Entrepreneur, writer, and owner of Soli Joon Knits, the lovely Soli Afshari, sat down with me to discuss how she got her start, tips on running a successful Etsy shop, and useful things she has learned along the way.
How did you first become interesting in knitting, and what was it like deciding to open a shop on Etsy?
Soli: Well, it all started when I was a kid. My grandmother first taught me how to knit. There were so many things that were phases, but for some reason that was the one thing that really stuck. And as I became older, it was the thing I would always give away as gifts, like a scarf or a hat, things like that. While I was living in San Francisco, I was growing tired of my job, and thought I will give this whole “Etsy” thing a try. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to sell anything. I thought if I could manage to sell one thing a month, that alone would be really cool.
I still remember my first sale. It coincidentally happened to be just down the street from my house. I actually hand delivered it. I put the five dollars they had paid for shipping inside with a note explaining why they didn’t have to pay for it. I remember just being so excited. Then, I sold another scarf about two weeks later. It was all so exciting. As time progressed, my goals changed. I wanted to sell just one a month, then one a week. Once I began selling one a week, I told myself, if I can sell three a week, I will be really happy. It just all progressed from there and began to think, wow, I can actually turn this into something.
The problem with my product is it is only a winter product. I can make a living off of what I sell in the winter; the rest of the year is a bit more problematic.
You currently manage your Etsy shop with freelance work. Do you knit year round to keep up with the demand while working freelance, or do you take off part of the year to focus on your shop? Can you describe some of the difficulties that come with predicting how a product will sell and how to ensure shipping deadlines are met?
Soli: I feel like it’s both. I continue to knit year round to create an inventory of 60 or 70 scarves to have prepared for November, when the busy season arrives. But it does so well that I usually run out. It’s also very hard to predict what is going to be the popular seller. Two years ago, I knit two of every color, but it didn’t matter at all, only the burgundy scarves were selling, ONLY burgundy. To this day, I have sold over 200 burgundy scarves of my 600 sales. It was so frustrating. I spent all year knitting every different scarf, but now, I was ten scarves behind, because everyone wanted burgundy. I am so thankful for all the sales; it was just extremely stressful, with the holiday deadlines trying to keep up with demand. And even this year, with increased understanding of the demand, I still managed to be 16 scarves behind. It’s just so difficult to really know what is going to be trending or in demand each year.
As far as shipping, each product has its own ship date. For example, a particular scarf will promise shipping in 1-3 days, but if I began to get behind, like with the burgundy scarves for example, I will update the shipping to 3-5 days. I would have to say on average it’s typically 1-2 days for me to ship. Obviously once it is in the mail, it is up to the postal carrier to deliver on time. I always provide a tracking number so that customers can see where their order is and that it went out as promised.
When you first started posting scarves for sale, did you start with a lot all at once, or did you gradually add them as the demand increased? Were there any issues that you ran into during this time?
Soli: I initially had hardly any. I started with about three or four, but as soon as I sold one, I got super excited and probably added about ten in the next couple weeks after. I started to get faster at knitting and it was no problem to add fifty scarves to the shop.
What I noticed is you don’t want to have too much of a variety. When you think about it, if you go to the supermarket, and there are too many options, you can get overwhelmed and just walk away. It can be too confusing figuring out which one of that item you should pick. At one point I had about eighty different items posted. Out of five different types of red scarves, this particular style was selling the best. Or a different design in grey would outsell the other grey scarves. So I scaled back my options, and took the top sellers of each scarf. This was really helpful, because I would know that yarn and where I could get it, and be able to keep up the inventory easily.
When you initially started, did you only post a basic stitch then felt the drive to learn or come up with new patterns? How has owning this shop influenced you’re knitting?
Soli: When I first started I would just knit what I felt like. I might be in the mood to knit a lace stitch, or a seed stitch, and when I was done I would photograph and post it. I realized again, like with having too many colors, it was just too many options. I shouldn’t be making a burgundy scarf in a seed stitch, and in a lace stitch, and a garter stitch. I realized that I could knit a particular burgundy scarf in a garter stitch that looked very similar to another stitch and it would sell just as well. Learning this helped me to be more efficient. Now I use primarily a garter stitch for thinner yarn, which is a straight across stitch, and a lace stitch when it comes to the thicker yarn so that it is not too tight. It was all trial and error. I wanted to give people all of these options, and then I realized that people don’t want options, they want you to tell them what they want. I do make a point to write in the descriptors that if they would prefer a different color or different stitch, that they should shoot me a message, because they can be made to order. I like to make the option available to them, but I don’t display all of the options to them.
How does it feel to ship your scarves all over the world? How much of your business is made up of international sales and where does it primarily come from?
Soli: A lot of my sales come from Canada and Australia. Australia orders are what save me in the summer. Since the seasons are opposite ours, they are the ones placing most of my summer orders, and I am very grateful for that! I have also sold to the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Belgium and even China.
I love the idea that there is someone across the world wearing something that I made. It’s just really cool to think that they purchased my scarf. Etsy is a really great tool. Think about what it allows people to do around the world, that they would have otherwise not been able. There are people in the Philippines, and Thailand that have built these huge successful businesses on Etsy. They can provide a unique product that they can ship globally and would otherwise be inaccessible, and they would not be making nearly as much money.
How has Etsy and the business of selling online changed in the past three years since you started?
Soli: I love how Etsy has taken off, but I also hate how it has taken off. There is so much more competition. Also they have changed the way that items go up on Esty. When you used to click on a category, the last item listed would be the first item you see. The list would change really fast as items were sold, or renewed or added because hundreds of thousands of people are posting and purchasing. It was nice because you knew for at least a second they item you posted would be at the top of the page.
Now they no longer do that. They list it by relevance, and this really sucks, especially for a new person opening a shop. If your item hasn’t received a lot of views, then it will be way at the bottom. The only way to get to the top is to have a lot of views, and that can be a struggle when you’re listed at the bottom. But this can be a great thing for a shop that has been established, since you have a following to view your items, these will be at the top and more likely to sell faster. I’m not sure what prompted them to change the model, but it definitely seems less fair. I know there are a lot of people frustrated by that change. I was one of them. I would look for my items and not be able to find them, because they just don’t show up.
If you’re really lucky though, one of your items will go viral you will be set, and it will build your following. I’m not sure how, but I was lucky to have my burgundy scarves go viral. If you look, you can see the amount of views and favorites for every item on Etsy. Mine are on average 800-900 views and about 70-80 favorites per item, but if you look at my burgundy scarves its like 15,000 plus and a couple thousand favorites. Its just really interesting how one item can take off and you never really know.
Does photographing items on you or a model, verses on a dress form, or laid out on something make that much of a difference in how it sells?
Soli: I do think that photographing my scarves on a person does make some difference. I have noticed that I do get more views when there is a person in the photo, but I don’t necessarily feel like it means more sales. People are more drawn to an image with a face, so this will definitely help increase your views.
Have you ever experienced a really bad review from a client? How did you handle that situation?
Soli: I am so terrified of bad feedback. I have been very lucky that in 600 sales, I had gotten all five stars…until about a month ago. A woman bought my burgundy scarf and put down two stars. She said, “This scarf is a lot flimsier then I thought it would be…it smelled funny...and was not at all what I thought it would be.” I read it and burst into tears. People rely on feedback. When I look at other shops, I look at the lowest star rating. You want to know what the worst-case scenario is and there are a lot of people who do just like to complain, but its normal to want to know when you are buying something.
I was so hurt by it that I emailed her. I told her I just wanted her to know that I was really hurt by her comments. How I made that scarf stitch by stitch for her. And how I put my heart and soul into what I am making and I would never ship something that I thought had a flaw or a problem. I have actually gotten through knitting an entire scarf and realized that I just didn’t like the yarn quality and started over from the beginning on a whole new scarf. It’s because I value customers and my business. In my message I said that I wish she had emailed me to let me know she was dissatisfied so that I could have fixed the problem. I could have sent a new one, used thicker yarn, or whatever the issue, I would do that for my customers if they have a problem. I told her it just really hurt my feelings. She actually responded saying, “I wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings, I was just really disappointed about the scarf.” It wasn’t that I was trying to get her to change her review, it was about the care I put into the scarf I sent her.
Then the next day she actually changed her feedback. Then I received an email from her, “I wore my scarf to work today and got tons of compliments. I felt really bad and realized that I was just in a really bad mood the day that I wrote the feedback …this whole experience has really opened my eyes, so thank you.” It was very unexpected and meant a lot to me.
How long did that first sale take you to knit verses an order you get today?
Soli: It’s almost hard to calculate how much time I spent on those first scarves. I could not complete one in a day. I would work and get a little bit done each day for about a week before I would finish one. Now I can get through one scarf depending on the stitch in about an hour-long show. I just wont let myself get up until I finish a full scarf. In winter my coffee table becomes an assembly line. I the yarn for each order in a row and will finish one, put it down, start on the next and so on.
What would you tell your past self to do differently, now that you know your market, price points, how much time each piece takes to create, etc?
Soli: I wish that I had been smarter about marketing, social media in particular. I wish I had started that from the moment I opened my Etsy shop. I thought it was kind of stupid and didn’t really care much for it. I didn’t want to be constantly posting to like my page or self-promoting, so I avoided it for a really long time. I actually didn’t start doing it until recently, and I have seen how many more followers I have gained. I can see the correlation in followers and sales and growth of my shop. If I had chosen to do this sooner and utilized social media, I would have had a much larger following then I do now.
Pinterest is the number one as far as conversions to sales. Having a Pinterest page dedicated to your shop will greatly increase your sales and views. Whenever someone posts one of my items on Pinterest, I will notice the amount of views increase in one day. I can always track it back to where it came from and its often Pinterest. You never know who will see it.
What do you love and what do you hate the most about this whole business you have created?
Soli: The worst part is feeling like it’s never enough. Thinking, “why didn’t I get more sales today?” and “why aren’t people looking as much as I want them to?” I definitely understand that it is not an overnight thing, but it is difficult when you see other people doing so much more sales and traffic then you are. I know you shouldn’t compare yourself to other people. It’s like riding a roller coaster and that is the worst part. It will always be a work in progress.
The best thing about it is my own satisfaction, as strange as that sounds. This is something that I created from the bottom up. I am every department. I am the maker, I am the marketer, I am the shipper, and I am the tax lady, haha, I am all of it! So it feels like such an accomplishment to know that someone wants to buy this item I created stitch by stitch.
Any final words of advice for anyone reading this who wants to open their own shop?
Soli: Don’t worry about your competitors, let that go and worry about what you are doing. Make your own path and create something unique. Be your authentic self, and people will notice.