Tips on Starting a Leathercraft Business

I recently taught a class on the basics of starting up and running a small leathercrafting business and I wanted to share my tips and experiences with anyone who is beginiing the same journey. When I started out, there wasn't a good reference, or guide to any of this, and I had no idea what I was doing. I'm hoping this helps some newbies out there. If you have any questions, please contact me! I'm always willing to help!

Leather Business 101: A Guide by The Leather Geek, Corey Christopher

Show Tips/Thoughts and Experience:

  • MOST IMPORTANT TIP: Yes, I’m gonna give it to you right off the bat. DO NOT BURN YOURSELF OUT. Don’t take something you love and turn it into something that makes you angry on a daily basis. If you find out that running a business isn’t for you, scale it back a bit, or turn it back into a hobby. Leatherwork is definitely a passion. I’ve had professional saddle makers of 50 years tell me that that leatherwork is not a profitable business. Keep that in mind if you’re only doing this for the money.

  • Practice your setup before you have a show. I typically do this at least once before each show. Especially if I’m adding new items, which tend to take up different amounts of real estate on my tables. This makes the set up go much smoother, and there is a lot less anxiety the day of the show if you already know the basic layout of all your products. Then on Show Day, it’s really about just putting the finishing polish and little touch ups to really make your booth shine.

  • Be prepared to constantly spend to have a booth setup. Especially an outdoor booth setup. The initial purchasing of many of the items gets expensive quickly. You will also want to constantly improve how your booth looks, which will cost you even more money over time. So before you are ready to make that commitment, I recommend finding a mentor who has run a few shows before. Maybe they will want to split a booth with you, and teach you the ropes of setting up, selling and running a craft show. These mentors are extremely invaluable. I cannot recommend this enough.

  • TIP: Don’t try to compete with the full time businesses if you’re a part timer. You’re setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. Do, however LEARN FROM THEM!! Find a full time leather business that you think is STELLAR and attempt to mimic some of that setup. I’m NOT saying plagiarize their artwork. DO NOT DO THIS. What I mean is learn from how they run their business. Do they post weekly blog articles? How do they run their social media? How do they do their product photography? Does their website look clean and stylish? Emulate some of your favorite parts, don’t copy though. Also, be a fan! Ask them questions, maybe on their social media pages! Or send them an email! Interact with them, and maybe they will give you some tips!

  • Set yourself some goals and expectations. This does not need to be a 1000 page novel. Write down maybe 10 things you would like your business/hobby to accomplish. Example: Sell 15 items at my first show. Receive 2 custom orders in a couple months. You can even set goals that further your leatherworking skill. Setting a few goals will really keep you on track as a business and as an artisan.

  • Attend a Professional Craft Show from the perspective of a seller. Walk through the show, look at their wares. How are they displayed? What types of setups and displays do you like that you might be able to build/use? How do they arrange their tables? Take notes on how they build their booths, ask questions. I’ve never had a seller turn me away when I’ve said “I love your booth display! How did you build that?”

Getting Serious? Get your Official Business License and Tax ID!!

  • Apply for your DBA (Doing Business As) at your County's Clerk’s office

  • The General Business Law requires that DBA certificates are filed by individuals or partners when they conduct commercial activity under a name that is not their given name. “The Leather Geek” isn’t my actual name. Go figure!

  • Head over to the county's website and research DBA. Plenty of instructions there to help you before you visit the clerk’s office downtown.

  • Apply for your official business tax ID. You can often use this to get discounts from suppliers (Like Tandy!!) to make your leather products

  • State Sales Tax filing – yes, the State wants money from you to allow you to sell your wares. Of course. As an official business you will have to do this quarterly or until they send you a letter saying that you are allowed to file your sales tax annually.

  • Things to save for this: receipts. Lots of them. Everything from supplies you bought at Tandy, Michaels, lumber yards, booth setup, shipping supplies…the list goes on and on. And eventually you will have to log all of them. Or if you hire a tax professional…they will. ;) But that costs money too…and don’t forget your receipt for that.

  • Schedule C on your annual filing – nice to have help from a professional on how to fill this out your first time

  • Also may want to consider whether it’s financially better for your business to remain in the Hobby tax category, or to go full fledge business. Taxes get filed differently, discounts are different, etc. And the ever present avalanche of paperwork that comes with being a legit business. There is a lot to consider here. Don’t make this decision lightly. Do the research first.

  • Set up a business account, or a second personal account at your bank. This will be where you can keep track of your earnings, and also help you keep track of your supply spending. The bank will issue you a separate card to link up to this account, use this one when you buy stuff for your business! (if it makes financial sense of course)

Marketing – More than just Social Media

  • Get out there! Yes YOU! Your physical body! The best way, has always and will always be to get in front of your customers and talk to them. Connect with them, share your journey as a leather artisan, tell them about your process of how you make your items. If you’re a little introverted, as I am, fear not! This gets easier with time, most people are friendly and are already interested in your work if they’re browsing your items. Most conversations start out with a simple “Hello”, because hey, they can be a little shy too! But get yourself out there and do some networking! Be sure to have your contact info ready on those business cards and give them away like free candy! I can’t tell you how many custom orders I’ve done this way.

  • Make a website!

  • Making your own website is fun, but also time consuming. I’ve got my own personal website (www.theleathergeek.com) and also my Etsy shop (www.etsy.com/shop/TheLeatherGeek) which both generate sales. It is a little bit of a pain to keep track of inventory in both places, but you can do so much more with your own website than on Etsy. You can also write blogs, connect with people, post videos, have an art gallery etc etc. Etsy is mainly a window front of a shop. Your website is all about you, exactly the way you want it!

  • SEO – Search Engine Optimization. Fancy way of saying how do people find my online shop/ website? One of the most important things to know if you’re going to be an online seller.

  • This one is tricky, especially if you are talking Etsy SEO and not google. Etsy uses their own algorithms on how products get displayed, ranked and shown when someone searches a keyword. This changes annoyingly all the time. At least they let you know when it changes. (but not how!) Half the battle as a small etsy shop owner is not making the best and most awesome products, it’s getting them to show up on the first few pages in etsy searches.

  • Google SEO: There are many up to date articles on this topic, I can’t sum this up in a few sentences. This is somewhat difficult, and I recommend consulting several articles on the topic. Or even a professional. Depends on how serious you want to get in your online business

Product Photography – The Second Hobby You didn’t Know You Needed!

  • So, you’re a master leather craftsman (or woman!)! Fantastic! How’s your photography skill? Do you know about lightboxes? Exposure? Showing your items in use? Detail shots? Macro’s? Close ups?! Work in progress shots? No? Well believe me, you’re going to learn, and you’re going to have to do it constantly, especially if you run social media campaigns, have a website, and if you want to have any sales in your online shop. (not joking here)

  • Product photography is a necessary evil (or fun if you like it). If your online products have pictures that look like a kindergartener snapped them with a dirty polaroid camera, no one is going to even spend a click looking at them. Learn to have a set up, with a back drop and perhaps even a light box to really make your product look professional. There are 100’s of articles written on how to make a cheap light box. Check out youtube, and instructables for details.

  • Social Media: I’ve found that people really love seeing HOW you make your products, not just the finished object. So keep your camera handy on that workbench and snap a photo or 2 as you work along. It’s also useful when you look back at your old work to see how much you’ve improved. But you can’t do this unless you have some photographic evidence!

Pricing Your Hard Work:

  • I’ve found that for a lot of handmade items, it’s not ideal to price your stuff using a formula.

  • Do keep in mind, the cost of supplies to make the product, and the time it took you to make it. If you find yourself spending 50 hours on a wallet that you sell for $20, you’re in a hobby, not so much a business. 50 hours is a labor of love, and your valued time is worth something!

  • Do your market research. Be competitive, but don’t undercut the market heavily. Your competitors will not love you for this, as their livelihood depends on making regular sales. (keep in mind that these are usually real people, not giant corporations) On the other side of that coin, don’t think you can price your stuff at the same level as Walmart. Are you a manufacturing monster? I didn’t think so. Handmade by a skilled artisan in the USA is going to be more expensive, let’s face it.

  • Keep an eye on the market regularly. Prices fluctuate, and you don’t want to miss out when the average price increases

  • Start keeping track of how long it takes you to make standard items. As your skill increases, this time should decrease, and then plateau. Once you’ve really optimized your making operation, you can get an idea of the time to do labor rates with

Show Setup: Items that you absolutely need, and really shouldn’t forget. My handy dandy checklist.