How Made By Cleo got started
Introduce your Etsy shop and tell us your story. How did you begin and decide on what to sell on Etsy, and how do you create your products?
Our company, Made By Cleo got its start on Etsy in October 2012. We’re a premium pet collar & accessories brand that specializes in serving the cat & small dog market. Although the world has obviously changed a lot in the last 10 years (and the cat products industry as a whole thankfully has a lot more options than it used to a decade ago), it’s still a weirdly underserved niche.
Part of the reason the cat collar world doesn’t get a lot of diverse representation is that it can be challenging working with such a small amount of visual real estate (from a design and manufacturing point of view), but more importantly, a lot of people still don’t recognize the value & functionality of having cats wear collars (whether they’re indoor or outdoors).
People tend to think of collars only in the context of needing one to attach a leash to when going out for a walk with your pet, or that collars are only for pets that are “allowed” to be outside on a regular basis.
The truth is, ALL cats can benefit from wearing a collar with an ID tag in that it has the potential to be their ticket home if they end up getting lost due to having bolted outside when they’re not supposed to, or are picked up while they’re just minding their business because they were mistaken for a stray.
The last thing you want is for your cat to get accidentally rehomed by another family or worse, dropped off at the city pound. Even if microchipping is commonly done these days, having something that is easy to see (and not dependent on special chip scanners) around your cat’s neck is still the quickest, most effective way to ensure your cat is left alone (if they’re allowed to be outside) or they get returned to you if they’re lost.
Sorry, I guess that ended up being a really long-winded PSA about why the world needs cat collars (lol), but going back to why I got into this — I started Made By Cleo ultimately because of my beloved first kitty, Cleo who was my sidekick, muse and child for 19.5 years (until he passed away in 2019). He was a very adventuresome indoor/outdoor cat who would lose his collars all the time and I’d have to run to the store to get him replacement ones, and the selections were always terrible and depressing to look at.
No one was making anything I wanted to buy. There were like 3 options to choose from at all times - something with studded spikes on it, something that was pink and rhinestone-y and probably had the words ``Princess” printed on it, and maybe a couple of solid color options and that was it for the entire cat community.
It’s funny, now I see the significance of my angst and annoyance about this petty dilemma, but at the time I didn’t realize I was bothered by the lack of options because parents (in this case me) choose the things they buy their “children'' (i.e. Cleo), partly as an expression and extension of their own personality and tastes. It’s not strictly a decision about utility and function.
On top of that, the big box store collars (all made in China) would always fray & fuzz super fast and the safety “quick release” buckles on them were way too soft and would pop open too easily, meaning Cleo would lose his collars constantly when he’d do whatever crazy things he was doing outside. Who knows how many collars he lost before I set out to use my graphic design background & sewing skills to make my first collar for him. All I know is I never bought him another crappy collar again after I started Made By Cleo.
As for how things went in the beginning, the first few months before the store was even live on Etsy, I basically spent every night at my dinner table after work doing research and trying things out. I would experiment with different construction methods, learning what worked and what didn’t. I studied the competition to see what they were doing well and what they weren’t doing (that I thought I might be able to improve upon). I used some of my savings to buy all sorts of different materials and hardware components from different suppliers to see which ones I liked and which ones I didn’t.
Eventually, I had finally settled on what I liked and wanted to do -- I had some prototypes to photograph in time for the Fall / Halloween season, which I shot with the worst non-professional setup ever, but I used my Photoshop skills to help compensate so I could fake the fact that I was a horribly inept photographer.
I finally was able to set up my Etsy store with just enough products to fill out 1 page so it didn’t look too small and limited, and then I waited. I waited and waited for my first sale. One day at work, I remember hearing the famous cha-ching sound that the Etsy app makes when you make a sale, and I was SO excited. I looked to see who it was, and it turned out my sister bought my first collar. So funny.
As you can imagine, I was a little bit disappointed but it was also incredibly sweet of her, and soon enough, I did get my first “real” sale within a week after that. And things of course snowballed from there. The hardest thing is starting something like that and getting people to trust you out of the blue in e-commerce, especially when you have zero customer reviews or sales, meaning zero credibility.
I regularly think about the very first people who took a leap of faith on pictures alone and bought collars from me. My heart goes out to them for helping me get this started - some of those people are STILL our customers today!
What are your favorite items? What makes these so special? Why do you think these items might be selling well?
My favorite items? The funny thing about this question is that I’ve often noted that my personal taste is apparently not what is generally the most popular stuff that we sell. Every now and then, the collars I’d pick out for Cleo (or our new kitty, Cosmo) to wear would be one of our current bestsellers, but usually it would be something a little less popular and off the beaten path. I tend to go for multi-colored options versus solids or mono/duotones.
My favorites are patterns with preferably 3+ colors with a good vibrancy and contrast against my cat’s fur. I really like contrast. I’m also a sucker for plaid. I also have way more fun designing the Fall / Halloween / Holiday season collections than I do for the Spring / Summer collections. Fall is my season for sure.
I think right now my favorite two styles are new ones in our Fall 2021 Collection (which at the time of this writing is not yet released).. The first one, Forever Fall, looks like the textbook definition of the season - it’s this explosion of Fall-colored leaves and it’s beautiful. We’ve released tons of fall styles over the years but this one is my favorite of all time for that theme. I can’t wait to put it on my cat when things cool down here in Texas.
The other pick is a new style called Magic Mushrooms. It’s got these adorable red fairy toadstools all over it and has a red / blue garden gnome “vibe” to it. I think for whatever reason, mushrooms are having a moment.
As for the question about items that sell well and why - I’d say of the 300+ styles that we have in active rotation in our stores at any given moment throughout the year, about 100-150 are considered bestsellers. The rest are there for just a season and get discontinued and replaced by new season releases.
Sometimes we keep a few specific slower performing styles around though purely to help fill out a range or suite of styles. For example, we might sell a certain pattern in 3 colorways, even if 1 of the colors does way better than the other 2. We have lots of customers who have 2-3+ cat households who like to order the same pattern in different colors for each of their cats so they’re all matching in a sense.
Also, sometimes a certain style helps make the other styles look better from a merchandising standpoint because it adds life and brightness to an display assortment (like yellow and orange styles, which we don’t sell as much of vs. say, green & blue). The things that do the best for us include upscale-looking solids (velvets, riveted fabric solid color collars) + high concept patterns like food themes, animal themes, and holiday themes. And of course florals and plaids are always classic and popular.
Getting sales on Etsy
How long did it take for you to earn your first sale and how do you currently attract customers to your Etsy shop?
The first sale, as mentioned earlier, took a few weeks, maybe even a month to happen. Things were slow at first but it did help that it was the busy Fall season with high numbers of people shopping on Etsy (vs. the Summer) and the momentum really does build each time you get a sale or a customer review. The more sales & reviews you have, the more the online shoppers tend to trust you, since they don’t have a lot else to go by to determine credibility.
I re-invested a lot of my earnings initially back into the company toward improving my products from a materials standpoint, as well as my photography setup (and technique). I also invested some of that money toward Etsy marketplace advertising so that people could find me (since I would otherwise have been buried on page 30+ of listings.
We still allocate a considerable advertising budget toward Etsy Ads. It brings in a lot of traffic, although we also get some organic traffic through our social media and email marketing (for returning customers).
It’s worth mentioning that one of the things I spent the most time on when getting started on Etsy, was researching and planning out titles & search keywords for listings. You want to make sure you do everything possible to help shoppers find you. Granted, Etsy has been notorious for constantly changing their search algorithms so it’s a moving target. However, it’s definitely worth educating yourself on how the algorithm works. Since you’re limited by the length of your title and the number of keywords you can enter for a listing, the time spent nailing the words you use is important.
Over the years, there have been various 3rd party options that help you identify the best keywords for Etsy listings. Alura.io is a huge help for this. So much better than operating blind based on assumptions and vague hunches.
Managing Made By Cleo
How do you manage your shop? Are you running solo or do you have any team members? What tools or services do you use to run your shop and how do you handle fulfillment?
At the beginning, Made By Cleo was a solo operation done out of my home. Eventually I ran out of storage space (I had inventory stored in every possible corner, nook & cranny you could imagine, including cleverly stowed behind my dining room curtains at one point. It was ridiculous)! I also needed more space so I could hire some help, since I could no longer keep up with demand on my own after I went full-time in 2015. I rented an apartment for the first year that the operation was done outside of my home that I called my studio. It was 2 minutes down the street from my home - the commute was amazing.
My new “office” totally looked like an apartment complex from the outside (it had a swimming pool and all), but I didn’t care. I set up the inside to look, feel & operate just like a legitimate office. I hired my first two part-time employees to work with me in that “apartment-office” situation. It was great. We quickly outgrew that place after a year (and I was relieved to finally move into a real office so I could qualify for commercial general liability insurance, which I learned you can’t get if your location is a residential apartment - go figure).
Thankfully, I have a lot more help these days. Of course, it never quite feels like enough because we’re always growing, but thankfully we have a great, hardworking team to get the job done.
The operation is 100% based in Austin, TX. We currently have 6 onsite full-time employees responsible for production, quality control and shipping. We also have 7 off-site employees who are part of our production team as well, specializing in different functions including processing our raw fabric & components for use onsite, in addition to making some of our accessories products. My husband, Alex, is also a full-time employee and co-owner. He runs the day to day operations & customer service and makes everything run smoothly, while I handle all the design & product development, plus marketing & advertising, finance and administrative stuff. Shipping & fulfillment is all done here at the office by our team.
We use Shipstation to run our labels & manage our shipments. We use Help Scout for customer service. Mailchimp for email marketing. Sidecar for Google advertising. QuickBooks (and a CPA) to manage the finances & bookkeeping. Paychex for payroll processing. Microsoft Office (Excel) and Google Sheets interchangeably for various things. Photoshop & InDesign for creative applications. The Later app for social media management.
We run our main online store (madebycleo.com) using Shopify, supported by a bunch of different 3rd party apps on there as well.
The future of Made By Cleo
What goals do you have for your shop in the future?
Actually, one of my longtime goals for Etsy was always to hit 100,000 sales. We are currently at 99,595. We are totally going to get a special cake made for the occasion and take the crew out to lunch to celebrate when we hit that milestone soon. I know it’s a completely arbitrary number but it still feels special and significant to me and it’s worth pausing for a sec to take it in, even if it’s often my natural tendency to always look to the next big thing and forget to celebrate.
As for other longer term goals, we’ve been working (for a while) on a lux vegan leather cat collar product line that is both environmentally-friendly and not animal dependent, and yet durable enough to actually stand up to cat’s claws. We expect to launch it in 2022.
It is still (and has been) my goal to prioritize the health, happiness & financial welfare of our people (our employees) as our primary concern above all other decisions as we continue to grow. We pay our employees way higher than industry average (ie. 2x) partly because Austin has become an expensive place to live, but also because good people are worth paying more for. Everybody stands to benefit if we can do everything we can to make our company a happy, rewarding (and not soul-sucking) place to work.
It also continues to be my goal and practice to dedicate a certain portion of our profits to go back to the animal rescue community (both on a local level and remotely via various non-profit organizations across the country who help get cats and dogs rescued, rehabilitated, and rehomed.
We donate thousands of dollars annually as well as donate physical products throughout the year that these organizations can either re-sell or auction at 100% profit for fundraising, or use for adoption photography to help get the pets adopted faster.
Advice for new sellers
What’s your advice for a new seller starting an Etsy shop?
My advice for new sellers starting out on Etsy:
- Don’t fuss TOO much to the extent that you never actually start your store because you’ve been refining every little detail for months, or years. After a certain point, you just need to get it out there. You can refine, tweak and learn as you go. But don’t miss out on the chance for that learning to happen WHILE your products actually live in your store (where someone could very well buy it on a leap of faith) vs. it just living and maybe eventually dying a slow death in your head.
- Invest in good photography. Thankfully even iPhones can do a great job in this department if you’ve got access to some good natural light somewhere. Do not skimp in this area. Pictures are 95% of what is factoring in for whether or not a customer is going to buy from you. A lack of professionalism in the photos, or not enough visual information (i.e. possibly not enough angles) can kill a potential sale because the customer doesn’t have enough faith to make the purchase. Read up, or watch some YouTube videos on taking good product shots, or take a local class! Learn how to tweak & edit photos with either Photoshop or a phone app so everything is as polished as can be.
- Be iterative and take a shotgun approach if you don’t know what people want yet within the category of “thing” you plan to make / sell. Also, similarly, offer multiple options, styles, etc. to hedge your bets in case the thing you thought everyone would love isn’t as popular as you expected. Also, people like to see a certain minimum of choices before they feel comfortable with buying from you. If you’re only selling 3-5 things in your store right now, find a way to expand the selection into 2-3x that. For example, you wouldn’t feel as likely to stop by a jewelry booth at a craft faire if you glanced and saw they only had 5 styles at their table, right? Even if they were awesome styles, it just looks too narrowly focused and small right? Sometimes you have to fluff things up so that people at least “feel” like they have some options even if you know everyone’s going to still gravitate toward the same 1-2 things in your store.
- Anything you find yourself repeating from scratch more than 3 times -- try to carve out some time at some point to either systematize that task or find software or an app that can help you so you never have to reproduce it from scratch. The point here is to find ways to speed up that process so that it uses almost no brain-power or emotional bandwidth, since you’re going to have to keep repeating that process in the future.
Examples of things that fall in this category include: Typing out responses to a common customer service-related question (especially one that is annoying or hard to deal with emotionally, like quality issues or returns, or lost shipments).
Another example would be an outline or process you write up every time you have to train a new hire, or an internal document that you keep editing because something about it is not up-to-date and you haven’t made time to update the master once and for all.
Another example would be labels that you keep needing to print on the fly that you keep recreating from scratch, etc. I set up templates for all sorts of things all the time, and I’m constantly looking for ways to batch process stuff.
I also use a desktop program called PhraseExpress that saves standard responses I use for emails and are invoked through whatever shortcut words you want to use. It’s amazing and a lifesaver.
As a business owner, you’re always going to be super short on time and (sometimes, emotional reserves). Anything you can do to limit the energy and time your repetitive tasks take from you, the better off you will be and feel!
Some sellers really get inspired by hearing numbers. Feel free to share these if you like.
How much is your monthly revenue?
Our monthly revenue varies some due to seasonality but our annual gross revenue is now over $1M.
What is your shop’s conversion rate?
Our conversion rate varies a little from time to time but is overall fairly consistently averaging around 4-5%.