Married & Bright has been a really lovely luxury that I hope I never have to do without. Being able to lock the door and get work done without interruption allows me to be as productive as a work-from-homer could possibly be. And being able to shut myself out of the room when the day is done lets me dedicate valuable time to my husband and dog at the end of the day.

 

Annika Bentiz Chaloff of Married & Bright

 

LBC: Suppose we had a time machine. If you blasted ourselves forward a few years, where would we see your company?

Annika: Designing and making my own products is something I hope to never have to stop doing, so as I grow my business, I’m hoping to outsource tasks like marketing, finance, social media, packing and shipping, and sourcing materials. I’d love to have a small team. My loftier, more long-term goal is to one day open a brick and mortar boutique where I can interact with my team and customers daily.

 

LBC: Your musical playlist is full of…

Annika: 90s pop and musicals. I can’t get enough of those five-part boy band harmonies, and those get-out-of-your-seat-and-do-a-solo kick line tunes!

 

LBC: Share one of your guiltiest pleasures.

Annika: Snarfing down Trader Joe’s Belgium Chocolate pudding straight out of the container while standing in front of the open fridge. If there is another way to eat that stuff, I haven’t discovered it yet.

 

LBC: If you could hire someone to do just one thing that you sort of loath doing, what would it be?

Annika: I would seriously love to get someone to do my bookkeeping. I’m decent at math, but something about looking at money numbers makes me queasy, even on a good month! To not have to crunch those numbers once a month would be so so dreamy.

 

Annika Bentiz Chaloff of Married & Bright

 

Thank you, Annika, for sharing your talent with us!  We absolutely love what you’re doing with Married & Bright, and we look forward to all the wonderful things ahead for you and your company. We’re cheering you on!

 

Want to see your brand featured in our continuing “Meet the Maker” series? Drop us a line: hello AT luckybreakconsulting.com. Please use “MEET THE MAKER” as the subject line and be certain to include your web address. We look forward to hearing from you!

 

The Problem with Selling on Handmade at Amazon

AmazonHandmadeIG

The Etsy platform has long existed in a state of inherent tension:  the sellers who depend so heavily upon it are often quick to criticize it as well. Etsy was roundly celebrated as it labored to create an unprecedented market opportunity for makes and product designers, effectively launching a retail rebellion of the very best kind. From its humble beginnings as a scrappy startup way back in 2005, Etsy has evolved into a juggernaut, racking up close to $2billion in sales in 2014 and almost single-handedly launching the “maker revolution.”

 

But a series of missteps and growing pains left many sellers with a less-than-savory taste in their mouths. Etsy sellers have struggled with:

 

    • An ever-evolving definition of “handmade”
    • A perceived lack of commitment to protecting their intellectual property
    • A recent flood of mass-produced products from overseas
    • A corporate IPO, which introduced public shareholder interest into the mix

 

So while Etsy pioneered this space, improving market accessibility for makers and artists over the course of the last decade, the relationship has soured for many of Etsy’s most ardent supporters. Sensing a potentially lucrative opening, Amazon launched a new “Handmade at Amazon” platform designed to compete head-to-head with Etsy.  Amazon wisely put together an attractive package for Etsy sellers and entered the fray with a public launch in October of 2015.

 

For the past four months, I’ve fielded the question “Should I sell on Amazon Handmade?” on a weekly basis as my clients explore all of their distribution opportunities.  And my answer has been a firm and consistent “no” from day one.

 

The debate surrounding Handmade at Amazon continues to rage and thoughtful articles have detailed Amazon’s less-than-intuitive user interface  and the company’s penchant for using the sales data of its own sellers to drive them out of business. While that possibility is deeply troubling, Amazon fans have remained steadfast in their faith in the platform, asserting that the exploitation of sales data of the handmade contingent is speculative at this juncture. Touché.

 

From my vantage point as a business strategist for makers and product designers, there are a host of more fundamental problems with the Handmade at Amazon platform.  I urge every maker who’s striving to build a sustainable business to proceed with extreme caution.  Why?

 

Amazon is a dictatorial platform that exerts almost total control over the sales process, stripping sellers of virtually all autonomy.  And it’s hella expensive, too.

 

AMAZON IS AN EXPENSIVE PLATFORM UPON WHICH TO SELL

 

Let’s start with the money discussion, because a clear distillation of the Amazon fee structure will likely dissuade many makers from sowing deep seeds into the platform. When compared to Etsy, Amazon Handmade takes a larger bite of the apple in virtually every scenario.  A quick side-by-side comparison is revealing…

 

HANDMADE AT AMAZON

    •  No listing fees
    •  $40 Professional Selling Plan, paid monthly
    •  Transaction fee of either 12% or $.50, whichever is greater
    •  Transaction fees are applied to shipping charges as well

 

As a launch incentive for Handmade at Amazon, the $40 “Professional Selling Plan” fee is being waived through August 1, 2016.

 

ETSY

    • Listing fee of $.20 per item
    • 3.5% transaction fee
    • 3% payment processing fee
    • Transaction fees aren’t applied to shipping costs
    • No monthly fee

 

AmazonHandmade
The fee disparity will deepen when Amazon Handmade begins collecting their $40 monthly fee in the fall of 2016.
AmazonHandmade2

 

It’s worth noting, too, than Etsy releases funds immediately, while Amazon holds funds until the order ships. For makers who are shipping premade items, this point of difference is likely insignificant. But for the artists working on custom commissions, this is a critical differentiation that will impact the cash flow of the business.

 

AMAZON’S NOT AFRAID TO STRONG-ARM YOUR PRICING STRUCTURE

 

Amazon is well attuned to their power and the company isn’t timid about applying pricing pressure to those who play in its sandbox. In August of 2015, Amazon dispatched an email missive to an entrepreneur in my circle, effectively announcing that…

 

“We have identified that based on the current cost of some of your products, we are not able to sustainably offer them to our customers despite our highly efficient, high volume retail model.”

 

Mind you, the email was received after 4 successful years of selling via Amazon.  Brand managers hadn’t noted slacking sales, so the trigger for the communication is unclear. Regardless, Amazon offered the brand “suggested” new pricing which equated to a 15% reduction.  The seller was given one week to decide from among three options:

    • Accept the pricing presented, authorizing Amazon to implement it immediately.
    • Accept some of the new pricing “suggestions.” For products which weren’t accepted at the suggested price point, Amazon may elect to drop them altogether.
    • The seller could manually update the pricing themselves.  Amazon noted that if the seller was “unable to give us the costs we’ve requested,” then the products may be dropped from the platform.

 

Let that sink in for a moment: Amazon dictated the prices of an independent brand. Not the price Amazon would pay for the product, but the price they’d allow an independent retailer to charge the customer. Danger, Will Robinson!

 

 

AMAZON IS REVERED AS HOME OF THE CHEAP + READILY AVAILABLE

 

The sale of commodities forms Amazon’s very core… it’s the premise upon which the company was built and it embodies the concept for which Amazon has become famous: cheap prices, fast delivery, and access to an infinite stream of products. But that very premise is antithetical to the handmade movement.

 

Commodities are products that can easily be substituted for one another. They’re items for which a demand exists, but there’s no qualitative difference across a marketplace. For example: the scrubber sponges you grab because they’re on sale at the grocery store and the plant food you select because it’s the first one that catches your eye during a quick run to the nursery. The purchasing patterns of commodity buyers are triggered by two things: price and availability.

 

Amazon has become the largest retailer in the United States, with $89 billion (billion with a B!) in sales collected from 294 million users in 2014. And why do we patronize Amazon so faithfully? Because virtually every product under the sun is conveniently located in one centralized spot, available at our fingertips 24 hours a day at an uber-competitive price. Even better? We can have anything our hearts’ desire on our doorstep within 48 hours. As a shopper, there’s a lot to love!

 

But as a brand, the love affair is increasinly tepid. In contrast to commodities, brands create differentiated products that are highly desired by their ideal customers. Brand customers have some degree of loyalty, seeking out specific goods in the marketplace. These customers are less likely to substitute products based on price and availability.  And they’re precisely the kind of shoppers that handmade artisans need to sustain their business.

 

By pitching your wares via Amazon, you risk commoditizing your brand. And I don’t believe this is an obscure risk… in fact, I believe that makers who sell through Amazon inevitably erode brand value.  The value buyers of Amazon want things fast and cheap (which means their patience is usually in short supply) and they’ll shop next month based on price and availability (which means they’re not inclined to build loyalty to a specific brand). If another seller with a similar item sets up shop on Amazon at a lower price, then your buyers are likely to defect en masse. And if you step off of the Amazon platform, then you immediately decrease the availability of your wares and the Amazon customer isn’t likely to follow you.

 

In short: Amazon buyers likely aren’t your audience. And you likely wouldn’t want them to be. Please know that I’m not anti-Amazon! The almost predictable delivery of Amazon Prime packages to my doorstep is a sign of how often I patronize the platform. But I use it for quick + easy + cheap deliveries of my daughter’s vegan protein bars and the latest business book I want to digest. If fast + cheap + accessible ism’t the kind of customer you ultimately want to attract to your brand, then I’d think twice about crawling into bed with Amazon.

 

A few other important caveats to note: prestige products have no place on Amazon because they’re run contrary to the sales model that Amazon has so carefully constructed.  And as someone who helps makers build wholesale strategies, I can imagine few things which are less attractive to the independent shop buyer than knowing that your wares are available 24 hours a day via America’s largest discount retailer. Crawl inside the mind of a buyer for a few moments and meditate on that through their eyes.

 

AMAZON OWNS THE CUSTOMER + TRANSACTION

 

In essence, Amazon is a closed eco-system and makers are positioned as dropshippers of their own products. The progression of evolving an Amazon customer into a brand customer is a completely passive process over which Amazon sellers have no control.

 

When selling on Amazon, you…

      • Can’t include a link back to your site
      • Can’t include any promotional materials in your shipment
      • Can’t harvest the customer email address to add to your newsletter list
      • Can’t contact the customer outside the Amazon

 

In essence, the customer belongs to Amazon.  Any attempt to establish a relationship with that customer outside of Amazon is sufficient grounds for termination of your Amazon selling privileges.

 

Etsy policies are friendlier to the seller, at least in comparison to Amazon. While Etsy discourages “fee avoidance”, the platform doesn’t forbid you from linking directly to a website that lives outside of Etsy. And you’re free to tuck anything you like into the actual order.

 

the problem with selling on handmade at amazon

 

From Etsy’s Seller Policies page>> “You may receive a buyer’s email address or other information as a result of entering into a transaction with that buyer. This information may only be used for Etsy-related communications or for Etsy-facilitated transactions. You may not use this information for unsolicited commercial messages or unauthorized transactions. Without the buyer’s explicit consent, you may not add any Etsy member to your email or physical mailing list or store or misuse any payment information.”

 

In contrast, Amazon maintains a restrictive set of parameters surrounding the buyers/seller interaction >> “Any attempt to circumvent the established Amazon sales process or to divert Amazon users to another website or sales process is prohibited. Specifically, any advertisements, marketing messages (special offers) or “calls to action” that lead, prompt, or encourage Amazon users to leave the Amazon website are prohibited. Prohibited activities include the following:
•  The use of email intended to divert customers away from the Amazon sales process.
•  The inclusion of hyperlinks, URLs or web addresses within any seller generated confirmation email messages or any product/listing description fields that are intended to divert customers away from the Amazon sales process.

 

In fact, Amazon sellers never even see the email addresses of their buyers…

“Buyers and sellers may communicate with one another via the Buyer-Seller Messaging Service, which assigns unique Amazon-generated email addresses to both parties. Sellers are prohibited from providing or soliciting direct, non-Amazon-generated email addresses on the Amazon website or in correspondence through the Buyer-Seller Messaging Service.”

 

When selling directly through Etsy, you enjoy an opportunity to include promotional materials that fortify the relationship and entice customers to visit your own independent, ecommerce site. When selling on Amazon, however, Amazon controls the process from beginning to end, and sellers are forbidden from including any materials which might potentially “divert” the Amazon-owned customer.

 

Per the Amazon’s Sellers Guide >> “Now that you’ve read your Amazon.com seller agreement and associated policies and guidelines, we want to give you additional information that is key to selling successfully on Amazon. Things to Avoid: Including any marketing or promotional materials with packing materials.”

 

Note: This bit of guidance was originally posted by Amazon behind a password-protected area that’s exclusively accessible by their sellers. The version I linked above is a direct quote on a publicly-accessible Amazon seller’s forum, but the content is identical and the guideline comes directly from Amazon.

 

That policy binds the hands of Amazon sellers and leaves the ball firmly in the customer’s court. There’s no prompting or incentive for any single customer to track down your site, which is the typical catalyst for converting a customer who found you via a third-party platform into a customer whom you “own.”

 

 

AMAZON OFFERS NO HIGHER “HANDMADE” STANDARD

Etsy’s definition of handmade has been a persistent sticking point over the last several years, ruffling more than a few feathers. The “handmade” concept has been iterated in several ways by Etsy executives, and this is the latest incarnation >>

 

“Handmade items are items that are made by you, the seller, or are designed by you and made with the help of an approved outside manufacturer who complies with our ethical manufacturing policies. If you sell in the Handmade category, you must be able to demonstrate that your items comply with our Handmade Policy. You agree that:
•  All handmade items are made or designed by you. If you work with an outside manufacturer to make items that you have designed, you must apply for outside manufacturing and choose ethical manufacturing partners.
•  You accurately describe every person involved in the making of an item in your shop in your About page.
•  You are using your own photographs– not stock photos, artistic renderings, or photos used by other sellers or sites. Read more about using appropriate photographs in this Help article.

 

Sellers have long been frustrated with the ever-evolving definition of the word “handmade” offered by Etsy, but Amazon’s definition of handmade does nothing to “put teeth” into the concept.

“All products available in your Handmade at Amazon store must be made entirely by hand, hand-altered, or hand assembled (not from a kit). Products must be handmade by you (the artisan), by one of your employees (if your company has 20 or fewer employees), or a member of your collective with less than 100 people. Mass-produced products or products handmade by a different artisan are not eligible to sell in Handmade.”

Unfortunately, Amazon’s entry into the handmade world hasn’t helped shore up the definition so many of us seek. It’s interesting to note that the much ballyhooed Three Bird Nest fiasco could easily exist on Handmade at Amazon too, so long as the buttons are lovingly stitched one-by-one onto the fresh-off-the-Chinese boat headbands and assuming that the company constrains its growth to twenty employees or less.

 

NO HISTORY OF SUPPORTING THE HANDMADE COMMUNITY

 

While many sellers have become disenchanted with Etsy as it’s grown, there’s little debate over the amount of seller support that Etsy offers makers and product designers. There are a myriad of support systems in place at Etsy designed to help entrepreneurs get their sea legs beneath them and build more successful businesses.

Some of those support systems include:

    • The Etsy Seller handbook: a collection of 300+ articles on everything from product photography  to brand development
    • Etsy Labs: a “creative community space” in Brooklyn that plays host to craft and business development workshops
    • The Etsy Wholesale Blog: weekly profiles of maker-centric boutiques accompanied by posts filled with strategies designed to fortify your wholesale program
    • Etsy Street Teams: communities of supportive makers centered around common product categories or geographical locations

 

Etsy’s outstanding educational support has spoiled us and Amazon hasn’t risen to the occasion.  Their seller support is anemic at best. In the final equation, Etsy has raised a generation of savvy makers that Amazon can now monetize.  While that’s a brilliant business move on Amazon’s behalf, the maker community isn’t any better for it. Amazon’s roots aren’t in the handmade movement, and I believe they’ve jumped on the bandwagon simply because Etsy has proven the financial viability of supporting makers and artists. I fear that handmade sellers are little more than dollars signs to Amazon.

 

A WORD OF CAUTION

 

I encourage my clients to invest the bulk of their time and energy in building the only platform over which they ultimately enjoy complete control: their own ecommerce site. Depending on any third party platform (Amazon, Etsy, Facebook, Instagram, et al) is a risky strategy that leaves you in a place of vulnerability.

 

Each of those entities is a publicly-traded company with a primary responsibility to return profit to its shareholders. Their ultimate loyalty belongs to their shareholders, rather than their users.

 

Further, because we exert no real control over those platforms, we leave ourselves at their mercy. One round of bad press, one algorithm update, or one policy change could spell disaster. The platform could implode or their customers could revolt en masse. The Powers That Be could simply change the rules and decide that we no longer fit their model, banishing us from the sandbox altogether. If those scenarios feel like obscure or abstract concepts then you either haven’t been playing in these waters for long or you haven’t been paying attention. I say that in love, but I can’t conjure a kinder or more accurate way of expressing that.

 

In order to build a smart, sustainable creative business, I recommend:

    • Building your own ecommerce site as “home base”
    • Amassing a carefully targeted list of email addresses from those interested in your products
    • Sending regular newsletters, brimming with value, to that customer base to fortify the relationships
    • Attracting new customers through intentional, high quality social media content, and thoughtful collaborations
    • Investing at least twice as much energy in your own platform as you invest in third party platforms

 

Have you taken Handmade at Amazon out for a spin? Are you an established Amazon seller who predates the Handmade at Amazon platform? Have you been mulling over the decision to set up shop with America’s largest retailer? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

What has your Amazon experience been like?

 

What attracts you to the platform?

 

What fears or uncertainties surround your decision to sell via Amazon?