Have you missed our “Meet the Maker” series? We’re toying with the idea of bringing back this series as a regular blog feature, so drop a comment below if you’d like to meet more of our favorite makers and hear the stories behind their success!
Today we’re excited to introduce you to Meg Sutton, who founded Belle & Union back in 2011. Now run by Meg and her husband Josh, Belle & Union is well-known in the maker community for their letterpress prints, handmade wrappings, and gorgeous housewares. Brimming with old-fashioned American wit, wisdom and style, all Belle & Union goods are made 100% in the U.S. (no really, 100 PERCENT). Thanks so much for joining us, Meg… we’re thrilled to share your story!
LBC: What inspired you to take your leap as an entrepreneur?
Meg: After working for a year as a graphic designer in an advertising agency, I was not feeling fulfilled creatively. I had worked in a boutique shop in downtown Savannah, Georgia, where I fell in love with letterpress. After finding a press in an antique mall in Florida, I quit my job and began designing my collection. One year later we launched at the National Stationery Show and the rest, as they say, is history.
LBC: When you first got started, how did you envision your business would be defined?
Meg: As with most creatives, I had on rose-colored glasses about entrepreneurship – believing my days would be filled with doodling and product development. I quickly learned that having a business is 10% creative and 90% wearing all of the other hats related to actually running a business.
LBC: How would you describe what you create?
Meg: We started out mainly as a paper goods company, but grew to add a variety of kitchen items and housewares. We believe in creating small-batch, hand-crafted artisan goods from American materials. We’ve found our niche in the foodie market, so many of our goods have that twist, whether that is through letterpress printed greeting cards with food puns, screen-printed tea towels with food patterns, or actual cooking elements like hand-carved utensils for your kitchen.
LBC: Walk us through your typical workday.
Meg: No day is typical! Being an entrepreneur is a lot of fire-fighting – if I am not putting one out, I am probably starting one. I read once to make a list of 5-6 things the night before, so you can hit the ground running in the morning. It has really changed my workflow and allowed me to be more productive. I can usually accomplish on a Monday and Tuesday what used to take me all week, just by being thoughtful and intentional about what needs to be accomplished. No day is typical, but each usually has emails, some sort of work on new product development, supply chain management, production, and order fulfillment.
LBC: What are 3 things makers should think through when they initially decide to start a business?
Meg: 1) Finances. Know your numbers from day one. You may not like them, and may need help doing them, but you need to make sure you are actually making money and pricing your products correctly.
2) When you do launch, what is going to make your product different? Being handmade or illustrated isn’t enough anymore. Within our industry, the market is flooded with hundreds if not thousands of greeting card designers, so we had to differentiate ourselves from the crowd.
3) That leads to the third thing, and most important: You need to know your “why.” If you just want to make pretty things, that isn’t enough. Running a business is hard work; there is a grind day in and day out, and some days will be tough. It isn’t all doodling and flexible scheduling. Staying true to your “why” and connecting it with your purpose is what will keep you going.
LBC: When you’re overwhelmed, what brings you back to focus?
Meg: If we can help bring joy to someone, be a light in their day – that’s why we do what we do. The memories we awaken in others with our hand-crafted gifts, or a handwritten note from a loved one – we are helping to create treasured moments in people’s lives. Staying focused on this mission of connecting generations past and present is why we do what we do, and what keeps us going each day.
LBC: Tell us about a few of the best business decisions you’ve made to date.
Meg: From the beginning, it was important to me that all of the products that we make or have made for us be 100% American made – from the materials to the final production. It’s taken a lot of extra effort, especially with textiles, to oftentimes create our own supply chains. For example, our tea towels took almost a year to develop, from working directly with the West Texas farmers to start, reserving our cotton (much of American cotton is sent overseas for production), to it being loomed in the Carolinas, to finally being stitched and then screen-printed in Georgia. It was a massive undertaking with lots of research and sampling. But now that the chain is established, we can rely on it and know that our quality is the best it can be. For us, our commitment to American made is something we can truly stand behind – knowing we are helping to establish and continue jobs stateside and that our goods are of artisan quality.
LBC: Please share one mistake or obstacle from your business experience. How did you bounce back/overcome it?
Meg: When I was first preparing to launch, I had saved every penny from custom work to fund our booth at the National Stationery Show in New York City. It took literally every dime I had to launch at that show – and we were received so incredibly well, far beyond what I had dreamed. What I hadn’t thought through (again, know your numbers!) is what it would actually cost to produce all of that product that I had just sold. After calculating it out, it was going to be around $25,000 to create all of the inventory I needed to fulfill orders. After several breakdowns, I pulled myself together and made it work. Now I always make sure to take the time to know exactly how much everything is going to cost start-to-finish before we get too far down the road.
LBC: Is there a cause or organization that you contribute to that you’re particularly passionate about?
Meg: Over the years we have created a few products that specifically give back to Veteran causes. Having seen firsthand how difficult military life can be (my husband spent 6 years in the United States Army), it was important to give back to the men and women who give so much for our country. One way we honor them is by our commitment to American made goods, but we have gone above and beyond that by donating money to various support groups to help Veterans and their families.
LBC: What are 3 essential resources in your business toolbox that you can’t do without?
Meg: 1) We have an online inventory management system that is the control center for all of our orders – our wholesale orders are manually input, and our website orders automatically filter in. It allows us to keep everything in order, and anyone can check and see the status of an order or inventory at any given time. Organization is key in running a smooth operation, and having this platform set-up from the beginning has been a huge factor in keeping us efficient.
2) I highly recommend getting an accountant from the beginning. Even if you run everything yourself, having that person to double check your work is invaluable. We didn’t start with one, and made a mistake where we weren’t filing the proper employee taxes for a few years. That was not a fun or cheap error that could have been caught early on if we had that system of checks and balances with finances.
3) We recently completed work on our “business bible” (it only took five years!). Even when you are starting out, I think it is important to set this up early on. Put down on paper how things work – the proper way to package products, fulfill an order, etc – it’s your operations manual. By having it down on paper, when you do go to hire, you can easily hand that document over to someone and all of the expectations and how-to’s for the business are right there in black and white. It is easy to think in the beginning it isn’t necessary, but it only takes a few minutes to record your process in that moment, than to try and go back and do everything all at once. We have to treat our small businesses like big businesses from day one.
LBC: Suppose we had a time machine. If we blasted ourselves forward a few years, where would we see your company?
Meg: In 2018, we are launching our flagship brick-and-mortar location, which will be our biggest adventure to date. As part of the shop, which will also house our studio, we plan to offer workshops, everything from letterpress printing to hand-lettering, and even a quarterly supper club. We want to create community with our supporters, encouraging people to slow down and enjoy the sweet moments in life, gathered ’round a table filled with smiles and laughter. In a few years, I hope to find the shop thriving in this new journey.
LBC: What’s one thing you would eat, if you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life?
Meg: Something sweet. I have a terrible sweet tooth that is constantly getting me in trouble!
LBC: Your musical playlist is full of…
Meg: An eclectic mix… everything from oldies, Broadway show tunes (hello Hamilton on repeat 24/7), pop – whatever I am feeling at that moment.
LBC: Share one of your guiltiest pleasures.
Meg: Self-care is so important – so I make sure to take time for just me. I usually get my nails done or get a massage at least once a month. I used to feel guilty about taking the time out of the workday to focus on me, but I’ve found it to be so important to my mental health. So I suppose it isn’t that much of a guilty pleasure after all!
Thank you, Meg, for sharing your talent with us! We absolutely love what you’re doing with Belle & Union, 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!