So you’ve launched a successful small business — congrats! Now it’s time to dive headfirst into the next challenge: the growth stage. As might be expected, helping your own business thrive, not just survive, is often as challenging as launching one. The stakes are higher and involve bigger decisions, such as determining if you need to hire employees, expand your sales channels or tweak your business strategy. Managing finances can also become more complicated with the addition of vendors, customers and payroll.
However, small business growth also looks different for everyone. Take the journey of artist Kaelen Van Cura, who founded Darling Marcelle to sell her colorful and striking jewelry designs: necklaces that look like dripping paint, for example, or dangling earrings shaped like intricate scribbles.
A painter by background with a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute, she initially balanced a day job with a variety of artistic passions — including handmade greeting cards and hair accessories and made-to-order hats — after moving to the Bay Area nearly a decade ago. Unfortunately, Van Cura ran into growth roadblocks: Making cards affordable was difficult when her labor was factored in, while her hats tended to be bought by brides who didn’t become repeat customers.
Things clicked when she started making jewelry based on her own imaginative drawings. “I moved to a model where I could make a lot more product at lower prices, [with a] broader market, and not have to make every single thing to order,” she says. In mid-2015, she left her full-time job and launched Darling Marcelle. “At first, [business] was slow,” she says. “But it was still steady. The first couple of years, each year was doubled from the year before. Then last year was quadruped. And then I had my best January ever.”
Van Cura shared what she’s learned from navigating the growth stage of her business and explained how she made it through the other side better than ever.
Having a support system is enormously beneficial at every stage of a business. When entrepreneurs are just starting out, having a robust support system ready to give advice and encouragement is crucial. However, for growing businesses, this kind of support system is just as valuable.
For example, Van Cura found kindred spirits in self-employed artists working in creative fields. “We can all share what works and what doesn’t work,” she says. “Some things [are] industry-specific, but a lot of things we can share about working with influencers and Instagram marketing and things like that.”
Although a self-described introvert, Van Cura also discovered that running Darling Marcelle out of her house could be lonely. “It was really hard at first,” she says. “It was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have any coworkers to talk to — ever.’ That was definitely an adjustment.” As a result, today she’s more mindful of scheduling coffee and lunch dates with friends and peers.
There are distinct advantages to being a solopreneur. Conventional wisdom says that small business growth should go hand in hand with expansion, especially from a headcount perspective. However, that’s not always what’s best for the business — and that’s perfectly fine.
Van Cura is looking into hiring part-time help for Darling Marcelle during the busy holiday season to assist with packaging, shipping and maybe some jewelry assembly. However, for the most part, she’s fine with staying a solopreneur. Although she acknowledges you have to wear many hats — business, artisan, sales and marketing — she knows her strengths and weaknesses well and has flexibility.
”The thing that makes it easier is that if I do need to pivot, I don’t need to get permission from anyone. It’s like, ‘Well, I’m the decider. This is what we’re doing now.’”
And just because you’re going at it alone doesn’t mean you don’t have solutions to help you get it all done. Small business owners who use QuickBooks have a financial partner on board for every step of the way, in the form of product offerings with varied features needed by growing businesses — for example, tracking inventory or managing 1099 freelancers. For busy solopreneurs who are juggling multiple responsibilities, QuickBooks Self-Employed is a big help, as it offers options to track income, send invoices and receive payments and even estimate quarterly taxes.
You never stop refining aspects of your business. When things are going well and growth is steady, even small improvements can make a difference. For Van Cura, honing her sales and marketing approaches made all the difference in her recent success.
In 2018, she started working with an SEO consultant to refine her website, which she found helpful. Plus, Darling Marcelle also gets good traction via email marketing and a business Instagram account, and so she doubled down on improving those channels.
Above all, she decided the photos of her jewelry could use a glow up. “A lot of times people say you shouldn’t worry about what competitors are doing,” she says. “But I felt like here were a lot of brands I admired, and I felt they were a lot better at photography than me.” By dedicating herself to taking and posting better photos, she increased website traffic and made her online presence much more eye-catching.
Trust that your instincts will lead you on the correct path. When growth isn’t happening as quickly as you’d like, it’s tempting to try and switch things up to grease the wheels. However, staying the course and trusting your gut is usually the best way to go.
Several years ago, Van Cura decided to try making a toned-down and smaller version of her necklaces at the suggestion of her husband. “They did not sell at all — and it made me happy,” she says with a laugh. “It gave me more confidence of vision and as a designer.” Plus, it helped inform her decision to focus on marketing as a pathway to growth.
Never underestimate the power of your brand. Especially online, your brand makes you stand out from the crowd. In fact, taking the time to develop — and maintain — a unique, appealing voice for your small business is one of the most important things you can do.
It’s for that reason Van Cura is committed to cultivating Darling Marcelle’s social media presence herself, even as the business grows. “It’s so important to my business,” she says, adding that she still gets many customers who happen upon the business online. “My photos, what I say — [these] always can be improved. But I want to be at the center of that.”
Don’t try and force your business to be something it’s not. Above all, small business growth isn’t one-size-fits-all — and it doesn’t always follow a familiar path.
In recent years, Van Cura spent time researching wholesale options and looking into whether it was viable to sell her jewelry directly to stores, two common ways jewelry makers grow. She contacted stores, talked with peers and even did a trade show, but eventually decided against pursuing these channels.
”It turned out not to be a good fit for me,” she says, adding that it was “too risky” of a proposition since her jewelry is so different. “A lot of it is things people have never seen before — like my jewelry that looks like paint. So the stores are like, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this, so I have no idea if my customers will buy it.’”
Realizing Darling Marcelle wasn’t a good fit for these channels had a silver lining, since it helped Van Cura focus on what was working. “Honestly, it was a good experience,” she says. “Then I was like, ‘Well, okay, I don’t have to worry about this right now. I can put this on the back burner.’ It freed me up to realize this isn’t something I have to keep on my to-do list.”