This is part of my summer series spotlighting some of the awesome entrepreneurs I know and their small remote businesses. If you know someone who should be featured or if you have a small business that you’d like to promote, get in touch with me!
To kick off my small remote business spotlight series, let me introduce you to a talented, hard-working lady I’ve had the pleasure to know for over a decade. Lauren Stewart, originally from Tennessee, now lives in Sherman Oaks, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. She took her years of experience as a prop master, creating items for operas, stage productions, TV shows and movies, and translated it into a part-time business creating cosplay items and leather dice trays for D&D fans.
What began as a side hustle, though, eventually grew into a full-time job, allowing her to set up her own workshop in Burbank, where she spends her days crafting “Custom Leather for the Everyday and the Extraordinary”, including over 3,000 ear savers for health care workers, custom ring boxes for friends’ weddings, and, impressively, a dagger sheath for an upcoming Joel Coen film version of The Tragedy of Macbeth. (How freaking cool is that?!)
Her Etsy shop, Merchant Green Leather Works, is fully stocked with cosplay belts and adornments, key chains, gaming accessories, and LARP gear, and bad ass holsters for your every day Nerf guns.
So now, without further ado, the interview. All answers to the following questions have been unedited, posted as Lauren provided them to me. If you have follow up questions, please find her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram!
What have you learned about running a small business since you began? What piece of advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time?
Don’t wait so long to get that tool you need. If it makes it easier to do your job and is not wildly expensive, do it now. Also, don’t be afraid of the laser! I waited way too long to use it because I was intimidated by it. But now it’s a regular part of my toolset and it’s fantastic.
How has the Covid crisis affected your work/business?
My Etsy YoY is down 67% in the past 30 days and down 53% for the year, and that was with a very respectable first quarter. I’m missing a TON of in-person sales at LARP events and gaming conventions. I average around $1-2k of profit at a con and I’ve missed three of them so far, not to mention the follow-up sales I have from folks who later buy custom items.
I can still get supplies via mail, but I’ve got years-long relationships with my vendors. They’ve been known to save me the kind of leather hides I like best, put skins or certain hard-to-find items aside for me. So it’s not the same. I miss going into my local Tandy and talking with the manager, Daisy, about the Dodgers and school and life in general.
I was able to get the PPP, but it’s not usable to cover the auxiliary costs – rent, site fees, advertising, loan repayments, etc. I’ve gotten payments temporarily suspended, but since I sell what is very much a luxury good, I’m worried about being able to make those payments once those institutions start charging once more.
How long have you worked from home? What has changed from when you first starting working from home to now? What have you learned? What tips can you pass on to others who may be working from home for the first time?
I’ve been lucky enough to still be able to go into the shop, but the first year or so of this business was started on my coffee table, so I feel like I still have some good advice! Number one is to do something physically to separate Home Time from Work Time. I used to put on shoes for safety reason (working with knives), so it became my on/off switch. I also made a small pot of coffee or a cup of tea and sat down with it to set out my tools for the day. At the end of the day, I’d pack my tools back, take off my shoes, and be done with it. The second piece of advice is to be easy on yourself when that system fails completely and you’re up at 2 AM working because the switch just won’t turn off.
Biggest challenge you’ve faced running a small business and how you’ve overcome it? What’s been your biggest win so far?
Biggest challenge? The Tax code. I’m not great at it and don’t have a ton of money for professional help. The thing I’ve learned most is even if you make a mistake, if you keep meticulous records, you’re not getting trouble, you’re just going to have to fill out more forms. Records, records, records. Every receipt, every letter, every form. Keep them.
Biggest win? Getting my press and dies. I was able to get a loan to get the machinery I need to actually produce trays at a rate that keeps the price lower and allows for a better profit margin for me.
As cities reopen, what local establishment/attraction/site would you encourage people to seek out in your town?
The Local Peasant on Ventura. They’ve been open to curbside and have turned the front of their dining area into a sort of convenience store. You can get the basics without having to deal with the lines at grocery stores. Plus, they serve boozy slushies to go now, which is amazing.
How do you separate your personal and work lives?
I don’t always, honestly. But before the pandemic, I’d been taking public transit for several months, which forced me into a schedule. I’d walk a quarter mile to the stop, catch the bus, then walk another quarter mile from the Burbank stop to the shop, going through a park on the way. If I didn’t start cleaning up at 8:00pm and be at the station at 8:22, then I missed the direct bus and would have to take a longer, almost hour and a half route home. It was a powerful motivator. It also gave me time to read or listen to podcasts and gave me some leisure time that I didn’t afford myself before. A mile-ish of passive walking and two mental breaks a day? Yes, please! I also started finishing earlier just so I could stay a few extra minutes in the park to watch the local city league ball games. I love baseball, and even watching middle aged dads sweat and swear at each other for a little while each night was a welcome incentive to stop work at a reasonable time.
What’s your travel style?
We do group outings from time to time. We’ll rent a cabin in Big Bear and pile about 10 people in for movies, food, games, and some hiking. It’s lovely! I usually travel home to Tennessee at least once a year for the family holidays, though that’s not as relaxing, haha! When I travel for conventions, I try to stay as close to the con as possible and I don’t usually have a car, so I do a lot of walking. If it’s more than three nights, I tend to get rooms with cooking units so I can dine in. I have weird food restrictions, so it’s easier that way.
What’s your favorite travel destination that you’ve been?
When I lived in the Bay Area, back when gas was less expensive, I used to take my little Chevy Aveo on the road and just drive anywhere. I lived alone in a mother-in-law in Fairfax. I worked an incredibly stressful job for Apple where I was yelled at daily. So sometimes I just left straight from work and kept going north on the 101 or northwest on Sir Francis Drake. I ended up once in Point Reyes, on a deserted road that looked for all the world like a little piece of Scotland. I got out of my car and found a cattle path that eventually took me to the ocean. It was bitingly cold, the wind was almost enough to push me off of my feet, but I walked out until I stood on a short cliff and just lifted my arms and screamed into the setting sun. A few years later, Sara Bareilles wrote a song called Once Upon Another Time and that was close to what it felt like. Completely free, unencumbered, and wild.
My second favorite was, strangely enough, Bakersfield, CA. I went for a convention, which was a complete waste of time, no one bought anything, but one night I went by myself to the Crystal Palace, an old-school honkey-tonk bar that my grandfather used to play at back in the day. I ordered a steak and a beer and sat watching the line dancing. Later, I put in a song request with a note about how he had played there, and they actually had me get up and sing I Saw The Light with them! I danced and sang the entire night. It was oddly magical.
How do you think Covid will affect the future of travel? How will it affect your own personal travel in the next 12-18 months?
I’m definitely not going home to my 92 year-old-grandmother until there is a vaccine. I can’t be away from my work long enough to afford the proper quarantines. I also have an auto immune disease, so the risk to myself is considerable as well. All of my conventions so far have been cancelled. There was for a while a possibility of me having a part-time job as a social media manager for a sports union that would potentially involve travel, building on work I did for them last season. That went away almost immediately after the season was postponed and isn’t likely to happen again.
Not everyone is going to like me, or my work, or my anything, and that’s ok.Lauren, on what she’s learned
Any final words of wisdom to fellow entrepreneurs, remote workers, and travelers?
My most effective piece of advice is actually something MMA fighter Connor McGregor said. “Talent does not exist, we are all equals as human beings. You could be anyone if you put in the time. You will reach the top, and that’s that.” Recognizing that McGregor can be problematic in other areas, the notion that work will beat talent is something that kept me going when I felt like I was not having a very creative day.
The second is from Captain Picard: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.” Not everyone is going to like me, or my work, or my anything, and that’s ok.
The last is John Shedd: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Go for it, Lauren. If you like it, chances are someone else will, too.
All of them are pinned up in my shop and I look at them almost daily.
Thank you, Lauren, for sharing some of your experiences and earned wisdom with us today! I encourage everyone to check out her Etsy shop and follow her on your preferred social channel (links below).