Hello Friends! The good people here at Prince Armory have invited me to write about
some of my experiences running a leather business. My name is Erik and I am the
owner of Elandah Leather in Minnesota. I have been a full time, self-employed
leatherworker for over 18 years. During that time, I have paid off a home mortgage,
bought two full-size vans, put two kids through college, and managed to gain twenty
pounds. I’m not stuffing mattresses with hundred-dollar bills, but I am making a
comfortable living doing what I love.
We’ve all heard the expression, “starving artist.” There is a lot that goes into running a
successful business that has nothing to do with your level of skill or what you sell. It is
the boring details that will make or break you in the business world. To be successful,
you have to spend almost as much time doing the business work as the leatherwork.
Here are 5 tips from my personal experience for starting a successful leather business.
#1 Know your audience
It may sound out of order, but there is one thing more important than what you are
selling. That is knowing who you are going to sell to. And here is where you will need to
be flexible. We all have favorite things we like to build, but if there is no one around that
wants to buy them, you aren’t going to get paid for them. It’s tough selling sword belts at a
rodeo. Sit down and honestly assess where you are going to sell, who you will
sell to, and how you are going to sell it. Then figure out what you are going to sell. Don’t
try to sell ice to Eskimos.
#2 Everything but the moo
It costs money to make money, and leather is the most expensive part of any product
you will make. When you start creating your product patterns, create with an
eye on how you are going to cut them. You will get a better cutting yield if your products
can be made out of smaller parts than larger parts. Also, consider making
multiple products from the same weight of leather. A large product, a medium-sized
product, and a smaller product. This way you can get multiple cuttings from the same
piece of leather. And always look in your scrap box before cutting a new piece of
leather. I have entire product lines that come completely out of the scrap box. Scrap
box = Piggybank. Cut from it first.
#3 The fat carney rule
This may be the single best piece of advice I have ever been given. I have a great story
that goes with it, but I will save it for another day. The fat carney rule is that your
product line has to be a mile wide. You want to get a dollar from everyone that walks in.
So you have to have something for everyone. People want to spend money, but you
have to have something that they are interested in buying. Let me use a renaissance
faire as an example. You can have tables full of costume items and accessories, Yet
the vast majority of people will still be in blue jeans and tennis shoes. Make
sure you have a good selection of items that will appeal to them as well. And have
plenty of them. Quantity has a quality all its own.
#4 Time is money (the wise goblin quote)
Before you can set your product prices, you have to know what your products are worth.
(I’m going to save the topic of setting prices for your items for another blog.) Count
every penny. Know exactly what it costs to manufacture your product. Record the cost
of the leather, every rivet, snap, the length of thread, the dye, and other chemicals. This
is your materials price. Next record the amount of time it takes to make the item. And
don’t include things like coffee breaks, nature calls, or other disturbances. Know how
fast you can do each step in the process. ( I will talk about how to conduct “Time
Studies” in a different blog) Just keep in mind that you can make 10 almost as fast as
you can make 2. Lastly, keep an eye out for “Elves in the Woods”. Many suppliers offer
cutting and other labor services. it may cost money, but they can frequently do it faster
than you can.
#5 One in the hand is worth two in the bush
Remember Popeye the Sailor’s friend Whimpy? His famous line was, “I’ll gladly pay you
Tuesday, for a hamburger today.” Did anyone believe that he would ever actually pay for
that hamburger? Get their money today, not a promise of buying something tomorrow.
I’ve had expensive merchant websites. I’ve used eBay and Etsy. Yet it has been my
experience that the vast majority of my sales have ended with a smile and a handshake.
And beware the trap of custom work. ( I’ll discuss that more in a later blog }
Of course, these are just my opinions. But it’s a good place to start. If you come away
with nothing else, keep in mind that there is a lot more to being successful than doing
Thank you again to Samuel Lee and the good people at Prince Armory Academy for
the opportunity to write this blog. I hope to have the pleasure of writing more for the
Academy in the future.
Until next time, good luck friends.
Thank you for sharing your tips and input on the business of leathercraft. I hope to weigh in on this topic myself soon too as there will be a business advice and resource area in the academy later on.
If any of you have a topic you would like to write about on this blog that might help others, please get in touch and we’ll see about getting you featured too!