Friday, 28 February 2014

Friday Finds No1. - Michelle Lancaster - Wink Design Ltd


Michelle Lancaster  is a successful print designer who I met once at a Notonthehighstreet.com partner 'Make, Do and Meet''. Her business is called "Wink Design". Having read how things are for her now I wonder if it is just a matter or time before she needs to take on staff. It is inspiring to hear - that although it's not easy - it is possible to earn a really good living working alone and or from home if that's what you need or want to do.

Thank you Michelle for a great response to my questions. There is a wonderful reward for any future Wink Design customers at the end of the article too...


 © Wink Design Ltd

How did Wink Design start?

It's quite a long story. In 1999 I became pregnant with my first daughter, and I left my job as an IT Specialist with a huge multinational technology company so that I could stay at home with her. Just sixteen months later my second daughter came along. I always like to be busy, and although I was enjoying being a mum, I was desperate to keep my brain active so I had become involved with my local branch of the National Childbirth Trust. I joined the committee in the voluntary role of Newsletter Editor; I've always been creative and it was the perfect job for me. I had been designing and editing the newsletter, as well as writing content and drawing various cartoons for it for about a year and a half when I saw a leaflet in our tiny village library about a year-long 'Access to Art & Design' course that was running at the University. The work that I had been doing on the NCT newsletter had fired up my creativity and by then my youngest was just about to start school at 4 years old, so I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and applied for the course. The course was aimed at mature students (if you were over 25 you were classed as 'mature'!) who had not followed the usual educational routes but wanted to go to University. I had left Sixth Form college at 18 and then gone straight into a job, so I saw the access course as a chance for me to change my career. I wanted to be a Freelance Graphic Designer, and with two small children I saw it as a way to do something I loved, and hopefully it would be flexible enough for me to juggle family life. I think having a set plan in my head right from the start really helped me to focus. I passed the Access Course with flying colours (yay!) and then applied to do a full time Honours Degree in Graphic Design at my nearest University, where I was accepted. 


 © Wink Design Ltd

I don't mind saying it was extremely hard work juggling a three-year full-time Uni course and two small children (by then they were both still under 6), but thankfully I got a lot of support from my family which enabled me to cope with it all. And I loved Every. Single. Minute. of it. All my hard work had paid off, and I was absolutely thrilled to graduate in 2009 with a First Class Honours Degree. Following on the path that I had originally planned, I started Wink Design soon after finishing Uni. I designed logos and leaflets, business cards, etc for small businesses, mainly by word of mouth. I was also working at that time with a local wall art company, designing wall stickers and decals for children's rooms. When I designed a one-off greeting card to give to somebody, I showed it to a friend on Twitter and she said I ought to make it into a print... so I did. (Thank you Wendy!) I decided to open an Etsy shop, and started to design other personalised prints and greeting cards, and gradually they started to sell. I built my own website and used that as a selling platform too, however I found it quite hard to get seen. In early 2012, I was approached by Notonthehighstreet who asked me to join as a Partner. They'd seen some of my work on Etsy and thought it would go down well with their audience. I thought long and hard about whether joining would be the right step for me - and whether I would make any money from it. In the end I decided to take the risk; and it actually turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. Things have just gone from strength to strength. My work has been extremely well received, and after just seven months of trading I had sold 1000 prints. I've now been with Notonthehighstreet for 21 months and recently took my 7000th order. I'm expanding my range of prints all the time, I now have over forty print designs, and a whole notebook of new ideas that I'm raring to get going on! 

How did things take off?

It was a slow start! I gradually built up a client base through word of mouth, and my Etsy shop started to get more orders as time went on. I used social media to promote myself which worked really well, but it has taken a good few years to get to the point where I am today. I don't think anyone jumps straight into a successful business. It takes time and effort to build it up, and along the way you gain experience (and make mistakes - but you learn from them!). All the time and effort you invest in building your business helps to make it what it is.

Do you do your business part time or full time?

I work full time on my business. It's been jolly hard work, I do everything on my own and work very long hours, fitting things around the children. When they go to bed, I start work! It's more than a full time job really, I work nearly every minute I get, but it's something I absolutely love to do - and what could be better than getting paid to do something you love?!

 © Wink Design Ltd

Do you intend to grow you business into something much bigger... or?

I'm looking at expanding my range of products, and selling on other platforms, which is a very exciting prospect. If my business carries on expanding at a similar rate to the past couple of years then I will have to think about taking someone on to help me. There are only so many hours in the day - and I only have one pair of hands! My busiest time of year is between November and Valentines day - this year I was working 16-hour days nearly every single day, including weekends, just to get the orders out of the door, meaning I had no time left to concentrate on other parts of my business, such as working on new designs. It's at times like that I could have really done with an extra pair of hands, just to take the pressure off. It was completely mad this year. I even took 12 orders on Christmas Day. The business is growing all the time, I'm running to keep up with it! It's quite hard to believe but my predicted turnover for this year is on target to be in the region of £125,000. Amazing times!

Where do you sell your work?

I currently sell via my own website www.wink-design.co.uk, Etsy, a couple of local galleries and notonthehighstreet.com. Over the summer I had a monthly stall at the Winchester Art & Design Led Market which was a really different experience. It was great to interact face to face with customers, and get immediate feedback on my designs. It's a similar story with the local galleries. I'm quite closely involved with a nearby gallery who sell my work and the gallery owner tells me what her customers are looking for and passes their comments on to me. Last month I created a new print based on a design that one of her customers was looking for - and she came back in and bought it, which was great. I'm just about to launch my designs with another online marketplace, and have a list of other platforms I'd like to try. 

Which of the selling methods works best?

Online sales have been the most successful for me. You can reach a really wide range of people, a much bigger audience than you would ever get selling face to face. It's amazing to think that with the help of marketplace websites like Notonthehighstreet, my prints are now gracing the walls of over 7000 homes. Social media is a great way to interact as well, and I've had quite a few orders from people I've spoken to via twitter or Facebook. I don't agree with aggressive marketing on social media, I just chat with people. If they like you, they'll like what you do. People have commissioned me or recommended me because they know about sort of thing that I do from speaking to me on twitter.  

 © Wink Design Ltd

Have you had publicity in national magazines?

Not yet! I definitely need to look at PR and how to go about getting my products into magazines.

Who do you think your typical customer is?

It's difficult to put my finger on who my typical customer is. A lot of my prints are 'love' themed, and so they are great for wedding and anniversary gifts, and also go down amazingly well for Valentines day. People buy them to give to friends, and couples buy them for each other. I also have a range of prints for children which are often purchased to celebrate a new baby or given as birthday gifts. One of my bestselling print is tea themed, with a lovely quote about friendship. It seems you're never too young or too old for tea and friendship - I've personalised the print for 16th birthdays, 21sts, 30ths, 40ths...  right up 90ths! Personalised prints really do mean so much more than general ones. The great thing about a personalised print is that it's totally unique, and it makes a very thoughtful gift. Someone has gone to the trouble of finding something they think you'll love, and adding your name or a significant date or message to make it really special. I recently had some lovely feedback from a customer who gave their wife one of my  'Love Story' prints with their names and wedding date, and the birthdates of their children printed on it. He said that it was the best thing he had ever bought her and she cried buckets when she opened it! It's so wonderful to receive such great feedback and it makes me really happy to know that my prints are bringing pleasure to so many people. 


© Wink Design Ltd

Which aspect do you enjoy most?

I love thinking up new designs. I carry a notebook around with me which I use to make little sketches, and jot down ideas. It's what I go to when I want to design a new print, it's like my little book of inspiration! I find the best way to spark your imagination is to get out and about and have a change of scene. Whenever I'm out, I'm always looking up high at buildings, or noticing little things like the colour of a leaf on the pavement, or the shadow that a line of railings makes in the sunshine. It really helps that I'm quite a visual person so I do notice lots of things around me. We're all so busy getting on with life these days sometimes we forget to stop and LOOK. We really ought to take more time to do that.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

I think it takes time for a business to evolve, so I'm not sure I would have done anything differently - you can learn so much along the way. I do wish I'd had more confidence in my abilities in the early days though. Any designer/maker is super-critical of their own work. Sometimes you need to step back and look at things in a different way, and you also need to know when to stop. You can fiddle with a design for ever more and still not be happy with it! I've learnt to be happy with things and not fuss over them too much. A customer isn't going to worry that a line on a print design should really be 2mm to the right, they're just going to look at the design and take it for what it is, and what it means to them.


Are you someone who sets goals or lets things grow organically?

When I started my uni course I was very focused on where I wanted to be when I finished, but since starting my business, things have just gathered pace and there hasn't always been time to set goals. I've just run with it! I could never have imagined being where I am now when I first left University; it's exceeded all my expectations. 

Do you employ anyone...
I don't employ anyone at the moment but I am probably going to look at taking an assistant on in the near future to help me, but I'm not really sure where to start! I'll add that to my list of things to do... :)
I'm extremely lucky that my father in law is an accountant so he does all my accounts for me and helps me with my tax, so that takes a huge burden off my shoulders. 

© Wink Design Ltd

Describe where you work...
I have an office / studio in our spare room and I've taken over the dining room as my packaging area. Luckily our house is quite big so it doesn't encroach into family life too much and I can shut the door on it all. I work on my own all day. The only people I see on a daily basis are the Postmistress and her husband. (Aww. Can you hear that tiny violin playing in the distance?!) 
Do you have a mentor?
I don't have a mentor, though I would really like to find one. Working alone can be difficult as you don't have anyone to bounce ideas off. I find that it really helps that I am a big social media user - I find it a massive source of advice, support, and friendship. I'm also a regular on a special forum for all the other Partners who sell on NOTHS. There's so much experience out there and everyone is so friendly and supportive. So even though I work on my own, I feel quite well-supported. 
What is a typical day for you?

I'm very lucky now that my girls are a little older and a bit more self-sufficient. They've both left for school by 7.30am and that's when I start work. I process the orders that are due for dispatch that day and deal with any customer enquiries. Sometimes it can take all day just to get all the orders out. In the three weeks up to Valentines day I processed 1000 orders; it was my busiest time to date - I was working all hours. It's not always like that though. I think I'd flake out if it was! I take my daily trip to the post office just before my daughter is due home from school, and then it's school run time for the other daughter. After that I make dinner, and then do another couple of hours work whilst the children get on with their homework / watching tv / fiddle around on YouTube. Then I spend some time with them, before starting work again once they're in bed. I often work till the early hours. I fit my work in around family life. Working for myself means that I can be really flexible with family life, and take time off to spend with them both, which is great.
Anything else...
You can see a selection of my prints, cards and stationery at www.wink-design.co.uk - and I'm happy to say I'm offering a special discount of 20% off mounted and unmounted prints on the wink-design.co.uk website for readers of this blog. Simply use code FRIDAY20 at the checkout. (Please note: Framed prints are not included in this offer)

Fantastic. Thank you so much Michelle - you are inspiring!

3 comments:

  1. Hello Gabs and Michelle - what an inspiring story! I so admire people who change direction to something they really love - whether by plan or circumstance or a combination of both. How wonderful that your work has been so popular Michelle (even though being so successful has entailed enormously hard work!) though I am not surprised - I bought a Tea print for a friend and she absolutely loved it.
    Great idea Gabs, and I look forward to the next profile.

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  2. Lovely off for a peep at the web site x

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  3. Great interview. I always love reading about how other creatives have started their businesses and made a success of it :)

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