We’re back with the second instalment in our new mini series Behind the Business! Today we have Tilly from Tilly and the Buttons talking about how she started her business and has grown it over the last few years to a team of 4. Tilly’s interview is a sneak peek behind the scenes of an inspirational, independent craft business – we hope you’re as excited to read the interview as we were!
Tell us a little bit about your business…
I’m Tilly Walnes, the founder and director of Tilly and the Buttons. We create gorgeous, easy-to-use sewing patterns and workshops for the new wave of DIY dressmakers. I live and work in South London.
What made you decide to start your own business?
I’d been writing a blog about sewing my own clothes, and kept hearing friends and readers complain that they would love to sew but that they found sewing patterns confusing and intimidating, or that they’d been put off by a scary teacher who criticised every teeny imperfection. I really wanted to do something to change the perception of sewing from something difficult and scary to a fun, creative activity, to inspire a new generation to get into making their own clothes. I’d been designing training courses and audience development projects in my career, and decided to try turning those skills to the craft world – to create dressmaking resources that are accessible and enjoyable to use, including for beginners.
Our sewing patterns are clearly labelled so you can easily see which bits to stitch together, and they come with an instruction booklet which translates the technical jargon and features colour photos of each step (rather than confusing diagrams), so you can see what you’re supposed to be doing at each stage of the project. Our workshops – which we run both from our South London studio and online through video lessons – are friendly, down-to-earth and packed full of handy tips and tricks. We put a lot of work into ensuring that our patterns sew together well and that our instructions are easy to follow. And as crafty people are into aesthetics, we also think it’s important to make instructions and workshops look pretty!
Who is in your team and what are their roles?
In the beginning it was just me working from home, but my team has now grown to four fantastic people – two full time, two part time – based in a lovely studio. Vanessa is queen of production – she drafts and formats the sewing patterns and sews up toiles and sample garments. Joanne covers sales and marketing – she looks after our stockists and blog advertisers, keeps our online shop up to date, and creates our marketing materials. Lexy looks after operations – she gets orders out to customers and answers their emails, manages our London workshops and does lots of behind-the-scenes admin to keep things running smoothly. I run the business, manage the team, and oversee finance, product development and branding. I also write most of the sewing content, from pattern instructions and blog tutorials to magazine articles and teaching online workshops. We also hire a few freelancers for special projects, such as a photographer, graphic designer and pattern grader for our sewing patterns, video production crew for our online workshops, and sewing teachers for our London workshops.
What does a typical work day look like to you?
I know it’s a cliché, but there’s no such thing as a typical day when you’re running a small business! My work is very varied and I have to jump from one thing to another very quickly, especially on the days when the whole team is in. An average day could see me writing instructions for a new pattern, monitoring the cash flow and doing some financial planning, having one-to-ones with the team, planning out a production schedule, fixing technical problems the website and taking photos for the blog.
What did you find most difficult when you were starting out?
In the early days, I had to do absolutely everything myself – from creating the products, to building the website, pitching to business customers, answering all the emails, packing orders and going to the post office. You have to learn a million things very quickly, from tax legislation to wholesale procedures and shipping costs. It’s exciting to have such a big learning curve, but it’s also hard work juggling the big, important things like product development and financial management with the day-to-day tasks like stuffing envelopes and answering emails. It’s definitely got easier since I’ve started growing a team, but we’re still a small company and I’m still the IT guy! That’s definitely the next hire, a freelance IT guru. Know anyone?!
What has been your biggest business success?
My book, Love at First Stitch, has been one of the biggest successes. It was on the Sunday Times bestseller list, won ‘Best Book’ at the British Sewing Awards, and has been published in nine languages. It’s amazing to see it in languages such as Czech and Norwegian!
Our Coco sewing pattern has also been a consistent bestseller that’s helped the business to grow. I’d dreamed of making a simple, wearable pattern for an everyday Breton top or dress, and luckily thousands of other people wanted one too!
Have you had any business failures? If so, how have you learned from them?
Of course! We can never be 100% sure which of our products will go like hot cakes, and which ones will be slooooow sellers. Luckily my boss in the last job I had taught me that you have to try out new projects, expect some to fail, and move on quickly. That’s how you learn – by getting on and doing it, and getting up again when things don’t work out as you’d hoped.
Have you had to make any sacrifices for the sake of your business?
Well I don’t really have a social life anymore!
What do you find is the worst part of running a business?
When you work for someone else, you get paid whatever and you can go home at the end of the day and think about other things – or, even better, go out and have fun! When you run a business, you never stop thinking about it – how to keep money coming in so you can pay your staff, and how to keep delivering great products and services to your customers. It’s stressful… but also incredibly fulfilling when you get it right.
… and the best part?
The best part is being able to create something from scratch – a product, a service, and a brand – that you truly believe in. That’s the best feeling in the world.
What would be your top piece of advice to someone just starting out?
You can’t be all things to all people – particularly as a small business with limited time and resources. So be very clear about who your products or services are for. Get to know that imaginary customer (you can make this person up in your head) – their favourite TV programmes, where they like to shop, what they get up to at the weekend, what makes them happy and what keeps them awake at night. Focus on making that niche target group happy with everything that your company does, and try not to get side-tracked by what other people want you to do.
At the moment I am sewing/making…..
… samples for our Summer and Autumn sewing patterns, which I’m totally in love with. I’ve also just finished making a spearmint wool Papercut Patterns Watson jacket for myself.
While I’m sewing I listen to…..
… This American Life and nineties R n B.
If I had two extra hours in the day I would….
… probably spend them sewing!
Thanks so much to Tilly for the interview. It is no lie when I say Rosie has worn a different Coco every single day this week, I think she is sewing them up in secret! If you don’t already follow Tilly (why not?!) go find her on instagram, twitter and pinterest.
Hannah and Rosie